Everyone’s a F’kn Comedian

20/10/2009 at 2:28 pm Leave a comment

World’s Funniest Island
Cockatoo Island, Sydney Harbour, October 17-18

About 10pm on the Sunday night I made a complete fool of myself drunkenly thanking Fiona O’Loughlin for her inspirational set the day before. It was foolworthy due to the tremendous strength she showed to reveal her darkest dipsomania and make light from the depression that goes hand in hand with alcohol abuse – in front of a room full of people guzzling beers. Foolworthy because I was probably gushing my words and slushing white wine on myself from a plastic cup. Given my own fractious relationship with the bottle I was somewhat in awe as she openly laughed at the prospect of going and staying dry (an idea that must inspire terror for those of us still clinging to the liquid crutch). Later as I meandered down the hill I explained to a newfound companion how we couldn’t offer her a drink because she was fourteen weeks and five days sober. His reply: “What? When did that happen?”

I actually didn’t drink at all the first day, to pace myself and enjoy comedy for its inherent value rather than the short-lived euphoric rush that knocking back tinnies can provide on a hot day. Clearheaded and sharp appreciation of wit feels vastly different. Not better or worse than the ludicrous giggling fits I found the next evening – just that as someone briefed to write about the event I felt better knowing the urge to piss my pants was not a direct result of seven Carlton Draughts in quick succession. Even drinking H2O was a risky maneuvre in these circumstances. During the erotic fan fiction I almost fell off my chair trying to prevent a mouthful of water spraying across the audience when a reader used the lovely turn of phrase “gently farting come”.

That was early on the Saturday afternoon and the tales of celebrity filth set the tone for a surreal ride across the comedy junket that was Cockatoo Island. A Mel Gibson love ballad to Woody Allen was obsessive and full of sleaze, eclipsed only by the deadpan ­­­Nick Coyle describing one man’s furious passion for making love with an undead Natalie Wood. And just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder we are treated to Marieke Hardy’s tale of how she came to seduce Brian from Family Guy – along the way offering full confessional to her sexual idolatry of celebrity dogs. I’ll never see Inspector Rex the same way again.

Having now giggled my way to abandon any attempt to be methodical about covering the massive program I wander from site to site, slipping in and out of the heritage venues as the smorgasboard does or does not appeal to my particular tastes. Comedy is a fickle beast as such and quite rightly thus not everyone will be looking for the same kinds of fun. So you can poke your head in somewhere about to start that might herald a hidden jewel, or soak in the Harbour Stage where a myriad of seagulls heckled comics making the notoriously difficult leap from indoor to open-air sets. This is a fundamental dynamic of comedy that’s worth examining. “Working the room” is a tried and true method to warm up your performance. Any stagecraft depends on the audience to participate and respond – and indoors is far more conducive to containing this energy, laughter bounces around the room and becomes infectious. An outdoor set means the vibe is far more casual, with people picnicking and wandering past, there’s less focus on the performer. It’s not that we aren’t finding the material funny but laughter floats away and more than one comedian got caught out actually asking if people could laugh more. Ouch…

It’s hard to blame them really. I know it’s a horrible feeling when you get no reaction for gags that should be like lightning – I can only imagine what it’s like when the material is your own. Stand-up is a medium of personality. Comics are putting themselves on the line and there’s rarely the safety net of other actors. If the comedy falls flat it’s you – so creating that empathy with the audience is vital to building a relationship that allows for feedback. Self-deprecation is a popular choice, as is doing something outrageous. Those first moments on stage are so critical and it’s fascinating to see the different directions people take. Sam Simmons took a unique approach by offering a sheepish pre-emptive apology for the general stupidity of his act. Which was probably a good thing since it was a particularly silly random collection of cartoon drawings and passing thoughts of a 32 year old man-child. Quite funny ones for that – but it’s entirely possible that without that “this might be awkward” warning at the top we’d be less forgiving.

