Melbourne International Comedy Festival reviews

First published on SBS Comedy, April 2014.

One Man Breaking Bad

This year’s comedy festival program is riddled with Breaking Bad references like so many bullet holes in the side of an RV. But while most comedians merely borrow from the aesthetics of the cult hit TV show, donning a hazmat suit for promo shoots or using elemental symbols on posters, actor and impressionist Miles Allen has used his Breaking Bad addiction to construct an entire show.

In the space of one hour Allen promises to take us through the plot of all five seasons, from Walt’s opening video camera speech, to the sounds of Badfinger’s 1972 single ‘Baby Blue’ which closed out the series. If you haven’t seen the series, the phrase ‘spoiler alert’ is a huge understatement.

One Man Breaking Bad is a vehicle for Allen’s character impressions, and he is a master of the form. His Walt and Jesse are both impeccable, his Hank is spot-on, and his Walt Junior is a triumph. Some of the support characters generate the most laughter – the wordless, wheelchair-bound Hector dinging away at his call bell is quite hysterical. Jesse Pinkman provides voiceover narration while Allen reels off key lines from the series, sometimes sticking to the script and sometimes altering it for laughs.

Woven into the plot recap are tangents and asides where Allen ponders the show’s popularity and poses absurd hypotheticals like, what if Walt had been played by Bill Cosby? But despite his clear passion for the show and for TV in general, he doesn’t quite get at the essence of what made the show so compelling. And while his impersonations are technically brilliant, the reaction from the audience is more quiet appreciation than laughing out loud.

Alice Fraser: Everyone's a Winner

Plenty of comedians use the stage as a substitute for the therapist’s couch, working through their issues as they work through their material. There’s an element of this in Alice Fraser’s Everyone’s a Winner, a narrative show about her brief, miserable career as a corporate lawyer. There’s a lot of crying in cupboards, anxiously trying to avoid CLMs (AKA “career-limiting moves”) and a grotesque “mentor” called David.

But while shows of this nature run the risk of self-indulgence, Fraser’s is skilfully crafted with a strong underpinning structure, lashes of morbid humour and the occasional banjo ditty. It’s clear why this free spirit couldn’t be constrained by the corporate world – her darkly witty delivery and Cheshire cat smile reveal an active, intelligent mind that could never have ignored the hypocrisies and humiliations involved in hoofing up the career ladder.

The show could use a little tightening – some of Fraser’s lines don’t really land and the lack of tech support means she has to pause frequently to hit ‘play’ on her laptop, making the show drag slightly. But the satisfying story arc, clever framing devices and agile wordplay more than make up for these minor drawbacks.

The Listies 6D (Twice as Good as 3D)

The Listies are fun. Lots of fun. Fart jokes, snot jokes, throwing things, covering everything in toilet paper fun. Yelling out without putting your hand up first fun.

Formerly known as the List Operators, Matt Kelly and Richard Higgins made MICF history in 2009 when their show More Fun Than a Wii became the first kids show to be nominated for a Barry Award. Since then they’ve been delighting kids and their parents all over Australia and overseas with their special brand of silly, funny, zany, gross humour.

The Listies 6D is all about the movies. Goofball Matt and straight guy Rich take us through their rating system (including 6D’s rating of S for stupid), investigate different genres, and ultimately film a movie that gets the whole audience involved. They deftly establish a rapport with the crowd, kids and adults alike, keeping the mood high and the pace swift.

The session I attended featured an Auslan interpreter who very nearly stole the show. Lynn Gordon’s expressive signing dovetailed beautifully with the show and she was every bit as funny as the guys. It’s a shame this was a one-day only affair as watching her work was a treat. Not that the Listies needed any extra comedy value – this was just icing on the snot block.

Matt Okine: Happiness Not Included

Matt Okine wasn’t always a comedian – there was a time when he was on track to become a star AFL player. Instead he dropped out to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Acting), AKA “a degree in pretendsies”. Happiness Not Included is about finding his feet as an adult and an arts graduate.

Matey and charming, Okine has a great stage presence. With a relaxed and confident attitude he rambles through observational material about clothes shopping, Nando’s in Scotland, sharehouse living and giving up smoking, as well as stories from his short-lived football career and early days as an actor on Neighbours and McDonald’s commercials. Keeping the laughs at a rolling boil he builds up to a story about his first taste of real success and the swift downfall that landed him in jail overnight. It’s well-crafted stand-up from a self-assured performer.

