Comedy Cuts: Meet Norman Gunston, Australian TV’s award-winning multi-media personality!!

By on February 14, 2017

In this truncated segment from an episode of “Night Flight” — it originally aired on February 26, 1988, and you can now find it streaming on Night Flight Plus — viewers got the chance to see Australian TV’s inept celebrity interviewer Norman Gunston (played by actor/comedian Garry McDonald) talking nonsense with some of the most famous musicians of the day who had either handed out awards, or received them, at the 1979 Grammys, which were being held that year at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, an event described by Gunston as “the most fabulously glittering night of nights that Hollywood has seen all this week.”

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In the 1970s, McDonald’s hapless Norman Gunston conducted real interviews with celebrities who were caught off-guard by the ridiculous questions he asked them,  offering up a wide variety of interesting responses which let us know whether or not they took him seriously or weren’t in on the joke (some obviously weren’t).

Gunston pretty much set the standard for all future comedians who today are doing pretty much the same type of schtick, which he may or may not have created, including Sasha Baren Cohen’s hilarious Ali G and Borat characters.

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It was such a different era back then, all those decades ago, a time when celebs usually tried to be respectful when someone stuck a microphone in their face and asked them something — with a straight face — even questions they weren’t quite sure how to answer.

Today, of course, celebs are pretty used to being interviewed by comedians posing as representatives of so-called “fake media” outlets, and now they usually join in on the fun (usually); back then, however, Gunston usually confounded his interview subjects, who were sometimes rather dumbstruck as to how to proceed. You can see it in their eyes that they were not quite sure what to make of him.

Surely part of the reason Gunston got the responses he did back then was due to his appearance, with a few remaining strands of his hair plastered down in some kind of crazy combover which attempted to cover his nearly bald pate, and Gunston wearing his usual outfit — an iridescent blue tuxedo jacket, black stovepipe trousers, and sneakers with white socks — all of which should have given them the impression that he wasn’t exactly on the level.

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Then there’s also the fact that Gunston had bits of blood-spotted tissue bits stuck to his face, as if he’d cut himself while shaving earlier that day.

You can see how the celebs reacted to that in this segment we’ve got streaming on Night Flight Plus, which was taken from the Norman Gunston Christmas special which had aired in Australia in late December 1979 (the segment starts about 22 minutes into this February 1988 episode of “Night Flight.”)

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In the episode, Gunston gets all kinds of odd responses to his questions when he talks with Dionne Warwick, Quincy Jones, Tanya Tucker, Glen Campbell, Kris Kristofferson and then-wife Rita Coolidge, Dinah Shore, Barry Manilow, and three of his fellow countrymen — meaning, all three of the Bee Gees, with Barry Gibb giving a great sideways look at the camera at one point — plus their RSO label honcho, Robert Stigwood, and even Stigwood’s mother (or wife?), all of whom seem to be enjoying a night out at the Grammys, and some of them likely unaware that their interviews were going to end up on Gunston’s Australian comedy TV show, let alone broadcast years later in an episode of  “Night Flight.”

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McDonald — who probably first became known to Australians as “Dave Rudd” in the 1972 ABC-TV comedy series “Snake Gully with Dad & Dave” — eventually joined the cast of the Monty Python-esque “Aunty Jack Show,” in either ’72 or perhaps ’73 (sources vary), and he first played the Gunston character in a skit that was written for the show by Wendy Skelcher.

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The skit had Gunston appearing as a roving reporter in what was supposed to be his home town, the real-life city of Wollongong, which can be found in New South Wales, Australia.

The seaside city — referred to sometimes as “The Gong” — is located about fifty miles (82 kilometers) south of Sydney, and is the tenth largest city in Australia.

The first of these Gunston skits — which saw Gunston was reporting uncomfortably on a “sex-scandal drought” in the town, which ultimately led to McDonald/Gunston actually appearing nude in order to sell the story to his viewers — established that Gunston was reporting for a fake news and human interest-type show called “What’s On In Wollongong.”

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Thereafter, whenever Gunston appeared in the “Wollongong” skit on “Aunty Jack,” there was some sort of tie-in to the town (if you’re Australian, perhaps you can let us know if this is wrong, but it seems to us that Wollongong was a town that Australians made fun of, perhaps because of its name, which is a little bit similar to the way Johnny Carson made fun of Burbank, California, where “The Tonight Show” was taped during the same time period).

