“Cut the comedy festival shit.” So said the Ballarat university drama teacher, whose job it was to “ruin” the egos of then drama students Broden Kelly, Mark Bonanno and Zach Ruane. Since then, the Melbourne boys have ditched the theatre blacks and formed Aunty Donna, a sketch comedy troupe, boasting over 100 thousand YouTube subscribers, and a live comedy festival show – that just sold out. “So take that, Sergio,” Broden says. But none of Aunty Donna’s members, including its behind-the-scenes crew, anticipated a career in sketch comedy.
“I was vehemently against it,” Broden says. “Whenever I’d seen sketch, particularly in Australia, post-Full Frontal, I always found it daggy or boring. But then we started doing it, and I found a lot of enjoyment in finding ways to make this old form new again.” In the audience of Aunty Donna’s latest live show, entire families howl with laughter as Mark, playing an internet provider customer service representative, instructs Zach to commit double homicide. But comedy crowds weren’t always so receptive – particularly in Australia, where sketch acts struggle to even get on the bill. Broden, in retrospect, considers this a gift. “We had to find a way to be passable to Australian audiences when got up in rooms,” he says, “because a lot of people went, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’”
A few years ago, they started uploading sketches to YouTube – like the one where Broden plays a barista, who gyrates instead of making a customer his coffee. They did nothing, however, to build their profile online. “The audience across the world is so hungry for shit on their laptops that makes them laugh, that they found us,” Broden says. Their next series is for Comedy Central Australia. But this too will, eventually, be available to their YouTube faithfuls. “The reason we’re still here is because of them,” Zach says. “When you grew up, if your favourite band made it onto commercial radio, you suddenly hated them for selling out. Whereas with our YouTube fanbase, every victory we have, they share with us.”
Fans often ask the boys “how many bongs they rip” in order to come up with their material. The answer is none. “If you look at our sketches,” Zach says, “some of them are just fucked, but most of them, as weird as they are, have a core idea that’s actually quite grounded.” Like the sketch in which Zach plays a Scottish guy, driven to tears because his voice activated Xbox won’t recognise his accent. “I was at a friend’s house,” Mark explains, “and they were like, ‘Check it out, my Xbox has voice activation now. Like, quite seriously, check it out.’ And they just kept saying ‘games’ and it wasn’t working. So it comes from a very real place.”
The reason the sketches seem to be the product of a trip, in fact, comes down to comedic technique. “It literally is just trying to find the quickest way to someone’s funny bone,” Broden says. “Like when you have a joke with your best friend. What’s the best way to make a hundred people understand that? A lot of people use very mainstream concepts to get to that point. I guess we’re just trying to go another way.”
People who are sick or suffering depression regularly email Aunty Donna to tell them that they have saved their day. But comedy, too, has saved Aunty Donna. “Back in high school,” Mark remembers, “people stopped bullying me as much when they realised I was funny. Like, forgive the language here, but everyone stopped calling me a ‘cunt’ and started calling me a ‘funny cunt’.” Broden, not so long ago, went to work in a cheese factory. “I did it for half a day and they asked me to go home,” he says. “I couldn’t do it. And there was this moment where I was like, ‘I actually can’t do anything else.’”
Image: Laurence James
This article first appeared in frankie magazine issue 72 (July/Aug 2016).