I think it’s fair to say that David Poltorak is a legend of Australian TV game shows. After his 1986 World-Record-setting win on Sale of the Century….
… he returned for several ‘Champion of Champions’ tournaments, before becoming a question writer and adjudicator for that same show.
Since then, he’s worked behind the scenes on many Australian TV quiz shows, and last year, he became a contestant once again, and won BIG on Beat the Chasers…. 34 years after his original Sale of the Century triumph!
Besides all that, he’s a screenwriter and standup comedian, and he’d already had his first movie produced before any of his quiz show success.
This was a delightful and really wide-ranging discussion, and I thought I’d kick it off by delving into David’s origin story…
SH: David Poltorak! Thank you very much indeed for joining me today for HowToWinGameShows.com.
DP: It’s my pleasure Stephen, thanks very much.
SH: Prior to your game show career I know you were a TV and film writer. Your first TV credit on imdb.com is from 1984 for writing two episodes of Sweet & Sour: an ABC drama about a young pop band (which I watched religiously as a teenager). How did that come about, and how was that whole experience?
DP: Yes, it might be my first IMDB credit and fair enough. I wrote those two episodes with a long-term co-writer Paul Leadon (who, in recent years, has been the Head of Comedy at Channel 10). We’d been at uni together, studying architecture. We both dropped out and got heavily involved with our annual architecture review, and that led to work writing sketches for what was then 2JJ. One of the early directors of that station mentored us; a guy called Marius Webb, who was very helpful to us.
We wrote sketches and then we got on – I think in ’77 – The Garry McDonald Show. Garry McDonald had been playing his famous character Norman Gunston for years, and he was sick of that character and he wanted to do a sketch show that was a completely Gunston-free zone. It was a pretty terrible show because it made you realize in retrospect what a great anchor the Gunston character was for him. And so, without that character, he was just another actor in comedy sketches.
SH: How long did that last? I don’t remember that show at all.
DP: Well, I think it only had one series. The head writer was Morris Gleitzman, who went on to become a successful children’s author. It was produced by John Eastway who was an ABC comedy producer at that time. It was a great experience for us because having grown up as a Monty Python obsessive, I just had this enormous weight of Monty Python sitting on my head and just feeling overwhelmed by what I saw as their quality and what they’d achieved. They were such a big influence on me.
SH: Was it helpful having a writing partner, being part of a team? Surely you could bolster each other up in those moments of self-doubt?
DP: We could. We wrote more stuff together later. Initially, although we were hired as a group, we were all writing individually, not actually collaborating. So it still felt like a very lonely, isolated experience and it’s not one that I look back with any great joy, apart from what it meant in career terms. After that, we did another comedy series called Jokes which was the same thing; just half an hour of unrelated sketches. That was also on the ABC, produced by John Eastway. And that was a short-lived thing. In later years, Australia produced much more successful shows: D-Gen, Full Frontal… but at this early stage, everybody was just scrambling. We didn’t know where we were going.
SH: I’m guessing you’re in your early twenties at this stage? Not long out of university.
DP: I’m in my early 20s. I’m a pretty heavy dope smoker, I’m a cab driver. I’d been on the dole for about a year after I dropped out at uni. Back in those days, you could front up to your local Commonwealth Employment Service office and say, “Look I’m sick of being a bus conductor. Can I go on the dole, please?” “Yes, sign here. Here’s your first cheque.”
SH: Different times.
DP: Very different times! Anyway, Paul and I then became a duo and worked on kids’ shows on the ABC and did other sketch shows…. none of which are remembered by anyone except the people who made them, because they made such little impact. Back then, the top-rating current affairs show was on Channel Seven, hosted by Mike Willesee. He’d been dominating the ratings, but in 1981, Channel 9 premiered Sale of the Century up against him. And Sale of the Century was a monster – so huge, so successful!
And as a result, Mike Willesee had this brainwave that he’d introduce comedy to his current affairs show. So he hired a bunch of people to write and perform sketches. Doug Mulray, Austen Tayshus, (who at that stage was just called Sandy Gutman) and Paul and me. So, there’d be a production meeting in the morning with Mike and we’d all sit on the floor while he sat behind his huge oak-panelled desk. We would discuss the big stories of the day and he’d get one or two of the writers to write a sketch and then somebody else would perform in it for that night. Paul and I didn’t perform; we just wrote. I think it lasted about three months. Mike was getting killed in the ratings by Sale of the Century, so he tried comedy, but it didn’t work. But it was great training; we’d have to write at least one sketch a day in the morning. We only had a couple of hours to do it, but it was terrific. It was great having the subject to write about because you then knew what the sketch was. And they’d try and film as much as they could during the day.
SH: But they would broadcast it that night?
DP: Yeah, it was very ‘on the hoof’.
SH: That’s really exciting.
DP: It was exciting, yeah. It was a pity it didn’t work. And although Sale of the Century was beating it, to me Sale was just this other thing out there… if I happened to be watching TV, I liked to sit there and answer the questions, but the idea never entered my head that I’d ever go on it as a contestant.