Kath & Kim: articles

Kel and Kath

Robbins' Kel Knight trips the light fandango with Jane Turner's Kath Day

The laugh's on him

Glenn Robbins returns this week as Kath & Kim's Kel Knight. Debi Enker meets the man behind the character.

Gina Riley and Magda Szubanski are sitting in a pub in Port Melbourne laughing appreciatively. Towards the end of a cold afternoon in June, they've completed their scenes for episode four of the eagerly anticipated second series of Kath & Kim. Now they're perched among the 20 extras at Molly Bloom's watching their co-stars, Jane Turner and Glenn Robbins, doing some silly dancing.

Kel Knight (Robbins), a proud purveyor of fine meats, and his foxy lady, Kath Day-Knight (Turner), are "tripping the light fandango", executing their own rendition of Riverdancing, and the results are predictably hilarious. Typically oblivious to the ridiculousness of their appearance, the permed blonde suburban mother with a fondness for shoulder pads and her adoring "hunk o' spunk" hubby are having a fine time. In their own eyes, they're the Fred and Ginger of Fountain Lakes: in love, in sync and in step with each other, even if they're out of step with the rest of the world.

This isn't the first time that Turner and Robbins have danced together. In the early '90s, on the sketch comedy show, Fast Forward, they had just as much fun playing Les Larby and Margaret Bland, shining stars of the Les Larby School of Dance. A decade back, the moves were different but their characters were equally earnest and blithely unaware of how absurd they looked.

It was on Fast Forward that the character of Kath first came into focus for Turner, as a woman giving a speech at a 21st birthday party. Robbins played the bloke who introduced her. Turner says she has always enjoyed "mucking around" with Robbins, ever since the early '80s when they met on Melbourne's comedy club circuit. A fertile breeding ground for talent, the clubs offered an opportunity for many of the performers who would go on to work on the D-Generation, Fast Forward and The Comedy Company.

Robbins was the only person that Turner and Riley, her writing partner and co-producer on Kath & Kim, ever considered to play Kel. "I don't think that anyone else could," says Turner. "He'd be a different character. Glenn can nail that Aussie bloke without being stereotypical, without being broad-brush. He's quite subtle, but at the same time, hilarious.

"He has a real fluidity in his movements. He's loose-limbed, he swings his legs around, they're like rubber. Even though he does stupid dancing, he's actually very coordinated. But it's also in the attitude: Kath and Kel take it all so seriously. They think that they look like the biggest spunks."

There's an ease that comes from working together on and off for years, a sense of operating on the same wavelength. Turner says that Robbins fits right into the compact Kath & Kim team because "He doesn't mind looking completely ridiculous and revolting. We all have to forget about looking nice and he has no vanity. The worse he looks, the happier he is as Kel." Turner also observes that one of the things that viewers love about Kel is that "he's not embarrassed about himself. He's happy in who he is".

Robbins shares that assessment of his serially dumped-at-the-altar but now blissfully betrothed butcher. "Kel wears his heart on his sleeve," says Robbins with affection. "He's had a rough past, he's pretty sensitive. He has a charm about him and a warmth. He's got confidence, but not an arrogance. And he loves his life. I think he's probably got the life that a lot of people would like: to be happy in a relationship and happy in their work."

In Kel's confidence Robbins finds a trait common to a number of his characters, from The Comedy Company's cheerfully doddering Uncle Arthur to All Aussie Adventures' inept bushie, Russell Coight. Many of his characters exhibit a benign confidence that Robbins is happy to undermine.

Since he made the transition to television from the comedy circuit in the mid-'80s, 45-year-old Robbins, who trained as a drama teacher, has developed a gallery of gently wacky characters. After appearing in Just Jeans ads, and being an extra in Skyways and Carson's Law, he first appeared on TV as a character he'd created on Daryl Somers' short-lived Tonight show in 1982. He played a guy who conducted his exercise regime in inappropriate places. From there, he became part of the team on Seven's sketch comedy, The Eleventh Hour, which subsequently grew into Ten's phenomenally successful The Comedy Company.

