REPOST: Melbourne Comedy Festival 2003
Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 01/05/2003.
The Melbourne Comedy Festival 2008 will take place between March 19th and April 13th. Here's what it looked like five years ago. This piece should be read in conjunction with "Monkey" Dundee, a description of the non-comedy things we did during our visit to Australia.
Raw Comedy winner Nelly Thomas is still going strong, and has an official site featuring pull quotes from a variety of dubious media sources. I think it's a shame she didn't go with "a bit like a less pre-menstrual Jo Brand", but that's just me.
Flashback to late August 2002. The Belated Birthday Girl and I are doing the Bank Holiday comedown thing after a week at the Edinburgh Festival, and wondering where we can go next. With perfect timing, Australian correspondent Chris writes to thank me for the Edinburgh reviews. She complains that the only time she gets to see that amount of live comedy is during the Melbourne Comedy Festival. Slowly, a plan is born: one which will come to fruition in April 2003, when Chris will go to Melbourne's famous Young & Jackson's pub to meet up with two people roughly twice her age, who've travelled halfway round the world because of a throwaway comment she made in an email once. Still, it's not quite as insane as it sounds, as I do get to wring a piece for this site out of the trip. (Well, two pieces, to be more accurate.)
Given the huge amount of time and money we invested in this as an alternative to Edinburgh, it may seem a little crap that we spent some of it revisiting shows that we'd already seen last summer. However, this was mostly during our first day in Melbourne: the theory being that after 24 hours in the air crossing nine time zones, we needed the comedy equivalent of a security blanket. So first up was the man we used to call TV's Richard Herring, showing off his Talking Cock to a disturbingly restrained (and small) audience in the cavernous Capitol Theatre. However, I think they warmed to the erudite filth of his penile history as it went on. (Although he doesn't agree, according to his blog for that day.) It’s interesting to see what’s been added and what’s been taken away from the show since Edinburgh: in particular, what I thought of as the climax – the "men are from England, women are from continental Europe" riff – isn’t even there any more. Maybe he thought it wouldn’t play in Australia, or maybe this is a show that’s found its natural shape over a year of development and doesn’t need such a heavily designed punchline. And Herring is still actively reworking this material in preparation for a book later this year, which he invites us to contribute to. "Think how proud your parents will be! Think how proud mine are."
Later that evening, as the jetlag started to kick in seriously, we accidentally found ourselves in the front row for Ross Noble, and assumed that he'd make fun out of our surreal state of mind. On the whole we survived, though he did flash me a look when a guy who was studying Sports at college revealed he was from Yorkshire, and I snorted derisively. (Just typical Mancunian prejudice on my part, I'm afraid. Though even Noble had concerns about his choice of subject: "it’s like doing a degree in Telly.") I've seen Noble do the Sonic Waffle show in three different cities now, and it's changed wildly each time. Only the muffin sequence ("there’s a face…") and the intro film have survived from Edinburgh, while a minor bit of unpleasantness towards Christopher Reeve from the London run has now expanded to unnerving proportions. Other than that, all the rest of the show comes straight off the top of Noble's mad sunburned head. There are some UK references that most of the audience don’t get – a bit about his hobby of shouting "cashier number four, please" in Post Offices to confuse pensioners goes down particularly badly – but by the time he’s persuading us to write "all the best, your pal, God" in the front of any hotel Bibles we encounter, he’s back on track again.
The other act from last year we revisited was Otis Lee Crenshaw, playing the first night of five to a full house. We did this because Rich Hall is threatening to kill off Otis soon, and it quickly becomes apparent that he’s losing interest in the character. There are only one or two new songs, the improv bits don’t fly like they used to, and at least four numbers fall apart at the end due to lack of rehearsal. More curiously, he performed an excellent new song at The Great Debate earlier that week about the effect on America state-by-state of dropping it on top of Australia, but he doesn’t do it here. The back catalogue still sounds fine, but I agree it’s time for Rich Hall to move on to something else.
