Can't even get into DNA magazine!

Steven Oliver

Steven Oliver

Date: 10-Jul-2015

What’s This Then, Slut?

Steven Oliver is one of the comedic talents behind the ABC’s Black Comedy sketch show featuring Indigenous actors and some surprising guest stars. He’s also a playwright, poet and musical theatre performer. He chats with Andrew Creagh about growing up gay, racism, homophobia, being funny… and the S word!


DNA: You realise that because of Black Comedy you’re going to be associated with the catchphrase “What’s this then, slut?” for the rest of your career?
Steven Oliver:
[Laughs] Yes! On my way home as I was walking across the pedestrian crossing someone in a car called out, “Eyah slut!”

How did those Tiddas [sisters] series of sketches evolve? It was actually just based on a mob – blackfellas – back up home in north Queensland. They could be having an argument about something serious – like somebody was seeing another person’s man – and they’d throw in an insult that had nothing to do with the argument like, “Can’t even cook”. But as I was writing the very first scene it needed an ending and “What’s this then, slut?” seemed like the natural reply.

How did you persuade Aaron Fa’aoso – who usually plays criminal thugs – into camping it up with you? [Laughs] He was totally into it for that very reason. He got tired of playing the tough guy and was more than happy to show his versatility as an actor. I remember when we filmed the “can’t even dance” scene for the pilot I was just dressed normally and then out walks Aaron with his shirt tied up in a knot showing off his torso.

Who are your comedy influences? It’s funny but I didn’t really feel I had any apart from my family and peers but being asked this question a few times now I’d have to say – and this is going to seem strange – Jackie Chan. I’m a huge martial arts fan and I own so many Jackie Chan films, and if you watch his movies he’s actually hilarious as well. I’m laughing just thinking about some of his antics.

Actually, I can see the Jackie Chan influence now. You love doing a shocked look at the camera. Jackie did that a lot! Yes. A lot of stupid faces!

What about your theatre and arts influences, generally? I love a lot of the old school stuff. Being a child in Cloncurry the only channel we had back then was the ABC so I watched old black-and-white films that had Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly. It wasn’t until later in life when I moved to Perth to study that my eyes were opened to the world of theatre in a way I hadn’t seen before. Especially musical theatre. I love musical theatre!

Is your iPod full of Barbra Streisand? Michael Jackson and Jessica Mauboy. MJ and JM who were both born in August just like myself. Three Leos!

Can you tell us a bit about your background – your family and upbringing? I’m from a small town called Cloncurry in northwest Queensland, but I grew up in Townsville. I’m one of five siblings, the second eldest. Cloncurry was always a very happy place for me. That’s where the majority of family was on my grandmother’s side. We were never a rich family. Not that you’d expect us to be, considering that I’m only one generation away from when Aboriginal people were forced to live on the fringes of town. My mother took us to where she and my grandparents had lived when she was a child and it could only be described as Third World. Tin shacks in 40-degree heat and only one tap of running water for the whole mob to share. I wouldn’t say I had the easiest childhood, but who does? I’m just glad that there was plenty of laughter to counteract the sadness that a lot of families face.

Not long ago, Aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their families to be raised with whites. Are any of your family part of the Stolen Generation? A few are. I attended my aunty’s funeral in 2013 and was shocked to learn, from her eulogy, that she was stolen. My great-great grandfather was also removed from the Daintree as a child and that’s how we ended up with the surname Oliver. They gave it to him as a Christian name but he ended up using it as a surname when he left the mission.

I’m really sorry to hear that. It’s such a part of our recent history, isn’t it? And yet it seems to belong to another time. A lot of people think that it belongs to another time but what they don’t realise is that this is an ongoing thing. They say to get over the stolen generations but there are people who are still living it. Still finding families. Still finding siblings. Finding siblings only to learn they’ve passed away. This is happening right now all over the country and people don’t know these stories so they think they don’t happen anymore, but as Aboriginal people we still hear these stories all the time. A lot of people say that the stolen generations still haven’t stopped. Our children make up four percent of the child population, yet they’re 30 percent of children being taken and put into care.

Was there a performance tradition in your family? It was never formal but there was always performing. My family loved singing, especially country music, and when we danced I’d choreograph things. Writing was something I did as a hobby. Black people love storytelling, though. Get us together and you’ll often have someone say, “tell a yarn” or “tell that story” and it snowballs from there. At barbecues and family get togethers, guaranteed, there’d be a band of cousins and uncles and aunties getting up and singing, while us kids would run around and play games. My siblings and I were always doing something together to laugh. I remember my mother and aunties once getting my sister and I to have a competition to see who could shake our bums faster. Probably explains why I’m such an idiot now.