Demonstrating what was to become a trademark facility for moving with ease between performing groups, Robbins then worked as a writer-performer on Seven's Fast Forward. With Michael Veitch, he played half of a pair of hopeless losers out to woo women, as well a founding member of the Wiz Bang Theatre Company.

Ted Emery, one of the country's leading comedy directors, who worked on Fast Forward and has directed both seasons of Kath & Kim, still laughs when he recalls Robbins and Veitch's amateur theatre guys: "They were teaching kids theatre but they obviously had a sexuality problem that wasn't supposed to be evident. They were in front of school kids bouncing around in green tights."

Since then, Robbins has worked as a writer, performer or script editor on the sketch shows Full Frontal, Jimeoin, Eric, The Russell Gilbert Show and Something Stupid. He moved briefly beyond the small screen to play an estranged husband in 2001's acclaimed Lantana. Following a cameo role as a party guest in Frontline, he went on to be a regular with Working Dog when the Frontline alum came up with the idea for The Panel.

"Glenn was someone that we saw as essential," recalls The Panel's regular host, Tom Gleisner. "It wasn't like we set the show up and then recruited Glenn: we developed the show with him." Gleisner is clear on why Robbins was seen as an integral member of the team: "Glenn is warm, very funny and a genuine conversationalist.

"We knew that he was interesting and interested in life around him. It wasn't about getting a bunch of comedians with the ability to say funny things. None of them would have had the warmth or the charm that Glenn has. And he doesn't ever attempt to be the centre of attention like some sort of smart-arse comedian dropping one-liners. That's not his style at all."

When Gleisner started playing with an idea for a new character, a spoof of Aussie bush blokes, he knew Robbins was his man. "He embraced the idea. I don't know what I would have done had Glenn been otherwise engaged. I'm not sure that I would have gone much further with it."

Gleisner and Robbins have now collaborated on two seasons of All Aussie Adventures with Russell Coight and are currently deciding whether the character can sustain a third. Network Ten has expressed interest in another round of Adventures, but Gleisner and Robbins won't go ahead until they're sure the new season can be something more than more of the same. "We'll sit down and talk about it and we'll put everything up and we'll see what floats," says Robbins. "And if nothing floats, that's fine."

Whether or not Russell Coight is destined to accidentally torch more bits of the bush or terrorise more unsuspecting animals, Robbins sees in the outback adventurer a glimmer of the same kind of conviction that marks Kel Knight. "I enjoy doing characters that have a confidence about them because I like to see people trip when they've got an air about them, that they're just a little bit too confident.

"Uncle Arthur was overly inquisitive. Russell Coight is an idiot but he has a really high opinion of himself, verging on arrogance. He was actually a lot more arrogant: he was a bit of an arsehole, but we pegged him back a bit. Kel's different again: he has a sort of innocence about him."

But Robbins doesn't like to intellectualise too much about his comedy. "I don't try to analyse it too much. I sort of just do it. If I understand it, it kind of takes me away from the character and I try to stay in the characters' worlds. You get your best stuff when it comes to you naturally. That's why I don't tend to analyse it. Because then it becomes manufactured. Whereas when it comes from instinct, it's coming from the right place.

"I'm sure that there are people who do it very consciously and who manufacture it and they're very successful, but it doesn't seem to work for me. I respond to things emotionally more than intellectually. If I intellectualise it, it seems to fracture it for me. I can understand it, but it doesn't help me in any way."

Turner and Riley share Robbins' suck-it-and-see approach to making comedy while Emery says that it's important to create an environment on set where actors feel free and secure enough to play around. "You've got to have an atmosphere where people like Glenn can do their best work. Fundamentally he's a shy guy. He won't say anything unless you ask him. What we've done over the years is I've welcomed him coming up to me and saying 'Do you mind if I, ah, just ask you a very little … ?'"