We also finally got to see Tina C: we missed her at last year's Edinburgh, though Nick recommended her highly. It’s easy to forget just how much of a stink there was at the time about the idea of a Twin Towers Tribute show. And eight months later, how desperately urgent it seems now. Ironically, though Tina C the character may be defined by her opportunistic hijacking of tragedy to produce the 9/11:24/7 album, I suspect that Tina C the performer may be benefiting in the same way. The non-political material is just your standard drag queen stuff: it’s when she’s prodding the taste boundaries of the audience and getting them uncomfortable that she really takes off. For this audience, her reprimand about Australian reaction to the Bali bombing may be it: "tasteful, dignified, solitary grieving just doesn’t cut the mustard any more, people". For others, it may be Tina on the anti-French protests: "didn’t it look at one point like we were actually going to war against France? Well, at least the looting would have been better." Tina’s pretty much guaranteed a career now till Dubya comes up for re-election – "sorry, election" – and she deserves every minute of it.
While we're cheering on the Brits - Tina C's actually an English bloke, and Otis is pretty much a permanent UK resident now - we need to mention the best event of the Festival, Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack Adventure. At the start of the show, Gorman’s just turned 31 and has decided to grow a beard and write a serious novel. While looking for ways to avoid doing actual work, he discovers the concept of a Googlewhack: two words which, when entered into Google, produce a single search result. From this simple start erupts Gorman’s most demented tale of obsession yet – and his funniest. What really comes to the fore here is his skill as a storyteller: I've no idea if any or all of this is made up, but the switchback twists and turns of his tale make for one hell of a ride. One twist in particular came so far out of left field that it nearly gave me an aneurysm: Gorman knows it’s his best gag, and makes everyone vow at the end of the show not to give it away. I sure as hell won’t. They may as well give him the Perrier Award now.
Contrary to the impression you may have got from the above, we did see some Australian comics as well: though for the most part I ended up sticking with names I knew from their visits to the UK. For example, Paul McDermott, in the first thing I’ve seen him do since the glory days of the Doug Anthony Allstars some ten years ago. His new outfit GUD is less of a democracy – this is definitely McDermott plus two sidemen. There’s some amusingly fractious interplay between the three, but it’s McDermott’s show, and the mix is similar to before: excellent singing, lyrics that veer from smart to obscene, attacks on the audience (though these days he only goes for people who go for him first, the wuss). Some local references went completely over my head, but the medley of Gulf War songs is a show-stopper, notably a version of Teddy Bear with the title replaced by Tony Blair. (Think about it.)
Scared Weird Little Guys pulled off a neat trick with their Thirty Minute Variety Hour - Monday nights are when virtually all the shows in the Festival take their night off, so they scheduled their run for those nights and got themselves a string of sold-out shows. This was originally billed as a live radio broadcast, but turned out to just be a taping: probably for the best, given the fluffs and retakes that stretch their 30 minute hour to 75 minutes. Musical comedy is the Scaredies' game: sometimes this means slightly tacky songs about current events, but there are moments of zany genius in here, particularly in their performances of popular songs in unsuitable styles. This peaks with them doing I Should Be So Lucky in the manner of a Papua New Guinea string band, in tribute to their guest David Bridie (Peter Gabriel-esque world music dabbler and serious soundtrack composer, who lets his hair down quite splendidly in this company).
Frank Woodley is best known for working with Colin Lane in the hugely popular double act Lano and Woodley – apparently in the previous day’s show, during a ventriloquist routine where an audience member has to improvise dialogue as Frank’s dummy, the dummy came out with "hi, I’m Chris, and we’re all missing Colin right now, aren’t we?" Which is slightly unfair (and possibly made up by Woodley, given that he didn’t do a show the previous day). Woodley’s manic energy is an acquired taste, but when he gets into a groove (like a bit on the secrets of Tarzan’s adolescence in the jungle) he’s in damn funny form. Other times, however, he can get a bit lost, like the queasy attempts at messing with the audience’s heads during the finale. At his best, he’s a very inclusive comedian: a student who was talked into the ventriloquist routine tonight was rewarded by us all cheering wildly as he mimed being a student, because Frank wants him to know what his job feels like.
