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What's hot in comedy in 2017

Richard Watts

From comedians who deliberately make you sad to a new wave of feminist humour, comedy festivals are the perfect time to assess the art form's current concerns.
What's hot in comedy in 2017

UK comedian Richard Gadd is helping the art form of comedy evolve.

Comedy is a remarkably agile art form, able to respond to contemporary events with far greater speed than a playwright, composer or choreographer, whose development processes can take months, even years before being staged.

With Australia in the midst of comedy festival season – Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) concludes this weekend, while festivals in Sydney and Perth are poised to begin – it’s a perfect time to assess the art form’s current trends and concerns.

Every year sees shared preoccupations and punchlines emerging from the comedy gestalt – one year it’s Facebook or Tinder, the next it’s Donald Trump and abortion. But jokes aside, a comedy festival also allows one to consider the art form itself.

Like music, comedy is a broad church; its genres and subgenres are only as limited as the elastic minds of comedians themselves. Having seen some 40 different shows at this year’s MICF, here are some of the on-trend genres I’ve identified over the last three weeks.

Sad comedy

Hannah Gadsby's Nanette is one of the defining shows of this year's MICF.

While bad comedy is depressing, great comedy electrifies – which makes the rise of sad comedy a fascinating contradiction. Two shows in particular have stunned audiences and critics at MICF this year: Hannah Gadsby’s brilliant farewell to comedy, the achingly exquisite Nanette (the power and pain of which left this writer gasping and weeping when I wasn’t laughing) and Scotsman Richard Gadd’s equally personal Monkey See Monkey Do, a meta-theatrical exploration of fragile masculinity, anxiety and shame.

While Gadsby’s swansong has been universally acclaimed, Gadd has proved much more divisive an artist, though for this writer his is a performance par excellence in a show that makes you roar with laughter before twisting the knife by revealing the depth of the performer’s trauma.

Gadd believes that there is growing acceptance for envelope-pushing comedy that reduces the laugh factor in order to focus on more challenging emotions and darker material.

‘I think it is a growing trend currently for sure. Such as with any art form that fluctuates with the times. We are in very socially polarising times [so] I feel it is no wonder that comedy as an art form finds itself ditching the laughter count to get a point across,’ he told ArtsHub.

‘A mistake people make is viewing comedy on a laugh by laugh basis. Comedy is an art form – to reduce it to simple observations and jokes would be doing a disservice to one of the purest forms of human connection around. Art always reflects what we are doing culturally. If it did not then it would become redundant very quickly. The severity of our times means that, yes, perhaps comedy has had to get a bit more “serious” in part – but I do feel that is only indicative of the place we find ourselves in culturally.’

Read: Why we need to get serious about comedy

Monkey See Monkey Do has been criticised as 'not really comedy' but Gadd disagrees. ‘My show [is] about sexual assault – if it was joke-joke-joke, wacky bit, followed by wacky bit, pun here, pun there – it would cheapen the experience and the point I was trying to get across. Nobody is helped in the long-term by doing that. We do not dismiss theatre when theatre uses comedy to get a point across, so why is it so controversial when comedy uses theatre?

‘There is an old adage that tragedy plus time equals comedy i.e. when a significant amount of time passes we can make jokes about something that appeared too taboo to joke about at the time. I would argue this is no longer relevant. Comedy equals tragedy plus immediacy. We are living within tragic circumstances – comedy is now responding to tragedy at present,' he continued.

‘Here in Australia for example, gay marriage is still illegal. How is this happening? Are we supposed to wait around until it is legalised before we can joke about it? Desperate times call for desperate measures. Comedy needs to move with the times and if the gag count diminishes so the point of a show comes across as clearly as possible then that can only be a good thing.’  

Both Gadd and Gadsby’s show are as affecting as they are hilarious and both have been nominated for the Festival’s highest honour: the Barry Award for the most outstanding act. Hopefully their success inspires other comedians to follow in their footsteps.

Feminist comedy

Tessa Waters.

There are many bland, straight white men in stand-up comedy – too many of them, in my opinion. Thankfully, although we haven’t quite seen a changing of the guard, we are seeing a significant increase in the number of female comedians performing on Australian and international stages – and correspondingly, an increase in overtly feminist performances by such comedians as Amelia Jane Hunter, Tessa Waters (performing solo as well as in Fringe Wives Club’s Glittery Clittery), DeAnne Smith, Laura Davis and others.

‘I think this trend has been building for a while, but there is definitely a “moment” happening worldwide that I think Fringe Wives Club and I are responding to,’ said Tessa Waters.

‘The questions of “how the hell are we still having to fight for this shit?!?”; how is it that we are ignoring the giant elephant stomping around and smashing up the place? How does a 20 year old woman at our show not know what the vagina is and instead calls it a “sex hole”? How have we normalised being sexually assaulted while flyering outside the Town Hall with a “nah I’m ok, I mean it’s fine, like I’m fine, but I feel bad because I pushed him away pretty hard”? How is that two Australian women are killed per week by their male partner in their own home and there isn’t some kind of national strike?!'

Waters acknowledged that the past 12 months featured a number of events which galvanised the feminist movement, perhaps contributing to the current wave of feminist comedy. 'Whatever your politics, seeing Hillary lose was a slap in the face; then watching 10 million people march on all seven continents simultaneously for the Women’s March, becoming the biggest protest in history, was so inspiring!

‘I think I used to tiptoe around my feminist material a bit, sort of not wanting to offend anyone, but it’s gone too far now, so I think we are just coming at it more directly and getting on with pulling this shit down already. Never apologise! Never surrender!! (Tess downs tequila, draws her sword, bares her breasties to the sky, screams like a banshee and charges into battle),’ she said.

