Pizza: articles

Aiming to cheese

Paul Fenech, creator of the aggressive new SBS comedy series Pizza, is only 30, but already has a long, distinguished career in television behind him. Naturally, it all started with Mr Squiggle.

“I started sweeping floors at the ABC when I was about 17,” the Sydney film maker, actor and ex-janitor says. “And then I got a lucky break. I’ve got this great photo of me holding a ladder for the guy doing Mr Squiggle somewhere out in the bush€ “

Just like the puppet with a pencil for a nose, Fenech is fast becoming something of a local cultural institution. He has won Tropfest—Sydney’s most popular short-film festival—twice, including once as a woman. Suspecting the judges wouldn’t let him win a second time, he entered under a female pseudonym in 1998. Also in 1998, he wrote and directed a debut feature film, Somewhere in the Darkness, starring Leah Purcell and Robyn Loau. It was well-received at Slamdance, the Sundance fringe festival, even if it didn’t exactly set the box office ablaze.

Then, although tempted by Tinseltown’s siren song, Fenech decided to put his feature film-making career on hold and return to Aussie TV, which he describes as a much more preferable alternative. Specifically, he returned to SBS, where he’s now been working on and off as an executive producer for about three years.

Which brings us to Pizza, a nine-part comedy series in which Fenech stars. He also produced, wrote and directed the innovative experiment, which SBS is running in the timeslot that South Park blitzed last year.

Incidentally, Pizza is based on one of Fenech’s Tropfest shorts.

“It was the first one I made for Tropfest—Pizza Man,” Fenech says. “I’ve been making films for about 10 years and Pizza Man was this funny, hokey action comedy, but I realised it had the best success out of all the films that I’d sweated on. I came to realise it had legs.

“A few years ago I pitched it to SBS, and they wanted a comedy, so I did a pilot. And the ex-manager of production, David White, liked it, but he was a bit scared by it, so he wanted a second pilot. Then, when he died, it was approved.”

With its edgy, fast, unpredictable style, Pizza has some delicious moments. And perhaps it took the success of Cartman, Kyle and their South Park playmates before SBS was ready to adopt such a risky local production. Like South Park, Pizza comes with a blanket warning: “This program contains coarse language, violence, nudity, drug references and adult themes.”

Episode one, appropriately for SBS, is called Dangerous Pizza, and it’s one of the most sparkling debut instalments Australian TV has produced: odd and nasty, sure, but very funny.

Fenech plays Pauly, who works with Sleek the Elite (Paul Nakad) delivering pizzas for Bobo Gigliotti (Johnny Boxer). It’s a nifty premise, allowing story-lines to veer off, incorporating new directions and characters with each delivery. And, just like a Fat Pizza pizza (“they’re fat and they’re cheesy”), the ingredients are piled on thick and fast.

The first episode alone features Annalise Braakensiek, John Mangos, Maria Venuti, Bob Ellis, Alison Whyte, UFOs, a clutch of Elvis impersonators, a gaggle of KISS fans and a SWAT team. Down the track, look out for Barry Crocker, Kamahl, Margaret Pomeranz, Bernard King, Chris Murphy, Donna Gubbay, Lex Marinos and former cast members of the cell-bound soapie Prisoner. And that’s just the tip of the lettuce. (Iceberg lettuce, that is, something that’s far too sophisticated to find its way into Bobo’s kitchen.)

“I just wanted to do something pacey. A lot of Australian comedy is so slow. It annoys me when some people get a lot of money to make television, but it’s so formulaic: there’s the beginning, and the middle, and all the time you know exactly where it’s going to go.

“I wanted something that was full of surprises, a show where you couldn’t believe some of the stuff. I love surprises; to me as a viewer that’s the best turn-on. That’s stimulation, rather than the Valium effect of most television.

“Most comedy seems to be concept stuff, using scenarios with diametrically opposed characters and so on. But that’s just a lack of creativity. People are always searching for a new drama or comedy, but you just have to look out the window or read the paper. If you’ve got a sense of humor, it’s all out there. There are so many funny people in Australia.”

With all those cameo appearances, twisted story-lines and rapid editing, Pizza must have cost a lot of money.

“Well, I can’t tell you the exact budget, because then I’d have to kill you. But let’s just say it was so small that it wouldn’t buy you a small car. Luckily, I came up through lots of television positions, so I’ve got an appreciation for what works.”

In addition to his work at SBS and the ABC, Fenech has done time at Foxtel and Ten. “And I find that when you work cheaply you have an edge. If the budget’s too big, you waste your money on luxuries.”

For a low-budget production, Pizza looks surprisingly slick. On the other hand, after its strong debut the series suffers a few weak moments, including countless helpings of extra-mozzarella acting (which, at times, works perfectly) and a few try-hard twists. Fortunately, though, there’s always enough momentum to sustain interest, even for a target audience used to split-second jump cuts, speeding hand-held cameras and explosively paced action.

Fenech says Pizza is definitely of his generation. “We absorb stuff much more quickly now. So you don’t need two hours to establish something; you can simply do it with one image.”

So, light years removed from your generic Aussie sitcom (whether the execrable Dog’s Head Bay or the delightful Mother and Son), Pizza bounces along to a youth-driven rhythm that SBS, a touch incongruously, has supported wholeheartedly.

“I’ve been totally blown away by the creative freedom they’ve given me. Having been in TV so long, I realise what an amazing opportunity this is. Even at the ABC, who have the least to lose in terms of the material they air, they’re so safe it’s ridiculous.

“It’s a big leap for SBS to make something like this, so now they want to see how it goes. And I think they’ve been blown away by all the attention. It’s like they’re holding a Scratch Lotto ticket that says they’ve won 50 grand. They’re nervous, and aren’t quite sure what to do.”

Now, despite the scars on his head from his own pizza delivery days (seriously), Fenech will deliver again. If, that is, SBS makes a repeat order.

“It was the best thing I’ve worked on,” he says. “There’s a few series in it. Definitely.”

Within 30 minutes, or your money back.

Pizza is on SBS on Monday at 9pm.

By Sacha Molitorisz
April 20, 2000
The Age