They may be Australia's freshest double act, but without 'The Great Australian Bake Off' they might never have teamed up. Maxim Boon meets two stand-ups taking whisks with their comedy.
When I meet comedians Claire Hooper and Mel Buttle at a photography studio in Collingwood, they are discussing, in impressive detail, the culinary calibre of a breakfast roll. "It's actually really excellent," Hooper tells me as she savours a bite, while Buttle takes note of its "spot on" golden colour. It's a conveniently on-brand conversation for the hosts of The Great Australian Bake Off, the antipodean franchise of the British TV smash hit, that proved to be a surprise ratings bonanza for the BBC when it first aired in 2010.
In the UK, comedy duo Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins set the gold standard for hosting the program, with their quirky blend of whimsical repartee, down to earth relatability and adorably twee charisma. This winning dynamic is something producers of the Australian iteration have aimed to replicate, but unlike their Pommy counterparts, Buttle and Hooper were not an existing double act prior to appearing on the show.
Fortunately, they haven't had to look far for inspiration. The archetypal comedy two-hander is a model that boasts some of the most hallowed stand-up icons of all time, including timeless comic masters like The Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise, French and Saunders, or closer to home, Lano and Woodley or Jane Turner and Gina Riley's Kath and Kim. Joining the ranks of these great duos has been an eye-opening experience for Hooper and Buttle. "Comedy is quite solitary, you're on stage by yourself, you write it by yourself - It can be a pretty lonely job. So, I was really happy when I was paired up with Hoops, because now I've got a sounding board. If you're trying to think up a funny line, you've got someone to bounce that idea off in the moment, to solve that comedic problem," Buttle shares. "Often the way to a good joke is actually two or three steps, so it's good if Mel's like 'I'm thinking about doing something with a briefcase,' I can be like, 'How about a briefcase... full of biscuits!' And hey presto, you're done! Comedy achieved," Hooper adds. "You also have someone to nerd out about over words, you know? I can ask Mel, 'Do you think I should use incredible or amazing here?' Or should it be, 'The biscuits are breaking,' or, 'The cookies are crumbling?' I know that sounds like a little thing, but comedy really does sink or swim on those small details."
While they are now reaping the rewards of their comedy collaboration, the pair admit that without Bake Off, their partnership was unlikely to have come about naturally. "I never thought, 'I must get together with that Claire Hooper and crack a few jokes.' But once we started working together, we'd be getting our makeup done for example, and we'd be making the makeup girls laugh, making producers laugh. So the chemistry and the dynamic between the two of us was definitely there from the start. We're able to warm up and get into that perfect comedy zone a lot quicker," Buttle explains. "It's very hard for you to have any objectivity about what your unique comedy voice is, and I think comedians might be tempted to get together in a writing duo with a comedian with a sympathetic style. But what working with Mel has shown me, it's actually going to be more useful working with someone who does offer a different thought process or way of seeing things. So, for us to be paired up by outside forces has been a real piece of luck, because we probably wouldn't have gravitated towards each other. We'd probably never have realised how complimentary our styles are together," Hooper concludes.
Fate (and competitive baking) may have brought Hooper and Buttle together, but the on-screen personas of Australia's freshest comedy twosome are considerably tamer than anyone familiar with their solo stand-up might expect, especially when it comes to that comedy mainstay: swearing. While the blue lingo these veteran comics spout in their live performances may not make it onto the airwaves, neither tries too hard to keep it clean when the cameras are rolling.
"Look, I think it's best to give the producers every option. To be honest, I think pretty much every word you can imagine has been used on that set. That might be the reason some scenes end abruptly, with Maggie [Beer] looking sideways with a look of shock, and then suddenly there's no more audio and we're looking at some cinnamon swirls in an oven," Hooper ponders. "You know what, they're either going to renew our contracts or they're not, so you may as well have a bit of fun with it while you can, right? I had a bit of a muck around this season and said and did whatever I wanted. But even if I say something totally inappropriate, one of the cameras will catch a great facial shot of Maggie Beer or the bakers, and the producers will be able to use that at some other point," Buttle adds.
"Mel's been particularly good with that this season. I think one time you said 'Get those biscuits out of the oven or I'll shit in your mouth.' Or something along those lines. Whatever it was, it was very classy," Hooper laughs.
Now for the first time, the pair will be bringing their double act from the screen to the stage, headlining Just For Laughs at the Sydney Opera House. It's a major moment for the duo, but Buttle and Hooper are playing it cool: "Well the show's on Wednesday night, so we'll probably meet up on Wednesday afternoon to figure it out. What d'ya reckon Hoops?" Buttle quips, "We prefer to work under pressure."
Joking aside, Buttle and Hooper are conscious of the expectations of their audience, and where their strongest comedy lies. "We know that this isn't going to be a Morcam and Wise type deal. Sure, we could write a double act for an hour, but that would be an entirely untested show, and there would be no way for us to trust that material's ability to give the audience a great experience. But if we're giving the audience 25 minutes each of our very best stand-up, if we're passing the baton to each other, that's a much stronger show," Hooper explains. "There will definitely be some of the show where we're going to have a bit of a muck around, but wheeling out something totally raw would be irresponsible, to be honest."
"The Sydney Opera House is not the venue to deliver an hour of ropey sketch improv. I think the audience might get a tad aggro if we come on and say, 'Thanks for coming to the workshop guys. Ok, let's get some suggestions, where would you go to buy cheese?' It's just not something that would work for us as a duo," Buttle concedes, as Hooper adds, "I am actually a very experienced theatrical improvisation performer. Whereas Mel has self-respect."
First published 6 Sep 2017, for The Music.