October 2017


C’mon, we’re being fun

By Anna Krien
Still from Get Krack!n

Kate McCartney (left) and Kate McLennan in Get Krack!n

‘Get Krack!n’s Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney are not pussyfooting around

It’s 3 am. “An hour usually reserved for pissing with your eyes closed,” Kate McLennan says in a sparkly voice while sitting bolt upright in bed next to co-host Kate McCartney. Time to Get Krack!n. Cue the buzzy theme music (think kazoo crossed with a mosquito) and a TV montage of the Kates “kidding around” in stilettos, skin-tone stockings, and boxy block-coloured mini dresses. Measly clapping starts up off-camera and the Kates step out, as if for the first time, onto the set of their very own morning show.

“Hallooo,” McLennan coos, as if overwhelmed by the applause, while McCartney, as inelegant as a newborn foal, carefully navigates the steps in her heels. The Kates of The Katering Show are back. They now have “rich girl” hair and a slot on the national broadcaster, albeit at an hour where the “street view” is of a dark alley. Never mind. “Look at this set,” McLennan chimes, and the Kates gaze at a grey couch swamped with geometric cushions, and framed by faux mid-century lamps and a fruit bowl filled to bursting. McLennan and McCartney stare wide-eyed, as if to say, “All this, for us?”

It is a weirdly “meta” moment as the success is twofold, for the Kates’ onscreen characters and the “real” Kates offscreen. From renting an Airbnb property in suburban Melbourne so they could shoot their online series to skewering breakfast television in prime time on the ABC, McLennan and McCartney have joined in on the past decade’s explosion of foul-mouthed, shameless and brilliant female comedy. American wits such as Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black), Tina Fey ( 30 Rock), Lena Dunham (Girls), Amy Schumer, and Broad City’s Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson have all provided an overdue counterweight to the long line of dysfunctional and compelling male leads who ruled television. In Australia, there’s been the usual lag – Kath & Kim wound up a decade ago and there have been few dalliances since. ( Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey, and Marieke Hardy and Kirsty Fisher’s Laid come to mind.)

Then, in 2015, McLennan and McCartney’s The Katering Show premiered on YouTube. It was promoted as “the journey of a food intolerant and an intolerable foodie”, its orange logo seemingly benign until you realise it incorporates a colon. “We used to think that food intolerances were the purview of attention seekers,” McLennan says in their first episode.

“Or people who just wanted to jazz up their eating disorders,” McCartney adds.

“But we were wrong,” says McLennan.

The duo was born, cast in the classic TV-hosting partnership. A TV couple is a typecast relationship that seems to require as much PR defence personnel as, say, the couple in the White House. Consider the insistence of American Today show host Katie Couric in a 2005 interview, as she defended her relationship with co-anchor Matt Lauer: “I can tell you with complete honesty that my relationship with Matt hasn’t changed at all. We like and care about each other.” Similarly, McLennan and McCartney’s onscreen relationship is in a pressure cooker.

On The Katering Show, they are strained, short-fused and tired (remarkably similar to the dynamic between parents of a newborn, which in real life, the Kates were each experiencing), while at other times they are united, sometimes in bigotry, or in scathing fury at the politics of the day. They lampoon food trends, fad diets and the broad claims typical of cooking shows (“The Mexican people are such a vibrant and colourful people,” gushes McLennan as she prepares tortillas, “who have this amazing lust for life”). In ‘The Body Issue’ episode, McCartney explains the thinking behind the paleo diet as McLennan skims the scum off a pot of boiling bone water to freeze into cubes. “Paleo devotees believe that things really went downhill for humans once we started farming food,” she says.

“If only we could go back,” McLennan adds wistfully.

McCartney agrees. “Oh I know. I, for one, miss having non-consensual sex with Neanderthals and being frightened of the weather.”

Needless to say, the show took off. Their ‘Thermomix’ episode has so far clocked up two and a half million views on YouTube, while the ‘Yummy Mummies’ episode, in which McLennan chops up her (real) placenta, introduced a new word to the foodie lexicon, “plasagne”.

