Denton: The creative dynamo

denton_andrewThe recent announcement that Andrew Denton has stepped back from his production company came as little surprise to those in the industry. In a piece that first appeared in EncoreAmanda Meade revisits the career of a creative dynamo and asks if he will be back.

If Andrew Denton had only been the funny front man – a brilliant TV presenter and comedian in the 1980s and 90s – history would still judge him as having had a stellar career. But the creative dynamo that is Andrew Christopher Denton has had multiple stellar careers and has arguably had more impact on the Australian TV industry than anyone else.

After his early years as a performer and writer for radio and TV, Denton went on to create more lofty television, an award-winning ABC TV interview series Enough Rope, and was the brains behind a string of innovative television shows as diverse as comedy, documentary, talk and current affairs.

He encouraged The Chaser writing team to make a TV show with him in the late 1990s and created a new pool of TV talent in ABC TV’s Hungry Beast a decade later. Along the way Denton picked up several AFI awards as well as Logies and was arguably the best host of the TV Week awards bash, which he reluctantly fronted in 1999 and 2000. The highlight was the diminutive host sitting on then media mogul James Packer’s knee. Fearless as ever.

The 53-year-old was also a major force in radio leading up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics and beyond as the Triple M breakfast presenter; and earlier in his career he had written very funny material for Australian comedy legend Doug Mulray’s radio show.

Behind the scenes Denton has sought out, trained, nurtured and promoted a generation of young talent who are now creating some of the country’s best television. Those people – behind and in front of the camera – will be his greatest legacy.

Last week Denton formally announced his “personal decision” to walk away from his TV career to “pursue other creative interests”. He has declined all offers of interviews and is enjoying holidaying in places as diverse as the Arctic and the Northern Territory, friends say.

It was just 18 months ago that Denton merged the production company he founded with Anita Jacoby and Peter Thompson, Zapruder’s Other Films, with Cordell Jigsaw to form a “super-indie” production house, CJZ. Zapruder’s, which was perhaps most notably making The Gruen Transfer, was married to Michael Cordell and Nick Murray’s outfit – famous for the SBS program Go Back To Where You Came From – and the newly formed company took over Denton’s existing slate.

“I think anyone in this country who wants to make the sort of show that doesn’t involve cooking, building or minor celebrities making a dick of themselves owes a great debt to Andrew Denton,” Gruen host and comedian Wil Anderson told Encore from the US where he is touring.

“As a television performer he will be remembered alongside the all-time greats of our industry. Our generation’s Graham Kennedy.” Indeed, both as an on-air guy and behind the scenes, no-one has been quite as versatile and engaging as Andrew Denton.


One of the people who say they owe a debt to Denton is the chief executive of Leo Burnett Australia, Todd Sampson.

Along with Ten executive Russel Howcroft and Wil Anderson, Sampson was chosen by Denton to front a groundbreaking show about advertising, The Gruen Transfer, created with Zapruder colleagues Jon Casimir and Anita Jacoby.

Sampson says: “In many ways, he’s changed my life. He gave me a key to a door that I had never really looked at before and allowed me to walk through. He’s a mentor and I won’t miss him because I speak to him regularly.”

Sampson, who this week appeared as a panelist on ABC’s Q&A, is now a highly sought after media talent and still a Gruen regular as well as keeping up his day job at Leos.

“Andrew has certainly proven the hypothesis that TV can be both smart and entertaining,” he says. “And more importantly that people will actually watch. I don’t believe this is the end of Andrew, I think he will now become the Keyser Soze of TV content, without the limp.” In response to the question ‘what has Denton done for the advertising industry’, Sampson says somewhat enigmatically: “I think he gave us just enough rope and we used it well”.

Wil Anderson is more descriptive about the show’s impact on the public’s perception of advertising.

“The fact we always come back to on Gruen is that the average person sees more than 3,000 commercial messages a day and more money is spent each year on advertising than on Hollywood movies, and yet the industry is still largely unexamined,” Anderson says.

“We wanted to make a show that picked it apart, was cynical and critical when needed, but celebrated the stuff that worked.”

Anderson, who is about to begin pre-production on a federal election series of Gruen, says Denton had a simple idea with little detail when he approached him. “He said ‘I want to make a show that gives people the tools to understand advertising in the way that Frontline gave people the tools to understand current affairs’. That was it. That was the whole show at that stage. But I wasn’t going to give up the opportunity to work with Andrew.”

Julian Morrow of The Chaser, who currently hosts the drivetime slot on ABC Radio National, calls Denton “the Chaser’s comedy fairy godfather”. “He took us to the ball, but also disappeared at midnight,” Morrow told Encore. “He taught us everything we know and then gave us the freedom to screw it up for ourselves. We will always be grateful, but please don’t tell him that.”


Some 10 years later, after producing the first three shows for The Chaser, in 2009, Denton held national auditions for another talent search exercise, Hungry Beast.

One of the people lucky enough to be chosen was Marc Fennell, who already worked for Triple J and SBS as a movie reviewer. Fennell now has his own daily news show The Feed on SBS2. He says the application and interview process for Hungry Beast – originally named Project Next – was the strangest and most grueling experience of his career but it prepared him for Denton’s work ethic – which everyone Encore spoke to says was “demanding”.

