Comedian Magda Szubanski turns children’s book author
Listen carefully. Here are the slightly maniacal giggles of Pixie-Anne Wheatley, the sucked lemon tones of Chenille from the Institute de Beaute, the gentle melody of Mary McGregor's lilt, and a rosy-cheeked pinch of Esme Hoggett.
There's drop of Lynne Postlethwaite's "I said pet, I said love, I said please", a touch of Michelle Grogan's curled-lip sneer, and of course, the pure delight that is Sharon Karen Strzelecki's nasal notes.
Somewhere in Magda Szubanski's voice are hints of all the characters she has played in her remarkable 35-year career in television and film.
It's quite the resume, and one Szubanski, 58, can now add children's author to, with the release of her first children's book, the delightfully bonkers Timmy the Ticked-off Pony and the Poo of Excitement.
As its name suggests, it's a scatter logical romp peppered with the sort of fart and poo jokes younger readers can't get enough of (think the Captain Underpants series, or Andy Griffiths The Day My Bum Went Psycho) but, with Szubanski as its author, there are also huge dollops of warmth, wit and wisdom.
On the surface, it's about an extremely vain and vacuous star, Timmy, an equine with 3 million Instapony followers, a mansion, hot and cold running chefs and all the other accoutrements of fame.
Life is sweet for Timmy until a moment of deep, public humiliation sees him flee the spotlight to hide in shame (pooing on a co-star's hoof will do that to you). Timmy is also extremely, as the title suggests, ticked off, mostly by his rival Tony the Show Pony, who, rumour has it, lies about his height, and may not even be a true pony. Timmy's nemesis's star is rising as rapidly as Timmy's is falling and so, the ticked off pony launches a most likely doomed plan to bring Tony the Show Pony down.
And who better to pen a tongue-in-cheek, multi-layered allegorical study on fame and its perils than Szubanski, a woman who has experienced all its triumphs and terrors herself.
"You know that saying "write what you know"? Part of the reason I wanted to write Timmy is that kids are being led to believe that just or fame itself is worth pursuing, and it isn't," Szubanski says.
"It never occurred to me to just want to be famous. I wanted to act, but famous, no, I never chased just that. And when you get there, whether you have chased it or not, fame can be a funny place to be."
Her own fame is a case in point; Szubanski was on her way to an Arts degree at the University of Melbourne, when a small role in a university revue _ an impersonation of British comedian _ Benny Hill made the audience roar with laughter. A part in a touring university revue followed, and when ABC TV commissioned a new sketch show, The D-Generation, in 1985, Szubanski, along with a few of her university revue mates, including the very funny Marg Downey, was asked to join in the mayhem.
The D Generation spawned other shows like Fast Forward, Big Girl's Blouse, Kath and Kim, and launched the likes of Pixie-Anne Wheatley and Lynn Postlewaite into the public eye _ and Szubanski into its collective heart.
There's no doubt that Szubanski is one of Australia's most beloved performers _ "everyone loves Magda" her book publicist says, but she wants her young readers to know that public adulation is no panacea for real life.
"Fame itself is not a bad thing, and it can be a very good thing, but it has its perils, especially if it happens too quickly.
"It's a powerful thing," Szubanksi reflects, "and it can really mess with your mojo."
"Other people can have issues with your fame, or who they think you might be, or how you might feel about yourself…you know that great Aussie saying 'Don't get up yourself'", that's the warning",
As someone who would shriek at words like "brand" or "image" awareness like Sharon Strzelecki suddenly spotting Shane Warne across a crowded, there's very little chance of Szubanski getting "up herself".
Interesting, then, that she has just shared the small screen - if not the room itself - with one of the most famous people on that planet, and a woman it could be argued is the Queen of becoming famous for, well, being famous, Kim Kardashian.
In one of the most watched, commented upon and successful television advertisements, Szubanksi - as Sharon Strzelecki teams up with Kardashian - as herself - for an Uber Eats ad; the two women sprawled on couches in a lounge room, talking about what they'll each be ordering for dinner.
It's a very funny ad, particularly when Szubanski, as Sharon, coaches Kardashian how to say "nice", as in "noice", or as Sharon helpfully explains "Pine Lime Sploice".
