Michael Workman has lost the will to be funny. Or, more accurately, the will to be the niche brand of funny that leads to critical acclaim, personal fulfilment and abject poverty. Since he stormed onto the scene way back in 2011 with Humans Are Beautiful, he gained a rep for thought provoking fables: well-sculpted parables on the human condition that left 30% of the audience confused, and brought the other 70% to tears. The awards flowed in. His 2012 show Mercy got its own DVD. He picked up his first Barry Award nomination in 2013 for Ave Loretta. Compared to the average Australian comedian’s trajectory, which begins with an Arts degree and ends somewhere in Human Resources, things couldn’t have been going better. There was only one catch: he wasn’t conventionally popular.
His latest show, Nothing You Do Means Anything, is about what happened next.
Fast-forward to 2016. Michael Workman has been hired on The Voyage of the Damned: a cruise ship comedian, serving up his personal brand of whimsy to a silent and aggressive room of geriatrics with their arms folded. They hated him. He finished the cruise and seriously thought of giving up comedy for good – old people can be mean when they want to be.
This is the kind of soul-tearing, existential crisis from which grew Nothing You Do Means Anything. The title, we realise, refers to Workman himself. His own doubts about the merits of artistic integrity when measured up against stuff like money and popular success. “I can be a hack. I can be,” Workman rants at himself, while deliberately trying to channel a ticket-selling persona, or the naff pull-back-and-reveals which probably would’ve have killed on the cruise ship. It’s tongue-in-cheek meta comedy at its blackest nadir. Like watching Keith Richards get up on stage and smash his guitar with tears in his eyes.
Having said that, I laughed a lot. I thought a lot. And the show’s stayed with me for days since, living in some back pocket of my mind, resurfacing at odd moments. In other words, even when Workman is trying not to be Workman, he can’t do it. He can’t not be clever and articulate and niche and cynical and challenging. He’s too much himself for that.
There’s a point in the show where Workman references Bill Hicks, the great 90s comedian, whose last words on stage were “I don’t want to do this anymore.” But there’s another Hicks quote that’s relevant here: “When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children? I want my children listening to people who f***ing rocked! I want someone who plays from his f***ing heart.” Amen to that.
Michael Workman performs Nothing You Do Means Anything at The Chinese Museum