Comedian Tommy Little was a few weeks into what was going to be his biggest national tour to date when Australia’s Coronavirus lockdowns began in earnest. It was a sobering reality at what should have been one of the funniest and most full-on times in his life.
But while the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly nothing to laugh about, Little says it doesn’t mean this isn’t the right time to inject a little humour into our everyday lives.
“I think the oxymoronic part about this is that it's probably when we need comedy the most, and yet, we're not allowed to get together to do it,” he said.
“Obviously when people are going through hardships you need to be careful about what you are joking about.
“But in general at the moment, if you turn on the news and you turn on the radio it is wall-to-wall coronavirus and doom and gloom. And so I think now is absolutely the time to have a laugh.
“I got a message last night after The Project from a few people just saying 'Hey, I’ve had the sh*ttiest time, I'm going to lose my job, and I haven't laughed in a week, but tonight you made me laugh so much. Thank you.’
“Sometimes people have got a lot going on in their lives, and it’s nice for them just to forget it, even if it's just for a couple of seconds.
”As one of Australia’s most popular and prolific comedians right now, Little certainly knows a thing or two about generating laughs.
His current tour, I’ll See Myself Out, began with the 35-year-old adding a host of additional gigs to his first scheduled stop in Adelaide to cope with demand, before the coronavirus forced him to press pause on his upcoming dates.
“It was an awesome start to the tour,” Little said.
“Every show was full, and I was putting on extra shows most nights, it was great.
“From a very selfish and personal point of view, this is the biggest tour that I've done, and it started off with a bang. I really loved the show; it was feeling like it was all kind of building in exactly the right places and then someone’s just come and kicked the wheels out from under it.
“The main disappointment for me is I want to do the show. I'm really proud and want people to come out and have a laugh.
“But I also have other jobs, so I can survive (the tour being postponed). I feel bad for the poor casual staff that are working in these venues and comedy festivals. They don't necessarily have other jobs that they can slide into. It’s tough times.”
Little’s “other jobs” include his duties as a regular co-host and correspondent for primetime nightly news and comedy program The Project on Network Ten, and the national radio show he delivers every weekday with Carrie Bickmore on the Australian Hit Network.
For the last few years, Little has also been the host of the Just for Laughs stand-up series from the Sydney Opera House, filmed for the Comedy Channel in Australia.Not a bad effort for someone who describes himself as a comedian by default.
“The reason that I’m doing comedy is that I’m not qualified to do any other job,” he says with a typical self-depreciating laugh.
“I think I just failed at everything else. I wanted to do serious acting, and that was just a pathetic attempt at a career.“But when I was doing acting I met a comedian, and I was like, ‘I've thought about doing stand-up' and he hooked me up with a gig.
“And I just fell in love with it, and just did it flat out from then on. It’s all I’ll ever do, so this corona thing better clear up, or I'm absolutely f**ked... as we all are I guess,” he adds with a laugh.
“When there are people dying and I’m worried that I can't tell my dick jokes on stage... I'd better check my priorities.”Of course Little isn’t making light of the Coronavirus.
“I don't have any rules, but I just try and use my heart as a guide,” he said.
“It was only, what, a few weeks ago that this [pandemic] seemed a distant, distant thing and everybody was kind of joking about it and making light about it, me included, and I feel like it’s changed so quickly.
“And now, particularly when I can firsthand see people without work who are going to be facing a really sh*t time, you just use your emotions a bit to guide what you do and don't want to say.”
Having said that, Little does admit that he generally has a bit of a different view to most on what is and isn’t acceptable.
“Shocking people is funny, but also my yardstick for what I think is okay to say is way out,” he said.
“I asked Carrie's mum on air the other day if she'd rooted (singer and TV personality) Mark Holden and Carrie thought that was the most outrageous question.
“But it didn't even cross my mind as being outrageous because we were talking about him, and that's what I would ask any of my friends, and so I just asked it.
“I find the whole basis for measurement is all out of whack. Like on The Project I can't say the word f**k because they’re worried about kids seeing it, but then there is a news story about someone being raped and murdered.
“If we want kids not to see one of them, for me, saying f**k is a very trivial thing but showing a tragic loss of life or a crime committed against another human is much more traumatic. I understand that there's a role for the news to play in educating young people, but I don't understand why one of those things is allowed, and the other isn't.”
Nothing is off-limits at a Tommy Little live show either – his real-life antics and setbacks are foolish, funny as hell and, he admits, definitely his own fault.
He brings his tales to life with effortless charisma, high energy and a cheeky yet intimate connection with his audiences.
