Meet TV writer Mike McColl Jones
Humble and quietly-spoken, it’s no surprise that Michael McColl Jones shocked TV executives years ago by building a quick rapport with the infamously prickly Graham Kennedy. A fan of cocktail frankfurts, James Patterson crime novels, soft liquorice and a good trashy magazine, just don’t put Mike near a stage or microphone!
Mike, can we start with the irony of you hating the very thing that you spent your entire professional life supporting – live performance!
I loathe public speaking! I don’t seek publicity at all. I’m very happy to stay behind the scenes.
Graham (Kennedy) knew how terrified I was of public speaking and often used to joke that he never had to worry that I’d take over his job! Bert Newton used to say that I had ‘microphonobia”.
But your speech at Graham Kennedy’s funeral where you read a Fax from Heaven that you said Graham had sent to you that morning was so brilliantly delivered. How did you manage this?
I was so scared that I drove for over eight hours from Melbourne to Bowral, NSW for the funeral rather than flying so that I could commit the speech to memory.
But I’ll tell you why I said yes to speaking at Graham’s funeral. There was no-one from Melbourne on his funeral bill who could speak live. Graham was Melbourne-born and he conquered everything from Melbourne. I felt it was very important that someone from Melbourne spoke at his funeral.
And you even got everyone singing at the end of your speech?
Yes! I didn’t know that I was going to be leading them all into the song until Geoff Harvey told me 20 minutes before the show that I needed to sing.
I was petrified! There I was doing something that I hated even more than public speaking – singing!
Can you imagine Graham laughing from heaven at your expense?
You are renowned for your comedy writing, even awarded an OAM in 2017 for services to the arts and TV. But your entry into the world of TV writing was a story in itself.
You started out as a travelling door salesman while also contributing material to Channel 9 on the side. You eventually got your break with a one-month trial working with Graham Kennedy. How was this month?
Terrifying! For a start, I didn’t know if I would actually get the gig or not and I was starting from scratch. I was lucky to have met Fred Parsons who became my mentor. To my mind, the greatest comic writer this country has ever seen because he was a writer for vaudeville and theatre and a top writer for radio and TV in their golden days.
Your relationship with Graham was unusually positive. Why do you think you got on so well?
Before I started, Graham didn’t have a great relationship with writers because they tried to get away with murder – not all of them, but a lot of them.
During my one-month trial, I sent Graham some material and then got a note back from him with feedback. It was pretty unheard of for Graham to write notes to writers and not long after that, I was given the permanent gig. I ended up writing for him for over twenty years.
I didn’t treat Graham differently to other people. We had the same attitude to comedy that was basically get a laugh and if we got into trouble with the sponsors along the way, well, so be it.
We upset all sorts of people but we also knew our boundaries.
You always wanted to be a writer. Why?
Yes, I always wanted to be a writer but I didn’t know of what.
I wasn’t the classic prolific reader and writer as a child and I really don’t know why I wanted to be a professional writer. I just liked it.
I think there’s a bit of rebel in all of us – certainly there is in me. I enjoyed pricking pomposity and big business through words.
Probably the most rewarding thing was being able to do something under the cloak of anonymity – no one knew where the jokes and content was coming from and I loved it that way.
What are some of the best memories of your TV writing career? (I’ve heard you say that you try only to remember good things, so I won’t ask you about your bad memories).
I worked with Graham for over 20 great years.
I introduced a few things into his shows that remained for the full life of the show.
For example, I introduced a segment ‘Headlines of the future’ that ran every Wednesday for 10 years.
Graham would have a mocked-up paper and it was headlines you may read in the paper 30 years hence.
I remember the first joke I did for this segment:
Today Elizabeth Taylor celebrated her golden wedding anniversary – 50 husbands!
With your vast experience in writing and dealing with people – what have you learnt?
The thing you learn is that everyone is the same – everyone has fears and gets cranky. People are nothing out of the ordinary just because they’re famous.
Did anything surprise you looking back now at your career?
I think the thing that surprised me most of all is that it’s all over in a moment. You can worry about something for days but when you’ve completed a show – or delivered a speech – it’s over and in the ether. There’s no time to say I’ll do it again - you don’t have that opportunity – it’s hit or miss.
After being in TV industry for so long, what advice would you give your younger self?
My advice is that once you’ve created something and had it published or performed, don’t worry about it. There’s no point in worrying about something once it’s done – it’s out there and finished. Let it go.
I generally try not to hurt people but at times you do, and at times you can do this intentionally because you don’t like them necessarily! But I try not to hurt anyone because I think comedy should be a place where we do laugh and have some fun. More importantly, we should laugh at ourselves. That’s the best sort of humour.
You also need to be able to work really hard and be committed.
