It was April 19, around 6:30pm, that I discovered I had an addiction to live comedy. After 26 consecutive nights of getting a sore arse watching show after show, I collapsed on my shitty couch in front of the TV. There was an episode of How I Met Your Mother on, and I cried. That was when I realised I wasn’t ready for MICF to end yet. But it had, so crying at a not-particularly-noteworthy episode of How I Met Your Mother would have to suffice.
Doing The Funny Tonne made for a hectic month. I had a meeting shortly before the festival with behind-the-scenes men Dan and Gideon, who went over how the Funny Tonne would work. For those playing at home, we sent in weekly lists of the shows we wanted to see, and were also armed with a festival pass, which wielded significant power.
My festival began, unofficially, with Wil Anderson, on March 24. I’ve long since lost count of the amount of times I’ve seen Wil, but my friend Nicole and I have seen his MICF show together every year since 2006. He is my favourite comedian, and has been for some time – at his best he mixes sharp political and social observations with emotionally gripping moments and dick jokes. This year’s show, ‘Free Wil’, continued in that vein, and it being the night before opening night he did an extra 15 minutes’ worth of material just to top it off. It would be the first of several times I’d see him in some form at the festival.
My dedication to live comedy can be summed up by the fact that doing Funny Tonne would mean I would miss a month of my dearly beloved weekly trivia night at the Great Northern. March 25 was the first of such nights, but it was made up for with a free ticket (this would be an ongoing occurrence…) to the opening night gala. Hosted by Adam Hills, who is in ridiculously good form at the moment, it was a delight (and also much, muuuuch better than the Oxfam gala) and introduced me to a range of comics of whom I became a new fan. Following that we (Sarah and Leighton were the other Funny Tonners and, spoiler alert, they both fucking smashed me in the final count) went to Riva for the exclusive afterparty. That party would be the first of many signs I got throughout the festival that comedians like to have a drink, to put it mildly.
I spent much of the next few days at the wonderful Imperial Hotel, a great pub at the top of Bourke St. They had a great line-up of comics on throughout the festival (and also run regular comedy nights throughout the year, all under the auspices of the hard-working Ange Thompson). I saw some terrific shows – Victoria Healy, Tommy Dassalo, Adam Richard, Michael Chamberlin, Ben Russell (which featured a drunken man fall asleep and start snoring mid-show, whom Russell worked into the show to hilarious effect), Simon Keck, Xavier Michelides amongst others. The Imperial also hosted ‘Late Night Every Night’, a revolving line-up of comics from 11:15pm. On the first weekend the crowd was well lubricated, but one group of fuckwits attempted to spoil it for everyone. A group of about five blokes took it upon themselves to disrupt the show, talking and jeering. One of them, German, even got up and started chanting during Wil Anderson’s bit. It was fucking obnoxious and extremely annoying, and they were promptly put in their place by Wil, who quickly had the rest of the crowd on his side with a brilliant response. They started jeering again during Geraldine Hickey’s set, until, without missing a beat, she said “shut the fuck up cunt” to raucous cheers and they were not heard from again. It was an early highlight.
Other first-week highlights included Gen Fricker, who delivered a funny and powerful show despite having just broken her arm and the always-incredible Celia Pacquola. Liam Ryan‘s show, performed to just seven people on the night I saw it (but thankfully selling out later shows), was utterly brilliant, while Dr Brown and Sam Simmons‘ ridiculous show ‘Ceremony’ was something else entirely.
The absolute lowlight of the festival also came in the first week. Upstairs at Elephant & Wheelbarrow (a depressing place at the best of times) was ‘All Around the World’, a showcase of some lesser-known international comics. The featured comics were all decent (though most failed to properly read the atmosphere of the room) but the MC, Terry North, was truly awful. Hardly any of his bits, most of which were quite lazy, got laughs, but the worst was when he began telling the very old ‘speeding-on-the-freeway-officer-pulled-me-over-I’ve-been-waiting-for-you-all-day-sorry-I-got-here-as-fast-as-I-could’ joke (which has been featured on an episode of How I Met Your Mother for fuck’s sake). As he began telling it I thought surely he would have a funny twist on it, but no, he told it verbatim and I wondered if I could ever laugh at anything else again.
