Feb 25, 2010

On Festivals & Being Funny

So the Brisbane Comedy Festival is now up and running over at the Brisbane Powerhouse.

I've been pondering for a while now whether to go full rant about this damn thing.

To my mind, you see, it's not really a "festival". To me, it's more like a "showcase of national and international stand-up comedians polishing their acts before heading to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, with a couple of Brisbane acts thrown in for localism".

I submitted two show ideas, you see, on behalf of ImproMafia, which is (as I may have mentioned on numerous previous occasions) Brisbane's premiere improvised comedy company. Both were rejected. I wasn't surprised; the call-out for local submissions consisted of eight questions, most of which were "What's your email/phone number?". The entry form didn't really seem to want you to apply, if that makes sense.

And I understand why. It's only the second year of the festival, and there's limited space at the Powerhouse. They obviously want to maximise profits, and let's face it, Adam Hills or Wil Anderson or Josh Thomas is going to be the big drawcard, not a bunch of "unknowns", no matter how clever or funny we are, or what we've achieved on our own.

Brisbane is not Melbourne, and no way close to Edinburgh, where a spirit of adventure and experimentation hits town around festival time. The Powerhouse is the home of big-name stand-up; so it's got a reputation to maintain.

So I can't really rant too much, you see, because I understand their reasoning. All I can hope is that future festivals at the Powerhouse expand to include more Brisbane acts - hopefully because Brisbane audiences enjoy seeing their own up there onstage, and don't just want to wait around for Dave Hughes to grace us with his nasally laconic presence once more. I also hope they realise comedy is broader than just stand-up, and include improvisation, sketch comedy, mime, puppetry, scripted work, one-act plays - making it a true festival.

But the issue of stand-up itself always gets me pent up anyway - particularly around this time of year with the annual Raw Comedy competition underway. That's because every year it reminds me that I still haven't developed the stones to try stand-up comedy.

I've been improvising for 10 years now, and trying to be a funny person for a lot longer. I think I've written before about how much I love making people laugh. I don't drink, or pop pills, or smoke weed - so acclaim via positive vocalised barking is about the closest thing I get to a drug. And yet, and yet, I still haven't worked up the guts and determination to get up in front of a bunch of people for five minutes and tell some goddamned jokes.

The main reason is I don't know how to actually WRITE jokes. I can jape in conversation no problem. I'm constantly amazed by how often people will laugh at dodgy cracks I make during the course of a natter. But then, I often throw in said cracks, or bad puns while doing MC work at impro shows - and they get nothing but groans or dead silence.

I've had the good fortune to meet and chat with a number of successful stand-ups - including my dear friend Deborah Frances White and the impossibly charming Lawrence Leung. They've always been very encouraging, saying my impro background would stand me in good stead to be a stand-up. I get all excited and confident - but then, when I'm by myself, trying to try to think of good joke concepts, or even good one-liners - nothing.

Even if think of a humourous situation, and try to improvise some comedy bits to myself (I talk to myself loudly and often), I wind up rabbling, or thinking I'm a complete wanker. I mean, what do I have to say that means anything to anyone?

The comedians I like are varied, but the ones I most respect are the storytellers (including my friends above; also Eddie Izzard, Craig Ferguson, Stewart Lee, Daniel Kitson, and the adorable, marvellous Josie Long). Sometimes I think I could be quite good at telling a story all by myself onstage; then I get the slamming realisation in my brain that I'm just a loud-mouthed show-off with not nearly enough finesse to weave a finely spun comedic tale in front of people. I'd barely manage to spit out a dick joke.

There are stand-up comedy courses you can do; but like most artistic things in life, I have a sneaking suspicion actually showing some cahones and DOING it would be far more instructionally advantageous.I know enough about shelving, the rule of threes and other basic comedy concepts that I would recognise when I was going wrong.

But what to say in the first place?




Damn you, stand-up comedy!


  1. Keep the faith, non-standup sista. You're doin' okay.

    I have faith it will change as it gets bigger, and those of us who are not standups (like you and me) will have our moment. For now, it is what it is. In order to allow more local acts in the future, the local acts who are on now need to be supported i.e. Greg Sullivan, Melinda Buttle and Harley Breen.

