If you’re a young Australian with internet access, you’ve probably known about Aunty Donna for a long time. The sketch comedy group, which has long been an institution of Australian comedy online, on-screen, and on-stage, is comprised of six members — composer Tom Armstrong, writer Sam Lingham, director Max Miller, and the writing/acting trio that is the face of Donna: Pantene model Zach Ruane, baritone icon Broden Kelly, and short king Mark Bonanno.
Though they’ve also had an international audience for several years, the Donna boys are now being re-introduced to the world on a bigger platform than ever before — their very own Netflix series, Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun, executive-produced by Scott Aukerman (Comedy Bang! Bang) and Ed Helms (The Office) along with the whole Donna team. While they’ve got a shiny new platform and a US-produced show, longtime fans will be pleased to know that the series doesn’t compromise on the Aunty Donna vibe at all — it’s as absurd, frenzied, and Australian as ever, plus there’s a cum joke in literally the first sketch.
Following the release of the series, Ivana Brehas spoke with Zach Ruane about cultural iconography, not taking yourself seriously, and Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).
Ivana Brehas: I can’t always relate to Australian content. A lot of times it feels self-consciously Australian in a way that doesn’t feel true, or it’s just deserts and kangaroos and things that don’t feel like my life — but as someone who grew up around the corner from Car City Ringwood, I felt so seen by House of Fun, so thank you for that.
Zach Ruane: Oh, thank you. That’s really fun. When you said that, the way you worded that — it’s so interesting, because I feel like ‘Car City Ringwood’ would’ve been cut if this had been an Australian production. The irony of that is pretty funny.
IB: I wanted to ask about that. Was US Netflix chill with the hyperspecificity?
ZR: So, so chill. I think there’s a couple of reasons — firstly, it was the biggest budget we’ve ever had, but for them, they’re making The Crown down the hall for $15 million an episode. You could make a lot of our show for one episode of The Crown, so to them, we probably weren’t that big of a thing to stress about. But I also think that’s the spirit of Netflix. You get to hour three of The Irishman and you can see that they’ve got an attitude of, “Let’s just trust the artist.” And they sow the seed wide — “Let’s give a lot of artists a go, and see what happens.” So, literally no notes on that front at all, which was crazy to me.
IB: And you feel like you would’ve gotten notes in Australia?
ZR: It really depends on who you’re working with, and where you’re working. We’ve worked a lot with Screen Australia, and they’re awesome. They’ve never given us anything. But there can definitely be producers anywhere that worry about broad appeal and about getting out to lots of different places, when the better goal is probably authenticity. Exactly what you said — stop trying to find and define your own culture as though it’s other. Just do it, be, and let that stuff seep through.
IB: It was strangely thrilling to see references to Aquila shoes on something that was going out to an international audience. Especially as an Australian — it must feel normal if you’re from, like, Brooklyn, to see Brooklyn everywhere.
ZR: Yeah, that’s a very good point. Our tour manager was born and raised in New York. He grew up in Greenwich Village, he lives in the Lower East now, he’s never not lived in Manhattan, and I remember trying to convey to him what New York was to us as Australians — that to him, this is just a city he’s lived in his whole life, but for us there’s an iconography to it. It exists beyond a physical space. I was like, “My girlfriend got the Greyhound bus into New York City and went straight to Greenwich Village because that’s what Bob Dylan did. Like, that’s our idea of it — we hear these stories.” And he was like, “Oh yeah, Bob Dylan. When I was about 12 or 13, we used to go to this bar in Greenwich Village, because they did Coca-Cola for fifty cents. It was the best place to get Coca-Cola in the whole of Greenwich Village. And there was this guy performing in the corner, and that was Bob Dylan.” [laughs] It was like, “Fuck off, man!”.
IB: That’s crazy.
ZR: But exactly that — like, they don’t even know what it means to have that. It’s so funny.
IB: So now that you’ve had this show made, and it’s kind of a ‘big break’ moment, you’ve all been really transparent about what it took to get there. You’ve been talking a lot on podcasts and doing commentary to share the details of how it was made, and how long it took. A lot of people are, in a very silly way, not inclined to reveal the secrets of their success. Is it a conscious decision to be that open?
