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Scott Dooley: The Restless Visitor

The Australian comedian on trying to make it in New York, his new documentary and Shane Warne’s Twitter feed.

“Poor old Brent Staker. He’s a premiership player and all people seem to remember about him is that he was the guy who got knocked out by Barry Hall. That punch made me see my Dad as a bit tougher than he let on because when everyone was kind of incredulous about it, Dad said to me, ‘I’ve thrown a couple of good ones in my time but none that good.'”

Scott Dooley, or Dools as he is better known to many, loves Australia. That much is made abundantly clear during our chat on a rainy afternoon in lower Manhattan. If it’s not AFL anecdotes (often obscure ones), it’s references to Shane Warne’s Twitter account. Dooley is near obsessed with Warne’s failure to grasp basic grammatical skills — when posting on Twitter, the former cricket star invariably adds a space between the last character in a sentence and the punctuation mark, much to Dooley’s delight. Though it’s not just Warne’s poor grammar that excites the Comedian, it’s also posts like, “Check out my latest @sportingbet challenge !!!! Like it ???? Hahaha”; or, “I teach my son if you go hard for the ball & only have eyes for the footy, you will be rewarded !” On top of the posts themselves, there’s also the subtle jibes at the cricketer in the comment sections located beneath pictures of Warne at a poker table or a fundraising event with a blonde babe on his arm — “Delectable areas Warney”; “Bowling Shaneo”.

What Dooley finds enthralling about Shane Warne’s Twitter feed is precisely what makes him a prime candidate for entering the realm of Australian comedy. That is, he gravitates immediately toward dry sarcasm when faced with unabashed Australiana; and moreover, what he finds hilarious about ‘Strayans like Warne is their inability to see the forest for the trees. “There’s no way he gets that people are just taking the piss out of him by posting ‘great areas, Warney’,” says Dooley.

Many have made hay by exploiting a bird’s eye view of the parochial nature of their Australian brethren — see Barry Humphries’ Sir Les Patterson sketches, and Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs, for example. Dooley’s love of Australian culture, coupled with his exacerbated cringe at the bogany-larrikinism that largely defines it, would seem to put in him in a perfect position to take up the mantle.

But although our conversation yields an intrinsically Australian comedic take on the homeland and its characters in many respects, Dooley’s stand-up routine goes in a different direction. In the new documentary film Debut, he stays away from the wheelhouse of cultural referents to which he seems, over a quiet beer, so akin. Sure, he contextualises a lot of jokes in unmistakably Australian environments — see the sequence set in a KFC where a flock of pigeons is ever encroaching upon the counter (why is this a ubiquitous trait of Australian KFC’s?). But ultimately, what comes out of watching Dooley’s on-stage performance spliced in with a slew of media interviews, after parties, and cups of tea at his Grandma’s house, is a portrait of a guy who has something more universal to offer than just commentary on our small pocket of the globe. “There’s no ‘do you remember the 1990 grand final when Gavin Brown was knocked out by Terry Daniher’ type stuff”, as Dooley puts it. Instead, the focus centres on deconstructing awkward social and relational interaction from a more widely resonant point of view.

It’s writers like Patton Oswalt and Louis C.K. that Dooley looks up to. “Well Louis, he gets up and defends the indefensible,” says Dooley. “He asks himself, what are things a white, straight, rich guy can’t say because we as a society don’t tolerate it. We don’t tolerate people saying nigger or faggot, and so Louis opens his show with that, and you’re still on board. Personally I’m dazzled by that because I think ‘how did he do that? I should hate this guy. But the cleverness keeps you on side. You know when you see the lawyer get the serial killer off? That was the thing about Ted Bundy — he was so fascinating because he could defend himself. So from a comedy standpoint, I have a respect for that intellectual kind of getting your way out of a hole.”

Looking for the “cleverness” in comedy has led Dooley’s stand-up material away from the esotericism that limits many Australian comedians to an exclusively hometown audience, so to speak. Although his writing has some way to go before hitting the acuity and confidence levels of Patton Oswalt or Louis C.K.; both the sharp-daring and magnetism on display in Debut are enough to fuel the idea that Dooley is a guy who might just get to the top of the mountain, and we’re not talking Kosciusko.

Also landing Dooley in good position to resonate as much overseas as he does in Australia, is the fact that he has never really felt like he belongs to any particular tribe. “I’ve always felt quite removed and outside of everything,” he says. “Do you know what I mean? I feel like I flit from circle of friends to circle of friends. Like, I love catching the train but I’d never consider myself a commuter. I love watching all the shit that goes on. I think there’s also that, you feel removed because you’ve gotta talk about this shit and make observations. That removal is hard to deal with sometimes because you never feel a part of the thing that’s happening.”

Such an unsettled nature hasn’t come without cost for Dooley. “I do feel kind of like a shark, if I stop I’ll die,” he says. “Which, incidentally, was proven recently to not be true about sharks (laughs). Sharks stop all the time. The Wobbegong, I mean it barely fucking moves! It’s got moss on it for fuck’s sake!”

The project of destroying shark mythology to one side for a second though, the point Dooley is trying to make here is that it’s exhausting to constantly be on the go; and it’s often undesirable to be imbued with a kind of perpetual manic-ness. “I wish I could switch it off sometimes because it really affects parts of you,” he says. “It fucks you up a lot of the time — relationships and things like that. Because I’m constantly thinking of every possible permeation, and you naturally think of the bad ones first. Yeah it’s exhausting. There’s sometimes just this floodgate — like, you look at my phone and I’ve started writing the next hour when I haven’t even finished the one I’m performing at the moment. And that’s just because I can’t switch off.”

