By Karl Quinn
Kath & Kim cast members (from far left): Peter Rowsthorn (Brett Craig), Gina Riley (Kim Day Craig), Magda Szubanski (Sharon Strzelecki), Jane Turner (Kath Day Knight) and Glenn Robbins (Kel Knight).Credit:Seven
On May 16, 2002, the first episode of what would become Australia’s most successful sitcom went to air on the ABC. It was an immediate success, validation for all involved, but Kath & Kim’s road to the screen had been long, painful and very nearly took an ugly detour to court after the national broadcaster tried to back out of the show it had commissioned even before a single frame had been shot.
Now, to mark its 20th anniversary, Kath & Kim: Our Effluent Life, a two-part “celebration” featuring new material, rarities, off-cuts, behind-the-scenes footage and reflections on what the show meant and why it has endured, is to air on Seven. Meanwhile, the original episodes – 32 of them across four seasons (three for the ABC and one for Seven) – plus the telemovie Da Kath & Kim Code (2005) and the feature Kath & Kimderella (2012) continue to find new fans and old around the world on Netflix.
The show is that rarest of things: a homegrown success that has endured, an identifiably Australian slab of culcha that speaks effortlessly (if a little bewilderingly) to the world.
It had its origins in sketch comedy. Inspired by the 1994 reality TV series Weddings – hosted by New Zealand supermodel Rachel Hunter – Gina Riley and Jane Turner wrote a long-form piece called Kim’s Wedding that ran through Big Girl’s Blouse, the sketch series they wrote and starred in with Magda Szubanski on Seven in late 1994. In 1998, they revisited the theme on the sketch series Something Stupid, in which Marg Downey joined the team (she would later bring her soft-voiced counsellor Marion to the Kath & Kim mix).
Relationships were at the heart of the whole thing, on-screen and off.
Riley is married to Rick McKenna, whose role as producer and chief archivist of the K&K brand is central. Glenn Robbins, who plays Kath’s husband Kel, introduced Riley at her first stand-up gig in the mid-1980s.
McKenna gave Peter Rowsthorn, who played Kim’s long-suffering husband Brett, his start in comedy when he offered him a regular slot at Le Joke in Collingwood around the same time. Director Ted Emery had worked on the legendary sketch show Fast Forward, the cast of which included Riley, Turner, Szubanski and Robbins.
“We’d all known each other for a long time,” says Rowsthorn of the tight-knit crew who made the show. “We were all at the stage of our careers that we could do it, we were all highly capable at our craft, in our early 40s, and everyone knew exactly what they were doing.”
Audiences seem to agree, with affection for the show now outlasting many of the marriages that, for better or worse, inspired (or were inspired by) it.
Here, the key personnel reflect on Kath & Kim – its inspirations, how it was made, and why it lives on.
The characters Kath and Kim began life on Big Girl’s Blouse with Turner, Szubanski and Riley. Right: Producer Rick McKenna and director Ted Emery.
In the beginning…
Gina Riley (co-writer and co-creator; played Kim Craig nee Day and Trude): We were writing Big Girl’s Blouse and I’d seen what I think was one of the first reality shows, called Weddings. And there was a total Kim character in that.
Jane Turner (co-writer and co-creator, played Kath Day-Knight and Prue): Reality TV shows had just begun. Sylvania Waters and Weddings really influenced the style of the show, fly-on-the-wall filming, hand-held cameras etc.
Gina Riley: Jane had [created the character] Kath, and we just started mucking around. And then Magda brought Sharon, and we wrote Kim’s Wedding [a long-form sketch that ran through the series]. It started with Kim getting engaged and ended with the wedding. It was the beginning [of Kath & Kim], but we didn’t know that then.
Jane Turner: The characters were pretty much fully formed when they came out. Their essence was there.
Gina Riley: You just know when you have characters you can take anywhere, you can do anything with, they just kind of write themselves.
Jane Turner: I always knew how Kath would react to anything or any situation, though her values and views adapted as time passed, just like a real person. She wasn’t set in stone, she wasn’t predictable, she could surprise you. She was clever, but then sometimes not. Prue and Trude were more send-ups, parodies.
Gina Riley: We did Something Stupid as well, and we did more of them in that, and when that finished Jane and I just went, “We can just write these characters, we just love inhabiting their world, and we can sort of use our lives [as material] as well.” We just wanted to be in their world longer.
A cast of characters
Magda Szubanski (created and played Sharon Karen Strzelecki): Sharon had a baby in the very original sketches on Big Girl’s Blouse. I had been playing baseball at the time and was really aware of local club sport and the people who volunteer and keep it going, and I was watching a nailbiter netball game between Australia and New Zealand and going “this is such a great sport”. I never played it beyond primary school, but the whole ethos of [it] – the expression “if you need” just sums up netball. It’s so different from “kick it to me”.
