For 35 years, Rampaging Roy Slaven and HG Nelson have parodied the tired tropes of sporting commentary with equal parts venom and affection.
Their refrain “when too much sport is barely enough” has become part of the national consciousness and their simulcast commentary of State of Origin games have achieved cult-like status. To this day, many former players have been unable to shake the bizarrely inventive — and frequently profane — nicknames with which they were dubbed.
The men behind Roy and HG, John Doyle (Roy) and Greig Pickhaver (HG), have an effortless rapport and obviously delight in one another’s company. But surprisingly, in all their years together, they have rarely socialised.
“We’ve probably dined together, our families, maybe 10 times in 35 years,” Doyle says.
“And I think it’s a protective thing that we don’t want to sully or somehow disturb whatever the rainbow connection is that makes this thing work.
“We’ve never discussed it, but I think that’s probably at the back of his mind as it is the back of mine.”
For Pickhaver, it’s a case of not exhausting the comic possibilities of the act.
“Friendship is a very tricky thing because we’re colleagues who ad-lib,” he says.
“So when we get together and be friends, we amuse each other by being Roy and HG. The trouble is, we come to work and we think, ‘well, we’ve done all this’.”
For most of their career, Doyle, 67, and Pickhaver, 72, have shunned media attention, preferring to let their garrulous alter egos take the limelight.
But in a moment of weakness, they agreed to let Australian Story pry behind Roy and HG’s masks to explore the unusual chemistry that has sustained their act for all this time.
‘We’re both outsiders’
Pickhaver and Doyle are a study in contrasts and similarities.
“We’re completely different in the sense of how we would spend time and pass time,” Pickhaver says.
“Greig is far more interested in people than I am,” Doyle says. “I tend to be a solitary person.
“Greig’s always keen to, as he says, look for another bank to rob. Whereas I tend to sit back a bit and follow my own obsessions.”
Both, however, are outsiders who, as Pickhaver puts it, had “contested childhoods” that led them to develop rich interior lives.
Born and raised in Adelaide, Pickhaver was the product of an unhappy marriage.
He suffered from dyslexia and drifted aimlessly through his school years.
“People talk about childhood as the happiest days of your life,” he says. “I couldn’t disagree more. I was just waiting to get old.
“I used to spend a lot of time pretending I was someone else.”
Doyle, from the small NSW mining town of Lithgow, says he slipped between the cracks in his family. His younger sister was profoundly autistic and understandably demanded most of his parents’ attention.
“The blinds were down, we didn’t see many people and I just invented a world that I sort of hid in,” he says.
Both left home as soon as they could — Doyle to Newcastle where he became a high school teacher and Pickhaver to Melbourne where he joined the experimental theatre group the Pram Factory and became an announcer at radio station Triple R.
Doyle, meanwhile, developed an interest in theatre and quit teaching to become a jobbing actor. He eventually moved to Sydney where Pickhaver had also found his way.
In early 1985 they both got roles on a children’s television series and on the first day of filming found themselves sharing a caravan.
It was an encounter that changed both their lives forever.
The making of Roy and HG
Ever since his days at Triple R in Melbourne, Pickhaver had been toying with a comedy act that parodied the conventions of sport commentary.
He would talk about sport between playing records and he and several colleagues would call AFL grand finals in the early 80s.
He had invented a character called HG Nelson, a name that referenced an iconic Australian car and a famous wrestling hold.
But HG needed an offsider and Pickhaver had never been able to find one.
“When you listen to sports commentating, you hear a ball-by-ball commentator and you hear an expert commentator, who is often a retired player who has been there and done it all before,” Pickhaver explains. “I needed somebody to play the role of the retired sporting commentator.”
In Doyle, he found his man.
“He got exactly what the relationship between sport and characters would be,” Pickhaver says.
“And he went from discussing rugby league to quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins at me. Within 30 seconds I realised he’d be really good at this.”
Doyle took his character’s name from a famous Lithgow sporting family, adding Roy because it meant king and carried gravitas.
“Greig attached the ‘rampaging’ to it the first time he introduced me on air,” he recalls. “I didn’t mind that. That was fine.”
Doyle and Pickhaver launched Roy and HG on Triple J’s breakfast show, presenting back-to-back editorials once a week.
But it wasn’t until they called the 1986 NRL Grand Final for Triple J that everything clicked.
