Giving the Workplace Sitcom a Wild and Weird Aunty Donna Spin: Zachary Ruane Chats 'Coffee Cafe'

When you’ve made an internationally acclaimed sketch series, toured globally, and released your own picture book and wine, of course a sitcom about slinging caffeine comes next.

Sarah Ward
Published on April 17, 2023

Aunty Donna's approach to their career and to comedy boast more than a little in common. Think about either, and it also brings a recent movie title to mind. Beloved for their absurdist mile-a-minute humour, the Australian group recent loaned their voices to Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, but it's the name of 2023's big Oscar-winner that seems to sum up their whole ethos: Everything Everywhere All At Once. Zachary Ruane, Mark Samual Bonanno and Broden Kelly aren't in that film; however, they have been touring, making a Netflix series, and releasing Aunty Donna's $30 bottle of wine and an Always Room for Christmas Pud picture book all in just the past few years. And, they've now returned to the ABC nine years after a Fresh Blood iView stint in 2014, this time with six-part sitcom Aunty Donna's Coffee Cafe.

For fans watching on, Aunty Donna's jam-packed recent slate has felt like a whirlwind. Chatting to Concrete Playground about the release of Aunty Donna's Coffee Cafe — which is now streaming in full on ABC iView, and also airs weekly on ABC TV — Ruane goes one better, while also noting how much hustle it took to get the now world-famous comedy troupe to this point. 

"I think the last ten years for us at least have felt like a whirlwind. In a way, it feels like we've slowed down in the last couple of years, even though everything's a bit more in the public. We used to tour a lot more than we do now. We used to make a lot of content for online, possibly more than we do now," Ruane advises. "So even though there's heaps happening and it's nice to be reminded, it actually in some ways feels like we've slowed it down a bit, which gives you an indication of what the last ten years have been like for us."

Aunty Donna formed in 2011, then took their first live show to the 2012 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. They haven't stopped inciting laughs since. Anywhere they can possibly spread their wild, weird and wonderful brand of comedy, they have — a lengthy list of stage shows all around the world, their YouTube channel, a podcast, two albums, multiple webseries, pilots, Aunty Donna's Big Ol' House of Fun, that book, the vino and now Aunty Donna's Coffee Cafe included. 

The latter sprang after their Netflix success, and from Ruane, Bonanno and Kelly's eagerness to try the sitcom format. The end result: a workplace comedy skewering cafe culture, specifically Melbourne's caffeine-sipping scene, with an Aunty Donna spin. When it comes to satirising its setting and anything even tangentially connected — kidulting bars, cereal cafes, awful bosses and terrible landlords, for instance — the gags and bits keep coming. So too does Aunty Donna's beloved grab-bag approach, giving a show about working in a cafe an entire episode about a court case with Richard Roxburgh (Elvis) reprising his role from Rake, then a real-estate agent parody featuring Looking for Alibrandi's Pia Miranda, plus yet another instalment making fun of the very platform that Aunty Donna's Coffee Cafe streams on.

"We just went for it. We definitely caused a few headaches for our director Max [Miller, a fellow Aunty Donna member] with some of our setups," Ruane explains. Scoring a second show, being self-described "Melbourne wankers", getting nervous performing with Miranda, what comes next: Ruane told us about all of that, too — plus the dream of making an Aunty Donna movie.



"It's our second longer-form thing, and I think we always knew that we wanted to keep pushing ourselves. Every time we come to a new platform or do a new thing, we want to it a little bit differently. We were really keen to do something a bit more narrative-focused, a bit more in that traditional sitcom structure. So that was the goal for us. 

I don't know how much that will read to an audience. Maybe it will all read as our crazy stuff, and in the same lineage of everything we do. But we wanted to challenge ourselves to make it a little more like a traditional sitcom, at least structurally, but still be as crazy and wild as what we've always done."



"'Morning Brown', it's more of a nod to that song. 

We play around with different things, but we've always found that the things that we do that resonate the most are when there's a sort of a — I call it a sandbox, but there's a setting that resonates with people that I think people have an emotional connection to and understanding of. 

When we have that kind of setting that resonates, it allows us to go more crazy, more absurd. So, we've done it with the YouTube and our live shows. There's 1999, which was a webseries which is set in an office in 1999. We also did Glennridge Secondary College, which is a live show and a webseries set in a high school. 

I think we find whenever it's set somewhere recognisable and accessible, it actually allows us to go weirder and crazier and more absurd because people have a hook in. So we were looking for something like that — something that people would recognise, feel comfortable in, but then would also allow us to go in any direction we wanted."



