Kitty’s first hello

This piece of writing was written for and read aloud at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival, 2019 Opening Night Gala. 

“MWF19 swoons into the arms of Melbourne with its opening night gala, where three heart-connected pairs tell stories of their first hello. Comedian Kitty Flanagan and her younger sister, author and musician Penny Flanagan; globally celebrated children’s book writers and real life partners Andy Griffiths and Jill Griffiths; and poet Omar Sakr with his fiancee, blogger Hannah Donnelly.”

My sister calls me. There is a conspiratorial edge to her voice.

“Don’t tell anyone, but I’m thinking of trying stand-up comedy.”

The weirdest thing about this phone call is: she expects me to be surprised. Which is like someone who has been carrying an oar around all their life saying, “Hey, I know this is totally out of left field but I think I’m going to go canoe-ing.”

I’m not surprised. Not in the slightest.

This phone call came in the early ‘90s and she was 25 years old. By that stage she’d been carrying the oar around with her for most of her adult life –  pretending she wasn’t ever going to do anything with it. Oh this thing? I dunno, I just picked it up somewhere, what do you think it is? She’d literally circumnavigated the entire continent of Australia in her ruse to pretend she was never going to do anything with that oar. Across the Nullabor in a combi, from Bunbury up to Broome, over the top end in a beat-up station wagon and back home again. Everyone she met, knew she would eventually do something with that oar. But she just kept pretending it wasn’t there. And right when we all thought she’d finally own up to it, she announced a sudden vocational calling to P.E teaching (which to be honest, was so weird none of us knew what to say).

Then at 25 years old, she finally decided to own up to it. She’d had that oar for a while and now she was going to use it for its intended purpose. She had five minutes of jokes and she was going to try them out at an open mic night.

And that’s when she called me.

“Can I come over and do my jokes for you? And you tell me if they’re funny.”

She came to my share house in Newtown and I sat in an armchair in the corner of my bedroom while she stood in the empty space where my bed wasn’t. I gave her my full attention and she started telling her jokes. I saw the spark of fear in her eyes. But she got out that oar and tried to get the hang of things.

I was firm but fair. If something wasn’t funny, I gave her Sphinx face, at which point she would quickly up the ante, adding a physical gesture, or a funny inflection to make it work. When it was funny, I laughed hard. Overall, it was a very funny five minutes. I gave her the go ahead and off we went.

That evening at The Harold Park Hotel, we arrived to find, not a sparsely populated, low key open mic night but something else altogether. The room was packed. There were amateur comics huddled nervously in groups everywhere and punters were filing into the comedy room in a steady, pay-and-be-stamped stream. She’d accidentally enrolled herself in the inaugural Harold Park Hotel Comic of the Year competition and she was one of two women competing in a heat of about 15 to 20 acts.

There were a lot of men on stage that night and as a result I heard a lot of jokes about masturbating. I also saw a lot of men gesturing to their wang, using two hands to show how big it was and using one or the other hand to show all the things they had done with it at various points in their lives.  Somewhere in the night, a dolphin also got sodomised. In short, it was an early ‘90s, pre #metoo dickfest.

I started to worry that my sister – that mouthy little broad with too much hair – wouldn’t be able to exude the right gender brand of confidence to pull this caper off.

When the MC said her name and she walked onto the stage, I panicked. I was surrounded by strangers in the darkness and she was up there under careless stage lights, about to tell jokes that she’d only ever tried out on me, in my bedroom, five hours before.

At this point, I suddenly realised that there was a very real chance that what I thought was funny, would not be funny to anyone else. At this point, the whole thing suddenly seemed like a really bad idea.

The last time we’d convinced each other something was hilarious and then taken it to a broader audience. Things hadn’t gone so well.

Our earliest collaboration, was a performance art piece of sorts. We called it, ‘I’m scared’  and it involved a flute and a walk-in wardrobe. We took it in turns to perform it, so it was, I guess, a one-woman show with a rotating cast of two.  The performer would start out in our parents’ walk-in wardrobe and begin, unseen, to play the flute. When I say, ‘play the flute’ what I mean is just blow into it and make weird flute-y tweety noises like a manic, hysterical bird. Then the performer would emerge from the wardrobe, eyes darting left and right, looking scared, while still blowing erratic tweets from the flute. There was also some bow-legged, performance art style dancing. But that was basically it. We performed it to each other over and over, never tiring of how funny we were and then, convinced of the quality of our comedy stylings we took it out wide. We called in our mother for an exclusive preview.

Mum sat on the edge of the bed in the master bedroom, looking bored and endured it for a good 10 seconds before announcing that she had to put the dinner on and leaving the room.

(To be fair we hadn’t really worked out how it ended.)

So it was with that auspicious background in comedy performance that my sister walked out onto the stage at the Harold Park to a full house of punters who would be baying for blood at the first sign of weakness. She took her place at the mic and she started talking. Her first joke landed and a wash of relief spread across the room. Because in those days, woe betide the female comedian who wasn’t funny – if women weren’t funny, the audience turned on a dime. It was like:  ‘You shouldn’t be up there anyway, and now you’re not even FUNNY?!’

