Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2015

Comedy makes is mass pilgrimage to Melbourne for the 2015 season.

Katherine Ryan – Glam Role Model (Melbourne Town Hall)
Your entertainment for the evening is a former Hooters waitress, single mother, Canadian girl-done-good in England, Katherine Ryan. She apparently appears on many a UK panel show. She’s also a first rate comic, delivering a world of pointed, fearless, boundless comedy bits in a show that’s nothing if not thought provoking.

There’s a lot of focus around celebrity (many for whom I had zero frame of reference), social media and the lives of these people; how fame can be and is fleeting, and the new(ish) phenomenon of sex pics being de rigueur. The miracle of birth gets a once over (she didn’t give birth to her daughter; she shat her out of her vag), as does – startlingly and superbly – abortion.

She made an excellent point, perhaps her most impactful bit, was the section taken from the show’s title. The Brits seem to have a label for those girls who just pose for lads mags or Page 3 – ‘Glamour Models’. With a spot-on accent for a Canadian impersonating (what I can only assume is an) Essex girl, she makes an excellent point about how girls can do anything. Yes, they can. If they choose to, become ‘glamour models’, but in a world where so many girls in so many places can’t do so much as drive or get an education, yes you can be a glamour model, but you can choose to be so much more. Hearty food for thought; she’s a superb comic.

Perhaps the sole let down was the crowd. It was Easter Sunday, and perhaps this lot weren’t in the mood for jokes about abortion and humorous rants about feminist politics. Perhaps the pop culture references were lost on this crowd of comedy mug punters. But it’s no reflection on Katherine, whose work is first rate and has a comic sensibility which is well-plotted and comprehensive, not to mention superbly funny.

Emily Taylor – Backwards (Northcote Town Hall)
The upside to having a show off-campus (ie, away from the MICF hub) is the you can have a more substantial space to perform. The downside is that you might have a bit of a struggle attracting an audience. I’m all for it, given that I live in the suburb next to Northcote, so the more the merrier, I say. Emily Talyor is an actor, writer and performer of vast range and genuine substance. Backwards, like last year’s MICF show Pet, is a multi-character performance piece which relies on Emily’s entirely malleable face and vocal dexterity to embody anyone from primary school students to retires (of both genders), bound together in an overarching look at childhood from a multitude of perspectives. And because she’s performing at the Northcote Town Hall this year, she can work her magic in a much more impressive space than the broom cupboard she performed Pet in last year at the Portland Hotel.

What distinguishes Backwards from Pet is that throughout this new show, Emily stays in character(s), whereas last year she broke character to provide (I’m guessing you’d call them) interstitials about the various angles in which you can explore the world of pet ownership. This show has a seamless thread, which isn’t laugh-out-loud funny (although frequently very amusing) linking a group of disparate characters, all bound by the common theme of childhood. What is impressive this year – as it was with Pet – is the range. The performance is an actor’s showcase – Emily has an impressive vocal range and can inhabit any age grouping or gender through voice and movement. The interactions between characters are impressive and seamless, and the transitions between scenes work well. This is a show that would appeal to any number of age groups (hence it not being in a cramped, sweaty anteroom in a CBD pub) and once again displays a performer of genuine talent, insight and wit.

