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Has anyone seen the Manic Mothers?


Sue Bell, <em>Manic Mothers Poster</em>, 1991. Photo credit: Kalinda Vary

un Magazine got in touch with me to see if I’d write a piece on humour for this humorous issue. They asked me because I’m a woman, and I make performance-based work which always seems to have a humorous twist to it, somewhere. For instance, with my West Space show last year, I had people tell me at the opening, and after, ‘funny work, Kalinda’ — one too many times, to be honest. I burst out crying, sobbing ‘it’s the saddest work I’ve ever made!’ Make of that what you will, un wanted some femme voices represented in this issue, because the expressions of interest had been largely male. They wanted funny, accessible, female-orientated …

I got thinking. (I had to: I’d said yes to the article) … Women, in art, in performance art, feminists, women at the intersection of feminism and humour = easily disappeared from history.

And I remembered a CD I’d found a few years back in a south-side op-shop, titled by a pair of women named the Manic Mothers. From what I can tell by listening to the CD they seemed to be sitting at the intersection of a bunch of genres and movements: feminism surely, performance art, folk music, DIY, stand-up comedy, protest-art and motherhood. I had never heard of them before and the Internet was bearing no results either.1 In fact, to listen to the CD I had to sit in a friend’s idling car — who even has a CD player anymore?

Manic Mothers, found CD, 2017. Image credit: Kalinda Vary

I got to talking about this CD with Dad, who also remembers them. He described them to me as ‘ … the flavour of the month, for a couple of years … ’. He put me in touch with his old pal, beach-side resident and now-retired journalist Olga Spooner. And, over a few months, we exchanged telephone calls and met for coffees while she dug deep through her sandy memory banks to bring to life the back-story to the Manic Mothers’ CD that I own. I have collaged together these anecdotes, to give a narrative and to create a sense of what it was like at one of the Manic Mothers’ shows.

Though fact-checking is tricky when the only evidence you have is hearsay and memory.

Olga, working for The Age at the time, recalls encountering the Manic Mothers back in 1992, out at Craigieburn Station. Spooner begins with ‘don’t ask me what I was doing there: look, let’s just say, I was on another story’. She describes two women singing full-bore at seven in the morning, the taller one stopping a pram with her foot (presumably to prevent it from rolling down the platform and off the side), while she sang, guarding a sleeping infant. ‘I only caught one song before I caught the train. Hmm, perhaps they only had one song … who knows. I remember as the train pulled in, some bloke, bravely shouted “Go home” as he boarded. I caught some of the lyrics as the people packed into the carriage, “…if they leave it to the women, there’ll be no more wars … it’s power and aggression, that really is the cause….” it struck me (pardon the pun) they were singing about domestic violence.’

Manic Mothers with ironing board and Kylie & Jason’s breakup in <em>TV Week</em>

Manic Mothers’ first album cover: <em>Now Playing at a Kitchen Near You</em>

Olga told me that after this strange encounter at the station she decided to investigate the singing pair. Something had stuck with her, the dichotomy of the lyrics to the song — and their outfits, which she recalls involved magenta coloured lycra leggings, and aprons … a little funny perhaps?

Of course Olga has always been this way: investigating creatives who are making work outside the parameters of mainstream structures, she knows that’s where you find the stories. Plus, as a female journo in the 1970s–1980s, you had to fight hard for your turf. The blokes just weren’t interested in these voices. Asking around it turned out few of her colleagues (more from the comedy side of performative practice than contemporary art side) had seen them perform. Dave said he’d seen them at Moorabbin Town Hall, Jane crossed paths with them in the 3AW lobby and Scotty saw them perform at a Greek cultural day.2

It also turns out the Manic Mothers performed all over in the late 1980s through the early 1990s. Some of the places they performed (that I know about) were at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, they did a stint at La Mama, Adelaide Fringe, Melbourne International Comedy Festival a few years in a row, and the Brisbane Expo in 1988. They were also featured on 3AW, Radio National’s Life Matters, the 7:30 Report and A Current Affair, as well as performing at Community Health Centres, Political luncheons, train stations and kitchens near you. They also each had several children under the age of five.

The scene Scotty described was hilarious. It was at a community health centre and it was a special event for (mostly) elderly Greek women who were living pretty isolated lives. Seated on their walkers or on chairs, whiskery chins and styro cups of tea they watched, as two women, with nappies on their heads entered the ‘stage’ (actually the space between the tea urn and the toilet). Pushing a trolley full of stuff, and each wrapped in an apron they looked certifiable. Emblazoned in rainbow lettering across their breasts read the words: ‘MANIC MOTHER’ The taller one pushed back her hair revealing a pair of dummies hanging from her lobes and pulled a guitar from the trolley, the other Manic Mother pulled on a pair of oversized, swollen, purple breasts which hung heavy over her belly, quivering like jelly, quaking with embarrassment.

