it seemly, by Fiona Scott-Norman - 9th February 2007
Noughties comedy is riding a new wave of nice, writes
who's spent an hour trapped at a family do by a distant
uncle with a bottomless store of jokes about women,
Aborigines, sheep and randy travelling salesmen knows
there's no such thing as a universal sense of humour.
This is why stating "GSOH" in a personal
ad is essentially meaningless; what makes one person
laugh like a drain impels another to stab themselves
in the eye with a fork just to make it stop.
said (and notwithstanding the perennial appeal of
the knob joke), comedy has trends. In the Middle Ages
a bladder on a stick was considered hysterical; in
the 1970s it was mother-in-law and take-my-wife jokes.
In the late '80s and early '90s, comedy was identified
as the "new rock'n'roll", and stand-up had
an aggressive, assertive energy, typified by comics
such as Bill Hicks, Austen Tayshus and Ben Elton,
wearing black and shouting a lot about politics and
the stupidity of the audience.
latest breed of emerging stand-ups are different again.
Shy, awkward, geeky and gentle, there's a groundswell
of niceness on the comedy circuit, which is increasingly
populated by comedians who rally under the flag of
whimsy and wouldn't know testosterone if it ate their
comic Lawrence Leung, who was described by a fan as
"a thinking woman's Tickle Me Elmo doll",
and whose Melbourne International Comedy Festival
show last year, Puzzle Boy, was an homage to the Rubik's
Cube, puts it this way: "There are a lot of cardigans
and badges. It's not so much rock'n'roll now as indie
pop. Belle and Sebastian comedians."
most prominent members of the new born-to-be-mild
comedy gang are Spicks and Specks host Adam Hills,
whose latest publicity shot sees him wearing a T-shirt
that reads "Respect your mum", and joyous
musical geek trio Tripod (who symbolically inherited
the "three guys and a guitar" mantle from
the belligerent Doug Anthony Allstars).
include the intensely vulnerable Justin Heazlewood
(aka The Bedroom Philosopher), the happily old-fashioned
Andrew McClelland, book nerd Asher Treleaven, juice-sucking
Sammy J, the very awkward Justin Kennedy, absurdist
supremo Sam Simmonds, retro smoothie Oliver Clark,
apologetic Adam Vincent, gay softie Anthony Menchetti,
lesbian softie Hannah Gadsby, lucent Claire Hooper,
sweet Bec Hill - and Damian Callinan, Michael Chamberlain,
Tommy Dassalo, Adam McKenzie, Josh Earl, Sylvio and
the almost startlingly fey Josh Thomas. And this isn't
even factoring in international dags such as Daniel
Kitson, Ross Noble and The Mighty Boosh.
Leung, whose latest show is about his futile pursuit
of cool, thinks there's been a big shift in comedians'
style and what they write about. "There's been
a reaction against the 'Don't you hate it when . .
. 'style of comedy. It's not about shouting and being
angry with everything any more. Some comics are talking
about what they like, what they love, what they're
passionate about instead. It's a positive energy.
I think our generation is gentler. Some male comics
struggle with the ' . . . and then I f---ed her' style
of comedy. We don't want to be doing that."
Hills, a three-time Perrier award nominee who puts
his sunny nature down to a happy childhood, and whose
new show is called Joymonger, says he became determined
to do pleasant comedy as a rebellion. "I was
onstage at Jongleurs in London and the MC came out
and was getting the audience going by yelling, 'Right!
Who wants to hear arse and dick jokes?' I thought,
I want to do something uplifting or positive to rebel."
has also worked out through experience that negativity
and aggression on stage is usually counter-productive.
had a road-to-Damascus moment in Adelaide. I was compering
and ripped the shit out of a table of butchers down
the front for 10 minutes, and they hated every act
after that and were hostile. I realised I'd introduced
this really negative energy into the room. I went
back on stage and apologised, they cheered, and loved
the rest of the night."
continues: "I think every really successful comedian
is very, very slightly effeminate or camp. Eddie Izzard's
a good example. It's about being vulnerable and sensitive
on stage. You've got to be low-status so the audience
won't be threatened by you."
Hooper, who recently moved to Melbourne from Perth,
and whose festival show last year was called Oh, about
the possibility of losing her voice after surgery,
also thinks optimistic comedy serves an important
'80s was full of angry, arrogant people who were saying,
'Isn't it great to yell?' Audiences aren't uplifted
by that any more. They're enjoying being emotionally
moved, or seeing people celebrate their meekness,
or talking about their struggle to remain positive
and optimistic in today's world. It's like comedy
now is about stories of survival. I struggle with
my awkwardness every day - that's what I talk about."
revealing of awkwardness, vulnerability and the inability
to cope is a theme common to all of the new breed
of comics. If the '80s was about covering a lack of
confidence with shouting, new-millennium comics are
letting it all hang out. It's probably an inevitability
in Western societies that are evolving because of
personal development, New Age philosophy and therapy.
Kennedy, self-deprecating on stage and a host of Channel
31's breakfast show, does the bulk of his material
essentially about self-sabotage. His new show, Ladies?,
pays attention to the gap between who we think we're
going to be, and reality.
about how love can just pass quite normal people by.
On stage I'm a hyper-extended version of myself -
so many times I've bollocksed-up my various endeavours.
People are very insecure; they don't know the answers,
but they're pretending the best they can. I like to
celebrate that and say, 'It's OK, you're not the only
one.' Change happens within people, and within a society
- guys are a lot more enlightened now, and are prepared
to open up."
of the newest talents on the circuit, nervous, juice-drinking
and loquacious musical act Sammy J, is also surfing
the new-generational wave.
think it's OK today for a guy to wear a skivvy on
stage. It's OK to be a nerd. I've always turned my
disadvantages into advantages - I was militantly against
alcohol and smoking at school; I turned it into a
persona even then. I'd walk around at sports day wearing
a multi-coloured shirt saying, 'Houses unite, we're
all winners.' "
whose wordplay was inspired by a Noel Coward CD given
to him by his grandmother, also thinks geekiness is
a good way to get away with being intelligent on stage.
you're awkward, the audience doesn't feel threatened.
I try and juggle it so the joke's on me half the time.
You have to pick your audiences, though - a group
of jocks aren't necessarily in the mood for some post-modern
piano-based musical comedy."
are the key. A number of rooms foster gentle, sensitive
non-threatening comedy - most notably The Local in
St Kilda, and Hash Brown and Cuddles, and The Oyster
Club in Fitzroy - but outside of festivals, many audiences
demonstrate an ongoing appetite for broad, blue, material.
a challenge," says Justin Kennedy, "to balance
being a unique, gentle comedian with appealing to
a mainstream. I hope this new wave of nice isn't just
a niche, because it's the obscure, the personal and
esoteric that I find wonderful."