New door opening for comedians

Canberra's new festival is a serious attempt to put the city on the national comedy map, Ron Cerabona writes

Canberra is a funny place. If you need proof, watch any question time: if you don't laugh, you'll cry. But there's a more intentional comedy scene here, too. While the city might not have the comedy profile of, say, Melbourne with its well-established International Comedy Festival, there's been a presence here for some time.

The comedy competition Green Faces has been running at the Canberra Irish Club since 1997 and the Doug Anthony All Stars started here in the 1980s.

Stephen K. Amos will headline the Canberra Comedy Festival in March.
Stephen K. Amos will headline the Canberra Comedy Festival in March. 

A dedicated group of comedians and their associates are working to put Canberra on the national comedy map in its centenary year.

A year in the planning and organisation, the inaugural Canberra Comedy Festival is on from March 19 to 23.

Tripod, from left: Steven Gates, Scott Edgar, Simon Hall.
Tripod, from left: Steven Gates, Scott Edgar, Simon Hall. 

It's headlined by British comedy star Stephen K. Amos, who is coming to Canberra between gigs in other Australian cities.

Like many comedians, he's not ''on'' when not performing, talking in a way that's more serious and less exuberant than his typical on-stage persona.

''I can't wait,'' he says. ''I've heard so much about Canberra as the capital city.''

It will be his debut in the city he's familiar with by reputation for its ''fireworks and prostitutes'' but he's been to Australia many times before.

''I usually go to the festivals in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney but I'm going to see a bit more of the country this time. That's why I decided to go to Canberra - it seemed like an ideal opportunity to go.''

Asked his age, Amos says, ''My CV says 36.'' Pressed, he says politely but firmly, ''I'm not going to tell you that. One thing I don't ever say about myself is my age.''

For him, it's less about chronology and more about ''how you feel and the people you have around you … it's a state of mind''.

Nor does he want to talk too much about the specifics of his act, wanting, reasonably enough, to save the material for the performance.

But he's happy to talk about Australia, a country he loves, and not just because of the fact he found love here.

He likes the language and the comedy here, for example, and he's built up a sizeable profile here through appearances on TV shows such as Spicks and Specks and Good News Week as well as through touring. But it isn't all rosy.

''I don't like how the indigenous people are still not recognised properly, I don't think … it was very important Kevin Rudd did the apology thing to a large audience.''

He says lifting the quality of life of indigenous people is not just about money but providing education and other opportunities.

But Amos, who is of Nigerian ancestry, says his outlook is about being positive rather than negative. Being a double outsider in Britain - ''black and gay'' - he says he can see things differently from most people and that helps him in comedy: ''You've got to find the funny.''

In Australia, his favourite comedians include Kitty Flanagan and Adam Hills, and he says comedy here has flourished since the time he first began visiting.

''It was a bit behind … but now there are so many good strong Australian comedians out there.''

The comedy scene is even bigger in Britain, with many comedians touring and performing on television.

''It's so big right now,'' Amos says.

In both countries, he hopes this results in more opportunities for a variety of talent to emerge.

Amos says, ''With comedy, if you have a captive audience, you have the opportunity to say what you want … comedy is brilliant for that: you can make them laugh then make them think.''

The festival's creative director, Jay Sullivan, says, ''Like all good things, it started over a glass of wine, with [festival director] Tim Duck and myself. It's something a lot of people thought needed to happen … a lot of us had started to travel to Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide to perform at festivals there.''

The Canberra Comedy Festival opens with an All-Star Comedy Gala featuring short sets of all the festival's top comedians and another British headliner, Steve Hughes.

The festival will then host 25 more stand-up comedy shows over the next four days.

Among the established performers will be Akmal Saleh, musical comedy trio Tripod, and Celia Pacquola (from the ABC's Laid), while the up-and-comers include Australia's Got Talent's Luke Heggie, 2011 Green Faces winners, identical twins The Stevenson Experience, and Melbourne International Comedy Festival Best Newcomer nominees Matt Keneally and Toby Halligan.

And these are just a few of the names.

It's a wide-ranging group with a variety of genders, ethnicities and comic styles.

Since 2007, when Sullivan estimates there were about half a dozen people pursuing comedy seriously in Canberra (whether as amateurs or professionals), the number of regulars appearing has grown to more than 50. Part of the increase can be attributed to the comedy classes he's been running that help people in crafting routines.

''My approach is, you can't teach people to be funny but you can help them understand the basics of structure,'' he says.

His big break as a comedian was opening for Saleh as an unknown.

''It freed me,'' he says.

''I could be terrible, but that person is a master of his craft.''

And he learnt a lot.

One thing he's noticed as a Canberra-based comedian is that ''we tend to burn through our material a lot more often than the interstaters do''.

Because there are fewer venues and a small, and frequently loyal, audience base in the ACT, comedians here have to refresh their material constantly, whereas in Sydney or Melbourne a comedian can perform the same routine in several different venues without it seeming stale.

Perhaps it's in part because of the relatively small size of the ACT comedy industry that Duck says the Canberra comedy scene is ''very supportive, whereas if you go to some of the big venues Sydney or Melbourne it's pretty cut-throat in terms of getting gigs''.

A lot of the work for the festival is being done by volunteers in Canberra's comedy world for this inaugural event.

''We felt it was inevitable something had to happen here to some degree and we just felt it was time … there's been a lot of support,'' Duck says.

Sales have been strong for the gala event and Duck says the intention is to make the Canberra Comedy Festival an annual event.

And anything that can keep Canberrans laughing has to be a good thing.

  • The Canberra Comedy Festival 2013 is on from March 19 to 23. The primary venues will be the ANU Arts Centre and the Civic Pub. More information and bookings: canberracomedyfestival.com.au.

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