Wil Anderson: ‘I had to take a real look at my life’
Wil Anderson appears to be a workaholic.
While his peers in comedy are either relaxing in the waning weeks of summer, or frantically prepping shows for the upcoming Australian comedy festival season, Anderson is doing a week of improvised performances in Sydney.
That's after coming off another successful season and before his own months-long run of stand-up shows. Why bother? "For fun, mostly," he tells Stellar with a grin. "Honestly? Might as well."
Anderson is happiest when he is creating comedy onstage playing stand-up, not so much if he has to re-create it in a carefully rehearsed show. Repetition is, well, repetitive, whereas the danger in coming up with a wisecrack on the spot, in front of a live audience, energises him.
Not that the shows don't work.
His annual Melbourne International Comedy gigs sell more than 20,000 tickets each year. And while he is one of Australia's most popular stand-up performers, Anderson only recently realised his craft was being suffocated by his other work.
"The last couple of years, particularly the last year, I was too busy," he explains. "And I had to have a real look at my life."
A return to breakfast radio in 2018 alongside Eddie McGuire at Melbourne's Triple M, four months of Gruen a year and multiple podcasts to record meant his stand-up had dropped off. "I had to make a realistic choice," he says. "And the way I did it was to start filling my diary with what I wanted to do first. It was an opportunity to ask, 'What is my life and career, and what's the next 20 years of my life as a stand-up look like?'"
So at the end of last year, Anderson quit the radio gig. He also decided to forgo the US circuit, which took him away for long stretches. "Part of the reason we came back is it is hard on all your relationships," he says, the "we" referring to himself and Amy Williamson, his partner of 18 years.
"After a while you're the friend who isn't going to anything. Already you're the friend who isn't available on Friday or Saturday, and then suddenly you're not available for six months of the year."
Instead of constant touring, he's adopted a more measured, fly-in, fly-out approach. "You can have your life with your family and dogs and then fly out [to work]."
Comedy can be a selfish profession because he's always in his head; mulling the better line, deconstructing a topic. He knows this, so reminds himself it's just that: a profession - but one he wants to have decades from now, too.
When Anderson and fellow gen-X comedians such as Rove McManus, Dave Hughes, Peter Helliar, Judith Lucy and Corinne Grant hit the scene in the '90s, the aspiration was a breakfast radio gig or maybe a role on a sketch comedy show. Now they enjoy careers as producers, writers, children's book authors or gadabouts.
He is content to stay with stand-up, even up to age 80. "Hope so," he replies when presented with the prospect. "I guess I have some sort of control over that because stand-up is one of those things you can keep doing regardless. But if your audience goes away, it's less fun to do."
That's why he works so hard, creating new shows, improvising sets and refreshing his audience through different platforms. "I want to take risks; I want to challenge myself and be scared because I want to do stand-up for the rest of my life."
And as a new generation of performers comes through, all of them demanding their own time in the spotlight, Anderson just has to stay focused.
"If I keep doing interesting shows, people will come back to them," he says. "And I'll get to keep doing them for as long as I want."
Anderson certainly looks match fit for a year in which he will tour three shows: the popular Wilegal, about his arrest at Wagga Wagga airport in 2017; his improv show Whatchu Talkin' Bout WIL?, and the topical Wil-Informed.
He's lean and physically better than he has been for years, despite dealing with osteoarthritis. At some stage, his hips will need replacing. "I was terrible for ages and part of that was I was pushing myself too hard," he sighs.
Vegetarianism keeps weight off his joints and a Kieser physio program is working. "Essentially it's a gym for people who don't want to hurt themselves in the gym," he says. "I'm trying to look after myself."
You might say the 46-year-old is settling down. "When you're 20, comedy is the number-one focus in your life and it's a voracious beast," he says. "You throw yourself into it when you're younger. And suddenly you're middle-aged and asking, 'How does this fit into my life?'"
More and more, the answer is on his own terms. He loves his profession, but home seems to be where his heart really is.
Anderson is rarely seen on red carpets or out schmoozing with showbiz pals. And he's never been to the homes of Adam Spencer (his Triple J partner for four years) or those of Russel Howcroft and Todd Sampson, who have been by his side at Gruen for more than a decade.
In fact, Sampson tells Stellar, "It was only when I saw his stand-up that I saw 'him' for the first time."
At one show, he says, Anderson caused his wife Neomie to go into contractions; later that night, their second child was born. "Scary to think how good he'll be with more time to create and less stress on his shoulders," he observes.
In the coming months, Anderson will perform to around 30,000 people. But, he reminds Stellar, "When I go home, I'll still be the guy who has to pick the dog poo off the lawn."
Wil Anderson is touring three different live shows nationally in 2020; comedy.com.au.