It's 2002. Why would Andy Lee, who has engineered his University of Melbourne commerce degree to be as cruisy as possible, willingly attend a non-related talk on nuclear physics? Because he's guaranteed a laugh. His new friend Hamish Blake has a gift for the gab but not for preparation. This talk will likely be heavily reliant on Homer Simpson references.
"I'd watch him lie for my own entertainment. He was doing Thank God You're Here before that show was even invented," Lee says today. "Having so much confidence over something so ill-thought out is something that we love."
We continually check in and go, 'Are we still having fun?'
You might even say it's the winning Hamish and Andy formula. By now, with 16 years of hit TV and radio shows behind them and a swag of Logies and AACTA Awards, they're able to pitch shows to the Nine Network via text. That's what happened with Hamish and Andy's most recent series, Perfect Holiday, an outlandish trip across North America, from Alaska to the Colorado Rockies, in which they set each other up with elaborate madcap missions, collecting all kinds of disparate characters along the way. Like their previous travel shows, Caravan of Courage and Gap Year, the emphasis is on bucket-list experiences, not scenic shots.
In an era when much of their target demographic has ditched terrestrial TV altogether for streaming services, Perfect Holiday is still a safe bet for Nine (which also owns this magazine), because Blake and Lee's double-act dynamic is hard to rival, no matter how many times a new duo is heralded "the next Hamish and Andy". I watched a preview of the three 90-minute episodes while bunkered in bed with mild concussion, a condition which brings with it a strange fug and the emotional wobbles. I couldn't have picked anything better, as it happens – Perfect Holiday is an instant tonic.
"I thought you were going to say doctors were showing it to people with concussion to test their cognitive skills," says Blake. "'If you find this funny, we'll know you have a lasting injury'."
Blake and Lee are milling around our shoot at a Melbourne studio, gamely trying on anything that's suggested. "I only wear a suit twice a year – the Logies and the races," says Lee. He decides to prank his girlfriend Rebecca Harding by texting her a picture of some Gucci shoes from the stylist's table. Blake instructs him on the perfect message that could dupe her into thinking he really has bought them – clearly she's always going to have her suspicions aroused.
Now that the recorder is running, both Blake and Lee slip into that radio voice favoured by DJs and advertisers alike: on the verge of a laugh, as elusive as a sneeze. Blake frequently interrupts Lee with ideas that cannot be curtailed. Lee is by no means a straight-man foil, but comes across as more considered. It's Lee who polices their joint bank account, Blake admits. "He cuts off my big-picture spending."
Much of commercial TV involves presenters sitting on sofas pretending to like each other, but you can't fake the Hamish and Andy rapport. Their delight in pranking each other in Perfect Holiday is genuinely contagious. Just as the Gap Year series involved catfish noodling in Oklahoma, synchronised swimming in Prague, cooking lasagne on an active volcano in Nicaragua and haggis hurling in Scotland, this time around they're hunting down a wolverine in Alaska; trying to foil a casino in Vegas; and launching cars off a cliff in Kentucky, amongst other dares.
The flipside is that Blake and Lee are sometimes accused of playing it safe. While they did make an Instagram video urging people to vote in the same-sex marriage plebiscite – making it clear they were voting yes – they largely keep out of politics. "People have said that we're deliberately avoiding controversial topics, but our style is making up our own fun, and that doesn't exist in the topical world so we're not ever required to give a hot take," says Lee. Blake agrees. "No one is tuning into our podcast week after week to be continuously disappointed that we're not talking about Trump's withdrawal from Syria. It's not to say that we're not interested in what's going on in the world."
Which leads them to the central thesis of Perfect Holiday. One could hazard a guess that some of the small-town American characters they pull into their schemes would be poles apart politically from Blake and Lee, but the duo is more interested in finding the similarities between people than the differences. "It's a great reminder, doing stuff like this – and this is the point of travel – that countries are not their headlines," says Blake. "You get out there and you meet people who, of course, are like us. They probably have different opinions on a bunch of different stuff, but they find the same things funny."