Becky Lucas – High Tide (Portland Hotel)
Deep breath… I have a couple of problems with this show. Firstly, the Festival Guide advertised it as being 55 minutes long, and yet Becky Lucas took her bows 36 minutes into the set. I’m not keen on being that guy who complains about value for money, but the gig was $24.50 – it’s not really the best deal. She has some strong material peppered throughout her set, but the show ends with sentiment – reading an excerpt from a speech her best friend made at her 21st – rather than laughs, many of which are mild throughout. She starts strong with short, sharp observations about various character types, her family, growing up in a small town. She has a lot of scope for character work and has a keen eye for impressions. But as the show rolled on, the gags started to be fewer and fewer, and what was initially ‘laugh’ funny emerged as being mostly cute and wryly amusing. Which is fine, if who you’re listening to is the funniest person you’re chatting to at lunch, as opposed to someone you’ve paid to be entertained by. ‘Rape’ jokes seem to be a hot button issue this year: the voracity, worth, relative offensiveness and implications of them; Becky has herself a very funny bit about over-commitment and dating rapists – context is everything and I’m sure nobody would be overtly offended by this specific bit, which is very strong. The inherent problem with the show is that I felt short-changed on both time and on the content. She has 20 minutes of strong material that seems to have been stretched out into 35 minutes, and we’ve all paid for an hour. All of her bits had comedic merit, but none of it seems to have been fleshed out enough, none of it meets its full potential – we get one or two gags on a given subject, then it’s straight onto the next bit. The ongoing friendship with her bestie is the linking thread throughout, but it’s not strong enough a thread to hold the piece together. There is loads of potential (she’s a former Raw Comedy finalist), but as it currently stands, there’s not enough here to justify a solo show.

Paul Foot – Hovercraft Symphony in Gammon # Major (Hi-Fi Bar)
Paul Foot is esoteric, post-modern, self-aware and funny in a way that cannot be easily explained. But I’ll give it a red hot go. The fact that it’s so unconventional is perhaps what makes it so good. That it could be a rant about how he had a cauliflower baby, or how Scotch finger biscuits would be out of place in an S&M orgy, the occasional scatological non-sequitur and wild gyrating movements are the man’s bread and butter. Much of it … hell, all of it defies description. Foot is the ultimate in the comedy of the obscure. His format is anti-structural, in that the first part of his show is delivering excerpts that he decided to cut from the evening’s performance, before getting on with the show proper. There is no explaining how or why he is funny, and should you take his performance and write a transcript of it, doubtlessly he’d leave you scratching your head. You literally have to be there. I’ve been there three or four times now and I will continue to return every time he comes back. Sometimes your comedy mojo needs a swift kick to the solar plexus.

So there’s the thing: I’d heartily recommend (as a process) diving head first into an act you have no frame of reference for, but be sure to back it up with someone you know is going to deliver. I can imagine that Becky Lucas will continue to grow as a comic, but I’m going to wait a while before checking out her act again. If you head to MICF (or any Comedy/Arts festival), go in with a plan. Be sure you have something good to bring your evening to a close, lest your palette be tainted. Words from the apparently wise.

Gordon Southern – Long Story Short (Greek Centre)
New year, new venue: this time it’s the Greek Centre. MICF in years past used to have Three Degrees at QV as a go-to spot, but since that place is no longer a bar/function venue and you can’t do comedy inside a Japanese $2 store, the Greek Centre (crnr Russell & Lonsdale) is it. While the rooms are good (especially the big rooms), getting in and out, moving around the place is a problem. Going up two floors in a lift is fine, but they really (seriouslyreally) need to figure out how to get people out of there in a slicker manner. People jams in a narrow stairwell? Not really inductive to a good time. But the evening’s business: I’m something of a tart for the regular acts at MICF, having seen Gordon Southern a constant; I’ve seen him three times now and he’s never disappointed. Gordon has an ebullience to him that’s unique – he seems genuinely thrilled to be there, telling his stories, throwing in some fun facts (“That’s a fun fact!”) and relating to the audience with interactions (usually a no-go for me, but he’s good at it) and passionately relating his stories about his life and family. A UK comic with a solid understanding of matters local, Gordon Southern shows are perpetually joyous. Long Story Short is no exception.

Deanne Smith – Get Into It (Greek Centre)
This is my fourth time seeing Deanne Smith in five Comedy Festivals; there was a her-shaped hole in my agenda last year that I was struggling to fill. Thankfully she has returned this year to the aforementioned Greek Centre. I’m a fan, and in as much, biased. But I’ve never seen a show she’s done where she didn’t score with every bit. There is in this show less audience interaction than last time – she had everyone slow dancing; I recall a few years back there was a gift basket and lap dance for a lucky member of the front row (wasn’t me, natch). Her show this year, Get Into It, is as funny as she’s ever been – lacking a ukulele song (which has, to this point, been a standard). Added to the mirth is a significant amount of pathos, stemming from the recent death of her mother. Counter-balancing the sadness is new love, so there is a torrent of different emotions (and fluids) as a result. Comedy equals tragedy plus time, but in this case, the time is super short… to each her/his own. She’s honest, insightful, and super filthy, which is awesome. You know what? Pound-for-pound, Deanne Smith is the best comedian in the world. There. I said it.

