Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2011

Town Hall titterings from MICF 2011

Last year I saw three shows. Three. One was the Best of the Edinburgh festival, the second was a selection of five young comedians from around Australia (one of them was funny); the third was a strange, yet fascinating old timey freak show type event where a nervous looking young thing did backflips on broken glass and hammered a nail into her nostril. Hilarious!

This year’s been a different kettle of fish. New outlook. New appreciation for the little shows, taking the ‘lucky dip’ approach to things based on the pitch while being ‘flyered’ (if you’ve been to a comedy festival anywhere in the world you’ll know that this process is rampant). So, thus far, a week and a half in, there’s some good, some great, and mercifully enough, very little bad. Here’s the good word so far (in order of appearance on my schedule)

Barry Morgan’s World of Organs
Technically this wasn’t part of MCIF, but the same show presented at the Spiegeltent is currently on at Trades Hall. Stephen Teakle is the man behind the polyester, the mo and the bouffant hairdo, a campy, silly and very amusing throwback to … I think it’s a bygone era that may not have ever existed. Trying to sell his ridiculously overpriced organ from his Adelaide mall store, Barry shows us all the dazzling functions of this musical wonder with a variety of musical pieces and facial expressions. Showmanship of old, and very amusing.

Eddie Perfect – Misanthropology
There’s a host of talent on display with Eddie Perfect, in terms of his keen and obvious musicianship, his abilities as a writer and as a stand-up. Misanthropology finds most of its laughs in the numrous songs he performs throughout, touching on everything from football sex scandals, cyclists and the (apparently) true story of a man who bought his adult daughter breast implants. This show harks back to variety of old; a kind of dirty vaudeville show performed in the slickest of manners in a superb venue like the Spiegeltent. Although the show got off to a bumpy start with a song about living with a primitive tribe, it picked up momentum and strength from there . The only quibble I have is that the weakest song is the opening one. But it is uphill from that point and a great showcase for a real talent. Dare I say, Renaissance man? I just did. So there.

Sarah Quinn – Other People’s Problems
Less out-and-out comedy and more of a character-based performance piece, this show downstairs at the Victoria Hotel is a showpiece for the significant and entirely impressive acting talent of Sarah Quinn. An Australian actress and writer based in Canada, Other People’s Problems is a show in three parts. We start with an enthusiastic yet troubled and apparently emotionally bruised motivational speaker going through a stock-standard ‘You can win!’ –type seminar; all forced enthusiasm and Tony Robbins-style self-belief. She morphs into a teenage blogger, offering advice all the while being manipulated by a cynical marketing machine. The third act shows Sarah’s metamorphosis into a highly strung woman trying to unwind and tap into her true sensual self, with the aid of a motivational cassette. It’s not a chuckle fest, but it is quite fascinating to see a theme unfold – how opinions matter in people’s lives, how happiness as a goal has its consequences, and the perils of self-improvement by numbers.

DeAnne Smith – It’s About Freakin’ Time
Imagine that Tina Fey was cloned and was a stand-up comic. Sold? You should be. It was kind of unnerving to see Canadian DeAnne Smith perform and think that this was the 30 Rock star in person, albeit with a Justin Bieber-esque haircut. Smith’s set is a nuanced, brilliantly crafted and pitch-perfect hilarious piece of modern stand-up comedy, addressing all manner of topics, incorporating a couple of songs on the ukulele and interacting with the audience which displays her dab hand at improvisation and lightning-quick wit. Brilliant work here, she’ll go far. Highlight of the Festival, and on day 3 no less.

The Festival Club
Downstairs at the Hi-Fi Bar will allow punters to get the best value for money at this event. The night I was there, the exceedingly funny Cal Wilson MC’d, with a strong line up of comics performing 8-10 minute sets. Smart Casual, a local musical comedy duo seem to be an emerging force. Arj Barker, whose show Eleven seems to be the headlining at of the festival (the lines every night are around the block) did a solid 10 minutes reflecting on Melbourne and a few other choice topics. Felicity Ward did an a Capella song about junkies and displayed boundless enthusiasm and energy as an advertisement for her current show. Hannah Gadsby’s deadpan delivery was consistent and solid. The Pyjama Men were bizarre, but hilarious. Invariably the nights will have different line-ups, but it’s dollar-for-dollar value and a great venue to see the cream of the crop.

