Class Clowns, the nationwide youth comedy competition run by the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, came to its conclusion last Wednesday in a grand final at the Malthouse Theatre. Thirteen secondary students from around the nation, having already outfunnied their classmates in regional heats and state finals, went head to head in a high stakes joke off. (By high stakes, I mean a thousand dollars and a pair of inflatable boxing gloves, though you have to admit both of these would be pretty fricking awesome when you're a teenager.)

It's the kind of thing you could cringe thinking about, having flashbacks to school variety nights, but from the opening performance – a musical double act about Facebook – any preconceptions were blown out of the water. These kids were funny. Damn funny.

Of course they didn't just walk in off the schoolyard. Class Clowns, now in its sixteenth year, is primarily a comedy training program, which runs workshops in schools around the country, often coinciding with the Comedy Festival touring show. The competitors have been trained along the way by able young comics such as Sammy J, Xavier Michelides, Harley Breen and Mel Buttle. The results showed in self assured, creative performances.

There were puns and sight gags and impressions galore, along with a great deal of unbridled zaniness, although the competitors also showed their capacity for smarter humour, with some moments of surprising self awareness and social comment. It goes without saying that the contestants were all still honing their skills and comic voice but every single act had at least one crack up laughing moment, which is a better strike rate than at many pro comedy nights.

If you were to write a report card for them – A+, exceeded expectations.

The judges, comics Cal Wilson, Peter Heliar and Lawrence Mooney and Spicks and Specks producer Anthony Watt, must have had a hard job choosing but ended up bestowing the novelty supersize cheque on Tom Matthews from South Australia, who of all the contestants probably had the most natural feel for audience engagement.

Victorian Elaine Watkins secured second place – and an inflatable monkey trophy – with her caricatures of evil teachers and vapid classmates. In third, Mia "Velvet" Winter from Brisbane, performing in a retro dress and painted-on moustache, had an idiosyncratic, almost vaudevillean style that stood out for originality.

Playing on a weekday afternoon, the show drew mostly family and supporters of the contestants, although between the quality of competition and the professional sets from host Harley Breen and musical duo Smart Casual, it could easily have appealed to a more general audience. Perhaps in recognition of this, next year’s final will be happening as part of the Comedy Festival itself, with registrations for the competition opening later this year.

As for this year’s contestants, it may not be that long before we start seeing some of them at the Festival too.

2011 National Class Clowns
Grand Final

Malthouse Theatre
Date: August 31, 2011

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