Kath & Kim: articles

Look at her, look at her!

Gina Riley has stepped out of the bumsters; wiggled free of the diamante G-string; and chucked away the clacky mules that help to make her latest television creation, the suburban princess Kim Day, such a hornbag.

It's football weather, wet and miserable; a meteorological ode to the sulky Kim; and Riley's dressed accordingly in a black leather jacket, dark rose-coloured shirt, blue jeans and black strapless shoes.

Riley leads our charge out of the cold and into the staff canteen at the ABC's Elsternwick studios, warning, "Gird your loins for the coffee here". She is tired but chats happily about her comeback from near professional disaster.

"I turned 40 about two weeks after the show had been cancelled and that was a bad time, let me tell you. I felt about 140," Riley says. "So, turning 41 has been great … It feels like we fought the fight and got the show that we wanted on air."

Riley's relishing her hard-won return to the top of the funny business with her co-star and co-writer Jane Turner and their long-time friends and collaborators Magda Szubanski and Glenn Robbins but, she says, taking it one show at a time.

Not only have the critics contentedly quaffed Kath & Kim's "fine whine" but the show's premiere did what few other new Australian comedies have done before it, coming second in the ratings and on a fiercely competitive Thursday night, too.

Kath Day (Jane Turner) is a 40-something, frizzy-permed, shoulder-padded "foxy lady" who is enjoying being an empty nester until her recently married daughter, Kim, flees her marital bed to return home to mum's place, mope and stuff her face.

As Kim, who is singularly determined to be a hornbag, not a housewife, Riley goes for the jocular with a pouting, whining, slump-shouldered performance that speaks "straight from the horse's arse" to the dippity-bix addicted princess in all of us.

"Quite a few people tell me, 'God I know a Kim'," Riley says. "It's never themselves." Szubanski plays Kim's second-best friend, Sharon, an injury-prone sports nut unlucky in love. Robbins is funnier still as Kath's new fiance and purveyor of fine meats, Kel Knight.

Proposing to Kath, Kel, who discovers Kath's unexplored crannies, carries a man-bag and has a passion for Barbra Streisand, delivers the immortal lines: "You know you rock my world Kath Day … In light of that, how would you like to turn Day into Knight."

Kath, assailed by confusing sexual signals as she prepares for Kel to make their beautiful relationship a mere formality, opines: "It's interesting Kim because I find sexuality a fluid thing." Kim retorts: "Keep your fluids to your self, mum."

One critic remarked favourably upon the characters' "sublime grossness", but Riley says that far from being vulgar stereotypes they're drawn with great affection. "We love the characters," she protests.

Riley previously made viewers laugh with her work on sketch comedies, including the hugely popular Fast Forward, its successor Full Frontal, Big Girls' Blouse, where Kath and Kim first appeared, and, most recently, the Olympics' satire The Games.

But she's worked harder, faster and in the face of much greater uncertainty on her new "fly-on-the-slice-of-life" series than ever before and is still at a loss to explain both why the show was cancelled and quite how Turner and herself managed to persevere in the face of it.

"It was odd actually the way we reacted to it because it was a very fractious time, but we just kept on writing," she says. "It was lawyers at 50 paces but we met everyday and just kept on writing. That was our sort of therapy."

Riley's a curious mix off-screen as well as on. Friendly and defensive. Modest and cocky. Carefree and fastidious. "Shoes are dirty. Don't get them in," she instructs our photographer good humouredly. "Airbrush them."

Her shoes are a tiny bit muddy. They're mules but not of the clacky variety. Her eyes shine brightly but cloud over quickly if she's asked anything that she considers too personal. She gives politics a very wide berth, too.

Riley's the youngest of three children; her father a psychiatrist; her mother a housewife interested in alternative education. She attended the Swinburne Community School in Hawthorn. At 15, she ran away with Birthday Party's bass player. Briefly.

She trained as a classical singer; joined St Martin's Youth Theatre, where she met Turner for the first time; co-hosted an ABC youth program with Richard Stubbs; set out to become a serious actor; then fell, or rather was dragged, into comedy.

As the story goes, Stubbs and Robbins pulled Riley up on to stage at The Last Laugh one night, telling her she'd have to overcome any prejudices she had about impersonating people or starve.

"I wanted a career in drama but nobody else wanted me in it," she says, laughing.

Riley's husband, Rick McKenna, now a Fox Footy Channel executive, ran Melbourne's Last Laugh in Smith Street for a decade, up until its move to Carlton in 1997. In hindsight, the early '90s appear to have been the heyday of Australian comedy.

"I really feel for people who are starting out in comedy now because not a lot is happening," Riley says. "A lot of the venues have closed down; there's not a lot happening on TV. We were just a little explosion that happened on TV."

Back living in Melbourne again after a few years in Sydney, Riley's in her element, spending time with her husband and five-year-old daughter, family and friends when not providing comic relief to the nation.

She admits that she does agonise occasionally over the meaning of her work, wondering if perhaps she's lost the plot and will anyone else get the jokes. But, professional angst aside, she's glided into her 40s untroubled.

For Riley, there was no midlife crisis, just a short-lived but passionate infatuation with Heath Ledger - "And I'm old enough to be his mother" - which colleagues thoughtfully indulged by pinning photos of him up here, there and everywhere.

She says she'd love to do a second series of Kath & Kim and would kill to work with her Games co-star, John Clarke, again.

"They're just my little, small goals," she says. "And, of course, the big movie role - always around the corner."

By Fergus Shiel
May 24, 2002
The Age