Lunch with TV writer and actor Dario Russo

Off-the-wall genius: Dario Russo, star of the SBS television show Danger Five in animated conversation during lunch at Chiara at Docklands in Melbourne.
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Off-the-wall genius: Dario Russo, star of the SBS television show Danger Five in animated conversation during lunch at Chiara at Docklands in Melbourne. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Dish: Traditional Margherita at Chiara at Docklands. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Dish: Special: Hibiscus Cured Kingfish with yellow carrot and loco rice crumb at Chiara. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Off-the-wall genius: Dario Russo, star of the SBS television show Danger Five in animated conversation during lunch at Chiara at Docklands in Melbourne.

Off-the-wall genius: Dario Russo, star of the SBS television show Danger Five in animated conversation during lunch at Chiara at Docklands in Melbourne. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Dish: Traditional Margherita at Chiara at Docklands. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Dish: Special: Hibiscus Cured Kingfish with yellow carrot and loco rice crumb at Chiara. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Off-the-wall genius: Dario Russo, star of the SBS television show Danger Five in animated conversation during lunch at Chiara at Docklands in Melbourne.

Off-the-wall genius: Dario Russo, star of the SBS television show Danger Five in animated conversation during lunch at Chiara at Docklands in Melbourne. Photo: Chris Hopkins

The bill: Receipt for lunch with Dario Russo at Chiara.

Dish: Traditional Margherita at Chiara at Docklands. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Dish: Special: Hibiscus Cured Kingfish with yellow carrot and loco rice crumb at Chiara. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Chiara 705a Collins Street, cityMon-Fri 10am-10pm; 9252 7909

“Mad” is one way of describing the TV work of Dario Russo and his creative partner David Ashby. The words crazy, silly and hyper-imaginative fit equally well, especially when it comes to explaining the small-screen worlds of their retro series Italian Spiderman and Danger 5.

Think dinosaurs firing cannons from the back of monster trucks, Adolf Hitler running amok in a 1980s-era disco, hitmen disguised in chicken suits, libidinous bears and exploding body parts, and you’ll still have only half the picture.

Reality is not exactly on the duo’s radar, which is why it seemed odd when the launch of a return series of Danger 5 on SBS in late 2014 was delayed on account of events unravelling in the Middle East.

The potential problem was the beheading of a central character, which happens in a moment on cartoonish violence and turns into a running gag. It had the potential to drag the show and its broadcaster into a media maelstrom, all the more so when the depiction is removed from its absurd, comic-book context.

“The show is not a political satire and we were never directly referencing anything in the real world. Danger 5 is probably the most removed from real-world programs you could find,” says Russo, adding that the episodes in question were written in 2012.

“Every bit of violence, of which there is a lot, is well and truly embedded in the world of ’80s splatter.”

The idea of re-editing the show was never canvassed or considered, and Russo and Ashby accepted SBS’s decision to hold back the premiere.

At 27, Russo has managed to channel a typical child’s interest in movies, TV, fantasy animation and puppetry into arguably the most distinctive and off-the-wall TV comedy of recent times – all the more notable given the tendency of local comedy to mine self-deprecation and suburban colloquialism rather than fantasy and adventure.

He lives in Adelaide and describes himself a “World War II mongrel”. His father was born in Italy and emigrated when he was several months old. He returned to his native Naples when he was 11, but the reminder of life on the land saw the family return two years later. His mother is of Estonian-Latvian descent.

Chiara is a new addition to the otherwise bereft Docklands end of Collins Street. Located on the ground floor of Collins Square and overlooking the former Spencer Street Station’s Goods Shed, it’s spacious and roomy and a welcome change from the noisy, elbow-jammed set-ups of most CBD eateries.

Russo has arrived early and studied the menu, his taste buds set on a traditional Margherita pizza, which we share. We also choose an antipasto platter, a wooden board with three mounds of fleshy and sweet eggplant, earthy artichoke and sweet peppers, cured kingfish accompanied by a yellow carrot puree and licorice, and a roquette salad, washed down with a glass of refreshing Peroni.

A member of the YouTube generation, Russo started making films in his teens, Jaws-style creature features “shot by teenagers in a creek in the Adelaide Hills passing off as somewhere in America”.

