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Melbourne Comedy Festival and A Sunburnt History: NOT Gallipoli - Review

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by Alice Bleby (subscribe)
Alice Bleby is a traveller, environmentalist and part-time writer.
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That funny feeling
Strangely, it is possible to love the Melbourne Comedy Festival while not actually being into comedy.

I'm not a laugh-out-loud type. I enjoy wordplay, sharp wit and satire, but my tolerance for slapstick, blundering misfortune, self-conscious self-deprecation and simple rudeness could generously be described as low. This general humourlessness on my part makes me less than good company for watching comedy, and obviously not likely to seek it out as a form of entertainment when I have time to spend.

I have tried - and while I have seen some sensational shows that have made me laugh, cry and think, I've also seen some true plonkers. Once bitten, twice shy - I'm unlikely to take a punt on a comedy show I know nothing about, while the memory of sitting in a darkened room gritting my teeth for an hour still lingers.

However, having recently returned to make Melbourne my home once again, I made a resolution to get out into the magical life of the city more often; to be more adventurous on home ground, as I would be in a city I was visiting. And so on Saturday - albeit having left it to the last weekend - I overcame my inclination to stay inside, away from the rainy cold night, and made my way to the 2015 Melbourne Comedy Festival.

It may seem peculiar to be raving about the Comedy Festival as a self-confessed comedy-sceptic, but I do rave about it – or more precisely, about the effect it has on the city. During the Festival, Melbourne buzzes with people spilling on to the streets, on the move from venue to venue, out and about until late almost every night of the week, and braving any weather to join the funny. If you pass through the city at all, you can't miss it. Spaces in buildings that often lie dark and unused are lit up every evening; people pack themselves into tiny venues or lose themselves in a crowd of hundreds to see one of the headliners. And everywhere, people laugh.

I worked for a brief while in the draughty corridors of Trades Hall, where the back building provides shelter to the odd cash-strapped NGO. The blank walls are broken by occasional posters and a few campaign stickers tag the banisters. But the uninsulated practical day-to-day of this historic building and hub for the city's labour and progressive movements couldn't be more different from the warm glow the buildings exude during these three weeks in autumn.

comedy festival trades hall bar
Trades Hall is transformed for the Comedy Festival


The corridors are papered with posters jostling for prominence, advertising all manner of comedy. Coloured lights are entwined around scaffolding and balustrades, and the semi-enclosed concrete space underneath is transformed into bar and box office, warmed by the waiting punters and a few ambient gas heaters. There are people everywhere – audiences coming out of one performance while others line up for the next; comics spruiking their shows; and cheerful staff marshalling the crowds in and out of the multiple venues within Trades Hall.

Having set myself the task of choosing a show to see, I found the program somewhat overwhelming - hundreds of listings in alphabetical order, with no colour-coding by genre or similar useful gimmick for the uninitiated, to help me decide.

Thankfully, I happened upon the listing for "A Sunburnt History: Not Gallipoli" - the 2015 incarnation of a show I saw at the festival a couple of years ago. Clever, political (if perhaps choosing easy targets), well executed and containing some brilliant donkey puns, I was well-rewarded for placing my trust in past experience. Two versatile and engaging performances from Charlie and Spanky, strong physical and verbal sequences, and a tight script weaving social commentary, satire and the trademark dose of Australian history factoids-plus carried the hour away. Even the nudity was so well done it was funny. And there was something prescient in the lambasting of the use of ANZAC as a marketing gimmick, given the show was written, rehearsed and had in fact opened before Woolworths hit the headlines for exactly this reason.

trades hall comedy festival program
The options can be overwhelming...


So my adventure into the wet and windy night was worth it - not only for the fun and funny of "A Sunburnt History: NOT Gallipoli" but also for the interaction with Melbourne's vibrant heart: people milling around in pools of coloured light, energy and chatter on the streets, and wide smiles on passing faces.

Because whether you're a comedy aficionado going to three or four shows a night, or a Festival novice, or a sceptic – the Melbourne Comedy Festival brings out some of the best in the city. Perhaps because laughter, that fundamental human response, is an easy thing to share with a stranger.

"It is more fitting…to laugh at life than to lament over it" - Seneca
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