To comedy nerds with a taste for absurdist sketch and infectious melodies, thousands of YouTube users, and the Commonwealth of Australia, Aunty Donna is already a household name. But Netflix subscribers may have found themselves puzzled upon opening up the streaming service on November 11 and being greeted by the varied facial expressions—gleeful, stern, bewildered—of Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House Of Fun stars Mark Samual Bonanno, Broden Kelly, and Zachary Ruane. “You hear ‘Aunty Donna’ and it’s like, ‘Is that one guy, or one woman?’” Scott Aukerman—whose Comedy Bang! Bang! Productions, along with Ed Helms’ Pacific Electric, helped bring Big Ol’ House Of Fun to Netflix—recently told The A.V. Club. It’s six guys, actually: Bonanno, Kelly, and Ruane plus director Max Miller, writer Sam Lingham, and composer Tom Armstrong. Having met as students at the University of Ballarat in the early 2010s, the troupe has been diligently working its way toward a half-hour series like Big Ol’ House Of Fun, which folds new material and guest stars like “Weird Al” Yankovic and Kia “Awesome Kong” Stevens around some of the greatest hits of Aunty Donna’s frenzied live shows. On a Zoom call spanning time zones, continents, an ocean, and possibly-difficult-to-parse-in-print tones, Bonanno, Kelly, Ruane, and Aukerman discussed what one another brought to the show, the differences between making sketch comedy for the internet and making it for TV, and why you’ll never, ever see an Aunty Donna scene end by cutting to black.
The A.V. Club: We thought having each member of the troupe introduce another member of the troupe would be a nice way of acquainting the A.V. Club readers with y’all. So, Mark, what can you tell us about Broden?
Mark Samual Bonanno: Broden thinks he’s The Rock, but actually he’s The Pebble. That’s a little joke for you.
Scott Aukerman: Damn! I cannot believe you said that.
MSB: But it’s okay, because we are friends, so we’re able to say things that might be a little over the line, but he knows it’s in good faith. Right, Broden?
Broden Kelly: Prick. You’re a prick!
MSB: Okay, no need for that. Broden [Laughs.] is a very funny man, and he’s got big muscles. We call him “Mr. Muscles.” He can name all his muscles, which is pretty amazing.
SA: By their real names?
MSB: Yeah, so like “George” and “Frank.” It’s very impressive. Broden is often referred to as the straight man in Aunty Donna. But I think you’ll see, he can play a goofy character as good as anybody else.
AVC: Broden, what can you tell us about Zach?
BK: Well, Zach and I were in the same class at acting school—we met in 2008. So we’ve been consistently working on a project together for… It’s like 13 years now. I’ve known him longer than my partner I’ve been in a relationship with. [Laughs.]
In class, we were the dichotomy of one another, in that I was always like, “Learn the lines and be very serious.” And he would just come in and not have learned his lines, and just be fucking ridiculous and crazy and made anything funny. He’s like a bushfire, in that he’s getting increasingly more hard to deal with as climate change gets worse.
MSB: And also, he starts them.
Zachary Ruane: I’m from an area that gets affected very badly by bushfires. I’ve explained this to you, Mark. I’m not comfortable with those jokes. [Laughs.] I’m sorry. Can you put some sort of irony note in what I just said?
SA: Some sort of font, maybe?
MSB: If you can find a typeface that screams “irony” for that, that’d be great.
SA: Like Comic Sans or something like that? Put that entire paragraph in that.
AVC: And all the serious answers are in Papyrus, of course.
MSB: Then people will think it’s a café! You don’t want that!
BK: Zach is wild. If I had to pick a word, he’s a wild boy.
SA: [Laughs.] That’s two words.
MSB: If I had to pick a word, it’s wild boy.
SA: Which word did you think was the one word? Was it “wild” or “boy”?
BK: Yeah, “wild”’s not right. Maybe it’s “proud.” He’s a proud man.
MSB: Proud boy.
SA: No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
BK: Yeah, but wild. Wild man of the wild. Wild man who’s wild. Unkempt wild man.
AVC: And unkempt wild man, what can you tell us about Mark?
