Andrew Denton: 'That is the true measure of the human being: where you put your time'

Author: Movember
In this interview of the Movember Podcast, host Adam Garone sits down with fellow Aussie Andrew Denton. Known for his humor and wire-rimmed glasses, Andrew is a celebrated TV writer and producer, hosting shows like "Blah Blah Blah", "Enough Rope" and "Randling". Recently, Andrew is lending his voice and utilizing his platform for activism, hosting his podcast, “Better Off Dead” prompting important conversations and inciting political change.  
 
On an early morning in Sydney, Adam and Andrew sat down to speak about everything from fatherhood to grief.   
 
ADAM: Paint the picture of your dad. What was he like?  
 
ANDREW: He moved to Australia in his late twenties and did all kinds of jobs from being a gold miner to a fencer, making fences, before he ended up in broadcasting.  
 
ADAM: Did your dad's work at the ABC inspire you to take a similar career path?  
 
ANDREW: Not the inspiration. I'm sure he was the influence. When you leave school you've got no idea what you're going to do you. I actually wanted to be halfback for South Sydney Rugby League football team, but I couldn't tackle, which in fact would have made me quite a good halfback for them! But no, I didn't know what I wanted to do and dad suggested that I do a media course and that led me on my path. 
 
Obviously I'd grown up in a driven media household and as it turned out, the strongest point of my career was interviewing people. Growing up, my dad would talk about how he interviewed people - I was lucky to be schooled in that way. But my dad wasn't prescriptive like, "Oh you should follow this path or follow that path." He was just encouraging. 
 
He punished us physically because that's how he was brought up. Not a lot but when we were young, that's what he did! We didn't live in fear. My chief memory of my family growing up is of laughter.  
 
ADAM: And siblings? How many siblings?  
 
ANDREW: Two sisters. I was in the middle so I was able to play one off against the other all the time. It was excellent.  
 
We were a volatile family. My mother was mad Irish, we could argue with the best of them. People would come and visit and we would range from a full-on Barney to just total madness and hilarity in the space of ten minutes.  
 
I grew up in a household where humor was three quarters of our currency, so— 
 
ADAM: So really bad dad jokes.  
 

ANDREW: I do really bad dad jokes and I love to tell this story, I made some bad dad joke to my wife Jennifer when Carl was about 16, and it still makes me laugh, he looked at Jennifer, and said, "Oh, Mom. Is this really the best you could do?" And I laughed and laughed and then I said, "Well actually, son, it is, and that says a lot about your mom."  
 
ADAM: What was the joke?  
 
ANDREW: It's actually, I'm quite proud of it because you know how bad Christmas cracker jokes are?  
 
They're a special level of bad. They're not just common garden bad. Somebody has gone to great effort to make it. So this is my Christmas cracker joke. And I'm proud of it: "I used to be a zookeeper. The pay was good, but the owls were lousy." Dad joke, see?  
 
ADAM: Yes, that's the new level of dad joke right there.  
 
ANDREW: So, if what you're hearing there is that I have an abusive relationship towards my family  
 
ADAM: Growing up what did you learn about being a man from your dad? How have your views changed around masculinity and being a modern man?  
 
ANDREW: That's a really complex question. I've never thought to ask that question before: what did I learn about being a man from my dad? I think respect for people regardless of who they are. 
 
My dad was a man's man in many ways in that he had a lot of male friends and he actually had things called "gentlemen's weekends” where all his different friends from all walks of life, some were journalists, some were police, some were filmmakers, they would just spend an entire weekends playing cards, they'd drink and they'd do whatever they did. 
 
ADAM: Certainly when it relates to mental health what we've found through our research in just being a man, it's so important to spend time with other men doing whatever it is you're into, whether it's fishing, whether it's golf, surfing, whatever. Not just about football or the weather but having real conversations. And it sounds like those gentlemen’s weekends were just that.  

 
ANDREW: I think my dad being of his generation from England, he wasn’t raised in a tradition of sharing your feelings. I think intellectually he knew how to do that. But I would say that men today – not across the board – are much better at having that conversation you just described than my dad's generation was. 
 
ADAM: Do you see that in your son Connor? And his mates?  
 
ANDREW: Totally. Absolutely. I suppose this is the difference between the way I was fathered and the way I father. I've always believed talking with Connor about feelings. The worst thing I have exhibited as a father is anger.  
 
I've exhibited anger and I've talked with Connor about that. How anger is very corrosive. I've admitted to fault, which I think is very important as a father. No one is perfect. We had one perfect person, we nailed him to a piece of wood. No one's perfect. 
 
