Tony Armstrong talks stuff. Great Australian stuff like meat pies, Chiko Rolls, footy and a good old belly laugh.
Tony Armstrong has just been named Most Popular New Talent at the 2022 Logie Awards, and the ABC News Breakfast sports presenter strolls unhurriedly towards the stage. An imposingly tall former AFL footballer, Armstrong leans down to hug hosts Natalie Bassingthwaighte and Daniel MacPherson. There’s a sense that this man is totally at ease on this – on any – stage.
He turns to the microphone, looks out at the audience, and casually greets someone. He then points to ABC News director Justin Stevens, raises his Logie higher and says, to delighted laughter from the crowd, “Oi Justin, contract negotiations, mate… We’re on!”
It’s these moments of realness – not to mention the presenter’s humour, and a willingness to talk about his struggles – that have won over so many fans. When he speaks, he’s a thoughtful larrikin. He has a ready laugh. And, while Armstrong admits that he’s “very deliberate” about the things he does and the places he’s seen, it’s these moments of unscripted levity that really captivate.
“I guess, when it comes to, like, irreverence…I’ll just give my natural kind of reaction to stuff, right?” Armstrong explains over the phone. “I think [my] public persona is actually not too different to my private persona in that – I dunno – I’m pretty excitable. And I tend to be pretty relaxed about most things.”
A sort of mythos has grown around 33-year-old Armstrong in the three or so years of his rapid rise to fame. He has gone from calling AFL on commercial radio in 2019 (the first Indigenous person to ever do so – he’s a proud Gamilaroi man) to hosting NITV’s Yokayi Footy, then a summer season of ABC’s Offsiders and, ultimately, in 2021, landing a full-time sports presenting role on ABC News Breakfast a year after joining the network.
Since then, there’s been a string of viral moments that have cemented his popularity. Like the time he accidentally said “bulging dick” rather than “bulging disc” when describing a cricket player’s injury – underscoring it with, “That was a funny one.” Or, when the Socceroos kicked the World Cup-qualifying goal, he roared with unselfconscious joy during a live cross, adding, “Sorry, forgot I was on TV…”
He also appears occasionally on The Weekly with Charlie Pickering in sketches like ‘Tony Armstrong’s Terrible News for 2021’, in which he channelled on-the-nose romance hero clichés. Strolling through the garden of a stone villa, he wears a velour smoking jacket and cravat, and loosely holds a cognac glass, saying in a newscaster’s tone, “A lightning strike in the Gulf of Mexico ignited an underwater gas leak, literally setting the ocean on fire, and causing a flaming vortex.” Then, looking at the camera seductively, “But nothing burns hotter than my love for you.” It’s safe to say he’s in on the joke.
Comedy, it turns out, plays a central role in Armstrong’s life. Comedians are his touchstones, and stand-up is an artform he’s in awe of – that someone can take the pressure of walking onto a stage and making people laugh, night after night. “Funny people is my shit,” he says.
“When I want to go to sleep, I watch 90s action films. There’s nothing quite like the soothing sound of gunfire, screams and explosions,” he laughs. “And when I just want to chill on the couch, it’s Veep, Arrested Development, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Seinfeld, Curb [Your Enthusiasm], Nathan for You, The Rehearsal… That’s me… I want to sit here, and I want to laugh.” (At the time of writing, Armstrong was “so damn excited” about the Melbourne International Comedy Festival – now in full swing.) But he’s not afraid to “step up to the plate”.
Presenting one of the awards at the 2022 Logies, 40 minutes into the broadcast, Armstrong offered an Acknowledgement of Country – the first in the whole event. On Twitter afterwards, many applauded this, asking why it had to fall to him, an Indigenous man, to do the right thing. Inevitably, though, a Twitter troll made some facile comment about “virtue signalling”. Armstrong snapped back, tweeting, “Shut up, bro. I’m a Blackfulla and I am duty bound to respect the land I’m on.” Whatever he does, Armstrong is often being put in a position – or being asked directly – not just to represent himself, but also his wider community.
“Yeah. Has its moments, that’s for sure,” he chuckles. “But I think, to a degree, if you’ve got that platform, it can be incumbent on you to do the best you can to represent your community, your people and yourself in the best way possible. And that might be through storytelling. That might be through visibility. That might be through action.”