ZR: The thing about Mark is that he can turn everything up to a thousand. [Laughs.] He’s able to go very, very far. And he has an honesty, but he’s also just able to go much bigger than people think you can go. I think that’s a big part of what we do, is how over-the-top and how big we go in our performances. Mark is a big part of that—his ability to take it further than, I would say, taste dictates [Laughs.].
SA: Or perhaps society or viewers would want him to.
ZR: It’s something I’ve always been in pursuit of. Like how big can you go? How much can you just rattle people with your performance style? And Mark’s got that. And he’s a great writer, as well.
MSB: All in a small little Italian package.
ZR: He’s Italian Australian. His parents are Sicilian. I don’t know how much detail you need.
SA: You’re just reading his Wikipedia page right now.
AVC: Can we get a full family tree breakdown?
ZR: So basically what happened is the Italians, they emigrated to America in the 1900s, but the bulk of the Italian immigration in Australia happened in the 1960s. That’s why our Italian culture is quite different—it’s more based on the ’50s Italiano. His parents were a part of that immigration group. They brought espresso coffee—
BK: And he’s a proud boy.
MSB: Proud of my heritage! That doesn’t work…
ZR: If I were to pick one word to describe Mark it would be a talented and funny guy always willing to turn it up to a thousand—we love Mark, and we love what he brings and contributes to the group.
AVC: And Scott, how did you get involved with Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House Of Fun?
SA: I kept hearing about these guys before I ever saw them. My producing partner Dave Jargowsky had seen them at Largo, and came back the next day and was raving about the show, and saying, “We got to get involved, we got to get involved.” It was kind of like the first time I ever heard of Monty Python—like I thought it was one guy maybe?
Once we got involved in the show, someone compiled an hour and a half of all of their sketches, which, I clicked the link with trepidation. Because it’s always so dicey, watching any comedian’s thing—even professional Netflix specials, you can click on it and within three minutes be like, “Oh, boy, this is not good.” I was so nervous about it, and within 10 seconds I was like, “Okay, these guys are great.” It reminded me of, like, the first time you see The Lonely Island or people like that, where it’s just like, “Okay, you’re in safe hands.”
AVC: There’s definitely some Lonely Island and Monty Python in the first season of Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House Of Fun—and a little bit of Stella, too.
SA: Stella’s a good comparison, I think, because it’s three white guys. The end. [Laughs.] No. Because they like to break form in the same way that Aunty Donna do. When we started getting the scripts in, it was cool to see just how much they were really wanting to play around with the form of having a television show. And I love that kind of stuff. They’re really a great combination of all of those influences, but in what really feels like a unique way.
MSB: The Stella thing’s really interesting because when we were doing our first live shows in Melbourne, we had another comic come up to us and was like, “Oh man, I saw you guys. I love you. Obviously, you guys are big Stella fans.” And we’d never heard of Stella, and we were like, “What’s this?” And then we all went home and looked it up. And then we came back the next day, and we’re like, “Oh, god, we’re just Stella. We’re just doing what those guys were doing 10 years ago. How the fuck did that happen?” Now we’re all just massive fucking Stella fans.
AVC: Before making Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House Of Fun, you’d already developed an online following and toured internationally. After that, does doing a traditional, half-hour series like still feel like a leveling-up?
MSB: TV’s always been really important for us. I would say from the start we were always like, “We want that half-hour show.” The internet stuff has just been this byproduct of “Oh, that’s what people are doing now, so we’ll dip our toes into that.”
ZR: YouTube and online is such a perfect platform for individual sketches. But there’s an interaction between sketches you can’t get. Every sketch you put out has to be a piece of gold, and it has to have the accessible notion, it has to have that core thing. We grew up watching Monty Python and Mr. Show and those sorts of things, but I think other people forget how sketches interact with each other and how sketches exist within a half-hour format. Sorry to talk about Mr. Show so much, Scott—
SA: [Sing-song.] My ears are burning!
