Melbourne International Comedy Festival: Some funny shows I saw

Last week I was down south of the border in Old Melbourne Town and saw a whole bunch of great, mostly ‘alternative’ (whatever that means) shows at Melbourne International Comedy Festival. A number of them are still performing down there as I type, or are soon to be seen at Sydney Comedy Festival (the one nobody seems to know about), late April/early May. So Melburnians and Sydneysiders, get your arses out of your home theatres, or wherever your arses are, and check out some live shows why not.

Alasdair Tremblay-Birchall and his Amazing Disappearing Enthusiasm (Can–Aus)

Alasdair
Alasdair Tremblay-Birchall’s stomach can be turned into a bum at any time.

Alasdair Tremblay-Birchall’s amiable, understated demeanour and vaguely James Spader voice will lure you in and amuse you with his collection of random stories. The show centres around the idea that he hates feeling awful and the ways in which he seeks to avoid this. Navigating lady parts, unique methods of dealing with loud flatmates and working out that his gut can actually be moulded into a bum are some of the highly entertaining avenues that he explores to achieve his goal. 

Eric Hutton: Eat My Talk! (Aus)

Eric
Eric Hutton – one of the shiniest cybermen in the Australian alternative comedy scene.

‘Eric Hutton has long been considered one of the shiniest cybermen in the Australian alternative comedy scene’ says Eric’s blurb, getting my award for best line in the MICF program. Unfortunately, Melbourne seemed largely oblivious to this on the night we went to see him, with the small audience being made up of other comedians and friends. He therefore performed a hilarious sort of deconstructed anti-show, giving amusing insights into his jokes/stories, sharing background anecdotes and regaling us with tales of various audience responses to his material. The highlights were the bits in character, especially the climactic dramatisation when Eric Hutton, President of the World, tries to take on ISIS with his bare hands – a crazy-hilarious scene that stayed with me throughout the festival. Amazing stuff.

Discover Ben Target (UK)

ben target
Discover Ben Target and it will change your life. (Not guaranteed.)

If you’re the kind of person who hates audience interaction at comedy shows, this might not be for you. However, I am exactly that kind of person and I loved this. We walked into the room . . . except we couldn’t – there was a toilet-paper web across the aisle. We were told by the sound guy not to break anything and had to clamber through it Entrapment-style to our seats. Which were jammed so closely together that we had to separate out the rows before we could even sit down. Then Ben Target rode in on his bicycle in his dishevelled cream suit and used an unnecessary stepladder to climb the one step to the stage. The show unravelled beautifully from there into a well-orchestrated, prop-heavy, awkwardness-inducing, nightmarish team-building exercise. It was one of the best comedy shows I’ve ever experienced.

Mark Watson: Flaws (UK)

mark watson
Mark Watson manages to mine his inner demons and find laughs.

Last time I saw Mark Watson was what seems a looong time ago, in good ol’ 2008, at Hifi Festival Bar where he hosted a 24-hour stand-up show. One of the best things about him is his manic ability to make you feel like you’ve seen three shows for the price of one – he manages to cram several sentences (and jokes) into the space that people normally reserve for one. It was great to see him again, although there was a different vibe this time – it was clear he’d been through the wringer in the past year or so. Part of his undoing came at the premiere of the Thomas the Tank Engine movie, and with assistance from audience members he recreated this hideous experience for our entertainment. The usually very upbeat, rapid-firing Brit has ably transformed some of his darkest moments into sometimes poignant, mostly laugh-out-loud anecdotes – no mean feat.

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Summer (lions) reading: Amy Poehler’s ‘Yes Please’ and Nick Offerman’s ‘Paddle Your Own Canoe’

I’ve been getting my comedy reading on. A few months ago, I got hooked on Parks and Recreation. If you haven’t seen this show (now in its final season) because you live under a rock like me, it’s great; in the vein of the UK series The Office, it was initially meant to be a spinoff of the US version.

Set in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, it centres on super-positive public servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), dedicated to kicking arse in the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Parks and Recreation office – slowed right down by her deadpan boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). They’re ably supported by a talented ensemble cast and the writing is brilliant – that great mix of crazy-funny and heartbreakingly poignant.

'"Yes please" sounds powerful and concise. It's a response and a request. It is not about being a good girl; it is about being a real woman.'
‘”Yes please” sounds powerful and concise. It’s a response and a request. It is not about being a good girl; it is about being a real woman.’

Anyhoo: reading. I’d heard great things about Amy Poehler’s recently released book, Yes Please, and managed to get my hands on a copy before Christmas (bless you, Alex). I hesitate to call it a memoir, though it largely is. It’s also a bit of an advice column by the funniest agony aunt around, and part photo album/part scrapbook, which is lovely and adds a personal, candid touch.