It's been all very positive so far, hasn't it? Time for a bad one. The high point of D’Arranged Marriage is recognising the Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham soundtrack album as the pre-show music. The second highest is the lead character trying to scare off a prospective bride by pretending to be a spastic. Unfortunately, that’s how weak the script is. It might just come off if writer/performer Tarun Mohanbhai was blessed with the self-confidence you need to play eight roles, but he isn’t. Karen Koren was (I think) in the foyer afterwards, but I’ll be surprised if this makes it as far as the Gilded Balloon this summer.
At the other extreme, we caught Rod Quantock in a basement room at the Victoria Hotel, claiming he’s been in hiding there for the last three weeks because of his fear of SARS and bombing. We know he’s lying - ten minutes earlier we saw him leaving the stage at the Town Hall at the end of The Great Debate - but we humour him because in a Festival that's been surprisingly low on political content, we’re finally seeing someone who’s prepared to tackle the current state of the world head on. Quantock’s a proper old-school bearded baby boomer lefty, and his hour is spent presenting the facts on the Gulf War via a blackboard lecture and illustrations from assorted Aussie papers. (He’s particularly amused by the way that the Herald Sun was incredibly gung-ho for the first seven days of the war, then got bored and gave its front pages over to flower shows and footy.) You imagine that Mark Thomas will be like this when he grows up, calmly presenting the facts and pointing up the idiocy of the world. "John Howard says ‘the US has no greater ally than us.’ Saddam used to say that, once. So did the Taliban. This is not where we want to be." Quantock’s worried that everyone comes out of this show more depressed than when they went in: I’m surprised that there isn’t more of this sort of stuff around.
One great thing about the Melbourne Festival is that comedy comes in all shapes and sizes. It's not just standup...
Comedy art: Odd is an exhibition of work by students from RMIT School of Art and Culture. It's spread across three locations - two RMIT campus galleries and the foyer of the Melbourne Westin Hotel. The pieces at the Westin are primarily whimsical trinkets from the Gold and Silver Smithing Department, though the best things here are knitted (Rohani Osman’s Sushi and House Wife’s Revenge). Over at the RMIT Gallery, things get a little funnier: Nicola Payne’s Sugar Puffs 3-6 are amusingly transgressive photos of children smoking, while Terry Batts’ The Family is an entertaining set of models with solar-powered moving dirty bits. But the best proper laughs are to be found in the adjacent First Site Gallery: not only the exhibition’s signature image (Simon Francis’ Fear Of A Rat Planet, pictured here), but also the installation Construction Talk [dead link] by Glen Walls. In it, we see a dummy body crushed under fallen wood, while its video-projected head keeps fruitlessly calling out to passing viewers for help. It’s a hilarious exercise in comic timing, but every so often you still feel pangs of guilt that you’re not helping him.
Comedy children's theatre: British children have Harry Potter, but Australian children have The Day My Bum Went Psycho, a best-selling, award-winning book by Andy Griffiths. Lynne Ellis' theatrical adaptation tells the story of a kid called Zack (Matt Kelly) and, inevitably, his bum. The bum runs off and joins a fascist arse movement seeking to take over the world, and only Zack can save it - with the help of bum fighter Eleanor, a squad called the B-Team, and a bush ranger known as Ned Smelly. So what we have here is a 75 minute play for children about bottoms, poo and farting: how can it possibly fail? The cast of six work their, er, arses off, while the script crams in as many of Griffiths’ scatological jokes as it can, both OTT and subtle. (I like that the first major bum rebellion happened in Botswana.) Keith Tucker and Megafun’s design work is cheap but impressive, mixing lo-res video projections, puppet bums and shadowplay sequences. Terrific stuff for anyone who thinks like an eight-year-old boy (i.e. men of all ages).