ZR: There’s a particular episode where it opens with a politician making an untoward joke, and then by the end of the episode, there’s a musical number based on that joke. And I always loved the fact that I couldn’t look that sketch up online and show someone—you had to see it within the context of the half-hour. There’s something in laying foundations and then doing a sketch from those foundations that you just can’t do online. So that [half-hour] space and that sandbox to play within has always been something we wanted to do. But it’s not the final point like it used to be. You can release a bunch of singles on Spotify and then release an album as well, and it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
SA: It is such a big platform, though. Netflix is in so many different countries and in so many different languages, and it almost legitimizes a performer sometimes. Johnny Carson used to do that: The minute a comedian was on Carson, they could sell out clubs across the country. And nowadays with a comedian, if you say, “Well, I have a Netflix special,” people go, “Oh, okay, yeah, I can take you seriously now.” It really is a chance for people all across the world to see these guys and to get a good glimpse into what they do.
BK: When we first started, the things we’d hear from producers and creators when trying to get on variety shows in Australia or England was “How can you take that idea and broaden it so that we can put you on The Tonight Show of wherever we are?” “Can you make this about Boris Johnson?” or “Can you make this about Trump?” Whereas what we can do now is unfiltered us. And there’s that audience all around the world of weirdos and alternative people who like it. We didn’t know [Netflix] existed when we started. But it’s the perfect place for us in a lot of ways.
SA: You didn’t know it existed?
BK: Here’s a true story: I borrowed, from a video shop, the first season of House Of Cards. I borrowed the DVD because Netflix wasn’t [in Australia yet], and you had to borrow three episodes of House Of Cards for, like, $7 as a weekly. It’s taking over here in Australia at the moment, but it took a while to get here.
ZR: We only have 20 million people in Australia. If you were making a show, in order to make a living out of it, you have to get a big turnout, you have to go broad. The best thing about Netflix is you can have your niche, and you just find that niche everywhere.
AVC: And because of that, you’re going to have so many more eyes on you now. Your profile is about to blow up, like Scott was describing. How does it feel to be on the precipice of that?
MSB: We’ll see what happens. We really don’t know. We’re really proud of the show—the thing I love about it the most is that it is unequivocally us and our voice. If the show goes badly, it’s the sword I’m willing to fall on, because I’m like, “Everyone hated it, but at least it was ours.”
The idea of it potentially being a big thing hasn’t really hit yet. Because it still might not. Just because it’s on Netflix, I don’t think that guarantees worldwide success and international acclaim. Like, we don’t know if that’s what it means and if it does—I don’t know, man.
SA: My television show was on Netflix for many years, and I remain very unbothered [Laughs.] by the public whenever I go outside.
BK: We’ve done our apprenticeship in public feedback from YouTube, and we have a humble but really engaged few hundred thousand people around the world who watch our every move. We’re very used to seeing “You’re the best person in the world and I love you” next to “I’m going to come to your house and kill you.”
MSB: My hope is that I go from getting recognized once or twice when I go into the city to three or four times. That little step up is, I think, what might happen.
ZR: More than anything, we have a really loyal fan base. We’ve been touring for so long. We’ve been doing YouTube for so long. I hope that we can keep the good vibes and we can keep that kind of engagement with our fan base. That’s the thing that I really don’t want to lose.
AVC: Your webseries 1999, Glennridge Secondary College, and Ripper Aussie Summer are composed of sketches that share a central location—something that’s true for most of Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House Of Fun as well. How does location factor into your creative process, and where did it come into play with the development of this series in particular?
ZR: Initially it was just a practical thing: “We have to shoot X amount of sketches. Let’s shoot it in one place.” And then the first time we got a little bit of money was for a pilot, and suddenly we were like, “We can shoot anywhere.” And we found we spent most of the shoot traveling. We realized that most of the funny comes from the performance, from being in the moment, being with your peers, and just riffing and being able to get a few extra takes and having a good relationship with the director. Every technical thing, even if it’s a funny technical thing, gets in the way of that play and gets in the way of that joy.
It restricts you in the writing, but it frees you up so much in the shooting and the performing that I think it changes everything. We’re so out there and we’re so weird and we’re so absurd, if we can give the audience something to hold onto—which is a realistic, recognizable, single location—I think that really helps ground it in a way that allows us to go crazier.
