Zachary Ruane, comedian, Aunty Donna
On the record – Aunty Donna loves corn. That’s your headline.
In the depths of YouTube there are thousands upon thousands of videos that will go largely unwatched. There’s some weird stuff out there, but there is also a lot of gold. If you asked the boys from Aunty Donna which category their sketches fit into, they’d probably say a little from column A and a little from column B. The comedic team rose to prominence after their irreverent sketch clips went viral, catapulting them straight onto the world comedy stage. Since their ascension to the top, Aunty Donna has made audiences guffaw with their acclaimed live show, they’ve filmed pilots for television and they’ve toured overseas. This year is set to be one of the biggest, kicking off with a whirlwind tour of Australia’s comedy festival circuit – starting at the Brisbane Comedy Festival at the Brisbane Powerhouse this weekend. We caught up with Aunty Donna member Zachary Ruane to talk about going viral, eating corn, touring internationally, investing in corn, working across two mediums and finding the perfect corn dish.
Before we talk about your performance at the Brisbane Comedy Festival, can you tell me about when you first discovered your love for comedy?
Oh, wow. For me personally it was years ago. Everyone likes comedy, but I think the particular moment that I really discovered that I really loved comedy – and sketch comedy in particular – would have been around 1999 or 2000. My brother had told me that one of the guys from Full Frontal had his own show on ABC. It would have been a Wednesday or a Thursday night and we sat down for the first episode of The Micallef P(r)ogram(me). I would have been nine or ten years old and I would have only got about 50 percent of the jokes but I loved the absurdity of it and the play of it and the characters. I remember we had corn for dinner that night and we were just sitting there with some corn watching it. Obviously I had seen Full Frontal but I’d never seen something so outrageous and so singular in its vision – it blew me away and I think that was really the spark for me.
So when did it go from a passion to a full-blown career choice?
Oh, about last week! (laughs) Don’t do comedy, kids! No, just kidding. So, there are six members of Aunty Donna all up – three performers, there’s a co-writer and the guy that directs our live show, there’s a filmmaker and then there is a musician. Five out of the six of us studied acting at the Ballarat Arts Academy. We were doing serious acting in all blacks – we’d roll around on the floor and do Shakespeare. I always played the funny characters – if I got the serious character I’d make them funny. I got to the end of my three years of acting and the one thing I knew was that I didn’t want to be an actor! We were really doing it as something fun on the side and we thought it would be fun to do something like Monty Python, or to put something on at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. So we did our first show there and we thought it would go awfully, we thought no one wanted to watch sketch these days. There was a response – we got a good review, we got nominated for an award and there were people coming and laughing! We realised people wanted to watch this. We went to a corn restaurant that does corn and we were sitting around eating some corn and we just decided then to give it a go.
It seems like corn is an important meal for you in terms of having it at key points in your career.
Oh, absolutely. We love corn over at Aunty Donna! Any money we earn we invest in corn. We have a cornfield in Northern Queensland, actually. We invest in that and go up there from time to time. We are hoping corn’s fortune changes and we get to sell a lot of corn soon.
You’ve got to make your fortune somewhere!
(laughs) Yeah, absolutely. I think corn is the most solid investment – that and Sydney property.
When I first encountered Aunty Donna it was through your YouTube sketch, ‘Cresps‘. Going online is quite an interesting way to build a following and put your material out there. What inspired you guys to go about it that way?
The live show was what came first – a lot of people don’t realise that. We did the live show in 2012 and then a friend of Mark’s asked if we could do a segment on his half hour show on Channel 31. He asked us to make four-minute episodes to be screened over seven weeks and then after they screen we could upload it to our YouTube channel. We thought it would be a good opportunity to see if what we do worked on screen. So, we just made these videos and it was very low budget. We put it all together and ‘Cresps’ was one of those sketches. We were chuffed because each video was getting a couple of hundred views each, but three or four months later as we were working on a show, one of our videos went from 900 views to 32000 views. We were just like, “Ho. Ly. Shit!” It blew our minds. We couldn’t comprehend it – we thought we’d made it. I think we called the rehearsal early, had a few beers and few plates of corn and celebrated.