ZR: In a way, yeah. We made a really conscious decision to not be that open in the early days — not so much ‘not be open’, but to do comedy instead. When we started out, we would do interviews and explain our thinking, but we realized that a) we’re not established enough to actually convey anything of value, and b) we’re comedians. We do comedy. We’re doing this interview to sell what we do, so we should just do what we do. So for most of our careers, up until maybe this promo period, when we’ve done interviews we’ve mostly just been funny. This time around we were like, “We’re gonna be doing a lot of interviews and press, so each time something comes along, let’s look at what they’re trying to do for their audience, and give them that.” I think that’s led to a bit of honesty. There’s a bit of, “We’re at a point in our careers where maybe we can convey something that’ll help a younger artist or person, so may as well put that out there.” I think we’re just open to that conversation now, and if someone asks a question we’ll answer it.
IB: Is that also the vibe with your production company, Haven’t You Done Well Productions? Trying to support up-and-coming art and comedy?
ZR: Yeah. We’re still in very early days with that production company — initially we set it up for our own productions, because we wanted ownership. There’s a structure in Australia where the production company tends to end up owning the concept. It makes sense if they had the idea, and sourced the writers and directors, but to us it never really made a lot of sense that production companies would come to artists, say “Hey, what’s your idea?”, help them get it off the ground and put it together, but then end up owning it. That never felt quite right to us.
So we did it for our own sake, to own our material, and then we thought, “Well, if we’re gonna start working with other people, we should do the same thing. We should create a structure, or try to move the industry in a way that artists end up owning their material when and if they can.” Netflix and networks like to own things, and we’re not gonna step into that space, but it doesn’t seem right that we would find someone that we really like, that we think is cool and we should help elevate, and then we end up owning their material. It just seems a bit wonky considering they’ve put the years into it. The main focus was to try and do that, and to do that with people at the point in their career where we were when people, I guess, tried to own our stuff.
IB: Going into House of Fun, did you set rules or creative parameters for yourselves about what you did and didn’t want to do with it?
ZR: The location was a pretty big one. That sandbox of a single location was done for practical reasons, initially, but it’s really emerged as a key component to a lot of what we do. From our first ever webseries, Rumpus Room, through to 1999 and Glennridge Secondary College, we’ve found that a single location has really, really helped us. The second big-budget thing we ever got was a pilot, and we were like, “Fuck yeah! We’ve finally got a budget — we can film wherever we want, and go wherever we want.” We were so excited because it meant, in the writers’ room, we were a lot less restricted — but then we found we were travelling half the time. We were in cars, we had to wait for lights to be set up and sets to get dressed. That degree of freedom in the writers’ room created a huge amount of restriction in the shoot, and when push comes to shove, that’s what people are seeing — they’re seeing the actors, and the moments captured on set.
We realized that the restriction of a single location on the writers’ room can have its challenges, but it frees up the set. We’re not waiting around, we shoot a lot faster, we’ve got more opportunities and time to play and improvise. That’s probably the biggest restriction we put on ourselves. But I remember we had this massive piece of paper on the wall which said ‘Us Fucking With A Netflix Show’ — like, that’s what we wanted it to be. We wanted it to feel like we were a group of naughty kids being given the keys to the kingdom, and not taking it too seriously. So, not too many rules — just “keep it to minimal locations” and “don’t be too rotten”, I guess.
IB: Were you able to sustain that when it came to the actual shoot, or was there a feeling of something being at stake because of the Netflix money?
ZR: It’s a constant battle. But I think when you’re a performer, you have to remind yourself constantly, “It’s my job to not take this seriously. It’s my job to have fun here.” We did a show — I think it was our third ever show, at the Comedy Festival, and we were in a weird venue, a tougher venue to sell — and we were so, so eager. We used to be four members, and we became three, and we’d basically made a commitment — the three that stayed had said, “We really wanna make this work.” We pushed ourselves so hard. We wanted to make the best show we’d ever made. We put more sketches in one hour than we’d ever done; we rehearsed more than we’d ever rehearsed. That was the show where we developed ‘Ellen’, which is a sketch in Big Ol’ House of Fun — it’s our tightest-written thing. Or at least our most-written thing. I wouldn’t say it’s tight. It’s very long. [laughs] We worked so, so hard, and then the first review we got was a two-star review. And it was really middling — it wasn’t even like, “That was bad,” or “That was too much,” it was like, “Eh, it was fine.”
