Sam Newman, provocateur, controversialist and self-confessed “dinosaur”, “Luddite” and “troglodyte”, is the longest-serving member of The Footy Show panel. He’s been there since the get-go in 1994 when Eddie McGuire invented and realised the show, and has saddled up for his 25th year. “I’m just a survivor, not necessarily successful, just a survivor,” Newman says. “I suppose a quarter of a century – that is survival in this very competitive world.”
It sure is. He could never have imagined it lasting this long. “We were given six weeks by Ian Johnson, the then boss of Nine. I think Kerry Packer said … ‘How would a f—ing football show survive without actually showing football?’ That was how much confidence everyone had in us.”
But that was the trick. No football, but lots of Newman. Football players, sure, but with Newman there to prompt them against “yeah/nah” mediocrity. Say something, man!
Why did it succeed? “We took an irreverent look at football, well I did anyhow,” he says. “Eddie was a hard news hound. We had a bit for everyone. We used to go out and chat to people on the streets. We got belted severely for doing that. We never have and never will make any apology for the people we spoke to.”
This is a topic Newman has addressed before – with accusations that The Footy Show chose to highlight vulnerable people on its Street Talk segment. But broadly this outlook conforms to his overarching view that too many are looking too hard for slip-ups, especially from the demonised un-PC, unfiltered, unreconstructed Newman.
“There’s a competition going on to see who can be the most righteous in society,” he says. “It’s gone from tongue-in-cheek comment and parody or comedic or satirical … it has now become so focused on you saying something that might be misconstrued by someone examining what you say with a microscope that they can now hang those old cliches on you like racist or sexist or homophobic or bigoted … It is bemusing to listen to people go through that narrative. It’s interesting to see how small-minded and petty people can be.”
Newman was always best when McGuire’s there. The pair was last year reunited on screen after McGuire’s 12-year break from the show. Many thought it missed him. His return was a rebirth of their obvious long-time on-screen friendship and chemistry. “Polar opposites, we are,” Newman says. “Religiously, politically, philosophically. I’m a classic pessimist; I expect the worst and hope for the best. He expects the best and hopes it gets better.”
These differences have of course helped the show; McGuire’s skills at structure juxtaposed with Newman’s jaw-dropping unpredictability. “People who are partially educated – I am and Eddie is, too – would think that just because you have a difference of opinion or point of view, you can’t get on and have sensible, robust conversations about anything,” he says. “I have tremendous respect for him. While I disagree sometimes with things he says, I take it, as we say, on advisement. And he gives me plenty of advice and, even being probably 25 years younger than me, he mentors me a lot.”
Of course, McGuire has joined the broader community in sometimes taking exception to some of Newman’s more inflammatory comments. “He says ‘Why would you do that’?” Newman says. “I say things off the top of my head – people would be aware of that – and he is a lot smarter than me; he thinks about eight or nine sentences ahead of me and can see the blow-back or feedback and he tries to put a dampener on it before it gets out of hand while we’re actually doing it.
“Over 25 years, you can say plenty of things you probably regret but would never apologise for because what’s the point of apologising?”
Newman’s disillusionment with aspects of football has at times been an issue for The Footy Show team. He has expressed frustration with umpiring, doesn’t attend too many games and seems to have fallen out of love with the sport. I wondered how he saddles up again to talk about a sport that is quite clearly frustrating to him? “That’s a very good question. I like to not be a sycophant about our game. It’s a great game, after all. I played it for a long time and enjoyed every moment of it. But it is legitimate and reasonable to critique our game.”
How does Newman feel when much younger panellists talk – albeit affectionately – about his colourful personal life? “I’m confident enough in who I am to cop any criticism, to cop anything anyone says about me. I honestly don’t mind. I don’t wear my heart on sleeve. I’m pretty resilient to criticism and adverse comment because I’ve received plenty of it. Your reputation is who people think you are; your character is who you really are, and I would never, ever try to explain to people who I am, I’ll let them work it out for themselves.
“I get on with anyone. We treat people how we find them. If they’re deliberately antagonistic towards you, well that’s one thing. If people want to actually speak to you sensibly or might agree to disagree with most of the things you do, that’s all right.”
Newman is reportedly making a run for Lord Mayor, but denies he will pursue it. “I was asked if I was the lord mayor what would I do? So I said this is what I would do. I would like to do it but I’m not going to do it … You’d have to devote (time to it) … Mind you, I’m only working two hours a week – in the winter.”
He then kept the door open by adding: “In society everywhere, we get bogged down with petty agendas by people who push a cause. I have no cause to push. I don’t have a vested interest in speaking ill or glowingly about AFL football … democracy usually is a very good way of ensuring that nothing actually ever gets done because you listen to too many people and you never make a decision yourself.”
Given that Newman as lord-mayoral candidate is a long way from the frivolity and vaudeville of The Footy Show, I asked about his views on the #metoo movement sweeping the world. “Generally speaking, it is a stain on how men behave with women. Having said that, you’ll find I think that there is a lot of unsubstantiated comment and criticisms and claims made by people for a whole lot of different reasons, those with agendas, and I’d be very sceptical and careful about believing every single thing that people said about people they’ve come in contact with.
“Before that gets blown into a headline ‘Newman is sceptical about women who come forward with sexual harassment claims’, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying it is a very serious problem and men have behaved disgracefully and still do.
“It is great that it’s come to a head and people will be very careful now about what they do and what they say. But here is the other side of it. The art of chivalry and genuinely having an affectionate opinion about someone who you actually like – whether it’s a man or a woman, incidentally – tends to be put on the back-burner because you are so fearful that anything you do will be misconstrued. That’s the sad thing about it.”
While never known as a tree-hugging leftie, it is still a surprise to hear Newman speak in such extraordinarily glowing terms about US President Donald Trump. “When people stop being so biased about Donald Trump, they will suddenly realise that he is the most outstanding politician that’s ever stood for office in the history of the world,” he says. “He is extraordinary. Against all odds he has belted everyone who wished to challenge him and you might not like him as a person but I would invite anyone, in all seriousness, to (nominate) what policies he has instigated or promotes that they don’t agree with.”
So, back into the breach for another year. At 72, he says he is not offended by his nickname, the Fossil. “It appears that I’m a dinosaur, a Luddite, a troglodyte, and I’m happy to say I’m all of those things,” Newman says.