Comedian Fiona O’Loughlin is as well known for her TV appearances on shows such as Spicks and Specks, Good News Week, Talkin’ Bout Your Generation and her hilarious antics in Celebrity Apprentice as she is for that incident while performing stand-up during a Brisbane show that outed her as an alcoholic. But now, in the lead up to her new show My Brilliant Career at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, Fiona is the picture of happiness and success – and she is as excited as a schoolgirl to get out on stage once more.
WORDS: Genine Howard
Not one to let the past define her, Fiona O’Loughlin is one talented, funny (of course) and inspiring woman. She is at the pinnacle of her stand-up comedy career and has spent the past few months writing and performing her new show My Brilliant Career for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. The show is a journey throughout her 15-year career in showbiz that will shock you, make you laugh and make you squirm.
Talking with her from her Melbourne home (a tiny flat she shares with 16 year-old daughter), Fiona tells me she is like a smug little schoolgirl who has finished her homework. “Comedians are a fairly lazy mob – we have our usual comedy routine and go on stage and perform for an hour,” she says. “But putting a new show together [for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival] is like being in Year 12 all over again! Everyone is swotting and stressing … but I’ve already written my show and performed it four times. I’ve done my homework!”
I’m telling true stories in this show that are so shocking, I had to have a special lie down for three days when I finished writing it.
Touted as one of the Australia’s finest stand-up comedians, there is no doubt Fiona has some hilarious tales to tell and she is over the moon excited to share it with audiences. “To be honest, I think there’s something mentally wrong with me,” she laughs. “I’m telling true stories in this show that are so shocking, I had to have a special lie down for three days when I finished writing it.”
As Fiona alludes, it takes guts to air your dirty laundry on stage, so I wonder what was the driver for Fiona to begin a career on stage. She recalls, “I desperately wanted to be an actress when growing up. But you just didn’t say that out loud back in the 70’s. We grew up on a farm and if you said things like that you’d get a punch in the head from one of your brothers. But performing was such a strong desire for me.” She continues, “I was a greedy guts though – I also wanted to get married and have babies.” Fiona did go on to get married and have babies – five of them in fact (babies, not marriages) but it wasn’t until her late thirties that she started her comedic career.
“I used to do a lot of emcee work in Alice Springs, and at this one event someone said to me at the end ‘You’re doing stand-up’. The only point of reference I had for stand-up is what I had seen on the telly watching Dave Allen with my dad. So I went to Melbourne and had a crack at it!”
For a long time I stood there on stage behind the microphone stand and didn’t move.
And give it a crack she did. Fiona obviously had the gift of the gab and was an instant hit with audiences. However, like most crafts, it takes years to hone and perfect. “[Stand-up] is something that takes years to get right. I have always loved storytelling at dinner parties. I made a vow to myself to put my ‘dinner party self’ on the stage. It took nine years to get good at it.
“For a long time I stood there on stage behind the microphone stand and didn’t move. Then I realised there was a whole bloody stage!”
Fiona’s enthusiasm for her craft is infectious as she tells me, “It’s so exciting now – it’s the hardest job in the world to become a comedian. You start with no reputation, but then once you are in the position to be headlining at a comedy festival … people have bought a ticket to see you. It’s like Heaven on a stick.”
As a working mother of a one year old, I know how hard it is to maintain a balance between work and family. Fiona is mother to five children, the oldest 27 and the youngest just 16. As we chit chat about our offspring and compare notes on how amazingly talented and clever they are, I ask Fiona just how she has balanced her career as a travelling comedian and raising five little people. She responds, “I don’t! I leave them behind!” She laughs, “I am actually lucky that I don’t really work that much, I mean you go on stage for an hour and that’s it!”
When it came to my kids I gave them what I call a ‘free range’ upbringing.
And speaking of family, while Fiona’s children and relatives are often the brunt of her on-stage jokes, she says that it’s all part and parcel of who she is. “The kids have always loved it [being talked about on-stage] It’s just an extension of who I am at home. I had a really strict upbringing. When it came to my kids I gave them what I call a ‘free range’ upbringing. I thought ‘let’s blow this apart and have some fun!’ My sister says that our house was is the Land of Do As You Please.
“With the shows, my kids have never been bothered by it. I have had some awkward conversations with my sister though. She asks ‘Why do you tell everyone everything about yourself?’ I have explained to her that it dawned on me that comedians are all playing different instruments – some may play the fiddle, someone else the piano … I’m just playing my own instrument. And that instrument is me and my life. I can’t sell a story unless it’s based on truth.”
Performing under the influence was such a devastating low.
Of course with any career there are the highs and the lows and fortunately for Fiona there have been so many highs she finds it hard to pick out just one. “They come at different times – I still pinch myself a lot. One of the real joys I’ve had is touring on a roadshow in Canada with Montreal Comedy Festival . Each year they have one international guest – and that year it was me! To be on this tour bus with five other incredible, highly regarded comics and to feel that I was on their level was just amazing,” she recalls. Fiona adds, “And the laughs that went on! All the while with the Canadian Snowy Mountains in the background.”
Which takes me to press Fiona to divulge some of the challenges she has had over her career, or as I call them – learnings. “Oh yes,” she agrees, “You learn and learn. For me performing under the influence was such a devastating low. I came within a hair’s breadth of losing my career.”
In 2009 after collapsing onstage during a gig, Fiona came clean and announced herself as an alcoholic. She had begun drinking to calm her nerves before going onstage and found herself unable to perform without being under the influence. “It is so sad to have wasted so much time,” she divulges. “Having alcohol in your system makes you feel braver but you’re just dulling your instrument. I truly believed that I couldn’t give my best without alcohol. It’s so dumb!
“I remember I spoke with Janeane Garofalo [American stand-up comedian and actor] who went through the same thing. She looked me in the eye and said you will be funnier [without drinking]. It seemed an unbelievable possibility.”
Fiona is now sober and enjoying every moment of it. “I’m so bloody happy doing live stand-up. As you get a bit older and you lose some of that burning ambition but I’m still a bit like a dog with a bone and want to do a late night show eventually,” she says.
We talk about the future and all its possibilities, but the one thing that seems to light Fiona up the most is her children. She says, “The kids are growing up and they’ve all got really exciting futures. One daughter is studying film – she’s been making films since she was about three, another is into dancing, singing and acting … it’s just so fun to watch. My oldest son is just the most honourable man you could meet. I’m like Marie Barone!” Fiona is referring to the overbearing mother in Everybody Loves Raymond who dotes on her sons, Raymond and Robert.
Now living in Melbourne with her youngest daughter, Fiona is at her happiest. “I’ve got a grin on my face right now thinking about my life. Life is really simple.”
Clearly Fiona has made a success of herself over her 15 year career as a stand-up comedian, but I ask her one final question – what does Fiona O’Loughlin define as success?
“I think success for me is knowing that my children are generous. I couldn’t give a flying … pardon my language … about school results. There’s so much competition in the world. We are all so busy out busying ourselves.
“I have so much time with my daughter now. We do an awful lot of talking. I am very lucky. I’m very blessed.”
And what a blessed, brilliant career indeed.
To book for Fiona’s show, My Brilliant Career, head to www.ticketmaster.com.au.
Monday 31st March, 7th April & 14th April 2014
Tuesday 8th – Saturday 12th April 2014
8.15pm [Mondays] 7pm [all other days]
Melbourne Town Hall, MELBOURNE VIC
Melbourne International Comedy Festival