Young Tom Waits's shtick presages Heath Ledger's Joker

This 1979 clip of a young Tom Waits being interviewed on Australian TV by Don Lane demonstrates just how similar Waits's shtick (especially back in those days) resembled Heath Ledger's Joker character. Scroll to about 1:40 for the fun.

Tom Waits interview by Don Lane, Australia 1979 with Paradise Alley clip! (via Kottke)


  1. I’m pretty sure that behavior isn’t Tom Waits’ shtick.  That’s Tom Waits being rather severely chemically impaired.

      1.  My instinct says schtick, which is why I can’t stand Tom Waits.  He feels like a fraud to me.

        1. I’ve seen him perform since the 70’s.  That’s a long time to NEVER get caught not being in persona.

          Honestly, I’m amazed he’s still alive.  Medical science needs to study him along with Ozzy Osbourne.

          1.  You should take time to listen to everything he’s done since the 70’s. I love his Kurt Weill for the 21st century lyrics and sound.

        2. I don’t know if fraud is the right term, but I listened to an interview with him in which he described consciously and carefully developing all this odd mannerisms in an effort to be cool. I wish I could remember the show. I’m thinking NPR’s Fresh Air for some reason, but I tend to avoid that show, so it might have been something else.

          1. Holy moley.  If you can remember, please share.  Much as I’d hate to hear it, if that’s the truth then I want to know.

          2. Definitely not fraud. Mannerisms or idiosyncratic / all behaviour of all persons are developed, not inherent, physical challenges / differences & innate genetic stuff aside. 

            Whether it  is a conscious task or decision to “be yourself” in order to “be yourself” it is still remains adaptation you wear in order to be comfortable, or some might say “cool”.

            Waits is gifted in his art and often when a person is given a great deal of attention by large numbers of people, yet still wish to “be themselves” characteristics can become more pronounced and more nuanced. Whether used for defence or aggression or passivity, individual characteristics are the mind and body defining the individual. Spotlights can hinder or help but almost always exaggerate development.

            No surprise to learn that the cynic that is Tom Waits would be aware of his characteristics and confident enough to discuss them in a detached manner.

        3. The idea of authenticity is weird, most artistic personae are contrivances. For example: David Bowie endlessly synthesised and contrived, yet produced great entertainment which had “significance” for the audience at the time. Affecting the audience is the goal, not to “be real”, that’s the game of it. You think that every idolised soloist “means it man” on ever time they play their hit? Nah, what makes them great is they can evoke a feeling in the audience.

        4. I can think of like five or six Tom Waits albums that go beyond “great” into “brilliant”.  You have any material on youtube I can use as a basis for comparison?

          Yeah, he’s got a weird persona.  I typically reserve the word “fraud” for people who aren’t musical geniuses.

        5. “In 2006, Tom Waits appeared on “The Daily Show.” Jon Stewart seemed uncharacteristically nervous. “I was struck when I met your wife, your family, how unbeaten by life you are,” Jon Stewart said at the top of the interview. “I used to listen to your music and think, boy, I’d like to lie in the street nearly dead with that guy.”Waits nods. “It’s an act,” he says.”

  2. Well, A 22 hour flight and a lot of drugs seem like the formula for drug addled psycho, which I think was what Heath was going for.

  3. I suppose Ledger and Waits did work together on The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, though I’m not sure if that was filmed before or after The Dark Knight.   

    1. Parnassus was definitely after. They were only half way through when he died, hence the contrivance with Johnny Depp, Jude Law et al.

      1. They went in production in the same year.  Dark Knight in February and Parnassus in December.  But there would have been casting and script reads for 12 to 18 months before production started.  And it is not like Tom Waits is a minor entertainment character.  He is huge in the artistic community.

  4. This was the 1st  I had heard Don Lane.  Interesting: an American that was host of an Australian talk show for 8 years. 

        1. Don Lane was a bit of a knob, but in those days of the ‘cultural cringe’ some TV execs thought an American host was somehow more sophisticated.

          I watched this particular show live on the telly, because of Randi. The best parts of this encounter are missing from the clip.

          Randi did a very nice liquid metal effect with a spoon à la Geller. As the bowl of the spoon fell into Lane’s cupped hands he said “How did you do that?” and fell for one of Randi’s classic lines, “Very well, I think”. (Audience applause)

          Someone had tipped Lane on the mechanics of key bending and when Randi did it, Lane was burning his hands and shouted “I saw that, you bent the key when you xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx”.  Randi said “Yes I did, just like Geller does”.

          Finally, after Lane had stormed off like a petulant child, Randi was left sitting alone on the set. He got a nice close up and said something along the lines of “Well, ladies and gentleman, as our host is no longer with us, I think we have no choice but to go to a commercial break.”  It was pretty classy and it got Randi some nice press in the following day’s papers.

