Mortgages are unmanageable, the climate clock is ticking, and Donald Trump is maintaining his grip on our collective consciousness. Looking for a punchline? Look no further than the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, descending this week with a laugh-out-loud mix of faces familiar and new. But how to decide where to spend your dwindling readies? We’ve done the hard part by chucking on a blindfold and inserting some drawing pins. Yeah, not really. After a studiously scientific approach involving Venn diagrams, flow charts and an hour or two of scrolling through some very funny videos (tough gig), we bring you nine local and international comedians never before seen on the MICF solo stand-up bill. We genuinely think you’ll be amused …
Edinburgh Fringe bounced back last August for the first time since COVID hit and a bit too soon for its canny local audience; performers returned with gloomy reports of low ticket sales in tandem with raised rents and high prices. Not Leo Reich, however, who burst out of the post-pandemic starting gate with his debut show Literally Who Cares?!, which is both a manifesto for and a scintillatingly exact skewering of self-absorbed, entitled, terminally anxious Gen Z.
Strutting in his camp club gear, eyeing us beadily through a fashionably non-binary acreage of eyeliner, Reich tells us he has come to raise awareness. A pause. “I can’t remember of what.” Reich is 24; he is playing a character, but a character who is a version of himself. “The performative, narcissistic, venal, callous version of myself”, as he described it to one of the horde of interviewers who homed in on him when he became suddenly the talk of the Scottish town.
Literally, Who Cares?! is actually the happy end product of a long performance hibernation over more than two years of lockdowns. By his own admission, Reich has had a privileged life. A committed comedy fan from the age of 13, he was lucky enough to have a mother who would take him to shows. From private school, he took the well-worn path to Cambridge Footlights, followed by stand-up gigs at a London club. Lockdown led to a reckoning.
“There’s a level to which the ambition to ‘do comedy’ outpaced the amount of things I had to say,” he says. “And I guess for that reason, it started to feel quite false. I’d go on stage to tell these anecdotes I would have to beef up with fabricated details and funny lines that no one actually said. So when I wasn’t able to perform, it made me take a step back and say: ‘Why am I doing this? What am I doing here? What’s behind this constant need and desperation to perform myself to other people?’ Maybe that’s what’s funny! Getting on stage and telling these stories and thinking, you know, what I’m doing here is really interesting!” He shakes his head. “How could I think that?”
Making a mockery of his own narcissism has clearly touched a common nerve. “I think the narcissism of being ‘the younger generation’ is endless and has always been a thing,” Reich says. “Hopefully the show has an ironic take on the illusory belief that life is worse for you than it has ever been for anyone else, but at the same time balancing that with the ways in which it is, actually, potentially harder.” Property prices, of course – that frequently noted drop in the ocean of despond – but other, much bigger problems, largely to do with the end of the world.
“Everything day to day is pretty easy – for me, at least – and then the big picture is absolutely horrendous,” says Reich. “And having to deal with that is funny. You’ll be going, ‘Well, is the world going to be flooded in 40 years and everyone will die?’ But you’re thinking that as you’re drinking your fourth iced coffee on the way to the theatre, because those consumer luxuries are very present. That’s quite a weird new mix of stuff, and I wanted to dive into that.” Stephanie Bunbury
Leo Reich – Literally Who Cares?! is at Melbourne Town Hall, March 30-April 23.
When Chinese-born comedian He Huang auditioned for Australia’s Got Talent last year, it was mainly to get a TV credit on her CV. She swears she did not foresee what happened once her audition aired. Her routine about being an unmarried Chinese woman of a certain age (referred to as “leftover ladies”) and a one-liner apologising for “the COVID” quickly went viral, racking up millions of views on YouTube, Twitter, TikTok and Chinese social media app Weibo. Many people, particularly in China, were unimpressed, and Huang became the target of nasty online comments.
“Those jokes have been tested again and again in different crowds and different countries, so I know the joke was working, but I didn’t know it was going to be such a blow-up,” says Huang, 32, and now based in Sydney. “It’s insane how heavily censored and sensitive people are in China – anything about China just makes them so triggered!”
Most of the controversy, she says, was from China and “some of the conservative Asians living abroad”. “People left pretty extreme comments – but I think some of them were hired by the government; there’s a job for that. Attacking people who have a different view from the mainstream propaganda.”
She’s not, she says, a political comedian, although fans coming to her first Melbourne
International Comedy Festival show, Bad Bitch, can expect topics that would likely be censored in China.
