Saturday, March 15, 2008

COMEDY: Performing comedy isn’t funny …

Around a month ago, I decided to throw my hat in the ring and give the Triple-J Raw Comedy Competition a shot. I did next to no preparation, expecting it to be a similar process to writing funny stuff (something I’ve apparently not bad at). The only preparation I did was to spend the entire week leading upto the heat reading the following bloody hilarious books:

1. Run Johnny, Run: The Story of the 2004 Federal Election by Mungo Maccallum;

2. The Education of a Young Liberal by John Hyde Page; and

3. Age & Guile Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut by PJ O’Rourke.

I also jotted down some notes while everyone else in my heat (I was last) was performing.

As I soon found out, performing comedy is no joke. I went out on stage and thought I was just engaged in some animated public speaking. No way. This was much different and much harder than I expected. I walked off that stage wondering why I had bothered.

Thankfully, I was lucky enough to have an MC (Corinne Grant) who was very supportive and encouraging to all us amateurs. Quite a few of those in our heat sounded like seasoned professionals who had done this on many an occasion.

(That, or they brought along some huge cheer squads with them.)

But it seems performance jitters can happen to even the most seasoned and natural performers. In today’s The Oz, Corrie Perkin writes about the experiences of a number of Australia’s top comics. I might as well reproduce the whole article ...

IN the Sydney Opera House car park last Tuesday night, comedian Wil Anderson cried.

Alone and exhausted after his one-hour stand-up performance, the man once labelled "the rock star of Australian comedy" was disappointed that, during the show, he'd lost concentration.

"I skipped a bit, then as I was telling another joke I realised what I'd forgotten," he tells Inquirer. "And then you're playing catch-up. You're like a kid waiting to get in the skipping rope, waiting for the rhythm, waiting to find the place where you can get in. After 12 years, that really disappointed me."

After its Playhouse run, Anderson's new show BeWILdered moves to Melbourne for the International Comedy Festival. Its creator is still moulding the show and trying new things, but he says that's no excuse for not "executing it the way I wanted to execute it".

"People pay 35 bucks to go to the Sydney Opera House to hear you talking, they're taking a night out of their lives," he says. "I see that as a real challenge and a privilege as a performer, and if I don't do it in a way I expect of myself, it genuinely upsets me."

Welcome to Australian stand-up in 2008, a thriving sector where stress, tension, tears and late nights are all part of the comedy journey. But with audiences hungry for the next laugh, the next new show, the next big thing, performers are under intense pressure to produce. There is also a lot more competition, and comedians have to work harder to create original material and find a performing niche.

Added to that is the art form: personal, easily scrutinised (if your audience doesn't laugh, you're not funny) and with nothing - not even a few props - to hide behind.

"They say the biggest fear people have is public speaking, they fear it even more than death," says television host Rove McManus, whose new show opened this week at the Adelaide Fringe.

"If the biggest fear people have is public speaking, imagine that plus the fact you are speaking to a complete bunch of strangers, and now you've got to make them laugh."

But if you are successful, it's a bull market. These days, Australia's top comedians can stage sell-out shows at the Sydney Opera House, earn big bucks as FM radio hosts and be mobbed in a suburban shopping centre by teenagers who love your eight-part TV mockumentary set in a suburban high school.

During a recent chat about celebrity culture, Summer Heights High creator Chris Lilley recalled a promotional visit to Chadstone in Melbourne's east last year. Lilley was overwhelmed by the vast crowd that had gathered to meet him. What really surprised him, though, was the queue of people wanting so see Celine, the chihuahua who belongs to his Mr G character. "Celine turned up at Chadstone and was a massive hit," Lilley says. "I have some funny photos of her being surrounded by adoring fans. People were even lining up to have their photo taken with her. It was a very surreal moment."

Stand-ups are everywhere: Anderson, McManus, Dave Hughes, Glenn Robbins, Wendy Harmer, Adam Hills, Peter Helliar, Corinne Grant, guests who appear on shows such as Thank God You're Here, Good News Week and Spicks and Specks, breakfast radio, afternoon radio, plus the opportunities afforded by award nights such as the Logies, the Arias and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival: the gigs are plentiful, allowing Australia's funny men and women to build secure fan bases.

Ted Robinson, producer of the Ten Network's Good News Week, has been working in TV comedy since the early 1970s. One of the big differences between today's comics and the earlier but equally talented group is "it's possible to make it a career in comedy now, whereas when we all started it was a job for dropouts and layabouts". Another factor, Robinson says, is comedians' access to different media outlets.

"It's just kind of spun off into the ether and become this pan-global art form that is just everywhere, and it's extraordinary," he says.

A growing appreciation of comedy among young people is another factor.

"There's a whole generation who are getting their cultural critique and commentary through comedy," says Sue Turnbull, associate professor in media studies at La Trobe University. "Programs like The Glass House, Good News Week, The Chaser's War on Everything, that's where young people get to know about public figures, public events."

Turnbull cites Kevin Rudd's decision during last year's election campaign to go on Ten's Rove as an example. "Young people felt largely disenfranchised by what was going on and (John) Howard didn't talk to them at all," Turnbull says. "They found these comedy shows and the criticisms directed at the government as a way into understanding John Howard. By appearing on Rove and generally displaying a sense of humour, Kevin Rudd was able to connect with them." Various YouTube comedy sketches featuring Rudd, including the widely circulated Kevin Rudd Chinese propaganda video, also did no harm to the then Opposition leader's profile.

