I feel for the comedians who have me as a reviewer. I really do.
Awkward admission: I don’t normally like comedy. In fact, I kind of hate it. The idea of paying money to see someone like Wil Anderson fills me with horror. If I want to be yelled by entitled dudes who have something to say about a quirky faux-science article they’ve read online, I can get that any night of the week for free at the pub.
You see, when comedy is bad it’s genuinely awful. You know the comedy I’m talking about. It’s downright depressing to be in a room full of people laughing at the simplest forms of insider/outsider humour: on stage there is a person who is an insider, he (and it is almost always a he) is making fun of a group of people who are outsiders, and we, the audience, hope we are not the outsiders – that is why we laugh. We want to be implicit in that exclusion because we don’t want to be excluded. Comedy like that feels primal and pathetic (see for example Teik Kim Pok’s recent reflection on Kyle and Jackie O).
I used to go to comedy in my university days, as much for the social interaction as anything else, but it quickly grew boring. As a woman, as a queer person, as a Filipino Australian, I just had too many opportunities to get offended at a comedy gig, ruining my night and everyone else’s.
Secondly, and potentially more awkwardly, comedy makes me jealous. Like all other insecure performers, it kills me to see comedy done well. Straight up – who doesn’t have a sense of envy when they watch someone ably commanding a room with just a mic and voice, leading a group of people through sequence of experiences in just the right way, nailing the build and the laugh, bridging the gap between the individual and the collective, making all the outsiders feel inside? If a fear of public speaking is right up there with the fear of death, then stand-up comics are your dare devil equivalents. And who’s above the occasional pang of envy as some utter baller revs their motorbike at the top of the ramp?
So when I try to empathetically consider the situation in the reverse, I can imagine nothing worse than a jealous, po-faced, scaredy-cat, PC reviewer sitting in my show, killing my Melbourne Comedy Festival buzz.
Which is why I am delighted/surprised/happy to say that Hard in the Paint, a fresh two-hander from NZ-Filipino-Iranian-Pakistani crew, Pax Assadi and James Roque, evoked none of those emotions.
Quite the contrary – Hard in the Paint moves briskly through its hour slot with playfulness, politics and pathos. To work the basketball metaphor from which the show takes its name, these two put numbers on the boards.
For last night’s show, a packed audience collected at the Greek Club for this NZ-duo’s debut at the MICF, which was a pleasing contrast for at least one couple, who had just come from another gig where they constituted the entire audience. The crowd was eclectic and diverse, both in terms of age and apparent ethnicity, but it didn’t appear to be just a collective group of Filipinos, Iranians, and Pakistanis keen to see “one of their own” (although there was, bizarrely, a guy wearing a T-shirt with the New Zealand flag). I don’t feel like I’m in ethnic comedy ghetto, more just a relatively reflective Melbourne audience. And yet within moments of these two taking the stage, race, its presence, our awareness of it, the sheer mind-fuckery of it is up front and centre. My brain is switched on. Tick number one.
While the room lacks a little in atmosphere (case in point, Pax and James have to hide behind makeshift stage wings for their grand entrances) both manage to make a fairly utilitarian space feel both edgier and cosier than it could be. Their warm-up banter is engaging, reflective of what appears to be a solid friendship between two brown kids who worked out that humour was a way to fit in. After a brief, UFC-unsanctioned battle between “sexy hippy brown dude” and “revenge girl” to decide who will perform first, James Roque takes the first slot of the show. The audience participation section was handled deftly and it didn’t involve me. Tick number two.
Now, the armchair cultural theorist in me wants to take the time to unravel the reflexive/non-reflexive sense of racial humour in James’ set, the feedback loop of representation and mis-representation that comes from acknowledging life as a “Malteaser” (brown on the outside and…you get it), but that’s boring as f-ck. And James is not boring as f-ck, so I’ll save that for my comedy thesis and you can just go watch Hard in the Paint to enjoy an affable, lightly-awkward set that spans media representation, family affection, hip hop impresarios, and the nature of cross-cultural attraction.
When James’ set closed at the half-hour mark, I was genuinely disappointed it was over so soon. I wished my mother was there to see it, if only because the last comedy gig we went to together was the Reycards and I’d like her to know that times have moved on. A couple of jokes stay a smidge too long, but that’s me being fussy. I’m not going to spoil the gags by explaining them to you, but I think there will be enough food for thought for you to consider them yourselves and you can contribute your comments in a semi-structured interview for my comedy PhD. Consider that tick number three.
In the second half of Hard in the Paint, Pax Assadi, with cheeky grin and enviable beard-swag, throws a little wilder and harder at the questions of race than James, although both are comfortable to poke fun at the (white)straw man in the room. Sometimes I’m delightfully offended, sometimes I’m laughing with hell-yeah delight. If you want to consider how the media has shaped your perception of the Middle East, the power of a gold-standard “white name”, the crushing limitations of racial stereotyping and what life looks like for Muslims, people of Middle Eastern background (or even just appearance) in a post-9-11 world, then this is your jam. Pax’ delivery is disarming and flexible, capable of playing with caricature and yet finds moments for smarter, more thoughtful reflection on the impact of the community perceptions that have moved “Aladdin to Osama”. My partner and I are still talking about the show an hour later – what? Art that resonates and makes you think? Tick four.
Is there a difference in outsiders creating humour that plays with insider outsider dynamics? Yes there is. And, sometimes, life is too freaking short to take it so seriously and even uptight wenches like me need to be in a room rocked by two dudes with mics, making a playful play for an hour of my time, with self-reflexive humour that touches on race, intimacy and what it means to be in the world. Nothing but net.
And so, for a serious comedy doubter, I can genuinely say: get off your couches, people, and go see it. I don’t care if it’s raining. The show costs $15-22 and I am sure you’ve spent that much on some ridiculous glamour-burger in your time. I know we always think that the Comedy Festival will go for ever, because those posters seem to be everywhere entire March and April, but you literally have only a few short days to get amongst it.
Hard in the Paint shows Tue-Sat 7.15pm and Sun 6.15pm til 17 April.