When chatting to Paul McDermott - savage wit, cranky young man, sharp-dressing host of Good News Week - you sense an ever-shifting line moving through the conversation. On one side is sensible serious discussion; on the other is off-the-wall leg pulling.
Sometimes it's hard to tell when you've stepped over the line; McDermott manoeuvres by lulling you into the sense that what he's saying is serious and, before you know it, you're wandering in tacky territory.
For the most part, McDermott's banter is serious, but talks about something for too long, or get too deep, and it's as though he needs to prick the gravity with sarcasm, venom, or a dose of drollery. And the contrast of ideas, curiously, usually underscores his point.
McDermott happily ranges over a kaleidoscope of topic. Ask him about television and its role in social discourse and he's all earnest: "The Panel is fantastic; what they do is extraordinary. It is, I think, very important to get people interacting that way on television, to get people to be seen to be discussing issues that are important. We try a bit of that on our little game show, as well.
"Everyone's tired of these shows that offer nothing, present nothing and you go away with nothing."
Australia's Funniest Home Videos?
"Yeah," he admits. Pause. "But I like that show. I think it's great… I hope it goes forever. I just hope it gets more perverse, that's all. I know there are some videos out there that they're not showing us. They're the ones I want to see. I want a bit of fucking honesty from Australia's Funniest Home Videos."
There's the line. Between serious comment and solid leg-pull.
But there are some stretches in which he's mostly contemplative.
When talking about politicians who have appeared on GNW, McDermott is full of praise for these much-maligned talents. The likes of Kim Beazley, Doug Anthony, Sir James Killen Natasha Stott Despoja, Barry Jones, Tim Fischer and Amanda Vanstone bring wit to the show. And in Senator Vanstone's case some very colourful blouses.
"When she was first on the show I had a lot of preconceptions about her. I was very guilty of that. It was great to be knocked off your chair and realise there are more angles to this person that you thought.
"I think Amanda's incredibly brave (to go on the show). But she also gets dividends from that."
When politicians harp on about policy, pushing thee party line, telling their white lies, they stop being real people. GNW appearances help pollies reclaim their humanness, show that they have some wit…
"…And are incredibly intelligent," he adds. "When you're sandwiched between Sir James (Killen) and Barry Jones - perhaps I should express that differently - you just realise the incredible intellects of these men. And they come from an age when politics was about dialogue and discourse, it wasn't about what it is now… I think today politics has become very, very muddy and dumb."
But talk of trying again to get Minister for Aged Care Bronwyn Bishop on the show - she once stormed from the GNW set before filming started because she was offended by the pre-show warm-up - draws a less generous assessment: "A couple of maggot-ridden geriatrics might want a word with her." Not a witty treatment of the issue, but it's heartfelt.
So is his lasting affection for the ABC - despite some misgivings about it being dominated by "The Bill and bad British sitcoms", or threatened with being sold off like Telstra: "I loved the ABC when it was a bit more innovative."
Does he mean the same national broadcaster that gave birth to and nurtured shows like his, which were then snaffled by the commercial channels?
"Yeah, that one… The ABC, culturally, has always been an incredible melting pot and meeting place and creative centre for young artists in this country, and for performers and writers, and it is a bit scary if it no longer fulfils those functions. People like us, and The D-Generation, the original Comedy Company - even if you're just looking at comedy - all those people had their birth at the ABC. We would never have had Con the Fruiterer if not for the ABC."
A plus at the ABC was that there was no ratings pressure, you could work without "a couple of men standing over you saying 'We've got to sell a few more cars in you timeslot, sonny.'"
He might even consider returning to the ABC with GNW if - heaven forbid - it was dumped by Ten. Then he changes his mind; he nominates a different fallback position: "Surfing. I'm going to fuck it all off and go surfing."
When the topic of ratings is broached, McDermott doesn't flinch: "Ratings-wise we're not really chomping up the list, it must be said. Channel Nine has thrown up some big films against us, which is great - a little battle for supremacy - which makes me feel quite proud.
"For me, I don't really care, the ratings aren't that important. Certainly they're important to the network though."
Have they had a word in his ear about it?
"No, they've been great. They've been really supportive of us. And I think we're doing really good, quality material. If people aren't watching it, quite frankly, I don't feel ashamed because it is a good show and if people don't watch it, well, that's their problem."
McDermott talks of having a new direction for GNW: "I think one of our roles this year should be to be subversive. Over the past few years we've been doing good work, but I've been holding back a bit."
So no more Mr Nice Guy? He's going to get really nasty?
