Stand-up is the main route into comedy these days. Try naming a comedian who’s been well known in the past 10 years who didn’t start their career in stand-up. Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney? The Chaser team? Chris Lilley? Sammy J? Adam Zwar? Troy Kinne? It’s a short list*. And one that means that the dominant tenor of Australian comedy is that of stand-up, which sometimes makes for great comedy and sometimes doesn’t.
This year’s Tropfest runner-up was Rock Bottom, an animated short film by Nick Baker and Tristan Klein about two insects in a dive bar (played stand-ups Cassie Workman and Luke Heggie).
And while in many ways Rock Bottom is a well-made short film, its basic problem is that it’s a series of 30-seconds-or-so-long bits of barely-connected stand-up from Cassie, then Luke, then Cassie again, then Luke again, etc. rather than some funny, natural dialogue between two characters. We’re not saying some of it isn’t funny – it is – more that it doesn’t work as a film.
If you’re watching a film you expect a story, dialogue, character interaction, not seven minutes of the sort of thing that would appear between scenes on Seinfeld and last for 10 seconds. In Rock Bottom, Cassie and Luke aren’t speaking to each other, they’re just speaking into the air. Which would be fine if one of them was on stage speaking to an audience, but just looks weird when they’re supposed to be two characters interacting.
Conclusion: What works on stage doesn’t necessarily work on screen, even if you illustrate it with some good animation.
A far better and funnier attempt to bring stand-up-style comedy to a different medium can be found in Sarah Kendall’s Australian Trilogy, three 30-minute stories which have recently aired on BBC Radio 4 in the UK.
Based on Kendall’s past live shows (performed at MICF and Edinburgh), these are based on Kendall’s real childhood experiences growing up in Newcastle. This is the world of school bullies, cool kids, social pressure, weird teachers, and being too young to entirely understand what’s happening around you. These stories are funny, gripping and beautifully crafted. Two of the three can still be heard on the BBC website and they’re well worth your effort and time.
* And one we’re not entirely sure is accurate.
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