'Gagging For It' is a way for Hannah Story to tease out the things that make everybody laugh. This week, she talks to Sarah Kendall.
The most recent thing to make writer and comedian Sarah Kendall laugh a lot, when we speak ahead of the release of her new ABC series, Frayed, is from Twitter. She saw it about 25 minutes ago – a picture of a desiccated potato.
“It was a rancid potato, but it looked like a face. And the person had tweeted the comment, 'My face when I wake up and it's three minutes until my alarm clock's gonna go off.' It was just the funniest picture. I've never seen a rancid potato look like a human face [before], like a dead human face.”
Kendall laughs at physical comedy – especially the kind that’s not deliberate. “I like people hurting themselves but not dying… I really like people falling over, getting hit in the nuts and tripping on things. As long as there's no blood involved. I need to know the person is ok.”
But Kendall’s not exactly proud of how much she enjoys clip shows like Funniest Home Videos. “I know it’s base,” she says. “It’s kind of my greatest secret shame.”
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She describes a common style of footage: “You know, kids going down waterslides and then when they’re going too fast, they clear the waterslide and keep skidding on the grass on bare skin.”
Her sense of humour is broad though – it’s not limited to people getting slightly injured. She pins that to the nature of being a comedian, exposing herself to many different styles of comedy. “I think most people who work in comedy, we sort of become connoisseurs of comedy.”
“I think most people who work in comedy, we sort of become connoisseurs of comedy.”
But Kendall can pin down what comedy she doesn’t like. “I really don't like it when people punch down. That is probably my least favourite genre of comedy, where you kind of go, 'You've got nothing to lose here?’ I find that laziness very, very aggravating.”
It’s a sensibility that she reckons has grown for her as she’s gotten older, matching a wider cultural change in the kind of comedy we make and consume.
“The landscape has changed so much in such a fantastic way. Like it's such a more diverse environment and I think people taking easy shots, they just don't get away with it as much as they used to.”
Kendall says 2019 is an exciting time to be a comedian – the diversity of voices on the scene is “brilliant”. It’s a far cry from the environment when she was coming up – she won the Raw Comedy final in 1998 – when she had to “put[…] up with entitled white males telling audiences what was what”.
“I love the way things are now,” she says. “I'm really enjoying seeing privileged white males complaining about 'cancel culture'. It is one of the joys of my life seeing these entitled shits finally get called on their bullshit and they're apoplectic: 'This is woke culture gone mad.' Yeah, well, fuckin' deal with it, mate, you're a dinosaur, you became a dinosaur overnight. And it’s wonderful.
“I'm so heartened by the diversity of voices in the industry now. I like how unapologetic it is.”
Kendall is currently starring in her first lead role for television on ABC’s Frayed, which she also wrote and conceived. Working alongside British comic Diane Morgan, who plays Fiona, the office secretary, Kendall was often unable to contain her laughter. It was so difficult to stop herself from laughing that she and Morgan made a pact not to look each other in the eye during their shared scenes. “I’d look at a point just beyond her head so that I wouldn't have to look at her.”
When Fiona trashes the office in the final episode, not even that technique worked. “We just couldn’t get it under control.
“It kind of gets worse and worse and the more you cannot laugh, you've got to not laugh – it becomes impossible. I had to go around the corner and have a bit of [a] stern word with myself.”
For most comedians, Kendall says, using humour to cope with tough situations is “in [their] DNA”.
“Most comedians come from a perspective where we dealt with stuff by being funny – for better or for worse. The wise thing is to get a lot of therapy. But I think most comedians deal with life and social situations and personal relationships, a lot of that we get by with being funny.”
As an example, she recalls the talent night at her Year Seven camp. She was the new kid at school, and didn’t know anybody. She got up and told a joke, and she remembers it going really well.
“I'm pretty sure I remember people laughing more than they actually were. But I remember the joke didn't go badly. I just found it was a good social lubricant. It just made it a little bit easier the next day.”
“It was the most delightful sensation to actually not be able to control my bladder because I was laughing that hard."
When Kendall was a kid, she and a friend decided to impersonate Gold medal-winning ice skaters, Torvill and Dean, after seeing them perform on TV. She describes the move: Christopher Dean was holding Jayne Torvill by an arm and a leg and spinning her in circles really quickly.
“I picked up her arm and her leg and she was just far too heavy,” Kendall says. “I just couldn't, you know, [hold her]. And once I started spinning around in a circle, the sort of centrifugal forces kicked in, and I lost control and I dropped her arm, and she sort of face-skidded along the carpet.
And then when she stood up, she was really angry, but she had this carpet burn down the centre of her face, and bits of carpet in her teeth.”
She tried to apologise, but she couldn’t stop laughing – so much so that she pissed herself.
“I actually just stood there and just completely let go. I could not contain it,” Kendall laughs. “It was the most delightful sensation to actually not be able to control my bladder because I was laughing that hard. It's amazing. Laughing that hard is, oh my God, it's divine.”
Frayed airs Wednesdays on ABC.