Alex Casey interviews No Activity’s Darren Gilshenan about wearing wet church pants, missing out on Margot Robbie and making something out of nothing.
No Activity is a difficult show to describe, and one even harder to recommend. So I’ll just say this: it’s really fucking funny.
A low-budget Australian comedy first commissioned by the online video platform Stan, No Activity is set across a series of stakeouts ranging in eventfulness. Focussing on the two main officers Stokes (Darren Gilshenan) and Hendy (Patrick Brammall), as well as their interactions with the call centre and the criminals/innocent bystanders they encounter, the show spends most of its time sat in the front seat of a parked car. Think Locke, but with more riffing about manicured pubes.
With the second season of No Activity available exclusively on Lightbox this month, I spoke to Darren Gilshenan about making comedy magic out of a parked car and a dolphin statue.
I wanted to congratulate you on getting a second season of a show about nothing. Are you aware that you’re nearing Seinfeld in that respect?
I’m amazed we even got the first season, to be honest.
Why is that?
It’s a hard sell approaching a network and saying ‘You’ve gotta trust us on this, we’ve got a group of funny people together and a half-stark idea. Give us some money.’ Even when we were making it, we were kind of unsure as to what it was going to be. I think the whole concept was really defined in the editing suite.
How much of the show is improvised, is there a vague episode outline where you just get in the car and shoot the shit?
We worked from Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm process. You have a scene, and within that scene you have certain story elements to get across. The scene might be that you have to ask a girl on a date, so we have to find a way to go about that. You just join a whole lot of story elements together and stretch it over the half hour.
The dialogue is all improvised, but the story structure is roughly worked out. The first season was a lot more improvised because we didn’t really know who our characters were when we first started. For instance, there was one scene where I’m talking about a dog that’s been run over by a car and an old man who’s upset, and how I got into a hot tub with him because he says it would calm him down.
Patrick immediately says to me ‘when did you take your pants off?’ and I said ‘They were my church pants, I didn’t want to get them wet’. So just from that one line, suddenly I’m a church guy.
I really like that the level of comedy is so weird. I like that it doesn’t spoonfeed the audience or dilute anything, and each episode is allowed to go in so many weird directions. Do you think that’s because you’re able to be weirder in an online space?
I think the Stan guys are great because they didn’t get in the way. No one stopped us from saying the shit that we did, and that was what was fun about it. There was one scene we cut that was about me trying to convince Patrick why a pedophile joke is funny, and explaining that he’s not looking at it the right way.
We would often go down these tangents that were so weird that we often thought no-one could get away writing them down. When something is weird it can feel kind of new, especially the deepest, darkest, strangest little thoughts that run around in your head. I think that’s what everyone finds refreshing: those sort of strange, private conversations that men have when they’re alone in a car.
It seems like quite an unusual workspace to be trapped in a car together for hours on end.
It’s so strange. We can be locked in a car with the windows up and the cars all mic’d, and left in there for up to 10 hours. What happens between us feels as though no-one is even out there or listening to us. You don’t see the crew around us, we’ve only got two cameras pointing in through the windows. We’re not even aware what’s funny when we’re doing it, because you can’t hear any feedback. It allows us to get to a very intimate space where you’re not really that guarded. You just feel as though you can let anything come out.
Do you make each other laugh when you’re improvising? And how do you stop laughing?
Patrick and I try to set each other up the whole time by getting weirder and weirder, digging in further and further. Working with a scene partner who doesn’t laugh really puts the challenge out there. You can really push things and get really fun and dark. Only occasionally we get to places where we stop and look at each other and laugh at the same time because we kind of recognise the corner that we’d pushed ourselves into. The times when it’s so ridiculous you don’t even know what you are saying anymore.
Did you do any method acting or preparation for these roles? Did you witness any proper stakeouts?
Absolutely none. Absolutely nothing at all. We didn’t need to know anything because it’s a cop show where the last thing you see is any cop action at all, you know? It’s just about people and boredom. The whole thing is really a riff on what happens when you’ve got those endless boring nights and you’re trapped with someone who you know very well. Where does the conversation go?
You’ve had some Aussie heroes like Rose Byrne and Tim Minchin, do you have some other local legends you’d love to rope in?
We almost got Joely Edgerton but he had something else on at the last minute. We almost had Margot Robbie, but she had something else. There’s a steady stream of Aussie actors who are successful in Hollywood that have seen the show and are putting their hand up, but it’s about finding a window to steal them for a day during their hectic schedules. I’m sure if we get to go again there will be more big names in it.
Yeah, I’d like to see Russy in it, Hugh [Jackman], the bigger the name the smaller the role is what’s funny about it. We could have Hugh Jackman being a janitor in a police station or something.
You have to get Hugh. What else can people expect from season two?
It’s just bigger and better. There’s a few more relationships, a couple more crims, a couple more gimmicks. We up the dynamics between the characters a little more, swap the roles around a little. In season one I was the hen-pecked husband and Patty was trying to get a date. This time it’s the other way around, so we’ve switched the relationship. We end up in different cars with different people, different combinations. The story is a little more complex because of that. I hope you enjoy it, because we certainly did.
Click here to watch No Activity exclusively on Lightbox
This content, like all our television coverage we do at The Spinoff, is brought to you thanks to the excellent folk at Lightbox. Do us and yourself a favour by clicking here to start a FREE 30 day trial of this truly wonderful service.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.