“Hungry Beast was a giant experiment,” Fennell says. “Andrew was very good at letting us develop our individual voices. The show I work on now, The Feed, is basically a show borne out of three individual voices who graduated from Hungry Beast: me, Nicholas Hayden (executive producer) and Nicholas McDougall (head writer).

“Similarly ABCTV’s The Checkout is half Hungry Beast graduates and half The Chaser,” Fennell says. “Denton is tough on you and hard to impress but very patient in developing new ideas.”

No-one in the industry, Fennell included, is surprised by Denton’s announcement. “He threw himself and his money into Zapruder’s and the moment he announced the merger we thought it was an exit strategy,” Fennell says. “That way his creation – Zapruder’s – could carry on with like-minded management.”

The Chaser’s Chas Licciardello who is also working on an election special for the ABC, says Denton’s creative DNA was in many of the people working today. “We worked under him for two series of CNNNN and Election Chaser and then we transitioned to working on our own.

“We all learnt an enormous amount from him,” he says. “Fifteen years later, here at The Chaser, we still cite the ‘Andrew Denton laws of comedy’.”

“He’s always looking for the next big thing,” Licciardello says. “The off-screen talent Andrew has brought through is considerable.

“But his state of mind is also his legacy. The common thread that runs through all his productions is the inquisitiveness, his refusal to accept second best, an astonishing work ethic and the way he emotionally invests in his subjects.”

In a statement last week, Denton paid tribute to his creative collaborators with typical generosity. He said: “My measure of success, however, is not something that can be as easily seen from the outside. To watch talented people grow under the Zapruder banner – from The Chaser and the team at Hungry Beast, to Wil, Todd and Russel at Gruen, not to mention the many who have worked with us off-camera and whose stars have also risen – has been a reward that outstrips the more public ones. That tradition continues at CJZ.

“In an industry that can be brutal, I consider it an achievement to have provided a nurturing environment for good people and ideas. It’s great to know they still have a home. A great deal of credit must go to the core team at Zapruder’s – Peter Thompson, Anita Jacoby, Jon Casimir, Polly Connolly, Debbie Cuell, Lou Collins and Ursula Mellor. Their capacity to find the humanity inside the insanity has made the company a place where people want to come and work. I am indebted to them.”

Guy Dobson, the chief content officer at Southern Cross Austereo, told Encore Denton had a rich radio career which sometimes gets forgotten in the wake of all the TV success.

“Andrew became the host of his own show leading up to the Sydney Olympics and did that with a great deal of aplomb,” Dobson says. “He was very creative.

“Andrew was the first to do the House from Hell on radio which was run as a show on Channel 10 and was the first of the fly-on-the-wall TV shows which were a precursor to Big Brother.”


Just months before the merger with Cordell Jigsaw in 2011, Denton, the Screen Producers Association of Australia and other independent producers, including Murray and Chris Lilley’s Princess Pictures, put in a joint submission arguing their programs were among the most popular on the ABC. Denton Later described Murray as “wonderfully combative” and said their joint submission to the inquiry into outsourcing at the ABC brought them closer together.

He said: “We’re both fiercely independent companies in an incredibly competitive market and we see ourselves as corner stores to the big supermarkets.”

It was this act that highlighted Denton’s advocacy role in improving opportunities for independent producers at the public broadcaster.

But Denton’s determination to produce his own shows and sell them to Aunty sometimes put him in conflict with the ABC unions and producers who accused him of weakening the ABC’s capacity to produce in-house. Privately, Denton believed working inside the ABC was not as efficient as being an external producer.

The ABC’s head of entertainment Jennifer Collins worked with Denton on Gruen and was at the ABC way back when the late ’80s comedy series The Money or the Gun was on air.

“The brilliance of Andrew is that he’s been able to shift from in front to behind the camera,” she says.

Denton hosted a number of shows for the ABC including music program Blah Blah Blah in 1988, The Money or The Gun (1989 to 1990), sports show Live and Sweaty (1991 to 1995), and a comedy talk show, Denton for the Seven network.

“For the ABC he has been particularly important because we don’t import international formats and make local versions of them,” Collins says. “So we rely on people like Andrew who have that unique mix of that razor sharp intellect and great instinct for comedy that can come up with shows that have a long life span like Gruen. It’s really hard to find people who can come up with these really innovative new vehicles. He pitched in Todd and Russel and they’re now household names.” And each and every one of the Hungry Beast team has gone on to great things: Kirsten Drysdale and Aaron Smith are now working on the ABC’s The Checkout, Dan Illic is on Ten’s Can of Worms and Monique Schafter is a producer/reporter on ABC1’s 7:30.


Denton may be off traveling but those who know him believe he won’t be back creating something in the near future. Morrow says: “This time, I think it’s for good, but that’s what I said last time. The Chaser has invented a dessert called Peach Denton.” (A reference to the famed Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba who retired several times.)

Wil Anderson says Denton’s willingness to take a risk and to trust people is his greatest strength. “Andrew has never been about protecting what he had, he has been about taking a risk on someone new and pulling them up. The rising tide lifts all boats.”

Issue 21This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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