With a Netflix show and a headline at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the surreal troupe Aunty Donna has come a long way from their Ballarat days. By Elizabeth Flux.
Comedy trio Aunty Donna
The whiteboard is packed with words that don’t seem to go together. “T-REX – bodyguards,” exclaims one note. “SANTA,” shouts another. In one section, titled “Costume”, there’s a checkbox list including galahs, togas, suits, white underwear x 5, and blood.
“Ah, we don’t need blood anymore,” says Broden Kelly, using the same tone of voice in which someone might cancel a sandwich order.
This is the second time I’ve met Kelly, Zachary Ruane and Mark Samual Bonanno, who – along with writer Sam Lingham, film director Max Miller and sound designer Tom Armstrong – are better known as comedy group Aunty Donna. We’re sitting in their modest Melbourne office – all white brick and practical tables, with sticky notes clustered on one wall and computers up the back. It’s a sensible space completely at odds with the work that comes out of it: comedy that is surreal, innovative and extremely silly.
The group is preparing to host the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Opening Night Comedy Allstars Supershow. That’s what all the writing on the whiteboard is about. Originally they had mapped out a routine of familiar, safe sketches that they knew would work. About an hour before they were due to submit their plan, they read it all out and felt the lack of enthusiasm between them. “No one was excited. No one was interested,” says Bonanno. So they threw it all out and started from scratch. “It’s probably going to go badly but I’m really excited about it.”
At this point they all start chiming in with different ideas they’re workshopping – and they do sound excited. They visibly brighten. They talk about the earnest rap they are mapping out. The T-rexes. The galahs. “All-Star” by Smash Mouth.
“I don’t think, four or five years ago, we would have had the confidence to do that,” says Bonanno. “And I just feel like we’re in a position now where it’s like, you know, we’ve done enough good, and we’ve garnered enough goodwill that now it’s just like, ‘Ah we’re just gonna do what we want to do.’ And I really like that.”
“This is comedy,” says Ruane. “Our mantra is whatever is funniest. And that’s what led to this idea of just pure joy, pure fun, pure escapism.”
The trio met while studying acting at what was then known as University of Ballarat Arts Academy. Initially a career in comedy wasn’t on their radar. They knew they wanted to work together, they knew they respected each other as performers and over the course of a year they discussed what they wanted their group to be. “If we’re gonna do comedy, why, why?” recalls Bonanno. “And what? What do we love that isn’t being done right now? And what do we want to see? What are we missing, just as fans of comedy?”
They all came to acting for different reasons. Ruane says that, as a distracted child, it was originally intended to give him focus, while Bonanno says he drifted into it by accident and discovered a drive, enthusiasm and direction that was previously missing. Kelly explains how he has been single-minded about acting for as long as he can remember – it’s just who he is.
They emphasise they are performers first, and particularly in their early days this posed specific challenges. “We were not great writers as a group, but we were really strong performers – and we had to kind of find a way to become good writers,” reflects Kelly.
“So many things that people think are stylistic choices … we’re actually people that didn’t know how to write, covering by just like, ‘let’s sell it’,” adds Ruane with a small laugh.
Over the course of our conversations I notice they’re often self-deprecating when they talk about their individual work or about the group, but when it comes to each other, they don’t hold back on what it is they admire.
“We were drawn to each other because of a mutual respect for each other as performers, rather than a shared comedic taste. Which is pretty rare,” says Ruane. “We see the strength in our different tastes.”
When it comes to putting together an idea, “we all have very different performance styles,” says Kelly. “Zach’s huge skill is improvisation … and I’m very like it has to be A to B to C.”
“Mark will bring this really honest, raw, fucked, personal experience,” adds Ruane. “I’ll maybe go, well this could be the reference that could draw from it. Or maybe I’ll switch my brain off and take it to 11. And then Broden will go: But how can we make this resonate or connect with jokes? I think we’re at our best when we kind of come together on that.”
At this point it would make sense for me to explain what their style is, what it is they do. But it’s impossible to explain why their comedy works so well or even explain what it really is – trying to capture it in a cage of words just serves to flatten out its multiple layers. It would ruin the joke. Two things that are fairly consistent across all their work – over their live performances, their YouTube videos and their recent Netflix television series – is that they play versions of themselves, and that they are put into situations that take absurd, impossible-to-predict turns.
It’s an interesting situation to be in as an actor – to be best known as a character who shares your name, who both is you but isn’t. I ask how they balance the division between their fictional and real selves and Bonanno replies immediately. “Me? I do not. I put so much of myself into mine … I think what we do is we tend to take ourselves and dial ourselves up to like, an absurd level, like, turn ourselves up to 11.”
“It’s elements of yourself,” says Kelly, describing the back and forth between audience and actor as a large part of shaping how his persona has evolved.
