Paul McDermott says he has "never seen the point of not setting yourself some Everest to climb." Last year , he did just that: built a giant, two-shows-a-week mountain and clambered to the summit. He admits it just about did him in.
"Just to get through the year alive and not ending up in some mental home was probably my greatest achievement," he says.
Moving with his Good News Week team from the ABC to the commerical world of Ten, McDermott found himself, intially , in the 7:30pm Sunday hot seat, before moving to Mondays in search of a sizeable auidence.
Then came a second show for the week, the Thrusday night, 90-mintue GNW Night Lite. "It was a phenomenal workload for everyone involved," he says. "By the end of the year we were completely frazzled".
McDermott admits he was exhausted. "I spent most of December just sitting around the house trying to put some semblance of aa brain back into my head. I'd just got it back into some functioning form when along came Christmas and New Year with the family, and I destroyed my brain again for another three or four weeks."
This year, there will be one show a week - a 90-mintue GNW, which premieres this weekend in a spot where it should have always been - 8:30pm, Saturday. But they're still working him like a dog, he says.
The show will contain elements of both of last year's shows, but will focus more of news and weekly events.
"Anything with political backbone, anything that is fantastic, strong and potent. We'll examine the issues in a humorous way, but also pass comment."
"It's also important when we've got Amanda Vanstone and Tim Fischer (as guests this Saturday night) for them to be able to make some kind of comment."
Does he have a political bent himself? "I've previoslsy taken a broad swipe on issues because I didn't think I had the knowledge to discuss specific political moments," McDermott says. "But now I've got a broadened awareness of various issues , if all that makes sense."
What he means is his leanings lie somewhere between ultra conservative and the radical left "depending on the time of day".
And what this means is that the McDermott we've grown accustomed to, the one with the naughty little boy's face and the voice of an angel, will still be provoking jeers and cheers as he performs at his acerbic best, monstering other people's egos, crushing the pseudos and making mincemeat out of those who practice to delude.
Does he enjoy this role? "No," he say , perplexed that anyone could suggest that there could even be a trace of poison in his barbs.
"I just say what I think, say what I think should be said, without thinking. Does that make sense? I'm feeling a bit nervous about all this respnsibility."
This coming from a man who once said he always wins an argument because he's got God on his side. "I think I was delusional when I said that. But I had therapy over Christmas."
Helping McDermott keep GNW on track again this year will be Mikey Robins and Julie McCrossin, along with Flacco and The Sandman, showcasing their brand of topical humour and satire.
There will also be great music acts, with Midnight Oil, Taxiride and the Dili Allstars headlining the first show on Saturday.
"Last year we were essentially trying to deal with popular culture and music. This year we will be dealing primarily with the news and weekly events, along with a few shows and a bit of dancing happening around the place," McDermott says.
He is delighted to be back on Saturday, the spot where the show enjoyed its best figures when it was on the ABC.
"I always thought the Thursday slot was a bit of an odd spot for what we were doing," he says. "I've always maintained it was a Saturday night show. Because of the music and the up-nature of it, it will sit better there."
Also on the agenda is a series of speicals, the first of which will feature Mikey Robins.
There will be another Flacco and The Sandman speical, some debates and a couple of other one-off shows.
"I think one of the best things about last year was working with Flacco and The Sandman each Thursday," McDermoot says."Certainly they presented some of the most bizarre Television."
At 23 Paul attended the Canberra School of Art. He was a painter and broke, unable to afford the costly materials for his work. After stealing painting supplies from the school, the risk started to escalate and it was time to come up with another plan. The thought of waiting tables did not appeal. Busking was much more fun and having decided to give it a go Paul gathered a few buddies and they hit the streets to perform.