"Not nasty. I just think we should have more fun."
With a social edge?
Does he have an agenda?
"Everyone has an agenda, mate."
What would he admit is on his agenda?
"I wouldn't admit to my agenda being about anything. But there's definitely an agenda. You've got to have something that you are being supported by or backing up. Making people laugh is great, but… if you want pure comedy, watch Australia's Funniest Home Videos.
(Uh-Oh. Line Approaching)
"You know how they keep upping the ante in these shows - it's like Wildest Police Chases, now it's Wildest and Most Deadly Police Chases - I'm sure we're going to have Australia's Funniest Home Videos very shortly where people have actually lost limbs or died.
"You can only be hit in the nuts by a four-year-old with a cricket bat for so long before you start having complications later in life.
"Hey, tell you what: give a couple of handy-cams to your Victorian cops. While one of them's shooting the mad person, the other one can be getting it on film."
From social agendas to nut-cracking four-year-olds to citizens being killed by policemen. But wait. There's more.
Will he end up being a sweet old man or a cranky old man?
"Well, I'd love to be a sweet old man, a pleasant demeanour and all that. Whether that'll happen or not I'm not sure.
"Look, honestly, I'm hoping to have syphilis. I've read that if you get syphilis and you let it crank away in your system for 20 odd years, then it starts fucking up the synapses in the brain and you actually get an emotional high.
Is he working on it?
"Well, I've had it for a number of years. I'm in the process, I'm working on it. It's happening."
(We're way over the line now.)
"It's looking good, apart from the scabs, it's all fine… maybe you shouldn't print that last bit, it could be a bit too much for the Green Guide."
So, Paul McDermott has finally looked down and seen the line. We agree it's probably best to leave things right there.
He has completed the 57th episode of Good News Week, the Friday night current affairs quiz show in which a panel of six celebrities discusses the week's events. Mcdermott is the host. The show is in its second year and the ratings keep climbing. Taped on Thursday nights in front of a studio audience, it takes up three days of his week. And from six to nine each morning, Monday to Friday, he co-hosts the breakfast program on the ABC's Triple J.
Interviewing him can be risky. During his Allstar days he told the British press that the group had been named for a former prime minister who had been assassinated in office by right-wing guerillas. Even The Times ran the story. "The best thing about arts writers is they never check their facts," says McDermott. "The whole industry is based on lies, and people are just looking for good copy." Then there was the time he said the group was appearing in Batman movie with Jack Nicholson.
Despite a grinding schedule and a rock'n'roll life that has been less than drug free, he looks younger than his 35 years. Two years ago he moved from a Melbourne loft to a beachside flat in Sydney. He tries to swim all year round but remains seriously unbronzed. "In England I was such a pale, white, insignificant boy people wouldn't believe I was Australian," he says. He still looks as if he might get sand kicked in his face.
Even as a child, he says he was repelled by the Australian macho image. "I disliked the way, at the school I went to, art and history weren't as important as the First XI and the First XV. Everything was subservient to the sports ethic, the humanities were frowned upon." One of six children of a senior Canberra public servant, he was taught by the Marist Brothers. He discovered that no guardian angel walked beside him, that all the little Christian folk tales he believed in as a small boy didn't stand up and that supposedly chaste teachers were sexual beings.
After leaving school, he attended art school for four years and began doing street theatre with a group called the Gigantic Fly. In 1985 he was spotted by the original Doug Anthony Allstar trio - Tim Ferguson (more recently the host of the Nine Network game show Don't Forget You Toothbrush), Richard Fidler (now host of ABC TV's Race Around The World) and Robert Piper. Mcdermott was invited to replace Piper, who was leaving to go overseas. The new boy found he had to develop attitude fast. "I had a very shy character. I wasn't very social. It forced me to have to speak to people, which I hadn't done for years. I had to become aggressive."
Shocked: It was the beginning of an eight year rollercoaster ride. The Allstars delighted and shocked audiences around the world, did sell out shows in London's West End and performed at festivals in Dublin, Edinburgh, Barcelona, Serville and Montreal. Mcdermott wrote most of the songs, and some of them were very gentle. "It was not uncommon for people to come up after a show and say, 'I like your voices and harmonies - why do you need to do all that terrible comedy? It's too bleak. It's too black.'" Mcdermott's father, John who saw the Allstars perform just once at the Lobby Restaurant in Canberra also had reservations. "It's a good show, Paul, but you don't really need the other two," he said. "You've got a lovely voice. Stop telling those dirty jokes." His mother, Betty, said, "You didn't have that bad a childhood, did you, Paul?"
