Interview: Comedian Sammy J chats Barry Humphries and the 20 characters in his Good Hustle Tour

As Comedian Sammy J hits the road with his new show Good Hustle, John Goodridge catches up with him to find out about he some 20 characters that will feature in the show, reflect on how he keeps his seemingly hectic schedule together – and they talk about the passing of Barry Humphries.

Hey Sammy, looking at what you do – breakfast radio, tv, comedy, authoring books, how do you fit it all in?

I’ve always loved working on different projects at different times. The last few years is the only time I’ve had a consistent schedule, because of breakfast radio and TV. Over COVID, all my other work dried up, so it was manageable, but now that the world is opening up, I’m trying to work on the right balance. That was part of the reason to finish up the weekly sketch on ABC TV. I do get bored easily and I like a new challenge. Breakfast radio is wonderful, because I do get to finish the job at eight o’clock in the morning. I’m tired, but it still means I can be productive throughout the day.

Where do you get the inspiration for your comedy characters?

These characters came about for the weekly sketch, which I did for five years. Some of them were designed as a one-off joke, but people responded really well. I have a bush-poet character who, during COVID, did the “Ballad of the Dunny Roll” about the toilet paper shortage. I remember that was a wild week, and I thought it was just happening in Australia or Melbourne. Then I had calls from the BBC telling me it had 10M views on-line. Suddenly the bush-poet became a more regular character.

The Government Coach, who is effectively a footy coach for politics, might be a three-minute laugh post AFL game. That became one of the most well-known characters and we got many years out of that. It’s been a fun time and a fun way of creating worlds.

So how exactly do you get that inspiration – is it from daily life or the news or what?

In satirical work, instead of a notepad it’s the news or browsing on-line, because you’re always responding to what’s going on in the news. This week for example, we had Phillip Lowe raising interest rates again, so that’s led to a new song that’s going to be in the show. Responding to the headlines is the idea. A blank page can be terrifying to anyone trying to create an idea, as soon as you’re given a job or a brief or a deadline, that’s when I become inspired.

You’re known for your political satire – is that considered an “easy” target?

My secret shame, even though I’m a political satirist, is that I love politics. I grew up as a politics nerd. I wouldn’t say it’s an easy target. Sometimes things will happen. When Scott Morrison tackled a kid to the ground, you could not write that. There are so many people adding content on-line within a few hours, the challenge becomes, “How can I be creative?”

With the immediacy of social media, it must make the role of the comedian that much harder.

It’s not necessarily harder, because the Internet gives as well as it takes. It gives a huge audience as well. Quality still gets attention. The audience now are used to lo-fi stuff. Some of the biggest laughs I’ve had are from people filming stuff on their phones. My TV show was more of an old-school model with a studio and a full crew. We had the script 24-48 hours before filming, so there was a conflict sometimes with the immediacy.

There is still a skill in the way a joke is presented though – the timing, wording etc. Do you practice the jokes on someone beforehand?

For the sketches, it was baked into my bones enough that I had a sense of what I was going for. For the live show, especially with the four or five songs that are in it, I took them to local comedy nights and tried them out. Sometimes something that I thought was funny doesn’t get much of a response. Sometimes the audience will pick up on something that you don’t expect. Over the course of a few nights, you learn which bits work, so you might extend that out and shorten other bits. You certainly don’t just write something then present it. It’s more like a conversation with the audience.

The live song that’s doing the rounds now is the one about things that Millennials wouldn’t understand. To me, good comedy is like a shared experience.

I totally agree. To me, comedy is like an “in-joke”. It depends on the size of the audience too. Sometimes, it can be five mates pissing themselves laughing or it can be an audience of a thousand people, but you all want to be on board with the same idea. I love that song, because it does feel like an in-joke for anyone over the age of thirty. It felt so normal at the time, having to dial a rotary phone, for example.

Out of the various things that you’ve done, radio, TV, comedy, song writing, books; what gives you the most pleasure?

It’s the variety that I love. I don’t like being stuck doing one thing. Ultimately, I started my whole career on-stage, in comedy clubs around Melbourne, so that’s probably where I’ll end up. Being in front of a live audience who are there to have a good time is happiest and stress-free. If you write a book you must go through publishers and editors, in a TV show you have directors and lawyers, radio you have your broadcasters and producers, and so on. On stage it’s just you and your audience, so I think that’s where I’m most at home and one of the best things about this tour as well.

The Melbourne leg of the tour seems to have been quite a success so far.

We had a ball. With this tour I go to a lot of places I haven’t been to since before COVID. It’s exciting to get back to see some cities – Sydney, Newcastle, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Canberra, and Hobart. A fair bit of flying coming up.

It looks like loads of audience participation as well.

In this show in particular, we have a segment called baby-boomer yoga, and sing-along to slurping Philip Lowe raising interest rates. There is some fun participation, but none of it threatening.

Tell me about Sammy J and Randy – it looks like Randy is still there in the background somewhere?

I’d say the foreground really – Randy is his own person and is touring around America now. He’s having a blistering career internationally. I’m the one with the family down in Melbourne. We talk most days and have plans to do things in the future. We call it an open marriage, rather than a breakup.

Of course, big news recently was the passing of Barry Humphries. You wrote a comment on the Melbourne Comedy Festival and the Barry Award issue.

After his death, people started bringing up the fact that the MCF changed the name of the award four or five years ago and it was dealt with at the time. A lot of people that have never been to the MCF decided to make a drama of that. Headlines were that the festival “cancels Barry Humphries”. I took issue with that because if Barry Humphries ever wanted to do a show at the comedy festival, he would have been welcome with open arms. They changed the name of one award to respect younger, more diverse comedians, which I thought was a proportionate response. I was proud to put forward a reasonable view, because I do take issue with the idea that a small decision like that is cancelling someone. In fact, I was one of the first to pay tribute to him as well.

A comedian must tread a fine line between offence and entertainment.

Absolutely, people can say whatever they want on-stage or off-stage as well, and I’ll be the first to defend that. But sometimes it will have an effect on the audience and that’s what this was.

Sammy J is currently touring Australia with Good Hustle, with the following dates still to come:

Newcastle Civic Theatre
8pm, Thu 11 May

Powerhouse Theatre
6.00pm, Fri 12 May – Sun 13 May

Regal Theatre
7.00pm, Fri 19 May

Norwood Concert Hall
8.00pm, Sat May 20

Canberra Theatre Centre
8.00pm, Friday May 26

Theatre Royal
8.00pm, Saturday May 27

The tour has been presented by Laughing Stock Productions. For more information, head to