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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Jokes aside, laughs won on a whim


Margaret Paul
December 19, 2009
THERE is a moment in Felicity Ward's fantastic new show, Felicity Ward Reads from the Book of Moron, when the pipe-sucking stand-up opens her big book of tales and calls for her faithful dog to warm her feet. To our delight, it's none other than punk comedian David Quirk. It's a good starting point for a discussion of live comedy in 2009: comic collaboration, tick; novelty props, tick; storytelling, tick.

Back in April, during the 2009 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, whimsy was the buzz word. The blogosphere was awash with arguments over whether home-made props and flights of fancy were just a cover for a lack of jokes.

Local king of cardigan comedy, the Bedroom Philosopher, managed to literally break his funny bone in a run-in with the title character of his show, Songs from the 86 Tram. The injury meant his season reached its terminus sooner than expected, but he walked away with the Directors' Choice Award.

Whimsy didn't die; it multiplied. And in the year that Monty Python celebrated its 40th anniversary, it took on an absurdist bent.

Comedy duo The List Operators delighted crowds with both props and punch lines, often at the same time, such as the juicy Jennifer Cantelopez. They won the Golden Gibbo award for best independent comedy. Young sketch troupe Vigilantelope played to packed houses in both comedy and fringe festivals for their joyful narrative comedy romp Tale of the Golden Lease. With a hilarious pun on the master of disguise, they take out second place in the home-made props of 2009 competition.

Perhaps the best home-made props feature in the climax of Claudia O'Doherty's Monsters of the Deep 3D, the brilliant one-woman presentation on the lost underwater colony, which scored best comedy in this year's Fringe.

But there's experimentation, and there's simply not being prepared. Several stand-ups this year relied heavily on cheat sheets. This is surely the first thing a director, or loving family member, would point out.

And while there's nothing funny about the recession we almost had, the comedy festival, with 318 shows, managed modest profits in a year when many other events died like so many lame jokes about Facebook. International highlights included US duo The Pajama Men, who took out the Barry Award for Best Show, and 2008's Barry winner, the filthy ventriloquist Nina Conti. Both are returning in 2010. Festival director Susan Provan counts among her highlights the commercial success of young locals Josh Thomas and Tom Ballard, who won this year's best newcomer award.

Other local standouts include Celia Pacquola's solo debut, Am I Strange?, a hilariously honest voyage inside her mind, which performed to sell-out crowds and received the Age Critics' Choice award, and Felicity Ward's savagely self-deprecating Ugly as a Child Variety Hour.
Outside of festival time, rooms such as The Last Tuesday Society and weekly stalwart Local Laughs encourage the comic cross-pollination that allows for such strong festivals. The new monthly topical forum, Political Asylum, has been attracting great crowds. With elections due in 2010, expect this event to continue.

The family represented well overseas, too; The List Operators, Pacquola and Ward were among a delegation to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Back home at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, the comedy contingent keeps growing. This year's comedy program featured 84 shows, up from 56 in 2008. Comedy doyenne Janet A Macleod says one of her 2009 highlights was the rise of collaborations between independent comedians, from comedian-director combinations to sharing the stage.

Think Judith Lucy and Denise Scott co-hosting annual fund-raiser Short and Girly, or new sketch group The Anarchist Guild Social Committee, featuring Andrew McClelland and Pacquola.
Macleod puts this down to the level of trust. ''It has been said that in other cities, comedy is a business,'' she says. ''In Melbourne, comedy is a giant dysfunctional family.''