ADAM: That's vulnerability in the way we're conditioning our boys. We need to make it okay, for boys to be vulnerable - to put their hand up and ask for help because this can play out very negatively later on in life.
 
 
ANDREW: Absolutely. One of my favorite expressions, that someone in Queensland came up with is "Are you okay" day and it was, "Soften the fuck up!" Which I thought was fantastic.  
 
ADAM: Yeah we've done some work with them, again, because we have done some research around asking guys, "Are you there for your mates if something goes down?" To the extent that you lend the money or do whatever it is you would need to do to help them. Most guys will say, "Yeah, for sure, I'm there for my mates."  
 
But you flip the question and ask them well, "If you are going through a bad time, would you ask your mates for help?" And it's a very different statistic. Only a few guys would actually feel comfortable doing that.  
 
ANDREW: That's true. It’s still an issue and it's been great in recent years to see, footballers, for example, who are strong masculine role models, start to talk openly about the kind of problems they have.  
 
One of the reasons I'm very proud of my son is that I have seen from a young age he's deeply empathetic to his friends and offers himself to be there.  
 
ADAM: So what aspects of your father have you tried to emulate as a dad? 
 
ANDREW: Giving time. It doesn't matter what else you have in life, financial resources or whether you started in a good or bad position socially, everybody is allotted roughly the same amount of time. That is the true measure of the human being: where you put your time.  
 
ADAM: How often do you get to see Connor and what do you guys like to do when you're together?  
 
ANDREW: I just came from breakfast with him. We catch up at least once a week. He comes out and spends the night with us. He's trying to be a fitness instructor so he sometimes take me to the gym which is very painful for me.  
 
ADAM: It'll be good for your modeling career. 
 
ANDREW: Absolutely. I don't have abs, I have flabs. We hang out, we watch movies, television, we talk about whatever stuff we're both going through in our lives. We'll go for walks. He's a lovely, sweet, smart, funny really loving young man. I love the fact that he's just turned 23, that we still hug and kiss in public - there's none of that male reserve. To me that's a beautiful thing that we have that relationship. He's just a beautiful boy. 
 
ADAM: So your father was 68 when he passed away. Do you see that as a key milestone for you to personally live beyond 68? 
 
ANDREW: Well, I don't plan around it but I’d certainly like to live beyond 68. I'm now 57 and I'm keenly aware, I'm nowhere near as fit and healthy as I should be.  
 
ADAM: What do you do to stay mentally healthy and physically healthy, as best you can? 
 
ANDREW: Well, I'll answer physically, first because not enough. I mean I tried a bit of Pilates but I'm incredibly non-bendy. I do play tennis. I love to run around. I'm like a lot of blokes, simply having the prospect of a ball going somewhere is almost all I need in life.  
 
The potential of a ball is the most magnificent thing. But I need to work harder, because I like to climb up mountains and go scuba diving – things like that. And so I do have to go back to your question. I remember Dad had his first heart attack in his fifties, and I do have this slight shadow in my mind of: gee, once something breaks, everything else gets harder. So that conversation is in my head.  
 
My mental health, particularly when I was younger, I had issues with depression. It wasn't until my 30s that I actually got a diagnosis or even understood what it was.  
 
There was no real conversation about it. So what I do for my mental health - what I know now having been through that more than once: I recognize the triggers and I recognize what puts me back into that position. So, I act on that. The triggers are generally if I completely overstress myself and get very run down, that can lead to that depressive sense. 
 
ADAM: It’s interesting knowing a number of comedians – and some speak quite openly about this – have challenges with their mental health. But when they're on the stage and performing, it's a completely different persona and they wouldn’t reconcile that offstage. 
 
Was there a big difference between you off and onstage?  
 
ANDREW: Not really because I'm an appalling actor and I just didn't have another act. Me on camera versus me on stage was just a heightened version of myself. It wasn't a different version of me. 
 
In private, I'm very happy being solitary, and I sometimes require space away to just sit quietly. But I wasn't one of those people who felt the need to be on all the time.  
 
ADAM: What was the trigger at thirty years of age to act on that and seek some help? 
 
I had started a new live television show two nights a week at Channel Seven. I stressed myself out to such a point that only a couple months in, I literally had to take two weeks off and get some help.  
 
And worse than that, Connor had literally just been born for those two weeks I took off. So I had to go and do something about it. That was the first time I discovered, that you could get medical help. You could get chemical help. What I described as “you can get a floor put in that you can climb out of.” 
 