In 2016, ABC iView picked up “Seasoning 2” of The Katering Show. The arrangement clearly preceded the recent ABC memo to its journalists to remain impartial in the marriage equality debate: in the ‘Tying the Not’ episode, a viewer has written in and asked the duo to cater for her beach wedding, and the Kates cannot disguise their contempt.

“She [McCartney] is also a bi-sexuAAL,” says McLennan.

“Thanks, McLennan,” responds McCartney drily. “And it seems [that] half of me is allowed to get married whilst apparently the other half isn’t.”

At the end of the episode, McLennan forces out some good cheer and wishes the viewer good luck. “I mean, really genuinely, good luck with your wedding and making your marriage work.”

McCartney looks up sharply and adds, “Yeah, good luck, you heteronormative piece of shit.” It’s savage and delicious. No more pussyfooting around.

Now, with Get Krack!n, McLennan and McCartney have taken on morning television, a genre that largely originated in mid ’70s America when Good Morning America was pitched against the longstanding Today show. It’s the format, derisively referred to as “infotainment”, where traditional news anchors were supplanted by “personalities” whose approach to daily news was much like picking over a tray of canapés. At the time, the much-treasured journalist and broadcast news anchor Walter Cronkite ferociously opposed the variety-show application to traditional news as well as the huge pay packets that saw the hosts turn into celebrities in their own right. In his memoir, A Reporter’s Life (1996), Cronkite surmised that the “explosively compressed headline service of television news can expect to be exploited by the demagogues and dictators who prey upon the semi-informed”. Twenty years on, you could say Cronkite was sadly prescient.

In January, New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum, who last year won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, wrote ‘How Jokes Won the Election’, an analysis of how locker-room humour prevailed in the American presidential campaign. In it, she referred to the 20-year-old “proud ‘anti-political-correctness’ sitcom” South Park. In 2015, and in its 19th season, the comedy displayed depressing foresight in presenting a brash, lewd character running for president on the platform of “fucking immigrants to death”. Co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone found themselves writing a script and then watching it align with real life over the next year, but while it was funny, the co-creators had banked on Clinton winning. On election day, when it was clear Trump was going to win, Parker and Stone had to rewrite a 20th season episode at lightning speed. Sure, their plot had initially preceded Trump, but they were quickly overtaken. Trump was literally the joke that had gone too far. It was more than that, though, surmised Nussbaum. South Park, she wrote, “was onto something both profound and perverse”. The pussyfooting was over, but the pussygrabbers were fighting back.

The fight between Trump and Clinton … could not be detached from the explosion of female comedy: it found its roots in everything from the female-cast “Ghostbusters” reboot to the anti-feminist GamerGate movement. Trump’s call to Make America Great Again was a plea to go back in time, to when people knew how to take a joke. It was an election about who owned the mike …

In Nussbaum’s world, jokes post-election can no longer be seen as sharp knives, or the ultimate truth-tellers – they’ve become as murky as gaslighting and fake news. The president is an “insult comic” and a “stadium act”, and his brand is “control”. “He was superficially loose, the wild man who might say anything,” she wrote, “yet his off-the-cuff monologues were always being tweaked as he tested catchphrases (‘Lock her up!’; ‘Build the wall!’) for crowd response.” And as if the lines between ratings, laughs and reality weren’t already blurred enough, Trump and his family’s ascendancy to the White House has taken female comedy deeper into a kind of gallows humour.

Trump became president when the Kates were halfway through writing Get Krack!n. “It was pretty overwhelming,” McLennan tells me. The three of us are sitting in a television studio on a backstreet in Melbourne’s inner north, and she and McCartney are describing how they had “consumed” the internet for material. All clicks being equal, they had read without any sense of hierarchy or order of importance.

“You’d read about Adani,” says McLennan.

“Then unicorn hair,” adds McCartney.

“How to use a foam roller,” finishes McLennan.

“Which is exactly what a morning show does,” I say.

“Yes, and the Trump campaign,” replies McLennan.

“And him becoming president,” says McCartney.

“To unicorn hair?” I add.

Yes,” say the Kates.