… I’ve
            those TIRED in the morning,
TIRED in the evening,
TIRED all the day long … ..
(the Manic Mothers were singing. LOUDLY)
            … blu-u-u-ueeees

Wash the baby, feed the baby, change the baby, feed the kids,
        do the washing do the ironing, wipe the baby, feed the kids

(the song is starting to speed up) the shorter woman, Barb, was starting to get crazy, clopping plates together while exhaling the mantra:

Wash the baby, feed the baby, change the baby

Jenni, the more sensible one, was going for it too, whirling her head around like a washing machine.

… feed the kids

A woman is purposely beelining her walker towards the Manic Mothers

… do the washing do the ironing, wipe the baby, feed the kids

Shit! thought Scotty, this woman is going straight for them!
Was this γιαγιά offended by the truths the Mothers were singing? (it’s like pregnancy for instance: where you just don’t talk about the agony of childbirth.)
Making the Manic Mothers the exposé of motherhood!
(she was going right at them. she was short this γιαγιά, life had shrunk her down to size. Her head, a cannonball of purpose — chugging through the grannies — was eyeballing Jenni’s groin)

Wash the baby, feed the baby …

… that rrrevved-up Red walker …

… change the baby feed the kids,
        do the washing do the ironing, wipe the baby, feed the kids.

Manic Mothers as Beauty Queens, (<em>The Herald</em>, 11 July 1990)

Right between Barb and Jenni — still jiggling and strumming, this γιαγιά-and-walker took a sharp right, nudging her way into the toilet. Barb and Jenni more or less finished on the same note, and everyone more or less clapped.

Truth be told for a lot of these elderly women, if you said female entertainer, they thought sex worker. They didn’t have much of a concept of watching a musical comedy duo from Frankston-way. Unfazed, the Manic Mothers launched into their incontinence routine which was a little dance — squeeze and sneeze and cross and cough. The beautiful thing about this performance was the laughter coming in three waves: the women were responding to the visual gag, they were laughing at the verbal gag and a third ripple of laughter would come through with the Greek translation.

At the end of the incontinence routine a woman stood up from her chair (which she had pinched from Barb, effectively seating herself on ‘stage’) and announced ‘I have just laughed so hard I have pissed myself!’ to another round of good-natured and understanding laughter. Humour, after all, is largely context.

Dave hated them. Which Olga expected.

Back in 1990 Dave was still taking lots of ecstasy and speed and (in his words) ‘gathering material’ i.e. banging chicks and getting high. In his mind, if he slept in the same bed two nights in a row, he wasn’t working hard enough. Dave was one of those comedians who hung everything off his dick. His jokes, his relationships, his toast. So, you can imagine his humour. Zoë Coombs Marr describes Dave as a ‘sexist, beer-swilling caricature of the dregs of masculinity, a douchebag with a neckbeard’.3 Poor Dave, after heading to France to Philippe Gaulier4 clown school to expand his comedy practice, he encountered what can only be described as an ‘identity crisis’. At this revered mime school he unlocked his inner clown … and SHE just wouldn’t let him get away with anything anymore! Turns out, Dave’s inner clown was an angry feminist (feminism: the stuff of true comedy impotence). Turns out, she was inside of Dave all along.

Dave The Schlong was an angry feminist (ultimate karma, really).

The Manic Mothers were performing at the Moorabbin Town Hall — comedy for the suburbs.

(If we’re measuring eyebrow positioning, this one’s set to frowning). Unfortunately for the Manic Mothers, when he saw them perform, Dave wasn’t yet an angry feminist, he was still a self-entitled bloke comedian:

… I mean, who wants to watch a pair of women, who, let’s face it, should be watching their weight, stand-onstage, using gratuitous nudity for laughs [here Dave must be referring to the ironing board prop the Manic Mothers used, depicting Michelangelo’s David. Unless he was confused by the Manic Mothers’ purple strap-on breasts, thinking they were real?] … I mean, these women get so worked up their breasts start leaking, and their children, who are basically there as a rent-a-crowd, start wailing with embarrassment! I mean, I thought COMEDY meant LAUGHTER, not tears. But then who knows in this flipped-up woman-fest world.

Olga saw the Manic Mothers performing properly at a fundraiser/community day for newly arrived refugees. All women.

She has since talked about this performance with Barb from the duo, who describes it as ‘…the worst gig we ever played. We performed for an hour. TOTAL silence. Not a single laugh once. It felt like ten hours. We usually get a few giggles, in a couple of spots — there’s a couple of sure-spots in the material: armpit-zones we call them.’

It was dead silence. While the audience seemed attentive, they were also completely silent.

Have you ever been to a comedy show where no one laughs at all?

