Hannah Gadsby, Josh Thomas, Celia Pacquola, Matt Okine and Luke McGregor. What have they all got in common, besides being side-splittingly funny and successful on stage, screen and radio? They all emerged from Australia’s largest national comedy competition, RAW Comedy, running for 26 years now.
Last year’s finale, held at the Melbourne Town Hall during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival as per tradition, was extra special. It was the culmination of both the 2020 and 2021 events – a 16-month stretch of heats, finals and postponements. The length of time between registration and finale is unprecedented in the festival’s history.
For those who were at the 2021 RAW Comedy final on the 11 April 2021, and the very many who weren’t, it is playing out in hilarious, bittersweet, gut-wrenching glory on SBS VICELAND and SBS On Demand.
Wagga Wagga’s Dane Simpson takes on hosting duties with aplomb, introducing each of the 12 finalists to the spot-lit mic: Caitlin Maggs (ACT), Dhruv Iyer (WA), Hamish Levis (TAS), He Huang (VIC), Jayde O’Brien (QLD), Kelly Gulliver (NT), Mathew Hespe (VIC), Patrick Golamco (NSW), Prue Blake (VIC), Rudy-Lee Taurua (SA), Tom Witcombe (NSW) and Zoë Sitas (NSW).
Each of the finalists brings their own personal, generational, introspective observations and perspectives on the world around them. Whether it’s racism, romance, periods, masturbation, familial division or the choice to get on stage and make jokes, these very private experiences become relatable, even comforting despite the cringe-factor.
Melbourne’s Prue Blake is a barrel of LOLs. The self-confessed comfort eater admits to pronoucing “dulce de leche” as “douche-de-loosh” for a week before a staffer kindly sets her straight. Blake’s bitcoin-rich boyfriend and her history with antidepressants become fodder for a wonderfully entertaining soliloquy.
Victorian Mathew Hespe reveals his history as a “comic book nerd” and the golf lessons his mother enrolled him in as a child, in the hopes that – because both men are half-Thai – he’d become the next Tiger Woods.
He’s followed by Darwin’s Kelly Gulliver, who reveals her orgasm-rich single life, some disturbing insinuations about golf clubs, and the failure of her daily affirmations to convince herself that life is all lotus flowers and zen.
At over the halfway mark of the competition, Sydney’s Zoë Sitas is a shot of fuel that drives the show into its final 20 minutes. On another tangent entirely, they bowl onto the stage, bellowing “this is awesome, yeah, rock on!” They are refreshingly frank about the questions they've faced as a South African living in Australia, the reality of living (unhappily) in a sharehouse, being non-binary, and coming out to their family (“stone cold silence”).
These cathartic revelations from raw, fresh talent in front of a hall full of strangers land with even more emotional weight, addressing an audience that has been starved of closeness and certainty about their lives for over a year. At the time of filming, there had been constant lockdowns in Melbourne, many Australians had lost their livelihoods, renters were confronting an almost inevitable reality of being evicted as soon as protections eased, and many of us had family or friends who were isolated from us through land borders, or many miles of sea. The earnestness and the evident, passionate desire to elicit a hearty laugh in solidarity that each of the competing comedians are committed to at Raw Comedy 2021 feels just as necessary and consolatory now as it did a year ago.
“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” said football coach Henry Russell.
Sure, in football. But in comedy, winning is a fantastic thing, but it is not the only thing.
“The winner of Raw Comedy National Final…” announces Simpson from the stage, surrounded by 12 anticipatory finalists.
For those who don’t already know, you’ll need to watch to find out, of course.
For many of the finalists, simply getting up on stage and revealing the most personal of truths was the ultimate triumph: their most horrendous childhood experiences, being rejected or demeaned by their family or romantic partners, discovering aspects of their lives that made them ashamed or embarrassed… all these things are profound in their own, everyday significance to us as individuals, and when we share these things and we can laugh about them, it can shake the thorn loose from where it was jammed, painfully, in our memories.
If you’re in need of comfort, or catharsis, tune in to Raw Comedy 2021. They’re here for you.
RAW Comedy 2021 premiered Saturday 19 February on SBS VICELAND and is now streaming at SBS On Demand: