‘Magical cats, Australiana, and felching’: A chat with Aunty Donna

Interview by Ivan Jankovic

With tickets to their Magical Dead Cat Tour now on sale, On Dit sat down with Aunty Donna’s Mark Bonnano to talk about the important things in life (but mainly comedy)

For Melbourne-based comedy trio Aunty Donna, a good rule of thumb is to always expect the unexpected. There are no depths to which they have not sunk, no heights to which they have not soared, no frontiers they have not braved in the name of a genuinely gut-busting laugh.

Though quickly becoming Australia’s premiere comedy export, Zachary Ruane, Broden Kelly, and Mark Bonnano have not forgotten what endeared them to millions of rabid fans when they began filming YouTube sketches in 2012: the impression that fewer fucks have ever been given by candidates for funniest blokes on the planet. Hey — 86 million combined views don’t lie.

The three met while studying performing arts at the University of Ballarat, and discovered they all share the same penchant for sight gags, absurdism, and an expertly deployed C-bomb — a dangerous brew, for sure. It’s hard to say where the best place to start is for the uninitiated because their projects are so eclectic and numerous. But if you really want to get all of their signature flavours in one scrumptious dish, you can’t go wrong with a bitta’ Christmas pud.

With tickets for their 2021 tour almost sold out, it’s safe to say that they’re no longer niche YouTube sensations — the challenge now, according to Mark, when we sat down for a Zoom chat, is to avoid resting on their laurels.

‘We don’t believe comedy should be written in a bubble. We do a lot of work to test material with audiences that we hope will be unkind. As we get more popular, that becomes a little bit harder… A lot of times people will laugh because we’ve already won them over.

‘That’s why we did the Edinburgh Fringe so much early in our careers. There are 4000 shows, and if yours isn’t great, people won’t laugh… We cultivated a very harsh audience early on, and I think that made us better performers.’

Everyone remembers their first Aunty Donna video like a demented first kiss — mine was in an English course about Australian culture, deconstructing their delightfully cringeworthy music video, ‘Chuffed’, through a critical theory lens. The thought of a bunch of tenacious undergrads furiously scribbling notes throughout this innocuous sketch left Mark both bemused and ‘terrified.’

But to suggest Aunty Donna are quintessentially Australian would not give them credit for the enormous overseas success they’ve cultivated. They pour their heart and soul into their humour, and a big part of it is coincidentally ‘dripping in Australiana.’ Mark chuckles recalling an online sketch about Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday with the disclaimer, ‘Apologies to our international audience.’

‘When I watched the Netflix show again, I’m surprised how many of the references are just for people who went to Ballarat University between 2009 and 2012. We often put those things in there just for us… we laughed, and no one told us to take it out.’

Their Netflix series, Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun, feels both like a culmination of their previous work and a promise of bigger and weirder things to come. First episode highlights include a talking, googly-eyed dishwasher, Family Feud (Aunty Donna style), and a very, very surprising not-quite guest appearance by a household-name comic. As for the Australianisms, they’re at their most obscure, which they make no apologies for.

‘In episode one there’s a parody of a footy show that screened only in Victoria… we talk about Aquila shoes, Four’n Twenty Pies, Eagle Boys Pizza… stuff that might even go over Australians’ heads.

‘We used to change our references when we performed overseas — like changing Coles to Tesco or something — but it felt disingenuous and we stopped it. We embrace being Aussie, but the fact we’ve got this Netflix show now I think reflects that there’s a wider audience for our humour.’

Bringing it all back home, I ask Mark what punters can expect from their Magical Dead Cat Tour, touring in Adelaide on 21 October and 11 December at the Thebarton Theatre: an abundance of new material along with their greatest hits. Perhaps heeding the advice of tour managers, they avoided calling it The Best and Worst of Aunty Donna — though ‘the worst’ in this case is more like a badge of honour.

But digressions aside — why ‘Magical Dead Cat’?

‘The Magical Dead Cat came from the panic and necessity of needing to name a tour… Magical has this beautiful quality to it and feels quite nice to say… Then you undercut that with dead, because it has such a heavy meaning to it… and cats have just been funny throughout all time.’

Mark says he looks forward to returning to the stage, craving the challenge of working a crowd, and learning what works and what most definitely doesn’t.

‘Everybody bombs and we are no exception to that. At our very first live show at Edinburgh, one of the festival executives told us you cannot do that sketch. It was about…’

Here, Mark, in rare form, is a little flustered, trying to hold back a mischievous smile.

‘Felching. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the term, but, ah… It’s fucked. Not to yuck anyone’s yum, though. I’ll let you look that up in your own time. It was about someone who thought they were told to felch everyone in the office, when they were actually just told to reach their KPIs by June. And it never really worked — for obvious reasons.

I ask him if he’s ever surprised which sketches really take off compared to others.

‘You never know. Sometimes you have an inkling, sometimes you get it wrong, and sometimes you’re blissfully surprised.

‘For example, the first video that did really well was a one-shot monologue called ‘Found Out I’m Gay.’ It always did well in the live show, but when we filmed it and watched the edit, I just knew this is a mistake… But we needed to make up time in the series it was part of, so we included it, and to this day I’m just shocked by the fact it took off. People really liked it and I have no idea why.’

Mark talks about the Netflix series unlike many other comics would, that is to say, not as if standing on a mountaintop, but as merely another step in a journey with no foreseeable ending. More than anything, it’s a sign of humility and not taking success for granted.

‘We want to make more TV, get into movies, and produce other comedians’ series. We recently produced a webseries called Hug the Sun which did really well. We want to use our platform to help other comedians get their projects off the ground.

‘We’re in a great position where we have so much more freedom than when we started, in terms of choosing when and where we want to perform. So hopefully there’s just more of that too. You’ll see more of our stuff as individuals as well, and the stuff that comes from the group is what we really, really want to do.’

Finally, I try to stop myself from asking the most clichéd of interview questions, but just couldn’t resist: what advice would Mark give to a young comic desperately searching for their own Netflix show while avoiding a career of miserable mediocrity in some cushy middle-management job (asking for a friend)?

‘Go and see as much comedy as possible until you believe you’re better than the people that you’re seeing. Immerse yourself in it, and eventually you’ll start to think you can do it, and truly believe your version of that is better.’

Adelaide University student magazine since 1932. Edited by Ivan Jankovic, Stasi Kapetanos, Isobel Moore, and Michelle Roylance. Get in touch: onditmag@gmail.com