Zoë Coombs Marr was doing drag long before she dressed up as comedian-character Dave, carting his metaphorical swag of dick jokes. As a child living in the Northern Rivers town of Grafton, where her parents kept a hobby cattle farm, she would dress as Huckleberry Finn.
“I used to wear overalls with one side undone,” she says. “I was a real tomboy.” Humid, subtropical Grafton was home to the yearly Jacaranda Festival beginning in the last week of October, and Jacaranda Thursday was the highlight of the calendar.
“Every year, me and my sisters dressed up, and they’re fairies and princesses and queens,” says the 33-year-old, in a cafe near Sydney’s Central Station. “I’m a box of raisins or a hamburger or a man. So, I’m an inanimate object or I’ve got a fake moustache.”
Today, Coombs Marr’s award-winning meta-comedy involves appearing as herself or as thin-moustachioed Dave, a barbed but affectionate response to some of the male stand-up comics proliferating comedy’s lower rungs with sexist content and swaggering entitlement.
“Some of my best friends are male comedians,” she says, laughing. But Dave was born of her frustration with the comedy world, where some male comedians continue to succeed by playing to lowest common denominator audience expectations. “I found a way to stay in there in disguise but only just,” she tweeted recently, in a thread about temporarily giving up performing as herself. Dave was created in part for male comedians to witness, she says, but “I never made Dave with the intention of being cruel or laughing at people, or going, ‘That guy sucks,’ ” she says, noting that many of her male counterparts are “nice guys who are trying to do this thing”.
“It’s also the set-up, the form of comedy itself…,” she says. “When I started doing comedy, my frustrations were that I couldn’t quite communicate with the audience, because their status quo and their understanding of the world is very different to mine,” she says. “So there wasn’t this flow of communication. It was really confusing. I could see that there was this direct line with these guys.”
Dressing up as Dave, who sees himself as God’s gift to women and is clueless about giving offence, Coombs Marr found a connection with audiences who understood the character as a satire of the stand-up comedy world. “I’ve been privileged enough to build my own audience and use stand-up comedy skills in a way that doesn’t perpetuate the traditional stand-up tropes.”
At 26, having already played Dave for a short while, Coombs Marr quit doing stand-up as Zoë for six years after a Sydney gig at which she was the only female comedian on a bill of 10 men. The male comedian before her pointed at a young woman in the audience and asked: “Have you been raped? No? Are you sure? What about when you were 12 and your dad was holding you down and fucking you?” In August, she tweeted about this traumatic incident as being the final straw over male comic behaviour: “I beat myself up for YEARS about that gig because I wasn’t able to be funny after that guy.”
Coombs Marr says the tweet thread was prompted by disgraced American comedian Louis CK’s return to the comic circuit, 10 months after admitting to sexual misconduct against several female comedians. “I stopped going to stand-up rooms, I stopped participating in that game in the industry,” she says. “I was exhausted. I couldn’t operate in that context.” It was only at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year, when she presented her show Bossy Bottom – which she will perform in Sydney in November – that the comedian has been able to “recontextualise myself as myself”. As for Louis CK: “There’s all this conversation of, ‘How much should Louis have to pay for doing this sort of thing?’ and ‘When is he allowed back on stage?’ I have to say – I don’t care. That’s absolutely the wrong question. The women are still paying the price of coming forward about him, let alone working through the events that happened.”
Coombs Marr’s father, Peter, was a Catholic priest who left the church to marry her mother, Linda, a lecturer in building design and a member of her university revue team.
“I was brought up Catholic, but we were not a particularly devout family,” says Coombs Marr, the eldest of three children. Having a father who’d studied the Bible helped her mount arguments with a teacher of scripture in school. She pointed out that while Leviticus carried most of the “homophobic stuff” about man not lying with man, so too did it advocate sacrificing pigeons, and these teachings were negated by the New Testament.
“I think the idea of a judgemental or a vengeful God … I’ve never felt any of that. I also don’t think that’s what the Bible is about either, actually, and Dad was very much about that as well. It’s not about judgement.”
As a child, Coombs Marr resisted feminine garb. “It was never pushed upon me. I really liked the mystery – before you hit puberty no one quite knows what you are, and I remember relishing that. I had a boy’s haircut and I dressed boyish and I remember going up to people and asking, ‘Do you think I’m a boy? I’m a girl.’ Because I knew that they couldn’t tell. I loved it.”
She says she got bullied a lot, though it didn’t have the desired effect on her. Kids told her she was weird and she’d respond with a smile and say, “Yeah!” It would egg her on to be weirder. “I wasn’t particularly invested in any friendship group. I always was a bit of an outsider, but not in a hugely unhappy way.”
By Year 10, she’d found friends older than her, many of them queer. But Coombs Marr had always been “a bit dumb” about identifying her own sexuality. “As a little kid, I always had this funny relationship with gender, where I was definitely not defined by it and refused any kind of definition. I enjoyed that. My parents were really great – they just sort of let me be who I was going to be, which was good. They were amazing.
