Ask many questions, hear many lies

COMEDIAN Virginia Gay is standing beside a life-size replica of Ned Kelly. ''Spoons,'' she says, sizing up Australia's infamous bushranger. ''His helmet was made of spoons.''

''You know how he died?'' interjects comedian Akmal Saleh. ''He was forked.''

''Such is knife,'' Andrew Hansen says, incisively.

What do you get when you pack a stage full of comedians? You get punchlines. Lots of punchlines.

And now you get The Unbelievable Truth, the bastard TV love child of Graeme ''Goodie'' Garden and three members of the Chaser: Julian Morrow, Craig Reucassel and Andrew Hansen. In the game show, comedians read out short passages on subjects such as Ned Kelly. The twist is, these passages are meant to be complete bull. But in that bull lurk carefully concealed truths.

The aim for the speaker is to weave truths into lies so sneakily that none of the contestants notices. The aim for the contestants is to identify those truths.

''It's a show about truth and lies,'' says Garden, famous as a member of comic trio the Goodies. ''There are four players and each of them gives a talk, and the whole talk has to be untrue, so they can make up the silliest, funniest lies about any topic that people can talk about.

''But within that they've got to smuggle five truths past the other people, so of course you want to find the truths that sound the least believable. So the most bizarre truths are stitched into all this pack of lies.

''The other players have to buzz in when they think they've spotted a truth. If it is a truth, they get a point. If they get it wrong, they lose a point. And at the end of it, the person who is talking counts up how many truths they managed to smuggle past the others, so it's a scoring game - played very, very seriously.

''Also, when people buzz in there's usually some debate and discussion and argument about how true things are, so there's a lot of fun to be had from the banter. Because the easiest thing in the world is to put in an inadvertent truth.''

In the spirit of the game then, here is a series of untrue statements about Graeme Garden, into which one truth has been smuggled.

One - the Scottish quipster met fellow Goodies Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor in the 1960s, when all three were students at Cambridge University. Two - Garden studied medicine, following in the footsteps of his dad, an orthopaedic surgeon who invented the ''Garden screw'', which fixes hip fractures. Three - Garden completed his medical studies, but chose to pursue a career in raising laughs instead of saving lives. Four - his son is a member of camp pop-music act Scissor Sisters. And five - The Unbelievable Truth is based on a BBC radio show of the same name he developed with Brooke-Taylor, which is a resounding hit.

So, which one of those statements is true? Actually, they all are.

''We've done nine radio series now, 51 programs, and are still going strong,'' Garden says.

''So we know the format is robust. And we obviously have different people on the show and it works well with any style of comic. They write their own material and they bring their own style to the show.

''We've never had a problem - although, after they've written them, we tend to script edit.''

With all the carefully crafted monologues, this is the first time the show has been adapted for TV, a process that brings with it both possibilities and challenges. ''On the radio, there's just one researcher,'' Garden says.

''Here there's a big team of editors, graphic designers, illustrators and researchers working on the show.''

The collaboration between the Goodies and the Chasers stems from 2009, when Andrew Hansen was MC during a series of gigs with Garden and Brooke-Taylor.

''The whole thing grew out of Andrew's dream-come-true of hosting that tour,'' Morrow, executive producer of the new TV show, says.

Hansen, who appears as a regular panellist, says: ''We got talking after those shows. Graeme said, 'We've got this radio show, I was thinking maybe we could make one in Australia.'

''So I said, 'We don't make comedy radio shows in Australia, there's no such thing. You'd have to make it as a TV show.'

''He said, 'Maybe we could do that. Do you know of any production companies in Australia that might be interested in something like that?' I had a long think about how to respond and then very cheekily said, 'Well, we've got a little production company …'''

Morrow laughs. ''That's the thing I find most amazing,'' he says. ''Andrew is the least entrepreneurial, least business-savvy person on the planet. When Andrew rang and said, 'I think I might have just teed up a little deal with Graeme from the Goodies, I said, 'Are you serious?' I thought it wasn't true, that Andrew had misinterpreted a conversation.''

But true it turned out to be, as Morrow, Hansen and Reucassel were lured from the ABC to Channel Seven to make the project.

During tonight's taping, host Reucassel is joined by contestants Virginia Gay, Hansen, Saleh and David Collins from the Umbilical Brothers. At one point, there is a dispute about a claim. Is it true? Or a lie? Confusion reigns.

''The Chasers,'' Collins says. ''Where near enough is always good enough.''

Hansen says: ''You're making us sound better than we are.''

Shooting in front of a studio audience always creates an excitable, unpredictable energy. The crowd is in stitches when Saleh's monologue descends into anarchic improvisation.

Much of the comedy is surreal. Especially the comedy that comes from the audience.

''Anyone got any questions for Craig?'' the floor manager asks the audience during a break.

''Yeah, can I have a sandwich?'' someone asks. ''I was told there would be sandwiches.''

The game resumes. After another surreal monologue, Reucassel chastises Saleh.

''You lose a point,'' Reucassel says.

''What do you win on this show anyway?'' Saleh shoots back. ''Nothing.''

Not true. You earn the highly coveted title of Australia's funniest liar. And that takes a lot of work. Dishonesty is anything but effortless.

''Oh, yes,'' Garden says. ''You couldn't ad lib this.'

The Unbelievable Truth airs on Thursdays on Channel Seven.

The story Ask many questions, hear many lies first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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