We were so, so sad, and we got coffee on Lygon Street the night before one of the shows and talked about it, and out of that came a few things — we all have our own processes around how we handle reviews now. But the big thing that came out of it was the realization that even though this is our job, even though this is our vocation, even though this means everything to us, to the audience member, it’s about them escaping their job. It’s about them stepping away from those responsibilities, those fears, those pressures. And it’s our job, for that hour, for them to forget about everything. That’s the work that we do — it doesn’t matter how stressed I am, it doesn’t matter how much this means, the only way it will succeed is to put that aside. So you just have to ignore all the stuff that’s happening around you. You have to be messy and break things, and then just go up to the art director straight after and be like “I’m so sorry, what can I do, can I help you clean it up?” [laughs] You just have to switch that part of your brain off, I think. And thank God we got this when we did, because I don’t think we were as capable of doing that five years ago.
IB: Obviously, you’ve learned a lot from each experience that you’ve had. Coming out of House of Fun, what are the biggest things you’ve learned?
ZR: There is an appetite for the strange and absurd in Australia — a more broad, mainstream appetite for that style of comedy than I’d convinced myself was there. But when I say that now, I’m like, “Of course, the best comedy to come out of Australia has been weird and strange and off-the-wall.” There’s an appeal for it. We’ve cut through so much more than I thought we would. That’s probably the biggest thing — that people were on board. I think we thought it would be more divisive and smaller scale, but people have been really cool and positive. It’s been really lovely.
IB: There are moments in the show where it feels like the comedy is coming from the camera — like in the ‘clothes’ scene, where you have those weird shots. Are you expressing that in the script?
ZR: That’s a good question. Sometimes we’ll put it in the script. Aunty Donna isn’t just the three performers — there’s six members. There’s a musician [Tom Armstrong], there’s another writer [Sam Lingham], and our filmmaker, Max [Miller]. Max has been part of Aunty Donna from the start — everything we’ve ever made, he’s directed, so he just is part of the collaboration. It’s much more collaborative than I think people are used to.
So with something like ‘Clothes’ — it’s not based on, but is very similar to, a sketch in our first ever webseries, called Cresps. Max was filming it, and then when he presented the edit, he had done that stuff. He had chosen to shoot it odd, he had chosen to do these things. Max is a really quiet, chilled-out guy, so I never realized how funny he was until that moment, and I was like, “Oh, wow.” And from that moment, he’s always just played. On our lower-budget stuff, he often is the DP as well. It depends — sometimes we’ll write [camera directions] in, other times we know the type of sketch it is, and we’ll just have a conversation with him and say, “This is one of those sketches. We’re playing, and you play.” We want that environment where everyone’s bringing their weirdest, craziest stuff.
With House of Fun, we had a director of photography on it, because it was a union production in the US — Max wasn’t even allowed to touch the camera, because he wasn’t in that union. So he had to sit down and have these massive conversations with our DP about what he does, and showed him reference videos. Then it got to the point where the DP and the two operators were playing on set as well, and doing weird stuff. There’s a really weird sketch in Episode 5 where we get attacked by the Sandman, and Dan [Adlerstein], the DP, ended up just running at us with the camera. [laughs] He just made that choice. We were improvising, and he was just, like, feelin’ it, so he ran at us.
IB: Editing can also really make or break a comedy. What was the editing process like for House of Fun?
ZR: Again, because of the YouTube stuff, we’ve been working on a small scale for so long, and Max has edited everything we’ve done as well. And we’re always really involved — with YouTube, you can sit around and give direct notes around a monitor, as much as I think Max wants to kill us sometimes, ‘cause we’re like, “Cut a second from there.” That’s what we were used to, but we knew because of scale that we wouldn’t be able to do that. Also, again, union — we had to have someone who wasn’t Max. Otherwise, we’d have just had Max, our little one-man band, doing everything [laughs].
We got a guy named Santiago [Pedroza] — he learned how to edit under Abso Lutely, which is the Tim and Eric production company. I don’t know a lot about their process, but I think they don’t get traditionally trained editors — they get people in and train them in their own process, which is very much driven from the improv. Editing usually means you have a script next to you, and you kind of cut to the script, whereas they come from a place of improvising, finding the funniest moments, and forming something that way. So we had him in, and it was actually a real delight to get someone from the outside — especially someone who’s driven by improv rather than script. He was finding moments and drawing out things that we would’ve never included. And then it’s the very laborious, boring process of trial and error, and lots of notes. Initially it was all six of us in the room, and then we started to fold out and take shifts, because six episodes is a completely different beast.
IB: On editing — the ‘fashion montage’ immediately evoked Queer Eye for me. Was that intentional?
ZR: [laughs] No, I wouldn’t say that was a direct parody at all. It was just, like, the idea of a fashion montage. What’s really funny is, we were like, “Let’s do a sketch about a fashion montage,” and we had the idea that the first outfit that was tried on is perfect. So you think you’re gonna get the whole trying-on, but then we’re like, “Oh, it’s great,” and then we cut. I think we wrote that, and it was in the script, and then someone who hadn’t read it was like, “Oh my God, this is like a scene in Broad City.” And we were like “Oh. Yeah.” [laughs] We were so sad — it was one of the furthest something had gone before we clicked to it already existing. We were gonna throw out the whole sketch, but then we were able to revive it. We were so attached to that idea, but it was so good someone better than us had already done it years before.
IB: I think it was just my brain seeing the cameras in the cars — those angles!
ZR: Oh, of course! Yeah, particularly that GoPro kind of shot.
IB: So, for the readers who don’t know, can you please explain the connection between Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun and Twin Peaks: The Return?
ZR: [laughs] Um, I’m obsessed with it. Is there a particular reference? Like, there’s so many little references…
IB: Wait, really? I was just talking about the ‘got a light’ guy.
ZR: Oh my God, yes. Oh my God. Fuck. Yeah. Sure. Sorry, we did a sketch — a really not-great sketch, very funny people were in it — where I die and then my cousin…
IB: Maddy! I’ve seen this.
ZR: Yeah, so I’m obsessed with Twin Peaks. Okay, so… [laughs] I’ll tell the roundabout story. So, Broden has been obsessed with the idea of having Abraham Lincoln show up in a sketch. He’d been pitching it for maybe three years. He’d always been like, “And then Abraham Lincoln should come in!” and we were like, “Oh yeah, I don’t really get it but okay, it’s kind of funny.” We were travelling along, and he kept pitching it, and it finally made it into this sketch about ball games. We were like, “That’s pretty good,” but he’d been pushing. Like, this was his Sisyphean rock, rolling that up the hill, always trying to get it into sketches. And I could see that he was tired, but no-one else was gonna fight for that joke.
And then we had this casting meeting where the casting director was talking about all the different people that could be in stuff, and he was like, “Actually, in the role of Abraham Lincoln, I know a guy that looks exactly like him. He actually works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator,” and I was like, “Ah?” [laughs] And it turns out it’s the ‘got a light’ guy, from Episode 8 of the very iconic Twin Peaks: The Return — that incredible episode. I’m so glad I’m finally talking to a publication where the readers have seen it.
IB: We love it.
ZR: Oh, my God. And it was him! I was like, “Broden, I will take this mantle if it means getting to talk to the ‘got a light’ guy.” I was pushing so hard for him to be in it. At one point, our producer was like, “Maybe we could get someone from The Office, or someone with a social media following, or someone that Ed Helms knows,” and I was like, “No. We’re doing the ‘got a light’ guy.” [laughs] I pushed so hard, and it was so, so cool. I met him, and usually I’m really shy around people, but I just hung out with him the entire day. He talked a lot about Abraham Lincoln. Like, he talked so much about Abraham Lincoln, and then occasionally he would talk about working with David Lynch.