The weight of representation was really driven home for Armstrong when he became the first Indigenous person to commentate AFL football on commercial radio. “I remember kind of psychoanalysing the moment afterwards… Because moments of introspection hit me very rarely. So, when they do, I try to be like, Okay, Tony, maximise this,” he laughs. “I’m walking into the box. And I’m like, If I fuck this up, I could be putting the next person…the next young gun version of me…I’m putting them back five years.
“I was feeling that kind of pressure,” he says. “Whereas, I guess the Anglo-Saxon callers, they’re not thinking about what this means for whitefellas. They’re just going ahead and worrying about getting their job right. And that’s not a ‘woe is me’ thing, either... But it is this extra bit of worry, I suppose, that you carry.”
Armstrong grew up in Western Sydney and the Riverina region of NSW, raised by his Irish Australian mum, who was a teacher. (On Double J, he told Zan Rowe about hearing Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ for the first time as a kid doing dance classes at Redfern’s Aboriginal Dance Theatre.) He never met his father. Later, when Armstrong went to boarding school in Kilmore, he was only one of three Indigenous kids on campus. There he felt he had to “make shit up” when he didn’t know what to tell them about who he was.
“I’ve always loved ripping a yarn, [stemming from] going to boarding school. You had to be able to tell one, if you wanted anyone to listen… It’s such a big part of my culture as well, being able to tell a story. I’m learning more and more about storytelling all the time, and hopefully getting better at it.”
Creative writing was always a favourite subject at school – and his natural storytelling abilities are an obvious advantage as a commentator, presenter and actor. But he’s also driven, and is taking advantage of each opportunity to shape his burgeoning career, wildly hinting that there are even more exciting things in the works. (“I will talk to you about them. I promise.”)
It’s his “failed career” as a professional footballer – he was drafted and played 35 games in six years at three different AFL clubs (Adelaide Crows, Sydney Swans and Collingwood), before being told his contract wasn’t being renewed – that he sees as a key ingredient in his recent success.
“I think I’m naturally more gifted at what I’m doing now,” he says. “But I’ve still got the same work ethic. Whereas with sport, I was obviously talented, but not at the same level. I busted a gut. And it didn’t work out… So, now, I think...it’s allowing me to be a bit more fearless with the way I go about things.”
Since his role at ABC News Breakfast, Tony Armstrong has branched out across the TV grid. He’s hosted the three-part documentary series, A Dog’s World, voiced the character of Mr Flip in the animated kids’ series Reef School, and now has a new ABC TV show, Great Australian Stuff. Episode one looks at the history of archetypically Australian food – think meat pies, Granny Smiths and Chiko Rolls.
Using archival footage, Armstrong’s scripted narration and interviews with a diverse range of writers, thinkers and actors (including Benjamin Law, Nazeem Hussain and Jean Kittson), the show covers the history of these kitsch cultural artefacts, and our nostalgic connection to them. It’s a playful framing for how our sense of Australia is changing, taking into account its growing diversity and Indigenous perspectives.
“Personally, I love that weird shit…that binds people together through their unique experience to it,” Armstrong says. “For me, the Chiko Roll is like, I can’t walk past it. I get dimmies every time I’m on a road trip. You know, some people have gourmet meat pies. I love Four’N’Twenty meat pies. That’s what I would have when I go to the footy.
“There is still a commonality that pays no respect to class or station or stature – everyone has a relationship with it – and that’s what I’m really drawn to… I’m fascinated by, Why this thing? Why not that thing?”
At this stage, Armstrong has many paths he can take. But if he could do anything – anything at all? It still comes back to comedy: “Something like writing and performing a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm.
“It brings joy to people. It’s brilliant. It’s like…it’s deviously clever. And it clearly has let Larry David live the exact life that he wants,” he says.
“I think if you could write and act in something like that, you’d just be able to do whatever you want on your terms, which would be pretty cool, too.”
Melissa Cranenburgh is a writer, editor, broadcaster and educator based in Naarm/Melbourne. She teaches across RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing programs. First published in The Big Issue.