The polls have been on this pair’s minds. They are here to promote their Official* 2019 Election Guide (published, of course, on April 1) – “a must-read compendium for the most important federal election since 2016” – in which they claim to have trademarked the word ‘official’, just to annoy the Australian Electoral Commission.
“Sure, some of you legal eagles may say, ‘Hey, wait a second, that’s not how trademarks work!” Firth writes in the introduction. “But to those people we say, we’ve also registered ‘that’s not how trademarks work’ as a trademark, so now you owe us money.”
It turns out having a book at the printers and being just a short walk from his favourite lunch spot is not the only reason Firth is happy, as he orders us a bottle of chardonnay and three of the diner’s “legendary” potato rosti for starters.
For one, he never had to change his phone number.
“It was the greatest thing,” he enthuses about his clash with Kennerley, as he scrolls through thousands of text messages from the weeks afterward.
“Look at this: ‘you absolute legend’, ‘keep up the good work Charles’, ‘power to the people’, ‘Charles you are the dumbest …'”
Firth pauses at a message containing a “c” word that’s not Chaser.
“Well, anyway. It was pretty clear most people are sick of the big end of town taking over this city.”
And did Alan Jones have to change his number?
“Yes he did,” Firth beams.
And do you know the new one?
“We couldn’t possibly comment,” says Schloeffel, exchanging a look with his co-author.
Firth is also relaxed because he’s written all his gags for this afternoon’s Chaser radio show, which he will present live at 3pm alongside colleagues Andrew Hansen, Dominic Knight and Zoe Norton-Lodge.
Actually, his eldest son provided a few of them as he was running out the door this morning, late for band practice. Hartley Firth stars in a regular segment called “Ethical Dilemmas of the Nine Year Old”, and today’s offerings are: Would you rather kill your mum or your dad?, Would you rather be a priest or a murderer? – “Topical!” Schloeffel interjects – and Would you rather have no water or no food?
“Kids are great satirists in their way. They get to the truth of things,” Firth says. “Becoming a dad makes you much less funny for about six months, because you’re a zombie, but after that it’s a mine of material.”
The wine arrives and the pair clink glasses for Lunch with the AFR’s photographer. Momentarily, they look like a stock shot of smug inner-city types that The Shovel might have run with my favourite headline of 2012: Hipster claims he was into PSY waaay before Gangnam Style.
“Too fake, or just fake enough?” Firth asks our lensman.
The diner is filling up with a smart-casual, creative-looking crowd, but the acoustics remain comfortable for conversation. There’s no bad seats in this light, airy diner but those on the balcony or by the floor-to-ceiling windows are popular, as they afford a view of the gorgeous 19th-century mansion across the road.
We order mains and then get back to headlines, those stock-in-trade for the 21st century satirist.
“The whole artform is the headline,” Schloeffel admits. “Cartoons used to be the gags of the day, but they don’t translate all that well online, so now it’s those few words on the tweet or Facebook link.”
Asked to pick his favourites from The Shovel, Schloeffel screws his face up like I’d asked him which of his two kids he loves best.
He finally plumps for a non-political one: Australia Falls Four Places From 18th to 28th In International Maths Rankings; and one that bit the hand which feeds him clicks: Mark Zuckerberg, Dead At 32, Denies Facebook Has Problem With Fake News.
A website with headline-driven stories is also part of The Chaser’s multimedia arsenal. Firth’s favourite is a takedown of the Trump administration telling transgender kids they can’t pick what bathroom they use: Mike Pence Horrified To Discover Unisex Toilet In Own House.
Firth and Schloeffel have been getting up Trump’s nose from the get-go. Bankrolled by news.com.au, which pre-purchased footage, the pair stalked Make America Great Again rallies in 2016 and had to flee Ohio.
“We pretended we were Trump’s advance party, and went into this small town’s campaign office and started putting up girlie posters,” Firth recalls.
“The people there got very angry, we had people in NRA hats surrounding our car; I think the state troopers were relieved we weren’t hardcore activists, but they told us in no uncertain terms to just go away.”
Going off the theory that people enjoy watching courage, Firth has endangered himself in the name of satire many times over the years. He was in the Chaser office when the Australian Federal Police swooped in 2003, demanding to know how John Howard’s silent phone number ended up on its newspaper’s front page.
Then there was the time he was detained by Chinese police for an hour at Tiananmen Square.
“We wanted to vox pop people about what it’s like living in a country that doesn’t allow vox pops, and within seconds of us getting a camera out, the police just swarmed,” he recalls, looking slightly less relaxed.
“I think that’s the most petrified I’ve ever been.”
Little wonder that Alan Jones doesn’t scare him. The broadcaster’s lawyers went after The Chaser following the mobile phone number incident, but it turns out the Privacy Act only applies to businesses with more than $3 million annual turnover.
“We were saved by our lack of success,” Firth says.
The food arrives, and Firth’s promise that everything would be excellent is kept. Schloeffel rhapsodises about his ricotta gnocchi with king brown and porcini mushrooms, Firth is transported by his pan-roasted barramundi.
“I didn’t even think I liked fennel before I started eating this,” he remarks.
The duck in my salad is cooked to perfection, and the flavours around it are revelatory: fig, turnip and walnut, together at last.
Schloeffel enquires how he can get my gig interviewing people at fancy restaurants. Although soon he might not need a subsidy to come to Glebe Point Diner as often as he likes, given the growing success of a new income stream: live shows.
From late April, Schloeffel and Firth will join Mark Humphries (7.30 Report), Victoria Zerbst and Jenna Owen (SBS’s The Feed) on a touring stage show called War On The F—ing Election 2019, a grown-up version of the university revues from their pasts.
This will be the fourth tour for what they’ve dubbed The War On Comedy group, and Schloeffel proudly reports that every show so far has sold out.
“It’s ironic that people are reacting to fake news by turning to satire,” he says.
“Good satire reframes things. It gets to the heart of the matter in a way that traditional analysis can’t, or doesn’t, and people just seem to go for it.”
But even a glass of Glenguin botrytis semillon to finish doesn’t get Shloeffel looking quite as relaxed as Firth has been. It transpires the adrenalin rush of daily live radio has the Chaser veteran a little behind on writing and learning his scripts for the stage.
But rest assured he’ll get there.
“The art of live performance is knowing all your lines, but making it look like you just thought of it,” he confides.
Dessert wines drained, its Uber time: Schloeffel to the airport and Shovel HQ in Melbourne, Firth to the Triple M microphone in the city. The masses await their satire.
Glebe Point Diner, Glebe Point Road, Sydney
- 3 potato rosti with smoked eel, sour cream and chives, $15
- Duck and bitter leaf salad with black fig, pickled turnip and walnut sauce, $33
- Pan-roasted market fish with braised fennel, celery, cuttlefish and mussel sauce, $36
- Ricotta gnocchi with king brown and porcini mushrooms, cavalo nero, black garlic and reggiano, $29
- Hand-cut chips, $9
- Seasonal veg with parmo and almonds, $9
- Bottle Santa & D’Sas chardonnay, Yarra Valley Victoria, $58
- 3 glasses Glenguin botrytis semillon, Hunter Valley, $36
- 2 bottles sparkling water, $12