The main narrative tracks Amy’s start in the world of improvisation through to performing in Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade and various other groups; she also covers her time on Saturday Night Live and Parks and Rec. This thread is intercut with chapters about other aspects of her life, such as childbirth (‘Is it too late to flood the hospital room? Or turn it into a really fun foam party?’), being a parent, and her experience of the entertainment industry (‘Hollywood is a crazy biz and I know the biz cuz the biz iz in my blood’). There are special-guest chapters written by others, such as her mum who writes about the day she gave birth to Amy; Amy then urges readers to seek out their own birth stories from their mothers (and even provides lined pages where these stories can be written – too cute).

Yes Please really appealed to me, for a number of reasons. Amy Poehler’s kiiind of my contemporary, though a bit older; she covers a lot about growing up that I can identify with (eg. Judy Blume, sleepovers, terrible 80s fashion). I really appreciate and am trying to apply her creative advice (about writing but could be applied to any art form): ‘You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.’ (That’s a shame because I’m a goddamn expert in the latter.)

I love Amy’s straight-talking style – she sticks up for aging, and takes well-aimed shots at plastic surgery (in haiku form, of course): ‘Hey, shooting poison/in your face does not keep you/from turning fifty’. (Now that I think about it, poetry is a wonderfully employed device throughout; the development of her friendship and comedy partnership with Tina Fey, her ‘comedy wife’, reaches its climax with an acrostic poem no less.) In a very classy move, she outright refuses to speak directly about her clearly painful divorce from Will Arnett, instead focusing on the lighter side by pitching a bunch of self-help divorce books, such as ‘The holidays are ruined! This book is one page long and just contains that one sentence’.

She writes warmly about how she came to be Leslie Knope in Parks and Rec AND THEN I CAN’T READ ANYMORE BECAUSE I’M ONLY UP TO SEASON 4 SO SPOILERS GAH. But she does have a list at the end of the chapter where she praises each cast member in turn and, like the rest of the book, it’s written in a down-to-earth, heartfelt, grateful way that’s just really lovely. The gushing is tempered with gems like: ‘Nick Offerman is someone I would run to when zombies attack because he can build a boat and is great company.’

'I am your average meat, potatoes and corn-fed human male, with a propensity for smart-assery, who has managed to make a rewarding vocation out of, essentially, making funny faces and falling down.'
‘I am your average meat, potatoes and corn-fed human male, with a propensity for smart-assery, who has managed to make a rewarding vocation out of, essentially, making funny faces and falling down.’

Speaking of whom, Nick Offerman brought out his own book in 2013 and I was lucky enough to receive a copy for Christmas from my partner, who searched all of Sydney’s bookshops during Hell’s shopping period. (Bless you, Shane.) Paddle Your Own Canoe: One man’s fundamentals for delicious living is a great companion read for Yes Please, for obvious reasons but also because both Nick and Amy place emphasis on their acting/comedy careers as art. They take themselves and their work as artists seriously. Not in a pretentious way or at the cost of having fun, but they work very hard at it and have a healthy respect for themselves and their peers. These books are also two parts of the larger story about the little show that could – Parks and Recreation was often on the chopping block but managed to survive and thrive, which is great news for anyone who needs laughter in their lives (ie. ALL OF US).

Along with drinking your fill of manly-man advice from the guy who plays arguably TV’s manliest moustachioed man, Ron Swanson, readers gain insight into Nick’s life from his birth in the middle of a cornfield in Illinois; growing up, working hard but also finding time to get up to no good; moving out to Chicago in a used Subaru to pursue acting; eking out a living building theatre sets during lean times; and working his way up oh-so-gradually from bit parts, to appearing full-frontally in HBO’s incredible series Deadwood, then *cough* Miss Congeniality 2 and roles in Sundance contenders, to eventually becoming the Ron Swanson you know and love.

While you’re being amused by Nick’s humorous anecdotes, you also reap the rewards of his varied life experience. He places emphasis on finding a hobby – nay, a discipline – and working away at it, whether it’s your dream to act or fashion a canoe you can paddle off in. (He runs the Offerman Woodshop alongside his acting career.) As a bonus, there is rich advice for wooing the ladies, and he pays tribute throughout to his talented actress wife, Megan Mullally – perhaps sometimes too eloquently (do I need to know exactly what they get up to in the woods?), but on the whole it’s adorable.

The main themes underlying Nick’s uniquely deadpan and wickedly humorous book are living life while holding true to good old-fashioned values, minding your manners and, like Amy, having gratitude for all that life has given you. ‘Paddle your own canoe’ is his variation on beat your own drum, and, if you have the opportunity, do literally make and play your own drum as well (or canoe – anything, really: ‘Cook, play music, sew, carve. Shit, BeDazzle. Maybe not BeDazzle’).

Both books are refreshing, positive, often laugh-out-loud antidotes to a lot of the . . . well, crap of modern life, celebrity, and traditional and social media at the moment (with the exception of Parks and Rec castmate Aziz Ansari getting all up in Rupert Murdoch’s racist grill on Twitter this past week – taking the Parks and Rec on-set ‘No Assholes’ policy and applying it like a blueprint for the world: beautiful stuff).

They are in some ways like a soothing balm. The message is to trust yourself. Create what you want to create. And, like Amy Poehler says, be whoever you are.