The inability to shut one’s mind off and just go with the flow is nothing new when talking about Comedians. One always had that impression about Robin Williams — that even when the cameras weren’t rolling he would have been the guy who just couldn’t slow his mind down, take a breath, and let the world wash over him for a while; the guy who was always on partly because he couldn’t stop, and partly because he felt that people needed it from him if he was to be accepted. Scott Dooley is similar, in that, you may understand his exhaustion in a similar way. In his stand-up routine on Debut, he cycles from bit to bit as though it’s all a series of throwaway lines, never lingering in the pay-off moments to soak up the just deserts. And that’s not because his comedy is throwaway, it’s not; it’s because that’s the kind of guy Dooley really is: one who often fails to round-off a sentence before he’s onto the next idea or anecdote; one whose eyes seem as though constantly evaluating the best path to the exit, or what the next movement in a conversation is going to be, or what Twitter gold he is missing out on right now.

Such constant flux always seems to come with a dark side, and Dooley is no exception to that idea. During both Debut and his conversation with Rolling Stone, he mentions sliding into a depression in 2013 due to his life reaching a static point. “I don’t know if it was like a quarter life crisis or I was just feeling really restless,” says Dooley. “But it was getting to the point where I thought if I don’t do something now then I’m never going to do it.”

True to the Comedian’s form, however, Dooley is quick to make light of the murky subject. “I don’t know if I was necessarily depressed,” he says. “I went to two therapists, one said I was depressed, the other said I was sad, which I loved. She goes, ‘you’re just sad.’ May as well have said, ‘Fuck off, get out of here, you’re wasting all of our time’.”

As an outsider, it’s hard to look upon Dooley’s career so far and conclude that it has ever fallen into stasis. If anything his trajectory supports the idea of him as a shark rather than a guy who ever languishes in one place for very long: Triple J drive show host for less than two years; then Nova 96.9 breakfast host for just over a year. The biggest move came when Dooley relocated to New York in 2013, where he has since hosted a radio show in Nolita, produced a documentary film (though it was filmed in Australia), and written and performed several hours of stand-up. “I wanted that uncertainty involved with moving here because I’d spent so much time avoiding it,” says Dooley. “I mean, up until New York the big career move I made was to leave Triple J to do basically the same job five hundred metres away. It wasn’t a huge thing like, say, ‘what’s he doing, he doesn’t know the first thing about surgery.’ I wanted to start again and make an actual change because I felt like I needed the challenge.”

Challenges have met Dooley at just about every turn since landing stateside. “At home you can get a bit complacent,” he says. “People are nice to you and you develop a confidence when you’re on stage which is, ‘doesn’t matter what happens here, it’s going to be fine.’ So when I first came over I brought that attitude with me. I was talking to the audience a lot and people were like, ‘mate, what are you doing? Don’t talk to us, just do your thing whatever it is.’ That really threw me a bit. But I think it’s made me a much better writer because I can’t rely on being known. You’ve gotta just get up and tell good jokes.”

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Credit: Craig Ivanoff

Aside from facing a big learning curve in terms of his stand-up, Dooley has also felt the sting of taking the big leap overseas in other ways. “From the outside, doing what I do looks pretty glamorous,” he says. “You do these radio gigs, you become friends with interesting people, then you move to New York. You know, all people see are pictures of you on Instagram in New York and stuff like that. They don’t realise that, in reality, you’re doing a lot of drinking by yourself, you’re freezing fucking cold, you don’t know anyone, you spend a lot of time really relating deeply to the Smith Street Band (laughs). I saw Will Wagner (SSB frontman) a while ago and I just gave him the biggest hug. I said, ‘You have no idea what you and I have been through, buddy’. He looked at me like I was a bit of a weirdo.”

But despite the loneliness and sense of abstraction one faces when entering an environment where no one knows or cares who you are — a sense amplified when you’ve spent a lot of time in a country where people do recognise you — New York has also invigorated Dooley in many ways. “It’s made me just wanna make shit,” he says. “In Australia I seemed to spend so much time waiting for other people, whereas you become filled with the idea of making your own stuff happen in New York. I mean, that idea of doing stuff on my own has cost me a fortune and I haven’t made a cent (laughs), but now I’m starting to see the benefits of it. That’s how it is here, you’ve really gotta push your own barrow. No one’s knocking down my door saying shit like, ‘come on, you need to tell us more things about your dick!’ It’s on you to come up with that stuff and try to find an audience for it.”

Although no one in the US is knocking down Dooley’s door for more dick jokes just yet, if his current levels of motivation and industry stay where they are one would be remiss in thinking the ducks won’t fall into line eventually. That’s not to say that hard work will get anyone over the line in the long term, only that hard work combined with the rare brand of talent that is Dooley’s should give him a fighting chance. The truest thing one might say about Dooley’s comedy is that it’s not easily pigeon holed. You take your seat expecting a good ‘ol Aussie larrikin, and instead you’re given a mercurial force that’s near impossible to fix in the gun sights. That being the case, it’s difficult to know where the career of Scott Dooley will head to next, the only thing we can know for sure is that it’ll be some place funny.

Featured Photo Credit: Pip Cowley