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If Pete Helliar could time-travel, like the 12-year-old protagonist of his debut kids’ novel Frankie Fish and the Sonic Suitcase, he’d criss-cross history with abandon. First stop 80AD and the Colosseum (a lifelong fascination), followed by its modern-day equivalent, the MCG, where at half time in the 1970 VFL grand final he’d charge into the buoyant Collingwood rooms screaming, “Handball! Handball! Carlton’s gonna handball!”.
He’d make the odd wardrobe change before childhood family portraits and jump less boldly into an improv gig that almost derailed his comic career in 1998. He’d relive marriage vows to his wife Bridget and the births of his three boys, now aged nine, 12 and 14. Hell, he might even jump forward to this year’s Logies, to see if he snares gold.
That’s right, gold. Pete’s in the running for Australian television’s most coveted gong, hot on the heels of his The Project co-hosts, Carrie Bickmore and bookies’ favourite Waleed Aly, who took out the Gold Logie in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
At last year’s ceremony, Pete and fellow comic Kitty Flanagan slayed with their lightning repartee. “Congratulations on your nomination,” Pete quipped to Carrie, who was seated up front. “Please come and visit my table, um, up back, with lovely competition winners and the highest-selling newsagents in rural Victoria.”
Not everyone is amused this year, with anonymous insiders questioning Pete’s gold-worthiness.
The Project’s executive producer, Craig Campbell, isn’t laughing either. “It amazes me that anyone would consider Pete a sidekick and not a co-host,” he says. “To say his contribution doesn’t deserve a Gold Logie is not giving him the credit of 18 years’ screen time on Australian television.”
The debate started trending on social media channels, where one unamused viewer told Pete she was “shocked because you don’t deserve it”.
His response is typically sanguine. “It’s all a bit of a laugh,” he tells me. “Years ago I might have got upset, but I’ve done 20 years of stand-up, from 20 people in pubs to 2000 in theatres. My armour is pretty strong.”
His nomination shouldn’t be surprising, as the Gold Logie is a popularity contest and Pete is unquestionably popular: as Parade College sports captain, hapless footy alter ego Bryan “Strauchanie” Strauchan, stand-up veteran, The Project funnyman and, now, children’s book author.
He’s certainly the centre of attention when we meet at a his favourite cafe in Eltham: “I watch you every night,” says a star-struck woman at the next table. She blushes when Pete offers a selfie: “Geez, you make me laugh.”
His just released book, Frankie Fish, is aimed squarely at kids’ funnybones. “I’d never imagined writing a children’s book and suddenly, days after I did, two publishers contacted my agent asking if I might,” says Pete, who’d not told a soul. “What’s going on there?”
The book’s protagonist, loosely sketched from his sons’ personalities, travels back in time to Scotland to save his family lineage. “It’s Back to the Future meets The Magic Faraway Tree,” Pete says. “My boys helped me stick to narrative. You can have jokes, but unless there’s a story, kids won’t turn the page.
“My youngest is obsessed with books and became my focus group. He’s funny, too. I was walking with him late last year past Typo, which sells knickknacks, and he said, ‘Dad, they should spell Typo incorrectly’.”
Pete is so thrilled to be part of a “passionate, eager and creative” industry that he’s writing a sequel. “People think publishing is lost to Kindles, but parents really want books in their kids’ hands. Reading a hard copy now is the same as it’s ever been, a connection to the past,” he says.
He also holds dear to his own past. The third of Bill and Helen Helliar’s four kids, Pete was easily the most animated, rocking blue skivvies and green flares in family snaps (his father has a firm hand on young Pete’s shoulder in one, “to stop (him) from striking a Fonzie pose”). He counts kindergarten friends among his closest; so too mates from Parade College, where he played serviceable footy when kilos lighter than Strauchanie and discovered a knack for making people laugh. By the mid 1990s, he’d made it an earner.
“Comedy careers weren’t wishful thinking back then,” Pete says. “There were radio and panel shows and a wave of acts that have long been a supportive community.”
Two gigs in late ’96 “went well”, 30 or so in ’97 “were killer”, but Pete crashed to earth in ’98. “I thought I’d try some improv, you know, ‘Where are you from? Yada yada’. But when it came to it, I had nothing. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Craigieburn.’ ‘Um, OK.’ ‘What do you do?’ ‘I’m a dentist.’ ‘That’s nice.’
“I bombed without artillery and it was soul crushing. I remember drinking on St Kilda Beach thinking my dreams were shattered.”
Enter Rove McManus, then a Channel 31 colleague who added Pete as sidekick to his network show that ran for 10 years – priceless national exposure that opened radio, sketch and scriptwriting opportunities and fuelled his creativity. But it’s stand-up Pete adores most, especially on annual jaunts to country regions with close friend and fellow comic Tom Gleeson.
“Basically, we pick an obscure spot on the map, take turns headlining and spend a weekend laughing, drinking and talking family and new material.”
Stay tuned for One Hot Mess, an hour of live stand-up slated to air on Channel Ten later this month.
“Australian networks don’t generally fund stand-up specials, so I’m pretty thrilled,” says Pete of the show he toured last year, covering the challenges of fatherhood, ageing and fast-food addiction in his self-deprecating, everyman way. (Therein lies his gift: it’s easier to laugh at your own foibles when someone exposes theirs.)
Pete’s proud that The Project, which celebrated 2000 episodes on April 12, exists because of “heroically supportive” Channel Ten executives who persisted despite poor early ratings.
No such praise for the TV execs who shelved his footy program The Bounce after only five weeks. “We had a great initial run, radio was saying there’s a new footy show in town, then MasterChef Australia started and it was a juggernaut. Suddenly we were gone.”
The Bounce married Pete’s closest passions after family: comedy and football. “We did some fun clips. I remember one of a Hawthorn supporter who painted his face brown and gold and couldn’t wipe it off, and there he was in family portraits. Funny sketches. Two more months and I reckon the show would have found its feet.”
Maybe so. But would he be less erudite without his quirky current affairs show and cohort Waleed Aly’s towering intellect? “We’d met a couple of times, but it has been an incredible experience getting to know him. Some say, ‘He’s Muslim, he divides people and he’s always going on about stuff’. Hello? That’s his job, he’s a broadcaster. Frankly, I reckon certain people just aren’t used to such intelligence on TV.”
Still, given the chance to time travel with Frankie’s sonic suitcase, Pete might visit September 2016 to argue rather than accept The Project’s decision to stop Donald Trump jokes – the logic at the time being that Trump’s possible election as US president was no laughing matter. “They ran it by me, because it affected me most. I got calls from comedians who didn’t agree with it. I regret it, too, maybe, because comedy should never be censored, sometimes it can help. And what Trump hates most is being made fun of.”
If a multiple-bankrupt, reality-TV star can reach the White House, surely it’s hardly outrageous for a charming, witty, intuitive TV personality to win the Gold Logie? But Pete says he’d swap 10 Gold Logies for a more stable world.
In the meantime, he’ll keep trying to make adults and kids laugh. But what would he prefer, a Gold Logie or the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, children’s literature’s most prestigious prize? “I’ve not so much as won a chook raffle at the pub,” he says. “As long as I can keep working creatively. That’ll do me.”
- The 59th TV Week Logie Awards will be broadcast live on Nine Network from 7pm, Sunday, April 23.