A new and increasingly diverse wave of comedians is delivering a fresh take on a shopworn genre. And audiences hungry for comedy that resonates are lapping it up. By David Smiedt.
In times that seem darker nightmares, people have historically turned to comedy. A good joke or well-crafted entendre provides the brain with an angst circuit-breaker. For just a moment, the worries associated with marriage, mortgage or mismatched Margiela fade away into laughter. Watching a skilled comic live is akin to viewing a runway show with a parade of meticulously tailored observations culminating in the strongest piece in the collection.
Recently though, not that much. Things are getting somewhat – and totally justifiably – tense in comedyland, with everyone from old-schoolers like Louis CK and Bill Cosby to the supposedly woke next gen such as Aziz Ansari and Trevor Noah missing the mark in varying degrees of off-stage horrendousness. In addition, heavy hitters like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock will no longer play colleges because the audiences are apparently too conservative. Here, it’s hardly any different, with what was once our leading current-affairs program, 60 Minutes, dusting off the likes of Kevin Bloody Wilson to rail against the rampant political correctness apparently infesting the mirthful arts.
Thankfully, we are not being left with a comedy wasteland. On the contrary, the void is being filled. By women.
Two words for you by way of example: Hannah. Gadsby. Her show Nanette, which was originally intended to be a farewell to the strictures of comedy, ended up revolutionising it, the stand-up equivalent of Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking and Christian Dior’s New Look rolled into one searing package. What started as a Melbourne International Comedy Festival run went on to scorch Edinburgh (winning top prize at both) before a sold-out run in New York and a Netflix special, which spellbound everyone from D-listers to on-point feminist authors.
Kathy Griffin gushed: “I’ve been a professional comic for 30 years. I’ve been studying comedy for even longer. I thought I had seen everything … until I watched Nanette on @netflix by @Hannahgadsby. I was blown away. I urge you to watch it ASAP – one hour and it’ll change your life.” Roxane Gay, author of the best-seller Bad Feminist, also jumped aboard the praise train, tweeting: “Nanette is simply remarkable. You moved me and have really made me think about humor, the self, self deprecation and the uses of anger. Thank you so much. It’s just brilliant.”
Fortunately for comedy fans in general, and young women in particular starting out in the testosterone-soaked world of stand-up, Gadsby has relented on her vow to give the game away post- Nanette. Because, quite frankly, the world needs her.
Samantha Bee is as far as you can get from a sparklingly acerbic Tasmanian lesbian, but since the demise of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, her Full Frontal program has eviscerated some of the biggest issues in the United States – gender, race, Presidential misanthropy – with both staggering deftness and consistency. The show, which plays on SBS, pushes more envelopes than sale day at the post office and although she’s overstepped the mark on occasion – she called Ivanka Trump “a feckless c***” – Bee’s take-no-prisoners agenda is everything satire should be in a world where a President can deride verifiable truths as fake news.
You can add Iliza Shlesinger, Tiffany Haddish, Mindy Kaling and Michelle Wolf to that category. Wolf said of Trump mouthpiece Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner: “She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye.” Brilliant.
And that’s just America. Over the pond, British actor and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge ( Fleabag and Killing Eve) is managing to be both incandescent and dark at the same time. On a side note, New Zealander Rose Matafeo recently took out the best-show gong at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. That’s back-to-back wins for Antipodean women, an idea that would have been in the realms of science fiction even five years ago.
It’s important to state that it’s more evolution than revolution, and that these performers are merely the vanguard of what’s to come. To use an industry term, comedy is about ‘punching up’. It’s one of the few opportunities for the marginalised, unheard and put-upon to attack the status quo with power and passion, wit and verve. And never more so in the viral YouTube era where, if the content stings enough, your own TV channel is just a click away.
Punters now want different voices, different views, different targets, different, more relatable, realities.
You know who has a hilarious axe to grind? Those who work under a glass ceiling, those who are paid less for equal work, those of colour, those who don’t identify as heterosexual or strictly male or female. Never has there been more diversity behind the microphone, and more gags that resonate with a greater segment of the population who deal with the same shit daily.
And it’s as much the audience as performers driving the change. They are the ones hungering for gear that gels with their Zeitgeist and conscience. Club owners and bookers are listening.
As a performer who works pubs, clubs and cruise boats around Australia, I have seen punters clamour for more diverse line-ups. I have seen promoters move beyond the tokenism of: ‘See? We’ve got a woman, a brown one and a gay’ to line-ups where none of those outdated descriptors need to even be mentioned. Similarly, all-female line-ups no longer have to be billed or identified as such. You’re just going to a regular gig.
As a middle-aged, hetero white comic, I have been and will be bumped from line-ups for someone who comes from a different background and bears a fresher insight. And, you know, I’m okay with it. From the grassroots, open-mic levels upwards, the time has come for both comedians and men like me to shut up for a while and just listen. Because there’s some very funny stuff ahead. Thank you, and goodnight.
Never has there been more diversity behind the microphone, and more gags that resonate with a greater segment of the population