Having gotten his start in comedy as a finalist in the 2004 triple j RAW comedy competition, this year he joined the station’s breakfast show as co-host. It’s his first full-time gig, one he is hoping will allow him to become the kind of grown up who can, for example, offer guests a clean towel when they stay over at his house. In the meantime his comedy career is only going to grow by leaps and bounds, and with night after night selling out at this year’s festival you’ll have to get in quick to catch this rising star.

Kraken by Trygve Wakenshaw

Trygve Wakenshaw is the mime who can’t keep his mouth shut. He also can’t keep his clothes on. Within a few minutes of hitting the stage he’s stark raving nude. Trained at the prestigious Ecole Phillipe Gaulier in Paris, the same school that produced Doctor Brown, Wakenshaw is no ordinary clown.

Kraken is a strange and hilarious hour of physical comedy that has the audience enthralled from the word go. One scene melts bizarrely into the next in a delightful stream of consciousness. Wakenshaw is a television; now he’s an elephant; next he’s giving birth to himself. He takes a beating in a boxing ring and saws the horn off a unicorn. It’s a beautiful madness.

This isn’t to say the show is all wacky, whimsical surrealism. Wakenshaw also performs some traditional circus tricks, such as juggling, sword swallowing, magic and hula hooping – just without any props. His skill at bringing the imaginary to life is such that I find myself ducking out of the way to avoid the invisible bow and arrow he has aimed at the guy in front of me.

His elastic limbs and cheeky demeanour are wholly endearing. If the only clowns you’ve seen are all big shoes and balloon animals, this will be a treat.

Anjelah Johnson

From the moment Anjelah Johnson walks onstage, flipping her hair, it is clear the Hi-Fi is packed with dedicated fans. “You’re hot!” yells one guy to the back. The audience is psyched to have the former NFL cheerleader here, who landed a role on MADtv after her sketch ‘Nail Salon’ went viral on YouTube (it currently has over 32 million views).

Her stand-up style is relaxed and easygoing, taking her time to get to punchlines about her Latino background, being married to a Christian rapper, her Puerto Rican mother-in-law, plane travel and jury duty. It’s simple fare but the audience loves it. Then in the final quarter she asks, “Anybody here get their nails done?” and the crowd responds with an eruption of whoops and cheers. I sit up and pay attention. This is the moment where I will unlock the mystery of Anjelah Johnson’s popularity.

For the next five minutes, Johnson takes on the character of a Vietnamese nail technician called Mai Ling (“but her American name is Tammy”). The crowd goes nuts; this is what they’ve been waiting for.

Johnson finishes the sketch, and confesses (or brags?) that she’s received some hate mail over it. “And you can just tell when the person is Vietnamese,” she says with an eye-roll, citing the poor English used in the correspondence, and finally describing an altercation she had with an Asian man who recognised her in the street and mispronounced his attempt to swear at her. “I’m sorry sir, but I don’t think that even counts,” was her reply.

There’s not enough room here to analyse the role of racial caricature in contemporary comedy, but Johnson’s dismissive, mocking response to criticism from the people she lampoons is mean-spirited and ignorant. This show is best left to the fans, who don’t seem to care.

Sara Pascoe Vs The Truth

Sara Pascoe’s t-shirt reads ‘There are no facts, only interpretations’ – a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche. The German philosopher’s name is spelt incorrectly, a fact Pascoe might not have pointed out except that “ten to fifteen per cent of you had already noticed, and you’ve been too annoyed by it to listen to the jokes.” Pascoe likes to delve into the big ideas, and in Vs The Truth she risks an existential crisis by questioning the very nature of reality.

How does she know that she isn’t just a brain in a laboratory and this is all a dream? If all the dead cells her body has ever shed got back together for a Sugababes-style reunion, which Sara would be the real Sara? These deep questions and more are posed by a woman who admits she has to cut her own hair because she finds professional haircuts too sexually arousing. It’s daft, nose-wiping comedy informed by a strong understanding of contemporary politics and philosophy.

Her delivery is endearing and friendly, with a faux-dopiness that contrasts sharply with the seriously clever mind behind the jokes. The material might seem fluffy on the surface, but underneath it all Pascoe has big things to say about politics and culture. She stealthily slips important messages into her comedy much like wrapping pet medicine in a piece of cheese. The result is a very satisfying combination of easy laughs and right-on thinking.

