Tom Gleeson doesn’t pull any punches.
The divisive comedian’s interviewing style, as seen on The Weekly’s Hard Chat segment, is brutal: one on one; direct eye contact; deadpan delivery; grill them and watch them squirm. And I say divisive because his recent “roasting” of entire towns, even cities, on The Weekly outraged some and amused others.
It is surprising to discover that “off-stage” Gleeson is a friendly and chatty chap. Nice, even. Definitely intelligent. I was waiting for a sarcastic rebuke but in the end I had to invite him to roast me (we’ll get to that later).
Gleeson is about to embark on a stand-up comedy tour with his good mate and fellow comedian and television presenter Peter Helliar and will perform at Nelson Bay Diggers on October 26 and Belmont 16s on October 27.
Gleeson is taking a break from all social media and when asked “R U OK?” he laughs.
“The only reason I’m taking a break from social media is because – and I think people sometimes forget this – it’s still broadcasting,” he says. “It’s nothing negative, it’s just that the social media traffic has been so phenomenal.
“And I work at the ABC so I don’t have a social media department. It’s just me and my Facebook page and my Twitter and it’s just been running off the hook so I thought I’d hit pause on that for a little bit and take a break. I will make a joke online and there will be 200 comments underneath it and I feel compelled to read all of them.”
“It’s part of the fun of interacting, I guess. Because I’m a performer and I want to know what the reaction is. So I’ve got to stop performing so that I don’t have to worry about the reaction,” he replies.
Gleeson’s Hard Chat is promoted by ABC TV as “a fine line between talk and torture”. It’s an accurate summary, and Hard Quiz follows a similar format.
“I never would have thought I’d be a game show host,” he says. “The initial idea was just to make Hard Chat into a quiz but then I started thinking about how game show hosts are normally so polite and insincere. There was something funny about being rude and sincere.
“Normally on a game show the hosts pretend to be nice to contestants they don’t care about and end up coming across as fake. I pretend to be mean to contestants that I care about and it comes across as real somehow.”
As for guests in the Hard Chat hot seat, he is surprised that they agree to be grilled. But not agreeing, Gleeson says, says more about a person’s character.
“I think a lot of people imagine celebrities as wandering around in ivory towers above it all. So there’s something endearing about seeing them reduced to just another person sitting on a chair being given a drilling.
“I’ve always said that as soon as they sit in the chair they’ve won.
“I was doing the Kyle and Jackie O Show this morning on radio and Kyle Sandilands was proudly saying that he had been asked to do Hard Chat and that he would never do it in a million years. But he doesn’t realise that the exact reason why he wouldn’t do it is the reason why he should do it.
‘He’s a shock jock who is on air every day talking to guests that he shits on and he’s not prepared to put himself in the same situation. I think that speaks volumes.”
As for the so-called “Revenge Roast” Gleeson endured this month on Studio 10, he would happily do it again.
“I loved it. It was really fun. It’s a bit like what I was saying about Kyle. I go really hard on celebrities and I’ve given [Studio 10’s] Sarah Harris a very hard time – and I’ve pretty much torn Studio 10 to pieces – so I thought it was only fair that they get revenge.”
I ask him about television personality and Gold Logie winner Grant Denyer. Gleeson famously started a Gold Logie campaign for the former game show host earlier this year.
“I’m friendly with him but we’ve only ever done stuff on TV together. We’ve never really socialised,” he says.
“Why did I do it? I was thinking about the Logies and how he got nominated for a game show that rated half as well as my show that had been axed, and it occurred to me that it would be really funny if he won the Gold.
“I decided to prove how little sense the whole thing made by getting him to win. He was quite popular anyway and when you looked at the betting odds he was coming about third. I thought I might be able to push him over the line because voting was open all the way up to the ceremony
“They probably won’t do that again now.”
So, has he considered using his powers for the greater good?
“Hey, I stopped Tracey Grimshaw from getting the gold and that’s a service to the public, isn’t it? There will be a few dodgy builders around Australia who will have a picture of me on their walls I reckon.”
Gleeson last performed in Newcastle with Helliar three years ago and is looking forward to his return trip. He is delighted when I mention that the Queens Wharf Tower had lost its head. The stairway had yet to be removed when we spoke.
“Ah, the bell end. So it’s only the shaft now,” he asks, laughing. “It’s just a stairway to nowhere? Wow.”
Finally, my roasting. At my prompting, he says: “Look, I couldn’t make that much fun of you. You’re a journalist in a regional town working in an industry that’s dying, I mean, having a go at you just wouldn’t be very nice. But I tell you what, you must be willing to work for peanuts.”
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