Even when Barb surprised everyone, including Jenni, by starting to strip her clothes off, mouthing to Jenni, TRUST ME, to reveal a skintight leotard over her plump body. Well, actually, we think that’s what she was trying to reveal. A little hard to tell because she got stuck, her pants were caught over her shoes and she was rolling around on the floor like an overweight infant. To look at, Barb had legs and then she had pants. It looked like she had leg-extensions; she couldn’t reach her ankles because her giant fake boobs were blocking her bends. She tugged at her legs, moaning, shrieking, tugging, rolling-pinning the floor. This ridiculous slapstick lasted at least five minutes. Jenni, the straight one, was in hysterics.

But the room was seriously quiet.

‘Fascinatingly awkward’, Olga Spooner decided to investigate the audience: get this, they loved it. They could relate to the exhaustion of motherhood, the ridiculousness of the repetition of chores, the silliness that goes with the inanity of not having another adult to speak to throughout the day. They were just collectively shy. Used to not being allowed the space in front of themselves, this audience could only laugh in secret.

Jane Turner remembers them well.5 Olga got her to recount this story over coffee at Neapoli (she was excited to hear about this article, and said she wanted to contribute). Jane recalls that she ran into the Manic Mothers in the 3AW tearoom. She was there to audition for a co-hosting slot with two other wacky comedians:

The ‘Mothers had just been live on radio where one of the interviewers asked, ‘so, how do your husbands feel about letting you do this?’ The Manic Mothers were somewhat speechless over this (totally inappropriate for radio). In the tearoom afterwards, Jenni was breastfeeding her infant baby Jason and Barb was making a herbal tea.6 They were trying to decompress, calm down (tricky when you’re a manic mother). It was on the brink of election time, and along with Jane, Jenni, Barb and baby, came a bunch of heavyweight blokes into the tea room.
Three actual heavies. Official bodyguards.
            Legs spread, triangle stance. One of them demanded ‘What are you doing?’ (directed at Jenni feeding the baby).
            (Barb butts in) ‘Making a cup of tea.’
            ‘WELL…’ arm sweeps his jacket to the side, revealing a gun in a holster ‘…You will have to go somewhere else. You can’t be doing that here. Andrew Peacock is coming through.’
Barb spat out her tea, laughing. The baby too detached from Jenni’s nipple, lolled his head to the side and vomited on the floor.
            Jenni meanwhile flapped her (real) breast at the bodyguards.
            ‘What are you going to do, shoot us? We’re at 3AW!’
            And that’s it, they were on 3AW and many other unexpected places.
            There’s just no record of it.

These days Barb has a ton of grandchildren, which she is constantly hassled to babysit. Barb believes in grandparents’ rights so she, having split from her partner, travels around Australia for three months each year, ditching the grandkids, calling in and staying with friends all over the place. She would have put her house on Airbnb but she can never get it tidy or clean enough. She has tried growing her own food but one ear of corn and some dried up beans indicates her uselessness in the garden. She used to have a dog but now has a striped bandicoot as a pet and is active in the Native Animals Natural Pets movement. She became very interested in the yarn bombing movement but learnt very early that her Home Economics teacher was right: her knitting was a tangled mess of holes and wool with barely a reference to knitting … Barb has joined an art class, and while the other students paint landscapes, she paints pictures about the emotional journey of living with arthritic pain.

Jenni’s whereabouts are unconfirmed. Likewise her two children, Kylie and Jason, were uncontactable. Jenni seems to have disappeared into suburbia as a librarian, shelved somewhere on a regional library bookshelf.

Kalinda Vary’s practice is an ad-hoc technique which employs tricks such as humour, elements of the bathetic and a philosophy of failure cobbled together to deconstruct vulnerability and power, humiliation, the constraints of language and the problems with representations of identity. Using a variety of mediums: video, performance, photography, sculpture and painting … (and now writing!) etc., more info at kalindavary.com

Dedicated to my mum (who is also a person), and Sue, who is also a mum.

1. As an aside I’d like to briefly complain about a website I signed up to, newspapers.com, where you get one-week free trial. They then charge you $94 for the access to scanned newspapers from the past. To be fair, I did find two articles on the Manic Mothers, and I am sure you could find many other articles on many fascinating topics of the past.
2. Scotty aka Denise Scott (a very successful stand-up comedian who has made a lifetime of jokes about motherhood and being a woman).
3. Harriet Gibsone, ‘Zoe Coombs-Marr: It’s a Sexist World, Comedy Just Reflects It’, The Guardian, 25 August 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/aug/25/zoe-coombs-marr-its-a-sexist-world-dave-uderbelly-edinburgh-fringe: accessed 7 September 2017.
4. ‘Gaulier’s methodology of teaching is designed to allow the student to discover his own beauty and the pleasure of being on stage. For example, with the clown, he helps students uncover their own clown. There are philosophical principles involved, but his training is not mired in technicalities, “I don’t teach a special style; what I teach more is a wonderful spirit. People have to find a way of being beautiful and surprising.” By beauty he means “anyone in the grip of pleasure or freedom”’ (Wikipedia, of course).
5. You do know her, she’s Kath in Kath and Kim.
6. It’s probably important to know Barb is a hippie.