Comedy film: the Australian Centre for the Moving Image is the site for the Comedy Channel Short Film Festival, a contest for the best comedy short film of the year. The best comic shorts should have a good solid idea at their core, develop it quickly and then get out early with an unexpected punchline. A few of the shorts on display in this programme overstretch that idea (the single gag of Gravy) or don’t really have an idea in the first place (Annabelle Arbuckle). For my money, the three best ones fit the above template perfectly: the warped romance of On The Rocks, the bickering hitmen of Buried, and the brilliantly conceived Pov’s Office Romance (directed by Frank Woodley, of all people). The latter is a particularly brave experiment – a love story told entirely in point-of-view shots, with subtitles so viewers can say the lead character’s dialogue out loud – which was only marred at this performance by the reluctance of the audience to join in. The BBG, by the way, preferred the animated feeding frenzy of Fish Dinner.
Comedy debate: The Great Debate is a regular Festival feature. This year, Rod Quantock presides over two teams debating the motion ‘that celebrities should be seen and not heard’. For the motion, team captain Otis Lee Crenshaw manages to get across in song the message that celebrities should shut up about political causes, and spend more time getting messages across in their work. Jean Kitson develops this a little feebly with reference to real celebs like Jack Nicholson, who don’t feel the need to be role models. And Boothby Graffoe (who’s ridiculed by Quantock for being the unknown of the bunch) mainly messes about, but sneaks in some serious points about celebrity endorsement towards the end. On the opposing side, Adam Spencer confounds Otis’ entertaining approach by actually concentrating on the motion. Wendy Harmer gives the best talk of the day, arguing that Australia is defined by its celebrities, and good job too given the quality of its politicians. And Dave Gorman argues with remorseless logic that if we have to ignore the opinions of celebrities, and Otis and his team have been hired for this show by a celebrity booker, then… I won’t spoil the result for anyone who may get to see this debate when it’s broadcast by ABC, but suffice to say it’s a close run thing. Look out for us near the back of the hall during the crane shots.
Comedy dance: Chunky Move’s Wanted: Ballet For A Contemporary Democracy is based on a survey of 800 Australians which asked what they want to see in a dance piece: types of movements, music, staging and so on. The results are broken down by state, age, sex and so on, and gradually the most popular elements are assembled into the ideal dance piece. Plus, by taking the other extreme, they also get to perform the least ideal one. This is a fabulous idea on paper, and the risk was always that the execution would screw it up: but it doesn’t. Chunky Move never take themselves seriously, and the deadpan narration of meaningless statistics ("erratic and spasmodic movement was most favoured in the ACT") recalls the bizarre humour of early Peter Greenaway films. It's a ridiculously fun hour whether you like dance or not.
While in Melbourne, we also attempted to track down the future stars of Australian comedy: an easy job, as two national contests are held every year to find them, and the finals are a particular highlight of the Festival. First up, we sat with a bunch of yelling kids for the finals of the Class Clowns competition for school-age comics. Adam Hills is a terrific compere for the afternoon, talking an audience member into doing a full James Brown routine as a warmup ("Paul Baker! Paul Baker!"), even though 90% of the people in the room are too young to know who James Brown is.
The 13 acts have won regional finals all over Australia, and vary quite a bit in quality. It’s a little bit of a shock when you hear a few of them doing poofter and wog jokes, until you remember that when you were a teenager, that’s what you were doing. Most of the highlights come from straight standup comics. James Meehan has a scary moment when he accidentally says "fuck", and all the house lights come on like they’re going to eject him from the building. Joseph McCarthy is small and terrifyingly young, and charms the crowd with some rather good jokes about the hicks from the Northern Territories. Rebecca Gomo, the only female standup in the finals, has an excellent routine about how the subtext of all her teenage pals' mobile ringtones is "hey, look over here, I've got friends, I'm popular" - don't worry, Rebecca, it's not just teenagers. It's also worth mentioning Scenes From A Supermarket, who did some clever mime and voiceover stuff.