A few nights later I saw one an ordinary show and a brilliant show on the same night. Arj Barker was the former, and he delivered a reliably funny show at Town Hall, but nothing memorable and nothing I could recommend. As a passionate live comedy fan, it was depressing seeing Barker pack out shows every night while hundreds of other smaller, Australian comedians with way funnier shows struggled to get audiences in. But there was a silver lining – on this particular night the crowd was not as receptive to Arj as he is used to; there was never an applause break and he began to pick up on it, referring to it throughout the show. Seeing an experienced hand forced to sweat was a thrill. The latter was Neal Portenza, who I gave five stars here.
April 3 was perhaps my favourite night of the festival, thanks to Mark Watson. I have been a fan of the manic British comic for many years, but he has missed a few seasons in recent times. His latest show, ‘Flaws’, explained why; he was dealing with alcoholism and other mental health issues. Watson plumbed the depths of his dark days, but always keeps a good humour about him; in fact, the only thing stopping me from giving it five stars was that I’d have liked to have seen him go a bit deeper; he is that good of a comedian that he could do it without sending the show into an awkward lull. A couple of hours later I attended his ‘Comedywealth Games’, an Edinburgh institution that was making its debut at MICF. It pits three comedians from different countries against each other in a series of stupid games. On this night Adam Hills (AUS), Jason Byrne (IRE) and Katherine Ryan (CAN) were the competitors. As it turned out, each comedian needed an assistant to help with the first two rounds of the competition. The first task was to piggyback one’s assistant across the stage; Ryan, being short and lightweight, chose me, as I weigh about 35kg soaking wet. I was thrilled as I love being an audience participant, but this was something else, hanging around on stage with two comedians I’ve long loved in Hills and Byrne and a brilliant comic I’d just discovered in Ryan. We were beaten in the first task by Byrne, who somehow managed to piggyback his gargantuan assistant across the stage (but I was assuaged shortly afterwards with a glass of red wine), but in the second task, the ‘Admin Pentathlon’ we won. That required me, as Ryan’s assistant, amongst other things, to eat four tubs of yoghurt whilst running on a treadmill as Ryan gave me a makeover. Ryan ended up winning, and I cheered loudly from the stands, having long since revoked my Aussie citizenship in the name of comedy. Walking from the venue I was on an absolute high, and I would have looked patently ridiculous with makeup still splodged on my face.
(Hilarious side story: at Mark Watson’s show I was sitting on my own and the seat next to me was vacant. I tend to get fidgety when sitting down, and I had my hand resting on the top of the seat. I then moved my hand down the side of the seat and began touching what I thought was an armrest, or a bar, or the side of the chair. I got a tap on the shoulder, turned around, and Alex Edelman, rising New York comedian who had been on the supershow, was wondering why I had been stroking his shoe for the last 10 seconds. I was absolutely mortified and apologised profusely, but couldn’t explain what I thought I had been doing because Mark Watson was on stage. I apologised again at the end and he waved it off, which was nice of him, but still I couldn’t help but slap myself upside the head as it would have appeared sooooo creepy. To top it all off, after the Comedywealth Games he happened to be the only person nearby to take the above photo of me and Katherine Ryan. If he recognised me – I suspect he may have, as it was bloody weird – I’m guessing a less-than-flattering story about me was told backstage. I also kept seeing him on the street throughout the festival and recoiling in horror. To Alex Edelman, if you’re reading, I’M REALLY SORRY! It was an honest mistake!!)
By the second week I assumed I’d be starting to feel a little run down, or sick of the Funny Tonne, but it was anything but. I saw more terrific shows – Penny Greenhalgh, FanFiction Comedy, Cal Wilson, Aunty Donna, Peter Jones. I also saw two shows by artists who never struggle to sell tickets – Stephen K Amos and the Umbilical Brothers – and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed them. Both shows pushed the boundaries of good taste – in particular the Umbilical Brothers extremely dark ‘KiDSHoW’ – and made me laugh heartily. I also saw Wil Anderson’s ‘Political Wil’, a self-described hour of rants about politics, and enjoyed it even more than ‘Free Wil’. Another reason that I enjoy his shows so much is that I share all his opinions, and it was particularly great to see a male comedian address the topic of sexism in a way that is more in line with the third-wave feminism that I find myself learning more and more about every day.
