COVID and comedy: no laughing matter?

How can you joke about a pandemic? Eight comedians tell us how.

One year after the pandemic hit hard, shuttering theatres and galleries and forcing the Australian workforce either home or onto the dole queue, things are slowly returning to normal – including the return of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, which was one of the first festivals to fall in 2020.

Additional comedy festivals are set to open in Sydney and Perth in April, and Brisbane in July.

Among the many jokes, tropes, observations and characters to be paraded on stages across the country in the coming weeks, some comedians will doubtless attempt to find the humour in COVID-19. But given people are justifiably sick of hearing and talking about the pandemic, will COVID-jokes fall flat and the comedians making them die on stage, or will their audiences respond with gales of laughter?

We asked a range of comedians about Coronavirus and comedy – is COVID funny or are they giving pandemic jokes a wide berth?

LIZZY HOO

Image: Supplied.

‘I think COVID jokes only really hit home in those places that have experienced it the worst, aka Melbourne! And then the next place: Sydney. I’ve done gigs in Adelaide and Brisbane since COVID and the pandemic material is a little unrelatable because COVID doesn’t exist there. I mention the “C” word in my show but I don’t delve into it. I’m over it. So my guess is audiences are over it too. The joke would have to be pretty good if you were going to do it.’

Catch Lizzy Hoo’s Hoo Dis? at Melbourne Town Hall until 18 April.

JACINDA PATTY

Photo Credit: Darrell Pearce.

‘Is COVID funny? Well that depends on your view of funny. The continuous and sad loss of life? Definitely not funny. However, as the saying goes, there are always two ways to look at what life throws you. I tell you what is funny: my 2020 new year’s resolution was to be more social. Instead the loners have adopted new quirky personas through the power of Tik Tok and we get to giggle along.  The life-sucking know-it alls can now be muted with one click of a zoom button. Ha! Definitely funny. And the shitty, ungrateful humans just got, well…shittier.  Personally, I did not need a pandemic to remind me how beautiful this world is and how great people are in my world.  So, how did I survive Danny-boy locking down an extroverted, solo travelling, life-of-the-party, family-loving-circus-clown? Well, we wrote a play of course, Plandemic the Musical.’

Jacinda Patty’s Safety Banana can be seen at The Butterfly Club from 5-11 April.

CHARLIE ZANGEL

Image: Supplied.

‘Lockdown brought out the batshit side of us all. I came up with a business model for my dog called OnlyHams – where I would feed him slices of ham on camera. “No cheese, though! OnlyHam.” (That’s our slogan for when we get on Shark Tank). I also discovered in lockdown that my boyfriend is a stress cleaner. So now I just keep him in a constant state of anxiety, and our house is immaculate.’

Catch Charlie Zangel’s Cockatiel at Comedy Republic from 24 March – 5 April.

ALICE TOVEY

Image: Supplied.

‘COVID is about as funny as my first open mic gig, and at least there were so few people there it was easy to socially distance. However, people are funny. Particularly when they’re asked to wear a face mask. Nothing is funnier than watching a middle-aged man rage against a tiny piece of fabric over his face. It’s like babe, you clearly haven’t cleared those blackheads for a while, the mask is doing you a favour.’

Alice Tovey presents Doggo at The Butterfly Club from 2 – 11 April.

EMMANUEL (EMO) MAJOK

Image: Supplied.

‘COVID, in itself, is not funny. No. But we all have to remember as artists our job is very similar to that of a journalist. We report what’s going on. In my case this is my experiences with everyday life issues and topics. Shying away from the truth doesn’t make it go away. However, buying vast amounts of toilet paper without the food to match, is funny. We remind people how silly and inhuman we’ve become. Only through shedding that light can we better ourselves.

‘Remember; not all people watch the news and not all people watch stand up, but the more outlets that are available to receive the information in a fashion they can understand or relate to, the better.

‘Comedy is therapy and I truly believe it has the power to heal many of life’s problems. My COVID topics have always received great responses from audience members across Australia. Not once have they ever received a complaint.

‘Let’s not forget the many times comedy was at the forefront of helping push some of the world’s biggest movements such as the BLM movement with Dave Chappelle’s comic work and the #metoo movement when Hannibal Buress shed light on the Bill Cosby scandal.

‘My art is my passion and I truly believe my words in my art are of togetherness, and not division.’

Emo’s Black Santa can be seen at Fad Gallery from 25 March – 17 April.

GERALDINE HICKEY

Image: Supplied.

‘I did breakfast radio throughout the lockdown and struggled with this topic every day. It was a constant navigation of trying to figure out what listeners would want to hear. When it comes to stand-up I think it’s a bit hard to steer clear of it altogether, it’s weird not to at least mention it. I mean the audience is masked up. We say things like ‘masked up’ now. That’s bonkers.’

Geraldine Hickey – What a Surprise at Melbourne Town Hall from 25 March until 18 April.

LOU WALL

Image: Supplied.

‘COVID isn’t funny but our experiences surrounding 2020 are; our dependency on toilet paper, lockdown haircuts, our penchant for sourdough when the world is literally crumbling around us.

‘My show is about how I spent lockdown trying to join the Illuminati. I found people are more likely to turn to conspiracies when they’re isolated; giving reason to meaninglessness helps them understand the world – even if that worldview is factually crazy. While I don’t make specific pandemic jokes, it carries that slightly manic sense of cabin fever so many of us experienced– while being an entertaining mini pop concert, of course.’ 

Lou Wall’s That One Time I Joined The Illuminati runs from 6-18 April at Storyville Melbourne.

BEC CHARLWOOD

Image: Supplied.

‘I’ve never seen COVID do comedy! But my boyfriend broke up with me the second week of March 2020 which definitely feels like a joke. I’m sure if COVID jumped up at a few open mics it would be funny. Tragedy + time = comedy. And COVID sure has plenty of both.’

Bec Charlwood’s Dirty Girl is at The Westin from 25 March – 4 April.

Melbourne International Comedy Festival runs from 24 March – 18 April 2021.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. In 2019 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021.

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