Happy to be hiding out in plain sight

It's ridiculous, it's crazy but the Umbilical Brothers have us believing in stand-up comedy, even if it ''is complete crap'', Sascha Kenny writes

Shane Dundas is the success story you mightn't want your kids to know about. As one half of Australian comedy duo the Umbilical Brothers, he's forged a career out of ridiculous bathroom sound effects and overblown Schwarzenegger impersonations, of surreal Punch and Judy-style sketches that transform childlike slapstick into high art.

While the rest of us were busy working nine-to-fives, he was busy beating himself to a pulp with psychotic koala puppets and having his imaginary intestines played like a double bass.

''It's all a joke really,'' Dundas says. ''I mean, what I do for a living is quite silly. But the fact that I get to do it is incredible.''

It's hardly a career path you'd link with jet setting and fame, but then, the joke's on us because Dundas and creative partner David Collins have been shopping a unique brand of comedy around the world for more than 20 years. Since meeting at the University of Western Sydney in the late '80s, they've toured with Robin Williams, depicted Gone With The Wind in a superior mime edition, starred in award-winning Nickelodeon cartoon series The Upside Down Show and played the Woodstock festival in front of 100,000 confused spectators.

Oh, and performed for the Queen. Of the last, Dundas explains it was ''surreal, because it's the Queen, not just someone in a Queen outfit. We got to shake her hand.''

His next show is a lot closer to home.


''I was born here and I grew up here, so I understand here,'' he says, choosing his words carefully, ''but I've been away from Canberra, too, so I know what's weird about it - it's something I make reference to in the new show.''

The show he refers to is Believe, and Canberrans will be among the first in the known universe to see it.

''It's terrifying and exciting,'' Dundas says. ''I wanted to find out if I could do a show on my own. I'm looking for self-belief. Conceptually, I'm asking the audience to believe in me as something different, as a stand-up comedian, even if the content of what I'm saying …'' (he pauses, and smiles broadly) ''is complete crap''.

Compared to the gargantuan figures he brings to life on stage, Dundas seems demure, an unassuming man in a flannelette shirt and black beanie. In his pockets are a scrunched-up shopping list and some notes jotted in pencil.

''I'm quite introverted, as a person,'' he says. ''I just want to be me. That's part of the advantage of living in Canberra. People don't expect anyone well known to be living here. ''The new one is partly a character piece. It's about me being nervous. It's about me doing a stand-up show. It's about a sort of false collusion with the audience.''

This from a man whose sketch Bathroom has generated 3.5 million YouTube hits. That's a million more than the entire population of Slovenia.

''Thanks to YouTube, we went to Poland for the first time and sold out,'' Dundas says. ''We didn't even put that stuff out! Someone recorded it and just did it. Luckily our stuff works in a different window. It's like a little cartoon.''

It's this portability of content and context that makes the Umbilical Brothers such a unique force in Australian comedy. While others trade on looking and sounding Aussie, Dundas and Collins are performers in a more classical sense. Their manic vignettes of domestic chores and routine tasks going absurdly wrong lets them traverse all sorts of cultural divides, delivering comedy that references traditional theatrical archetypes like mime and puppetry, and subverts them to hilarious effect. Surely then, Dundas holds the great masters in high regard?

''Actually, there's more a level of disrespect,'' he says. ''I do acknowledge how fantastic those performers were. Back in 1995, in London, we were playing in a small theatre next door to the theatre that Marcel Marceau was performing in and we got to watch him for a dress rehearsal. He was doing his mime thing, and it was all very silent, of course. And a piece of scenery came down at the wrong time and he suddenly broke character and yelled ''Merde!'' and launched into an absolute stream of French invective. And the moment he talked, the fabric of the universe just fell to pieces.''

It's easy to see how awkward moments like this -when the artist and his craft collide with his ego and vulnerabilities - came to define Dundas and The Umbilical Brothers. Their sketches frequently begin as dedicated genre pieces, parodying the elements of mime and theatre to comic effect. But often, the mimes fall apart and the two performers are suddenly desperately alone on stage. As the mistakes pile upon each other, the performance begins to satirise the very performance itself. It's up to the audience to carry them through, or is it? Part of what makes an Umbies show so rich is that we often walk out thinking, ''What the hell happened in there?''

And it seems we can expect a similar degree of post-modernist, intertextual comedy in Dundas's new show.

''That's partly my obsession,'' Dundas explains. ''Dave is more 'I just want to make them laugh'. I'm more into the conceptual stuff. I want to make them laugh at how we're making them laugh.''

Which is fine, but there's really only one thing we're wondering. Is there going to be any Schwarzenegger?

He laughs. ''You know what? There isn't any written in. But you never know what'll happen on the night …''

Believe is on at the Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre from May 4 to 6 and 10 to 13 at 8pm. Weekend tickets $28, weeknights $25. Ph: 6275 2700.