John Bennett: Story Whore

Best known for his 2010 MICF show 'Pretending Things are a Cock'' (with accompanying photographic exhibition and book), Jon Bennett has developed a reputation at festivals around the world for his confessional storytelling shows. His past performances have delved into his ultra-conservative upbringing, his relationship with his father and his brother’s drug dealing, and he has performed at and hosted storytelling events around Melbourne and won The Moth Story Slam in New York City in 2013.

The marketing spiel for his new show, Story Whore, is short and vague and the title tells us nothing about the contents. Bennett warms up with a brief demonstration of his yarn-spinning skills, re-enacting a scene from his childhood involving a pink dress, dancing, his grandmother and a bucket. It’s takes a little while and it’s not really clear what he’s getting at, until he delivers the hilarious ending, explodes into animation, and the show begins in earnest.

And what a show it is. Aided by a very lo-fi but very funny PowerPoint presentation, Bennett sets the scene in Montreal Airport where he has been detained for carrying pepper spray in his hand luggage. Provoked by the security officer’s accusation that he doesn’t know what love is, he proceeds to tell her the story of every woman he has ever loved, starting with his primary school girlfriend.

The rumours are true – Bennett possesses a masterful narrative skill, taking us on a journey full of heartbreak, joy and a whole lot of dick jokes. He brings depth to the dumb stuff and levity to the heavy stuff, and is totally unafraid of revealing the most brutally personal details of his life story. The shambolic beginning is a red herring – this is a tightly managed production by an accomplished performer.

Stuart Bowden: She Was Probably Not a Robot

Stuart Bowden is the last human alive after an apocalyptic storm drowns the Earth’s inhabitants. Drifting about the ocean on an inflatable mattress, he struggles to survive while having chats with the moon and yearning for his dog and ex-girlfriend. Meanwhile Celeste, a deranged model-making alien whose main project is a full-scale replica of the Earth, has been in orbit for the last 25,000 years and is about to touch down.

The narrative trajectory of She Was Probably Not a Robot is simple and predictable, and you’ve probably already guessed the ending. But that’s not the point. What makes this show worth seeing is the way Bowden combines bittersweet poetics and clownish silliness in telling the story.

As the protagonist makes his way in this post-apocalyptic world, eating fish, drinking rain, looting corpses and riding a hobby horse, he takes time to reflect on the beauty and strangeness of humanity, capturing a raft of the tiny, poignant details and moments that make up a life. The melancholy sweetness is tempered by a truly funny performance – Bowden romps through the audience seating with an air mattress strapped to his back, frequently lapses into outright surrealism, and displays a marvellous talent for physical comedy and carefully choreographed slapstick that’s on par with Celeste’s model-making skills.

He hits just the right balance of funny and sad, knowing exactly when to pull back on the wistfulness and punctuate it with something grotesque or absurd. Bowden has crafted a superb storytelling show and while it has a fringe vibe it’s deserving of a much wider audience.

Wil Anderson: Wiluminati

With twenty years of standup under his belt, Wil Anderson is a veteran of the Australian comedy scene. Now based in LA, the left-leaning Aussie larrikin my generation grew up with on the Triple J airwaves and ABC TV shows The Glasshouse and The Gruen Transfer is now making his mark internationally.

In Wiluminati, Ando (as he calls himself) looks over the decisions, opportunities and setbacks that have led him here. A good portion of the material centres on his battle with osteoarthritis of the hips, a condition that normally affects people over 70 and which makes it painfully difficult to put on socks or pick things up off the floor. You wouldn’t know it to watch him onstage, however, jittering and lurching around like he’s having a fit. His high-speed delivery is faster than the NBN and his tongue twists around rapid fire sentences that would leave less cunning linguists literally frothing at the mouth.

“You guys are fun,” he keeps telling the audience, but he’s not game to test their politics with anything more substantial than fleeting references to stopping the boats and global wealth distribution. This is a shame, because in the past he has shown himself to be very politically engaged and capable of articulating his views with incisive candour. In Wiluminati, though, we instead hear of his first-time experiences as a victim of racism via the American restaurant chain Outback Steakhouse. Funny stuff to be sure, but it’s hardly biting commentary and it’s somewhat condescending to those who have experienced genuine racism.

But the belly laughs come thick and fast so I can’t really complain. I would have preferred something more challenging and less everyman, but there’s no denying that Wil Anderson is a consummate professional at the peak of his career.

Image credit: Mona Eendra / Unsplash