Movin’ On Up

It’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival time again, and that means the streets of Melbourne are filled with… well, the smell of sweaty types desperately shoving flyers at you in the forlorn hope that you’ll attend the unknowns-packed show they’re pushing. That’s entertainment!

Away from the bright lights and overpriced beer though, there’s a slightly different conversation taking place, thanks to something Rod Quantock said in a feature on MICF that ran in the April edition of The Age’s (Melbourne) Magazine. Sure, The (Melbourne) Magazine might be the most graspingly aspirational catalogue of hipster tripe either side of the Yarra, but they do love their comedians (especially if they’re managed by Token, as pretty much everyone in this article is*), so they can’t be all bad. At least, not every issue.

Anyway, in this article Quantock puts forward the idea that MICF isn’t good for comedy in Melbourne: “It’s almost impossible to get any live work now, there are no venues any more… The festival, for all it’s wonder and glory (has) destroyed live comedy in Melbourne to a great degree.” The story is that audiences gorge on live comedy during the festival and then ignore it for the rest of the year, and who’s going to argue with that?  Well…

Nobody sane is going to seriously disagree with Quantock. After all, he knows the Melbourne live scene better than anyone (and a lot better than us). Plus, his thesis has been taken up by others – notably Matthew Quartermaine over at The Scrivener’s Fancy –  who’re also not exactly short of knowledge about how the live scene works. So the following’s more of a supplement to the “MICF Killed Comedy” thesis than an argument against.

See, here’s a probably stupid question: if the idea that festivals kill off local venues is an iron-clad rule, why hasn’t The Melbourne International Film Festival killed off the local cinema industry? MIFF is a massive event in it’s own right, packed with local and international films, yet your local multiplex is ticking along just fine.

Okay, it’s not exactly a fair comparison: MIFF is much smaller compared to the film biz in general than MICF is to Melbourne comedy. But still, MIFF (and the other capital city film festivals) have been going for decades and getting bigger each year without strangling the rest of the industry: what are they doing differently to comedy?

The obvious point – and the only one we’re going to go into here, because we’re just chucking ideas about – is that good stuff is on at the movies all year ‘round. And by “good stuff”, we mean stuff that people actually want to go and see, starring people you’ve heard of and featuring things you want to see happening. That just doesn’t happen with comedy.

Sure, you can say there aren’t enough (or any) venues and you’d be right, but if you’re Dave Hughes or Wil Anderson or Dave O’Neill or Charlie Pickering (this year) you could probably find someone to open a room for you to do your thing during, say, the lead-up to Christmas. But you don’t. Often if you’re a big name (read: have a regular gig on the telly) in Australian stand-up, you wait until the Comedy Fest and then you do a “best-of” set like you’re doing us all a fucking favour. After all, you’re on the telly – what do you need to work at stand-up for? (But more on that in a moment.)

That’s part of why live comedy is dead year-round: the big names – the comedy version of the Hollywood blockbuster – are almost never on outside of the festival. If it feels like live comedy is dead in Melbourne, that’s because unless you’re a massive comedy fan – the comedy version of the people who go see arthouse films about goat herders or mournful teens in those ground-floor cinemas at The Nova – there’s nothing out there you want to see eleven months of the year.  If the cinemas stored up a years worth of blockbusters and then showed them all in a mad rush for three weeks, they’d be closing down like crazy too.

The other reason why live comedy is pretty much dead is because back in the late 1980s when MICF (or as it was then, the plain old Melbourne Comedy Festival) started up, live comedy had already started to shift from being an end in itself like theatre still kind of is (even big name movie actors often return to the stage) to a one-way stepping stone to a bigger and better world.  Unfortunately for comedy, that bigger and better world was television.

Television doesn’t really want performers who’ve spent years honing their comedy skills. It doesn’t want people who’ve developed a quality act, or figured out how to write a funny joke, or worked out how to do anything that people in a live setting would actually want to see. Television wants presenters. Television wants people it can stick up the front of a concept that they bought from overseas or was thought up by some nameless guys out the back. Television wants people who are “real people” – or who can seem that way – not stylised comedy performers. Dave Hughes’ television career took off the second he hit the airwaves; Shaun Micallef was a “cult favourite” until he started hosting a game show.

Yes, for a while comedians could get on television doing the kinds of comedy that also worked live. The Big Gig, The Late Show, even parts of Fast Forward and Full Frontal. But by the time panel shows became the comedy norm on television, live comedy was well and truly absorbed into the television process. Sketch comedy was (mostly) out, heavily written shows were (mostly) out, radio-style confessions and panel-friendly anecdotes were in. And remain in to this day.

So what? That stuff’s still funny, right? Sure it is. But why pay money to see live the kind of material you can get for free on television? We’re not talking a five minute sample of hilarious stand-up that makes you want to go see someone’s live act, and we’re not talking about the thrill of a live performance over something pre-recorded; we’re talking about comedians whose entire careers have been aimed at getting on television, and then they put on a live show that’s just like what you’ve seen them do on television. Only, you know, you have to leave the house to see it. And pay money for it. Which is fine if you want to see Talkin’ ‘bout Your Generation’s Josh Thomas live ‘cause you love him on TV. But then you’re just paying to see someone off the telly.

Because television hasn’t valued scripted or well-honed comedy for well over a decade now, and because performing stand-up is mostly seen as a stepping stone to television, stand-up now is often – not always, of course, but often -simply a “look-at-me!” showcase to attract casting agents.  Again, this is fine, but what’s in it for the rest of us? Listening to some mildly good-looking person talking about their weird life is fine at a party where there’s a chance you might get to root them, but at a comedy show… well, there’s still a chance you might get to root them. But it’s more likely you’ll just feel like you got screwed.

To sum up: the big names who could re-introduce the general public to the idea of seeing comedy outside of the festival’s three weeks are too busy on TV and radio to do so, and with live comedy basically being a try-out for television – a medium that values glib one-liners and a pretty face over anything more lasting – MICF has to bunch everyone together for a three week burst to get people interested in it at all. But at least they’re interested that long: if anyone cared for even a day about the comedy that’s shown on our televisions Hey Hey it’s Saturday wouldn’t be coming back. Ever.

*thanks to menagers over at Champagne Comedy for pointing this out

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