Jekyll x James – Cactus Blastus (Forum Theatre)
Weird kinda pitch this one: a couple of lads (one of whom bears a striking resemblance to Rhys Darby, the other, to Seth Rogen), doing an odd hybrid of standup, sketch and musical numbers revolving around a strung together setting in the old west. There’s nothing that connects you to a performer better than that performer sweating in close proximity to you, which is what you must endure at The Forum’s ‘Carpet Room’, which is quite literally named, in that they usually store carpet there (it’s small, I tells ya). Both performers (Sydney based, Jared Jekyll & Cameron James) throw themselves into their show with gusto and verve, merging song with character work (both are really terrific actors, as it happens) and beat box sampling. It’s simple, but well-produced; technical but executed flawlessly. The marketing pabulum calls it ‘a psychedelic western musical comedy shootout’, and I’m fine with it. Roll with that. These lads are super talented and awesomely funny. They’ll go far.

Festival Club – Saturday 28 March
Great line up last Saturday: Anne Edmonds was the MC. Urzila Carlson was bawdy, terrific. Greg Behrendt was slick and awesome – I’ve seen his act on TV for years, he’s a commanding presence on stage. Heidi O’Loughlin was terrific. A couple of local acts (Damien Power, Nick Cody) also slick, strong and funny – made some pointed and spot-on observations about various Melbourne types. But the evening was OWNED by Rhys Nicholson (who is brilliant, by the way) running a Lip Synch Battle, (a Jimmy Fallon staple) featuring Anne Edmonds, Randy (the puppet), and Dave Callan. I haven’t the first clue why this was as funny as it was, but it was super. I love the Festival Club. Best value, most fun. Love it.

Kel Balnaves — Start Ya Bastard! (Forum Theatre)
This is another small gathering inside the Forum Theatre’s ‘Carpet Room’, intimate to the point where whoever is performing is in a capacity so intimate, he’s either trying to convert you to Dianetics or sell you Tupperware. Kel’s show is framed around his love of his car, a beat up old red Range Rover, and his performance is one of the broad, ‘larrakin’ character on stage; his stage persona seemed vastly different, an elevated version of the chap who I was chatting with while he was flyering outside the Melbourne Town Hall. Kel tells the story in a way that shows him to be entirely likeable — a very well-rehearsed story about hitting the open road with his father and sister in a quest to see Lake Eyre flooded for the first time in living memory. He’s got a very likeable persona, and some of his lines hit beautifully (“I’m a do-it-yourselfer. It’s getting to the point where one day I’ll operate on myself.”). If you ever described anyone as being ‘Aussie-as!’, its the part Kel is playing onstage. If there is a general pattern emerging among young comics, its that they all seem to reflect on how they were weird kids. Kel in this case was obsessed with Lego (or, as a SA resident, ‘lay-go’). His structure is solid, his storytelling is great, and his gags are plentiful. He rarely, if ever, hit a false note. As mentioned, I met him prior to the show and his pitch got me in. His on stage persona harks back to traditions of the role of the comic on stage, the comedian-as-storyteller. And, being the nerd I am, I took notes: one thing leapt out at me… I can’t imagine that she was a plant, but it felt that way; there was one member of the audience who laughed at everything he was saying, even the bridging comments, the stuff that built the performance. And it was this horrible, put-on laugh that all-but ruined the show for me. Hearing someone else laugh at something doesn’t actually make that specific thing funny. But, to each his own. Start Ya Bastard is a charming, accessible, genuinely Australian show.

