Left - Damian Callinan. Cover - DeAnne Smith
It was 7.30 on a Tuesday night when, red wine in hand, I made my way through the curtain that took me from the foyer of City Hall into the dimly lit festival club of the Hobart Comedy Festival. Not having done my homework on the event, I had no idea what to expect. Was it to be local comedy or international acts? Genuine laughter… or awkward silences? Happily, all were forthcoming save the latter (except when purposefully deployed during Planet Earth Presents, to pleasing effect).
First it was Blundstone Back to Base, featuring three ex-Tasmanian comics returning to home turf. The MC was a guy in a funny suit, the genial Gavin Baskerville, and then the crowd was entertained by the musical whimsy of The Bedroom Philosopher (aka Justin Heazlewood). His first number, a clever pastiche of styles, didn’t do much for me, but when his material got specific it was entertaining indeed. Recalling his days growing up in Burnie, he sang Trishine, in character as a tougher than tough footballer who has written the song to salve his heartbreak. There's something absurd and hilarious about a man who, by nature of the intense emotional pain he's experiencing, has no choice but to express himself through song but clearly resents having to do so. He sings as though it's a chore, even reacting angrily to the necessity of a key change. The character is spot on and the lyrics are witty. I also particularly liked the song about what it would be like to have brothers and sisters – the BP is an only child – which is inarticulate but somehow approaches genius.
Following this was the charming Hannah Gadsby who, like the BP, has a soft-spoken and genuine stage presence. She started with some discussion about recently having been identified by a fan on the basis of her generously proportioned hips, which carried on into a wider analysis of this particular ‘affliction’, chief among them being constantly prompted to produce offspring, which she likened to a person in a wheelchair being told they should get a desk job. This segued into some chat about being easily identified as a lesbian - the short haircut gives it away apparently - and what it was like coming out to her rather conservative family.
Well, of course it’s great stuff and I’m hardly going to suggest that a lesbian comedian shouldn’t talk about being a lesbian but, that said, sort of wished she’d gone in a different direction. Comedians seem to feel this obligation to “explain themselves” so that audiences will accept them and be able to laugh in ease. If you’re a Mormon comic you have to talk about that most of the time, if you’re a gay you have to explain that, if you’re a mother you have to talk about your kids, etc. … but do you really? An out and proud gay women hosts one of the top-rating daytime talk shows in America, for pete’s sake: is it really necessary to include a little “Lesbianism 101” in every lesbian comedian’s set? That said, I really enjoyed Gadsby’s performance (her father's advice on carrots is a keeper) and will definitely seek out her shows in future.
Finally, there was Josh Earl with an amusing take on that most treasured of childhood rights of passage, the Women’s Weekly birthday cake. With the help of a slide show Earl talks, and sings, about what it meant to have which cake – the train and swimming pool being favourites – the perils of making one of these elaborate creations, and his strange obsession with Ita Buttrose. It’s poppy, it’s perky, it’s fun and friendly stuff and if, like me, you can relate to the subject matter, you’ll enjoy. The material would work better as a longer show (it’s obviously some chosen extracts), feeling a bit rushed at times, but that’s a minor complaint.
Blundstone Back to Base is a very entertaining show about being a Tasmanian in exile and having a look like Harry Potter (they all sort of did, funnily enough) and a few other miscellaneous matters. Occasionally the “Tasmanian jokes” seemed a little out of place - it’s self-deprecation, sure, when a Tasmanian comedian talks about “Inceston” (Launceston), or the stupid yokels in Burnie, but, gee, we’ve heard it all one or two times before. How about a joke or two about those pretentious mainlanders? Hmm?
Then, short break, more wine, and it was time for Planet Earth Presents, an aptly titled show featuring an Irish comic, a Canadian comic and a Scottish/Tasmanian MC, the laid back and likeable Kevin Kopfstein. Eleanor Tiernan, talking about the comforting number of "minges" in the audience (she was expecting bronzed gorgeous Australians), the embarrassment of not wanting to confess that she's a comedian to taxi drivers and of not owning a home when all her friends do ("It was our dream!" they smugly declare): whatever pops into her head, or so it would seem.
Tiernan is, again, a conversational sort of comedian, with a slightly bumbling persona, as though she can’t quite remember what she’s supposed to be talking about, and it doesn’t matter all that much anyway. I like this approach. It doesn't matter, actually, and this kind of confidence makes every joke funnier when it eventually emerges.
DeAnne Smith was next, hailing from Canada. She’s a deadpan girl with, to continue the theme, a Harry Potter look about her, and she can say anything she wants without being offensive because she says it so damn sweetly. She had some bits and pieces about being in Australia - bewildering words like "ta" and "squizz," birds that are too depressed and lazy to sing properly - but then confessed that Hobart was a comedy loss, being too lovely to mock (the rose-coloured glasses of a visitor no doubt, but, yes, the waterfront is nice). She then moved on to such diverse topics as being a gay nanny, adopting a black child as an accessory and receiving a birthday card from a fetus. The adoption stuff is a bit old hat, I guess, but this woman could make anything funny, so whatever. Tiernan has the same gift, and the two of them together pack a real punch. Planet Earth Presents is a warm, intelligent and very funny show.
Okay, so let's see, it was now about 10 pm. Go home? Or stay for more comedy? Believe it or not, I was up for more.
The Festival Club has a slightly different line-up every night of the festival, with surprise special guests and so forth. It's a more intimate crowd and the more informal atmosphere led to some almost experimental moments. The MC and main act is Damian Callinan, who you would recognise from some of his numerous TV gigs (Spicks and Specks, The Skithouse), and he's an interesting one. He'll do some pretty light banter about going on a historical tour to get to know Hobart, and next minute he'll be taking about what it was like performing in Marysville in the wake of the bushfires. It's funny but it's not comedy in a vacuum; he's engaging with a broader reality that isn't just about making cute observations. I particularly enjoyed the long story he told (in character, as a school boy) about a choose-your-own-adventure escape from Afghanistan, with references to The Chronicles of Narnia countering the nitty gritty of asylum-seeking 2010.
Other delights of this last show were Eleanor Tiernan, making a welcome return, local up-and-comer Tracey Cosgrove and dour Dave Callan, a Billy Connolly type but quieter and more intense. Tiernan took the opportunity to read some poems that she had lying around - not to be missed - while Cosgrove discussed motherhood, cake, men and....well, underpants. With a gregarious manner and startling dress sense, Cosgrove is a crowd-pleaser.
So can I recommend a trip to the Hobart Comedy Festival? Well, I got there at 7.30 on a Tuesday night and didn't leave until near enough to midnight.... You do the math(s).
The Hobart Comedy Festival
Dates: 23-31 July, 2010
Bookings and all information: www.hobartcomfest.com
Phone Bookings: Theatre Royal 6233 2299 or Centertainment 6234 5998