    I don't know if I'd recommend the standup courses - they have their supporters and detractors - but from what I gather, they're taken by people with little to no stage experience who really need that intense tutelige. Plus, even after spending $450 on those courses, you're not going to magically turn into Eddie Izzard. You're not going to automatically win Raw. You still have to go through the (often tough) open mic rooms to keep working at it.

    I think you've got the confidence and experience, Nat, and you could do standup if you wanted. Standup can be storytelling like Lawrence does, it doesn't have to be 'fuck fuck fucken' dick jokes (although that does admittedly seem to be what punters the clubs tend to like). It just takes practice.

    Be well. :)

  2. Stand up comedy is overrated. That old episode of the Simpsons when Krusty becomes a successful stand up comedian for whinging about things says a lot. I feel secondhand embarassment watching it most of the time. And I personally hate when people tell me a joke story like "so a dude walked into a bar..." ugh. I find it to be quite contrived and artificial.

    I loved seeing the ImproMafia a few months ago. Because the funniest parts weren't one line zingers. I laughed when you made everyone sing "Africa". I laughed at the "performance art" piece where it simply ended with a guy making turkey noises. I laughed at the dry, dead pan delivery when one of the actors repeated a line suggested by someone on Twitter: "I think it's time for a frank discussion about climate change." I laughed when you had to stop the game because someone made a hilarious but very politically incorrect joke.

    Maybe it's a reflection on my sense of humour - spontaneous absurdity makes me laugh. So don't feel bad because you don't do stand up comedy. There are plenty of other ways to be funny than to whinge on about how men and women are different for ten minutes, and you have found it. And I'm no comedian, but I think you do it well. :)

  3. I don't think standup is necessarily about jokes any more (certainly not successful standup) - it's not Jerry Seinfeld whinging 'What is the deal with airline food' - at its core it's about storytelling, and that's a very difficult skill. I really wouldn't bother with it to be honest. It looks like a bloody hard gig with very little payback unless you happen to strike it very very lucky.

  4. I don't have the 'stones' to do impro, so of you I am in awe. We all have our own skills, and if yours is improvised comedy then be glad you can make people laugh in that way. I bet there are stand up comedians who have tried imrpo, weren't very good at it, and wished they had your skills.

    Upon saying that, why not go to an open mic night. At the very least I'm thinking it's a great story for this blog, and we all know how good it is getting easy content.

    Also if it's terrible we all get a good laugh ;)

  5. Open mic comedy in Brisbane is a great place to start. Newmarket Hotel hosts it on a Monday night. The audience has no great expectations, so they'll be pleasantly surprised by someone who already has natural comedic talent. A lot of aspiring comedians test out new material there in a really supportive environment... even the giant man child who speaks with an English accents yet hails from Kenmore (Josh Thomas) used to appear regularly. There's always a couple newbs included. Good luck!

  6. ... hey Nat,

    I loathe most stand up that I have seen as it has tended to be mysoginistic or racsist and/or nastily poking fun at others.

    My experience of the genre has been so loathsome it has actually made the whole genre pall. When I see posters for 'commedy festival' I immediately disregard it.

    I love a good laugh but I refuse to laugh at things that I am opposed to. Racsism is not funny, sexism is not funny, dicks aren't funny, homophobia isn't funny, mocking of people beliefs isn't funny. Nasty poking fun of people is horrible too.

    The funniest commedy in my opinion comes from looking at ourselves. Having a bit of a giggle at things everyone does or a lot of people do is funny. I still remember this amazing bit of stand up going on about the conventions of eating of biscuits. Only allowed x biscuits? "Broken ones don't count."

    Tell me when you are going to try stand up and I will come and watch.

  7. I'm lazy and didn't read the comments.

    Seriously, IMO, Stand up is Conversational Jape all rolled into one. I remember ages ago I was watching the Melbourne Comedy Festival and there was this bloke who stood up on stage talking about his eyes and how they were actually there. He was one of the funniest of the night.

    "Some of you may be wondering where the fuck are his eyes. Well guess what" * Raises eyebrows and opens eyes wider * "There they are. I like an audience who can appreciate someone with eyes."

    If you want to tell a story, start off with the beginning of your stand up career.