My favourite act was Andrew Ryan, a very sharp standup who maybe drops into a crazed black woman’s voice for impact once or twice too often, but has some great gags, notably a routine about Bush and Saddam as ex-lovers ("you’ve got 48 hours to leave my stuff out on the front lawn, Saddam"). The silly physical comedy of Short Suited won, and I won’t begrudge them that – I’m pretty sure I was doing comedy mimes to rock records myself at that age – but Ryan’s the one to look out for in the future.
A couple of days later, the Town Hall is buzzing for the more grown-up equivalent, the Raw Comedy Finals. The hosts this time are Adam Spencer and Wil Anderson, who've been waking us up all week in their day job as breakfast show DJs on Triple J radio. It's good to be able to put faces to the voices, and to hear them cut loose properly. ("Is there anything I can get you?" says Wil to some latecomers. "Like a FUCKING WATCH?") Trouble is, with 15 acts competing in the final, they all tend to blur in the memory afterwards. Whereas the Class Clowns finalists experimented with different types of comedy, this is all strictly standups and double acts, and they all become much of a muchness.
Some names still stand out, obviously. Chris and Jeremy do a bridegroom/best man routine to the tune of the whole of Bohemian Rhapsody: it’s brilliantly sustained and easily the favourite act of the audience, but you wonder what else they can do. Nick Johns has some good dark material about airlines and their instructions for putting on oxygen masks: "the only situation in which I’d put on a child’s mask after my own is if mine didn’t work". Liam and Tom do a splendidly horrible song to the tune of Let It Be ("My girlfriend is a cesspool of STDs"). Shalini Akhil does a nicely accurate pisstake of Bollywood movies, but only ten people in the room get what she’s on about.
In the end, two comics end up sharing the prize. Possibly inspired by Spike Milligan's complaint that these days there are too many funny lines and not enough funny people, Steve Sheehan manages to keep an audience chuckling with hardly any material at all. Towards the end it almost feels like arrogance as he repeats the couple of jokes he's got over and over, but it still just about works. However, I think co-winner Nelly Thomas deserved the prize more. She's a bit like a less pre-menstrual Jo Brand, with a similarly ultra-dry approach as she rips into the anti-smoking lobby. Anyway, both of them will be coming to Edinburgh this summer as part of their prize, so look out for them there.
And that was Melbourne 2003. Thanks once again to Chris for suggesting it, albeit indirectly. And as the number of letters to the site has dropped dramatically over the past few months, I feel I need to reassure you all: if you send me a letter, it doesn't necessarily mean that The Belated Birthday Girl and I will be knocking on your door a few months later. You have my word on it. Being a monkey, and all.
The Melbourne Comedy Festival inevitably has its own site. Bit late to be looking back at the listings for 2003, but at least it'll give you a feel for the event if you want to go next year. The Short Film Festival page [dead link] even has a few video clips for you to watch.
The Age: it's kinda like The Scotsman for Melburnians. And as they're one of its key sponsors, their 2003 Festival coverage is rather good, if sometimes a little uncritical.
Richard Herring, Ross Noble, Tina C, Dave Gorman, Paul McDermott [hijacked link], Scared Weird Little Guys, Tarun Mohanbhai, Odd [dead link], Andy Griffiths and Chunky Move all have official sites. Not that I'm saying there's anything wrong with comedians' unofficial sites, you understand, as...
...The Boothby Graffoe Fansite [dead link] and its designer [dead link] were, as I've already said, the main inspiration for us going to Australia in the first place. [So, Chris, where the bloody hell are you? As they say in the adverts.]
Young and Jackson's is Melbourne's best-known pub - actually, on the site they insist it's Australia's best-known pub. Take a virtual tour of all its attractions, including excellent beer, good food and dirty pictures.