Little said his newest show, I’ll See Myself Out, will once again see him mine the comedy of his own life for the benefit of the audience.
“It's pretty strangely the opposite of what a lot of (comedy) shows are at the moment, which is where they talk about world issues and Trump and of course, corona,” he said.
“I'm an escape from all that shit, it’s just a show full of stories and a lot of them this year are you laughing at me, rather than with me.
“I think people are uncomfortable to say that, but that's exactly what it is and I'm okay with that – as long as you guys are having a good time I don’t give a sh*t if I come out with my dignity intact or not.
“There are a lot of comics who won't do any of that and will look to the news around them, but I just stuff up too much to not talk about it.
“And also I don't have any words of wisdom, I’m not going to teach anybody anything about the world, so I'd rather just tell you about the time that I accidentally Facetimed a girl on the toilet, things like that.
“It makes me laugh, and hopefully it makes the audience laugh too because either they’ve done it before or they haven't, and they can't imagine anyone would ever do it.”
While Little may not have set out to become a comedian originally, he grew up appreciating those who had mastered the art of telling a funny story.
“Richard Pryor is probably my favourite comedian,” he said.
“The way he tells stories and things just kind of blew my mind when I was young and saw it for the first time.
“I didn't know that was a thing that you could do. I assumed when I first heard him start talking that a band was going to come out or he was telling everybody to sit down before the act, and then I just laughed myself silly for an hour.
“And he was saying the most outlandish sh*t too, I remember watching him as a kid and he was talking about shooting the tyres out on his car and talking about drugs and then also doing the most gorgeous impressions of a dog that lives next door.
“It was like watching a man act out a whole movie, and I was like, 'Oh, wow, this is a whole world that I didn't know existed'.”
Of course, many of Little’s comedic inspirations are far closer to home, which means that those comedians he once appreciated as an audience member are now among those he counts as friends and workmates.
“Kind of everyone that I grew up watching I now get the pleasure of working with, people like Judith Lucy, Denise Scott, Hughesy (Dave Hughes), Will Anderson,” he said.
“These were all comics that I grew up watching, and absolutely loved, and now I get to chat to Hughesy every day on the radio, I recently did a tour with Denise Scott… it’s a very small community so generally if you're into comedy, and you grow up watching it, chances are that if you then get into it, you work with all those people because there's just not many of us.”
Little’s career has now spanned more than a decade, with countless solo shows, tours and appearances at every major comedy festival in Australia including the prestigious Melbourne International Comedy Festival, which he named as his personal highlight so far.
His quick-witted personality has also seen him gain a following as the host of a variety of television and radio shows. But while Little said he appreciates the camaraderie of being involved in those projects, the stage is where his heart remains.
“I love doing stand-up and to be honest, I have an inverse reaction to what most people have with it, in that it's my most relaxing time of the day,” he said.
“Everything else just stops. It's really nice and soothing up on stage, you're in darkness, there's silence in your joke and then that feeling of having a crowd kind of erupt in laughter, it's just great.”
“I don't know if my relationship with it is healthy, I think it is probably closer to an addiction, but that's fine.
“Stand-up's soul food, stand-up is the thing I love most, and I can't imagine that ever changing.
“But it's also quite isolating and lonely so it's great to be part of a TV team and a radio team because I still love creating things, but I can do it with other people as well, and that's great.
“I love making my friends laugh when we're out, or trying to, and in the same way, I love trying to make my co-hosts laugh when we're working together. It all comes under the basic umbrella of a desperate plea for attention.
“To be honest if it wasn’t for this virus I’m at a very happy place. I've got a radio show with one of my best friends, I love working on The Project, and then I get to go out at night and tour the country and do the thing that I love most.”
While his national tour may be on hold for now, Little clearly has plenty of other avenues through which he can secure audiences’ attentions.
In coming months his 2019 solo show, Self-Diagnosed Genius, will be available for streaming in more than 200 countries and territories around the world including Australia as part of 10 Amazon Original stand-up specials filmed exclusively for Amazon Prime Video.
Produced by Guesswork Television and filmed in Melbourne at the Malthouse Theatre, the specials feature an impressive roster of award-winning and nominated Australian comedians including Little, Lano & Woodley, Zoë Coombs Marr, Judith Lucy, Anne Edmonds, Tom Walker, Celia Pacquola, Dilruk Jayasinha, Alice Fraser and Tom Gleeson.
The shows will kick off on April 10, with two specials being released each week over a five-week period.
Details of Little’s national tour, which was scheduled to arrive in Newcastle’s Civic Theatre on May 1, will continue to be updated. Visit www.tommylittle.com.au or www.civictheatrenewcastle.com.au for updates.