Onward and back up to the Mold Loft where the women truly ruled the roost. Six Quick Chicks gave a whirlwind set of singing, dancing sketches satirising everything from Telstra, strippers, coprophilia (if you don’t know, don’t ask) and truly bizarre fetishism of frying onion rings (you had to be there). Later the aforementioned Fiona O’Loughlin showed how it’s done by warmly and unapologetically putting it out there – the audience loving her for it. Her reflections on personal pain are both touching and hilarious demonstrations of how tragedy & comedy are two sides of the same coin. Treading even darker territory was Jane Bussmann and a harrowing tale of her time as a foreign correspondent in Africa. If you think alcoholism and depression are tricky subjects for comedy, how about child slavery, torture, corruption, war, murder and being litigated by Ashton Kutcher? This was part lesson in modern history and part savage critique of Western values. Bussmann takes us on a gripping journey from deepest darkest Hollywood journalism to the otherwise invisible world of Ugandan politics. It’s a story that takes some concentration – a far cry from the tangential style of many comedians fluttering from one anecdotal observation to the next; this is real-life-and-death stuff and quite moving at times. While the material is shocking – it’s something we simply never hear about. So getting a blow-by-blow account of exactly how fucked-up the situation is there is the last thing you might expect at a comedy festival. But strangely this tale is not without humour – her sardonic tone keeping us real – or maybe we just laugh to keep from crying? In any case expectations are the last thing you should bring to this kind of thing and I’m impressed enough to buy the book.

Nostalgic favourites The Goodies were a must-see on paper, and the enormous Turbine Hall was packed out for them – although to my mind thirty year old sketches (I say I say I say) and trips down memory lane are the stuff of documentary television. Even so, it was a thrill to catch the legends in the flesh as like every other child growing up in the 80’s I was weaned onto a taste for the absurd through their eccentric stylings. But an iconic glimpse would have to suffice as there were fresher jokes to be guzzled. Similarly Alexei Sayle seemed content to reflect on the laurels of an impressive career, offering a “book-reading in an aircraft hangar” (an apt description for the venue) and some Q & A with the audience. His comment that he “prefers literary festivals” struck me as a little condescending – given the array of talent on board here – but also as an unfair distinction.

Is a comedy festival like this somehow less culturally significant than ‘important’ calendar events like the Sydney Writers Fest? There was plenty of political analysis and truth to be heard here and wrapping it in comedic tones simply makes it more accessible (ticket prices notwithstanding). The talent here generally lack the sense of self-importance you might get listening to terminal snooze-inducers like Frank Moorhouse and many of the acts here would be right at home at the Wharf. Stories of courage such as Bussmann and O’Loughlin told are of considerable cultural value – and the engaging hours I spent listening and laughing with them are frankly ones I will cherish and reflect on far more than any big-name academic speaker I might find elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong here – I love the SWF – but it is a mistake to look down at comedy as not very serious.

On the second day I was able to kick back, having felt I could squeeze just a bit more juice from the event, and after a full day’s work there was nothing better than to cruise across the harbor at dusk, arriving in time to catch veterans like Rod Quantock, Arj Barker and Peter Berner, entering what was a much more embracing mood as the various comics and punters mingled easily. Beaconsfield: The Musical offered up potentially the last ever performance and I’m glad I went to see what all the fuss was about way back whenever. The media universally hated it (probably the most media coverage you would ever get for an independent theatre production) and why? Because no media outlet was left unscathed by this brutal satire on the hoo-hah surrounding the event that was the rescue of two ordinary Australians trapped underground.

Stumbling across a random comedy jam with Paul Warnes, my ears caught his gags and I found myself hanging around with ten or so performers, as the likes of Greg Fleet and Rick Shapiro got up to do unscheduled sets, heckling each other and generally living large as the weekend drew to a close. Moments like this sum up the warmth of the festival, as what is a very closely-knit comic community all gather. Everyone seems to know each other but it’s far from cliquey. As an outsider I felt quite comfortable joining in conversations outside the VIP room. Chatting to one of the intrepid festival organisers I casually mentioned I was there to review it- “Oh fuck off then!” he cried out in riposte. General laughter amongst the group at my expense was most welcome (It’s an Australian tradition to ridicule each other as a sign of welcome, right?) Anyway I couldn’t have put it better myself. Everyone’s a f’kn critic. I can only congratulate him and the rest of the staff, talent and crew for getting it out there, and now that the word is out on how good this thing actually is, start counting the days until next year.

This review is written on behalf of The Truth Booth.

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VICTOR SANCZ vassanc [AT] gmail.com

since 2009

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