An Interview with Ben McKenzie

by Lisa Clark

This year Ben McKenzie is appearing in (at least) eight different shows during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I’m wondering if this is a record and if this could be the inspiration of a sort of performers’ version of the Funny Tonne competition?

Well, I don’t know about a festival record, but it’s certainly a personal one! My previous record was four, and two of the eight aren’t official festival shows, so I’m not sure they count. I wouldn’t recommend trying to beat even six, though!

How did you make the move from the science world into the comedy world and is there still some separation, or have you melded them like two Vulcan minds?

It’s debatable whether I was ever really in the science world; I did study science at uni (mostly physics and computer science), but I never completed my degree. I have always loved science though. I was an actor finding it hard to get gigs, but I’d done some sketch comedy at uni and I decided I should write some comedy, and my first three comedy shows were solo shows about science. I was inspired by friends I admired – Lawrence Leung, Linda Catalano and Andrew McClelland – to write comedy about a subject I cared about.

Who in comedy has inspired you?

I’m constantly inspired by friends I’ve made through the comedy scene, like the people I named above. There’s so much great live comedy in Australia! Celia Pacquola and Hannah Gadsby inspire me; they each have a definite style and they really make it work, something I find difficult as I always wanted to change and try different things – probably to my detriment! I’m also a big fan of the British comedy scene.

You have been part of Museum Comedy since 2008, who have you got lined up as your guides this year?

This year I’ve decided to change things around and do a character based tour, so I have some great comic actors playing our tour guides. Dave Lamb is a WAAPA grad who’s worked with Bell Shakespeare, and he has amazing amounts of energy, he’s playing Dave, a new graduate of the Tour Guides Academy. Petra Elliott has a great, commanding authority, she used it to great effect in a recent role with La Mama; she’s playing Narcissa, a veteran guide who loves Melbourne and the history of the city. Her odd assistant Vic is played by Nadia Collins, who’s a great improviser with a talent for coming at things from an unexpected direction. It’s going to be different from our previous tours, I’m really excited about it!

What is your part in The Peer Revue?

I’m one of four performers brought together by re-science, a group who craft science experiences in Victoria to get adults interested in science. We’re each doing our own thing; mine is a reprise of a show I wrote for Science Week a few years ago in which I summarise A Brief History of Time in, well, it’s now about 10 minutes. It can be done!

Can you please explain what Pop Up Playground is all about? Remember that not all of us have heard of the ‘classic’ Werewolf – or is this used to weed out the non nerdy?

No, it’s definitely for everyone! It’s a game in which you and your team leader – who is one of the five guild leaders on your village council – must figure out which of the councillors are secretly werewolves. The werewolves kill off the council members one by one at night (when everyone has their eyes closed), and then you talk to your leader and team mates and try and figure out who the werewolves are. It’s all about bluffing the audience and trying to work out who’s lying, but the audience make the final decisions. Pop Up Playground is this and other games played live on stage.

So you are planning on singing in at least two of your shows this year…

Somebody to Love is this year’s ASRC fundraiser, and I’m super excited. I’m singing at least one of my favourite Queen songs. It should be a blast! So should Karenoke, Karen Pickering’s karaoke show. I used to go to karaoke a lot about five years ago, so that show is quite an indulgence.

I get the sense of you as being a comedy professor teaching comedy fans about science, politics and what the hell Dungeons & Dragons is all about. Do you see a teaching role in your comedy?

Definitely. I mean, the comedy comes first, but comedy is partly about surprise – not knowing what the punch line will be. Science is like that, the world is like that: so many surprises and things we don’t know, and finding them out is as much fun as laughing. Why write another joke about airline food when you can spread the word about things you love?

Do you think the Geeks have gradually taken over the comedy world? (Or have they just gradually taken over the world…?)

That’s a big question. I think a lot of comedians are nerds, it’s just that they’re nerdy mainly about comedy. Certainly most of my favourite ones are, and that spills over into nerdery about other things. My next solo show is about geek culture so I don’t want to give too much away, but the best thing about nerdery is that it makes a virtue out of passion; it says “it’s okay to care deeply about stuff and want to share that with the world”. There’s a fine tradition, especially in Melbourne, of comedy in this vein, so I don’t think it’s a new thing.

Come on you can tell us, have you some how gotten hold of a time turner to keep up with it all?

Let’s just say I might have more than one heart and know a thing or two about the time vortex, and leave it at that. 😉

Here’s where you can see Ben perform this Comedy Festival:

Pop Up Playground
The Peer Review
Late Night Letters and Numbers
Melbourne Museum Comedy Tour
Late Night Dungeon Crawl
Political Asylum’s Late Night Riot!
Somebody To Love: A Tribute to the Songs of Queen