Your videos have since racked up millions of views, with audiences following from all around the globe. How surreal is it knowing that it was spread that far and wide?
It’s crazy! I would like to say we’ve never compromised in doing what makes us laugh – it’s always been about what we find funny. The thing about the Internet is that 20 years ago you had to make it funny enough that people would watch it on the TV, you had to make it good enough that the kids would enjoy it, mum and dad would enjoy it, the TV executives that commissioned it would enjoy it and so on. With the Internet you literally just go, “I find this funny”, put it up and the people around the world that also think it’s funny will find it. I sometimes catch myself thinking about that many people liking what we do – I think if we can start moving the same amount of corn as we get video views we can take this company to the next level.
What is your approach to making a sketch for YouTube or television as opposed to stage show?
They both have the same ethos, which is whatever is funniest goes in. We realised that comedy at its best is just about bringing joy to people. That idea of whatever is funniest is always core but there is a different process to each. They both inform each other, but there is definitely more writing with filmmaking. We sit at a table, we brainstorm, we write and then the play comes in the filming. Our live stuff comes from improvisation and we get on the floor and mess around with an idea – then we sit down and write it. So there is a different process but it’s all for the same goal – we like to be the most funny we can be within whichever medium we are working with.
You guys are coming to town for the Brisbane Comedy Festival with your new show Big Boys – how long has that one been in the works?
Hoo boy – I would say we started working on it in November of last year. We’ve been working on other projects as well with Screen Australia and Stan, which has commissioned a pilot that we are working on and filming soon. We also worked on our Ripper Aussie Summer web series. So we’ve been working on all of those things but we were also simultaneously working on the live show since about November. We’ve been working almost exclusively on it since the start of January. It’s a long period of letting ideas grow and finding the funniest in it.
Do you take bits and pieces from previous shows and sketches or do you start with a clean slate each time?
I think because we started with live comedy we’ve stuck with a certain pattern, which is the live show starts from a clean slate. We start with all new stuff and then we might eventually film a lot of the sketches from that live show. This live show – as will be seen in Brisbane because it’s the first performance of it – will be the first time outside of comedy rooms that anyone has seen those 20 sketches.
In that sense, how do you know that a sketch is a winner before taking it to audiences?
Oh, boy. Honestly, you just have to trust it. It comes back to whatever is funny is what ever is funniest to us. If it’s funny to us then we hope that it’s funny to the audience. We’ve got a good relationship with our audience now – people follow us because they like what we do. We’ll do test shows and comedy rooms and people will tell us to cut a sketch. Sometimes we’ll go with that because it’s not getting a laugh, other times we just trust judgement That’s why it’ll be really exciting in Brisbane because there will be that uncertainty – we’re still seeing if an idea will work, which will make it really exciting and will give it an improvisational edge. Quite genuinely, Brisbane is probably my favourite audience because they are so warm and engaged. I couldn’t think of a better city to open with.
Obviously 2017 is set to be one of the biggest years to date for Aunty Donna. What is your plan for the rest of the year?
We are touring a lot this year. We are going to the United States of America – for the first time we will be touring over there. We’ve done a few shows over there in the past but now we are going to be properly touring. Thanks to YouTube that is where a lot of our audience is, so it will be really cool to get out there. They also have a lot of corn-based dishes in the southern parts of California – and we all love corn! Touring is a huge part – just getting out to as many people as possible. Hopefully we get to keep making good stuff for YouTube and that this pilot we have gets picked up, because we think it’s a really good idea. For me the big thing this year is to get out to as many of our fans and perform for as many as possible.
Thanks for you time Zach! Hopefully I get to catch your show and we can meet up for some corn afterwards.
Oh, please! I’m pretty sure they do a really nice corn dish at the Brisbane Powerhouse. On the record – Aunty Donna loves corn. That’s your headline.
Aunty Donna will be performing Big Boys at the Brisbane Comedy Festival from March 3–5. Get your tickets before they are snatched up like freshly cooked corn on the cob. Be sure to check out our other recommendations for the festival here.