Although the spectre of Covid-19 hangs over this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, it demonstrates the resilience of live Australian performance. By Robert Reid.

Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2021

Comedian Zoë Coombs Marr performs at the Palais Theatre as part of the 2021 MICF gala.
Comedian Zoë Coombs Marr performs at the Palais Theatre as part of the 2021 MICF gala.
Credit: Jim Lee

It would be weird if performers at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) didn’t directly address the pandemic; after all, it was the first major arts event to be cancelled when Covid-19 emerged a year ago. Even in the big rooms, I’m very aware of people’s proximity. One fellow sitting next to me strikes up a conversation about how odd it feels to be back out in the world. I suggest that it’s going to take practice to get used to being around each other again.

A sense of relief suffused every performance along with an energy that seemed simultaneously overexcited and overtired. Every show I saw, including the three reviewed here, presented elements of old material – collections of old jokes, reflections on past work – as well as new work about the pandemic. A mix of introspection and retrospective.

In Agony! Misery!, Zöe Coombs Marr takes the stage with the ocker swagger of ’90s Anthony Morgan, minus the alcohol. Her comedy works the vein of traditional observational stream-of-consciousness stand-up, as if your favourite gay larrikin friend from high school were dropping by after 20 years to ramble over the kitchen counter.

Given that, a remarkable amount of the show focuses on penises. Coombs Marr returns to Puppetry of the Penis again and again, as a historical signpost for the era she’s recalling.

She tells us she’s no fan of stories and that she doesn’t respond to the patriarchal narrative structure of linear storytelling, adding that there are many other ways to tell a tale. Her show – which appears to be ramshackle and loose – in fact has a dramaturgical structure that is close to a helix. She observes memorably at one point that Puppetry of the Penis – which arguably reinvented comedy in the mid ’90s – was the Nanette of its day. Agony! Misery! is a low-key parody of the idea that a comedy show can deconstruct comedy.

Marr shares her happiest memory, when she played every flute solo in West Side Story during a music camp, even though she was only in year 7. This winds around the growing international success of Puppetry of the Penis, curving back to touch on the first show Marr brought to MICF, which also incorporated the story of her year 7 triumph. She jokes about teenage sexual awakenings and humorously awkward social interactions.

For a stand-up format that feels so familiar, this presents Marr with an unexpectedly postmodern dilemma. It transpires that she can no longer tell if she remembers her year 7 music camp or if she’s remembering the story she told in her first comedy festival. And even this much certainty is undermined by the end, as she circles back once more, as if to make her point about linearity all over again.

Maybe time felt so circular and repetitive under lockdown that it has crept into how we see the world.

Damian Callinan and Paul Calleja’s The Wine Bluffs – Decanted is character sketch comedy that feels like it’s from another age, although it’s full of contemporary references.

Callinan and Calleja play themselves as globetrotting winemakers. They’ve just returned from Bulgaria after winning a prestigious award, The Big Spit Bucket. Now back in Australia, they’re launching their newest product, a mystery wine, but disaster has struck as they find their wine cellar is shared with their worst enemy, craft brewers.

That’s about as deep as the narrative goes. It’s a thin premise for a collection of wine puns, hipster jokes, some dubious ethnic clichés, rough mime and an extended riff on audience safety protocols that involve phallic pool noodles – a prop that Callinan struggles with on the night I’m there, finding his more uncomfortably priapic than Calleja’s. There’s a very good riff on their brief time as cellarmasters to the royal family, touching on the controversy around Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s Oprah interview, and the imaginary door that leads to nostalgic commercial jingles was a genuine joy.

Callinan seems the most alive to the crowd and the most playful of the two. Calleja is the Baldrick to Callinan’s blokey Blackadder; he has a lovely guileless grin that reminds me of Stan Laurel. It’s a loose show – Callinan forgets a section and Calleja struggles to keep him on stage until he remembers the crucial plot point of the scene – but it tumbles along with a casual joy that takes the audience with it.

The crowd is a little reserved, which is not surprising for an early show, but it’s clear they enjoy themselves.

Lawrence Leung’s show Connected is an online magic show where it feels as if the tricks should be obvious, but you still can’t work out how they’re done. It’s close-up magic at a digital distance.

It made me think of that video where the gorilla walked through a game of basketball, but you didn’t see it until it was pointed out. Leung’s show is that kind of experience, but he never lets you see the gorilla. There was at least one jaw-dropping reveal that I am going to wonder about until I die.

The show is conducted live over Zoom and, while it’s participatory, it’s all fairly gentle. It probably wouldn’t hurt to have an “easy mode” option to choose beforehand for those who are happy to play along but don’t like being singled out, although maybe that would weaken the overall investment of the audience.

I suppose that’s the risk Leung asks you to take for these shows: and once he’s got you in the door, well, he’s got you.

Of all the probability manipulation, cold reading and tricks so specific they’re seemingly impossible, the most impressive ones are what he can do with his brain and a Rubik’s Cube. Because he’s actually doing that, in front of you.

Leung seems like such a nice guy, which is why it works. Watching the fierce intelligence on display, you get the feeling that, if he used his powers for evil instead of comedy, he could just as easily be a supervillain such as Lex Luthor. If I tried something like this, I’d be in prison before I got the cards out of my coat pocket.

The only thing that upstages him briefly is Jimmy the Dog, whose appearance on camera with his family was impossible not to watch. He was, indeed, a very good boy.

The spectre of the pandemic may still loom over the comedy festival this year, but the performers’ spirits seem undimmed. It demonstrates that, despite everything, live entertainment in Australia remains resilient and strong. 

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival continues until April 18.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 10, 2021 as "Comic relief".

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