Indeed, if McLennan and McCartney have found themselves in a much larger battle, as Nussbaum suggests, over who now “owns the mike”, they are well armed. As The Katering Show fans already know, no matter how effortless or airy their delivery may seem, they are very much locked and loaded. In a Get Krack!n cooking segment (“Where we belong!” sings McLennan), the Kates describe to viewers the types of men they already appeal to as a measure of their success. “Online trolls …” says McLennan. “And older gentlemen,” adds McCartney, “who like to come up to us and explain why we’re funny as if we were out picking berries in the woods and stumbled across a sack of jokes that we don’t understand.” There is a depth of fury, a satisfying “Fuck you” beneath almost every line. Even their fun facts are brutal, such as this memorable one from The Katering Show: “Beetroots are potatoes filled with blood.”

As with The Katering Show (and other lifestyle programs), segment transitions of domestic minutiae feature in Get Krack!n: the awkward act of placing an electric kettle back on its stand; the spraying of an almost-dead maidenhair fern; the manic tearing of uneven strips of toilet paper. Short and sharp, these segues have a thrust of anger behind them. Perhaps the Kates have taken a leaf out of Martha Rosler’s 1975 video piece, Semiotics of the Kitchen, in which the artist stood, deadpan in a drab kitchen, holding up cooking utensils in alphabetic order, and demonstrating the function of each one in swift and savage movements.

Semiotics of the Kitchen was in part a response to another American television legacy, the Julia Child food movement, following the massive success of her cooking show The French Chef. In 1963 it was groundbreaking that Child tasted her food with pleasure and gusto. Previously, the female cook was unseen or ate sparrow-like while the men dug in. Child had an appetite. But as with most shattered female moulds, this liberation was short-lived, with women simply awaking to new confines. Yes, the woman in the kitchen was no longer unseen and she could eat as she pleased (as long as she maintained herself) but now people wanted to watch her.

McLennan and McCartney on Get Krack!n are showing women their “new digs”. As McCartney tells viewers, they have taken the action “out of the The Katering Show kitchen, and into other parts of the house, like the toilet and the hostage crawl space”. Get Krack!n not only shows their viewers how to spruce up the sanitary bin but also, in another sequence, how a modern woman lays out her work attire for the day: blouse, skirt, blazer, gas mask and sword.

Infotainment is an overstuffed formula. Its hosts graze “fresh facts” and rapidly rearrange their faces, somewhat psychotically, to suit each topic in three-minute blocks. In this, Get Krack!n is true to form. After the Kates settle on the grey couch, McLennan tells viewers that their celebrity guest is Sam Neill! McLennan’s face is a picture of demented joy as she does a Jurassic Park–style dinosaur imitation, before abruptly switching to a solemn tone and explaining that he’ll be talking about assisted suicide. It is unnerving.

“But first up on Get Krack!n,” McCartney cries, “it’s time to get booty woke with DJ Juice!”

The Kates get off the couch, tugging down their hems, and head over to their very own DJ, parodying American talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres’ in-house DJ and famous dancing with her audience. “Woo hoo!” says McLennan, dancing awkwardly.

“Here we go-oh!” responds McCartney, swaying – but soon she calls it quits, rubbing her creaking knees. It is a scene that strikes a chord – reminiscent of a hens’ party you didn’t want to be at, dancing to ‘Staying Alive’ or ‘Nutbush City Limits’ but feeling dead inside.

“C’mon, we’re being fun,” McLennan says, trying to coax McCartney to join in again. Her delivery is so breezy you almost miss the sucker punch. C’mon, we’re being  fun. It is impossible not to snort in startled laughter at the accuracy of their parody.

Inevitably, the genre and “dead leg” timeslot begin to suffocate the onscreen Kates. McLennan’s smile is painfully seared on, scrabble-tile teeth grinding in anxiety as she shovels warmth into her eyes like an actor on Home and Away. The chirpier, more enthusiastic that McLennan is, the more negative and dry McCartney tends to become, only to seesaw into a generous, fluid host when McLennan frays. Inevitably there is a Shopper’s Korner, and guests (aka Kracksperts) who join the hosts for segments such as MediKate, Get Kraftin’ and Klothes Rack (the hilarious sarong segment with comedian Anne Edmonds is worth a Gold Logie in itself). There are news bulletins with headlines such as “a woman was shot in the face by a man”, rapper Adam Briggs as “the weather girl” and everything else that morning shows stuff themselves stupid with, the Kates running between the segments. Desperation and misery rise off them and it’s perfect.

