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Working with Words: Victoria Zerbst

Read Friday, 29 Mar 2019

Comedian and television writer Victoria Zerbst talks about the freedom of political satire, the neuroses of the rich and drafting tweets about loneliness.

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What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?

Photograph of Victoria Zerbst

When I was a kid, nothing made me laugh as much as The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. That book introduced me to so many things like parody, pastiche and unreliable narrators. I still get emotional when I see that book because it reminds me of how much I loved reading funny stories with my dad growing up, and also how in the book the Ugly Duckling grows up and is still ugly. I will never forget that.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

I started writing compulsively the moment puberty happened. Couldn’t hook up, had to write. I mostly composed songs about love and drama, and my sound was very ‘Yiddish Taylor Swift’. I also literally cancelled my Byron Bay schoolies trip to stay home and finish my manuscript. The manuscript was about a girl who falls in love with a musician in Paris and, weirdly, he loves her back. Still waiting to hear back from publishers.

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

Writing doesn’t always spurt out like hot molten lava from a super-jacked volcano.

I’ve been teaching for a very long time. Private high school tutoring exposed me to a lot of wealthy people, and that has certainly influenced the kinds of characters I love to write about.

With comedy I am particularly fascinated by the personal neuroses of the rich and powerful. I think that’s why I love political satire; it allows you to poke holes in some … interesting ways of thinking. Plus you get to write things like, ‘I am Scomo I am a bitch.’

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Probably academia. I studied philosophy at uni and I still want to go back and do more. I used to dream of being an ethics consultant for lots of big tech companies, and that’s only half because I’m attracted to almost every computer scientist I’ve ever met.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

I’m not sure if this is advice, but I was once told by a writer I really respect that writing is hard and constructing great sentences is hard and it takes an immense effort to get words right. Hearing that was super comforting, because writing doesn’t always spurt out like hot molten lava from a super-jacked volcano. Sometimes it breaks you to write the simplest things like, ‘I still love you, Josh. Please take me back.’

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

I’m very into lists and I write a lot of notes on my phone, but I don’t keep a diary any more. I used to read and re-read the journals and diaries of Sylvia Plath and Susan Sontag (wow … is that a cliché?) and I would try and write clever things all the time in the hope that they would be important one day. But that – and this is important – was a prison for me. Now I just write jokes like, ‘I am Scomo I am a bitch.’

Which classic book/play/film/TV show do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

This is hugely unpopular but I’m not super into Wes Anderson. Like yes, his films are dazzling and visually impressive, but many of his characters feel … boring and one-dimensional? Like yes, sometimes that’s the point, but that’s a snooze to me. To clarify, I think his movies are good, but not great or super funny. Please do not cancel me. 

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

I hope I am this lonely forever because this has become a very productive use of my time.

Drafting tweets about loneliness really late at night is probably the closest thing I have to a strange writing habit. I am okay with that because I often use these draft tweets as stand-up material, and then I write that material into bits for TV. I hope I am this lonely forever because this has become a very productive use of my time.

Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

I would 100 per cent go back and change (almost) everything I wrote for the student paper at uni. I was pretty brazen back then, and probably wrote too many articles about my ex-boyfriend(s). Yes, I have a lot of ex-boyfriends, and yes, this is a flex.

Which artist, writer or character would you most like to have dinner with?

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, please. Would love to chat about the biz.

Victoria is currently writing for The Feed, which you can watch Thursday 8.30pm on SBS VICELAND or on SBS On Demand. She’s also going on a national tour with The Chaser ‘s election show from April 26th. More info can be found here.

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