On 8 July 1916 comedians Nat Phillips and Roy Rene stepped on to the stage of Sydney’s Princess Theatre, presenting their alter-egos Stiffy and Mo before an audience for the first time. By the end of their partnership 12 years later the pair had firmly cemented themselves as one of the country’s greatest ever comic duos. New research by Dr Clay Djubal (Australian Variety Theatre Archive) shows that Phillips and Rene were brought together while in Queensland at the end of June 1916, less than two weeks before their historic debut in a one act musical comedy (revusical) called What Oh Tonight.
Roy Rene (Mo), Daisy Merritt (The Dame) and Nat Phillips (Stiffy) in Babes in the Wood, Grand Opera House, Sydney (1918-19). Source: Theatre Magazine Jan. (1919), 7.
The first truly urban Australian larrikin characters to be developed on the variety stage, Stiffy and Mo captured the Australian popular culture’s imagination at a time when the country was attempting to deal with the crisis of World War I, and particularly the Gallipoli campaign. Despite their Irish and Jewish heritage, Stiffy and Mo came to exemplify a developing Australian national identity. Whether they were policemen, shopwalkers, sailors, bell-boys, jockeys, soldiers, beauticians, orderlies, porters or even bullfighters, Stiffy and Mo were all about mateship, loyalty, egalitarianism, larrikin attitudes, practical joking, self-deprecation, and an outright refusal to bow to authority figures.
The story of Stiffy and Mo begins several years earlier when Nat Phillips, already a veteran of the Australian and international variety stages, began developing a stage character, Stiffy the rabbitoh, in sketches with his wife, Daisy Merritt. As he recalls in a 1919 interview: “Until I brought Stiffy on the scene the Australian low-life character – the larrikin – was always portrayed as a [London] coster…. I decided to try the experiment with the Sydney larrikin. Steele Rudd made Dave an Australian bush type. I determined to come nearer home and present a city type. I couldn’t have wished for greater success.”
Phillips and Rene toured their alter-egos relentlessly around Australia and New Zealand until late-1928, albeit with an 18 month break in the mid-1920s. During their time together the pair starred in more than 30 individual revusicals, featured in five pantomimes, and published a Book of Fun. When they reunited in 1927 Just It magazine said the event almost overshadowed the Duke and Duchess of York’s royal visit.
The influence of Nat Phillips and Roy Rene on the Australian variety industry and the development of an Australia comedic tradition cannot be over-estimated. They not only played a significant role in developing and popularising the revusical genre in this country, but also established a precedent in comedy partnerships by doing away with the comic/straightman format. Their legacy can also be seen in a line of comedians to follow them, beginning with George Wallace and Jim Gerald, through to the television era (with partnerships like Graham Kennedy and Bert Newton, Hoges and Strop etc) and beyond.
If you’d like find out more about this iconic comedy duo click on the link below:
Scroll down to their entry in “Stage Characters” and click on ‘More details’ to access a PDF biography.
The Stiffy and Mo entry includes sound recordings, images, links, an engagements chronology, and a list known revusicals. You can also learn how new research has overturned a number of long-standing myths and historical errors relating to the partnership.
The University of Queensland’s Fryer Library holds the Nat Phillips Collection, 11 boxes of manuscripts (including four complete Stiffy and Mo scripts), photographs, sheet music and ephemera.
See also the Fryer’s blog celebrating the 100th anniversary of Stiffy and Mo’s debut.