Andrew Denton’s son once saw then-Prime Minister John Howard speaking on television and exclaimed, ‘Look, Daddy, there’s you’. Mr Denton now refers to Mr Howard as “the tallest, most handsome, sexiest man in Australia”.
For most Australian viewers and radio-listeners, however, Mr Denton is an instantly recognisable media figure – and not one easily confused with Mr Howard.
He’s hosted the Logies (an interesting assignment, given that he says he’s “not a great lover” of Australia’s television awards night), been on breakfast radio and interviewed countless celebrities, politicians and everyday heroes on his highly successful television program, Enough Rope.
“I did have an extraordinary range of people on the show over six years,” he says. “Some of them changed the world and others had change forced upon them.”
Based on his experiences with that vast range of people, however, according to Mr Denton, successful people all have one thing in common: “They work harder than the next guy – it’s as simple as that”.
In addition to their approach to hard work, people’s different responses to change can separate those who succeed from those who struggle.
“Often change doesn’t just happen,” he says. “You have to make it happen.
“Seeking and embracing change has been central to my career. Probably the most significant career decision I ever made in my life was back in 2001 when I quit my job.
“I was having a wonderful time making jokes about Big Brother contestants with one of my dearest friends, the fabulous and funny Amanda Keller.
But after more than five years, I had this gnawing feeling that I wanted to do something of more substance.”
So Mr Denton quit his breakfast radio job, with no idea what he was going to do next.
“I quit and I went home and I gave myself permission to do nothing,” he says. “That’s not as easy as it may sound. We all have a work ethic and, believe it or not, I have an ego. ‘Relevance deprivation syndrome’ set in.
“I used to have to force myself and remind myself that a day where I just read a book, did some cooking, went and kicked a footy with my son, hung about... was a good day.”
Despite the difficulties of ‘doing nothing’, it was an important factor in what came next. Over his six months’ sabbatical, his brain was ‘replenishing and rejuvenating’.
And during this time he noticed something was missing.
“This was the time of Big Brother and the world of reality television. What I saw was missing was anywhere on television where there was an actual conversation about the things that really mattered to us once we stopped gossiping about who was on Big Brother – our kids, our families, death,b work, career how to get through life. The big things and the simple things.”
He set himself a challenge: to create an interview show “based not just on celebrity but on ideas and passions”. The idea was to have “egos out, brains and hearts in”.
The show, he says, would “stand clearly apart from the news and current affairs agenda of the week”. It “absolutely would not be a platform for anyone’s latest book, movie or CD”.
In listing what he wanted from the show, Mr Denton said it “will not be afraid to be funny, and will not be afraid not to”. Ideally, it would “challenge people to think and then challenge their thinking”.
This became the blueprint for Enough Rope, a show which ended up running on the ABC for over five years.
“That would never have happened if I hadn’t decided to seek change,” he says.
“Often, when you try something new, you don’t know what you’re doing... but there are so many people in the world who ‘should have’, ‘could have’, ‘one day I’m going to get there’... But it’s like the ad says: if you want to make something happen, just do it.”
If you want to change things, you have to be prepared to take risks, he says, adding that the bravest people put everything on the line and risk failure to achieve success.
According to Mr Denton, if you’re too scared of failure, you will freeze and the things that you really want to happen will never eventuate.
“In truth, nobody wants to fail, but if you’re not intimidated by the prospect and you’re not afraid to try things ... it’s those people, the ones who put themselves out there – who put themselves in harm’s way – who also end up getting the reward and the immense satisfaction with having dared and won.”
Rules of life
Given the sheer number of people Mr Denton has interviewed in his media career, it should come as no surprise that many of his stories, anecdotes and ‘life lessons’ are told through other people’s experiences.
One of his favourite interviews as host of Enough Rope was Jerry Seinfeld, whom he describes as “the smartest man in world comedy”.
Mr Seinfeld’s ‘three rules of life’, which he detailed on the program, could teach everyone something, according to Mr Denton.
“I just sat down with a pad and paper and I thought, ‘Well, what are my three rules of life?’” Mr Seinfeld said in the interview in 2007. “And I came up with: Bust your arse, pay attention and fall in love.
“Bust your arse is just, basically, whatever you do, kill yourself – work as hard as you can, only good can come of it.
“Pay attention is just, people just don’t notice enough about what’s going on around them. You can absorb and learn from everything around you all the time. Ask people questions all the time.
“And fall in love isn’t really a romantic love... [it’s more like] if I get a really good cup of coffee, I like to go, ‘You know what, just hang on a second.
This is a fantastic cup of coffee. Isn’t this great?’ And I’ll ask everyone, ‘Isn’t this great coffee? ‘Cos you know, it’s not always great. This one is great’.”
Mr Denton echoes Mr Seinfeld’s sentiments and says that if people really do want to succeed, and be leaders in facing change, then they really do need to bust their arse, pay attention and fall in love.