AVC: There’s a range of premises that you can launch just from three roommates hanging around, being goofy.
BK: We’ve created this “word of the day” thing for every episode, where we give ourselves a focus within that: One episode’s about going on a date, one episode’s about training for the Olympics. And it’s a point of difference as well: This show, for us, is the idea of playing with narrative in sketch. We didn’t want to go too far into narrative, but we didn’t want to just be sketchy. We wanted to try and find a good middle ground. It’s narrative, but no narrative at the same time.
ZR: How little can you do to create a Netflix-bingeable set of six episodes, but keep it to what it is that we do everywhere else? How much can we distill that so that a sketch can be as big and as crazy and as weird and as absurd as possible?
MSB: With a lot of sketch shows, often you’ll have your favorite sketch. But I hope we’ve done it in a way where people will have their favorite episode, people will have their favorite theme.
SA: When we were watching the early cuts, my wife, Kulap [Vilaysack], during the “Nighttime” episode was like, “Oh, this is the best episode—something about how it hangs together as a full episode.” When you watch a sketch show like Saturday Night Live or something, if a sketch is bad, you can turn it off and you’re not worried, “Oh, I’m going to miss the last three sketches.” But when you’re watching something with a little bit of a narrative or a theme, it hooks you in in a way where you want to watch it to the end. And these guys have been really smart about doing that in a really non-intrusive way that doesn’t feel like they’re pushing it.
ZR: We started as live performers and one rule we made very, very early on was no blackouts. The lights come on at the start of a live show and they stay on until the end. That was something we learned at acting school and something we held onto.
SA: Blackouts are such a crutch in a way. Like if you see a sketch show and there’s a blackout every 60 seconds or so, you can tell they’re not really going deep into the sketches.
ZR: It gives you time to think. “Did I like that sketch? Will I like the next sketch?” Just by the virtue of that choice, it’s created a sense in what we do that it doesn’t matter if you didn’t like that sketch. There’s something whole about this.
MSB: Very early on, we got invited to play San Francisco Sketchfest. We saw a lot of sketch [while we were there], and we did find that every single sketch show—from five-minute sets to one-hour shows—used heaps of props, lots of costumes, and always did blackouts after every single sketch. And it was really good for us because it was like, “We don’t do that.” And we cottoned on that that is our point of difference, and we’re going to really ride that. And we have been riding that for the last eight years.
SA: I’m just thinking about all those other sketch groups who were there the same year that are going to be reading this going, “Really? Were we that bad?”
MSB: No, not bad. Not bad! Just the same.
ZR: Just stop with the blackouts! That’s all!
BK: That was a cool thing to do at a very early moment: To go and do San Francisco and be like, “How great is sketch?” and it endeared us to really back ourselves for the next three or four years.
MSB: Sketch was dead in Australia. At the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I think our first two years when we put in our application, we couldn’t classify our show as sketch. They didn’t have that option because no one had been doing sketch for so fucking long. We were classified as “theater” for our first two years. And then we go to San Francisco, where they have a festival named after the form. It was very, very eye-opening.
BK: The only rooms in Australia were stand-up rooms—like the equivalent of The Comedy Store and things like that. We would get up in rooms with [lineups of] just, like, dudes in plaid shirts, and then it would be us performing a scene. And that was confronting for a lot of Australia. And still is, and would be if someone got up after Iliza Shlesinger and said, “Today we’re at the doctor’s office.”
SA: That’s how I started, though: doing sketches in the middle of stand-up shows.
BK: It’s a baptism of fire.
SA: It’s a cool way to start. People don’t know what to expect when you’re doing that.
ZR: There’s such a history of sketch in parts of America and in the U.K. Because we didn’t have that, we were forced to convince a non-sketch-savvy audience to keep watching. And it’s the thing: You can’t take time to put on a wig when you’ve just seen five people having a chat. You have to just work fast. You have to make it happen. You have to grab an audience and engage them.