"One thing we wanted to avoid going into — there's a territory of cliches in that space. We had to keep reminding ourselves to not just do the cafe stuff and the coffee culture stuff. But we've worked in hospitality, we're all Melbourne wankers, we've been customers at these cafes. 

It just feels so ripe, and it feels like the kind of thing you can pull from multiple different experiences. You can go into the kitchen and do a whole episode there. You can just focus on the staff, do a whole episode there. That's what we loved about the idea."



"It's really interesting. We've done other things set in workplaces, but also found it in the school one as well — there's something about a workplace where very different personality types and very different things can happen.

I think also what we really loved about the cafe compared to our last series, which was set in a house: it's really hard to get people from the outside world into the house. We love to play lots of different characters, and it's really hard to get weird characters to come through the door. 

With a cafe, that's exactly what it is. Structurally, it's all a cavalcade of people coming through the door. Anyone you can envision, you just imagine them wanting to get a coffee and they're there in your world. That was the best part about it."



"We were expecting Roxburgh to be a firm no. And not only that, we had to get so many layers of approval to get that joke in. I remember when it was floated, it was like 'oh, that's fun but it will never happen'. Because we had to get the creator of Rake onboard. We had to get ABC to sign off on it. We had to get Roxburgh to sign off on the character and then to want to do it — and then to be available to do it. Which is like, there are so many barriers here, it's not going to happen. 

We'd already started thinking of alternative jokes to him. Then I remember we were in the writers room and each day we'd get another person who'd said yes to it, we just kept getting this run of emails, and then when he was available to do it. We did not expect it to happen. Which I think made it more fun, because I don't think we put too much thought into it — we just wrote this stupid joke and were like 'surely he'll say no and then we'll figure something else out'. So it was very amazing that he said yes.

I mean, same with Pia Miranda. I think I was more nervous performing with Pia Miranda than I was with Roxburgh. I had to act opposite her — that's crazy!

Intimidatingly, she doesn't look like she's aged a day since [Looking for Alibrandi]. So it's like, I feel like I've been teleported. I'm like 'am I Kick Gurry right now?'. It was very cool."



"Insanely, they were so chill. It was funny how much. They were like 'you can tease us more if you want'. And we were like 'we'll see'.

They were so up for it. I definitely thought we had pushed it too far with iView, because we really go at the platform. We thought they'll come back with 'you can make a bit of a joke but maybe not about technical issues'. But they were just like 'haha, yeah'."



"It's hard to say. I mean, I was super proud of the picture book. It was one of those things that we had to keep explaining to people that we saw it as a little piece in its own right and it wasn't just a merch cash in. 

It was really fun to just do something completely different and to just discover a different world, and play around in a different space — and just to get people who really got the joke. 

I had such a specific vision in my mind of an early 90-style of Australian picture book — and to have it come out looking like that was pretty special. So that's, of the recent stuff, probably the thing I'm most proud of. 

But then I also love crazy stuff. Like I think $30 Bottle of Wine, which is a video on our YouTube that goes for about eight minutes and it's just repulsive, that's probably my favourite still."


Aunty Donna's Big Ol' House of Fun, Netflix.


"I think it's always evolving and always changing. To be honest, in a really real way, I feel like it has surpassed so many of the original dreams and goals years ago. Very early on, I would've been perfectly happy if it was my full job — that became the goal really early in my twenties. If I can be entertaining people or doing something like this as my full-time job, that would be enough. 

To have hit that, and then had all these other things happen — we've got an ABC show, Wednesday night, that was the dream as a teenager for sure. That's what I grew up watching. To have had another show seen around the world. We've got a world tour coming up. 

So many of these things weren't even in the dream, weren't even a part of the picture. So to have achieved it, it's really cool and lovely and so — people say humbling, but it's the opposite. It's not that, it's cool and amazing."



"It's always about the creative, and always about doing new things. I don't think it's about [doing] more or [moving] up — I think it's just about different ways. If we can find different ways to make people laugh and to bring joy, then that's for me what it is. 

So who knows? Maybe it's a video game, maybe it's a board game, maybe it's more TV, maybe it's more YouTube — there's so many options, and I'm excited to just see where it goes."



"How we would do it and how we would go about it is such a big question, but that's definitely on the list as something that I'd love to do.

Our big one was that we always wanted to do like The Rugrats Movie, just a real crazy adventure. Yeah, we would love to do something like that for sure."


Aunty Donna's Coffee Cafe streams via ABC iView, and also screens weekly on the ABC at 9pm from Wednesday, April 12. Read our full review.

Aunty Donna's Coffee Cafe images: Richard Lowe / Jackson Flinter / ABC.

Published on April 17, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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