When Young Einstein was being prepared for its US cinema release, Yahoo Serious was on the verge of being a big star – here’s what happened next.
Summer 1989. Batman, Ghostbusters II and the second Lethal Weapon movie were pulling in film fans, Harry and Sally met on screen (but would they only remain friends?), and one name, above all others, was on the lips of Hollywood studio execs: Yahoo Serious.
Born Greg Gomez Pead, he was later expelled from the National Art School for painting satirical jokes on the building. A move into documentary making didn’t quite pan out when his film Coaltown didn’t receive the plaudits he was expecting. By 1980, he had changed his name to Yahoo Serious, grown his hair out to Sideshow Bob proportions and become obsessed with film. He adored Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and envied the work of Charlie Chaplin.
It was a chance encounter down the Amazon River that lead Serious to his eureka moment. He spotted a man wearing an Albert Einstein t-shirt and realised that Einstein had not always been the old man with the beard that the clothing portrayed him as. Serious began to formulate an idea of the early days of the legendary scientist and what misadventures he could have been involved in. And so was born Young Einstein.
The production was a real D.I.Y. job, as Serious sold his car to finance him making an eight-minute trailer to convince investors that Young Einstein was a worthwhile feature film investment. Alice Pead, Serious’s mum, came and made meals on the set for the cast and crew. He stipulated to investors that he wanted complete control in return for not receiving a penny in box office profit.
In the end, Serious directed, produced and co-wrote Young Einstein. It made a quick $1.6 million at the Australian box office. Not bad for an independent production from just one man.
Word had travelled to Hollywood, and Warner Bros, which had purchased the international distribution rights, was salivating at the thought of having the next Australian breakout hit, following in the shoes of Crocodile Dundee. Critics weren’t kind to it though, as Roger Ebert called it “a one joke movie” and Jay Boyar at the Orlando Sentinel suggested “it could turn out to be a bigger bomb than the one Einstein’s theory anticipated”.
Young Einstein scraped into the US box office top 10 at number eight on its first week of release. By week three, it had disappeared. Hollywood had gone cold on the next hot filmmaker from Australia.
Five years passed before Serious made another film. Directing, producing, starring and co-writing Reckless Kelly, a fictionalised story of a descendent of the 19th outlaw Ned Kelly who uses his ancestor’s bandit ways to ensure he retains his family’s island.
The film didn’t stray too far from the Young Einstein silly yet sincere path, and it made slightly over $5 million in Australia. Serious was becoming a dab hand at independent filmmaking. But it took him seven years to make another film. He returned to screens with Mr Accident in 2000 (released to coincide with the Sydney Olympic Games) in which he plays a clumsy man who discovers his boss wants to lace eggs with nicotine for mass production.
The film was clearly an homage to Serious’s great love of Chaplin as he took on all manner of physical comedy. The film was badly received, though, and limped to $1.6 million in Australia.
Around this time, Serious made the seriously silly mistake of trying to take on a tech giant. He felt Yahoo!, the American web service provider, was infringing on his name when they aimed to register as a trademark in Australia. The case was quickly thrown out because Serious was not selling products or services under the name Yahoo. As such, it was determined that he had suffered no harm or confusion with the American corporation.
And with that he was gone. Three films and out. No more funny Serious.
Over the years, all manner of rumours have persisted as to where Serious is. The usual reports of his demise surface every now and again. Those are usually quashed when someone posts a recent photo of Serious out walking or getting in his car, or some other everyday job. These photos aside, Serious has not been in the spotlight or given a media interview for years. His website is a relic to a bygone era of 90s website styles. The last time it was updated was 2003 – 16 years ago! You can find it here.
So where is Serious now? That is the million-dollar question. With Serious declining the limelight and all press interviews, I reached out to David Roach, co-writer on all three films and one of Serious’s oldest friends. Speaking from his home near Wollongong in Australia, Roach responds with a simple “no” when asked if he knows where Serious is these days. The same response for a follow-up question of asking if Roach was ever told why Serious left the film industry.
This doesn’t help solve the mystery of where Serious is, but it does appear that after Mr. Accident he was interested in doing another film with Roach. “Greg was keen to do another one but I’d had enough. I was keen to do different kinds of films.”
Roach met Serious (“He was Greg Pead back then”) at the National Art School where they bonded over their shared love of Monty Python. Serious liked the American comedians such as Buster Keaton, and Roach favoured the Brits such as Peter Cook. “The very last artwork we collaborated on was a conceptual piece called ‘Three People Talking About Art Until One Person Falls Asleep’. It lasted three days. It was brilliant. No, really,” Roach remembers.