Glenn Robbins (played Kel Knight): I had a character I was doing with Michael Veitch [on Fast Forward] who was a semblance of Kel. He was a gentle, slightly lost soul, and the girls asked if I could bring him across as Kath’s boyfriend. I remember having the discussion early on with them that we needed to give some backstory to the character. So Kel had been left at the altar four times, was from Adelaide, he was a butcher. Sketch characters come and go, they’re kind of one-dimensional characterisations, whereas you need to fill it out as a full character. And the girls did that very well.
Look at moi: Jane Turner as Kath and Gina Riley as Kim.Credit:David Caird
Gina Riley: It is so fun as Kim to tap into that incredibly selfish adolescent part of yourself, because it’s still there, which is why I think it resonates with people today. There’s something absolutely liberating about that.
Peter Rowsthorn (played Brett Craig): Brett is the audience – he reacts the way the audience is reacting to Kim being outrageous or Sharon being savaged to death by Kim, or whatever was happening at the time. I really liked what I did. I was quite unnoticed through it but I felt like I fitted, I felt comfortable where I sat. I wasn’t trying to go too hard for anything, it wasn’t his role to do that. I felt like I was doing proper acting.
Magda Szubanski: The thing about Sharon is she’s just bursting with love, but she has no one really to lavish it on except for the rather barren ground of Kim and her beloved team The Sapphires. It’s a very narcissistic triangle between Kath and Kim and Sharon, I think [that] is the central dynamic going on there.
Gina Riley: Prue and Trude had been a sketch in Something Stupid, I think. We wrote them into the last episode of the first series and a lot of people were saying to us, “Oh no, this is now long-form, you can’t play those characters”, because it’s sort of in that drama space, people can’t suspend their disbelief. And we just went, nup. We thought they’d only appear once, we didn’t think they’d ever be seen again. And then we realised what a great kind of contrast they were and how you could say a whole lot of things through Prue and Trude that you couldn’t say through Kath and Kim, and vice versa.
Jane Turner as Prue and Gina Riley as Trude.
Glenn Robbins: With performance you really only can present a side of yourself. It’s not an impersonation. Kel is a bit of my sensitive side, my metrosexual side. He’s passionate, in love, healthy sex life, he loves what he does. It’s just a side of me, a gentle side of me, I think a very honest side of me. I certainly don’t set out to make him funny, I set out to make him pretty authentic.
Ted Emery (director): They’re actually not doing jokes. They’re very serious in the world they live in, Kath and Kim and Brett. But they’re going from logical to illogical. You don’t want to analyse it too much, though. I mean, analysing comedy is like dissecting a frog: not too many people are interested and the frog dies.
Congratulations, you’re cancelled
Rick McKenna (producer): I was a producer of sport at Seven at the time, and I cut a pilot together in the newsroom edit suite from the sketch bits they’d done that showed it actually stacked up as a narrative. They took that to the ABC and got a commission for 13 half hours relatively quickly. The ABC couldn’t believe their luck with the package that had walked in their door: Glenn Robbins, Gina Riley, Jane Turner, who were all massive on Fast Forward back in the day [Magda was initially unavailable because of offers in Hollywood].
Sandra Levy (former ABC TV executive): They were high-profile. I’ve always felt that one of the ABC’s roles was to be the provider of diverse and interesting and sometimes risky content and giving new people a chance to try things out.
Rick McKenna: It was all go until the script notes started coming in from the ABC head of comedy, which were just bizarre. “Kim is too unlikable. Kel is implausible, no male would be that much of a nice guy. No one will believe Sharon would tolerate that relationship. Please don’t mention trams or the Nepean Highway because Sydney won’t like that.” And the cracker: “No one wants to see a mother and daughter argue for half an hour.” Which is the bedrock of the show.
Sandra Levy: I was a very new director of development – I was only observing, I didn’t have a decision-making role at that moment – and I was invited to a meeting where the director of television and head of comedy and somebody in legal were trying to get out of [making the show]. From what I could see, they had no grounds for that. It looked to me like it was a fixed contract.
Gina Riley: As I remember it, it was the Friday afternoon and we were going to pre-production the following Monday and we got a call saying, “It’s no longer the direction we want to go in.” We were like, “What? What does that mean?” We were completely rocked, but we thought we’ve got a pretty watertight deal memo. And they were like, “We’re doing you a favour; you don’t want to do this to yourselves.” And then we went, “OK, we’ll go somewhere else.” And they said, “Oh, no, you can’t take it anywhere else.” So that was when we went, “You know what? This is very unjust. And we’re going to fight it.”
Jane Turner: When the ABC wanted to cancel just before we were to start shooting it was hard to take. But we fought back. We were very determined to make the show we had pitched, and in reality we didn’t stop writing and working on it. It was too awful so we just pretended it wasn’t happening.
