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Killing it: Why stand-up is the performing art for the 21st century

Written by
Alice Fraser

“Why do you do comedy?”

“Isn't it just degenerates shouting in dingy bars?”

“Why don't you do real theatre?”

All questions I've been asked by family and friends. Yes, they are cultural elitists. I went to USYD and Cambridge. I know an elitist when I am one.

So why did I step off the train to socially normative stability to be a stand-up comedian, wrestling laughs from belligerent drunks and sceptical students in bleak back rooms or touring solo shows in hypercompetitive festivals where people mainly want tickets to the guys (usually guys) they know off TV?

It’s something I consider as comedy festival season rolls around each year, and I launch myself into another show and another months-long marathon of this grimy one-person-and-a-mic game.

The simple answer is: I chose comedy because here and now, it feels like more interesting things are being said, and are able to be said – and to more people – through comedy than through any other performing art form. And as someone who has done theatre in the past, and still sees it regularly, I believe that comedy speaks to its audience in ways contemporary theatre struggles to match.

I’m not saying that comedy is better than theatre. But that’s the point. Comedy doesn’t think it’s better than anyone. I’ve never heard anyone say, “oh comedy, I couldn’t possibly!” Nobody thinks comedy is too fancy for them: it elides the high-culture/low-culture paradigm. You can see comedy that’s mind-blowingly arty – Laura Davis’ last shows were performed blindfolded on a ladder in a swimsuit and dressed as a ghost with a lamp on her back, respectively. And they were both pants-shittingly, award-winningly funny.

Zoë Coombs Marr’s multi-award winning show, Trigger Warning is both crude drag, biting satire and incredibly brilliant, mind-bending, psychologically challenging art. Also, hilarious. But there’s no class barrier to entry. There’s no dress code. You don’t have to get ready to go to The Comedy. You don’t have to pretend to like it if you don’t, so your friends think you’re smart. You either laugh, or it’s not the show for you.

By definition, theatre is more mannered – the nature of scripted dialogue is it’s not native to the speaker. It often seems as though it’s not meant to be. There’s a kind of laden dramatic delivery that pervades modern Australian theatre, and it rubs me the wrong way. I call it ‘theatre-voice’. Eck.

Comedians, write their own material (for better or worse). The language you see in a stand-up show is more natural; the ideas more powerfully delivered because they are the comedians’ own. The generating mind is present.

So comedy happens with its audience, rather than at them. A comedy travels light and moves fast (course correction and new material can happen in the moment on stage, rather than in consultation with a team of co-creators), and with immediate feedback.

Veteran comedian and director Justin Hamilton wanted to be a novelist. He tells the story of how Richard Fidler (then of the Doug Anthony All Stars) told him to do comedy first. It’s the minimum viable version of an idea. You write, and see it work that night.

Theatre can span months or years from concept to stage, and bad ideas can take a long time to be exposed. It can be hard for theatrical performers to distinguish between a silently appreciative and captivated audience, and one gritting their teeth in toleration. Sure, if your play is execrably bad, people might walk out. But mediocre theatre can scrape along almost indefinitely.

Bad comedy, by contrast, dies. It’s a harsher, more extreme testing ground for your ideas. You must iterate out of a bad joke or die. Comedians are glum f*ckers, and they’ll sympathise with you if you fail. But they won’t tell you that you were good. There’s no darling! It’s all, “That was brutal, Fraser. I took notes”.  

With no investors to please, nobody to represent, accountable only to each night’s audience, comedians can take more risks. They can be un-PC or aggressively apolitical. If you're funny, you can touch anything. You can talk about the things that people don’t want to talk about, think about, or look at in themselves. And if they’re enjoying themselves, then they’re willing to listen to things that otherwise might completely shut them down or turn them off or make them defensive. And you don’t need grant funding to do it. If performances are small start-ups, comedians are compatible with modern culture’s rapid software updates.

Large theatre companies have to limit risks; building new and innovative work into the frame of guaranteed money-makers where they can; please shareholders and creative directors, everyone along the line. Art by committee tends towards safety, because the higher the numbers, the more unpleasant failure is.

The system of theatre weeds out risk: well-respected courses teach you your craft, and you are encouraged to use them. Comedians don’t have training, they have practice. Comedy audiences expect your own story told in your own way. The closest thing to a school for comedy is clown school (AKA Gaulier’s French academy of shouting at people until they cry or get funny). No NIDA or WAAPA or RADA.

So that’s why. Comedy is open in the places where theatre (despite many people’s best efforts) is closed. There’s no struggle to find a new way to ‘do’ Hamlet – every comedian is his own Hamlet, struggling with his own mind, and broader audiences can slide along the spectrum of comedy from populism to high art, according to taste. Australian theatre needs to find a way to take itself less seriously if it has a chance of competing with the clowns.

Sydney Comedy Festival runs until May 21. Alice Fraser's Empire runs May 4-7 at the Enmore Theatre.

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