He and Ashby met via mutual friends at high school during what he says was the golden age of house parties. They were 15. “David was making ridiculously ribald Flash animations and I was making short films because my dad bought a Powerbook, as it was back then, and a Handicam and supported my bizarre desire to make weird shit.”

Their collaboration started in earnest at Flinders University.

Italian Spiderman, says Russo, grew out of a “harebrained” uni project, a fake trailer for a preposterous 1960s superhero series that drew on his love of “giallo” and B-grade serials.

It was 2007, Facebook was on the rise and Twitter had not yet hit our shores, but the meticulously crafted – and tear-inducing hilarious three-minute trailer – took off.

With $9500 of funding, they made 10 mini-episodes of Italian Spiderman, most of which he says was spent on kebabs for the crew and moustache glue.

But people kept watching and it became a phenomenon, generating a viral internet mime, an unlikely offer from a condom company wanting to use the flabby hero (who was played by Ashby) as a mascot (it didn’t eventuate) and eventually notching up an estimated 5.5 million YouTube views; small fry by today’s standards, but notable at the time.

A bitter dispute over the chain of title saw Russo and Ashby shut the door on any further adventures of their masked superhero and ladykiller, so SBS invited them to submit three concepts for a development deal, one of which was Danger 5.

It took three years of scripting and execution to make the first series, which found a vast and appreciative audience both here and abroad, among them fellow Adelaide-ian Shaun Micallef, who contacted the pair when the first episode aired. “I still say it was the funniest thing I’d seen in 10 years on TV,” Micallef has said.

His appreciation was repaid, when Russo and Ashby offered the polymath author, screenwriter and performer two roles in the new Danger 5.

A “textbook only child”, Russo credits his “highly artistic and theatrical” parents for supporting his passion.

“They never encouraged me to get a real job and as far as I know I don’t have one. I was never encouraged to get the fall-back career and for that I have to be eternally grateful.

“Mum was an art teacher, dad a guitar teacher, both into creativity. They’re incredible, model parents. I feel guilty.”

By the sounds of it, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. “Dad used to be an art teacher where he would give high school art lessons on Dadaism that would basically be an entire performance where he would hang from the top of a ladder and throw chopped-up bits of news script on the ground and everyone would assemble poems out of them.”

When it came to the teen rite-of-passage of rebelling against his parents, “I had to make stuff up”.

So the idea of casting his father Carmine – first as an absent-minded scientist in Italian Spiderman, then as Johnny Hitler replete with atrocious moustache in Danger 5 – is not a form of catharsis for childhood issues.

The new Danger 5 updates the setting from the 1960s to the ’80s. Inexplicably, though perfectly in keeping with the show’s peculiar mindset, the debonair Pierre has transformed into a black man, played by Pacharo Mzembe.

“David and I felt we’d run out of ’60s jokes and were sick of watching Sean Connery, Bond movies, The Avengers and Thunderbirds. We wanted to preserve the characters and refresh the entire show.”

That meant more dynamic camera work and lighting, as well as having to reproduce period props.

Presenting Danger 5 at a film festival recently, Russo was asked about the prevalence of characters wearing animal masks. The questioner was sounding out Russo’s interest in “furries”, a worldwide, fetishistic community of people who derive sexual excitement out of dressing up as animals.

Furries turn out to have little to do with it, even if Russo seems happy with the association. He says that creatures who have no justifiable reason to be anything else have always been part of his work. It goes back to Power Rangers, where most of the villains have animal heads and watching Jim Henson, “where children grow up with huge affection for talking animals”.

Whether or not the show provokes controversy remains to be seen, though Russo insists that has never been his mission.

“But the nature of comedy is controversial. It challenges ideas and often pushes people well and truly out of their comfort zones and that usually provokes a level of laughter in some people … and can also affect people with more fragile sensibilities.

“Not once in Danger 5 are we shooting to target any ethnic groups or real events. We just want to make comedy that includes memorable jokes and scenes that David and I haven’t seen before.

“Some of my favourite comedies ever are regarded as some of the most offensive ever. Look at how inflammatory Monty Python’s Holy Grail was when it came out. Or Borat, who uses cultural groups to make jokes. I don’t want to live in a world where comedy isn’t allowed to offend people because it should be our canvas to examine things”.

That said, however, Russo says there will be no more Danger 5 after the current series. “I’m keen to move onto my next project”.

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