Morning TV Gets Roasted

Writer-performer Zoe McDonald holds breakfast TV’s feet to the fire in her one-woman MICF show, ‘Good Morning Mofo’.

Melbourne-based writer and performer Zoe McDonald brings her second show to MICF in 2016 with her one woman act, Good Morning Mofo. This multi-character performance is a finely-crafted and often times devastatingly sharp and pointed look at breakfast television, as well as the characters who occupy its often baffling components. The 31-year-old tackles this world on her own, in a fast-paced and brilliantly realised satirical character piece.

The show is running for the full MICF 2016 season, and with a moment to spare between acts, Zoe shared a few thoughts on her process.

This was a sizeable undertaking. How long was it between inception, research and being able to perform it in front of an audience?
I had the seed of the idea for a while but I gave myself a solid deadline to have a draft script by the end of January this year. I was watching a lot of TV last year because I was writing for a sketch comedy show on Foxtel called Open Slather. I was exposing myself to any media I could to stay abreast with politics, pop culture…everything! I was also aware of the discussion around equality in the workplace for women and how tokenistic it can be in some industries. The breakfast TV genre fascinated me and I then embarked on research, observation and read a lot of feminist essays! The audience is the final stage. It’s never ready until it lands with the audience. Then you know you have communicated your message and of course made people laugh.

What’s the editing process like? Do you need to play it for people before you can make cuts?
I usually start with a rough reading of the script with a group of friends and colleagues that I know will give me honest and constructive feedback. My directors Bryce Ives and Nathan Gilkes are also great at saying, ‘There’s something wrong with the flow at this point’, or, ‘This character’s agenda is not clear yet,’ so dramaturgically there is a process that happens. Finally, we put it up for an audience. I’ve already made edits – we’re four shows in (at this point) and I’m about to make more tweaks to the script! It’s a constant evolution.

You’re assembling multiple characters into the story, do you think, “I need this type, and I need a character X”, or does it evolve naturally?
A lot of it evolves naturally. I work very instinctively but I’m willing to sack a character if they don’t serve the story any more. I had already fired six characters from the show by the time we opened. I’m like the CEO of the show. Ruthless!

Twitter @ATS2087Vilslev
Twitter @ATS2087Vilslev

The show is called Good Morning Mofo, and your last one was called FOMO. One’s a contraction and the other’s an anagram. Why ‘Mofo’?
I feel like we live in an age of abbreviation and re-contextualisation. The word MOFO is short for ‘motherfucker’, but it’s taken on a new meaning. The Urban Dictionary would argue that it is a term of endearment. My reason for using it in the title of the show is two-pronged. Firstly, I felt like ‘Mofo’ was a collective term for all of us. The mainstream media increasingly has become reliant on fluff rather than real issues. It’s like saying we should wake up to ourselves. It’s also recognising that language has changed and this word is very much in the zeitgeist. In terms of it’s relevance to FOMO, I guess this is similar, but also I had a friend who used to call my last show, MOFO by mistake and it made me laugh.

As I researched more, and watched more, I actually lost track of the fact that I was supposed to be creating a comedy.

Breakfast TV is a fairly rich source of material from which one might take the piss. How do you select your character ‘types’ from such a diverse selection?
This may sound esoteric, but the characters usually choose me. I could be anywhere, and a character will start ranting. I found the central character Chloe, first because that ‘media-trained’ voice is so particular. Once I started riffing I couldn’t stop. It takes over my body. I also then play with a few different characters and finally I’ll have a catalogue that I can chose from to make sure they then serve the story. A couple of the characters I have brought over from FOMO because they work really well in this context.

As a genre, it’s fairly painful for many (myself included) to watch. If you’re researching Today and Sunrise and the rest of breakfast/morning TV, do you get to a point of appreciating it, or do you get to a point where you’ll never want to watch it again?
In the beginning I felt a bit sad. As I researched more, and watched more, I actually lost track of the fact that I was supposed to be creating a comedy. I did get to a point where I couldn’t watch any more. I also read transcripts from the speeches of some of the women presenters. For example talks they had given at various networking events. The speeches seemed contradictory to what was going on within their shows.

Your main – for the lack of a better term – protagonist Chloe has a mixture of fake sincerity, gravitas and is still hugely condescending – it’s all in the tone of voice. Yet, she still generates a lot of sympathy. That’s quite a trick you pulled off: how did you do that, and was it intentional?
As I developed the character of Chloe, I made a deal with myself not to judge her. The conundrum with Chloe is that, she is a product of this system and she plays the game. She is condescending but she is also struggling with how she fits in to it all. I don’t think I give an answer for this but I do raise the question: who holds the power? We are ready to blame the women at the front line but who is really calling the shots?

To what degree has your experience writing for TV, and the people you encountered informed your material?
To be honest, not really at all in terms of how a TV show is put together. I spent very little time on set. I have quite a vivid imagination so there’s quite a lot of artistic license! However, the scripts I was writing for TV had to be very sharp and to the point. It really was a great way to hone my writing. In that respect, the show feels somewhere between a TV show and a play!

On the night I saw the show, you had to deal with a couple of drunks, or perhaps there were some other issues with those audience members. You stayed in character in dealing with them – is this something you learned over time, how to deal with them, does instinct kick in? How do you keep your cool and not tell them to just fuck off?
When I was in Edinburgh, performing at the Fringe, I was faced with many different types of audiences. I performed just about every day for a month. You really learn how to work with people and also it breaks down that barrier that you are somehow removed from the audience. The instinct part is usually about which character manages the situation. I knew this particular couple were being disruptive and so I tested the waters by interviewing them. I smelt the alcohol on their breath. After that, when they didn’t pipe down, I pulled out probably the most assertive character in my show and she kicked them out. It’s really important to not lose the flow of the show and keep it moving for the other audience members. Afterwards, I had to really ground myself as it’s always an unexpected shock!

Faye, your ‘veteran’ character, a former TV presenter who boasts 18 Logies to her name, comes across as being a touch of Jeannie Little mixed with Gloria Swanson, and upon reflection, Christopher Pyne. Not sure there’s a question here, but feel free to comment.
You’re spot on! And come to think of, it is very Christopher Pyne isn’t it? I always borrow a bit from many different sources when I’m finding the character, and then it takes on a life of its own from there. Faye Fergason is one of those characters that I love but also loathe. In rehearsal I’d finish a scene with her and say to my directors ‘Ohhhh she’s awful!’ and try and shake her off. I always have a lot of love for each character, even if they are full on sometimes. Actor and comedienne Gina Riley nailed this type of daytime-cabaret character in the Fast Forward days and there’s definitely some inspiration from her in there.

The show is running until April 17. Then what?
There’s a little web series project in the pipeline with actor and comedienne Holly Austin (we worked together on Open Slather) and maybe MOFO will come back for a return season. Who knows!?!

Zoe McDonald in Good Morning Mofo,
Currently playing as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival
At the Coopers Malthouse –
113 Sturt Street, Southbank, until April 17.

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