If you haven’t been paying much attention to comedy in recent years, you’d be forgiven for thinking the artform is moribund. A scan of the headlines would see some of the globe’s biggest comedians feebly aiming to “get cancelled” for their next stand-up special (Ricky Gervais), trashing their legacy with progressive-baiting transphobia (Dave Chappelle) or drawing criticism for their extracurricular activities (too many to mention).
Avoid the stadium fillers for the myriad small rooms of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and you get a very different impression. With a few exceptions, this year’s iteration remains primarily local in flavour. Still, it loses little for that with more intriguing under-the-radar acts than even the most indefatigable punter can reasonably hope to see.
One change this year: the apparent decline of comics standing on Swanston Street, flyers in hand, trying to sweet talk you into attending their show. Sure, targeted Instagram ads may be eerily accurate, but where’s the romance of discovery?
If you’re going old school and picking festival shows from the program, one rule of thumb has always been: the later the time slot, the stranger the show. Dan Rath’s Cockroach Party is on very late. The midnight hour seems his natural environment, given his comedy has always crackled with nocturnal weirdness and had the feel of the kind of thoughts that keep one up at night.
Inexplicably dressed in a faded Fanta T-shirt and white-knuckling the microphone, Rath has an overcaffeinated demeanour and a seemingly endless series of tales casting him as a kind of burnt out Rodney Dangerfield, bumbling from one mortifying encounter to another, never getting no respect. He’s getting bullied at an indoor rock-climbing gym, he’s barking down the line at debt collectors, he’s logging into myGov just to momentarily salve his loneliness through the ping of an automatic text reply.
Rath’s dark, wired persona was in place before the pandemic, but his frazzled perspective and deft, constantly surprising writing offer laughter in the dark for these jittery times. Some stretches of crowd work are predictably awkward, but it’s fun to see Rath dig himself a hole and scramble his way out of it, his desperate persona coming to the fore.
Cockroach Party is also commendable for largely avoiding lockdown takes. If anything, Rath seems underwhelmed by the disruption, noting its dissimilarities to Hollywood pandemics. You didn’t see Uber Eats drivers delivering curries in Contagion, he observes.
The onset of Covid-19 affected Perth native Laura Davis more immediately. She was stranded in New Zealand when it kicked off, eventually enduring the indignity of having her London landlord packing up her flat over Zoom.
Confined to her mother-in-law’s house, she started rehearsing what became this show to an empty space in the adjacent woods. Davis first played this festival in 2010 with the apparently animal fact-heavy Ants Don’t Sleep and laments here that she can no longer write a show of such low-stakes whimsy. The world and her work have become more complicated.
Davis has always had a restlessness about her, a need to pick at the conventions of stand-up – one year, she performed under a sheet, like a kid playing a Halloween ghost. She did another show blindfolded. If This Is It isn’t quite as formally inventive but does find Davis disquieted by the thought that the planet’s environmental and political woes have become too big for the confines of stand-up. “I wish this were a fun show,” she says at one point. Maybe it isn’t that, but it’s fascinating to see a brilliant comic thinker wrestle with the limitations of the form.
If This Is It refuses to offer the easy, comforting answers that lesser festival shows peddle. Davis frets at the rise of human stupidity but feels ambivalent about this as an explanation for social woes. She wants our body politic to swing hard to the left but finds herself frustrated at the fractiousness and self-aggrandisement of progressives online.
It’s much funnier than it sounds, aided by Davis’s remarkable ability to extend a train of thought to wild places. One musing on body hair removal that reminds her of military conscripts having their heads shaved takes a surreal, hilarious turn. Elsewhere, she ponders what it would look like if a female comedian insisted on exposing themselves à la Louis C. K. Absurdity results.
There’s an apocryphal story that Tom Lehrer quit satire when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel peace prize. Watching Davis, you fear that the spectacle of billionaires blasting themselves into space during a global pandemic will prove too monumentally stupid to satirise and will see her retreat to those woods in New Zealand for good. Let’s hope not; that would mean the loss of a singular talent.
The best show I saw in the festival’s packed first week belonged to Scout Boxall, a young non-binary comic who debuted last year with Good Egg. That promising if slightly uneven (mostly) sketch show featured characters including a fitspo (fitness-inspiration) nun and an ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) bogan.
It turns out the most intriguing character in their arsenal is Boxall themself. Buck Wild is a stunningly assured move into autobiographical stand-up, a wickedly funny, affecting and illuminating look at living with bipolar disorder – and, less notably, lactose intolerance. Writing about last year’s debut, I predicted Boxall had a great show in them. I just didn’t expect it so soon.
Buck Wild is a busy, multifaceted affair, bursting at the seams with ideas and insights. There are live drawings, songs – one memorably outlining a confusing mix of hatred and lust for formula one driver Max Verstappen – and audiovisual elements, including a range of novelty T-shirts skewering the commodification of mental health. One minor quibble common to festival shows: the screen is placed too low to see from the second row without ungainly neck craning.
When they detail a mental-health nadir, discordant noise and swaths of blue and green light flicker around the stage, adding to the poignancy and power of the spoken word. It makes you realise how much storytelling depth most festival shows leave on the table by barely using these tools.
The tonal shifts throughout are sharp but deftly handled, not least in the closing stretch, which somehow detours into the relative merits of biscuits – bonus points for correctly identifying the Kingston as the diamond of the Arnott’s Assorted Creams – without pulling you away from the central narrative or diminishing its visceral force.
To watch this show is to see a thrilling talent developing at warp speed. It’s further evidence that in the upstairs hideouts and dingy back rooms of this sprawling festival, the eccentric heart of comedy is beating strong.
The Melbourne International Comedy Festival continues until April 24.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2022 as "Comedy gold".
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