Australian comedians have also found favour with commercial TV and FM radio executives. "Like with anything, the market weeds out what's necessary, what people want," says Anderson, who co-hosts Triple M's afternoon show with Anthony Lehmann.

Each weekday Anderson and Lehmann go up against Fox FM's success story Hamish Blake and Andy Lee. Anderson relishes the FM radio culture that celebrates comedians. "If Hamish and Andy are doing really well on radio, then other stations want a Hamish and Andy," he says. "Every time a comedian is successful, it's good for other comedians. And the effects of something like Chris Lilley or the Chasers are enormous. Networks say: 'Hang on, smart comedy can work.' So the next time you walk into a meeting with a smart comedy idea you want to pitch, suddenly everyone's very receptive."

The Adelaide Fringe and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival have also helped spread stand-up's popularity. The comedy festival's recent growth spurt highlights the public's increasing regard for the art form: in 1998, 177,858 people paid to see their favourite comedians. In 2007, the crowd had increased to 400,003.

Box-office takings also jumped, from $3.03million in 1998 to $9.2 million last year.

Adelaide's Fringe wraps up tonight and organisers estimate more than 800,000 people will have attended the free and ticketed events. Comedy made up 120 of the Fringe's 543 shows, making it the most popular genre. (Following closely were visual art with 111 events, theatre with 104 and music with 101.) Comedy's presence in fringe festival programming prompted one observer this week to describe it as "the cane toad of fringe festivals because it's so cheap to produce".

Melbourne International Comedy Festival director Susan Provan argues there is "a perception that is the section of the program that sells more easily, that people will go to the comedy section first because they expect it to be accessible or fun". She rejects the cane toad theory. "There probably is a lot more stand-up comedy going into festivals these days, but there's a lot more visual arts and everything else, too.

Then there is the role of new technology. The number of hits to the MICF site, for example, has increased from 22,000 visitors in 2003, to 605,829 visitors in 2007. YouTube, MySpace and other forums mean people such as Sydney-based comedy critic Dom Romeo have many more stand-up performers to watch and assess.

"The internet is even more interesting because it's harder to be across everything, but there's actually more material that's pleasing to you, and that's a good thing" he says. Romeo, whose website www.standand covers the comedy scene, says YouTube means "anyone with a video camera, a good idea and some mates who have an afternoon to spare can get something up on the internet that may just get a following. That may lead to television, or it may just mean ongoing appearances on the internet, which is OK, too".

But is there a danger that too much comedy will dilute the quality of work? Is stand-up ubiquitous? "I personally don't think so," says British comic Stephen K. Amos, who is touring the Fringe and Melbourne festivals. "I think what we're seeing is that everyone has a stressful life, people who work nine to five have stressful jobs, and they want to let go, they want to forget. If that means listening to someone who's funny, or who has a different take on things you've already thought about, then that's a very good thing."

Veteran comedian Grant agrees. "Funny's always funny," she says. "People always want to laugh, as long as there are good quality performers out there." Grant says stand-up's popularity goes in cycles. "When comedy's going well in TV and radio, it tends not to go so well in the smaller clubs."

Good News Week's Robinson agrees. "It's paradoxical, and I don't know why, but my understanding of it is that there has been a diminution of clubs and pubs that are doing comedy," he says. "I've been a bit concerned about where is the next next wave coming from if those venues aren't available for them. But, on the other hand, the proliferation of comedians into radio and television, and into shows like ours, is fantastic."

He adds: "I know these things come in waves and if you create a vacuum something will come along to fill it. That's also partly why comedians are finding new ways to present their material, like going into the Opera House. A few years ago the only kind of comedian you'd expect to see at the Opera House was Billy Connolly or Dave Allen."

Robinson has great faith, however, in events such as the Adelaide Fringe and the Melbourne comedy festival that nurture new talent. "It gives younger ones a chance to spread their wings longer than a five-minute routine in a pub. Suddenly they have an hour, they have to craft something with a beginning, a middle and an end. It's a great way for them to extend themselves in a way that makes them think about the form, and what they can bring to it that makes them different to everyone else (who is) performing in 20 other rooms around the city."
The thing about standing up and performing is that you cannot just rely on the power of wordplay. With the written word, the words remain static on the page. You can re-arrange words and play games with them, and you know (or at least hope) that the voice inside the reader's head will read the words in an amusing manner. Especially if you bring in an idea completely out of left field.

One writer who is the master of this kind of humour is Peter Ruehl, who writes a column twice a week in the Australian Financial Review. Ruehl comes up with these comparisons that just sound so delightfully irreverent. In one column, he compared something to "booking Mecca for a Spice Girls reunion". Some months back, he managed to find some way to drag Eminem into just about each column, always in the most unexpectedly funny way.

But performing comedy requires enormous energy and impeccable timing and placement. So much of it is pure theatrics. Little wonder so many upcoming comedians combine stand-up with acting - Maz Jobrani and Ahmed Ahmed come to mind.

Of course, some people are fortunate enough to be able to combine both performed and written comedy. You only have to read her columns in the New Statesman to know that Shazia Mirza is master of both.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm trying comedy at the open mikes myself. It is tough. Not just coming up with funny lines, but remembering them through your set.