Junkee Investigates: What Crime Did Joe From Paul Kelly’s ‘How To Make Gravy’ Commit?

Australia's favourite Christmas song has a dark underbelly.

How To Make Gravy Crime Investigation

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Christmas is upon us, which means it’s time to listen ceaselessly to Australia’s own Christmas carol, ‘How To Make Gravy’.

The 1996 Paul Kelly folk-song doesn’t concern itself with Santa, or mistletoe or a roaring fire, but instead focuses on a quintessentially Australian aspect of the holiday season: being unable to make gravy for your extended family because you’re in jail.

If you’re not familiar with the gentle festive hit, here’s your chance to have a good listen now.

Now that we’re all on the same page, we quite urgently have to answer the following:

What did Joe, Christmas’s most festive convicted felon actually do to end up incarcerated? I listened to the song twice and canvassed the possibilities.


This would, obviously, be a huge shame.

Murder is a terrible thing to do to a person, and most of the sympathy we have for Joe in the song would have to be, at the very least, mitigated. In fact, if Joe did a murder, it’s probably a good thing he’s in jail. It’s also not a particularly Christmassy crime.

Thankfully, it’s unlikely that Joe did a murder.

I bothered my wife, who is a lawyer, about this over text message and she said that the average sentence for doing a murder in Australia is around 20 years. Based on the best available data in the song, Joe’s sentence appears to be — maximum — around a year and a half:  assuming that this is the first Christmas he’s missed, and based on his claim that if he gets good behaviour he’ll be out of here by July.

(Now, of course, it’s possible that Joe has been in prison for a great many Christmases and this is just the first time it’s occurred to him to ask who’s going to make the gravy in his absence. There’s also a distressing possibility that Joe is lying in his letter — for his own nefarious reasons — about his release date, and that he’s still got another 19 Christmases to serve on his sentence for killing someone with a huge gun.)

On balance through, it’s blessedly unlikely that Joe committed murder.

Armed Robbery

Armed robbery is not a nice thing to do but it’s more forgivable than murder, that’s for sure.

According to my wife, who also tells me she really does need to get back to work, Joe could have held up a servo with a knife and gotten about a year and half with good behaviour, if he had no prior convictions and if he was just an accessory.

How Christmassy is armed robbery? Well that really depends on where you armed rob: a 7/11 on Lonsdale Street in the middle of the day? Not particularly festive. An eggnog factory on Yuletide Eve? Ding dong!

Jewel Heist

Now we’re talking!!!!

There’s nothing in the lyrics of ‘How To Make Gravy’ that suggests that Joe was involved in a jewel heist, but that doesn’t stop it from being a very cool possibility indeed. Spelunking down a wall, dressed in a nice black outfit to steal an enormous jewel from a French duke is probably the best possible thing that Joe could have done to end up in jail.

Again, the sentence seems lax for grand larceny, and the fact that it’s never once mentioned in the letter is suss. It’s the sort of thing to boast about, I think. If Joe was involved in a jewel heist, you’d expect the letter to begin: Hello Dan, it’s Joe here / I stole a massive gem.

Still, I believe we can all agree that a large scale jewel heist, possibly with a large international crew, all with unique skills, would be very cool. Not particularly Christmassy, but very cool.


Very possible, given the sentence but on the other hand Joe doesn’t seem like the brawling type. We don’t hear a lot about his situation in jail but we do get the lyric:

And Roger, you know I’m even gonna miss Roger / Coz there’s sure as hell no one in here I wanna fiiiiiight

This is a relief, because there are few crimes less in the spirit of Christmas than assault.

Child Murder

Ah Christ, imagine.

White Collar Crime

This is probably not the worst thing Joe could be serving time for (see: CHILD MURDER) but it would certainly be a huge disappointment to discover that he was incarcerated for some sort of complicated fraud involving franking credits or whatever.

Nothing in the song really supports this, but nothing directly contradicts it either. Plus, the low sentence fits, as well as his general reluctance to fight anyone in prison.

A Nelson Mandela Situation

My wife had to go into a meeting at around the time I was asking if Joe from ‘How To Make Gravy’ couldn’t be in some kind of Nelson Mandela situation, but the last message I got said “what do you mean.”

War Crimes, Potentially In The Balkans

By this point my wife had stopped responding to texts completely, leading me to worry that something bad had happened to her phone, but even without her advice, we can say that it’s pretty unlikely that Joe committed war crimes.

The closest we get to Joe actually describing his crime is:

Tell them aaaaall I’m sorry / I screwed up this time

Now, it’s certainly possible that “tell them all I’m sorry” refers to to the population of a country in the Balkans, but “I screwed up this time” seems like a particularly chilling way to refer to war crimes, even for a war criminal. Let’s rule it out.

Framed For A Crime He Didn’t Commit By Gravox Or A Similarly Large Gravy Corporation Because His Recipe Threatened Their Bottom Line

It’s not difficult to join the dots here.

Put simply, Joe knew too much and the thugs in the gravy industry had to silence him. After years of slugging punters at the gravy bowser for what is essentially thick meat water, one man was brave enough to provide a cheap and delicious alternative.

Who’d be paying a fortune (hundreds of dollars, potentially), for a store bought sachet of gravy when you can just add flour, salt, a little red wine, a dollop of tomato sauce for sweetness and that extra tang? No one, that’s who, so Joe had to “go away”.

Because her texts were broken, I called my wife and put this theory to her. She listened, completely rapt while I explained, animatedly and at length, over the course of ten minutes.

Her verdict?

“Sure. Okay, whatever. I really have to go.”

And if Joe is a man wronged by Big Gravy? Just look how it changes the last lines of the song:

You know one of these days, I’ll be making gravy/
I’ll be making plenty, I’m gonna paaaaay ’em all back

Yes you will mate, yes you will.

Ben Jenkins is a writer. He tweets at @bencjenkins