What with the hubbub over Safe Schools and a potential marriage plebiscite, LGBTQI Australians could use a bit of a laugh at the moment.
Fear not, help is at hand. Queer comedians from across Australia and the world will descend on the Victorian capital for the 30th anniversary of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF), doling out belly chuckles to those in need.
Major hitters include Joel Creasy as The Crown Prince and former Triple J presenter Tom Ballard, taking on sexism, drugs and racism in The World Keeps Happening,and the thorny refugee debate in Boundless Plains To Share.
It could be viewed as heavy material, but a sparky Ballard, who’ll reside at the Melbourne Town Hall, is undaunted.
“It’s not too hard because what’s been happening is so ridiculous and stupid all you have to do is point it out a little bit and say ‘hey, check out this fucked thing, right guys’, and then the jokes sort of write themselves.”
Pointing to the Tampa saga when former prime minister John Howard “demonised and militarised the whole issue”, Ballard understands that after years of reading these stories in the paper and seeing them on the nightly news, folks have become a bit numb to it all.
"Comedy shows in themselves can’t change much, but if they can contribute to the conversation."
“We need to shake people out of it and say you should be really angry because this is really fucked up. I’m also aware that comedy shows in themselves can’t change much, but if they can contribute to the conversation, pushing someone along to the point where they start speaking out and doing little bits and pieces in their own lives to let the government know that this shit is fucked up, then that’s good news.”
Fans of Josh Thomas’ Please Like Me or Adam Hills Tonight will swarm towards the queen of the bad dad jokes and deadpan delivery, Hannah Gadsby, whose new show Dogmatic will be housed at ACMI. In the midst of an Office Works shop, Gadsby reveals the real reason she chose that name has a lot less to do with obnoxiously loud religious fundamentalism than it might, at first, appear and way more to do with a hair-brained idea she’d bring her dog along on tour.
“But he’s a puppy and he’s a pain in the arse, so I couldn’t really do that and he mightn’t like it,” a very considerate Gadsby admits.
“Touring’s not for everybody.”
She also reveals that, following her somewhat hilarious #RubyRoseUnderstudy Instagram campaign, there may be a recreation of Taylor Swift’s 1989 tour, complete with costume changes and possibly even fireworks.
“I do talk a little bit about the idea of the celebrity role model and how deeply flawed that is, and I’m investigating her mythology as an underdog and comparing it to mine own.”
Gadsby’s definitely lightening the tone and laying off the self-deprecation in this “no woe show”, after a previous review of one of her gigs felt the need to list both the beyondblue and Lifeline numbers.
And as for the plebiscite?
“It will quite damaging because it gives a voice to people who don’t need to be heard anymore. I remember when they changed the laws in Tasmania to actually just legalise being gay when I was a teenager, adjusting to the fact that I wasn’t normal, and because I was quite young and vulnerable, I just heard all the horrible stuff.”
As she sees it, the more diversity in comedy, the better we can tackle this stuff.
“While there’s much more gay presence we must remember most of them are white middle class men and that’s not good enough either."
“While there’s much more gay presence we must remember most of them are white middle class men and that’s not good enough either. For every one of us that moves from the margins, there’s a whole bunch not being represented. I’d love to see more diverse representations of race and gender, because ultimately it’s being invisible and isolated that damages the psyche when you’re struggling to come to terms with your sexuality.”
Invading Australia’s sovereign borders with their irreverent outlooks, international stars bringing the queer cheer include legendarily fierce New Yorker Penny Arcade who has thrived in the margins for decades. A confidante of Andy Warhol and close friend of Quentin Crisp, who saw her as the female version him, she’s not the type to duck slings and arrows.
“Most people’s response to being vilified and ostracised is to shut down and not notice what’s happening, then there are some of us that the only way we can cope with that pain is to keep our eyes wide open.”
Whether “preaching to the converted or the perverted,” as Arcade sees it, comedy is a serious business.
“All the truly great comedians are deadly serious people: Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor. I sound like a very serious person, but what I do on stage is I transduce that into the absurdity of life. If it wasn’t so absurd you’d be crying. Instead we’re laughing.”
While her Famous Spiegeltent show’s dubbed Longing Lasts Longer, nostalgia is banned. “I don’t have a nostalgic bone in my body. I’ve always lived in the present. I am sex, drugs and rock and roll. I am not Madonna, who copied it from people in the 60s. She’s eight years younger than me. I’m not Courtney Love, who’s 14 years younger than me and copied it from Madonna. I was always the freak.”
"Phallically-challenged" comedian BenT will be chronicling his adventures from New York to Berlin, Montreal to Sydney in Looking for Dick, while London-based Canadian Mae Martin, who’s looking forward to checking out Tinder in a new city, will challenge labels in her deeply confessional show Us held in the intimate surrounds of the Melbourne Town Hall’s Cloak Room.
“I think it's definitely time for the way we view sexuality to evolve, if only because it will widen my potential for finding love,” she says.
“I love the fact that I'm invited to play Pride festivals, but it’s definitely frustrating [being branded a queer comedian]. It gives the impression that I'm a niche comic who only LGBTIQ people will relate to, when really the stuff I talk about is relatable for all humans: childhood, relationships, sexuality - what could be more broad?”
Familial privacy is collateral damage with Martin’s tell-all approach.
“My parents don't mind because it's all pretty affectionate, but my brother was a bit peeved I told a story about him biting my dad's dick as a toddler. But come on, how could I not tell that story?”
Joining the hometown crowd, Nath Valvo will be Tongue in Cheek, Adam Richard talks beavers and bad tattoos in Splitsecondism, fur will fly in Thomas Jaspers is a Kitten Killer, Christopher Welldon Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Dolly Diamond’s Alive, Intimate and Up Late, while Rhonda Burchmore performs Twins with drag star Trevor Ashley.
There’s revolution in the air as comedian, photographer and editor Dean Arcuri teams up with corporate drag queen 'Karen From Finance' to stage their own take on Les Misérables, Les n Mis, at queer bookshop Hares & Hyenas. As well as taking a swipe at public transport woes, the two-handed cabaret gig engages the homophobic hullabaloo of recent political discourse.
“We’ve been a little overwhelmed, which has given us way too many sound bites,” Arcuri says, with the Australian Christian Lobby, Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi all in their sights.
"Not that Les n Mis will be overly serious. We’re both throwing everything we can at it with ridiculous abandon and there’s going to be fabulous costumes. I’m certainly going to raise my game so Karen’s not the prettiest one in the room.”
One third of Tag Team on gay radio station Joy 94.9 FM, Melbourne comedian Hunter Smith gave up sex for six months just so he’d have some juicy material for his MICF show My Winter Of Discontent, housed in the Imperial Hotel. Well, not exactly. Having been asked by two lesbian mates to father their child, he swore off boys while they were trying, with the mechanics eye opening, to say the least.
“It’s a really good ice-breaker one you’ve jizzed off in a friend’s spare bedroom a few times,” Smith laughs.
“Then there was the logistics. It was a small apartment. How do you go about them not hearing the porn and me not hearing them?”
The enforced downtime from shenanigans also meant household objects began to take on a strange new allure.
“I didn’t have sex for a very long time, so after a while it started to do things to my brain. I don’t want to give too much away, but I did strike up a very intimate relationship with my boomerang pillow, Pam. True to her name, she just kept coming back, so I think there’s a future there.”
The Melbourne Comedy Festival runs March 23-April 17.