          1. I’d love to see that – my memories of Don Lane are vague, but my memories of Bert will live on.

        2. During a nostalgia clips show broadcast near the end of his life Lane essentially recanted. After showing some clips of “spooky” segments, as he called them, including his tantrum at Randi, he drew the audience’s attention to the fact that in one of the clips you could see Uri Geller, shortly after moving some compass needles, surreptitiously palming a magnet.

  5. This is not consistent with my understanding of Mr. Waits’ other “mannerisms”.  I know he’s got a lot of weird things he does, and not all of it feels totally genuine to me.  He seems totally disingenuous in this clip.

    But I don’t think it matters, because his music and lyrics are some of the most world-weary and honest (like, life-honest) stuff out there.

    1. I’d call it ‘affected’, not ‘disingenuous’. I’ve seen and read a number of Waits interviews, and to me it feels like he knows full well that he’s expected to be his ‘performer self’ on stage, and his ‘true self’ for TV/print interviews, and he refuses to play along, because the ‘true Tom Waits’ is none of anyone’s business expect family and (actual) friends, so what the interviewer is going to get is a another performance, because fuck ’em.

    2. Disingenuous? High as a fucking kite is more like it. When the interviewer asks him how he entertained himself on the flight over to Australia, I think the answer is pretty clear; it wasn’t movies, it was bourbon and coke. And I’m not talking mixed drinks.

    3. There are clues. 22 hour flights when you could still smoke on a plane is one big clue they give early on in the interview. 

      Flights to Asia kick my ass everytime with or without the chemical assistance the younger me would enjoy. 

  6. Somebody I know on another board says he was friends with a kid growing up who was friends with Tom.  Their mothers worked at the same grammar school.  He says this photo is when Tom was 15 and their families went to Ensenada.  Choose to believe it or not – I like to :)

  7. am i the only one that wants to see the rest of this interview, and the song he did? i never knew he was in that movie. guess i’d better check it out now.

  8. They should have made a whole TV variety show with these two guys just doing bits for 30 minutes.  Both playing up their schtick to the inth degree.  funny stuff

  9.  A year later he married Kathleen Brennan  ( a script writer)who got him to sober up and also co-writes songs with him. He’s an unassuming man and obviously was very uncomfortable with the attention he got. There’s a series called “Fishing with John” where this actor takes various celebs fishing. The episode with Waites reinforces his dry sense of humor.

    1. Just watched that. Tom Waites is genuine. I found Heath Ledgers joker annoying and”schticky”. Never understood the acclaim. Probly cause he died.

  10. To those who are using the word “fraud”:  this interview is right around the time of Small Change, one of the truly great collections of original music created in a decade defined by great music. Before you apply any brand to this guy, listen to that album once and you’ll most likely be thinking differently.

    1. It’s rather obvious, if you have the sense of hearing and have seen the aforementioned Batman flick.

      1.  Yeah, it’s so obvious that it took 4 years for some genius to notice it and then all the sheeple got on board.

        1. 4 years?  Where did you get that number?  I personally had first heard the interview 31Jul2012 and the video this article points to was “Uploaded by JensdePens on Nov 11, 2011”.

  11. It CAN be just genetic – Yesterday, my son-in-law was sitting with his 3-year-old nephew in his lap (Who has never seen “The Dark Knight” and doesn’t know Tom Waits from Bertrand Russell), and asked him what his toy was.

    The boy picked up his Sponge Bob doodad, waved it in my son-in-law’s face and said in a remarkably Waits/Ledger-like growl, “This is Sponge Bob. He’s gonna HURT ya – Reeeall Baaad.”

  12. God he looks young. I vividly remember watching this. My family used to sit around and watch Don Lane, and we thought this was unbelievably weird. I’ll bet Heath did the same.

    Edit: Except Heath was born the year this aired. Damn I’m old.

  13. Here’s a clip of Lord Buckley – one of the influences that he mentions in the interview. I can see some similarities in style and cadence.

  14. When John Denver came to Australia in the 1970’s he was stoned mightily at the Sydney Airport press conference.

    He said he shared a joint with some baggage handlers on the tarmac.

  15. Ledger knew, if you’re gonna steal, you steal from the best. 
    Also, an excellent recording of Waits in his Small Change period.
    I’m just praying all those cigs didn’t do his health a damage!

  16. Franko: Your wish is my command…

    The second part is the kicker as he has set up everyones expectations during the interview that he will be a shambles at the piano. The reality is he knocks the song out of the park.

  17. If I would have seen this when it first aired I would have called it anti-social behavior.  Have we come to the point in our society that the only behavior labeled anti-social anymore is a murder?

    1. Well, we’re not real crazy about hysterics who compare an eccentric, thirty-year-old talk show performance to committing murder…

      1. I think you mis-read the comment.  Helen seems to be saying that now we only think of violent crime when we hear the term “anti-social”, but there used to be a more complex understanding of the range of behaviors that could fit under that term. As a result, she does not know what term to use these days for someone who is anti-social but not dangerous.

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