Australian born, Berlin-based comedian Amelia Jane Hunter has her own take on the issue.

‘I think feminism has always been there, always strong, considered and threaded throughout the works of many wonderful comedians. It was just overshadowed, lost in the vast quagmires of those committed to a comedy cause that was homogenous, dangerous, causing syphilitic blindness yet appealing to the status quo,’ she said.

‘A scene built on observations, anger and misogyny, fierce support of hack and back-slapping power plays, all at the expense of the craft and those who become its vitriolic road kill. This primary thinking palette was always going to be an easy one to eventually underscore, especially with the influx of performers from an array of disciplines, cultures and mind sets who broaden the spectrum for what is comedy,’ Hunter added.

Canadian-American comic DeAnne Smith said she has always done feminist comedy, but feels audiences are much more open to such material than they used to be.

'Since I started, it's been important to me to try to say something meaningful while telling jokes. The only difference now is that people are ready for it. I have a joke I wrote 10 years ago that I had to drop, and that now regularly gets applause breaks. I even have merch connected to it! Ten years ago, the general public consciousness wasn't where it is now,' Smith explained.

'The joke is simple: I saw a man with a t-shirt that said "Rock Out with your Cock Out". I'm no expert, but I would think that when you're rocking out, you'd want to have your cock tucked in. I think the shirt should read: "ROCK OUT with your cock in your pants, until the time is right, the mood is appropriate and you've been given an explicit, verbal invitation to take that COCK OUT". It's more about consent.

'I think people are ready for feminist comedy now,' Smith said.

Absurdist comedy

Demi Lardner

While Australian comedian Sam Simmons (the 2015 Barry Award winner) has successfully carved out an absurdist niche of his own, the comedy world has long favoured the offbeat, the silly and the downright surreal – think Monty Python, The Goons and more recently The Mighty Boosh.  

MICF has seen a distinct increase in the unusual this year, including Demi Lardner, Tom Walker, Zach & Viggo, Neal Portenza and frenetic trio Aunty Donna. So what’s the appeal of the absurd – and why is such comedy trending?

‘Well for one I’m very open with how dumb I am, so first off: no idea why there’s a trend,’ said Tom Walker, whose Barry Award-nominated Bee Boo can be seen in both the Melbourne and Sydney Comedy Festivals.

‘Comedy that’s “weird” for me delights in breaking rules. There are no limits to what you can do in stand-up – all you have to do is be funny, and the acts you’ve listed (Demi Lardner, Aunty Donna, Zach & Viggo, Sam Simmons) all go off in their own completely beautiful way where for me at least, I’m as much in love with them as what they’re doing onstage. That’s “clown” to me (and excuse me if I get all shitty and theoretical about this): when what you’re laughing at is the joke or bit, sure, but you’re also laughing at the fact that this idiot is doing this, you’re laughing in amazement that someone thought this up and is there onstage gleefully performing it, and you’re loving them and you can see in them that they’re loving that

‘With bits like Demi’s "Secret Stash" bit, that’s so her that it’s beautiful. Same with all the other people. You can see them shining through. That’s what I enjoy most about “this style of comedy” (though I do have a shithead’s hatred of labelling things): that you can see the idiot onstage so clearly. Some people can bring themselves out in stand-up perfectly, some get weird and it does exactly the same thing.’

Demi Lardner's answer to the question of why she is drawn to absurdist humour is more concise. 'I do the stuff I do because I'm a silly grub, and the world is both beautiful and horrid and I want to first burn it all down and then become king of the rubble,' she quipped.

Physical comedy

Barnie Duncan (left) and Trygve Wakenshaw.

In 2012, American comedian Philip Burgers aka Dr Brown won MICF’s Barry Award with Befrdfgth, a virtuosic display of physical comedy. This particular branch of the comedy tree has been offering up rich fruit for many years, and this year’s Festival is no exception.

New Zealanders Barnie Duncan and Trygve Wakenshaw are leading the pack, performing in three different shows between them: Nautilus, Wakenshaw’s inspired solo show, and Different Party, a collaboration between the pair that sees them scale clowning’s vertiginous heights like a pair of deranged Sherpas. Duncan is also collaborating with comedian Dani Cabs in Weekend at Barnie’s, an extended riff on the 1989 US film, Weekend at Bernie’s.

So what’s with the resurgence of physical comedy on the festival ciruit?

‘I think that physical comedy has always been lurking there, just behind the big-time comics, sometimes surpassing them or becoming them. And it just goes in cycles. But they have always been there: The Young Ones, Kramer in Seinfeld, Tati, Ren and Stimpy, Mr Bean, Borat – these types of comics are like antidotes to the observational reality-driven material of a straight stand up,’ said Duncan.

‘Maybe human brains like multifaceted provocations for laughter. Clever stuff is good. Stoopid stuff is also good. Clever stoopid stuff is the best. Perhaps right now younger audiences are discovering this type of comedy for the first time, and it is blowing their minds. It has a certain... anti-establishment allure to it I guess.

‘Personally, I like physical work because when you use your whole body to tell a joke you can add so much nuance, create such great tension, and subvert the audience's expectations really effectively. Simple things can become perplexing and strangely beautiful all of a sudden. Then quite quickly a whole new world is created in a room with some people with very little need for words or explaining. That can be really magical,’ Duncan concluded.

Melbourne Comedy Festival
29 March – 23 April 2017

Sydney Comedy Festival
24 April – 21 May 2017

Perth Comedy Festival
26 April - 21 May 2017

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's national performing arts editor and Deputy Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the boards of La Mama Theatre and the journal Going Down Swinging; he is a former member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, and a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts