Ethnic City

By Hooi Khaw

Ethnic City is a new  month long run of standup comedy gigs in Melbourne that brings to the stage a lineup exclusively made up of performers of colour. After going on a marketing rampage, with shout outs in The Age, The Herald Sun, and Triple R radio, Ethnic City sold out the 53 seat theatre at The Improv Conspiracy on opening night. The hype lives up to the expectation, boasting formidable lineups since the start of the run. The buzz of the audience is palpable, as they mill about the licensed bar, waiting for the show to start.

In an industry that is often decried for lack of representation, diversity has become a hot topic, and shows like Ethnic City create a space where performers can be appreciated for their talent and not seen as a token (with that added pressure to “represent”).

Room runner, local comedian Brendan Wan speaks to us in more detail about Ethnic City:

H: What is the intent behind Ethnic City?

B: The intent behind Ethnic City was to create a show where not only Performers of Colour can showcase their talents but also give audiences from diverse backgrounds a chance to see members of their own community do their thing on stage. Sometimes, it’s as simple as seeing someone that looks like you on stage that gives others the confidence to pursue their own certain projects. It’s no secret Melbourne’s creative arts industry lacks diversity. I know far too many incredibly talented ethnic actors, writers and comedians who need to create projects in order to pursue their artistic goals as their ethnicity isn’t regarded as marketable. When I started comedy, especially improv, I could count the number of people of colour on one hand. Gradually more people of diverse backgrounds have been welcomed on stage but we still have a long way to go until ethnicity isn’t regarded as unique.

H: What is your approach to balancing new comers and experienced comedians of colour?

B: I guess this is the same case with any comedy show, you have a big name headliner who initially attracts the general audiences and then the up-and-coming talent to support. I’ve been luckily enough to have the bigger name acts of Lawrence Leung and Sami Shah involved to perform at Ethnic City and they’ve been incredibly supporting of the whole show.

H: Have you been actively recruiting the acts, or are people asking for slots?

B: I’ve been actively recruiting acts but as the show has gone on for a few weeks, there have been a few people approaching me for spots. In the stand-up comedy side of things, I’m in a fortunate position to have more performers than I actually have spots for. But the nature of the show is that it’s a variety show, since comedy comes in all different genres, so finding ethnically diverse acts in other areas of comedy ie improv, clowning, cabaret, sketch – that’s been a bit of a challenge.

H: You’re currently booked for a four week run, what are your plans for Ethnic City moving forward?

B: There are definitely plans for Ethnic City to come back! However there will be a bit of a hiatus for the next few months since I’ll be involved with a few projects. There’s a lot of effort and behind the scenes work required to do this kind of show so juggling full-time work, with several projects can be stretching me real thin. So when it does come back, I’ll be giving it 100% commitment.

Ethnic City is on Friday’s 7pm at The Improv Conspiracy from the 24th of May 2019 until the 14th of June 2019. See website for Details –

https://improvconspiracy.com/shows/ethnic-city

Martin Dunlop – Small Tales of Little Mercy

By Will Erskine 

An evening of Southern Gothic inspired short stories hosted by an increasingly frustrated and disillusioned Southern US preacher. It certainly doesn’t sound like an obvious premise for a comedy show, and indeed it isn’t a straight stand-up show, but Martin Dunlop does an excellent job of engaging the audience in the character and progressing the story arc through to a quite dark conclusion with some excellent laughs along the way.

The unnamed central preacher begins his sermon by establishing that we, his audience, haven’t been coming to church often enough and we are falling into a life of sin. He promises to share 4 stories with us to help show us all the path of glorious righteousness. Playing all the characters in a selection of willfully historically inaccurate and ridiculous tales, Martin does an admirable job of jumping between the cast of characters and back to the central preacher, he even manages to sneak in some 4th wall breaking directors commentary which shows great humility and awareness of the absurd spectacle on stage.

The show has some rough edges, Martin performed with a few notes on his hands to prompt himself and a couple of times got thrown out of script by technical demons. He handled this remarkably well and by being willing to engage with the audience as himself even in the middle of a character piece he created some of the warmest and funniest moments of the show. It’s a show that benefits from having its rough edges on display, a fully polished version of this show would lose some of its charm.

The creativity and the writing is the true star of the show here, clearly not wanting to shy away from a challenge Martin has written himself a lyrical challenge that he has to summit each night, as he said himself after stumbling on a line “Come on Martin, if you’re going to write it you need to be able to say it”.

This is a great storytelling show, with an ambitious range of characters dexterously performed. The charm is in the rough edges and anyone who enjoys dark absurd storytelling and fancies a break from the standard standup format would do well to check out this show.

Martin Dunlop performs Small Tales of Little Mercy at the Butterfly Club until April 21st

https://www.comedyfestival.com.au/2019/shows/small-tales-of-little-mercy

Tom Skelton – Blind Man’s Bluff

By Lisa Clark 

It’s really later, after you’ve spent an hour laughing with this joyful, adorable comedian and you leave and think about it, that you realise how seriously dark the undercurrent of this show is. Tom Skelton is telling the story of how he was diagnosed with a disease that took most of his eyesight at a very young age.

Tom is perky and playful, more of a whacky character performer than a stand-up comedian, though he is an entertaining story teller and he has some interesting stories to tell. We learn a lot about some Inspiring VIPs (Visually Impaired People) from history and legend, such as a 12th Century King of Hungary, Bella the Blind and learn how Sampson was blinded. He also sings a song about Louis Brailles over the top of a song by Jacques Brel. The coat rack on stage holds a lot of colourful costumes for his characters and it’s hard to tell if Tom is playing up his difficulty in donning costumes or having genuine issues, but he encourages the audience to laugh at his entanglements. He’s a comedian, he’s happy to get the laughs wherever he can and wants to make sure we don’t feel guilty or the need to be polite.

When he’s not doing his solo shows Tom works with the improvising group Racing Minds, so it’s not so surprising that it’s a bit loose and there is quite a bit of audience participation. The two chairs on stage are a hint. He begins by casting the entire audience as medical students learning about his condition. Quite a few people are dragged up on stage throughout the show. It’s not always easy, but how could anyone turn down his blind puppy dog eyes?

Blind Man’s Bluff has many puns and groaners and feels just a bit too loose at times. The sound was often too loud, which may be a bonus for the hearing impaired, or possibly a glitch on the night I saw it. He did describe a lot of his actions and surprising amount of visual comedy which was handy for visually impaired comedy goers and he often made these amusing and occasionally obviously ironic.

Tom is not slick, but he is full of energy and enthusiasm, he works hard to give his audience a delightful time while also giving us an insight into his personal experience without getting too melancholy. Check him out while he’s still in the country.

Tom Skelton Blind Man’s Bluff is on at Imperial Hotel

https://www.comedyfestival.com.au/2019/shows/tom-skelton

Simon Amstell’s – What Is This?

By Jess Welch 

If you’re looking for the answers to life, or positive affirmations, Simon Amstell’s What Is This? is not the show for you. While Amstell asks the questions, he doesn’t have the answers and that’s ok. He might not have your answers, but he’ll take you through some of the things he’s learned so far in life. They might be applicable to the audience, or they might not, but we all learn a lot about Amstell and the life he’s led.

What Is This? delves into Amstell’s psyche, examining how he’s become the man he is today. It’s the stuff most would only share with their psychiatrist, but Amstell honestly and vulnerably shares his experiences. It’s a glimpse into the backstory of a stranger, the likes of which are rare to find. At times you will feel sad for the things he’s experienced, but Amstell is a master at toying with our emotions and somehow turns the melancholy into hilarity.

The stories of his childhood are especially heart breaking in places, but the understanding and healing from those times are the highlight of the show. Many have fraught and complicated relationships with their parents and hearing the story of Amstell and the journey, especially with his father, is incredibly personal and touching.

Of course, there are other, less serious and slightly less child friendly than others, but they blend perfectly with the stories of childhood as a sort of cause and effect. I have never seen such honesty and self-awareness in a show, and it’s wonderful. There is one moment in the show that opened my eyes to not only what Amstell was feeling in that moment, but what the other person in the story is feeling and it’s eye opening. The empathy that Amstell shows is astounding.

The audience leaves examining their own life, taking stock and trying to work out what happiness looks like for them. You will leave asking What Is This? 

Simon Amstell performs What Is This? at Arts Centre.

 https://www.comedyfestival.com.au/2019/shows/simon-amstell

Burger King Illuminati : 1 Hour Lo-Fi Comedy || Royalty Free

By Colin Flaherty

Sydney Sketch troupe Burger King Illuminati (Bruno Dubosarsky, Jacob Henegan, Liam Scarratt and Daniel Scarratt) made their first appearance at MICF this year and it was an brilliant showing. This solid hour of sketch was equal parts silly and dark that kept the audience in hysterics.

All the tried and true elements of sketch were present including recurring scenes, a plethora of silly characters and even a bit of Chekhov’s Gun complete with red herrings. Keeping with the Illuminati theme, amusing conspiracies were sprinkled throughout with a big revelation tying the show up neatly with a bow.

Sketches rushed along at a cracking pace with barely a break for applause. Downtime between scenes gradually increased as costume changes happened (not that they were elaborate get ups, just a lot of different hats / headpieces). Thankfully they pushed someone out on stage to keep us occupied with a quick joke.

The cast regularly broke out in song. These tunes were hilarious and perfectly crafted lyrically but none of the boys had angelic voices. On the plus side, this cringe factor could be seen as an extra giggle at the performers’ expense. I’m sure we weren’t much better when they gave us an opportunity to join in for a sing a long.

This foursome were mighty impressive, selling the material to the back of the room, working seamlessly together and demonstrating deft comic timing. All were great at hamming it up and inhabiting the cavalcade of wacky characters perfectly. Being in the sketch trenches for the past four years had certainly paid off.

Their tech person was certainly overworked with lots of backing tracks, snippets of music and video clips to coordinate with the action, many of them vital to the punchlines. Bravo to you and the talented guys on stage!

1 Hour Lo-Fi Comedy || Royalty Free is on at either Loop Project Space or the Tickle Pit at Rozzi’s until April 20
https://www.comedyfestival.com.au/2019/shows/1-hour-lo-fi-comedy-royalty-free-please-don-t-steal#

Michael Williams – Clip Art Cowboy

By Lisa Clark 

Clip Art Cowboy is a late runner to jump up to the top of my favourite shows of MICF 2019. WOW, this is a stunning show from Michael Williams. It tells one story, he and his wife went to America on holiday and found themselves caught up in the Las Vegas mass shooting. Still the biggest mass shooting America has seen. It’s dark and very funny.

Each year Michael’s shows are full of surprises and better than I think they will be. One of his earliest shows about Abraham Lincoln was so good that it made me sit up. Anyone who could make a 19th century American President into such a hilarious, memorable Melbourne International Comedy Festival show, really had a unique talent. Then 2016’s An Evening With Michael Williams (Who is Trapped under a Boulder)  that had Michael doing his PowerPoint and musical numbers with one arm trapped under a boulder which suddenly, halfway through, came to life as a puppet (voiced by Jack Druce) was so brilliant that I feel sorry for everyone that didn’t get to see it. I now make Michael a regular addition to my festival calendar and he has never let me down, but Clip Art Cowboy is a Festival Must-See.

Michael Williams is famous for visual comedy using lo-fi digital graphics and pop culture references. He started his career doing big notepad drawings then moved to PowerPoint. The tech in Clip Art Cowboy is ,unsurprisingly, impressive and spot on. A highlight for me was a spoof of an online crafting video.  He’s also been gradually adding Vaudeville style song and dance numbers to his shows, he’s no Fred Astaire but entertaining none the less.

Michael’s opening musical number is, as always, a thigh slapping crowd-pleaser. “Tragedy Plus Time” sets the tone of comedy being borne from dark subject matter and has the audience gasping. Yet the show itself is mostly pretty light and funny, with lots of songs, stories and silliness on the road through the tale of Michael’s dream trip to America with friends. Find out what nerds get up to in Vegas! Check out his Fidget Spinner tricks! Gradually some dark portents gather and we get glimpses of the villain readying his plans while our hapless heroes enjoy their holiday oblivious.

Michael’s comedy is so adorably daggy and he’s so self-deprecating, he tends to be a very under-rated Festival comedian. I cannot recommend this enough. Michael is a brilliant story teller, Clip Art Cowboy is chilling, and silly, and brutal and adorable. A story that will live with me for a long time.

Michael Williams performs Clip Art Cowboy at Trades Hall at 9.30pm

https://www.comedyfestival.com.au/2019/shows/the-clipart-cowboy