Matt Okine's The Other Guy lays out the ethical gymnastics of art imitating life ... imitating art

Matt Okine's The Other Guy lays out the ethical gymnastics of art imitating life ... imitating art. Comedian and former DJ’s TV show about a DJ who makes a TV show about a DJ raises some uncomfortable – and dizzying – questions

“I saw six men kicking and punching the mother-in-law. My neighbour said, ‘Are you going to help?’ I said, ‘No, six should be enough.’”

That’s one of hundreds of best-left-in-the-70s mother-in-law jokes from Les Dawson, a fixture at northern English working men’s clubs and, later, on prime-time telly. In his material, the mother-in-law was a shadowy beast – a character that audiences weren’t supposed to interpret literally.

But in the case of more sophisticated comedic works such as The Other Guy, the creation of Brisbane-born comedian Matt Okine, the material centres around real-life characters in a complex fashion. It raises the question that plagues comedians, memoirists, journalists, visual artists and songwriters alike: do you own your story?

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The Other Guy began life as Okine’s stand-up show in 2015, when it won MICF’s director’s choice award. In 2017, it became a Stan Original sitcom, and season two was made available in December 2019.

With themes of share-house living, drug hangovers, and hard and fast hook-ups, it’s as seething with scenes of bad hygiene as He Died with a Felafel in His Hand or Praise (and its first season has an opening scene as oh-no-you-didn’t as that of the first season of Fleabag), but it’s executed in a way that’s fresh. There are top performances from Okine (as AJ), Harriet Dyer (his best girl mate Stevie), rapper Briggs, and greedily good pop-up turns from Clementine Ford, Yumi Stynes and Michael Hing.

But the real nail-biting stuff comes from the autobiographical source material. Season one, at its core, was about Okine’s breakup with his girlfriend of 10 years. Like his character, Okine was a breakfast radio presenter (for Triple J), his father is Ghanaian, and his mother died when he was young – something he explores in his recent debut novel, Being Black ‘N Chicken, & Chips.

Having got that out of his system, you’d think Okine would’ve gone off script with season two, but instead he gets even more meta. In this first episode, his agent has pitched AJ’s story of heartbreak to the head of comedy of one of the digital channels. He’s now going to be appearing in a show much like The Other Guy, but titled Cuck.

In his real life, as a daily radio host, Okine sometimes found himself using his life as material. Back in 2015 he told The Weekend Edition about the precarious business of telling true stories on air, such as the time he put a girl in the cab at the end of a date as though the night was over, then took his own cab back to the club to carry on partying. She heard him tell the anecdote on air, and texted him: “Chivalry is dead.”

More recently, Okine told Elle that, just as is the case with AJ in season two, he worked hard to make the characters dissimilar to who they represented in real life. The characters in the show don’t buy this: in episode four, Stevie finds a script treatment in the glove box of his car and then reads it aloud to him in anger: “‘Ricki – the loveable idiot, floating aimlessly through life in a sea of hangovers, can’t get her shit together and constantly blames others for her failures’.”

In episode two, AJ’s ex-girlfriend, Liv (played by Valene Kane), confronts him about making a show in which he is the “victim to his evil slag of a girlfriend”, and in episode six she spits, “You managed to turn our pain into profit.”

By contrast, Okine had told Elle that his ex-partner messaged him when the trailer came out, and “she was glad that some good could come out of what was a really difficult situation for everyone.”

You can sense Okine’s behind-the-scenes ethical gymnastics. In episode three, Stevie decides to find an entertainment lawyer on a dating app and sleep with him to pump him for information about defamation law. (It’s fine “as long as it’s true” is his summary.) There’s also discussion among characters about art imitating life, about writing what you know, and creative licence. Another radio host, played by Yumi Stynes, invites AJ on to her show to whip up some hate from callers about cheating exes. Once they’re off air, though, she lets him have it: “Do you know who I reckon is stoked? Your ex-girlfriend … She comes across as real, whereas you? I don’t think you’re a good guy.” It might be Okine paying a moment of penance.

I teach memoir writing, and a class is usually sharply split between those who are stymied by guilt at the thought of implicating others, and those who can’t wait to stick in the boot. One thing’s certain across the board – writing from the wound mines the gold. It’s produced milestone work in the careers of comedians. Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk with Me, about his fear of marriage, was first a show, then a Netflix special. “Has your girlfriend heard the jokes?” his on-screen character is asked. “You should probably mention it.” On a similar tack, there’s James Acaster’s Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999, about his girlfriend leaving him for Rowan Atkinson, which took out top prize at Melbourne international comedy festival this year.

Related: Is there a better televisual sleep aid than the soporific joy of Escape to the Country?

Luke Leonard pushed boundaries in his show Man Up, about his brother who did 13 years for murder; Sam Simmons’s Spaghetti for Breakfast drew on his mother’s unconventional parenting and won both an Edinburgh comedy award and a Barry; Maria Bamford filmed The Special Special Special for Netflix, about her early life and mental illness, in front of an audience of two – her parents (“on some level, everything I do is for my parents anyway,” she told the Los Angeles Times). Greg Fleet has used the fake disappearance of his father to much effect and, while we’re here, Bob Franklin created a knuckle-biting MICF show, Yours Sincerely, in which he unfavourably depicted someone with a startling resemblance to his former friend, Fleety.

The writing-what-you-know conundrum is not limited to comedians. A musician friend of mine is devastated at his family’s reaction to a song on his new album about growing up amid domestic violence. Another friend fears their transitioning is about to become the theme of an ex’s academic essays. A writer pal got a custom T-shirt for Christmas from her father with the words “Careful or you’ll end up in my novel”.

My own father, after I published a memoir, emailed me to muse that he was thinking about writing one himself. It sounded like a threat.

• Seasons one and two of The Other Guy are available to stream now on Stan

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