The second week was also the week where I learned that I got a perverse enjoyment from lame, unfunny shows with big audiences. On April 6 I saw James Smith, an New York-based Australian comic I’d never heard of, at the Powder Room in Town Hall. Smith packed out the room, but his comedy can be easily summed up by “men and women. They’re so different. Am I right?!” or “man, couples fucken suck. Being single! Yeah!” He had the crowd in stitches and I was sitting several rows back, meaning I could relax in anonymity. Personally I found most of his jokes to be lazy, lacking a fresh take on topics that have been well-trodden over many years. As such, several were borderline sexist, and overall he had the look of a man who’d really rather not have been there. But being able to sit in anonymity meant I could just smile wryly at what was unfolding before me. A similar thing happened at Marcus Ryan’s ‘Love Me Tinder’, as well as Mark Butler’s show ‘Grammar Don’t Matter on a First Date’. His show was also borderline sexist at points and I got great satisfaction from telling him when prompted that I considered terms like ‘lol’ or ‘m8’ to be perfectly acceptable in the modern dating world. Comedians like these have been doing their shows for a long time and have perfected their material, knowing it works, but whenever I was asked for recommendations they were about the last three I would have suggested. For the casual comedy-goer who just wants to switch their brain off and laugh, I can understand the appeal; but when you’re as big a comedy fan as I am you really need some more substance.
The midpoint of the festival brought about more great shows – I saw Becky Lucas, David Quirk, Ronny Chieng and Chimp Cop one after the other and adored all four. Lucas is a fast rising star of the comedy scene and one I’m excited to see get bigger. She is disarming but also very sharp, a good storyteller and also very funny. Quirk is one of Melbourne’s best – if you’ve seen him in years previous, you’d have heard him talk about his job customer service, this year he took it a step further and actually performed his show in the skate shop he works at. Brilliant, as always, and also featuring a great cameo from Zoe Coombs Marr. Chieng needs no introduction – “people ask me, Ronny, how do you stay so down-to-earth while being so famous?” – and he smashed his set at Forum Theatre. He is a genuinely lovely bloke as well, and thoroughly deserving of his success. (His bit on Kanye West and “Bound 2” still rates as one of my favourite bits ever.) I also saw Alice Fraser’s show around this time – I gushed about it here (you can also check out a handful of other MICF reviews I wrote there as well). It was, alongside Anne Edmonds and Corey White, one of the most emotionally gripping shows of the festival. Lastly, Chimp Cop’s sketch show was fucking hilarious. It came at a time when I was starting to notice that whilst I was still thoroughly enjoying the shows, I was laughing less. Chimp Cop’s ramshackle show – featuring up-and-comers Ben Vernel, Adam Knox, Timothy Clark and Rosie Vernel – had me laughing so hard at points it revved me up for another week.
It was around this time too that I was interviewed by Simon Taylor for Beat Magazine about my Funny Tonne experiences. At the rooftop bar of the Greek Centre, that was a great thrill. I’ve loved Simon Taylor’s comedy for a while (his show ‘Personal Best’ was another great addition to his career) and I feel like I came across pretty well in the resulting video (at least that’s what friends and family told me). You can check it out here.
I also must make special mention of ONGALS. This ended up being probably my favourite show of the festival. I was in hysterics watching their spot on the Oxfam Gala, so I made it a priority to see them. You can read more here, but I could have watched them for hours. Here’s hoping they come back again and again.
I also need to make special mention of Anne Edmonds. I first saw her do a spot at Five Boroughs early last year, and she is one of the most exciting comedians in the game at the moment. Her show ‘You Know What I’m Like’ was a five-star effort, one that mixed her intrepid stories with hilarious sidebars, brilliant jokes and a hefty touch of emotional power. On stage “Eddo” is an irresistibly energetic and funny performer, but as she revealed in the show, off stage, she often struggles. It was honest, it was thought-provoking, it was deep, but most importantly of all, it all came back to laughter – she finishes the show playing an anthropomorphic banjo with sticky tape stuck to her face. Be sure to catch her throughout this year if you can.
