When the best and brightest comedians are simultaneously fighting to justify their own place within the comedy industry, is the artform willing – or able – to ever really change?
More than once during this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I cried on the way home after a night of shows. This was my fifth year attending the festival as an audience member and comedy critic, but the first time that the festival has elicited this response in me. Maybe it’s just a symptom of the broader existential dread which feels so impossible to escape in 2017, but this year I did not find the comfort in comedy that I usually do.
This year I questioned, more than ever, the role that comedy can and should play in our culture. Comedy – or at least the Australian comedy industry – is problematic. ‘Diversity’ still means anyone who isn’t a straight, white, young, cis man. It is still acceptable for comics to make off-hand jokes about rape, paedophilia and assault in a way that does nothing to move conversations forward for those who have experienced these traumas. The structures which make comedy an often hostile space for minorities feel so deeply ingrained as to be fundamental; what change does occur is glacial at best. Increasingly, I am worried that comedy culture is not willing or capable of the change that’s required.
At the end of last year’s MICF, I was filled with hope. Zoe Coombs Marr had won the Barry award – the festival’s highest honour – for a show which looked unflinchingly at the ingrained problems of comedy. In Trigger Warning, Coombs Marr performs as ‘Dave’, a loud-mouthed and bumbling, arrogant male comedian. Dave has been to clown school in France and is going to present a full hour of silent comedy, because he can’t offend anyone if he doesn’t open his mouth. As he flubs his way through his performance, Dave reveals that his ‘inner clown’ is a lesbian comedian named Zoe – and from there we spiral downwards into Inception-style layers of characterisation, a labyrinthine dive into the sexist and exclusionary conventions that underlie so much of comedy culture. It was the underdog of the award nominations – a show that felt too political, too feminist, too strange to be in contention. When it won, it gave me a sense of hope that felt unshakable. Perhaps comedy could change. It felt like the glacier was beginning to move.
A year on, though, it looks like perhaps the ice is just melting.
I revisited Trigger Warning during its brief encore run, keen to see whether it felt different a year on. It remains a breathtaking show, stunningly scripted and performed. But rather than the beacon of change it seemed last year, this time around Trigger Warning felt like a shout into the darkness. It seemed less a sign of change and more like an unflinching look at the barriers to change which still exist.
Rather than the beacon of change it seemed last year, this time around Trigger Warning felt like a shout into the darkness.
In the middle of Trigger Warning, Dave introduces us to his inner clown. We see Zoe (as herself) for the first time appearing on a panel about gender in comedy – that’s the only context, Dave says, that we can imagine her in. Zoe explains to the real and imagined audience that she struggled to find a place for her own brand of stand-up within the comedy scene. Dave began as a way to express the frustration she felt having to dilute her own humour to make it palatable to audiences. She performs behind the mask of a character because comedy culture has told her over and over again that Coombs Marr as herself – as Dave screams during the show – just isn’t funny.
There is a bitter irony to seeing Trigger Warning side-by-side with the kind of shows which it parodies. A certain kind of man doing a certain kind of show still dominates the festival landscape. And these comedians rarely have to do anything to justify their place within it. They are rewarded – receiving nominations and audience figures at a much higher rate than minority acts. I saw Trigger Warning and I cried with joy, because it is a beautiful show and I adore it. Then afterwards I cried with frustration. Because maybe comedy will always be like this.
One night, mid-festival, I went to the MICF-run Festival Club, where every night they present a tasting plate of the festival’s ‘best acts’. On this particular night, more than half the comics in the line-up joked about rape. As the audience roared with laughter, comic after (male) comic presented material about abuse in a light-hearted way that bordered on mockery. This was a professional and curated space, yet it fell so quickly into derivative and damaging humour, each act trying to one-up what came before. Sitting at the back of the room, neither clapping nor laughing, I was reminded of how hostile comedy rooms can still be.
I had thought that Hannah Gadsby winning this year’s Barry award might do something to dent my growing cynicism. Nannette is stand-up at its best, weaving anecdotes, one-liners and narrative comedy into a complex web. Each joke ricochets off another. Over the course of the hour, Gadsby slowly builds a platform out of her disquiet with stand-up comedy and decision to retire from the stage. She uses her own mastery of the medium’s techniques to draw attention to their limitations. Nanette, Gadsby claims, is her farewell to comedy. Her swansong looks back at a decades-long career, lifting the curtain to examine the reality beneath.
[Gadsby] uses her own mastery of the medium’s techniques to draw attention to their limitations.
Gadsby talks about the romanticism of mental illness and the idolisation of masculinity in classical art, joking that she’ll have to fall back on her art history degree now she’s quitting comedy. She reflects on the first stand-up show she ever performed, about coming out as a teenager in Tasmania. But there is another layer to that story, one she brushed aside at the time, so as not to dent the comic impact of her stories – when she was coming out, homosexuality was still a criminal offence in Tasmania. At the same time that she was coming to terms with her own sexuality, Tasmania was having a vicious and toxic public debate about the merits of state-sanctioned discrimination. She speaks about how young queer people were told to buy a one-way ticket to the mainland – to leave and not come back.
This stands in stark contrast to Gadsby’s 2016 show, Dogmatic, which was an awkward and stilted attempt to present a show with ‘no woe’. Tired of mining her own experiences for comedy, Gadsby tried to present a silly, raucous show inspired by Taylor Swift’s 1989 album tour. It was coloured though by her previous work, which has often looked starkly at some of the darkest moments of her own life, including her struggles with mental illness. Though Gadsby didn’t quite manage to construct a compelling hour around her happiness rather than despair, Dogmatic did question the voyeurism at the heart of so much stand-up comedy. I was left ruminating on the question – why do I, as an audience member, ask comics to bare their soul for my entertainment?
In Nanette, Gadsby takes that premise one step further. This is not a show that is free from woe. On her website, Gadsby says she creates comedy by taking ‘a story of woe from my actual factual life and [making] it hilarious.’ But jokes are different from stories. A joke, Gadsby says in Nanette, is a beginning and a middle; it is setup and punchline. It is the building and release of tension, beginning and middle, beginning and middle, over and over – building momentum into waves of laughter, but leaving little room for reflection. There is no coda, no end.
I have always believed that comedy has the power to make sad things less sad. It allows us to confront the darkest horrors in a way that takes the edge off. But in Nanette, Gadsby asks us to stare into that darkness. I cried in her show because she so neatly unpicks the seams and asks us face the enormity of injustice. She has made a career out of cutting the corners from her own lived experience, repackaging it in a way that will make people laugh. Now she looks at her audience and asks – why is this her job? Why do we, as viewers, ask this of her?
I have always believed that comedy has the power to make sad things less sad.
Gadsby and Coombs Marr are masters of their craft – that’s why they both received the Barry award. And yet both won this honour with a show about their own alienation from comedy. It could be seen as an attempt by MICF and the judges to try and encourage these conversations, to push for a more inclusive comedy scene. But when the Barry was awarded in the same Festival Club that hosted an evening of rape jokes, it is easy to question how committed they can possibly be to this cause. Trigger Warning and Nannette are about the innumerable gaps – the gaping holes – which exist in comedy, the things it can’t do. Viewed together they are a stark look at the people who are excluded from stand-up, and the countless conversations which are not happening in this space. The comedy industry is reluctant to change. It is reluctant to listen.
What does it say about an artistic medium when the people who excel at it are simultaneously fighting to justify their own place within its boundaries? When the very best shows at Australia’s largest comedy festival are about the ways the comedy industry fails those working in it?
If we don’t laugh, we’d cry. But perhaps sometimes, there is a place for tears.