Magda Szubanski talks comedy, kids’ books and campaigning

Living Well | Interview: Sarah Marinos | Posted on 10 April 2020

Comedian, storyteller and campaigner Magda Szubanski begins a new chapter.

My house is chockablock with books. I loved reading when I was a kid and it’s still one of my greatest pleasures. I loved adventure books – they were like opening a door to extraordinary worlds. In grade 3 I read The Lost World and was inspired to write my own 32-page dinosaur epic called Journey into the Jurassic Age – I was ahead of Steven Spielberg on that one. 

In grade 5 I started a school newspaper. I was the editor, journalist, illustrator and printer. There were only a few editions, I couldn’t get other kids to take it seriously. Kids are more engaged and creative now. My great-nephew Jacob self-published a book on sharks when he was 10.

Comedian Magda Szubanski

I grew up in North Croydon. At the end of our road were farms, horses, orchards and bush, which we ran through pretending to be Daniel Boone. I loved TV and stamp collecting, I had a microscope and collected test tubes of stuff from the creek to examine. Once my brother and I got sheep’s eyes from a farm and dissected them.

I do love a hobby. During self-isolation I thought I’d have a crack at some adult Lego. I tackled a model of the Taj Mahal, not realising it was one of the most difficult things to do, but it turned out very well. 

A friend once said to me: ‘You’re small and cute and round but when you’re in a certain mood you’re like a little effed-off Shetland pony.’ Timmy the effed-off Shetland pony became my nickname and when I was approached by a publisher and asked if I’d be interested in writing a kids’ book, I thought Timmy would be a good character. So Timmy the Ticked-Off Pony is my first children’s book. He’s a famous, very self-absorbed Shetland show pony who disgraces himself by doing a poo of excitement on the red carpet. 

I worked in a women’s refuge when I was 19. I’d tell stories to connect with the kids and distract them. I soon learned that the way to their hearts was poo, farts and wee. One story I told was that the kids had to go to Canberra to ask for more funding for the refuge. The plane ran out of fuel so all the kids had to fart in unison to lift it up. 

I thank my mother and father for my storytelling abilities. My mother was Scottish and her father was Irish and she just had a way of telling a story. She was feisty and hilarious. My father was Polish and had a great way of telling a story too. 

I feel very fortunate to have been part of things like the D Generation, Fast Forward, Babe, Kath and Kim and Big Girl’s Blouse – the first all-female sketch comedy in this country.

Campaigning for marriage equality really changed me. I’m not really interested in politics. I’m more of a community-based person and I’m not an activist but I realised I had a certain skillset and good will with the Australian public. It was very intense. It got very nasty and it was scary because I was there on behalf of other people and I worried I would get facts wrong. We just wanted to have the same protection under the law. I didn’t realise how dirty the fight would get but I had a sense that I couldn’t not do this – people you didn’t know had the right to decide what sort of a loving family unit you were going to be permitted to create.

I didn’t realise how dirty the fight would get but I had a sense that I couldn’t not do this – people you didn’t know had the right to decide what sort of a loving family unit you were going to be permitted to create.

I wasn’t as closeted as people think. 
A lot of people knew about my sexuality – everyone I worked with, heaps of acquaintances, and I’d go to gay venues. It wasn’t a super-secret but there’s a difference between that and declaring it and everyone knowing your business. I am lucky that I came out at a time when there is great acceptance for LGBTQI people.

If I met someone and it was serious, I would marry. It’s not just about love, it’s about illness and death. My friends have wanted to be able to be there for their partner in exactly the same way that a straight person can. Now you have the same protection under the law. I’d marry for that reason as well as the romantic ones, although I think it’s romantic to want to be there for your partner in a completely whole-hearted way.

Simple things matter most. Don’t get me wrong, public acknowledgement and awards are lovely – I’m not giving them back – but I feel lucky to be someone who can delight in small things… a good book, a sunny day, a view of nature, good conversation with friends, shared meals.

Injustices have always upset me. I especially don’t like the unforgiving extremes of politics at the moment. As you get older you’re very conscious of the world you’re leaving for younger generations, what knowledge you have accumulated over the years, and what you have of value to pass on.

I think we will emerge as a better society from the coronavirus. But only if we put our minds to making sure we do. At the moment the world is in the most extraordinary crisis, but it’s a healing crisis, like when you have a fever and it breaks. It’s a wake-up call and I remain hopeful.

Timmy the Ticked-Off Pony and the Poo of Excitement, by Magda Szubanski, is published by Scholastic Australia, rrp $16.99.