Gina Riley (Kim), Magda Szubanski (Sharon), Peter Rowsthorn (Brett), Glenn Robbins (Kel), and Jane Turner (Kath).
Sandra Levy: Not long after that meeting the director of television resigned, and I was appointed director of television, and one of the first things I did was contact Rick and say, “Let’s sort this out.” And we did very quickly and very satisfactorily. It seemed to me that the ABC had made a commitment to it, and from what I could see it was going to be a terrific show. I was just trying to untangle what looked like a debacle, really. It was not bureaucracy at its best, to put it mildly.
Congratulations, it’s a hit
Sandra Levy: We knew it was good. But I think the enormity of its success probably surprised all of us a little bit.
Gina Riley: We thought it maybe would have a little audience, we thought it was good enough to give it a go. We thought three people and their dog might like it, you know?
Glenn Robbins: We had filmed the first season and I had it all on VHS tape and I brought it to my partner. She watched the first episode and didn’t laugh. And I remember thinking in that split second, “Oh well, it’s OK because nothing will change the joy I had in doing that show. We gave it our best shot.” And then she went, “Can I watch another one?” And she ended up watching the whole series in one day and has been a huge fan ever since.
Magda Szubanski: We sensed there was an audience for it because of the response to Big Girl’s Blouse, but you never know. I mean, I didn’t know with Babe either. There’s so many factors: it depends on what the mood of the country is; a world event can happen between completing a project and it being released and suddenly the zeitgeist is just not what it was when you created the show. You just have to go with your instinct, but we all create things that don’t work, so who’s to know.
Rick McKenna: [After the second season] the most senior programming executive of a network took me out to lunch and was waxing lyrical about what said network would do if they had the show and how it should have been theirs in the first place. We were on our second bottle when I said, “Who’s your favourite character, what’s your favourite ep?” And this person blinked and stared into space across the harbour, laughed and said, “I haven’t seen it. But I’ve seen the numbers – and they are good numbers.”
Magda Szubanski: What’s interesting is that it’s just lasted so long, and it’s still relevant, and people are still watching it, kids are finding it on Netflix. I actually think it’s partly because we’re living in a very Kardashian moment and I suppose that was the beginning of the realisation of Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame”. Essentially, Kim Craig nee Day conducts herself as a celebrity. That whole cult of celebrity was beginning then, and of course we’re now right in the peak of it, so the show was just created at the perfect moment. That was great instinct on Gina’s part.
Kylie Minogue made a guest appearance as the grown-up version of Kim and Brett’s daughter Epponnee-Raelene Kathleen Darlene Charlene Craig in season three.Credit:ABC
Now everyone wants to get in on the act
Rick McKenna: The guest stars came about organically. Kylie came about through merchandise. Someone said they heard Dannii Minogue on the radio saying she and Kylie have Kath & Kim oven mitts and aprons and wear them around the house. So through contacts I sent them a box of merch, got a thank you note back, and then went to Kylie’s manager, “We’re writing a new series, would Kylie consider it?” I woke up the next day to an email saying, “Kylie would love to do it. When, where, how?”
Gina Riley: Every time we’d pinch ourselves and just go, “Really?” Incredible. It was so exciting thinking up things for them to do. You go, “Oh, what can Kylie do? Oh my God, of course, Kylie can be Epponnee.” Michael Buble doing carols and Kath and Kel being the Jazzy B dancers. It was so fun thinking up ideas for different people.
Riley with Richard E. Grant on the set of the 2012 movie Kath & Kimderella.Credit:RTP Films
Rick McKenna: I was at a lunch in London and Richard E. Grant was sitting beside me and he goes, “I love Kath & Kim.” And I went, “Well, there’s a role for you”, and he said, “When? Here’s my agent’s number.” We didn’t even have a project going then.
Magda Szubanski: Doing the stuff with Kylie Minogue, it felt like the circle was completed. Because the Brits really understood Kath & Kim in a way that they haven’t understood many other Australian comedies. Because of Neighbours, they understood Australian suburbia, they understood what we were satirising. It was so great that she played along with it.
Rick McKenna: Michael Buble saw Kath & Kim on the in-flight entertainment, landed, went to the Logies rehearsal, met Gina and Jane and said, “I just saw you on the plane.” By the end of the night they’re rolling drunk together and Gina’s gone, “We want you in the next show”, and he was like, “Say when.”
The show drew its share of guest stars, including Shane Warne.
Ted Emery: Shane Warne was terrific. His only problem was he had huge problems trying to be a bad bowler playing backyard cricket. No matter what he did, the thing would still turn about 60 degrees when the ball hit the ground and spin off. There was nothing he could do, his fingers just automatically spun the ball.
Magda Szubanski: Shane was just lovely and such a good sport in every way. I think people are going to be really moved by the behind-the-scenes glimpses because he was just fun and got it and went along with it and took the piss out of himself, and who doesn’t love that about someone?