Emery likens the process on set to mucking around in a sandbox: "You've got to have a bit of a play. You have to find the time to do it because it could be comedy gold. You don't want the cast feeling flat. And Glenn will contribute enormously. He loves playing in the sandbox."

After watching Robbins at work for years, Emery observes, "Glenn is Glenn, no matter what you put him in. His range is not huge, but what he does he does so well because he's got tremendous timing and he's so easy to work with. That's the key to the guy. He's got great comedy instincts. He'll ask 'What do you want me to do?', and he'll do it. Within his range, he'll find the thing that you're after and he'll just keep trying it out on you. He's not precious in any sense. He'll try again and again. But all the time he'll know how big it's got to be in terms of the ensemble."

People who have worked with Robbins say he's a natural collaborator, someone who's happy to be part of an ensemble without feeling the need to be front and centre. The least flattering remark came from an unnamed source who said with a chuckle that Robbins could be clumsy: on a set, he'd be the guy who'd mistakenly back into something, or pick up a prop to have a fiddle with it and break it.

Robbins says that he likes working as part of a team and that might be one of the reasons he gave up the more solitary life of a stand-up comedian. He enjoys the interplay and the feedback, but it depends on the group. "It's important to put yourself in an environment where there's no hidden agenda," he says. "Where there's no competition, no sense of threat, where you're all there for the right reasons. Sometimes you work in situations where, if you get a laugh, other people are threatened by it."

He says that working with "the girls" on Kath & Kim is the antithesis of that cut-throat comedy culture. Here, he says, there are the crucial qualities of trust and confidence. "They're completely supportive. Therefore you take risks because you know that we're all in it together. We've been around each other for a long time, it's not a proving ground. We're doing it because we enjoy it.

"Naturally you want the feedback that what you did was good, that what you're doing is appropriate, you want to make sure that you're bringing a plate to the party. The girls are a wonderful audience. They look at you and start laughing so that just gives you this swell of confidence, that you're doing it as they imagined and that's so gratifying.

"It sounds really pathetic to say all that stuff about how wonderful it is. You know when you read articles and people say 'Oh everyone gets on so well.' But we don't fight. There's healthy discussion about things, but that's good, not bad, and usually the conclusion of that is a better idea."

Robbins says that over the years he's learned to trust his instincts and that he's learned something about the beats and the rhythms of comedy, which he likens to making music. And while he's clearly honed his craft, there's also evidence that he's just naturally funny.

The Sunday Age's film critic, Tom Ryan, taught film studies at Melbourne State College in the late '70s when Robbins was training to be a teacher. He recalls that, while he was accustomed to being the one making the wise-cracks in class, "over the course of the term, I gradually became aware that Glenn—who always used to sit up the back—was using me as his straight man".

Robbins says that he never planned a career in comedy, it just sort of happened. Now, his aim is to keep going in the same spirit. " I hope that I continue to work on good ideas with good people. I'm not seduced by opportunities for prime-time or amounts of money. It has to feel right and you tend to gravitate back towards the same people because you have a track record and you trust them. If someone said to me 'Would you like to do your own half-hour weekly show by yourself on Sunday nights at 7.30 and take on 60 Minutes?' I'd go 'No thank you.'"

If anything, he worries a bit about over-exposure: "Over the last couple of years I've been doing Kath & Kim and Russell Coight and Lantana and The Panel. At what point is my head on television a bit too much? I don't mind if I don't do much else this year because I don't want to overdo it."

Given the calibre of teams that he's worked with in the past, it's unlikely that he'd find himself filling his weekdays with golf games for long. "He's wanted by people who put shows together," says Gleisner. "It's a testament to his talents. Glenn is generally at the top of anyone's list, and understandably."

The second series of Kath & Kim starts on Thursday at 8.30pm on the ABC.

By Debi Enker
September 11, 2003
The Age