April 11 was a special night. I got to see two Australian comedy institutions in Anthony Morgan and Doug Anthony All Stars. Both have been around for dogs years and both were stellar. Morgan’s stream-of-consciousness style made for a highly entertaining show – he smashed a bunch of Bratz dolls with a tree trunk at the end of the show as a sign of the government’s cruelty regarding asylum seekers. And DAAS at Yarraville Club was a real privilege. I got there just before the show started, and through a stroke of luck walked in with Cal Wilson, a comic I have loved for many years. She overheard me saying I was doing the Funny Tonne and was kind enough to buy me a beer once we got inside. I’m more than happy to grab a seat and watch a comedy show on my own but after about two weeks of the festival – throughout most of which I wasn’t drinking – it was bloody nice to have a beer and have someone to sit with! Cal is also as lovely as you could imagine. (I made sure to repay the favour with a chardonnay later in the show!) But back to DAAS. I interviewed Tim Ferguson shortly before the festival and we had a brilliant chat about comedy, in particular DAAS’ style of comedy designed to challenge and offend. Whilst the trio may not be what they used to be – Ferguson has MS and is in a wheelchair, Richard Fidler has been replaced altogether by a pill-popping Paul ‘Flacco’ Livingston and even Paul McDermott has some grey hair – but they still put on an absolute treat of a show, weaving beloved old material with plenty of sharp new gags. It made two expensive taxi rides out and back into the city worth it. (I also caught the final of the Comedywealth Games. I supported Katherine Ryan til my voice was hoarse but she was beaten by Nazeem Hussain.)
The final week of the festival made me realise how poor I’d been at planning the Funny Tonne. By this point both Leighton and Sarah had long passed 100 shows, and I was going to struggle to hit three figures. I also realised there would be a number of shows I’d wanted to see that I would miss out on through poor planning, which was a real bummer, as I’ll never have an opportunity like Funny Tonne again. However I still got to see a huge range of great shows. Damian Callinan’s ‘Lost WWI Diary’ was an absolute triumph – it was one of a few shows I awarded five stars over at the blog. Rob Hunter’s Late O’Clock show was a cheeky delight, featuring Adam Hills and Cal Wilson sitting through awkward and at times downright mean interviews, as well as Greg Larsen, who was one of the unsung heroes of the festival.
Sara Pascoe’s was another outstanding show, and it is awesome to see so many hilarious female comedians exploring feminist themes in their shows (a bit about FHM was a particular highlight). Watching a show like Pascoe’s just made me shake my head at idiots who would regularly tell me “I just don’t find female comedians funny”. Put simply, mate, you’re wrong and you’re just not trying hard enough. It also broke my heart when I heard people talking up the likes of Jim Jefferies and Frenchy, who are awful, sexist “comedians” when there were so many female comics smashing it out of the park.
I’m really starting to ramble now so here were shows towards the end of the festival that I loved dearly – Mike Wilmot (his depraved, smutty humour was like a breath of fresh air) Katherine Ryan (she recognised me!!!), Nazeem Hussain (I was genuinely shocked at how intrusive ASIO can be), Justin Hamilton (an all-time favourite who I reviewed here), Sam Simmons (another favourite who is in the best form of his life), Tom Ballard (who has made the transition from breakfast radio host to extremely fucking good comedian) Rose Callaghan (bin fire correspondent who also managed to put on a hilarious show despite being in perhaps the worst location of the festival), Dilruk Jayasinha (fucking hilarious and a great bloke), Wizard Sandwiches (brilliant sketch comedy that was made even better by Dilruk laughing like a hyena in the audience), Puddles Pity Party (an engrossing mix of mute physical comedy, audience interaction and some great singing), Nic Minster (one of the most effortlessly funny comics going), Fancy Boy Variety Show (must be seen to be believed) and finally Corey White. His was the last show of the festival, and it was an incredible way to wrap things up. He has had a harder life than just about anyone I’ve ever heard of – his mother died of a heroin overdose, his father is a petty criminal, he was addicted to ice and also endured a breakup after his girlfriend revealed she had been cheating on him. He also came within an inch of suicide. He talks about all of these things in some detail during his astounding show ‘The Cane Toad Effect’, which means it’s quite dark, thematically at least. But he weaves these topics together with a razor-sharp wit, hilarious jokes and an affable persona. It would be very easy to feel sorry for him, but you spend the entirety of his show in awe of his ability to make you laugh.
