Book review: Mistress of Mirth’s Comedy Tour, Justine Sless

A worthy exploration into gendered comedy parameters but the delivery falls short of expectations.

In her first book, Mistress of Mirth’s Comedy Tour, Melbourne comedian Justine Sless takes us on a breathless romp through comedy from the feminist perspective. The blurb on the back observes that an excellent joke makes you laugh and think. There’s plenty to laugh at and think about in this part memoir, part high-brow TED talk, part literary anthology, and the content is rich, funny and fascinating.

The problem is that it’s not terribly accessible to the general reader. Mistress of Mirth’s Comedy Tour reads like a thesis bunged up against a comedic memoir, with some original short stories thrown gratuitously into the mix – which is exactly what it is.

The narrative is framed around an imaginative comedy tour, COMEDY – being an acronym for Call Out Male Entitlement Daily, Y’All. The tour visits a department store, hears briefly about comedy through an academic lens, and then the book launches full tilt into the first of Sless’s short stories.

Our tour guide, the Mistress of Mirth, makes weighty points about the gender imbalance in comedy, using wordplay, puns, associations and real-life examples from her own career. But it’s not an easy read. Aside from there being many footnotes, you might have to read some of the sentences twice, or at least read them slowly to fully grasp where she’s going. Take this quote, for example: ‘ … the temporal modality of comedy which is a paradoxical continuity that builds and constructs (almost exclusively) with discontinuity, starting on one track and continuing on another as if it were completely natural.’

I’m not saying the general reader won’t get this sort of thing, only that when you don’t know what sort of wee beastie a book it is, you won’t know which bit of your reading brain to bring to bear while reading it. Which makes it a bit of work. And, which you don’t want in a book about comedy, or at least I don’t.

Overall, it’s a clever and witty book, for sure, but it runs the risk of alienating some readers. And who exactly is her reader?

Sless has written something she herself would like to read … that’s all well and fine, but given how important her premise is – that women are disadvantaged in comedy for the same reasons we’re disadvantaged elsewhere – I’d like this book to be thoroughly readable for the ordinary non-performing, non-academic sheila, but I’m sad to say it isn’t.

The stuff about motherhood is completely relatable for those who’ve lived it, but I’m not convinced everyone’s going to stick with the book long enough to relate to those stories, despite this being such a slim volume.

Read: Comedy review: Zoë Coombs Marr, Dave the Opener

Genre smashing is a good thing, whether in literary non-fiction or comedy, but with such dense content as this, the reader needs some handholding.

The book’s trying to do too much at once, and this could have worked with more contextualisation and explanation. The material runs away with itself, leaving the reader behind. The academic content needs a proper introduction before being turned into jokes.

There’s a lot of stuff about Jewish humour (Sless is the founder and creative director of the Melbourne Jewish Comedy Festival), including anecdotes involving details of Jewish rituals that need explaining to the goyim (non-Jews) among us. Again, the scrapbook approach here could have worked with more conversational context, so we are led comprehensively and at a gentle walking pace from one element to another.

Mistress of Mirths’ Comedy Tour left me wanting more (mostly a good thing) of Sless’s subtle clever humour and intelligent observations – sadly, it’s too rushed and too condensed. (It also needed a more thorough copyedit.) It’s a good read on many levels but I don’t think it actually hangs together as a book.

Mistress of Mirth’s Comedy Tour,
Justine Sless

Publisher: Australian Scholarly Publishing
ISBN: 9781922669377
RRP: $24.99
Published: 1 March 2022

Liza Dezfouli reviews live performance, film, books, and occasionally music. She writes about feminism and mandatory amato-heteronormativity on her blog WhenMrWrongfeelsSoRight. She can occasionally be seen in short films and on stage with the unHOWsed collective. She also performs comedy, poetry, and spoken word when she feels like it.