How the (commemorative wedding) sausage was made
Jane Turner: We wrote at my place after school drop-off in the morning. We’d go like the clappers for two to three hours, generally brainstorming, talking about trends, what’s in the news, what’s going on in our lives.
Gina Riley: Jane and I would sit in a room – always at her house, it never worked at my house. We tried to be grown-ups and go into an office once and we just sat there looking at the screen going, “Nup, nothing’s coming.” We had to be where things were happening, schools were calling us, her kids were there sick. That domestic environment was really important.
Jane Turner: Sometimes we’d come up with a funny line or situation or funny thing we overheard or a joke and we’d work a situation around it. Then we’d improvise in our characters and write the dialogue.
Gina Riley: Absolutely Fabulous just blew my mind when I saw it, it did for all of us. And Seinfeld, in that brilliant way they’d write a stream for each character and then tie it up in a really funny, satisfying way at the end. They were big influences, for sure.
Ted Emery: My job was to construct a sandbox for them to play in, to make sure they didn’t throw sand in one another’s eyes and make sure they got the job done when their energy was up. They’re fantastic at what they do, and so much of it is spontaneous, and they’re creating so much on the spot that it’s up to us to accommodate that to record that.
Gina Riley: We would have done maybe 20 drafts of every script. We would often start with a joke and would build a whole episode from that. Banging them into shape and trying to get everybody’s story to line up and then finding a satisfying way of tying them all up at the end took some time. But the characters came easily, and they could do anything or go anywhere. We weren’t constrained by any premise.
Gina Riley as Kim, with Magda Szubanski as Sharon. “The wig has been burned,” vows Riley.Credit:Seven
Ted Emery: Originally they wanted to [have bits] like they do in reality where they would sit and talk to camera. And it looked awful. They kept breaking character almost. It just didn’t work. So we dumped it and it just brought the thing alive.
Peter Rowsthorn: They’d rewritten it so many times because they couldn’t get it on air, so it was extremely tight. And we were really good; we were so scared that it was going to be shelved that we really concentrated very hard. We’d often get it in the first take because the mojo was there, we were listening really hard.
Ted Emery: Usually we’d aim for one take. Sometimes you’d go to three takes, and if I thought the energy was going downhill I’d cut them and say, “We’re OK with half of the first one, half of the second one, I’ll do a couple of quick pickups and let’s move on.”
Jane Turner: I guess people liked that it’s so local. They could (and can) relate to all the places, characters and the peculiar Australian things like vomiting at the races, but also to the ways we fill our lives with funny trends like book clubs, Australian Idol, wine time.
Glenn Robbins: I think people like it because they relate to it. They see themselves in those characters. And Kath and Kel, we’ve all had arguments like that and we all have those little foibles. That’s why I think it’s so popular. If it was characters you didn’t relate to it may not have been as successful. The job is to have fun with – hopefully it’s not at – those characters.
Magda Szubanski: I’ve always maintained the only reason we could satirise it is because we are suburban, originally, ourselves. The kitchen of my parents’ house was almost exactly the same layout as the one in Kath & Kim.
Gina Riley: Comedy is hit and miss. If anybody tells you any different, they’re wrong. You just cannot kick that goal every single time. I have never watched the show. Everybody finds it so bizarre – I find it bizarre – but I’ve never watched it all the way through. I think that was because Jane and I would sit in the edit and we would have watched every episode 20 times before it ever went to air.
Glenn Robbins: I still watch it and I still laugh at it, because the things they explored were domesticity, foibles, love, vulnerability – all those things are at the core of that show, and it’s people who really love each other in different ways. And it’s family.
That’s all folks
Gina Riley: It took some convincing [to do a special], but we wanted to celebrate the show at 20, and Jane and I knew that Jane and I talking as Jane and I is not going to do it any justice, sitting there pontificating about what everything means and blah, blah. That’s not how we roll. And the only way we thought we could do it was bringing us back together. And in the end, it was a really good decision because when you do a show, you never know what’s going to be the end, and then it sort of ends and you go, “Oh, well, that was that.”
Jane Turner: When I look at the footage for the specials now, there was a lot of laughing and falling about like idiots. It was very hard juggling the producing, writing and acting with being a mother. It was pretty exhausting acting all day then doing meetings and then the edit, but it was all pretty great fun, I have to say. We were so lucky to have had those times.
Gina Riley: There’s lots I’m fond of. We are so grateful that it still lives on and people are still watching it, but we can’t recreate that. That was a time and place, that is what it is. This is absolutely the end. It’s not coming back. That wig has been burned, I’m telling you. This is it.
Kath & Kim: Our Effluent Lives is on Seven, Sunday, November 20, 7pm and Monday, November 21, 7.30pm. The original Kath & Kim is on Netflix and 7Plus.
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