Put it on your list
Australian comedian Heath Franklin is best known for his hysterical impersonation of Mark “Chopper” Read – a character which has led him to sell-out shows all around the world, and closer to home made him a regular guest on TV3’s 7Days. I spoke to Heath in advance of his most recent tour to New Zealand, “Chopper’s (s)Hitlist”.
Did you expect Chopper to be so successful?
No way at all. I first did it at a university show to crowds of up to 15 people a night. If you’d said then “Heath, this is going to be your main source of income for the next seven years” I would have rightfully laughed at you. Fortunately, as it’s all turned out I still haven’t had to call my old boss and beg for my job back.
Chopper is a pretty iconic character in Australia – but perhaps less so in the rest of the world. Are you surprised at his international appeal?
I did the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007, and learned pretty quickly that the best material is universal. The best jokes are the ones you can tell in Iceland or the Congo or whatever and people will still get it. So I learned to dispense with jokes about ads on TV [for example] because they don’t travel. I just tried to make it more universal, and I guess part of that experiment was turning it from a specific character piece or impersonation into sort of a lovable Aussie bogan with a foul mouth. If you saw me in the first year of doing standup there would have been lots of in-jokes about Chopper and references to the film, but these days anyone can wander up and hopefully get into the show.
The character started more as an impersonation of the film version of Chopper than of the real-life gangster, didn’t it?
Yeah, I was pretty obsessed with the film. I think if it was a fictional film I’d still be doing it. People keep asking me if I’ve read Chopper’s books, but the more I find out about him the more depressed I get. The more you know about him the harder it is to extract comedy from it. It’s pretty bleak stuff.
What do you think people find so appealing about your interpretation of Chopper?
I don’t know. I guess one of the reasons it’s been able to sustain itself for so long is that he’s overripe with contrasts. At one end of the scale he’s incredibly homicidal, and at the other end he’s quite charming… and there’s those odd moments where he stabs someone in the neck then gets all remorseful and apologetic about it. When you do comedy it’s about taking the two ends of the spectrum and being able to play with everything in between. He’s a character of such incredible extremes that you’re left with so much scope to play with.
Do you think the character will have a limited life?
If I don’t have an idea for a show I don’t do a show. I always do a tour and then finish it and go “never again, I’m never doing Chopper again, I’m going to kill him off” but then about a month later I’m like “oh yeah that could be a good idea for a show”.
And will there ever be a point where you’ll say “never again” and mean it?
I’ve been lucky enough to do quite a few different things between Chopper [shows]. Even the difference between doing a standup show and 7 Days once again is quite extreme, and that kind of variety keeps it interesting.
I did a film here [in NZ] a couple of years ago, and a few months doing that, a total different discipline… I don’t think I even heard the word Chopper for about 3 months. Hopefully if I can keep that kind of variety I can maintain interest. If I did standup all year it would certainly eat my brain after a while.
You’ve toured NZ a few times before. Why should people who’ve already seen Chopper come along to this show?
Apart from the fact it’s a whole new show… I guess the whole point of continuing to do stuff is to keep getting better at it. I think that each show I write is better than the last, and fingers crossed this is the best one I’ve done. I use Australia as a guinea pig for the show and it’s had a good warmup there… so that’s it. It’s the best Chopper show yet. And Wellington is pretty much the last show, and there’s a tendency in the last show to say everything that’s been unsaid. Could go anywhere from an hour to six hours depending on how it goes. I don’t want to turn it into a hostage situation…