McDonald continued to play the Gunston character on the show (he also had another character, Kid Eager), but Gunston became so popular that inevitably McDonald began to use it in a variety of different ways, which is how the Gunston character ended up interviewing celebrities.

In effect, McDonald became Gunston, effectively typecasting himself.

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Eventually, McDonald was given his own Norman Gunston spin-off TV specials — all of them were planning to be collected under the title “Wollongong the Brave” — in 1974 (or perhaps ’75, again sources vary), in which McDonald was supposed to play the character in a storyline about him being kidnapped.

However, the pilot for the show wasn’t picked up, and didn’t air on TV shortly after it was made, although, apparently, years later it was brought out of the dead TV show archives and dusted off for occasionally airings, which at the time must have been very confusing to viewers who didn’t quite know that they were seeing a one-off show that was not going to continue the kidnapping storyline any further.

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Then, it was decided by the Australian TV execs in charge of making those decisions that the best way for McDonald’s Gunston to appear on television regularly was to give him his own Sunday night TV talk show, and that’s exactly what happened, sometime in the mid-70s.

“The Norman Gunston Show,” or the very first of the shows which carried that name, had McDonald appearing as Gunston in a “Tonight” show format, doing interviews (reading questions from a clipboard!), and also appearing in a bunch of skits — including providing household tips in his “Consumer Straight Talk,” and posing as “Uncle Norman” in a skit for youngsters, called “Norman’s Dreamtime” — and the show even had Gunston performing musical numbers.

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Yes, Norman Gunston sings — or sung — with McDonald-as-Gunston singing in a put-upon faked “strine” accent, which is a term given to a kind of exaggerated, almost vaudevillian British-Australian comedic accent in which words are run together until the sentences sound like they’re made up of completely different words.

For example, Wikipedia gives this example: “I’ll have a large plate of oysters” spoken with a “strine” accent becomes “Eye-level arch play devoisters”).

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Typically, a guest on Gunston’s TV show would sing “straight” versions of their songs, and Gunston would interrupt them onstage, joining in to sing along (sometimes even playing harmonica as well) in his over-the-top accent.

Depending upon the guest, Gunston could be heard singing sentimental ballads one week, and loud rock songs the next, or breaking it up by singing operatic arias.

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The popularity of his singing segments even led to McDonald — as Gunston — having something of a recording career with a couple of album releases and a handful of singles, too, scoring actual Top 40 charting hits with his version of Tom Jones’ “Delilah,” a punk rock parody song — “I Might Be A Punk (But I Love You, Baby)” — and a parody of the KISS song, “I Was Made For Loving You”: Gunston’s version was called “We Are All Marching in the KISS Army.”

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Mostly, though, Gunston was noted for his “ambush” interviews, approaching his celebrity victims and asking oddball questions while they try to take it all in — his eccentric look, and whether or not the question he was asking was serious — which led to all kinds of weird paparazzi-style interviews which we still find quite funny.

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By the end of the first TV show bearing the name “The Norman Gunston Show,” McDonald’s character was hugely popular, all across Australia, and for the next full season of shows, the producers decided to fly him over to America, where he wasn’t known at all.

This tactic allowed for McDonald being able to fool a bunch of celebs in the States, and these interviews were then inserted back into his Australian TV shows, and the best of them would also appear in TV specials, like his Christmas show, which is where this set of 1979 Grammy interviews come from.

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In fact, back in the 1980s, “Night Flight” regularly aired many of these Gunston segments as part of our “Comedy Cuts” series, and so you will periodically find them in the episodes we’re uploading on a regular basis now to our Night Flight Plus channel.

Gunston’s interviews with rock ‘n’ roll musicians and movie and TV stars — recognizable personalities such as Muhammad Ali, Telly Savalas, Hugh Hefner, Paul and Linda McCartney, Cheech & Chong (who he mistakes as comedy duo “Morecambe and Wise”), tough guy Lee Marvin (who he catches off-guard in a airport terminal), Karen Black, Elliott Gould and Frank Zappa — are still pretty hilarious. (h/t to Dangerous Minds for some of the clips)

There’s obviously much more to the Norman Gunston story, but for now, please enjoy his backstage Grammy interviews in this special 1988 Night Flight episode, which we have streaming for our subscribers over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.