I believe that drugs have their place in this, and can have their place, but it's also this cognitive therapy and that is getting an understanding of: How did I get here and how do I get out? And, as I said, recognizing the things that put you in their place, so that if they start to happen again, you can change what's happening. 
 
ADAM: And when you say drugs, you mean like antidepressants.  
 
ANDREW: Antidepressants. Yeah, yeah, yes! Not booze and dope! 
 
ADAM: Right, right, right.  Now, humor has been a central part of how we've got men to engage in their health. Even with Movember, growing the mustache and the banter and how shit your mustache looks compared to the next guy.  
 
ANDREW: Humor is so important. I remember one of the first times I went to a psychiatrist to deal with what was going on. They got a call in the middle of a session, something he had to attend to, so he went out. And I got up from sitting and went over to his notepad, no, to his computer and I just typed in, "This guy's absolutely batshit crazy." And then I sat down again. And of course he comes back to his computer and he's, we're having the conversation and I can see him glance up the screen.  
 
ADAM: So, you've had a number of transitions in your life, professionally from comedian to investigative journalist. I want to shift gears now around your advocacy work and what your passion is now.  
 
So, tell us how that started. I've listened to the Better Off Dead podcast, and I'm really interested in understanding that.  

 
ANDREW: My advocacy is around what's called voluntary assisted dying. Some know it as euthanasia but it's essentially a law to help people who are terminally ill, who can't be helped by medicine, to die a gentle and compassionate death, rather than what their currently being forced to do which is either die a brutal death or starve themselves to try and speed things up, in their own lives in a very ugly way. 
 
I'm doing this because I watched my dad die very painfully twenty years ago. And a few years ago I set off to answer the question, "Why can't we have a law in Australia to help people like my dad in that position?"  
 
I've now spent almost three years on it. I have spent thousands of hours talking to people on all sides of this debate, because it's a big moral and ethical debate. 
 
But mostly, I spent time with people whose lives have been terribly scarred by our existing legal situation. The reason I feel so passionate about it is because even though it's a small percentage of Australians, it's not a small number of people. And if you're that person, it's the whole universe. What I'm aware of is that under our current laws, there are terrible things being forced upon really good people every week. And it shouldn't be happening.  
 
ADAM: Death is one of those inevitable things but none of us want to talk about it.  
 
ANDREW: Absolutely right. What's the saying: in Victorian times they talked about death all the time and never about sex, and now it's the other way around.  
 
ADAM: Have you looked at those cultures where they really celebrate death?  
 
ANDREW: Yeah, absolutely, and there are some magnificent ways people do it. Look, I get it. Newsflash: I'm not very keen on the thought of being dead, but it is inevitable and I think part of the reason we've struggled with the kind of law I'm advocating for in Australia is we are a fairly buttoned down society in talking about this stuff.  
 
ADAM: It's interesting, it's been an interesting week for me. I'm coming in on Sunday from LA, Monday a funeral of a very, very good friend. Her dad passed from cancer, and then a funeral tomorrow which, which is going to be a true celebration, my Nan, she passed at 98.  
 
But in both cases, it's interesting because, in the funeral on Monday, the cancer came back. Jim decided not to pursue any more treatment and the doctors agreed with that. Then essentially he was on painkillers. Then no food, no water, and then five days later he passed.  
 
Similarly with Nan, a slightly shorter timeframe. But I distinctly remember Mum telling me that Nan was going through this. Every six hours wondering, "Is she still there? Is she still there?" I can only I assume this is the motivation for your work now – to actually see that. That they take their last breath because their body is literally shut down because it's deprived of food and water.  
 

ANDREW: Look, the way your friend and Nan died is how it is for most Australians. Most Australians will die a reasonable death. How my father died was not like that. His last three days were very painful. I can see them, right now, as I'm talking to you. But I have to say what happened to my dad is nothing compared to what I've learnt is happening to some people.  
 
For example, there was a woman in Australia called Ireland Dorr, who was 91 and she had terminal cancer. She wanted it over. But she had no legal options for that so she did the only thing that our law will allow: She stopped eating and drinking. That’s legal.  
 
She kept a diary and it took her seventeen weeks. In her diary she wrote, "My country's laws decree death by a thousand cuts for me." This story is repeated every week around Australia, one way or another. Which is not to say our medical profession are derelict or bad at what they do - it's just the reality. 
 
