By Brett Kennedy
IT IS easy to typecast Australian comedian Merrick Watts as a likeable larrikin who always radiated confidence but to do so would disregard the significant transformation he underwent in high school.
Before he became known as one half of the hit duo Merrick and Rosso, Watts was a troublesome teenager involved in drug use, graffiti and vandalism as a Melbourne street gang member.
In the region earlier this month as part of the now-postponed Grapes of Mirth Coonawarra comedy event – a touring business venture founded by the 47 year old – Watts spoke with hundreds of Mount Gambier High School students where he implored them to consider their choices and control their destiny.
Delving deep into his adolescence, Watts recalled how he spiraled out of control while at high school, years before he would make a meteoric rise onto national radio and television.
“I was told I was a failure, I was bound to become a criminal and I would not succeed at anything I attempted,” Watts said.
“That was difficult to hear but I didn’t believe it, I just made bad choices,” he said.
With three arrests and three court appearances as a result of his rebellious streak, as well as expulsion from the high school where his mother worked, it took the blunt confrontation of an art teacher to turn his life around.
“They asked why I was wasting my life? They said I was a talented young man but what I was doing was making other people’s lives worse, not better,” Watts recalled.
A new relationship with a girl who “hated drugs” also helped to steer Watts towards different choices and in the space of 12 months, he went from failing Year 11 to being offered a Year 12 scholarship into a prestigious arts program.
While Watts did not take the opportunity, he had already made significant in-roads into a fulfilling life.
It was just a couple of years later when at a barbecue that Watts recalls being complimented as a funny guy and great storyteller, triggering his path into “the hardest job in the world” – stand-up comedy.
Sharpening his craft on stage, Watts moved to Sydney where his life-changing partnership with Tim Ross (Ross) became reality.
However, more than two decades later Watts retired from the airwaves and was again faced with a personal crisis.
Launching Grapes Of Mirth to combine a passion for laughs, wine and people, Watts recalled not getting results for his hard work as a small business owner and mentally reached his lowest point since his teenage years.
“It showed me the nothing is permanent – the rise is not permanent but neither are the downs,” he said.
Continuing to carve out his business, Watts was given the opportunity to join SAS Australia, completing the grueling specialist military training, which was televised nationally.
“It galvanised me, it gave me back strength in my mind I thought I had lost,” Watts said.
“At 46, I was the only person the complete the course that was not an athlete.”
Watts credited “mental fitness” as the overwhelming recipe for success throughout the training, imploring the high school audience to consider their own mental mindfulness and meditation strategies.
“Mental focus, mental strength allowed us to do incredible things,” Watts said of his SAS experience, also praising rugby icon Nick “Honey Badger” Cummins and AFLW star Sabrina Frederik for completing the course.
Watts spoke of how the trio would meditate each day and how it impacted their mental state, praising its ability to help with decision making and correlating that mindset to the high school environment.
“You always have a choice to make,” Watts said, referring to unhealthy friendships and the potential of drug use.
His sentiments were echoed at the assembly by Limestone Coast senior constable Jade Hill, who reiterated the echoing impact choices can have throughout life.
“Don’t be fearful of what you will lose (through choices) because what you will gain is so much more,” she said.
Year 10 student Amber Thompson said Watts’ presentation was inspirational and his celebrity status would likely help his messages resonate with students.
Year 11 student Jack O’Connor said the impact of mental strength was a key take-away message.
“He has obviously been down a hard road and then he has turned that around, got strong in the mind and gone on to do what he has done,” Jack said, while Year 10 student Alice Tentye also found the presentation thought-invoking.
“If you are heading down the wrong path, you can always turn it around,” Ms Tentye said.
Speaking after the presentation, Watts said his youth public speaking events had morphed from tales of his career in show business to imparting messages of resilience, mental strength and mental health.
“There is a lot of pressure on kids socially, social media has not helped that,” Watts said.
“I see from my own children that it is important they hear from people who have experienced things that they have.
“I try and show them that whatever circumstance they’re in, it is in their control to change it.
“lf there is one kid who walks away and turns their life in a more positive direction then it was worth me flying here for it.”
Watts also urged the entire Limestone Coast community to consider its role in mentoring youth and also the control each person has over their life.
“I was in trouble at school with the law and things were progressively going down hill for me but I had somebody who saw something in me and who gave me something to think about,” he said.
“It changed my life, it absolutely changed my life.
“If you can just help them and guide their direction in a more positive matter, it is worth it.”
Grapes of Mirth is yet to announce a revised date for the Coonawarra event at Penley Estate, which was postponed due to impacts of Victoria’s recent five-day snap lockdown.
MERRICK’S MORNING ROUTINE TO BUILD MENTAL FITNESS
Wake up at 5am and watch the sunrise.
Exercise and/or meditate – everyday.
Compile a to-do list of tasks to achieve throughout the day.
Authoring – “I write some jokes or do some journaling.”