That leads me into the last two nights of the festival, where I got blind drunk at the Festival Club. The 18th was awards night, and it was a hectic night for me – I left Melbourne around 6:30pm to go to my good friend Michelle’s birthday party, stayed about an hour-and-a-half, and then drove back to the city, feeling quite bad, but excited to get into the HiFi. And it was an absolute treat – seeing comedians win awards was heartwarming. Corey White deservingly won the newcomer award, while Anne Edmonds picked up the coveted Piece of Wood, adjudged by fellow comedians. Laura Davis won the Golden Gibbo, Matt Okine the director’s choice. All of them were deeply appreciative and grateful upon accepting the awards. An absent Wil Anderson won the people’s choice for about the 17 millionth time. But for me the best part of the night was the Barry Award. The festival’s highest honour, it was a strong field with internationals Luisa Omielan and John Kearns up against locals Steen Raskopolous, Lawrence Mooney and Damien Power (all of whom I managed to miss, grrrr…) and Sam Simmons. I was barracking hard for Simmons, and when his name was announced I jumped up and down squealed like a little girl. Simmons has worked so hard to get to where he is now and was visibly moved during his acceptance speech, where he encouraged the “weird” comedians to stick with it. “I always thought I was just too weird,” he said. “I didn’t expect it at all … and it is a big thing in your little heart hole, being so weird for so many years and then someone says ‘That’s good, do that more’. Still to this day, I get walkouts. Tonight I had a walkout … you can’t please everyone and that’s a good thing.” Watching that speech, watching Sam Simmons, who I’ve seen tons of times in a whole host of stupid scenarios, having seen his show ‘Spaghetti for Breakfast’, which managed to combine all his amazing weirdness with a dark and personal reveal, was a moment I’ll never forget.
And so I would like to thank everyone involved with MICF for providing me with one of the greatest months of my life. I had an amazing time, laughing, getting a sore arse, crying, hugging, dancing, meeting and chatting with some amazing comics (including Luis from Lessons with Luis!! but that’s a story for another time), and so, so much more. When I cried watching that episode of How I Met Your Mother on April 19, I realised how much live comedy means to me. For a month, I got to escape my real life somewhat, and times when I might have been at home feeling anxious or bored or sad or whatever I got to spend in the company of the funniest fucking people on the planet, and for that, I thank you all.
PS – About 4000 words and I didn’t even mention The Shelf – but that’s probably best left unsaid. A special thanks to Justin Hamilton and Adam Richard for the hostage situations and I’ll see you in season 11.
PPS – And just in case you want to read more of my garbage, you can check out the rest of my Funny Tonne reviews here. I also posted heaps of pics on Instagram and tweeted a lot using #micf #micf2015 #funnytonne @pappy90.
TOP 11 SHOWS
Dr Professor Neal Portenza
Honourable mentions – Tom Ballard, Damian Callinan, Ben Russell, Wizard Sandwiches, Political Wil, Peter Jones, Dilruk Jayasinha, Nic Minster, Sam Campbell
Aunty Donna’s ‘Older Gentleman Who Doesn’t Want A Seat On The Tram’
Bart Freebairn’s ‘What Are You Fucken Lookin At’ joke
Wizard Sandwiches’ Question Time
Umbilical Brothers’ very dark recreation of the Brady Bunch
Puddles covering “Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again”, purporting not to know the famous crowd refrain
Becky Lucas’ character Jacinta
Sam Campbell’s slideshow of a jet boat ride with an unrequited love
Sara Pascoe’s war with FHM
Justin Hamilton’s Newmarket pub routine
Anne Edmonds’ character Cheryl, who loses it when a Boost Juice girl pronounces her name wrong
NUMBER OF TIMES I WAS AN AUDIENCE PARTICIPANT
NUMBER OF TIMES I SAW WIL ANDERSON
8 – Free Wil, Late Night Every Night, The Shelf x2, Can You Take This Photo Please?, TOFOP, Political Wil
Adam Knox and Ben Vernel simulating sex with a donut and a banana in Chimp Cop
Rob Hunter telling Adam Hills “you support disabled people… I bet they love paying $50 for a ticket to your shows”
Geraldine Hickey destroying that cunt of a heckler
’til next year, comedy fans.