Originally from Chongqing, Huang has been doing stand-up for less than five years. She left China to study public policy in the US, but had always loved comedy. “I thought I was going to be a public servant, like all my family, but I realised I might not fit in the world of my parents or aunties,” she says. “You didn’t have a lot of freedom to explore yourself growing up – everything is about study, being a good student and then entering uni, [having] a good job.”
But when she tried stand-up in the US, something clicked. “I felt really happy to talk about my life and people laughed! I was like, oh, you can actually do this as a job? This is awesome.”
She moved to Melbourne to be a comedian and, despite arriving just before the pandemic, has garnered a loyal following of both Asian and white fans. Bad Bitch, she says, is about her life and identity as part of the Chinese diaspora.
“It’s about my life as an international student, a little bit about language differences, cultural differences and family,” she says. It’s not, she warns, family friendly. “I talk about how I figure out sexual liberation. I’m not sure people talk about that, but for Asians it’s a typical topic we talk about.”
In China, she says, there’s very little discussion of sex, and even now, there is no sex education in Chinese schools. “We just have biology class,” she says. “The only dick I’d ever seen before I went outside of China was a cross-section dick in a biology textbook.” Kylie Northover
He Haung – Bad Bitch is at The Victoria Hotel, Acacia Room, March 30-April 23.
It seems Sara Schaefer has comedy covered from every angle – she’s done stand-up, hosted and written for TV, published a memoir and won a few Emmys along the way. But when the Los Angeles resident visited Melbourne in 2017, a whole new realm opened up. “I was introduced to the entire world of the solo show and the festival system. American comedy doesn’t have that.”
Melbourne has long been home to one of the world’s largest comedy festivals, so it’s easy to forget that most places don’t give themselves over wholesale to a month of laughs each year. A comedy festival in the States might last a weekend: “You’ve got two days to get in and network and party and get drunk off your ass and oh my god the stakes are high. But with the longer ones, it’s more about living somewhere for a while and being part of that city.”
She first experienced Melbourne when she was invited to appear as part of the annual Headliners showcase, in which experienced international stand-ups each perform 20-minute sets. She was instantly enamoured with the city, describing it as a “clean New York”.
“All the different types of cuisine and art, being very walkable and the public transportation. And it’s just a little bit more put together and doesn’t smell as bad.”
When she decided to create her own full-length show to tour festivals, it was a no-brainer where it would debut. “I was so inspired in Melbourne by all the different types of shows I was seeing and how creatively free everyone was, compared to the very traditional stand-up path in the States. I thought god, I really want to do something different.”
Going Up is a far cry from the cookie-cutter stand-up of the States. It’s Schaefer conducting a fake seminar on how to make it in comedy. If Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette deconstructed comedy as an artform, this show does something similar to comedy as a business.
“It’s a big debate over here. It’s a big part of the cultural conversation, what is comedy, who gets to be a comedian, what is a comedian, what’s the purpose of comedy? All of those questions I’m exploring in this show. It’s comedy about comedy but it’s about much more than that.”
It’s an industry rife with competition, snarkiness, envy and gatekeeping, but most of that is kept out of public view.
“A lot of people will say comedy is a family, comedians are family and we have each others’ backs. I’ve always found that to be such a ludicrous statement because comedy is one of the most individualistic artforms. You’re literally alone up there on stage, it’s just you, you’re your own CEO. Literally, many of us, including me, have our own corporations that we run and we’re president and CEO of them.”
Perhaps that’s why Schaefer was bitten by the festival bug so hard – in such a cutthroat world, she says, it’s kind of like summer camp. “A community forms … You’re in the same theatre every night doing an hour, and that’s an experience that’s extremely valuable. Plus all the comedians I met, it opened my eyes to so much outside of my little world in the States. I really loved it.” John Bailey
Sara Schaefer – Going Up is at Melbourne Town Hall, April 1-23.
One advantage in being a transgender comedian, says Brit Jordan Gray, is that there are loads of tired old subjects that you can give a new twist. “Like: ‘Leaving the toilet seat up to most wives would be annoying, but to a transgender woman, almost a thoughtful gesture’,” she says. “That’s like a 100-year-old piece of humour about leaving toilet seats up – what’s called four-generation comedy – but my own personal take is, I think, why I can make that funny.”
Gray started out as a pop singer who sat at a piano, “aspiring to be a sort of David Gray” and made several albums. That career culminated in her competing on the TV reality show The Voice UK in 2016, a year after she had started to transition. Live on TV, wearing a red suit while sitting on a red couch, it suddenly occurred to her that rather than tell her interviewer how she was feeling that day, she could entertain everyone by trying to disappear into the upholstery.