Ghost Sharks starring Mob of 3
Yeah. There’s a time and place for improv comedy, and it’s great when it works. But I saw Ghost Sharks, and was fairly convinced that the three guys on stage were having a blast trying to amuse each other. All the while there’s an audience in the room who weren’t in on the joke. At least, I wasn’t. They take a flimsy premise (the show’s namesake) and build it around some dodgy props and costumes. Could have been fun, and apparently won awards (somewhere), but it Just. Didn’t. Work. This was as funny as a Lars Von Trier film. Funny as anal polyps. Tumbleweeds. Crickets.

The Bedroom Philosopher – Wit Bix
I went into this without much backround. I had been told that this chap’s repertoire involves a bunch of songs about the experience travelling on the #86 tram from Bundoora to the CBD and the archetypes experienced therein. Then I was informed that he used to share a house with a friend of mine, and that I had met him once, years ago. Which is all fine. Wit-Bix has him doing his musical comedy thing, paying kind of semi-tongue-in-cheek homage/piss take of the whole hipster crowd; devoting his observations to aspects of modern life, pop culture references, unrequited love. The usual. Can’t say I would flock back, but there’s ample insight and talent on display at Trades Hall.

Wil Anderson – Man vs. Wil
Here’s the thing. I would not usually under any circumstances spend money seeing this chap. I know he’s popular, and he’s a pro and everything. I was all ready to see Sam Simmons, tickets purchased, everything was looking good. But we arrive and the show’s been cancelled for the evening and as an exchange, they’re willing to refund our money and give us free tickets to Wil Anderson. It’s five minutes before curtain, and the option seems a lot easier than deciding on a whole new show to see. As a show, it’s fine. But as a comedy experience, it reminded me of how I felt watching the film Meet the Parents. I understood that what was going on in front of me was supposed to be funny, and there were people around me laughing at the appropriate cues, but I just didn’t get it. Not a smirk. And I couldn’t help but notice my fellow travellers had fallen asleep. If you’re a fan of his TV and radio work, go ahead. But there are hundreds more interesting things on show at MICF, even if Wil may very well be on the precipice of outing himself.

Jen Brister – British(ish)
The process of ‘flyering’ is one unique to this kind of festival. The folks who haven’t got the marquee value of someone like Arj Barker or Hannah Gadsby will gather around the front of the Melbourne Town Hall handing out flyers (hence the term) of their show. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people show up at the Town Hall with no idea what’s on show, and it’s how some of the lesser known comics get the word out about their gigs. Jen Brister is a British comic whose show explores the mores and manners of the British middle class, as well as her feelings and experiences being the daughter of a Spanish woman, and how this affects her outlook on life. It’s a very strong set, occasionally quite filthy (she’s a lesbian!) and consistently funny in one of the stranger venues I’ve been to – the Tuxedo Cat on Flinders Lane. You have to go downstairs and along this long, narrow corridor, into this converted room that has a desk (for the bar) and a curtain, then 20 seats in front of the microphone. It was like seeing a gig in Hitler’s bunker. But thankfully, it was a lot funnier as experiences go. Jen Brister is the duck’s guts. Funny stuff; tremendously talented.

Sam Simmons – And the Precise History of Things
There is nothing more left-of-centre than this comic, who combines song, visual props, improvisation and bold theatrics to create the most unique and memorable show. He apologised for his previous night’s absence, but he was gripped with food poisoning and ‘… shitting himself into oblivion’. The result of him rising from his deathbed to perform on the Thursday night was kind of ‘car crash’ fascinating. He seemed to think he wasn’t up to the task, and amid some kind of fever and a singing voice not up to snuff, he was in various stages of emotional tumult, on the edge of an emotional breakdown. Various bits and songs were skipped, cut or glossed over, and his response to a drunk heckler was one-of-a-kind. His finale, involving a dramatic performance piece with an Old El Paso taco kit and the theme from Brokeback Mountain was blindsidingly funny. Sam Simmons is an astronomical talent, an absolutely remarkable performer and I cannot recommend his show enough.

Zoë Coombs Marr – And That Was the Summer That Changed My Life
This show presented as being a solid performer displaying a good ear for character and dialogue. It’s a show in two parts – the first has Zoë presenting a speech as the younger teenage version of herself reflecting on the greatest moment of her life, when she performed a solo medley of music from West Side Story while on band camp; the second part is more of a reflection on that era, her spotty teenage years, adolescence and the process of growing up, coming out and moving away from her small town. Again with the lesbians, and I have to restate the fact that I am not actively seeking them out, I’m just kind of stumbling onto them. I’m still trying to come up with a joke along the lines of “I haven’t seen this many lesbians in one place since…”, and if anyone can fill in the blanks, that would really be a load off my mind. As a performer, Zoë is even filthier than the previous ones, and that’s not a bad thing at all. The show’s dénouement is the best I’ve seen on this selection and it is very creative and endearing performance (in the Melbourne Town Hall, ‘the lunch room’), which speaks volumes of emotional truth with frequent laugh-out-loud moments.