How do you feel as an Aboriginal man in gay culture? I don’t see a difference between being Aboriginal in gay culture and being Aboriginal in straight culture. You’ll find that a lot of same dumb arse questions get asked.

Like? What percentage are you? Why do Aboriginals get free stuff? Why don’t you all just get over it? Can I tell you an Abo joke? Why don’t you Aboriginals just work? I suppose I get a bit more perplexed at gay people who do it because I think, “Haven’t you been discriminated against enough to at least realise that what you’re saying to me is offensive? Would you appreciate straight people constantly asking you why gay people do this and why gay people do that?” This isn’t the kind of stuff you can learn in an hour or have a crash course in. If you truly want to learn, go to a university or immerse yourself in an Aboriginal environment whether it be a community or a workplace, and before asking questions get ready to listen.

And so how do you feel as a gay man in Aboriginal culture? This is such a loaded question because there isn’t just one Aboriginal culture. There are so many different languages, practices, beliefs, dances and songs all pertaining to particular clans or nations. I myself belong to various clans such as Waanyi, Gangalidda, Kuku Yalanji, Woppaburra, Bundjalung and Biripi. These clans range from the Gulf Of Carpentaria to the Daintree to Great Keppel Island all the way down to the Northern/Central New South Wales coast so I can’t answer that question. Do I face homophobia? Of course! I heard a lot of things growing up that made me scared to come out. Funny thing was, though, that the majority of it was from a religious viewpoint and not an Aboriginal one. In all honesty, I feel I’ve been attacked more for my Aboriginality on the gay scene than for my homosexuality in the Aboriginal community. Just this year during Mardi Gras week, a drag decided to use the word “Abo” to get a laugh from the crowd. [In Australia, “Abo” is as offensive as “Nigger”]. Unfortunately, that isn’t the first time it’s happened and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

That drag queen may say, and many stand-up comedians do, that no subject is off limits if it gets a laugh. Do you think this applies to racism or homophobia? I agree that no subject is off limits – it all depends on how you do it. You can be clever or you can be tacky. That drag queen was tacky, which, I know, has its place but I guess that’s the reason I’m on a TV show and she’s not. Now see what you’ve done? There’s that nasty side I was talking about.

How did you feel when Anthony Mundine [Aboriginal boxer and Muslim convert] made negative comments about Redfern Now depicting a gay Aboriginal character? This literally made me sad. Considering that LGBTI youth and Aboriginal people are among the highest suicide rates in this country I just felt this sense of helplessness. I thought about any young people who might be going through that horrible stage of coming to terms with themselves. I remember what that was like for me growing up and hearing that there’s something wrong with you or that you’re evil. It’s not an easy thing to deal with. So when you have someone like Anthony, who’s done amazing things for our people, it breaks your heart to hear him say that our ancestors would never have accepted you. I’m 40 this year and I can deal with that kind of stuff but what if you’re that 14- or 15- or 16-year-old who’s having a hard enough time and all of a sudden hear that from someone you look up to. I honestly had this fear that there would be a young child somewhere seeing that and, for them, it being the final straw.

Can I ask what sort of personal spiritual beliefs you have? I don’t have any particular beliefs. To tell the truth, I’m kind of making it up as I go along. I’m informed a lot by my Aboriginality in the sense of our belonging to and connection to the land. I also believe it goes a lot further than that – we’re connected to the land, the land is connected to our part of space, our part of space is connected to our solar system, our solar system is connected to our galaxy, our galaxy is connected to the universe and the universe is connected to whatever lies beyond. In the way that the moon affects the tides to how the sun warms our earth everything is connected and when we pass we return to that greater connection of everything. Whether we are conscious of that or not I won’t know until – I’m hoping – another 50 years [laughs]. Undoubtedly, though, everything is connected and that’s why I get frustrated sometimes when we ignore what goes on in other parts of the world. That child dying from war, from hunger or whatever will inevitably take its toll on us in some shape or form unless we find a way to better our planet and realise our importance to each other.

In your poem, Hate He Said, you explain Australia Day from an Indigenous perspective. Many Australians have taken to calling it “Invasion Day” instead. How would you like to see Australia Day celebrated? I think about this a lot. I know there are people who want to change the date but I wonder if that will bring about any actual change? It’s a nice gesture but what does it actually do? I think the main thing is that Aboriginal people are usually never brought into the equation. Nobody wondered how we would feel when the date for Australia Day was made. We were definitely never thought of when the [national] anthem was written. It says, “We are young and free” when we were an ancient culture that were in chains and still are in a metaphorical way. To answer the question – I know I’ve rambled on – but personally I would like some kind of remembrance happen before everybody goes and gets drunk. [I’d like] people to actually take time out to think of the sacrifice of land and the thousands of lives that we’ve given up so people can live like they do.

