Meshel Laurie: Life is Simple
Posted on 12 June 2013
Australia should be proud of its many women of character. We are a country whose men and women have nurtured the likes of Dame Raigh Roe, Australian of the Year 1977, who represented rural women around the world and set up Aboriginal girls schools; and Mavis Taylor who was named an Australian Living Treasure for her humanitarian work for the people of East Timor.
This preference for kind women of character can also be seen in our choice of female performers. Among all the pretty faces on TV we also want on screen people such as Denise Drysdale, Donate Life Ambassador; Claire Hooper, regular contributor to The Girls Standup events for Relationships Australia; and Meshel Laurie, a member of the Advisory Board of SISHA (South East Asia Investigations into Social and Humanitarian Activities), and recent nominee for the Queensland Premier’s Disaster Heroes Program, recognising her constant updating of information via Twitter during the 2011 flood crisis.
It’s no mistake these women are comedians. Comedy is all about acknowledging your humanity, since that is from where the best humour is derived. Even a fart joke takes out the sting of embarrassment from when we have all spread that scented joy. With acknowledgement comes the capacity to see others with greater empathy. Recently, I had the opportunity to correspond with Meshel Laurie about comedy, charity, and life.
Laurie was born in Toowoomba, Queensland. She has made numerous television appearances including Rove Live, Good News Week, Spicks and Specks, Can of Worms, and The Circle. She is now an announcer for Nova FM.
What attracted you to comedy?
I always say that making my mother laugh got me out of a lot of trouble. She’s a stewer, as she well knows. She can stay grumpy for a long time over one infraction, but I realised at about the age of 11 or 12 that once you made her laugh, she just feels silly returning to grumpiness. I find that to be true of people generally.
Although mum could turn grumpy into an Olympic sport, we are generally a family of laughers. My father is an extraordinary tease. People are often shocked at the way he teases me. For example, on the day I was going to shave my head for the Leukaemia Foundation, I was fretting about what my bald head would look like. He told me he expected it to look like a “dropped pie.” I thought it was hilarious. He raised me with jokes like that to have a thick skin and never take myself seriously. Invaluable attributes in my adult life and career.
What inspired you to turn comedy into a career?
I developed a love for standup comedy as a teenager watching The Big Gig on the ABC. I watched it, recorded it, then watched it over and over again. I didn’t realise at the time, but they were training videos for me. I wanted to be an actor since I was very young. One day a guy who ran a comedy club in Brisbane suggested I give standup a go. I thought it would be a fun thing to do once, just to say I did. I applied everything I’d learned about structure and nuance from Wendy Harmer, Richard Stubbs, Anthony Ackroyd, Rachel Berger, etc and found at the end of my 5 minute spot that it worked!
I was 20, and that one gig convinced me I could do it. So, I did another and another, and that was 18 years ago. I treated it very seriously in the beginning, studiously even. I sat at my desk for hours writing and rewriting. I rehearsed in my bedroom, I talked comedy day and night with other young comics, and I went to gigs whenever I wasn’t doing them. I was thrilled to discover that comedians, no matter how rudimentary, were given free admittance to gigs. I was in heaven and I was learning.
Your big splash in the comedy scene began with The Whore Whisperer: Confessions of a Madam. In this show you describe your time working as a brothel receptionist. Between standup comedy and brothel receptionist, you have been choosing unconventional and fringe employment. That’s the sort of thing poets, artists, and religious seekers tend to do. There’s a real craving for a wider view of the world. Could you say something about your chosen career path?
I have definitely always felt more comfortable in “fringe” environments. As a child I tended to seek out friendships with children whose families were quite unlike my own. My father is the same, and it drives my mother crazy. She has always sought a conventional life, like TV families, but unfortunately for her we have never provided her with one.
I have always found the corporate side of commercial radio grating. Luckily, Nova 100 in Melbourne is very accommodating of my problem, and very little is asked of me outside of the actual radio show. Other stations have tried to force me into a client-schmoozing role, which is impossible for me. The harder they tried to push me into it, the more ridiculous I behaved to get out of it. I’ve been known to hide in toilet cubicles for hours. Once I found myself in a staff meeting in Brisbane and I wanted to kill myself. Literally.
Again, I’m very lucky at the moment, to be working in an environment in which my social problems are accepted and worked around.
Working in brothels taught me that it is not my responsibility, right or mandate to save anyone. It is my joy and my opportunity to help those who genuinely seek help, but as the old adage goes, you can’t help those who won’t help themselves. Of course I met lots of women whose lives were troubled, and I was frustrated by how easy they would be to improve, in my opinion. Watching people I genuinely cared about continue destructive behaviours was very painful, and caused me to harden my heart for a time. I pursued the middle way though, as a result of my Buddhist study, and realised that the only behaviour I can control is my own. I can give, which is the right thing to do, but what the recipient does with it really is no concern of mine. I try now to assist wherever possible without expectations.
Things change when you go from being a private individual, struggling to get noticed, to a public figure whose every move may be analysed. How different is the current public Meshel from the old private Meshel?
I would say the current Meshel is actually more comfortable in her own skin than any former incarnation of Meshel! I am lucky that I found Buddhism along the way, which helps me to see myself in perspective. I am aware that I am not important in any real sense, I’m not paranoid about “losing it all”, or about anyone else eclipsing me. I’m aware of exactly how lucky I am to be a human being living in Australia, let alone any of the other privileges I’ve accumulated, so the odd nasty tweet or published misquote don’t upset me.
