Between lawyers I know and lawyers for whom I’ve created work – and possibly post-traumatic stress – I’ve got plenty of contacts.
GST had just been introduced, Windows ‘98 was king of computer programming, and John Howard was three years into his 11-year stint as Prime Minister. At Sydney University, five law students-turned-backyard publishers were partying like it was 1999 – because, well, it was.
The enthusiastic (and likely inebriated) young hacks had just finished putting together their debut issue of satirical student newspaper, The Chaser. It was time to celebrate. The only problem was that Issue One was due to be sent to the printers that evening.
“It was a typical Chaser party in that it was a really good party, but we ended up missing our print deadline,” recalls Julian Morrow, a founding member of the comedy team that has since become infamous for its satire across print, television, radio and live performances.
“The next day we had to run around printing out photocopies of it,” he laughs. “That was strongly indicative of our business planning. We missed the deadline of the very first edition.”
Morrow says the Chaser team has “marginally” improved its organisation in the two decades since that first edition. The name now refers to a media empire with its own production company and theatre, Giant Dwarf in Sydney, as well as multiple small businesses with varying levels of legitimacy. Morrow’s personal favourite is the “Kerry Packer Memorial Tax Company PTY LTD”.
The team has written and produced about 100 copies of the paper and multiple seasons of popular television programs including The Chaser’s War on Everything, The Checkout, The Hamster Wheel, and Logie Award-winning CNNNN.
The latest venture is Morrow’s brainchild: CPDUI, which stands for Continuing Professional Development Under the Influence. It involves Morrow hosting educational seminars with legal experts for lawyers to earn points toward renewing their practising certificates. The point of difference is that everyone gets to enjoy a tipple at Giant Dwarf Theatre’s licensed bar.
“The idea was that we could do a version of CPD for lawyers that has all the content, in a different format and a lot more fun,” explains Morrow. “It essentially involves me interviewing people who know the law. And you can have a drink at the same time. So instead of entering a really dour educational room, you have a little bit of a networking feel to it as well.
“Throughout my career I’ve been using entertaining formats as a way of conveying information. And I’ve found it can be pretty effective.”
Combining law with comedy might seem jarring, but Morrow has found each has complemented the other throughout his career. As the first law graduate of the Chaser group, he scored a full-time job in the employment law team at Blake Dawson (now Ashurst) and his salary funded most of the team’s early printing costs. He also penned many late-night columns when he came home from work – around 10 or 11pm most nights.
“I once fell asleep in the managing partner’s office [at Blake Dawson] when he was reading some piece of legal advice I’d written,” Morrow reflects. “I hadn’t slept at all because I stayed up writing for The Chaser. But I don’t think he noticed.”
It was useful to have a lawyer on the team when the popular TV series The Chaser’s War on Everything became increasingly daring with its political stunts. The most famous of these involved Chas Licciardello (also a qualified lawyer) dressing up as Osama Bin Laden to ride a fake motorcade into the 2007 APEC Summit. Criminal charges were squared at the team and later dropped by then-NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery. Ten years on, Morrow invited Cowdery to lead a “commemorative” CPDUI session about national security laws.
“We invited Nicholas Cowdery and [UNSW law dean] George Williams to speak at our first CPDUI on national security laws,” says Morrow. “Between lawyers I know and lawyers for whom I’ve created work – and possibly post-traumatic stress – I’ve got plenty of contacts.”
On the long list of high-profile contacts is Morrow’s wife, Lisa Pryor, who was also a lawyer and then a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald. Pryor published the 2008 book Pinstriped Prison about her experiences as a young lawyer in a top-tier firm and went on to study medicine and qualify as a psychiatrist. She and Morrow have two children aged seven and nine. The kids have presented unexpected challenges for the comedian.
“There’s no harder room in comedy than your kids,” Morrow says.
It’s this thought that is helping Morrow prepare to address 800 bleary-eyed lawyers at 7.30am on Friday 17 May. The annual breakfast comedy debate – the NSW Young Lawyers’ Golden Gavel – sells out every year. But that doesn’t make the audience less intimidating.
“It’s a hard time to do comedy,” Morrow agrees. “I hope it’s a champagne breakfast for the speakers. Or at least a lot of strong sugary coffee – you take what you can get.”