    "So I came up on stage and looked out on the bedazzled punters, a few of which were prepared to throw snot because they ran out of tomatoes. I sat there in a frozen moment and thought... 'Well shit a brick, what do I do now?'"

  8. I've done a couple of months of stand up. (You may well remember, Nat) and on some occasions I wasn't too bad. (On the other occasions I was too bad)

    When I did a good set I came off stage thinking "Yes, I'm satisfied with that. I'd like each time to be like that." When I did a bad one I wanted to curl up into a ball and die.

    It's not as satisfying as Impro by a long shot, but if you never do it you'll always wonder.

    Maybe ask Al if you can do his act. He's got a bunch of great jokes, although some of them you can only use if you're a 4'11" man.

    I've got a couple of gags you can dust off too.

    Although I doubt you'll be content with anything less than writing your own stuff.

  9. Knowing a couple of Improvisers who have done stand-up I would like to note that the better improviser was the worse stand-up. This is not going to be true in every comparison but I thought it was worth noting.

  10. I'll do it if you do it.

  11. Thanks for all the comments, guys. I appreciate it!

    James - Hopefully the scene will get bigger, and audiences tastes broader. I'm like you with those courses - I figure doing it is the best education.

    Ellie - Thanks for your compliments! Hope to see you back at an impro show soon. It is really good fun, I'll agree. I love making people laugh.

    Dr Yobbo - I think the attitude "Damnit it's too hard!" is why I'm in this situation. ;) But you're right about storytelling.

    Anonymous1 - Monday nights are full of impro and/or rehearsals at the moment. But I should check out some open mic nights at some point. Tell me who you are, I might meet you there. ;)

    Zoe - Yeah, I would say 90 per cent of stand-ups in the world are terrible. ;) The best push the envelopes and challenge your thinking; but there's more to that then "Hey, Indian cab drivers don't know where they're going, and women complain a lot!"

    Aaron - Yes, I could embarrass myself for you... but chances are you might not laugh. What then Doyle? WHAT THEN?!?!

    Medway - you're absolutely right. You've gotta have some kind of spark, then anything you say is golden. You still have to work, but things are a lot easier...

    Dan - Yes, I remember your stand-up days, despite many years of hypnotherapy. It is that knowledge of complete and utter failure that terrifies me. Impro is very natural - it's essentially mucking about with your mates, and I'm totally down with that. Being on my own though... eek.

    And thanks for the offer, but I could never use someone else's jokes. Ever. Even yours. ;)

    Anonymous2 - Again, let me know who you are! I'd love to hear more about your experiences. I agree stand-up/impro require different skills, but I mentioned Deborah Frances White above and she began in improvisation (and is one of the best in the UK). Eddie Izzard also has impro roots; and there are others. I think it really comes down to how you apply your comedic talent to each discipline. I would suggest that improvisers would become stand-ups easier than the other way around because they have experience with failure, and the ability to think much faster on their feet - at least to begin with.

    Amy - gah! Temptress! :)

  12. You're a girl, right? You should talk about being a girl, like stuff about periods and babies and things. Also, you should point out how, as a Girl, you're different to a Man. Comedy Gold, you'll be hosting an ABC panel show in no time.

  13. We've got more than enough standup comedians in Oz, what we need is someone to get a ISIHAC or News Quiz style program up on the ABC. Someone who is effortlessly funny, but has a background in radioland and understands how things work. Someone who has worked with groups of people riffing off a established format with improvisational elements.

    Sound familiar?
    Go get em.

  14. You're kind, Beeso, but late last year I recorded a demo with some uni kids of a TV pilot.

    It was a panel show type thing about TV.

    I finally watched it recently and it was godawful. I'm pretty sure I was godawful, only redeemed somewhat because I didn't sound as nasal as the screeching Ralph model they had on as another guest.

    I'm not sure how quickly the TV show offers are going to be coming in, frankly.

    But then it's Saturday morning and I've been at work and feeling very sorry for myself. ;)

  15. Again I think there are enough tv things around but we have a complete lack of talent on radio. The abc had a crack a few years ago and it was woeful, I'd back you in over that any day. I know the chaser boys have a musical comedy thing coming to the abc soon. With the ease that you can reuse audio content these days it seems a no brainer