A side note. It's hard not to appear as brown-nosing when profiling Blake and Lee, because it's impossible to dislike them. They're charming to every last person on the shoot. They are amenable to most suggestions. No wonder journalists tend to refer to them affectionately as "boys". "The boys". Practically "our boys". It wasn't always thus. In the past 18 months, comedian Wil Anderson had both men as separate guests on his podcast, Wilosophy. Blake chinwagged about his fascination in artificial intelligence and the joy of raising his two children, Sonny and Rudy. Lee had more of an axe to grind about the relentlessly hard time Anderson and other comedians gave them back in 2004, particularly on ABC TV show The Glasshouse.
Blake and Lee – then a tender 21 – had been given their own show by Seven. Initially they were to appear as part of a sketch company (for what would later become Big Bite), which included Andrew O'Keefe, Chris Lilley and Kate McCartney. Then the network made them deeply unpopular with their peers by rebranding the project as The Hamish and Andy Show. As it turned out, ratings were poor and the show was cancelled after six episodes. It made Blake and Lee such easy targets for other comedians that Anderson once told Lee, at a chance meeting, that his jokes about them had paid for his new kitchen. "Hamish and I hated you for a long time," Lee tells Anderson on Wilosophy. "I need to get this out." He doesn't have that laughing tone in his voice. "The hard thing for Hamish and I at the time was we were really trying. And then the shows that I loved and listened to I was becoming a regular punchline on."
Anderson admits to having had no class. "For me it was about punching out at the blandness of commercial television. I'd forgotten that Hamish and Andy were people – not a brand or a symbol of something, but actual people," he says. The experience made Blake and Lee determined to work harder. In 2005, Rove McManus handpicked them to develop Network Ten's current affair parody show, Real Stories, and allowed their production company, Radio Karate, to co-produce, despite them having had no such experience. In 2006, they landed a daily two-hour drive-time show on Melbourne's Fox FM, and a year later were moved to the national Hit Network.
At its peak, the show reached 2.5 million listeners a week. Their preferred medium these days is the podcast, because listeners commit from start to finish. Hamish and Andy follows their latest preoccupations, one being chicken shops. Outside of their joint endeavours, Lee has written a series of four children's books. The first was initially a surprise for his nephew, though when he published it through the independent Lake Press it became an overnight success, almost selling out its initial 60,000 print run in one day. Blake hosts Nine's LEGO Masters. "You realise how much of your muscle memory is used to being in a duo, assuming half the things will be thought of by someone else," Blake says, "but I really enjoy that challenge."
In the little press Blake and Lee do, there's always a fascination with their longevity, something only Hollywood couples get more scrutiny over. Googling 'Hamish and Andy' and 'mateship' produces 22,700 results. I ask them why they think this deep fascination exists. "We're invested in the friendship and other people have invested in it over the years, so maybe that's the reason," considers Lee. "But I also think that good things don't have to last, and Hame and I are really honest with each other about that. So we continually check in and go, 'Are we still having fun?"
A favourite sketch of theirs is from the now-defunct British show That Mitchell and Webb Look. In it, Barry Chip leaves his double-act partner Alan Fish to team up with Roger Pin, formerly of Pin and Cushion, thus forming Chip and Pin. Unfortunately for him, Alan's partnership with John Cushion – Fish and Cushion – winds up doing much better. "For a lot of great comedy duos over the years there are times where relationships have waned and they've pushed through it for the business side of things," says Lee, "but we'll never ever do that."
He and Blake live three blocks apart, use Uber carpool to get to work, and are digitally connected by a shared calendar. "It's a delicate balance between intense closeness and space," says Blake. "We go through stages of living in each other's pockets, and then turning the volume down, and that, so far, has successfully avoided us ever getting to breaking point. We sometimes say it's like a nuclear reactor – it's best if we notice cracks before other people do." He laughs. "If everything seems to be melting, that's a bad sign."
Episode two of Perfect Holiday airs Sunday November 24, and concludes December 1.