Oh, it is to Laugh

Attending the Melbourne International Comedy Festival can be an odd experience. It is at these events that it becomes possible to feel stalked by the ever-hatted Asher Treleaven, to be accosted by a miniature Jesus and indeed to discover just how tall Shappi Khorsandi isn’t.

Actually, it’s on that last note that discussion of my first show of the year becomes peculiarly relevant. Because Celia Pacquola is not as tall as her appearances on E4 and BBC Three suggest. If anything, she’s kind of normal height.

To say that’s about as unpredictable as her act gets, however, is not to denigrate it in any way. Running on a platform of having returned from two years in London, the material she spins is pleasingly nostalgic to this antipodean who’s done his time on British turf and yearns to return. The feeling of “been there, dealt with that” which pervades her set, coupled with my front row seat in a fairly intimate space upstairs in Melbourne Town Hall, makes the experience of seeing her less of a comedian vs audience experience and much more like the sort of party where you finally discover the one really interesting person in the room and congregate around them for the rest of the night.

That Pacquola is well rehearsed – snippets of her material were letter-perfect reminiscent of a highlights appearance the previous week on the televised 2012 Melbourne Comedy Festival Gala – proved a positive boon when she effortlessly segued into commenting on my having kissed my wife during her act before equally professionally returning to her material. The content of her show, Delayed, was if anything superior to the routines she’s used on such programmes as Russell Howard’s Good News Extra, and there was never a break in its strength. Pacquola’s use of acting and characterisation to support much of her humour gives her act the sort of lift that a stream of straight observational humour would sorely lack.

April 10th well spent, and check another item off the bucket list: high-fiving someone who’s been on the Beeb.

Looser in presentation but hilarious in his own way is ex-Never Mind the Buzzcocks presenter and Preston-abusing Londoner Simon Amstell. His Numb is presented as a stream of self-loathing improvisation, a sort of auditorium-sized psychotherapy that somehow manages to make its audience laugh at the fact that everyone seems prepared to come out of it feeling worse. Amstell employs a slapdash manner befitting his shambolic attitude to the topics under discussion, playing an unprepared comedian who’s decided it would be more productive to treat the gig as a rehearsal and his public as a test audience. Despite the caustic arrogance he infuses the approach with, it actually presents him as a more sympathetic figure than I had imagined possible. Perhaps it’s the pathos he brings to his persona or the fact that his journey through life strikes some uncomfortably familiar chords (particularly in the nerdy sad cases among us), but I came away from the experience finding myself on his side when he appeared the following night (April 18th) on Adam Hills in Gordon Street Tonight. Especially in his dealing with Bindi Irwin.

Damn you, you bastard, damn you. Younger than me and already the retired host of a comedy panel show.

Rounding out my MICF 2012 experience was an opportunity to catch Mark Watson for the second time in as many years, this year on April 21st. His casual by-play and extreme audience interaction – far more polished than Amstell’s but less rigid than Pacquola’s – serves to reduce the apparent size of the venue he’s used both years, upstairs at the Forum Theatre. Once a cinema space, the 500-seat room’s projection facility has served Watson well through both seasons, though the big screen received less of a workout this time around, providing visual support for one routine late in the show but otherwise holding fast with Watto’s show name – The Information – and contact details. Between Watson’s casual nature and my front row seat about two chairs along from where I was last year, it felt like coming home.

The level of interactivity Watson employs has increased since last year – though one might argue that the opportunity to meet the man in person and be fleeced out of $25 in exchange for a signed copy of his novel Eleven constitutes greater interactivity – with flyers going out to patrons ahead of the show, encouraging us to scan a QR code and send in a few details about us that he could bring up during proceedings. One gets the feeling he’s familiar with AHIGST and Adam Hills’s own brand of audience interaction, but with less notice and the resources of a TV production not at his disposal, Watson’s use of this information tends towards the purely verbal.

Nevertheless, the ease with which he floats between scripted anecdotes and improvisation is admirable, his nervous energy disguising any joins in the kind of way Amstell seems able to manage through drawn-out tension and painful uncertainty. Topics ranged from professional lying in taxis to carrot shopping, while a few improvisational favourites emerged from last year. Late arrivals become part of the show, and the level of audience participation as latecomers were seated reached a fever pitch unseen in the 2011 shows. He also managed to get a lovely lady from the front row, Antoinette, to lie in an equipment box for an unhealthy duration. The poor woman surely has a career as a magician’s assistant.

A body-shattering highlight of hilarity, Watson’s show even left me with a few tips I can use in my own line of work. Just one tip for Mark, however: 168 x 27 is not 90, it’s 4536. And so is your mum.

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