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What do you call a
bunch of old pricks?

If there hanging out in a room telling jokes, call them
the Echidnas, the Australian Order of Comedians -
a group of funny men keeping the spirit of vaudeville alive


By CATH CLEGG


20th December 2005
My 91-YEAR-OLD-GRAND-father, Arthur Clegg, has kept a note book of jokes for 40 years - there are 780 in it now. The first lines are recorded in neat handwriting on pages marked out with red double margins, and theres a section on the introductions and conclusions he used to use for stand-up routines, magic acts and comparing gigs. Flick through his cue cards and you might read "chihuahuas" or "enlarged toilet paper", "Hygienic hotel" or "shirt marker", "pick pocket" or "backside in the ocean".
To keep his hand in, Arthur shares jokes with the Echidnas, the Australian Order of Comedians and self discribed "bunch of old pricks". The group began


in 1976 as a luncheon club for former and current performers - vaudeville comics rarely shared the same bill, but a regular lunch date gave them a way of meeting the other names they saw on posters, members have included the late Syd Heylen (Cookie from a Country Practice), entertainer Paul Martell, Geoff Mack (the I've Been Everywhere, Man songwriter) and Lucky Grills (who now heads the Queensland group the Sidesplitters, as Kink Split). "It's the one day of the month many look forward to," says Grills.
From it's beginnings as a shared meal, the club quickly became a support network, says King Echidna, Bruce Sacre, to "help brother performers in any way possible". Charity was even


extended to its animal namesake: "We kept and echidna alive for two years at Taronga Zoo. It cost $500 a year! We couldn't understand it: $500" thats a bloody lot of ants!"
Like all clubs, the Echidnas are bulwarked with rules, regulations and officiating positions. Office-bearers, apart from the King, include the Prince (2IC), The Duke Magpie (secretary), the Count Crow (treasurer), and the Bowerbird, who issues penalties for not wearing the club badge, for swearing in the presence of waitresses or for using whichever word is chosen as the banned word for the night.
BAWDY VILLE Old joker Arthur Clegg, right, King Echidna Bruce Sacre, far left, with Peter Dean.

"We kept an echidna alive for two years at Taronga Zoo.

It cost $500 a year! We couldn't understand it:

$500" thats a bloody lot of ants!"
A man is driving north from Brisbane on the Bruce Highway with a XXXX label stuck on his forehead when he is pulled over for a randon breath test. the police officer takes one look at him and says "Excuse me sir, but have you been drinking?" "Nah," says the bloke, "I'm on patches"


My Thanks to John Clegg for these photos
If a newcomer tells a joke no one had heard, everyone else is supposed to throw in a dollar. Given their extensive collective knowledge of gags, says Sacre proudly, the Echidnas haven't had to pay up yet.
A thick skin is essential but these comedians are clearly competitive. "Oh yeah! My word!" Sacre exclaims. And with no jokes off-limits, the club is considered no place for a lady or the politically correct - although it's hard to imagine many women blushing at bawdiness these days. Still, the Echidnas prefer their gags to flow freely, uninhibited by any chivalrous sensibilities. "It's only among ourselves," says Sacre, "and we tell jokes about ourselves." Any envious women can always join the Australian Variety Association, a successful registered charity of female entertainers overseen by Queen Bee, Susie Smithers.
That said, the Echidnas have room for the full variety of variety, including jugglers, unicyclists and a "xylophone comedian" with accompanying skeleton puppet and strobe light show. "We have a lot of people allied to the club," says Sacre. "Neil Diamond
impersonators, Roy Orbison impersonators; they tell gags too - they're in vaudville so that's the main thing."
To become an Echidna, you'll need an introduction to the group, a commitment to attend three consecutive meetings - and your own two minute routine. Then you face a vote. A word of warning: don't steal other comedian's jokes. As Sacre advises: "If you retell a gag about the three bears, change it to four bears and an uncle. You wrap it like a Mintie."

That's not the only thing that's changing. Having dominated the Australian entertainment scene before the advent of television, the vaudevillians came to expect packed houses such as those generated around the country by the Tivoli Troupe. Now, they compete with trivia nights and karoake, and the Echidnas' meetings have moved to an evening slot to accommodate some members' new commitments comparing afternoon bingo and matinees. But the cruise ship circuit keeps them busy and the Queensland Sidesplitters still stage popular annual reviews with names like You've Got to Laugh and Music Hall
Magic.
That's the thing about joke-telling - it needs an audience to make it work; it needs response and reaction. The Echidnas and the Sidesplitters are men who take that telling one step beyond a gag at a barbecue; hecklers are part of what they love. Recounting a recent performance at a nursing home, Sacre says: "Suddenly a nurse come around to give medications (which is pretty thrilling when you're trying to entertain) so I said to her,'Excuse me, I'll have acharonnay'. And a little voice piped up, "You've got to go to Mavis' room for that'. That cracked me right up."

Still, even the King Echidna has his limits, and, he confesses, he's not a fan of modern stand-up comedians - "not my cup of tea." "If you're going to use the 'f word, you use it to punch gags, not as every second word. It loses it's impact. In [the old vaudeville] days , you could very seldom say 'bloody'. If you had a 'bloody' gag, you'd keep it till last. "He does sometimes pop into Sydney's Comedy Store, and some of the acts, he concedes, are great. "But the majority of them are nothing compered to the old pros."

This picture shows the innaugural members at the launching of the Echidnas Club back in 1976 our first King Echidna was Brian Doyle followed by Slim DeGray in 1979..
The Echidnas The Australian Order of Comedians