"It was music and comedy and very aggressive. It was violent. We would steal people's bikes and purses and we'd make them stay for hours. We used to have a Joan of Arc sketch and I'd hop in a bin and then we'd set it alight. Anyway to get money we'd do one thing where we'd get the audience to throw money at my head. If you hit my head on a full toss with a dollar coin you'd get your money back otherwise we got to keep it. We smashed a giant glass plate window in Canberra doing that once. We started off with a very post-punk influence to busking." Unlike many successful entertainers the desire to perform did not bud as a child. Paul's sole interest was painting and that was all. "My desire has not changed. I'm still only interested in painting and drawing. I find all this very superficial. It's a way of making money. Society doesn't pay for good things, for beneficial things that in some way will enrich all our lives." GNW caters to the more extreme market, which is essentially what they do. "That's how we make money, to do the things I want to do. Once I make enough money I can leave this but I do enjoy what I do, it's good fun."
After an eight-year stint on Doug Anthony and the All Stars Paul took a years sabbatical. "The All Stars was the most important thing to me and when that ended I just couldn't see the point in continuing with the theatrical, comedy based performance stuff." The creator of the All Stars, Ted Robinson, then approached Paul. He wanted Paul to be a part of a comedy-debating program to be telecast from the ABC and Channel 7 and 9. "I did those and then we worked out a show together and we started doing this. That was four years ago now. It seemed more than a coincidence that we both had similar ideas and we pursued his model rather than mine. I still had my model if anyone wanted it."
Along with his painting Paul has always been a writer. He loved music as a child and has always played with musical concepts and ideas. "Even if you're singing at the back of the bus you're still doing it. I've always loved singing so I've always done it." With viewers calling in for copies of the music from the GNW show, they responded to their requests and an album was put out - an indication of what goes on in the program. The first musical album is essentially a record of the regular people who are on the show and the regular GNW style, often omitting the bigger international acts from the compilation.
"I like recording. It's very high pressure when you put a song out in two days. It's fun but mad." Would Paul McDermott like to become a serious recording artist? "I don't know what a serious recording artist is. I'd like to do a record at some stage but its very difficult with the pressures that come with doing a TV show. It's finding the time to make something of worth. I can't see the point of putting out more crap and there's so much crap on the airwaves at the moment. You just think I'm going to do something as easily as pitiful."
Paul does not believe in "God, the almighty" so fate and destiny do not exist. He can't define a time that marked his break into TV, telling me that a break would suggest another term he thinks is invalid to life and his career. "It's really about hanging in there and determination or lack of anything else to do. It's painful, it's not always good. It can be very hard, people are unforgiving but you just keep going."
Paul was unable to give any advice other than "Fornicate before it's all over, you've got to do it at least once. I'm looking forward to my first time. "When will that be? "I'm still practicing. I don't really believe in advice. I don't listen to anyone else's. If you say, "keep plugging away", people think what an arsehole. He's just had breaks all the way along. He's just been lucky."
Paul didn't plan to be a comic TV host and doesn't know what the future holds. A little cottage surrounded by a herb garden in the mountains might be a goal but he prefers to let life sweep him along. "I don't want to make a decision. I want to take advantage of the weird catastrophic things that occur in life."
Nothing springs to mind when I mention the word passion. Paul professes to like things but claims that his sociopathic behaviour keeps most streams of emotion sedated. "I don't really like the company of other people very much."
Is that really honest or are you just putting it on? "Well... I do like spending time with some people; it's just the bulk of humanity. It's the smell of them. That's why I want my cottage away from everyone with the sea breeze coming in and out."
At the end of our interview I felt as though something was missing. A piece to the puzzle, just didn't seem to fit in. In an attempt to find the clue to the real Paul McDermott, I told him, 'I think there's more to you. Something the public doesn't see. Something in your face that gives a hint to who you are.' Okay, I was fishing but he paused at this point, and his attitude changed from, 'not another journo' to 'this chick is getting intense' or maybe perhaps he just found me comical. Whatever the thought behind his response, I got his attention for a few minutes. I admit, I don't really have a clue but I will say that Mr McDermott is a painter; an artist feeding himself with comedy, having fun with life, allowing it to unfold before him.