Their friendship lasted even after art school as they went their separate ways – Pead into advertising and Roach became a musician. Then one day, Roach was contacted by his friend who set out an idea for a film called Young Einstein: “It took us eight years to make the film. Endless writing and rewriting, trial and error. Shooting the whole thing on 16mm, then raising more funds and getting the whole cast and crew back and reshooting it on 35mm. Young Einstein was really our film school.”
The film was always meant as a vehicle for Serious to showcase his talents, and even though neither Serious nor Roach had any experience in the film industry, they continued to push each other as the spirit of independent filmmaking coursed through their veins. “Greg and I shared an apartment through most of this period, and we would spend every minute working on the script, arguing, pitching ideas to each other, acting out gags, trying out dialogue. Because we seemed to spend 24 hours [a day] together people thought we were gay. Or unhinged. Our obsession with getting this thing made drove our girlfriends crazy. They couldn’t cope with the project.”
If living together wasn’t hectic enough, it got even worse on set as Roach was constantly writing and rewriting as the shoot was taking place. If Serious was in front of the camera, then Roach was behind it. Roach then turned his hand to editing the film, and at the same time was still rewriting the script during post production.
“If a sequence wasn’t working, we would scrounge some funds together and go out and reshoot. Deadlines came and went. By this time, Warwick Ross and Greg’s girlfriend and later wife (and later still ex-wife) Lulu Pinkus joined the team. Warwick was an actual producer and Lulu was an actual actor (she’d been in Mad Max). They were (and are) incredibly talented and incredibly sane. They made huge contributions and were integral to the success of the film.”
The film began to generate buzz in Australia, and suddenly it exploded into life at the box office. “Greg’s face was everywhere,” recalls Roach, “so we started to think that maybe it could work. But we had never done this before so – like every other aspect of the process – we had no idea. Then it became a huge hit.”
That’s when Hollywood came calling. Serious and Roach spent time in Hollywood promoting the film. “Early buzz was astonishing and the hype was a bit overwhelming.” But when comparisons to Crocodile Dundee were made, Roach felt they were way off the mark. “Yes, Crocodile Dundee brought Australia to the US, but Dundee’s Australia and Einstein’s Australia may as well have been two different countries. Young Einstein was an absurd and eccentric little movie made on a shoestring starring a complete unknown actor from a country most US audiences would hardly have heard of.”
When Serious was on the promotion trail in the US, interviewers would ask him if he was the new Paul Hogan. Serious always responded by saying that Hogan was “a marketing guy” because he became famous for advertising cigarettes back in Australia. It was a sly dig at the rich fortunes Hogan had in the mainstream Australian film industry compared to Serious’s indie filmmaking.
Over the intervening years, with Serious off the grid, and Roach writing and producing feature films and documentaries, Young Einstein became a cult movie. This quirky comedy of historical craziness began to find a second life on new subscription movie channels that were springing up. When Roach is asked why he believes Young Einstein became a cult comedy, he is unsure. “Who knows how a film develops a cult reputation? Sometimes it’s because the film is so bad it’s good, like The Room or Plan 9 From Outer Space. Or sometimes a movie panned by critics can be ‘discovered’ by an audience so they feel they have some sort of ownership and never let the film go.”
With films such as The Room being celebrated as a triumph with audiences around the globe and the filmmakers becoming celebrities, it is disheartening that someone like Serious is missing out on the admiration that he so rightly deserves from his fans. The question has to be asked: is he even aware of the cult status of his work nowadays?
Tragically it seems not.
Instead, he appears to be living the kind of reclusive lifestyle some of us only dream about. The only signs of Serious working these days is his directorship of the Kokoda Track Foundation, an international aid organisation that helps support the rights of the Papua New Guineans. His photo on KTF’s website is taken from inside a helicopter with chunky headphones and a giant beaming smile. Gone is the frizzy hair to be replaced with a tight, flat blonde cut. You have to look very closely to see it is the same man, but older, who pushed the boundaries of Australian filmmaking 30 years ago.
Serious may have pulled a James Dean (minus the dying part) by starring in just three feature films and then leaving the movie industry, however he still left an indelible footprint on the world of indie movies. “Young Einstein didn’t follow any formulas because we’d never learnt them,” Roach says. “We didn’t pretend we were making some kind of blockbuster, we didn’t cater for any particular audience or territory, we just did stuff that made us laugh.”
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