But after the first laugh, everybody – including my sister –  relaxed into the idea that a woman could be funny: you could say, we all leaned into it. She started adding bits that she hadn’t even tried out in my bedroom. At some point she took the mic off the stand and started moving around the stage like this was where she had always belonged. The five minutes of jokes, told to me in my bedroom only hours before, got a roar of approval and then it was over.

But that was it, the moment she came out, so to speak. The moment she said to everyone, ‘this is who I want to be’. The moment she took that oar and paddled downstream into her future. That was the moment she became Kitty. And I was there, in the dark, watching her glide.











Dear cafes, you can do better

I spend too much time in cafes. And like most café-going folk, I am a creature of habit. I tend to frequent the same three cafés, day in day out, on an endless loop: there’s this one, that one and the other one I sometimes go to. Recently, in the interests of breaking out of my café rut, I decided expand my horizons and try something new.

I wandered the high street of my suburb looking for a new haunt. There followed a veritable Goldilocks journey of disappointment where I never found one that was ‘just right’. From wobbly tables to Saturday surcharges (Saturday surcharge? Are you kidding me?) I was repelled from one unsatisfying cafe to the next.

Here are some of the crimes against patrons the cafes in my area are committing without shame.

Wobbly tables

Wobbly café tables are at pandemic levels in my local high street. How hard is it to secure tables so they don’t rock and creak like pirate ships as you try to saw your way through the sourdough toast?

(Note to cafes: have a small supply of old wine corks at the ready. You cut a small slice on an angle and use it to wedge wobbly tables every morning before you open up. You are welcome.)

Please wait to be seated … so that we can completely ignore you and leave you standing in the doorway like a tit

If you are going to have a ‘Please wait to be seated’ sign at the door, you need to have a designated ‘greeter’ on your staff. This is because when faced with customers standing at the door, most waitstaff will employ their ‘customer blinkers’. And this is because customers standing at the door are not yet technically ‘customers’, therefore as a waiter, you can technically ignore them.

I stood at the door, like the sign said. And then some other group of non-law abiding diners swept past me and took the last table.

 A proprietorial attitude to the pepper grinder

Notwithstanding the impressive proportions, it’s a pepper grinder, not a piece of heavy machinery that needs a license to operate. Don’t sprinkle my breakfast with a floofy amount of pepper in a flourish of fancy service and then confiscate the grinder back to its special altar on the wait-station. (And that’s only when they do actually deign to offer it to you.) Every table should have a pepper grinder. The days of diners not being trusted with the pepper grinder are over.

Order at the counter and take a number on a stick

No. Just no. Firstly, that is not a level of service that warrants the prices you are all charging. Secondly it is inconsiderate of solo diners who then have to make an agonising ‘Sophie’s Choice’ between losing their table (by not leaving their bag to mind it) or losing their bag (by leaving it at the table to mind it). If you are a café, and charging café prices, it BEHOOVES you to provide table service.

Jam in packets and a miserly attitude to the butter

I don’t want to sound like a pig, but one pat of butter for two large pieces of absorbent sourdough toast, IS NOT ENOUGH! And as for the jam in packets, there’s just something about lobbing a few cheap ‘open-it-yourself-a***hole’ packets of jelly-like jam onto a diner’s plate that says: we don’t care enough to even give the illusion that we care

GIY (get it yourself) lukewarm table water offered from some festy communal water tank on the counter

Call me Princess, but I think table water should be delivered to the table, in a frosty bottle with the required number of glasses. Lukewarm water from the festy tank is very triggering for those of us who lived through the Sydney Giardia crisis of 1998. And with regards to the GIY option, it yet again sets up a Sophie’s Choice situation for solo diners. Water or my handbag? Which do I need more?

Flowers as garnish

If I can’t eat it. Don’t put it on my food.


Let me put it this way: if I order a coffee and the waitress says, “Would you like that in a mug?” I get up and say, “Actually, I think I might head off.” No good has ever come from the ‘Mugoccino’. The Mugoccino is a crime against sophisticated café society and it belongs back in the ‘90s with focaccia bread, Vienna coffees and tall vase-shaped latte glasses.

$8 milkshakes

I think there needs to be a Royal Commission into this phenomenon: a full audit and national NAPLAN-style publication of the results with graphs and spreadsheets. We all need to know why it is necessary to charge $8 for milk, topping and a scoop of ice cream zhooshed up in a milkshake mug.

Food served on planks

Call me conservative but I just like my food served on a plate, with a rim, so that my bacon doesn’t keep sliding off onto the table.

Jenga-inspired food towers

A lot of cafes like to create a precarious tower with your food that you then have to carefully deconstruct like a Jenga game before you can eat it. So, if you have two pieces of toast in your meal, they put one on top of the other then everything else involved gets piled up on top of that ad infinitum. When combined with the wobbly table, breakfast becomes a very challenging test of skills.