The Allstars worked ferociously hard. During one Edinburgh Festival they did 80 shows in three weeks. "It was like, around the clock - you lost all sense of night and day. You'd go from show into bar, from bar to show. Then we'd have to get away from each other and have two months off. Sit on the beach in Thailand, go to Prague." Mcdermott loved the life. "It fulfilled a lot of needs in me. I wanted to write, and I could write; I was happy to perform, I wanted to sing and I could sing, and I could design and manufacture heaps of rubbish. It was perfect for me. When the group ended it was as if I had lost my voice. I didn't know how to write for just one person. I was mute."
He took a year off to think about life and paint small pictures. He asked himself if he wanted to continue to do comedy or paint seriously. "I'm still thinking," he says. He has never stopped painting, although he is yet to have an exhibition. He paints semi-classical landscapes and flowers and skulls. He also makes books. "I do the drawing, write texts, bind them and make them into books. I like sequential things." In Allstar days he painted the backdrops and did much of the design work for the stickers, caps, badges and t-shirts. "If I could turn a piece of wood.... if I had a lathe at home, maybe I could do something decent with my life."
Debate: Last Year he wrote and performed in a comedy music show called MOSH. It won an award for the best fringe show at the Adelaide Festival, but was savaged by a Melbourne critic who described it as "gratuitously offensive" and a "grubby cheap piece of undergraduate cabaret". Says Mcdermott, "So I got kicked in the balls, but I prefer people to love something or hate it. If you are not creating debate, what is the point?"
MOSH was a rave party on stage and dealt, among other things (masturbation and genital warts), with the recreational use of drugs like Ecstasy. Mcdermott is angry that society for the most part chooses to ignore the massive drug subculture that involves 14 to 50 year olds all over the country. "It's out there and it happens, but there's still a fear of talking about it," he says. "In cities like Manchester, with unemployment problems, there are no alcohol venues where 5000 people under the age of 16 are Eccy'd off their heads every Saturday night."
Columbia Artists in the United States was interested in MOSH but Mcdermott, after a decade of international travel, didn't fancy idea of going to New York to do a Broadway Show. "I'd like to revamp it and put it in a different form," he says.
Meantime, he continues to write and paint. Sometimes he feels guilty about the friends he made at art school who still don't have the money to buy a pair of shoes. "I opted for a life where I can eat, drink and have a bed. I went for the soft option." He is in a happy relationship with someone unconnected with show business whom he prefers to not to name: "She tutors at the university and is doing a PhD." She cares for him despite the fact that he's a monster who gets under other people's skins. "I'm deliriously happy." He might not be joking.
I was raised in a place born of compromise: the dinky-di, Lego-land town that serves as our national capital and sits like an uncomfortable sibling between two feuding brothers. For this reason it has always been impossible for me to see Sydney as an individual city. I can never view it in isolation. Its life is dependent on its relationship with Melbourne. They're fused together, spinning through time and space, caught in each other's bitter embrace. They exhibit the petty jealousies of the spoilt children of a wealthy family: gifted with a surplus of talents, yet incapable of realising and admiring the good in each other.
As a child growing up in that place between places I was trapped, envious of those two horizons. On one side, the European city of low-hanging cloud, flat, grey days and sumptuous conversation. On the other, east coast hedonism, body-conscious consumerism and the vacuous beauty of Sydney. It was in the latter I made my home.
But it was not my first home nor my first choice. Fleeing Canberra, with its black-hole-like ability to keep you within its sad orbit, was no small feat. The choice was only ever one of two, and after close to quarter of a century of wondering I made an informed decision and escaped to Melbourne.
The next 10 years saw me living in a number of different cities but Sydney was never one of them.
Then five years ago, the colourful lure that dragged me to Sydney was work. And, if truth be known, I was not eager for the transition. I'd managed to avoid the place for a good many years and certainly had not interest in living there. I was transient, had no fixed abode and was running out of money. I thought if I must live in another city then I would like to live by the sea. I found a cramped bedsit with a faulty shower, a collapsing roof, a cockroach plague and a single beautiful window. A window that perfectly divided sky and sea and made every day a vision. That is what Sydney has become to me - an ocean. Sand, surf, sun and eternal summer. I have no idea what is behind me for I rarely venture into the city. Everything I desire is in front of me. I'm content to rise each morning where the land fray sin to the water with my back to the endless sprawl of streets and witness the sea.
And occasionally do I hear the distant murmurs of two feuding brothers.