When I worked as TV writer for Graham and others I was in the studio from 9.15a.m. to two or three a.m. the next day for five days a week for over 20 years.
It’s a job and I did it to the best of my ability.
I did 25 Logies and two Royal Command performances for the Queen and Charles and Di. They were big shows – huge pressure events.
Who makes you laugh?
Bert and Graham made me laugh. But people don’t have to be comedians to make me laugh. Friends who would be known to no-one make me laugh.
I’ve retained friendships with lots of people. For 50 years, I met all the top people in the world. For 50 years! That’s throwing in people like Americans Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart.
If there was a TV series made about you, what would it be called?
Are you a nervous person?
Yes, particularly if I get close to a stage or a microphone! Bert used to say that I had microphonophobia.
But being a writer, you can be behind the scenes. That must have helped?
Yes, well, you have to be! I was lucky enough to have a relationship with GK/Bert and Steve Vizard and they could almost tell what I was thinking before I said it/did it/wrote it down.
One night during ‘Tonight Live’ I made Steve laugh so hard that he had to go to a commercial break because he couldn’t continue. It was just something I said off the top of my head and he just collapsed laughing – it had hit a nerve. I’d say it into his ear live – I’d just walk over and tell him something.
Did you seek out accolades during your career?
No! No! The worst thing that could happen to me would be to get singled out – I hated that.
It was enough that the jokes worked on the night.
There’s no way known that anyone could fool me into thinking that a bad show was a good show. We seldom had bad shows but on those rare occasions there’d be no drinks in GK’s dressing room.
Are you a big reader?
Yes, I read everything. I read all sorts of things from the local paper to magazines. I love the trashy magazines – I don’t believe a thing about them and they contradict themselves in the one story!
I also like crime fiction and airline disaster books.
My favourite crime writer is James Patterson. I bought his first book in New York and started reading it and thought he has worked out the formula for books and it’s a lot like a TV show –it’s all about pace. If you establish good pace early in a show or a book, you’ve got an audience hooked and nothing can stop you.
You’re a published author of at least six books. Do you still write today?
Yes. I do a weekly column for the Melbourne Observer and I’m also writing another book. This one is going to be the most interesting one of all.
It’s unusual because I haven’t decided what the book is about yet – I keep changing my thoughts on it.
My books have always been about other people but this book will be about me. It is likely to include some family history and some tips on how to write jokes.
I write a little bit each day and it’s enjoyable because I have no idea how it’s going to turn out . Like many fiction writers who say they enjoy the process because they don’t know what their characters are going to do…well, I have no idea and I’m the character and I don’t know what I’m going to do (laughing).
We’ll look forward to reading your book.
So will I!
Can we chat a bit now about your time at Hedley Sutton. What do you enjoy about life at Hedley?
I’ve been at Hedley since the start of this year and everyone has been terrific.
I don’t have any complaints. It’s the people who make it. You could have flashy marble everywhere in a place but it wouldn’t make any difference if the people were no good.
I think the staffing is fantastic – there are some really, really good people – particularly a lot of younger people who are taking the trouble to find out things about how the place runs that impresses me. By and large for an organisation that’s so care oriented, it does a very good job.
The other thing - and people can’t believe me when I say this – but the food here is amazing!
What’s amazing about it?
The variety, flavour and the way in which it’s served – it’s inventive and impressive.
What they’d managed to do with food is that they take normal menu items and they play with them – put spices in them – make the food really interesting. The chef Elton has just got a dedication – Baptcare is so lucky to have someone like that.
Our chef, Elton must have heard you talking! (Elton comes over to join the conversation and Mike gives Elton some live feedback).
I think you should be very proud of what you do Elton. Congratulations. Your Japanese pancake on today’s lunch menu was fantastic! But one thing you shouldn’t ignore – with footy season around the corner – please include some cocktail frankfurts! They’ll be really popular, trust me.
Do you get involved in the activities at Hedley?
No, I don’t join in any of the activities at the moment because I tend to do my own thing, including working on my book. But I do eat dinner in the dining room and have made a few friends – some charming people who have made me feel very welcome.
Any motto in life?
Someone asked me recently what I would change in my life and I can say absolutely nothing.
What’s done is done, and how am I going to change it? That’s me anyway. There’s nothing you can do about things that are done. It doesn’t worry me. Perhaps it should?
What are you proudest of in your career?
Making people laugh – it has been my forté for so many years and hopefully having people leave the studio/theatre in a better frame of mind than when they came in.
Unfortunately, we’ve got to the stage in society now where you’ve got to be careful with anything you say. My attitude is don’t be careful with anything – just do it! I’d prefer to get a laugh rather than have someone snooze and nod off.
There’s little danger of that happening in your company Mike. Thank you for your time.
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