“I think what’s particularly interesting though is we created these characters when we were 21, 22,” adds Ruane. “So for me, the character of Zach was like … a distillation of me then and I guess my worst qualities.” He pauses. But now that time has passed “there’s almost this fork in the road at 22, where a character was based on me then, and has now grown and evolved. And I’ve grown and evolved … he’s almost an alternative reality, a different kind of growth from me.”
Aunty Donna has been together now for almost 10 years, but it’s only in the past three that the group were able to make it their full-time career.
“For the first six years we didn’t take a cent personally,” says Bonanno. “But we all believed in it and so we were like, well, let’s make the personal sacrifices that we have to. It was hard – at times I had two casual jobs and then this which I would consider a part-time job which we were doing three or four days a week – then just trying to fill in every other gap with casual work.”
They were also always firm on their vision. “We’ve never had to keep shifting what Aunty Donna is to finally get on Channel Seven or whatever it is,” says Kelly. “We’ve just kind of kept doing what we’re doing.”
Ruane has a vivid memory of a crossover point, as Aunty Donna grew more well known but was not its own job. He was working at a cinema and had just been lambasted by his manager – “who was younger than me by quite a few years” – for not wearing his name badge. “I was really embarrassed,” he says. “Then within a minute of that happening, an entire family recognised me and got a photo. I was just like, ‘This is a strange point in my career.’ ”
Despite the precarious nature of working in the arts – and in the highly competitive and volatile field of acting – none of them would give it up. Ruane points to how things have shifted drastically in the past few decades. Growing up in the Latrobe Valley, there was, he says, “still that mentality that after school you could get one job … and the most responsible thing you could do is join a big company, join a union, and have a job from 16 through 50”. But he thinks that isn’t the case anymore. Precariousness isn’t limited to the arts – and contract work is becoming more common. “Over the last 10, 15 years, my crazy and weird privileged choice is starting to become kind of the way of the world. Is it hard for artists? Yes. But I think it’s hard for everyone.”
Kelly also points to how things are shifting within the arts industry. “I don’t know if you’ll ever see another band be able to sell a bazillion records and make money off it. And you might not see us be able to become bazillionaires either by making TV shows. But what you will see, I think, is a lot more people with diverse opinions and diverse styles of music find audiences and be able to make careers out of them.”
“It’s more niches. It’s smaller things – it’s subcultures,” adds Bonanno.
After years of hard work, Aunty Donna have carved out a sizeable niche of their own. They have more than 400,000 followers on their YouTube channel. Fans regularly create art inspired by their work. All three of them have featured in tattoos. And late last year, they released a six-episode television series on Netflix, Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun, which, when we last met, was on the cusp of being released.
“The last time I spoke to you we were very worried – I was very worried,” confides Kelly. “We had no idea, legitimately, whether people would like it or not.” But now, in the four months since it came out, “we didn’t get a bad review”, he says with almost disbelieving delight. “It was really surprising to me, because I spent the whole creation of the show with crippling fear that we’d missed the mark at different points, or we’d done the wrong thing – all we had was trust that the last eight years has led to something. And then when it came out, the reception was ridiculously positive.”
I watched as buzz around the series grew. It jumped into the top 10 on Netflix. Actor Neil Patrick Harris tweeted his enthusiastic support. Aunty Donna were suddenly on all my screens and being discussed in all my group chats. They were interviewed on morning television – where they responded to questions through interpretive dance. They did an abstract promotion of sorts by having a character from the show simply be in the city. “Cowdoy in the city!” they exclaimed in the video. “Cowdoy in the city!” exclaimed a friend, sending me the link.
In a year where the performing arts had almost ground to a halt in Australia, it was a bright spark to see Australian comedy – especially something so unique and non-conforming – embraced on the world stage.
Here it might be tempting as artists to bed down, to start doing the same things, to play it safe. After all, it’s been shown to work. But at their core, Aunty Donna are driven by performance and creativity.
“We’ve been doing sketch a really long time. And we’ve picked every fruit from that. Now this other whole orchard just opened up,” says Kelly.
At present they are all also balancing other projects. Kelly has a busy schedule of teaching and acting in various television shows. Ruane has a film podcast and is in the early stages of a documentary about the Latrobe Valley. Bonanno has recently released an ABC series.
“Any creative group doesn’t work without supreme buy-in from everyone. That’s the only way it works. But also, you need to respect that, for people to be the best they are in a group, they need to be able to fulfil their whole selves,” says Kelly.
“The world is so crazy – and I think a lot of artists do what they do because they want to make sense of something,” adds Ruane. “There’s six of us, and to ask this one project that we do to be everything that I need my art to be – it’s too much to ask of something that’s collaborative.”
“I hope what’s next is that we build something that can really support all six of us to do whatever we want to do individually,” says Bonanno. “And then when we come together as a group, doing the shit that we’re most creatively driven and passionate to do.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 3, 2021 as "Prima donnas".
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