It's the flip side of the brilliance of medicine: it can keep us alive longer. But diseases like cancer - we still don't have a cure for them. For some people, it gets very brutal and they're the people the law is designed to help.  

ADAM: So what's victory for you in this sense?  
 
ANDREW: Immediately it's a law being passed in Victoria because there's a huge amount of evidence now which supports the law. The government's actually putting it forward. 
 
ADAM: Is that the difference in Victoria compared to the other states?  
 
ANDREW: Yes. That's right. In other states, it's usually been a private member's bill, whereas now you've got the government putting forward, so there's a whole lot more weight behind it. 
 
I think if that law passes, it does two things. First of all, it’s historic, it can't be overturned by the federal government, it's a state's law. Secondly, it becomes proof of concept. It will help those who are designed to help. It won't be dangerous to those who deserve protection - the elderly or those with disabilities who some suggest will be coerced to die under these laws. There's no credible evidence to support that but that's still the argument.  
 
So when a law passes, it becomes proof of concept. The experience from overseas is that for doctors, this becomes an important law. Not for all doctors, the law says that any doctor can conscientiously object, and that's as it should be. But for those doctors who are currently faced with a really difficult, terrible situation, actually, of either breaking the law and risking jail, or losing their license, to assist somebody to die or leaving that person to suffer.  
 
We have testimony from doctors and nurses in the case of one nurse, 30 years on, still traumatized by what she witnessed. Not being asked for help and not being able to give it. So what a law like this does is it enables those doctors in particular that don't have a moral or ethical objection to do their job better. To actually be able to have that conversation with their patient about, "Wow, things are so bad, what else can we do for you?" that they currently can't have.  
 
ADAM: Andrew is there another career transition coming up, is politics on the horizon?  
 

ANDREW: That is so not on the horizon. In fact, when this is done, I'm really looking forward to stepping back out of the square. It's fascinating but definitely not my thing. Look, I think male modeling is my next step.  
 
...You just laughed way too quickly there Adam.   
 
Look, I always transition, but for me I have a philosophy that life is the career, not the other way around. So for me, a couple of times in my career, I've stepped out of my professional career and gone to do other things. So when I stepped out of television about four or so years ago, I did a lot of traveling - I even got my scuba diving license. I went to Antarctica and the Arctic. For me life is actually the accumulation of those experiences. Not all of which are to do with your job or how far up the ladder you got. I have an expression called "liquid time," which I always hanker for, that is creating space in my life where there's no deadlines.  
 
I did in an interview with New Philosopher Magazine a couple of years ago and I did it because I thought they'd ask interesting questions and indeed they did. And one of them was: What's your idea of progress? When I answered the questions, I thought I'm just going to answer them without thinking – and then see what my answer was.  
 
When I looked back at the answers I thought, "That's a reasonably enlightened answer." My answer to the question, "What's your idea of progress?" was noticing the bark on a tree. I liked that answer because it was about the elemental business of being alive, just existing in the universe. When I was going through very depressive times, one of the things that enabled me to keep stepping forward was to reminding myself of—and this sounds very Hallmark greeting card—but literally of the beauty of a sunset or literally the amazingness of a flower. 
 
Whatever other shit is happening in the world, how extraordinary to, for however long I'm alive, to be able to experience these miraculous things. That's what I mean about the elemental business of being alive.  
 
Whether there's a God or not, I don't know. We are a part of the universe, a series of atoms that's coalesced for some reason into this conscious being, and we have the opportunity to experience the amazingness of the physical world.  
 
That's why I think when people go bushwalking there is a very powerful meditative effect to that and one of the most powerful things about it is not just what's there, but what's been removed. What's been removed is all that human import of advertising and billboards and messaging and the second we remind ourselves that we are just creatures amongst other creatures, and amongst other living things -  
 
I remember interviewing Jane Goodall many years ago who was the first woman to go into the jungles of Tanzania and observe chimpanzees. She changed our view of ourselves, because she was the first person to record chimpanzees using sticks as tools. And she told me an amazing thing, I've never forgot it. She was basically by herself in the jungles for some months and I said, "What does that do to your perception?"  
 
She said, "It becomes very finely attuned." And she said, "I remember a fly landing on my arm, but I didn't see it as a fly, I just saw it as an extension of me. Just another collection of molecules and just another living thing."  
 
ADAM: Well Andrew, thank you so much for joining us today on the Movember Podcast.

ANDREW: Thank you, and can I just say, I think Movember's been a mighty thing.
 
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