He was saying how David Lynch sat in the back of the car for the entire scene, and the only direction he gave was “Go slower.” Like, “That’s good, but go slower.” It was the wildest thing. I got a photo with him at the end of the shoot — this man dressed as Abraham Lincoln, the spitting image of Abraham Lincoln — and he was like, “Would you like me to pretend to crush your head?” And I was like, “Yes!” [laughs] So there’s a photo of me, painted entirely in blue, having my head crushed by Abraham Lincoln in the style of the ‘got a light’ guy. It’s my prized possession.
IB: Were you gonna say that there were other references to it in the show? Before I said ‘got a light’, you mentioned other references.
ZR: No, I was just generally speaking, ‘cause I slip in a lot of references, even just with tonal things. Sometimes I’ll make a choice that I think is really funny, but is just Lynchian. [laughs] It’s just weird and off-kilter, and the guys are like, “That’s not funny.” So I thought maybe you picked up on an energy.
IB: Well, I would say there’s that energy. So obviously David Lynch is an influence, but is there anyone else who’s not necessarily making comedy work that influences you guys?
ZR: Max studied filmmaking, and he definitely has filmmaking references. We do a sketch called Toy on our YouTube channel which is just super, super The Shining energy. We got as close to the music from The Shining as we could without getting in trouble. Max is always using those references — and I’m a big film nerd, as is Mark. This is probably broader than comedy, but I’m a big believer that you shouldn’t just reference your own genre, or your own art form. I think that’s how things get really stale. We all studied acting alongside musical theatre students, and there were certain musical theatre people who had never seen anything other than musical theatre. That’s the quickest path to becoming insular. So yeah, heaps of references. The opening of Episode 5 with Weird Al Yankovic is pretty directly taken from an Ed Wood executive-produced film called Orgy of the Dead. In ‘Midnight Snack’, there was definitely a bit of Babadook energy at the end. [laughs] Babadook’s a big influence there. I was talking to Max the other day, and we were saying how much we wanted to get more of that sort of heightened, arthouse horror tone into what we do — which is an uphill climb, to get that into a collaborative comedy thing. But it’s a good energy. So there’s, like, direct references, and then a lot of stuff creeps through. Sketch at its best feels like a tapestry. So there’s a lot in there. But also not. It’s also just goofy.
IB: What can you tell me about Hug the Sun?
ZR: We’re developing a number of projects, and Hug the Sun is one of them. Xavier Michelides and Ben Russell, a comedy duo from Melbourne, just came to us with an idea. They both grew up in Perth, and in their childhood there was a show on TV at like 5 in the morning which was basically just — a Christian group bought the airtime, and did this weird children’s entertainment, but they were sneaking Christian messages in. They basically wanted to take that concept, but instead of a Christian thing, it was like a cult. The idea that if you take these completely ludicrous, cult-like ideas, and try to sneak them into a children’s show, what would happen? That’s the general concept. The name of the religion is Oxtos. Everything that’s on-set we’ve filmed in Melbourne, but half the show is being filmed in Perth with some really exciting Perth comics. They’ve basically driven that half of the show. So, despite filming in the middle of COVID, and not being able to cross borders, we’ve made this Perth-Melbourne co-production that’s gonna be stitched together in the edit. It’s a bit of an experiment in COVID filmmaking. But it’s set in the ‘80s.
IB: So, what’s Aunty Donna’s role in it?
ZR: It’s our production company — Max helped out with the directing, but essentially, we’re just gonna own it all. We’re just doing it to own all the IP. We’re gonna steal everything from them. [laughs] No, just support. But Ben and Xave are as experienced as us — they’ve been around longer than us. So, not a lot. We’re in it, we make little cameos. We’ve helped match them up with the filmmakers, but they have their ears to the ground on great Perth talent, so they’ve recruited some really great Perth comics. We’re just facilitating.