Cans and bottles with straws

When someone orders a soft drink, it is not sufficient service to bring out the can or bottle, plonk it on the table and slide a straw into it. Soft drinks should be served in a glass, with ice (the frozen kind, not meth, just to be clear). And with regard to the straws, that is just a big old ‘up yours’ to sea turtles everywhere.

Toast that needs a hacksaw to cut through

I don’t know what it is (it could possibly be people experimenting with their sourdough starters) but artisan bread seems to be evolving towards knife resistance the way viruses are constantly evolving to resist antibiotics. Suffice it to say, if I need my dining partner to ‘brace’ the table with both hands while I cut through my toast, the bread is TOO HARD.

Hamburgers and sandwiches that require a dislocated python jaw to eat

If I can’t eat a sandwich without the whole thing turning into a visual car crash as things slide out the bottom and my mouth gapes apart like a python dislocating its jaw to eat a mongoose, the sandwich shouldn’t be served. Hamburgers are also becoming non-negotiable for those of us who are not pythons. Hamburgers and sandwiches should be edible by hand without everyone else having to look away from the culinary car crash going on at table 12.

And edited version of this article first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald website.

I changed my Facebook profile picture and the whole world liked me

You can’t do anything quietly on Facebook.

Most recently I tried to quietly change my profile picture.

For years I’ve been hiding behind an avatar of Peggy Olson, but with a book due to be published I decided to own up to my real face. I uploaded one of the only selfies I have on my computer. (The fact that I don’t have a photo library full of selfies should tell you how old I am.)

As soon as I hit ‘post’, I realised my mistake. The photo was about eight years out of date and it was heavily photoshopped. If people met me in person their first words would be, ‘Jeez, what happened to your face?’

People would be expecting this.


And they would get this.


It would be like a perverse digital version of Oscar Wilde’s, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Which is why I immediately wanted to change the photo to something less airbrushed and more recent.

But it was too late, people were already ‘liking’ photoshopped me in a constant, steady stream of affirming ‘pings’. Not since I accidentally posted a video of a cat batting a frog knick-knack off a shelf with its paw have I received so many hard and fast likes on anything.

And while it was nice of everyone to give me the affirmation en masse, the photo didn’t even look like the real me. So it was something of a Pyrrhic victory.

It also gave rise to an uncomfortable murmuring from my insecurities: do people only like me if I look good?

Further to that: are humans as basic and ‘look-ist’ as peacocks and those monkeys with the red bumholes?

And as though in answer to both of those questions the likes kept coming.

People invited me places. Old friends from school told me I hadn’t ‘changed a bit!’ Someone said they’d just been thinking about me.

It was a frenzy of connection that I hadn’t expected, all based on an airbrushed image.

And meanwhile I was like Olivia Colman in The Favourite. ‘Look at me! Look at me! How dare you look at me!’

Worse still, now I was hoist on my own false advertising petard. If I changed my profile picture again, for something more honest and recent, Facebook would again tell everyone in one of their trumpeting notifications.

She did it again everybody! Look over here. She’s uploaded another photo of herself!

A quick Google of ‘how to change your Facebook profile pic privately’ brought forth a torrent of forums full of people bitching about the fact that it’s actually impossible.

People claimed to have ‘work-arounds’, which were mainly some very complicated methods whereby you needed to refresh the feed at lighting speed then quickly switch the photo to ‘private’ after uploading it. Then you had to wait a few days before switching the photo’s status back to ‘public’.

Even with this method I wasn’t confident Facebook wouldn’t send out a notification that would expose my vanity once again: Penny Flanagan just made this photograph of herself public!

But I think my personal favourite out of all the complex solutions offered in the forums was this one: ‘Wait until 4am when no one is on Facebook.’

Because within that daffy solution lies the Facebook paradox.

We all want to be seen on Facebook but none of us wants to be seen to want to be seen on Facebook. And with that, Facebook has our primitive peacocking instincts snookered in every corner of their algorithm.

Me: ‘Scuse me Facebook I’d just like to do this one thing privately.

Facebook: (Laughs uproariously)

Me: Really, just this one thing and I don’t want you to tell everyone about it … please?

Facebook: C’mon buddy. You know the deal.

Me: I know, but just this one time.

Facebook: A deal is a deal, buddy. I give you free connection to everyone you’ve ever met in your life – I make all of your triumphs visible to those people so that it seems as though you are living your best life – and you sell me your digital soul. Capiche?

Me: Um … (Squeaks) I’d like to renegotiate the terms please?

Facebook: (Chuckles) You’re so funny!

And so, my ageless visage is frozen in time, caught forever in a moment of visual perfection. And while I say I want to change it to something more realistic, I still haven’t done it yet.

What would Oscar Wilde make of that?

An edited version of this article first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald website.