When Denise Scott tried out for a role in Winners and Losers, she was required to audition four times. Eventually, she asked “Why do I have to come back again?” The reply was swift – and blunt: because the network is not convinced you can act.
“And I wasn’t either!” she says. “I was all right with the humorous stuff, but there was gonna be some serious stuff. So that’s when I got Alan Brough to come to my kitchen and give me some acting lessons. He coached me through and taught me that, in acting, eye contact (is critical). It’s all about eye contact.”
In stand-up, it’s the opposite. “Comedians never make eye contact for long,” she says. “We look over the top of the audience.”
As a teenager, Scott dreamt of being a serious actor but it never seemed like a viable option. She was 56 before she got a dramatic role. So how did that come about? “Apparently I look as if I care incredibly well! That seems to be what I’m cast for, to just stand there and look as though I care. I am rapt – I am genuinely grateful – but geez, I wouldn’t mind a storyline. Good things come to those who wait – I’m only nearly 62, so who knows?”
Coming to that line of work late meant certain protocols meant nothing to her. “I didn’t know it’s shameful for an actor to call for the tearstick. Makeup have a tearstick and they wave it under your eyes and next thing you’re crying. I had no shame. Need tears? ‘Tearstick!’ I became famous for it – I didn’t even have to call for it.”
This season she also appears in House Husbands, as Nurse Toni, a gig she again attributes to having perfected The Concerned Look. “That’s why. I do think that the creators and the writers like having a funny presence but beyond that, in those ensemble sort of shows, like there really isn’t that much for me to do. That’s why I don’t imagine that my TV career is going to go on …”
That said, don’t discount her bobbing up elsewhere. “Look as long as there’s the tearstick available, I’m up for anything.”
We meet at French Saloon, a gorgeous, light-filled bistro by Con Christopoulos and Ian Curley, the names behind the European. It’s a pared back, welcoming space, complete with a charming young French waitress straight from Central Casting who runs us through the menu. Most things are designed to share, so we settle on kingfish with fennel and cucumber, and raw tuna with oyster creme to start, followed by a 300-gram Cape Grim porterhouse, fries and a lettuce and anchovy salad. She opts for a glass of rosé and I have a chardonnay.
Best-known for her comedy, Scott first hit the stage at La Mama, something of a baptism by fire. Early on there could be fewer than a dozen people in the audience. How do you go playing to that few people?
“Seven’s traumatic … you just have to suck it up. Cos what often you want to do is throw it all away and sit down with the audience and say let’s just chat cos it’s gonna sound stupid if I just stand here and do a routine. In fact, it can really help you craft a routine. You’ve paid, this is my show, here it is.”
Back then there were few comedy venues in town; the scene was in its infancy. In 1977 the pioneering Last Laugh opened in Collingwood; the Melbourne International Comedy Festival kicked off a decade later in 1987.
Scott is grateful she started out then rather than now. “It was really – dare I say – it was to some extent fun. Cos none of us actually thought we were making a career out of it. It was just this accidental weaving around, having a crack at something called stand-up comedy. And so in my case, even though I did take it very seriously and I stressed about it, I didn’t feel anywhere near the pressure I see in my kids.”
We’re dining together in lieu of a show Scott and Judith Lucy have devised for the Comedy Festival this year. Called Disappointments, the title reflects the reality both women faced in 2015-16. I confess I thought they were taking the piss with that title. Apparently not. “We were really disappointed in ourselves, in our careers,” Scott says. “Because we both invested a lot of time in individual television projects and in the end they both got rejected. To some degree, rejection is part of our world, it’s not like that extreme or unusual but … You feel it more as you age I think.”
For Scott, it represented a year’s worth of work, developing a sitcom for one of the major networks. Called Denise, it was based on her family life – she appeared in nearly every scene.
She and John Lane, her partner of 36 years, met in Albury when they were performing – she had lied about being a clown in order to get the gig. John was a clown and he continues to work with various theatre groups as well as in education working with teenagers. (Pete Rowsthorn had played him in the ill-fated sitcom.) Their children are also creative: son Jordie Lane is a singer/songwriter and New York-based daughter Bonnie Lane is a video installation artist.
Last year, Scott’s beloved dog Raffi died. “I spent a lot of 2016 – and I mean a lot of time – lying on my bed. Just sort of lying there. And it was, apart from the fact that my arthritis had gotten really bad, it was like … my dog had died, my kids live overseas, there were no parents left to look after and I didn’t have work. I really lost my mojo a bit. So yeah, I sort of thought I might just lie down for a minute and a year went by.”
Reflecting on what happened, she says she’d lost her parents and good friends in previous years. “Somehow the dog dying … that seemed to be my excuse to go, ‘Well, that’s it now’. It’s been quite good I think. I don’t think necessarily your shit catches up with you but I reckon in most cases it does. I think shit caught up with me. A lifetime of stuff.”
At a certain point, Scott realised things were not moving towards a natural conclusion. So she took herself off to counselling, for the first time in 22 years; it made a big difference. “I was going a bit crazy in my own head. It’s like just saying stuff out loud sometimes is enough.”
Sadly, it’s almost not surprising the network knocked back the pilot. Australian television is notoriously conservative and depicts a very limited slice of reality. We’re yet to see a diversity of faces or ages on our screens, in stark contrast to British and American television.
“The reason we’re in the State Theatre, which is like 2200 people a night – I mean sure ,we’ve been around a long time and we’re good at what we do – but it’s because women our age [Lucy is late 40s and Scott early 60s] can’t get enough. They don’t hear their stories being told anywhere else and they love it.”
“It’s really quite something, hearing these women roar with laughter and familiarity.”
She is convinced that “we’re a foolish group to ignore, both entertainment wise and economically”.
As well as their individual projects, Scott and Lucy have also pitched a good old-fashioned morning TV show with music and funny ladies hosting to one of the networks. That sounds like a great idea, I say.
“Isn’t it! Put that in the paper. It’s [breakfast television] quite good company but it’s all of a certain [ilk]. I think Judith and I would shake that pattern up somewhat. We put that out there and no one’s jumped! Can you believe it!” she says with a laugh.
After Disappointments, she is heading to Tibet to do a writer’s workshop. “As you do! Apart from doing some jottings in my journal, I can’t imagine that coming to anything. I love the process of writing. Once again these are always just my own little world. I’m just so unpractised at moving beyond that and I think that’s what’s required.”
Having performed for so long, Scott is much-loved by her audience. “That was the beauty of doing comedy festivals and I think festivals in general, an audience travels along with you, so they kind of get to know you. By the time you get to your 60s, they will accept that, oh my God, Denise has just said c—!”
Even so, she did have a woman faint once. “We were in the Spiegeltent and it was hot. I dropped the C bomb and down she fell and hit the floor. We had to stop the show and get an ambulance … I felt so bad. She was so gorgeous. I asked her, ‘Was it the C word?’. She said, ‘It did shock me, but I think it was more the lack of air.’ “