IB: So, we’re a film publication, and it’s December. We’re probably going to be doing some kind of ‘Best of 2020’ list. I wanted to ask what your favourite things have been.
ZR: Oh, I love that. The best movie — I should double-check it’s from 2020, but the best movie by far is The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
IB: I think that might be… I don’t know.
ZR: It might be 2019… it’s 2019. Technically 2020 Australian release, but that’s the last film I saw. I loved that film. That’s, like, my favourite film of the last five years. But I’m trying to think of 2020… not much came out, hey? [laughs] I’ve watched a lot of old movies… Oh, best comedy was probably Pen15. Season two came out on Stan, and that was amazing. They strike a balance of comedy and drama where the only show that I think is comparable in terms of that balance is Bojack Horseman. So, it’s the best live-action I’ve ever seen. I love Pen15 — actually, that’s my overall big recommendation, ‘cause it’s not as big as it should be in Australia.
IB: Yeah, you’re like, the third person to tell me how good it is. I still haven’t seen it.
ZR: It’s amazing. I’m sure you’ve heard that the actors are like, 30, and they’re playing teenagers, and everyone else in the cast are teenagers — which makes you think that that’s gonna be the joke. And it kind of is for the first couple of episodes, but they’ve actually done as much as they can to make them look 13. It’s just really good, really well written. As a comedian, it’s almost intimidating that they can nail tone so well. I’m like, “Oh, no. I could never get the drama that balanced.” It’s really impressive. But I’ve also been returning to comfort shows and rewatching a lot of old things. I rewatched all of 30 Rock, I rewatched Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace — I think that’s the big thing with this year. I’ve just been going back to favourites.
IB: I rewatched all of Twin Peaks during lockdown for that exact reason.
ZR: Did you even watch the second half of the second season?
IB: The best part of the whole show? Of course I did.
ZR: I struggle so much with that bit. When they just start being really literal — they’re like, “What does BOB represent?” and there’s full scenes of, like, “BOB represents evil!”
IB: Those parts actually really inspire me as a writer, so…
ZR: Oh, I’m so sorry. [laughs] But how good’s The Return? Those last two episodes are just insane.
IB: Rewatching really reminded me that it’s one of the scariest and funniest things I’ve ever seen. The scene of the guy yelling, “WILSON, THIS IS WHAT WE DO IN THE FBI!” is so good.
ZR: That’s the thing I always come back to whenever I talk about Lynch. I think the two things that people forget are how funny he is — like, all the Dougie stuff, and Naomi Watts is so funny in it — but also, the tragedy. Watching it in real-time, I was like, “He’s really nailed the comedy, he’s really nailed the weird, obviously, but he hasn’t quite nailed the tragic side of it” — and then those final two episodes were like, “Oh, this has just been 16 hours of building to this sucker-punch.” It’s so good. I really wanna rewatch it. I want a cinema to do it as a big marathon.
IB: That feels like an Astor Theatre thing to do.
ZR: Hugely Astor Theatre thing. Or, I feel like the Lido would get behind something like that.
IB: Thank you again for being so generous with your time and answers — the show is lovely, and I’m happy to see something from Australia get such a good platform.
ZR: Oh, thank you. And genuinely, that ‘Australian culture’ comment was really kind, ‘cause I don’t think we think that way — I think we just reflect our lives — so it’s really nice to hear that. Thank you so much.
IB: Of course. Also, I was born in South Africa, so the ‘South African Sams’ skit was great. There were lots of moments throughout where I was able to… relate, I guess?
ZR: It’s a real testament to Netflix for letting us be so authentic in our voice. It’s one of those things where — it did cut through, but it was like, “If it doesn’t, if nothing comes of it beyond this season, it’s gonna be cool, because we got to make what we wanted to make.” It’s not like we’re gonna look at it and go, “Oh, I wish they hadn’t made us change this and that.” All you want to do is put out stuff that’s as honest to what it is you do as possible.
Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun is now streaming on Netflix.
Ivana Brehas is a writer and filmmaker living on Wathaurong land. She has written for Dazed, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She also makes lil videos. Contact her at http://www.ivanabrehas.com.