Unlike his insolent, kick-arse TV persona on the recently axed Good News Week, McDermott comes across in The Forgetting of Wisdom as an angst-ridden child-man. In his teens he was so painfully shy no one noticed him; and to an extent the insecure adolescent still lives inside him and breathes in the various sketches of his book. He says he envies anyone with a robust sense of self. "I love people who exude confidence, who are perfectly content with themselves, who are blissfully unaware of their own flaws. What a great way to be. Most Americans are born like that."
So has he considered dropping all his emotional baggage on the couch of some therapist? "Funny you should say that because several people have suggested therapy to me," he smirks. "I've even had a plethora of letters from psychologists recommending people I should see. But who wants to dig up all that family stuff? I've buried it for a good reason. I also have an Irish-Catholic bent against therapy: isn't that what confessionals are for, and why Catholics don't get ulcers?"
Even if he is a tad insecure, he adds, he's very comfortable inside his own skin, rarely if he ever gets depressed ("laughing and a positive attitude help you move forward"), and is perfectly content with his own life. But he does admit to a fear of ageing ("even at eight it was a concern of mine"), does not hold a driver's license ("out of fear for other's safety on the road - I'm so easily distracted."), and has no wish to have children ("I feel no desperate need to pass on my gene pool").
We run through the bare bones of McDermott's life (or at least, those he's willing to rattle): born in Adelaide in 1961, the eldest boy of six children (his twin sister Sharon beat him by only one minute); his father, a senior public servant, moved his young family to Canberra, where McDermott was an unhappy student who largely kept to himself. Attended art school, where he began putting on shows to earn extra cash ("I only started to get over my shyness when I joined the Doug Anthony Allstars") Spent most of the 1980's touring the live comedy circuit in Australia and in Britain with the Allstars - by turns astonishing and offending audiences alongside the "handsome one", Tim Ferguson, and the "sensitive one", Richard Fidler (McDermott was the "nasty one").
Whether he is a bundle of neuroses or not, McDermott the pot-stirrer is never far away, even if today it's only visible by the word "Motherf...ers" emblazoned on his T-shirt.
But the big question is, is it all downhill here now that Good News Week, the current affairs spoof he has been anchoring for more than five years, first on the ABC, then on Network Ten, is no more? Now it's the new kid on the block, Rove McManus, who is winning hearts and column space, if not exactly high ratings, for Ten. "He's great: he's able to convey such genuine warmth onscreen - a very hard thing to do," observes McDermott. No bruised ego here: McDermott has even done a guest spot on Rove himself. Not that he has a lot to worry about: McDermott remains one of the most versatile performers in Australia today: TV shows, stand-up comedy, singing, CDs, morning radio, painting. He has done them all, spinning off in so many directions he looks like a loose compass.
Granted Good News Week may be a hard act to follow, but McDermott is used to rolling with the punches: literally. He spent most of his late teens and early twenties, he explains, being beaten to a pulp in hotels and nightclubs. Why was he such an easy target? "That's a really f...ing stupid question," he says briskly. "I was short, small-framed, wore glasses and looked anaemic." Well maybe his choice of pub left something to be desired? "Man, most of them were soft-arsed nightclubs: I won't even tell you what happened at the Private Bin in Canberra - a hangout for the Duntroon boys - when I wore a sleeveless pink and lemon mohair cardigan over my army pants. I was lucky to get out of there alive."
But sometimes even small guys like to flex their muscles. One of his brasher sketches with the Allstars, he explains, was to grab a big burly bloke in the audience and kiss him on the chops. The routine backfired once in Ireland when a 190cm giant picked him up, twisted him around in the air and slammed him down on the floor before giving him a big, slobbering kiss back. "He had his way with me for about three seconds," laughs McDermott, who learned early that a flaring wisecrack or barb could help him avoid serious fisticuffs.
Our interview wraps up at the local cemetery where our photographer has it in mind to take some dark, atmospheric shots, but proceedings are abruptly brought to a halt by an inspector who demands that McDermott "not lean on the headstones".
"When we were kids my sister saw the Virgin Mary in the back of the family's old blue Holden at least twice," says McDermott, as we were walking out. "Sadly, the Virgin never appeared to me. Just my luck."