“One of us is Karl, one of us is Lisa,” McLennan tells me, “and one of us is Kochie, one of us is Mel,” referring to the hosts on Australia’s Today and Sunrise shows. There’s a strange irony in the Kates doing polite press to promote Get Krack!n, as if they’ve found themselves stuck inside their own joke. Back in 2015, they appeared on Channel 7’s Sunrise to promote The Katering Show. “That was very strange,” recalls McCartney. “I don’t think they’ll have us back with Get Krack!n.”

There is a magnetism between McLennan and McCartney as they riff off each other. Both 37 years old, each with a two-year-old, when asked about their kids they stare at each other as they speak. Their children, they tell me, are at the same day-care centre.

“It’s quite clean,” says McCartney.

“What’s really good about it …” adds McLennan.

“… is that they had availability,” says McCartney.

“They’re doing this thing at the moment,” McLennan continues, “where they’re trialling the kids sleeping outside.”

“It’s an Icelandic thing,” says McCartney. “Essentially …”

“Apparently …” says McLennan.

“Fresh air makes them sleep better.”

“Does it work?” I ask.

“No,” they say at the same time.

“It’s at an intersection, trucks going past,” explains McLennan.

“A mobile phone tower,” adds McCartney.

Two mobile phone towers,” corrects McLennan.

“It’s not the fucking tundra,” finishes McCartney.

The Kates have a caustic hardness about them, a talent for pulverising one-liners. But still, I ask, in light of their showbiz experience – McLennan mockingly refers to herself as a “trained thespian” while McCartney started out on television before working in production – have they ever found themselves in the kind of role they’re now making fun of? Both Kates go quiet, thinking.

McCartney nods. “I think we’ve both played women we don’t resonate with,” she says carefully. Both auditioned to be one of the “Philly Angels”, she recalls, for a cream-cheese commercial in the ’90s. Then out of the cracks of her memory McLennan remembers an audition she did in her early 20s.

“I did an audition once where I had to wear a paper bag on my head.”

McCartney and I stare at her.

“It was for an AFL commercial,” she continues.

“Noooooo!” we scream.

McLennan tries to explain. “The premise was that the supporters would be wearing face paint, and the people getting the tapes couldn’t visualise what your face would look like with face paint on so they needed …” She falters. “Well, they needed you to wear a paper bag so they could put it together in their brains what you looked like.” She trails off.

McCartney and I stare at her. Then McCartney shakes her head. “What are you …? Fuck! What are you talking about?”

“Maybe …” McLennan says slowly, her eyes kind of wide now. “Maybe it wasn’t that at all.”

“Did the bag have eyes in it?” I ask.

“No, I don’t think so,” says McLennan.

“What were they doing, McLennan?” demands McCartney. “What were they doing in front of you?”

McLennan shakes her head slowly. “I don’t know.”

We look at one another in disbelief and then burst into laughter. The well here is deep, I think to myself. The friendship is, too. It’s rare but you can catch a glimpse of it onscreen, in between the sniper fire. At the end of the ‘Mexicana Festiana’ episode of The Katering Show, the two Kates sit in a gutter in the dark on an empty suburban street, trying to depict the fabulous street life of Mexico. As always, McCartney calls it quits first. She gets up to walk away but then turns to McLennan, offering her hand. “Oh, buddy! You look like you’re in your second trimester over there,” she says, and there’s a genuine chuckle from McLennan as McCartney helps her out of the gutter.

Anna Krien

Anna Krien is the author of Night Games: Sex, power and sport and Into the Woods: The battle for Tasmania’s forests, and the Quarterly Essays Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals and The Long Goodbye: Coal, Coral and Australia’s Climate Deadlock. Her debut novel, Act of Grace, was published in 2019.

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