What did Adam Goodes [Aboriginal football player] becoming Australian Of The Year mean to you? I’m always happy for any Aboriginal person to be recognised for their achievements and I will always support those who exceed in their chosen fields. I’m happy just to see black faces on TV. That in itself is an achievement.

What have the reactions to Black Comedy been like? It’s been phenomenal. We’ve literally had millions of views online and we could be up for a Logie [Australian television industry award]. I have to step back and kind of just take it in… that I’ve helped create this show with an amazing group of talented people both on- and off-screen. I find it hard to believe this is my life sometimes. I think I’m finally getting used to people asking for photos. My ex, David, is visiting now from Ireland and he can’t believe how I’m getting pulled over on the street every now and then for a selfie. There have been a few negative reactions but that’s all part of comedy. Some people say we’re reinforcing stereotypes about black and gay people but I think that people can sometimes forget about the fact that we’re writing from our experiences and if that’s our experience why can’t we write about it? We’re writing something because that’s what we’ve lived.

You had some amazing guest performers on the show, like Deborah Mailman in the Housewives Of Narromine sketches. Who knew she was such a bitch!? Yes! When I was writing those scenes I was appalled at how nasty my mind could get! Having Deb play them was just a dream come true. I had a moment where I was watching and I couldn’t believe that here was Deb Mailman acting out something I had written. She took it to places I didn’t even imagine, and I was so glad she also got to show off a completely different side to her.

One of the other guest actors who stood out was Brooke Satchwell, who plays into some really offensive racial stereotypes. I was watching that and thinking, she’s good, but has she gone too far? [Laughs] I actually based that scene on my ex, who is Irish. Him hanging out with me and my friends, he started picking up all our slang and language words so I thought it would be interesting to write a character like that. Brooke was amazing. I recorded the scenes for her how I would say them, and then we spent a few hours together the day before filming, just to go over lines. After speaking to a lot of people I think we got it right as everybody was just cringing and so embarrassed for her. A lot of black people recognised some of their white friends or partners and had a good laugh about it.

It was hilarious but you feel bad for the character. Does your ex know you based it on him? Yes, and he loves it. He feels famous.

Are the gays less uptight about perceived stereotyping than we used to be? We laughed at the Tiddas sketches where, once, I think, gay people would’ve been sensitive about being shown as camp and vain. [Laughs] I’ve heard a few comments where some gay people weren’t happy, but then a lot of gay people defended it. “Can’t even laugh, slut!” I was surprised to hear the word ‘homophobic’ come up to describe the sketches because nothing could be further from the truth for me. What you see of the Tiddas is a celebration. I mean, we are so diverse as gay people that we, seriously, should be celebrating all of us. If those people want to complain about something, go on Grindr.

Why Grindr? I tried that app but only lasted three days because of the racism and internalised homophobia. No blacks! No Asians! No faggots! No queens! No pooftas! I literally couldn’t handle it.

Which makes me wonder who is actually left on Grindr? Some sad racist having a wank! [Laughs] Some racist homophobe!

I promised you some fun questions as well so let’s go: at the beach, boardies or speedos? [Laughs] Boardies at the moment but when I get my dream body, speedos all the way, baby!

Sexiest man alive? I’ve always had a soft spot for Ewan McGregor. That sounds rude, doesn’t it, when you actually think about it? Would you like to touch my soft spot?

Er… wouldn’t you want him to touch something hard? Maybe something hard can touch a soft spot? Ha! You’re terrible, Muriel!

Your guilty pleasure is… Eating snakes alive.

What! The jelly lollies Snakes Alive! Not real live snakes!

Steven, I hope you win that Logie so we can say, “Slut, can’t even win a Logie,” and you can say… Eyah! What’s this then, slut! H

more: The first season of Black Comedy is available now on DVD or download. Season Two of Black Comedy will screen on ABC TV later in the year.

© DNA 184

to top

More Images:

Steve Oliver and Aaron Fa’aoso as their Tiddas characters. Steven camps it up in Black Comedy: Steven and the cast of Black Comedy revisit The Last Supper. Brooke Satchwell as the embarrassing white girlfriend in Black Comedy. Deborah Mailman in the Housewives Of Narrowmine sketches, written by Steven.