Tribute to Graham Kennedy

Published: 21/2/2023

Graham Kennedy was a legendary Australian comedian who was best known for his quick wit, irreverent humour and his hilarious work on the long-running hit show 'In Melbourne Tonight' (IMT).

Along with his trusty sidekick Bert Newton and a talented cast of comedians, Kennedy revolutionised live sketch comedy in Australia. He kept IMT on the air well into the 1970s with his daring and often controversial humour, as well as his famous anti-ads, where he would use "live-read" commercials to take aim at products or sponsors.

Graham Kennedy (R) with Bert Newton shared a 50-year friendship before Kennedy’s death in 2005.
Graham Kennedy (R) with Bert Newton shared a 50-year friendship before Kennedy’s death in 2005.

Join us as we celebrate the Australian entertainment icon, 'The King' Graham Kennedy, with some quotes from those who knew him best shared along the way.

Read our Tribute to Bert Newton here.

Early Years

Graham Kennedy was born in Melbourne to parents Cyril William Kennedy and Mary Austin Kennedy on 5th February 1934. His parents divorced shortly before World War II which saw Kennedy raised by his grandparents, "Pop" Kennedy and "Grandma Scott" - who he remained particularly close with until her death.

Kennedy attended a few different schools in Melbourne - Euston College, Caulfield North Central School and Melbourne High School - which years later, he chaired a project aimed at raising funds for his old school, which managed to raise a whopping $100,000, a testimate to Kennedy's generous nature.

As a teenager, Kennedy worked with his Uncle at his hairdressing shop on Collins Street during a school break. It was here that he met clients from the Australian Broadcasting Commission's shortwave service, and who later helped him get a job as a news runner. He went on to work at 3UZ radio station where he spent his time working in the record library.

Radio Career

Kennedy was mentored by one of the most popular Melbourne radio announcers of his time, Clifford "Nicky" Nicholls Whitta. Nicky brought Kennedy on as a panel operator for his show at 3UZ and from there the pair built a special bond.

Kennedy also appeared on other radio stations like 3AK, 3LO and 3XY, and went on to record eight radio comedies for the ABC titled Graham Kennedy's RS Playhouse. In 1981, he also presented a three-hour Sunday morning program of music and comedy on Sydney radio station 2Day FM.

Graham Kennedy’s humour was laden with innuendo and double entendres.
Graham Kennedy’s humour was laden with innuendo and double entendres.

Television Career

Kennedy's television career began in March 1957 when he represented 3UZ on a GTV-9 Red Cross telethon. Following its success, he was chosen by GTV-9's general manager and producer to present a show called 'In Melbourne Tonight (IMT)', which ran from May 1957 until 1970.   

The show, which followed the format of America's Tonight Show, was popular but did have its fair share of controversies. And although Kennedy had his detractors, he was quoted as saying:

"Many women write to tell me that although their husbands may not like me, they do. It appears from the mail that the women have the say on what the household is watching. And we do remember that it is the women who do the buying of products that we advertise. Bearing that in mind we try and design our commercials for them."

Graeme Blundell wrote of IMT and the connection between Kennedy and Bert Newton in his biography, 'King, The Life and Comedy of Graham Kennedy' as a slapstick mix of vaudeville and English naughtiness:

"Melbourne had never seen live television like it. The viewer didn't quite know who to look at, there was so much happening. They piggy-backed each other, riding and jumping like monkeys, pushed the sets over, upended the desk, punched and slapped, chased into the audience and threw boxes of products at each other."

Graham Kennedy and Bert Newton have a pie fight on The Graham Kennedy Show.
Graham Kennedy and Bert Newton have a pie fight on The Graham Kennedy Show.

The Graham Kennedy Show

Off the success of IMT grew the Graham Kennedy Show. The show was both a popular and controversial series that ran from 1972 to 1973, and then again in 1975.

Memorable moments from the show include the "crow call" controversy where Kennedy imitated a crow call ("faaaaaark") highly reminiscent of the word "f*ck". This led to Kennedy being banned from ever appearing live on television, forcing him to pre-record all of shows.

"I emphasise the following: don't, whatever happens, be anyone but yourself. Don't act anyone else - that would be fatal." Graham Kennedy.

Brady Bunch star Florence Henderson with Graham Kennedy at the 1978 Logie Awards. Logies.
Brady Bunch star Florence Henderson with Graham Kennedy at the 1978 Logie Awards. Logies.

Later Television Work

Kennedy appeared as Clive Parker in an episode of 'Power Without Glory' and then went on to host  game show Blankety Blanks, which became the most profitable program on Network Ten, earning Kennedy an unprecedented $1 million per season.

Kennedy appeared on other television programs as well, including the Graham Kennedy's News Show program for Nine Network where he defied convention by making tasteless but hilarious remarks about the irony of how news shows get good ratings. On one occasion, following a heavier woman being caught for streaking at a cricket match, he went as far as saying on air that they would run the footage but explained they had to cover offending body parts with black. The clip that was played was all black, except for one area that revealed her pubic hair.

Although many who worked with Kennedy thought his crass and unpredictable nature was hard work at times, they still admired him greatly. Jim Pike said:

".. I hate him, but he is the best there is".

Kennedy also presented 'Graham Kennedy's Funniest Home Video Show', which aired between March and November 1990.

A moment many fans might recall was when he was featured in an interview for 'Ray Martin Presents Graham Kennedy's Sixtieth' in February of 1994. On the show Kennedy became agitated and used obscenities believing he was ambushed by the popular journalist when he departed from pre-agreed questions.

"I terminated the interview when I didn't know what he was talking about and went upstairs to lunch."

A critical turning point in his career, Kennedy swore he would never do television again.

In 1998 he was awarded a "Hall of Fame" Logie Award which added to his record number of 19 Logies and 5 Gold Logies.

Final years and legacy

Graham Kennedy's impact on the Australian entertainment industry was immense. His wit, humour and professionalism made him a beloved figure whose legacy will continue to inspire and entertain people for years to come.

In recognition of his contributions to the entertainment industry and the community, he was posthumously appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2006.

Australian entertainer Graham Kennedy pictured on the balcony of his home in Kirribilli.
Australian entertainer Graham Kennedy pictured on the balcony of his home in Kirribilli.

Graham Kennedy passed away from pneumonia complications on 25th May 2005, aged 71.

Rest in peace, Graham Kennedy, thank you for the many years of joy and laughter and for paving such an entertaining path for Australian comedy.

"What motivates me in life? It's to keep breathing. I wake up in the morning and say "I've made it again, let's rejoice". I do not think I go intellectually into what it's all about. I'm a fairly simple person." Kennedy speaking to Mark Lawrence of The Age - Green Guide, 25 May 1978.

By Kirsten Jakubenko

Sources:

  • https://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/heres-graham- 2003... -gdvncy.html
  • https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0448058/bio
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graham_Kennedy 
  • https://www.nfsa.gov.au/collection/curated/nine-news-graham-kennedy-has-died   

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