Roisin Conaity – Hero, Warrior, Fireman, Liar
Roisin is a British comic of the geezer variety, who has pulled the unique trick of donning a costume and performing in her own warm-up act as an alter ego. Reflecting on a life as a 31 year old single girl living with her grandmother, she talks about what she is meant to say to a school full of girls who would theoretically follow in her footsteps. Hers is a set of self-depricating humour based on her poor track record with men, her social faux-pas and life in an extended Irish Catholic family. She’s clearly having a lot of fun doing this and performs with seemingly bottomless reserves of energy and enthusiasm which is hard to resist.

Paul F Tompkins – Life’s Work
American stand-up and actor Paul F Tompkins would be well-known to the cult sketch comedy show Mr Show with Bob and David. His MICF show Life’s Work is a steady and gentle (that’s not a put down) reflection on his life as a stand up, and how he started out working crappy jobs, through to his work in major films and success on TV. What came across strongest about Life’s Work is that it was just so nice. And again, this is not a put-down. I know, coming from me, saying that something was nice and gentle doesn’t sound complimentary, but Tompkins presents a series of stories from his life and career that are engaging, funny and wonderfully told: from his time working in a hat store, to his time in a Beta-only video store; from early stand-up comedy misfires to embarrassing moments with major film stars. He doesn’t hit a false note. Seeing someone like Tompkins (and Jen Brister and DeAnne Smith for that matter) is testimony for up-and-coming stand-ups that honing your material, working on the craft of performing stand up pays off; as a show that flows well, has a lot of strong points and is engaging and relatable makes all the difference. You work on it, you get good, people will come back for more.

Alan BroughWhat is it You Can’t Face?
I told a friend that I was seeing this show, and his response was ‘Why? I see him walking around Fitzroy all the time.’ Which is true, he is a local. And perhaps it would have been money better spent just holding up the bar at The Rose than forking over money to see Brough’s one-man show wherein he re-imagines The Sound of Music as a violence and sex-filled musical. The major problem is that it’s a one-joke show, and the one joke is in the name of the show (taken from an actual line of dialogue from the original film; funny in context). It was another one of those Wil Anderson moments – people around me were laughing (Spicks and Specks viewers?), they seemed to be having a good time, so I guess at the end of the day it’s just me.
Actually, fuck that, it’s not me. It’s them.

The Pajama MenIn the Middle of No One
OK – here’s the pitch: it’s a character-based mime act, with a thinly cobbled-together narrative about aliens. Go. Truth be told it’s entirely clever and very funny. The Forum Theatre is an exceptional venue; and the Pajama Men are wildly inventive, clever and so comfortable in these scenarios you cannot help but come along for the ride. There isn’t much more to it than a lot of piss-farting around. But it’s very good. Also, bonus, Geoffrey Rush was in the audience, which was a small thrill, because he’s great and once played a character named Casanova Frankenstein in a film and I think I’m the only person who liked it.

Tig Notaro
Tig Notaro is a deadpan, quick-witted genius of a stand-up. Her humour is of the observational brand, droll and insightful. Riffing on social mores, family trees, Taylor Dayne, Star Wars, and stretching awkward silences to a hilarious extreme is her MO, and her self-titled show (her second at MICF) is outstanding. Marvellous, even. I’m not going into any more detail so as to avoid giving away the soul of her jokes, just take this as a wholehearted recommendation and leave it at that (and yes, she’s #5 on my ever-expanding list of amusing comedy festival lesbians… I’m hoping to collect every one of them).

The Horne Section
You’d not expect to have an old-timey sing-along type of experience in this day and age, but that’s what’s been put on show at the HiFi Bar as part of MICF. I can’t do it justice by saying it’s a variety show, but it kind of is, in that they have three guest performers (not sure if this night they have the same as they always do, but I saw Fiona O’Loughlin, David O’Doherty and a juggling act named Miss Elaneous. She juggled hats and parasols. Yeah! In between, front man Alex Horne – a standup – leads the band in a series of musical comedy moments, audience participation games and ‘dad jokes’. His guests have their own moments and allow Horne to duck off stage to tend to the multimedia component of the show, revealed in the last act. It’s a room full of talent, a joyous event and one that has you clapping along like you’re six years old and watching pantomime. Outstanding.

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