Working with Words: Tom Ballard
Tom Ballard is a broadcaster and comedian, best known for his stint as host on Triple J Breakfast and for his hilarious, often politically themed stand-up shows. Ahead of his Melbourne International Comedy Festival appearance, he talked to us about his comedy heroes, the rigours of writing for the Australian comedy festival circuit and the quality of catering on TV shows.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
There was a short story competition for kids held in my hometown of Warrnambool, and the best entries were published together in an actual physical book. I couldn’t believe it. I was only eight and already I was a published author! Like Paul Jennings! I believe my story featured both aliens and wizards, so I guess I’ve always been something of a maverick.
What’s the best part of your job?
As schmaltzy as it sounds, making people laugh. There is genuinely no greater feeling than when your routine is shaking a room and you can see people almost crying with laughter because of the dumb thoughts you’ve come up with and said out loud. Plus the catering on TV shows is usually pretty good.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The high turnover of material. In Australia you’re expected to write a new hour every year, tour it around the festival circuit for four months and then get to work on the new hour immediately. If people come to your shows and see you repeating jokes, they just won’t come back. I’ve mined every inch of my life for material: now I’m just down to my silly opinions.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
I’m very proud of last year’s show, Taxis & Rainbows & Hatred. Finding your voice as a writer is a never-ending process, but that one felt like the closest I’ve come to fully being myself onstage. I think the show married the personal and the political well, it had the right structure and it made for the most solid hour of laughs I’ve ever got in my life. Of course, my shows this year are ten times better than that and you should definitely come see them please.
Daniel Kitson and Judith Lucy and Patton Oswalt are hilarious, but they also have something else: they have a profound and original worldview.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Someone once told me 'Not all funny is equal'. Some jokes are funny but hold no nutritional value: you laugh and then immediately forget about them. The comedy I love seeing (and the comedy I want to make) is the kind of comedy that reaches deep into who you are and how you think about the world and shakes you up a bit. Daniel Kitson and Judith Lucy and Patton Oswalt are hilarious, but they also have something else: they have a profound and original worldview. That’s what I’m aiming for – to be writing comedy that feels deeply considered and satisfying.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
Reading your own reviews is an absolute waste of time, energy and self-esteem. I do it a lot. A review of my show about insidious homophobia began thus: 'If Tom Ballard weren’t gay, he might also be struck mute'. Yes, and why is Chris Rock banging on about being black all the time? It’s like, yeah, we get it.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I like to think some kind of nice humanitarian social justice thing, but chances are I’d be working in an office somewhere, miserable because I wasn’t being creative or getting enough attention.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
Writing is this odd mix of a trade and a skill and a talent and a gift, all at once. You can always seek advice on improving your skills and you should try to have others challenge you to approach your work differently, but ultimately the best teacher is experience. Just bloody do the thing, accept that you will be crap for quite a while and try to learn as much as you can through failure.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Write write write write write write write write write write write write write and write. And learn how to invoice.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Both. Online is convenient, but ever since I was a kid I have adored having a stickybeak around bookshops (I was very cool). I love the smell and the experience of judging all the books by their covers. It’s impossible to look around a bookshop and not have your imagination fired up.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
President Josiah Bartlet from The West Wing. I would ask him to solve all the world’s problems and explain how we can defeat Trump and then I would ask him to hold me and tell me that everything’s going to be ok.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
I really love Kenneth Cook’s Play Little Victims. It’s funny, it’s dark, it’s concise and it’s totally on point. Black comedies like this – and Monty Python, Terry Pratchett, Louis CK, Seinfeld, etc. – have definitely feed into my work over the years. I can’t resist a punchline that twists the knife a bit, too.