You were raised Catholic, but are now an active member of the Buddhist community. At some point having a connection with that community became of interest to you. What sparked your interest?
I never connected with Catholicism, which is my mother’s religion. I simply didn’t believe it.
I began reading books about Buddhism in my early 20s. I thought it would take up a lot of my brain space, which at the time I was putting into my work. I decided to put it on the back burner until I was older, more established and had more time. In the end though, it was a period of grief for a lost friend, fertility problems, and a very quiet patch in my career in my early thirties that lead me to more formal studies.
I was deeply depressed and knew that it was time to put every aspect of my life into perspective. It was genuinely time to find meaning in my life. Otherwise, I just didn’t know how I would be able to go on. What if everything I’d put into my career wasn’t going to pay off in the way I’d always assumed it would? What if I could never be a mother? What was the point in living at all?
I discovered around this time too, that my maternal Grandmother had committed suicide when my mother was a child. Buddhism helped me to understand why that was not what I wanted to do.
Buddhism has taught me that my life is not about what I get, but what I give.
Last year you moderated a question and answer session between the Dalai Lama and the young people of Australia. How did that go?
Of course meeting and assisting His Holiness the Dalai Lama was an indescribable experience. On paper, he sounds like a very complicated character. He is an elderly Tibetan monk, a refugee, and enemy number one of the Chinese Empire. He is also able to relate on all levels to all people, and offer simple and effective advice to Australian teenagers on issues like cyber-bullying and family discord. Fundamentally his advice is about disciplining one’s own mind, as the actions of others are beyond our control. It is our reaction to outside influences that is the source of our pain.
It is the time and care that His Holiness takes with others that is inspiring. On the day of our session he had risen at around 4am to meditate (in Canberra), gave a public teaching, met with political types about human rights abuses in Tibet, flew to Brisbane, met with the local Tibetan community, then joined us at 3pm. As he made his way through the crowd to the stage, he noticed a young woman in a wheelchair who had days left to live. He walked over to her, placed his hands on her face, looked deeply into her eyes and mumbled Tibetan prayers for a long time. It was incredibly moving. Her family and friends wept, but she only smiled as she held his gaze and accepted his blessings.
He blessed many people as he made his way through the crowd. Eventually it was my turn. I bowed deeply, my hands palms together, averting my gaze as is the custom. He held my face in his two hands, lifted my head to face him and blessed me. I thought I’d cry then, but I didn’t. I was energised and completely focussed on the job at hand, which was to sit at his side and assist him in understanding the young people’s questions.
The best thing about it all—the opportunity was a gift to me from the beautiful women at Karuna Hospice (end of life, support services) in Brisbane. I had contacted them some years before to offer my assistance in fundraising. Quite apart from meeting His Holiness, that phone call seeking an opportunity to give has brought me untold riches ever since.
You seem to be very drawn to the people and culture of South East Asia, so much so that you are on the advisory board for SISHA (South East Asia Investigations into Social and Humanitarian Activities) a non-religious, non-partisan and non-governmental organisation. What brought about this interest and concern?
I believe there is a great imbalance in terms of what we give and what we take from SE Asia. Children in particular are preyed upon by people from my country. SISHA is run by a wonderful Australian man called Steve Morrish. He is a former Victorian policeman who saw people being exploited and knew that he had the skills to help, so he moved his life to Cambodia and started his own NGO, which is no mean feat obviously.
He has no government funding from either Australia or Cambodia, but is used by the Cambodian government as a consultant regarding people smuggling and exploitation. He and his people personally train Cambodian police and lead raids. Amazing man. So it was really Steve’s commitment that inspired me to get involved.
I was able to visit Steve and the SISHA team in Phnom Penh about a year ago which was brilliant.
I find it interesting that you are now turning your attention to the issues we must face in our own country concerning the displacement, marginalisation, and mistreatment of peoples, whether it is due to race or gender preference. I read on your blog about your efforts to talk with the aboriginal community. Where do you think you will take these efforts?
The Aboriginal Community has long been a passion of mine. My best friend in primary school was Aboriginal, and through her and her family I became aware of racism in our community. I hadn’t noticed it until someone I loved was the victim.
Recently I decided it was time to turn my attention in that direction in a more focussed way. I am gathering a small group of co-conspirators around me, and we will be endeavouring to create a wider movement. We are beginning with Aboriginal comedians, because comedy is what we know, but also because it’s about confidence and being heard. I’m told that when one person from an Aboriginal community is seen to standup, as it were, be heard and valued, the whole community draws pride from it. What a wonderful idea!
Australian Aborigines have the oldest continuing tradition of storytelling in the world. Their culture gives them an advantage in learning to be great standup comedians.
Being a mother, a comedian, and a charity worker is a lot to balance. Where do you see your life going in the future?
I’d like to work for a great NGO one day, like the Hollows Foundation or Médecins Sans Frontières. When I’m really old though, I hope to get a job sweeping floors and cooking for a great monk. Perhaps the next incarnation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama!
To paraphrase His Holiness: life is simple, life is about kindness.
Peace and kindness,