“I don’t know how funny it was, to be honest,” she says now. “There were six million people watching, but I couldn’t see any of them. But I thought, ‘This is a lot more fun than just doing the music’.”
So came her second transition – into stand-up. Being a trans woman isn’t her big topic – in her current show, she says, she talks mostly about Batman and dogs – but she thinks audiences are more comfortable if she addresses it.
“I always say that if I had a nose in the middle of my forehead and didn’t mention it, people would be sitting there the whole time going, ‘Just mention the nose!’” she says. When I go to see her compering a cabaret show, she picks a heterosexual couple in the audience and asks gently – and to much hilarity – if they had considered a threesome with a trans person. “Because I’ve got something for everyone!”
British audiences know that for a fact; last year, there was a flare of protest when Gray stripped off on a one-off revival of the alt-comedy TV show Friday Night Live. Top surgery: yes. Bottom surgery: no. “Now that’s what I call a knob gag!” said host Ben Elton, seizing the opportunity to bring back the ’80s in all their glory. Less sanguine critics described it as sexual assault; others were more upset by the song she was singing at the time, an absurdly pompous anthem about being a superior version of womanhood “because I was a man”.
For a transgender person, she says, that song – and the vainglorious character she plays – is obviously an extended joke. “We feel so downtrodden that I think if I make jokes about how great I am, everyone will understand why they’re ironic,” she says. “For the rest of my life, I’m an honorary woman in many people’s minds because I wasn’t born with the equipment that most people would identify as feminine. And that’s sad, but fine. Sometimes there’s nobody to blame for something that’s a bit sad. That’s just life.”
She doesn’t expect to change the minds of “people who think I shouldn’t exist”. Nor is she trying; she doesn’t see herself as an activist. “I’m doing quite well in the realm of the silly and fluffy. I’m a cartoon character – and I don’t mind that, that’s pretty cool,” she says. “I’m just a person. If I was a baker and transgender, I’d just try and make really lovely, good bread. But I’m a comedian, so I’m just going to try and make really good jokes.” Stephanie Bunbury
Jordan Gray – Is it A Bird? is at Melbourne Town Hall, March 30-April 23.
Lara Ricote, winner of last year’s Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, says once she started getting noticed in Britain’s comedy scene, interviewers would ask for certain things.
“They’d ask if I could talk about my hearing aids, and I realised that being a minority is very in,” she says over Zoom from Venezuela.
Ricote can tick more than one of those boxes: she has degenerative hearing loss, and she’s also a person of colour, being Mexican-American.
“This is horrible, but I’m a good combination of the things – I’m disabled but I’m not too disabled, I’m Latin American but I speak English. So I’m in this terrible but perfect place between all of these minorities where people can say, ‘I went and listened to this deaf girl, but I could understand her!’”
Ricote, who lives in Amsterdam, was studying political science when her sister dragged her to an improv class, and “everything changed”.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but after this class I was like, oh, this is fun – and I can do it for money? This is the best of all things!”
She started doing stand-up in Amsterdam and when she won the 2021 Funny Women Award (established in 2002 to support women in comedy), her career quickly accelerated. Winning, she says, opened doors she didn’t think were ever going to be opened.
For her first appearance at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Ricote is performing GRL/LATNX/DEF, in which she uses storytelling to explore intersectional identity, and what it’s like to “pass” – as a hearing person, and as white.
“It’s also about how cynical we all are, in terms of what’s allowed and what isn’t, what’s in and what’s out and how it feels to be brought in but also in some instances taken out when people find out.”
With both her disability and heritage not immediately obvious to others, Ricote says she often feels she’s being “sneaky”. “I feel like an undercover person of colour,” she quips.
She’s used “deaf” in the title of the show because “hard of hearing is not as snappy. But I am hyper aware that I shouldn’t be saying deaf,” she says. “I don’t belong to the deaf community. I will eventually! But not yet.”
Part of GRL/LATNX/DEF, she says, is about her “coming out”.
“I feel like for most of my life I’ve been sneaky because I could pass, and cynically I’m coming out as a lot of these things,” she says. “The show is about me choosing to do that, and what does that mean about me. But it’s funny! It’s not an in-depth look at those things – I’ll do that once I go to therapy for a couple of years.” Kylie Northover
Lara Ricote – GRL/LATNX/DEF is at the Westin Three, March 30-April 23.
Bron Lewis was used to tough crowds – her previous career as a high school English teacher made sure of that – and she’d already had success telling stories crafted around her own life. When she first entered a competition with The Moth, the long-running international storytelling event and podcast, she won. She’d racked up three more Moth wins before host Cal Wilson suggested she try stand-up.