Ivan Aristeguieta — Permanent Resident (Melbourne Town Hall)
Freshly minted as a permanent resident of Australia, Venezuelan comic Ivan Aristeguietabrings to MICF 2015 his stories about the joy he has at having been made welcome to Oz. While spotlighting the various things he loves about what the taxes pay for (toilet paper in public toilets; the small plastic bags for dog poop in parks), his performance is one which harks back to a noble history within Australian (and miscellaneous other) comedy traditions — in this case the innocence and exuberance of the happy immigrant doing what he can to make sense of their new land. In Australia this goes back to They’re a Weird Mob, probably even before it. Ivan’s routine is one which focuses much of its content on the foibles of Australianised English. How ‘all’ can mean nothing (‘Fuck all’), and ‘off’ can mean on (‘Going off’.). There’s nothing new going on here, and the comedy being performed is mild, but Ivan is overtly and innately charming. Ivan presents the immigrant experience, here explained with heart and honesty. Permanent Resident is a show which illustrates a lot about perspective, privilege and identity in modern Australia. It’s a joy to watch.

Sara Pascoe — Sara Pascoe vs History (Melbourne Town Hall)
I’d never seen (or heard of) Sara Pascoe before this show; it’s her second time around at MICF, and its one of those things that you should see her now before she becomes exponentially more famous and expensive. Sara Pascoe vs History is one of the more immaculately slick and verbally polished shows I’ve seen. And I’ve been doing this for some time. The show is one about human sexuality in its many forms, and its evolution over time, how it affects us, specifically her — a woman in her mid 30s. There’s a very British (Bwitish) charm to her, as if — say — Emma Thompson was a gag writer. She is a well-read and very impressively researched story teller, who has found the very real, and very relatable humour in facts and research. Having now seen her in person, I’d go so far as to say that she is the yardstick of razor-sharp wit, superb delivery and professionalism. It was amazing to see. She is the high watermark of modern, inventive, cultured, witty standup. Without doubt, her show is one of the best I’ve ever seen.

Tessa Waters — Womanz (Melbourne Town Hall)
I have no real way to explain this. Turns out the Festival Guide identifies it as ‘Cabaret’, which works for me. We’ll go with that. But let me put this out there: from the moment the ‘Womanz’ character emerged from her ‘rock’ and started speaking personally affirming platitudes and marveling at the amazing nature of the moment, and her, herself, I had an open-mouth grin on my face, and a constant thought bubble in my head asking me, “What the fuck is going on?”. I couldn’t be sure at the show’s end if this was an art/dance installation, or a giant pisstake of art/dance installations. If I live to be 1000, I’ll never be able to fully quantify what went on at the MTH Lunch Room. Here’s my take: there is some pan-ethnic caricature in a glittery leotard expressing herself through self-affirmations, screeches and dance. Lots of references to masturbation. And maybe that’s the point right there. Maybe it’s a big exercise in masturbation, or, a genuinely authentic expression of joy and artistry. But the fact remains that I was broadly smiling throughout the show. Mostly bewildered, but for the most part — through some kind of joyous osmosis — I was feeling the love.Womanz is a Comedy Festival experience for a punter who likes their comedy to be vastly different.

Festival Club – Thursday 2 April
I met a pair of Californians in the queue to get into the HiFi., a pair who had no frame of reference anything that was happening and just stumbled onto the Festival events. Good folks. I like California, they keep Disneyland there. Big hello to them (who have names, probably). It was an ABC TV production night on Thursday evening (a taping of two eps of Comedy Up Late), which meant TV cameras everywhere, and a slew of local and international comics doing their very best five or so minutes. I didn’t really want to be featured on the national broadcaster, so of course i got seated up front (capricious fate…). MCd by Matt Okine, we saw short, sharp sets from Nick Cody, Anne Edmonds, Ismail Ali and Trygve Wakenshaw. The second taping featured Cristella Alonzo (who was terrific), Josh Earl, Tegan Higginbotham, Harley Breen and Hari Kondabolu, all of whom were slick, smart and consummate pros for the cameras. Considering they put together two half hours of TV, the whole thing went off without a hitch. It was a great night.

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