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

Dave Bloustien

by Lisa Clark

How did you become a stand up comedian?

I certainly never trained or applied for it. But there was a point when I looked back and realised I’d been doing stand-up and comedy writing all my life. Having said that, I do remember performing an entire Colin Lane routine for a camp talent contest when I was about 14, so I must have had an inkling. I didn’t start performing at open mic at the Sydney Comedy Store for another 12 years.

Who inspired you in comedy?

Growing up, I was a massive comedy nerd. My earliest stand-up memories are of Bill Cosby and Tom Lehrer on vinyl, but when I got a bit older I used to watch the Big Gig. I was a big fan of Anthony Morgan, Glynn Nicholas, Jean Kittson, The Found Objects and the Doug Anthony All-Stars, and I’d go see what I could at the Adelaide Fringe. I also went through a big Steve Martin and Emo Philips phase. The first full stand-up concert I remember seeing was Lenny Henry on SBS, and I was mad for Alexei Sayle in High School, so my tastes were pretty eclectic.

You’re obviously very busy at the moment. Is this why you’ve decided to perform your brilliant Moosehead winning The Social Contract instead of a new show (which was to be called The Grand Guignol)?

Yeah, there were a number of factors, but the biggest one was probably Randling. It’s a new show I’m writing for and helping develop for the ABC, and it turned out to need all my days, two of my evenings and bits of my weekends. Plus I’m co-producing two other shows, developing a sketch comedy show and (until recently) running a monthly comedy room in a bookshop. And being a dad. If I’d had time to think, I would have realised much earlier that I was an idiot and could’t get Grand Guignol as polished as I wanted in time.

But I was also particularly proud of both The Social Contract and A Complete history of Western Philosophy, and wasn’t prepared to perform Grand Guignol if it wasn’t up to the same level of quality yet.

Is it true that you will be doing a short taster of The Grand Guignol at the MICF this year?

Sure is! There are parts of it I’ve been developing over the last year at a room in Sydney called Arthur B’s. Every so often I’d go read out a new comedic horror story, so about half the show had already been written. It just wasn’t going to be polished or memorised. I’m no quite sure what the taster will be yet, basically an hour of stand-up, mucking about, some horror stories and maybe some impro. But I know it will be fun.

In reply to Justin Hamilton’s blog about performing his last festival show you tweeted: “Mine (current MICF show) must be about ‘realising last year SHOULD have been the last one”. I’ve had the feeling that Justin Hamilton has been putting off changing his life for a few years now, are you getting those feelings too?

Not really, but never let the truth get in the way of a good punchline. I’m constantly overwhelmed by the amount of work that’s needed to be a successful comedian. I’ve never had an agent or a manager, and I’ve frequently vowed to quit and be a full-time writer / improvisor. But being on stage is very addictive, particularly once you get to the point where most of your gigs are good ones. I don’t think I could ever stay away for too long. You look at people like Lewis Black and think: screw success, I’ll just keep doing this til I’m old and shaky.

Does having a child to provide for change your perspective on your career?

Yes and no. I was a comedy writer with a steady income before I was a paid comedian. The big difference with having a child is that it saps your will to tour. It’s almost impossible to be a successful comedian in Australia without the ability to travel around it. If it wasn’t for my daughter, I’d probably spend at least 4 months of the year doing festivals. As it is, I usually just do a few weeks.

Tell us what you can about Randling.

It’s a game show about words, hosted by Andrew Denton and starring an excellent and bizarrely eclectic bunch of talent. It’s been really strange hammering it into shape, but the shows we’ve recorded so far have been thrilling and hilarious. If I wasn’t having so much fun with it, I would have written Grand Guignol by now.

You’ve done a lot of TV. How does it compare to stand up?

I tend to be behind the scenes, which is both exciting and frustrating. I will quite happily write pages of jokes every day, but I often get very emotionally invested in what I’ve written, and that can be hard when the person you’re writing for rejects your favourites or (worse) likes your favourite joke but screws up the delivery. More often they pick a joke you threw together as filler and use their superior delivery skills to spin it into gold. But with stand-up, you have to own the material yourself then and there. It keeps you honest in a completely different way.

Do you see yourself leaving performance behind and becoming a straight writer?

I could never be a straight writer. It always comes out bent.

What would be your dream job?

Computer Game tester, purely because I fit the demographics so well. I’m in my mid 30s and 60% male.

Tell us about Wit Large.

I started Wit Large because I was becoming frustrated with the Sydney comedy scene. It felt like it wanted to appeal to the largest common denominator, and as a semi-literate nerd with an open mind, I wasn’t just wasn’t part of that audience.

So, I approached a bookshop about running a political, socially progressive and intellectual comedy room, which seems to have worked. (I wanted to call it Smug, but the bookshop wisely convinced me that wasn’t a great idea). Since then it’s evolved out of the bookshop and into a ‘comedy label’, largely thanks to Carrie Hardie, who acts as my organisational brain. We’re producing my show at the MICF, along with those of Jack Druce and Shane Matheson.

What is your favourite thing about The Melbourne International Comedy Festival?

People whose work I don’t know bring their comedy close enough for me to see it. And the people whose work I already know push themselves to create something new and exciting. Mostly, that friends of mine from all around the world come to Melbourne to work and drink like the blazes.

Give us 5 Reasons to choose your show The Social Contract.

1. It’s a heart-warming tale of the little guy (that’s me) going up against ‘The Man’.

2. It’s topical: ‘The Man’ went on the run late last year with tens of thousands of dollars from high school formals around NSW. I’ve no idea if he’s been found, but he certainly made the papers.

3. It has been certified funny by the Bondi Junction Small Claims tribunal, and I have the legal documentation to prove it.

4. You’ll be supporting the fantastic St. Ali cafe venue in South Melbourne, a truly independent hub venue run by comedians, for comedians.

5. If you don’t, I’ll sue. 😉

The Social Contract is on at St Ali
Click here for tickets and more infomation