“There’s a bit of a midlife crisis stench about someone in their 30s starting comedy,” she says now. “My friends were like: ‘We think you’re funny but that sounds terrifying’.”
That was three years ago, around the time a not-so-funny something was getting our attention. Never one to let an international pandemic get in the way of her ambitions, Lewis moved to Brisbane. It was all for the best.
“In Brisbane I didn’t know anyone … It’s nice to perform for people who aren’t worried for you.”
In Queensland, Lewis says, “I was able to figure out how to get good at it.” She also entered last year’s RAW Comedy competition. She won that too.
“People outside of the arts don’t really know what RAW is but in the comedy scene it’s a really big deal. It’s given me better gigs. I’ve come back to Melbourne and gone straight into gigs I would never have dreamed of when I started.”
Just three years into this comedy thing, she’s now a writer on The Project and has supported the likes of Sammy J and Geraldine Hickey. Her debut show at this year’s comedy festival is directed by Claire Hooper.
In keeping with her storytelling past, Lewis’ stand-up eschews the quick laughs in favour of the more rewarding build. “Like Judith Lucy or Anne Edmonds, when they tell a story it can go for five minutes and there might not be a laugh every 10 seconds but the pay-off is so beautiful, and you’ll remember that story forever. The attention to detail absolutely shifts the whole thing.”
Weaving together an hour-long show is completely different to performing in a line-up, she says. “You don’t have time to do a story in a five-minute spot, you don’t have time to work with cadence. It’s bang bang bang.”
Her Melbourne debut this year is about the fashion for vulnerability. “I don’t love it, and I feel like we’re in this era where we really celebrate vulnerability. Influencers get heaps more followers if they cry or pinch their belly fat and say, ‘See, I’m a normal woman too.’ I don’t relate to that, and I’ve had to really search out why that makes me uncomfortable.”
She’s aware of the irony of choosing a career that would leave most people feeling deeply vulnerable. “Standing up there and going, ‘Do you think this is funny?’, that’s this constant request for validation. That in itself is quite an uncomfortable feeling.” John Bailey
Bron Lewis – Probably is at The Westin Four, March 30-April 23.
Unlike most comics, when Dahn Rozario first tried his hand at stand-up, he found he didn’t suck. “Some of my best mates did comedy every day for two years before they got a laugh. But I was the only boy of eight cousins, and I used to wake up in the morning at age six and think, ‘How will I make the girls laugh?’”
Making us laugh is now his whole life. Rozario decided to get serious about stand-up at 23. For the past five years he’s been doing 10 to 15 gigs a week.
He didn’t want to rush into his first full-length solo show under prepared. “I got a lot of advice from comedians who have been in the game longer. They were like: ‘When you want to do one, wait a year.’”
His fans thought otherwise. When opportunities to perform live dried up due to the pandemic, Rozario began posting videos on TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and elsewhere. They attracted a strong following, and once he was back on stages, he found he’d built up a fanbase who were thirsty for a full hour of material.
“People kept saying, ‘When can we see just you? We’re sick of seeing you do five or 10 minutes.’”
In lockdown Rozario had sometimes posted three new videos a day, but he doesn’t see himself in the “hustle, baby, we gotta grind!” school of online content creation. For him, nothing compares to the buzz of getting up in front of a live crowd.
“It’s the only thing I want to do. My whole day is a blur until I get to that gig and get to be myself. And then I get offstage and go OK, back to survival mode. Especially now after doing it for so long and getting so dependent on the dopamine I get from performing, it’s really intense.”
As a member of the TikTok generation, his comedy is appropriately fast and wild. “I think my taste in comedy is sort of like my taste across everything, like food or music or art. Whatever it is, it’s the thing that’s a little rough around the edges, that’s in the moment. I don’t want to eat some 10-course degustation with truffle butter droppings on it. I want some nonna’s pasta with cheese all over it, listen to some music that’s not so perfect, and comedy’s the same.”
Some comics compensate for stage nerves or a lack of confidence by crafting their shows with clinical precision. For a natural performer like Rozario, that would just leave him straitjacketed.
“This is going to sound so cringe but imagine when you watch a chef cooking, they’re not like ‘and now one milligram of sugar’. They just chuck it in, a handful of this, a handful of that. That’s the way I cook.” John Bailey
Dahn Rozario – White People Need to Relax is at Trades Hall, March 30-April 23.
Sashi Perera’s debut solo show is called Endings, but endings are a hard place to begin. Let’s go back instead to her first stand-up gig, at 2018’s RAW Comedy competition.
