2016 / Friday

To look at life is to look at death

Natacha Maloon

Andrew Denton

Andrew Denton

“Why should anyone else tell us how much we should suffer on our death bed?” Andrew Denton’s latest project “Better Off Dead” represents a change in the way society is talking about voluntary assisted death.

Andrew Denton and television are well acquainted. From Blah Blah Blah in 1988 to Enough Rope in 2003, he has served up a mix of comic talent, big brains, and joviality. Andrew Denton breathed new life into television. It was in his blood. However, after selling his stake in production company Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder in 2013, he looked toward a different future, one in which he could stir his creative juices outside  television and contemplate his next move.

“I don’t think there was time that I went in front of a camera without some part of me wishing that I was somewhere else,” he says.

Growing up in Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains, he describes himself as a “happily solitary human being”. Young Denton might not have anticipated a career in the public eye, but he was certainly equipped for it.

During his three-year hiatus after leaving television behind, he thought deeply about his next project. “I wanted to do something that I thought had value, that in my mind was a good thing to do.” Away from the camera, he reflected on the opportunities that he was allowed to travel, scuba dive, and immerse himself thoroughly in the physical world.

“I have always kept lists, folders, of things that interested me but I kept coming back to the subject of euthanasia and assisted dying because it’s really the ultimate legal, medical, moral, social question, he says.

His interest in the topic began with the death of his father, Kit Denton, who died slowly and painfully in 1997.  “The more I thought about it, the more I thought there isn’t a tougher thing, there isn’t a more challenging thing. So I’ll take on the challenging one.”

And so he set out to travel across Oregon, Belgium and the Netherlands to produce Better Off Dead. He brought his impeccably crafted interview style to doctors, ethicists, the elderly and disabled and academics to examine this topic in serious depth.

And he made the choice to tell the story through a 17-episode podcast; as he says, to take a fresh approach to the art of storytelling.  “This is not just a podcast, it’s a medium that gives voice to people invested in a complicated issue,” he says

In order to access his version of the law, he says individuals must have “what’s called unbearable and untreatable suffering”. After travelling the globe, he discovered that 40 per cent of people are given medication to end their life, but ultimately choose not to take it. “Right down to the end, it’s their choice as to what they want to do,” he says. The podcast acts as a reference point for people like Andrew who want to see change and an amendment to Australian law.

Andrew Denton’s cheeky nature and genial tone belies the fact that he has never shied away from serious subject matter. He says that 1uite early in the piece, someone asked him if he was okay. “I said I’m built for this, I don’t find this scary. It is really the stuff of life, and that’s what interests me.”

He reflects on the palliative benefits that voluntary assisted dying can offer  “It provides relief and anxiety about what’s going to happen. It enables people to focus on those things, and the people who are important in the last days,” he says.

Through the making of Better Off Dead, Andrew Denton’s passion guided his creative decision-making. He recites a quote he’d read earlier that day, “If you lead a passionate life then you’re not going to have too many regrets”.

When turning to an assessment of his own life, he recalls his biggest joy as the y private moments of bliss when he’s with his wife and son. “They are not big moments of celebration; it’s the little moments where we are laughing and happy together.”

As the consummate interviewer, he has studied  people in depth over the years. He describes his time on Enough Rope as affording him the chance to be a “human university”. He says, “It was like doing a masters degree in being alive.”

He says his biggest lesson has been to never assume and listen intently.

“Most people, no matter what their skills are, are struggling with the same questions as you or I.  It’s very hard not to think about my own life and death.  That’s mostly a good thing, other then the fact that when I sneeze now I think I have some form of cancer. Death is such a good subject. Death is about life. Death is life.”

Better Off Dead was produced with the Wheeler Centre and is available on iTunes.

Andrew Denton will speak about Australia’s assisted dying laws and his podcast series, Better Off Dead, with David Leser today at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, 4.30 to 5.30pm.