Sunday, March 28, 2004

Is comedy a commodity?

Having recently seen a couple of Melbourne Comedy Festival shows, it strikes me that audiences are just not sure what they want out of comedy anymore – and therefore comedians are either treading (too) gingerly, or are just plain-out oblivious. Neither of which attitude resolves anything, of course.

Going in to see “Finding Lehmo”, I’d had a shit of a day at work, and just needed to laugh. It could have been an anonymous, random transaction (I’d got comp tix thru the street press), but it wasn’t – I’d seen Lehmo a few times before, and so already knew that he was going to deliver the goods. Occasional previous familiarity in comedy – but not sex – does act as a pretty effective Warranty of Quality. As to the point at which the familiarity becomes excessive, I’m really not sure. The enduring mass popularity of Dave Hughes, for example, seems closely related to his predictability – if not in terms of material, then certainly in character. I don’t think that Lehmo is ever going to be this sort of pure commodity comic, but that’s a relief for me. The more marriage-like the comedian-audience relationship becomes, the more the whole thing is just a repetition/compulsion disorder, for both sides.

Lehmo is a gifted yarn-teller and an excellent thinker on his feet (a drunk, blond female from his high-school past stumbled in late, sat in the front row, and proceeded to announce her connection to Lehmo with a stalker-like glint). However, Lehmo doesn’t (or at least didn’t on that night) have the knack of delivering That Which the Audience Wants Without Really Knowing What it is They Want. Translation: I laughed like a hyena on helium, but in that, I was pretty much alone.

A night later, it was an expedition into the unfamiliar, again courtesy of some comp tix. Be afraid, be very afraid when a comedy show’s subtitle is “Probably post modern”. "On Wild Duck” (Asher Treleaven and Derek Ives) did not, as it turned out, commit the error of Excessive Display of Arts Student Angst. When The Audience Knows Not What it is That They Want, novice performers* might as well flick the switch to cerebral vaudeville. Not every skit worked, but with live animals (well, one of) on stage, and some pretty robust audience interaction (see show description for clue here), the result is a self-producing performer’s insurance nightmare. Translation: It’s different, or in insurance jargon, it’s unassessable. You’ll leave wanting more of them – more of the same them (if that makes sense).

* I hadn’t seen, or heard of, these guys before.

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