But Szubanski confirms she never met the most famous Kardashian of all, with the two filming in the same room, but separately, due to time constraints. And talking to the woman who starred in one of pop culture's most talked-about images, courtesy of Paper magazine's 2014 "Break the Internet" cover of Kardashian and her highly glazed buttocks, was for Szubanski further confirmation of how the cloak of fame distorts its wearer.
"After we filmed, I was going to pretend that she was my very best friend, but no we never met.
"And it's funny, we all have these ideas about how someone is going to be.
"With Kim, when I spoke to her, we actually spoke for quite some time about prison reform, which is something she is genuinely passionate and knowledgeable about, and one of the first things she asked me was - and this was some time before things got really bad here - about the Australian bushfires. She knew exactly what was going on with them, and wanted to know how everyone was doing.
"There was no pretension about her, there was a real warmth and I can't imagine that level of fame, it must be very full on."
And Kardashian is also very familiar with another of the book's themes, that of the increasingly disturbing notion of public shaming for private behaviour.
For Timmy it's his filmed accident on his co-star's hoof that brings him public condemnation (even the President weighs in), for Kardashian, it was the release of a private sex tape she made with a former boyfriend that brought her, she has since said "so much humiliation", and for all of us, Szubanski says, it's a big problem.
"You know, it's the old public executions. That streak has always been in us, that need to witness someone pay for whatever it is they are supposed to have done.
"But now it's so accessible to everyone, through traditional and social media and we all need to be held accountable to one another.
"Shame is always a form of social control, and people who feel they don't have much power can use it to make themselves feel like they do.
"But if you are thinking of tweeting that tweet or showing that picture online, you need to pause and really think of the consequences, and not just for the people you are tweeting about or showing a photo of, but for yourself too."
Szubanski knows all about thinking things through. About weighing up the consequences. About popping your head above the parapet. About coming out on national television, specifically on Channel 10's The Project, and aptly on Valentine's Day, 2012. She did so as part of her support for legalizing same sex marriage. Timed to coincide with two bills seeking to legalise gay marriage proposed at Federal Parliament, Szubanski says her moment of public truth about her sexuality was both easier than she thought it might be, and more difficult. "It was both because as the date was approaching I felt like a pregnant woman thinking, "Get this baby out", but afterwards people were saying, which is really wonderful in some ways, that it wasn't a big deal.
"But it is a big deal and I think we have to remember that. I think we have to be careful to remember that it remains a very big deal for kids to do it, even if the parents are "yeah, yeah, whatever".
"Because you are still in a minority group, you are often a minority of one in your family and that is a big, scary thing to be.
"So it might be okay in your family, or at your work, or at your school, but it won't be okay everywhere you go, and I think we need to remember that.
"And we do not yet live in a world where LGBTQI people are safe everywhere they go, or welcomed everywhere they go.
"The stakes remain high".
Szubanski's voice catches, and for her, right now, the personal has perhaps never felt more political.
The daughter of a Polish father, Zbigniew Szubanski and a Scottish/Irish mother Margaret, Magda was born in Liverpool in the United Kingdom, where he parents had settled after World War Two.
In 1965, the Szubanski's took their children (Magda, and her older siblings Barbara and Chris) to Australia where they lived in working class Croyden North on the northern-eastern outskirts of Melbourne.
In many ways, a young Szubanksi _ handy, by the way with tennis racquet, and a club champion _ had a typical Aussie, suburban childhood.
But her father had a complex past, which, as she outlined in her stunning 2015 Reckoning, shadowed the sunny streets the Szubanski family grew up on.
During the war Zbigniew Szubanski, at 19, joined the infamous Polish execution squad, Unit 993/W Revenge Company; it's mission? Assassinating Gestapo officers, and Zbigniew Szubanski killed several. He also hid Jewish families from the Nazi's, and was part of the 1944 Warsaw uprising where about 200 000 people lost their lives.
All of which is to say the Szubanski feels her Polish heritage deeply. It is the place that gave Magdalene Mary Szubanski her name and a good chunk of her identity, and where many of her relatives still live. It is also a place that has recently created about 100 LGBT Free zones, across several cities.
These self-proclaimed zones take up, Szubanski says, about one third of the country, and while they are more symbolic than official, they are nevertheless, part of a growing, conservative movement aimed at stigmatizing those identifying as LGBTQI.
"I am absolutely heartbroken and grief stricken about it", Szubanski says.
"I do feel it personally, I think about how it must be over there for LGBTQI people, how that must feel.
"But you know, Poland has had a hell of a history. It's been divided and occupied and fought over for years. It's been under imperialism and Nazism and communism and capitalism _ one in five people died in the second world war _ and it has been one of the most multi-religious, multi-ethnic countries in history, and I have a great belief in the courage and compassion of the Polish people.
"Poland's motto is actually 'Fighting for our freedom and for yours', so I'm hoping that prevails, I'm hoping people speak up, that they chose to go out and say 'we are tolerant'.
"The world has always had these very vocal elements on both sides of any debate, the majority are in the middle, then we have these small elements at the edge of both sides, but the middle group is filled with those of us who want to get along."
The world too, has always had its Kath's, its Kim's and its Sharon's.
Out of all of Szubanski's characters, it is surely the second-best friend of Kim Craig, Sharon Strzelecki, the netball mad girl/woman with the pudding bowl haircut who is her most beloved creation.
There is a touch of the sad clown about Sharon, born perhaps of Szubanski's own Eastern European background, and the birthplace of this particular performance archetype.
For her part, Szubanski says she is well aware of Sharon's vulnerability, and the duality of the character.
"Sharon is very funny, but she is also sad, and women tell me all the time how she gets to them.
"Some women tell me they can't watch her, that she is too bullied, too human I suppose."
Strzelecki is also Szubanski's favourite character, and she says that like Sharon's legions of fans, she too is drawn to her inherent sweetness. Those who know Szubanski well say she has the exact same quality _ and both women are very, very funny.
Kids are going to laugh their heads off reading Timmy the Ticked off Pony, and for Szubanski making kids escape reality was a huge motivator behind becoming a children's author.
It might seem like a dramatic departure from the more sombre tone of "Reckoning", but for Szubanski, the power of words to make children smile is something she well understands.
"I like to move from the dark to the light, and I am surrounded by children, nephews, kids of friends, I have a Goddaughter and I love the joy children bring to the world.
"And this takes me back to my roots a bit. When I was 19 and studying (Szubanski has a Bachelor of Arts in fine arts and philosophy) I worked at a women's refuge.
"I didn't have a lot of practical skills to offer them but we'd go on camp and I would tell the kids stories and read to them, and I loved the way words could help them get through what could be a bad time."
Szubanski well knows too, the power of laughter to do the same.
"I come from a Polish, Irish, Scottish background where a sense of humour is a survival tool.
"I can't tell you how many people have told me that Kath and Kim got them through a terrible time."
Perfect timing, then for another Szubanski offering in Timmy, when the whole world is anxious about the Corona Virus, and children, in particular, are worried about the world they are growing up in.
"I don't want to be glib about what's going on, I take it very seriously, but I also understand that comedy is very powerful.
"It's such a cliché that laughter is the best medicine, but it is, particularly for kids, they need that belly laugh, it helps boost the immune system, silliness, it really does.
"It's helped me in the past. You know, when I was doing Pixie Anne and I'd spend all day doing that laugh, I'd come back home in the best mood. Because it's that psychology of acting "as if" _ you know, your body doesn't know the difference.
Szubanski _ at the time of writing _ is self-isolating at home, or as she puts it taking herself out of the equation, simply because she can.
"I'm keeping myself out of circulation so I don't become someone who is a transmitter, I don't need to be out there, right now, so it's "Get out the way, Magda"!
"We've all seen what happened in Italy, we know it has a high spread rate, so it makes sense to me to stay home if you can.
"I can, I am lucky that I am writing at home at the moment and I understand not everyone has that option.
"So this is not a policy statement, it's just what I'm doing."
Szubanski says she is _ amongst all the panic and stockpiling _ heartened by the way so many people across the world are helping each other out, one way or another, as we all get used to this strange, new normal.
"I've seen so many acts of kindness, from local parish helping the homeless, people dropping letters in letterboxes in their streets, offering to help anyone who needs it."
She's even, she says, found inspiration in the Disney film Frozen 2.
"It's just so fitting for now, there's a line in the film, I think it's Anna who says it, and it's: "When you don't know what the outcome might be, all you can do is the next right thing".
"And that sounds about right to me, I think as long as we all keep doing the next right thing, we will get through this together".
There's not a trace of Pixie-Anne, or Chenille or Mary or Esme or Michelle. Sharon or even Anna in her words - they sound like 100 per cent Magda Szubanski.
Originally published as Comedian Magda Szubanski turns children's book author