Glenn Robbins may be one of our most loved comedy stars but as a rare chat reveals, he is also the refreshing opposite of many performers: he happily undersells himself.
After several decades in the industry Robbins freely admits that he “knows nothing,” which suits him just fine.
When Robin Butler and Wayne Hope told him they had written him a role in Upper Middle Bogan, Robbins very nearly talked them out of it.
“I have ‘imposter syndrome.’
“I told them, ‘You know I’m not a very good actor, don’t you? I’m just a sketch performer!’” he recalls.
“But they gave me the premise and said I was a dragster guy, and it just popped into my head. ‘That’s an interesting world!’ I said. It was an interesting clash of culture.”
Little wonder that they wanted Robbins, whose amiable style has chalked up a string of small screen successes: The Comedy Company, Fast Forward, Kath and Kim, The Panel and All Aussie Adventures.
In Upper Middle Bogan he plays working class patriarch Wayne Wheeler, whose adopted daughter Bess (Annie Maynard) seeks out her birth parents. With a cast including Patrick Brammell, Robyn Nevin and Michala Banas, the Gristmill comedy is now in its third season.
“‘Bess’ is absolutely the backbone of the series and the level of Annie Maynard’s performance is just superb,” he continues. “Without her we’d be in strife I reckon.”
Returning as Wayne’s wife is Robyn Malcolm as Julie Wheeler. Once again Robbins happily sings someone else’s praises before his own.
“I watch her do a scene and she has the acting ‘engine power’ that I don’t have. I’m doing silly characters at the light end, but I can’t do the dramatic. She’s done a couple of scenes with Michala that I think are just brilliant. So it’s an honour to work with her,” he adds.
“It’s more about the cast than the guest roles.”
The ensemble cast of Upper Middle Bogan boasts a sizeable 11 principals, giving the focus to the key characters rather than guest performers.
“I don’t necessarily like it when big names come in. I think people tune in for the ‘around the kitchen table’ characters that they love,” he explains.
“We used to find with Kath and Kim it’s hard to come into a show that is up and running. The band is already playing. It’s not an easy thing to do.
“So I think it’s good that it’s more about the cast than the guest roles.
“I remember in Seinfeld, Jerry was going to the dry cleaners but George didn’t want to go with him. And Seinfeld said ‘Oh come on. Be a come-along guy!’
“I love it when friends go on adventures together, or families do stuff together. So whenever (The Wheelers) go to do something there’s always a couple of kids tagging along.
“Yes, you need the conflict and the jokes, but that sense of family adventure I find very heart-warming.
“With this show I certainly don’t play it for comedy. I let the dialogue do the work, let the energy do the work.
“When you have a lot of characters and it’s high energy, and you turn the comedy up, it can become overbearing.”
Upper Middle Bogan has even had its own US pilot, with star Patrick Brammall joining Poppy Montgomery, Swoosie Kurtz, Katey Sagal and John Carroll Lynch, but is yet to proceed to series.
Season 3 for ABC includes new supporting characters played by Khaled Khalafalla and Martin Dingle Wall, while Robbins is again back at the wheel of Wayne’s beloved dragster. He recalls his first experience of a dragster engine was louder than anything he had ever heard.
“It shakes the ground and rips through you to the point of nearly losing control of your downstairs department. And you nearly lose consciousness because of the ethanol. The roar is incredible!” he laughs.
This season features more scenes at Calder Raceway and also at the National Water Sports Centre in Carrum.
“There’s an episode where I have a massage chair which was very nice to do, and hopefully nice to watch. And he gets his home theatre all set up. It’s all pretty normal stuff!”
“I don’t mind having a crack and failing.”
With characters such as Kel Knight, Uncle Arthur and Russell Coight I ask Robbins if there were every any projects he didn’t enjoy? He struggles to think of any.
“I tend to gravitate to projects where I like the idea and the people involved. I don’t do anything for the money or opportunity,” he stresses.
“It sounds really cliché but there were elements of enjoyment in everything I’ve done, but it’s true.”
He even finds the upside to the short-lived panel show, Out of the Question, despite explaining that while he was fond of the concept, hosting wasn’t his forte.
“I don’t want to be the guy driving it. I want to be the guy on the end of the panel. So I did find the having-to-be-responsible part of that hard. But at its core I thought it was a good idea. In hindsight if we’d given it more time… it was a classic example of being in primetime where it didn’t work,” he says.
“I don’t mind having a crack and failing. I’d rather that than not having a crack at all. But hosting was not something I naturally gravitate towards.”
“There should be more ‘off Broadway’ development”
Robbins is also a close ally to the Working Dog team, with The Panel still a favourite many viewers would love to see revived. Don’t count on that anytime soon.
“I totally respect the fact that they don’t overdo things and move on appropriately. It’s one of those shows that if you are going to do it, you have to do it 100%. It’s like a football team. You have to be doing it every week to get match fit at it,” he explains.
“Have You Been Paying Attention? is rating really well now and I have a really good time when I do it. So they are exercising that muscle through that.
“But there should be more ‘off Broadway’ development. Kinne was a good example of ‘off Broadway’ on 7TWO. The problem with primetime is that the expectation is way too high and they’ll cut you way too quickly.”
This brings us to Here Come the Habibs! a rare case of a commercial network reviving the sitcom genre.
“Good on them. I was thrilled they had a crack at it,” he adds. “To do a sitcom is hard enough, let alone on a commercial network. And I’m really looking forward to Rosehaven with Celia Pacquola and Luke McGregor -two incredible talents, and I’m very happy for them.”
No doubt many are equally happy Robbins has brought the laughs to the sketches, panel shows and sitcoms that have dotted our screens, even if he is the last to sing his own praises.
“Hopefully I bring something to the table!”
Upper Middle Bogan airs 8:30pm Wednesday on ABC.