“But when I was a teenager, coming to understand my sexuality, it took me a long time. I remember thinking, ‘I wish I was a lesbian because then that would mean I could be with women.’ It took me years before I was, like, ‘That means that I am.’ I thought I would get a letter in the mail or something.”
She didn’t bother going to schoolies week when she finished school. Instead, she and a fellow female student dressed as drag characters and put on a madcap cooking show – Malcolm and Keith: The Musical – in which two blokes made “truck sandwiches”, consisting of two slices of white bread, a great gob of butter, a toy truck and dirt sprinkled on top. “Yeah, we thought it was genius,” she laughs.
Young Zoë had wanted to be an actor, attending drama classes at the local Clarence Valley Conservatorium after school. Fresh out of Grafton High School, she met Mish Grigor and Natalie Rose at PACT, a centre for experimental art in Sydney’s Erskineville, and the trio quickly became friends. It took Coombs Marr six months to click that PACT wasn’t acting school. “You could do whatever the fuck you want. I remember that being a turning point.”
Coombs Marr, Grigor and Rose formed Post, a performance ensemble provoking audiences with anti-narrative. In 2014, their show Oedipus Schmoedipus at Belvoir St Theatre featured shooting and stabbing and buckets of blood from the moment the lights went down, incorporating the spirits of heroines snuffed out in Shakespearean and operatic storytelling.
A conventional acting career wasn’t to be. “This face isn’t for drama,” she jokes. “Acting is fun and great but I thankfully worked out quite early on I wasn’t particularly good at it.
“I’m such a ham – like, I’m a real goof. Although I think there are elements of serious acting – like, even with Dave. I cry. Dave gets really emotional.”
In 2016, Coombs Marr won the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s Barry award as Dave for her show Trigger Warning. In 2017, the Barry winner was Hannah Gadsby for Nanette, which would later become an international sensation on Netflix. Coombs saw Nanette early on, when the two comedians were sharing a venue. What does Coombs Marr think about Gadsby’s contention that there is an emotional toll for a comedian making herself the butt of the joke?
“I always refused to or was unable to make myself the butt of the joke,” she says. I sort of tried, really early on … People will like essentially homophobic jokes from a gay person. You can make them laugh because that is the consensus, in a way. I don’t want to kill on stage and by doing so make the world a worse place for myself or people like me. So, I could never really do that.
“As a result,” she says, laughing, “I was not very successful in comedy for a really long time.”
In 2010, she began a relationship with writer, broadcaster and filmmaker Kate Jinx, but in 2016, before same-sex marriage was made legal, in an absurdist effort to demonstrate the inequality of opportunity, she “married” male comedian Rhys Nicholson. Jinx published an article about the event in Guardian Australia titled “I watched my lesbian girlfriend marry a gay man”. The emcee was Hannah Gadsby and the flower girls were Judith Lucy, Denise Scott and Celia Pacquola, performing a “knicker-flashing ribbon dance”. A random group calling itself the True Australian Patriots – comedians Anne Edmonds, Damien Power and Greg Larsen – yelled “Leftie scum!”, precipitating a mock riot.
Coombs Marr jokes that her short union with Nicholson was a “great wedding, but a terrible marriage”. But marriage equality hasn’t prompted thoughts of tying the knot. “No, I guess it’s like [Kate] said: I never aspired to marriage, because it was never something that was available to me. I’d never say never, but it’s not really something that I’m interested in.”
On stage, Coombs Marr is teaming up again with her Post partners Grigor and Rose for Ich Nibber Dibber at the Malthouse Theatre, possibly the most linear show the trio has made. It consists of a script culled from more than a decade of archival conversations they recorded in their past show-making processes.
Narrative is over-rated, she insists. “People go on about story – everyone loves story. ‘Storytelling – it’s how we understand ourselves.’ I think it’s a way of how people can understand some parts of ourselves, but I don’t think that it’s the be-all and end-all.
“Story gets too much airtime,” she says, then with a Judith Lucy-style inflection, adds: “Fuck story!”
Narrative, she says, is used to justify violence in entertainment and culture, such as the killing of women in theatre and opera, which the trio satirised to visceral effect in Oedipus Schmoedipus, along with audience opprobrium about decontextualised and therefore “gratuitous” violence.
“I think that’s far more offensive, to have violence and [murder] justified by a narrative that precedes it, rather than us just showing the thing that is unjustifiable.”
I ask Coombs Marr about the murder – and news coverage – of young Melbourne comedian Eurydice Dixon in June. Although she didn’t know Dixon, she says her death left her thinking about her own young days trying to build a career as a comedian in Sydney.
Coombs Marr has at times carried a mini baseball bat inside her letterman jacket for when she is walking alone. “I mean, it’s just tragic. It’s horrible. For many women – especially for female comedians – it was upsetting in the sense that it could have been any of us,” she says.
“I was actually talking to Mish from Post about this recently: when we were young and putting on shows and living in these slummy houses and getting drunk all the time, we were engaged in really risky behaviour, and it made us the people who we are. There’s something really important about that independence. I love walking home on my own after a gig…
“It worries me that these sorts of events put shackles on women’s experience of the world.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 15, 2018 as "Dry Marr school".
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