“That’s when he started feeding me questions,” Doyle recalls. “And that’s when we realised that there was stuff to mine here.”
Following the success of the Grand Final call, they were offered a weekly show on Triple J and This Sporting Life was born.
The rules of the game
Since then, Roy and HG have become one of Australia’s most enduring comedy partnerships, with an act that has remained virtually unchanged, whether it be on radio or TV, the ABC or a commercial network.
“The ground rules were very simple,” Doyle explains.
“We’d be as long-winded as possible. We make the serious trivial and the trivial serious. We never disagree with each other. And HG always asks the questions.
“They’re the rules. Elegant and simple.”
The rules might be simple, but explaining the precise nature of their act and why it works is less so.
It certainly parodies traditional sports commentary, but it does so much more, combining elements of high and low culture in an absurdist and largely improvised melange.
“They make fun of the Australian character, they make fun of sport,” says long-time fan Julia Zemiro.
“But they love sport and they love the Australian character. They’re poetic. They’re theatrical. They’re funny. They can be political. It’s everything.”
“The key to their on-air chemistry lies in their theatre backgrounds,” explains fellow broadcaster Wendy Harmer. “Roy and HG use a thing in improvisation called ‘yes, and’. So they always accept the other’s premise.”
“He’s building a safety net for me, I’m building a safety net for him,” Doyle says. “It’s a very easy way to work. And once you establish that as a as a modus operandi, you can go for 35 years.”
Living the dream
For their first 15 years, Roy and HG had a loyal but modest following. Then, in 2000, everything changed. Invited by Channel Seven to present a late-night wrap of the Sydney Olympics, Doyle and Pickhaver created a pop-culture sensation.
For two weeks, The Dream with Roy and HG became essential viewing, achieving extraordinary ratings in a traditionally barren 11pm-1am timeslot.
“If you ask people to name two things they remember about the Sydney Olympics, No 1 is Cathy Freeman winning gold, No 2 is Roy and HG,” says fellow comedian Charlie Pickering.
“It’s their show that crystallised the whole thing for everyone.”
Their commentary of the men’s floor gymnastics has become part of Australian comedy lore and their mascot, Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat, overshadowed The Games’ official mascots, much to the irritation of the Australian and International Olympic Committees.
“It was an amazing time and we were very lucky,” Pickhaver recalls. “You can’t have hits all the time but, by golly, that was a hit.”
Despite their commercial success, Doyle and Pickhaver continued to present This Sporting Life on Triple J, making it one of the station’s longest running programs. But in 2008, after 22 years, they felt it was time to hang up their boots.
“Look, it was just getting a little bit silly,” Doyle says. “Here we were on the youth network and I look at this grey-haired fellow shaving of a morning and think, maybe not.”
Although they would still call grand final matches on the ABC from time to time, most of their work was done elsewhere. But early this year they returned to their spiritual home, presenting a two-hour Saturday show on ABC Grandstand.
“It feels like returning to a very comfortable pair of shoes,” Doyle says. “And you wonder why you stopped wearing them.”
That their return to the ABC coincided with the outbreak of COVID-19 and the suspension of all sporting fixtures didn’t trouble the pair in the least.
“We’re talking about sport which isn’t happening, which is a goldmine for us,” Pickhaver says.
“It’s the perfect landscape for us because we’re not encumbered by fact,” Doyle says. “In fact, the less that’s happening, the more it gives you the licence to talk about whatever you want.’
‘Just as amusing now as 35 years ago’
It is rare for a comedy act to remain together for as long as Doyle and Pickhaver have. It is rarer still for that act to remain relevant, to not seem like a legacy act.
“I’ve worked with acts that have been around for as long as they have and most of them are too jaded to leave the house,” Pickering says.
“But they’re not. They seem to just be really happy in each other’s company, always trying to come up with new ways to be funny.
“And I think that must come from a place of genuine affection.”
Pickhaver compares himself and Doyle to guitarists in their late 60s or early 70s who need to practise a bit to maintain their act, but see no reason to stop.
“You would know within a nanosecond that the time was up,” he says. “I’m looking forward to this week’s show as much as I’ve looked forward to anything.”
As for Doyle, he sees himself as the luckiest person on the planet.
“And lucky the day that I stepped into that caravan and met Greig, because it would have been a totally different landscape had I not.
“I still find it as amusing now as I did 35 years ago. I don’t know why, but it is.”
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