Vale John Pinder

We were sad to hear of the death of legendary comedy producer and co-founder of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival John Pinder. He died of cancer at the age of 70 on Tuesday.

“John Pinder was a great, big, loud, in-your-face force of comedic nature” said comedian and broadcaster Richard Stubbs on his Melbourne radio show, who wasn’t even slightly exaggerating. Most Australian comedians owe Pinder their careers; he discovered or championed many, but more significantly he created the scene in which they now work.

Born in New Zealand, Pinder grew up next to a lot where circus’s would perform. He also loved radio comedies such as The Goon Show, and was a keen fan of music. In the late 1960’s Pinder co-founded a band management company, managing bands such as Daddy Cool, but by 1970 he was organising rock concerts in Melbourne. These concerts required fill-in acts between bands, which sometimes included Max Gillies and fellow satirists from the Australian Performing Group, or a group of young ex-architecture and law students from Melbourne University called The Razzle Dazzle Revue (Rod Quantock, Mary Kenneally, Steve Blackburn, Alan Pentland and Geoff Brooks).

At this time the only venue for live comedy in Melbourne was the rear auditorium of the Pram Factory, home to the Australian Performing Group. The Razzle Dazzle Revue put on a show there (attended one evening by Pinder) but despite its success there was nowhere else for the group to go after the run. Just as they were thinking of disbanding, Pinder opened The Flying Trapeze Café, a live cabaret venue operating on a shoestring budget; the Razzle Dazzle Revue soon took up residence there.

Pinder’s motivation for opening The Flying Trapeze, it is said, was a “desire to create somewhere interesting to spend his evenings”. He certainly succeeded as the venue quickly became popular, with audience members often spilling out of the Café and on to the street straining to get a glimpse of the show. Building on this success Pinder opened The Last Laugh in 1977. Early acts at the Last Laugh included Richard Stubbs, Peter Rowsthorn and Circus Oz.

By the 1980s other live comedy and cabaret venues (including the famous Le Joke, located above the Last Laugh) had begun to open in Melbourne, and the city was home to a vibrant comedy scene. Comedians starting out now had somewhere to play and TV was also interested in the burgeoning scene. Shows such as Australia – You’re Standing In It, The D-Generation, The Comedy Company and The Big Gig featured acts who’d got their first professional experience in Pinder’s venues.

So big did the Melbourne comedy scene become that in 1987 John Pinder, along with others, co-founded the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. By the mid-1990’s it rivalled similar festivals in Edinburgh and Montreal, with its success leading to other Australian cities putting on their own comedy festivals to ensure that touring international acts would visit them. Pinder himself helped found or build-up several of these, and today’s circuit of summertime Australian and New Zealand comedy festival owes its existence to him.

Less well known is Pinder’s move in to television in the 1990’s, first as a consultant on Tonight Live with Steve Vizard, and then to Foxtel’s Comedy Channel. According to Wikipedia, it was in this latter role that he discovered Rove McManus.

In the 2000’s Pinder was asked to create a comedy festival at the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta, which became known as The Big Laugh. He ended up reuniting British comedy trio The Goodies in 2005, which led to an Australia and UK tour of their show, and also produced the first live shows of The 3rd Degree, which later transferred to TV as The Ronnie Johns Half Hour. He also helped devise Sydney’s World’s Funniest Island event, which launched in 2009.

There have been many deserved tributes to John Pinder in the last day or so, and there will be many more, but we think one of the best comes from Richard Harris’ 1994 book Punch Lines – Twenty Years of Australian Comedy.

John Pinder’s desire to create somewhere interesting to spend his evenings had unwittingly laid the foundations for a revolution in Australian comedy which would continue for almost two decades.

If Harris was writing that today he’d need change the “two” to a “four”, because there wouldn’t be the sort of comedy scene we have in Australia without John Pinder. Australian comedy owes him its life.

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