I think so much of what we do that seems like a choice was literally just coming up in a space where there wasn’t a lot of sketch. Occasionally we’ll get someone going, “Oh, man, you used to be so interesting. You used to break form, and now you’re doing these sort of conventional jokes.” That’s because we didn’t know how to do jokes at the start of our career. [Laughs.] We weren’t being bold or interesting or different—we just didn’t know. And then we learned about the rules of how to make comedy and started applying it to get laughs.
AVC: There’s probably the flip side to it, too, where if it’s a longtime audience member, they’ve become accustomed to the rhythms and the styles of Aunty Donna. Do you feel like that then maybe pushes you guys to find the new thing?
ZR: That was actually a big challenge with this show: “How do you do ‘Introducing… Aunty Donna’?” For the first time in a long time, the majority of the people watching might not already be fans. Everything we’ve done has been playing off expectations and playing off an audience that knows us. And then how do you do that in such a way that the fans that have been with you for the last 10 years are going to enjoy the show as well? I think part of it was, “Let’s do some structural things in the first episode to introduce who we are. But let’s not waste too much time on that stuff, because when our fans come along, they don’t need two episodes of ‘Broden’s the straight guy, Zach’s the wacky one, and ol’ Mark gets pretty angry.’”
AVC: Although there is that tradition of sketch comedy in the U.S., it’s only been in the past few years that the form had its own award at the Emmys—which Scott was instrumental in establishing. Outstanding Variety Sketch was such a robust category for the first couple of years, but in 2020 there were only three shows nominated.
SA: I voted for Astronomy Club. I tried to get it going.
AVC: How do you think that reflects on the state of sketch in 2020, and where do you see Aunty Donna fitting into that landscape?
SA: I think sketch is such a great form, and it’s kind of stronger than ever in a lot of ways. Unfortunately, for other sketch shows, Saturday Night Live gets the majority of the attention, but that’s because they’re the most popular.
The Emmy part of it is you’re not competing because you want to win an award. You’re competing because you want more attention for the show that you love that you want more people to watch. So you just need more of the Emmy voters to vote for it in order to qualify. I would say, if you’re an Emmy voter out there, do your fucking due diligence and watch [Laughs.] the sketch shows. And watch this one and vote for it. I’ll be voting for it, even though technically it’s a conflict of interest. But as politics has taught us over the last four years, you can do anything you want and no one’s ever going to stop you.
AVC: Who are some other Australian comedy acts who should be known better in the States?
ZR: We have people that we work with that are fantastic: Michelle Brasier, Ben Russell, Mish Wittrup, Demi Lardner—two of which we were lucky enough to be able to get on the show. Shooting in L.A., we were worried we wouldn’t be able to.
MSB: Zoë Coombs Marr is a fucking incredible Aussie comedian.
ZR: Rhys Nicholson. Who else? So many.
There’s just an incredible scene in Australia. Because we don’t have the population, because we don’t have these traditions, these improv schools, there’s a really exciting, self-taught energy there. If the show does well enough, we hope we can be a conduit for some of these interesting, exciting, weird comics.
We’re not an island. It seems like we’ve come out of nowhere. Hannah Gadsby—she’s a generation above us, I would say—but I remember when her special came out, everyone was like, “Where did she come from?” She’s one of the most famous comics in Australia. We grew up watching her. She’s been around for 10 years.
MSB: We had two failed pilots before this. We couldn’t get a TV show to happen in Australia until we went to America. It’s a little heartbreaking because there’s incredible fucking talent here. And those people need to work twice as hard against distance and time zones and crazy shit to try and get an opportunity overseas, because the opportunities, unfortunately, don’t really exist here for people that do weird shit.
ZR: It’s just a population thing. And that’s the most exciting thing about Netflix, about the internet: 3% of 20 million people is very small, but 3% of the English-speaking world—3% of 8 billion with subtitles—you can make a career out of that. That sense of having to leave Australia to be found—the way that Flight Of The Conchords did, the way that maybe you could paint our narrative as—I think that’s becoming less and less of a thing, which is really exciting. You can find your audience anywhere now, which is really exciting.