“RAW Comedy is such a great way to experience stand-up for the first time. If you get up at an open mic there might only be two or three people in the audience. Whereas this was packed with people’s friends and family and everyone’s on your side.”
She made it to the state finals that year, and in subsequent years was approached by producers to appear in group shows at the festival. Having someone hold her hand for those first few big events made all the difference.
“It was incredible having someone running everything for you, and you just get to rock up and experience the festival without having to do all the admin. I got a really good sense of the excitement behind the scenes. Now I feel ready to deal with it on my own.”
Perera’s path to the stage has been anything but straightforward. For more than a decade she worked as a refugee lawyer in places as far-flung as Cairo, Manila and Ankara. It was while studying for a masters in law that she switched tracks and threw herself into comedy with the same zeal.
“I’ve had to build myself some real guardrails around this, because I have a tendency to say yes to everything. I’ve learned that six gigs in a week is too much. But to be honest, coming out of lockdown, experiencing things with people still feels like such a novelty so I have a lot of trouble saying no.”
As Perera has hit it off with audiences, she has found her comedy shifting focus. “When I started, I didn’t want to talk about being a woman, I didn’t want to talk about being brown. I was just like, I’ll talk about doors and automated voices, things everyone can relate to. But I found the more of myself I put in, the more personalised I made it, the more I was connecting with audiences. I’ve found a bit of confidence telling my story.”
Some of her recent Instagram videos have even gone viral, “which I did not expect in any way, shape or form. I honestly felt like I was far too old to even think of downloading TikTok and things like that. But I think because my content talks about things that are going on around the world, it’s helped me connect with a global audience, which has been really exciting.”
Which brings us to Endings. Not so long ago, Perera experienced three endings at once. “I changed countries, career and partner, and that’s when I learned that we don’t really talk much about endings. We find them really difficult to manage. So this is a show about that. I want to squash people’s fear of endings.”
All that said, she admits, “I’m still working on the ending for the show.” John Bailey
Sashi Perera – Endings is at The Chinese Museum, March 30-April 9.
Dave Woodhead has been a voice on national radio for the past few years. You might think that would go to your head. But as a host of Triple J’s Lunch, “we get hundreds of thousands of people listening at any point, and I feel nothing. When I go on stage, even if it’s just 10 people in the crowd, I get very nervous and start shaking. It’s not just being nervous, it’s the adrenaline kicking in. It’s such a rush the whole time.”
Woodhead’s debut at this year’s festival has been a while coming. He first came to attention via the festival’s Class Clown competition for teens. Growing up in Darwin, he wasn’t a great student but had a knack for oral presentations. “I kind of cracked the code that if you chucked a couple of jokes into the presentation and got the teachers laughing, they’d start bumping up your grades.”
When he saw an ad for Class Clowns, he decided to give it a shot. “The week leading into it, I remember being so irritable and really on edge. Later on you could look back and realise that was really intense anxiety building up. But I was a horrid teenager for a week there.”
Just before he took to the stage he suffered “a classic high school situation, an American Pie moment, where I completely ripped my jeans in the worst place, right next to the crotch. I had to do the first show holding my shirt down, but as soon as I got my first big laugh was the first time I’d relaxed in a week. I suddenly felt so calm and completely at ease.”
He hasn’t looked back since. “The rush is why you keep doing it after a while, to chase that feeling.”
It’s been nine years since his Class Clowns appearance, and since then he’s become a well-known name in Australian comedy. He was all set to debut his first show in Melbourne in 2020 when the festival was shut down by COVID-19.
“To be honest, I remember going into that festival feeling like the show wasn’t ready, it wasn’t really reflecting who I’m trying to be and the kind of performing I want to do. A lot of the material was half-baked.”
The three years since were hard on live performers, he says, “and there was a point where I felt I was maybe thinking about not doing stand-up any more. But then I took away all the external pressures I was having with stand-up and started having fun with it again, and the material started reflecting that.”
He’s learned that a festival is a mental game, too, and he’s feeling match-fit. “When you’re doing a show every night, you want to impress the audience and you’re hanging around with comics so there’s almost a competitive thing in that. There’s just all this unnecessary bullshit that can cloud what you’re actually trying to do.
“But the biggest challenge when doing the comedy festival, and it sounds like something my mum would say, but it’s to remember to have fun. Just remember that comedy is a fun thing and the people who have come out that night to see you want to have a good time.” John Bailey
Dave Woodhead – Lunch for Dinner is at Trades Hall, March 30-April 23, excluding Wednesdays.
The Melbourne International Comedy Festival runs March 29 to April 23. The Age is a festival partner. http://comedyfestival.com.au
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