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Canberra Comedy Festival: Being funny is serious work!

Ask Maddy Weeks to cite the funniest joke she’s ever heard and she replies (quoting a gag from comedian Frankie McNair, with whom she sometimes works), “My dad said: ‘Always leave them wanting more’ (ironically, that’s how he lost his job in disaster relief)”.

And other in the troupe, Tom Gibson, mentions a joke about the aardvark making up its name on the spur of the moment when Noah was saving animals from the flood in alphabetical order.

Idris Stanton mentions a favourite by English comic Tim Vine: “I’ve got an old vacuum cleaner at home that I never use. It’s just collecting dust.”

You get a sense from them that they are comrades. They listen to each other and feel each other’s pain. It is the camaraderie of a vulnerable group in a high-risk occupation. They know each other’s  routines and those of the best comics outside Australia.

Their wit is razor sharp (as it has to be to do live comedy). Ask Emma Holland about her pre-show ritual and she replies that she always sacrifices a lamb. She is joking (probably).

All of them seem to suffer from nerves and adopt soothing pre-performance rituals to cope with them.

Maddy Weeks said, “I am just very nervous, always. I have to do vocal warm-ups before ordering in the Maccas drive thru.

“I am clinically sweaty. But my pre-show nerves have gotten a lot better. I’ve had some truly terrible, horrendous gigs and I’m not sure anything will ever surpass them.

Canberra Comedy Festival organiser David Graham, comedian Maddy Weeks and other comedians are excited for the Canberra Comedy Festival.

Canberra Comedy Festival organiser David Graham, comedian Maddy Weeks and other comedians are excited for the Canberra Comedy Festival.Credit:Dion Georgopoulos

“I’m ready for anything and it’s a great place to be at.

“I do still get nervous, especially if it’s a high-pressure gig or my mum’s in the audience. To pump myself up before shows, I listen to Intergalactic by the Beastie Boys and chug a Vanilla Up’N’Go.

“Sometimes I play the recorder backstage for good luck (bad luck for everyone else on the show).”

Idris Stanton said, “I get nervous every single time I perform but that is what makes me feel alive. It doesn’t matter if there are two people or two thousand, I still want to give them my best.”

The nerves never seem to go away. Some say they are necessary to a good performance and a good performer.

As Chris Ryan puts it, “I still get a huge hit of adrenaline. It makes my heart race until the moment when there’s no escaping it. You’ve just got to go and do it.”

But there’s an up-side: “The best thing is that there’s no high quite like it.”

That, she feels, is some compensation for all the travel to festivals and gigs, away from her family.

She said she never really switches off from looking for material. She has an eye and an ear for absurdity and the odd things people say and do. She said her mother was “the queen of non-sequiturs” who had accused her of moving the barbecue and “that would make the birds sad”.

When you talk to a crowd of comics – maybe the collective noun should be “a jest of comics” – it’s clear they don’t do it for the money. They may dream of a national show or fame on a Jerry Seinfeld scale but it’s the buzz that keeps them singing for their suppers.

Or not. Tom Gibson works for the ACT Government’s Department of Human Services by day and as a stand-up comic by night – or, as he puts it darkly and falsely for comic effect: “Comedy pays the bills but public service is what I do for me.”

Tom Gibson.

Tom Gibson.Credit:Sitthixay Ditthavong

Being funny is hard work, he says. “Ideas don’t just pop into your head.” Like Chris Ryan, he looks for material constantly in the absurdity around him – even the absurdity of a comedian working in a staid public service job.

“I do usually view the world humorously.”

He develops a routine and plays around with it, cutting out unnecessary lines and adding lines which fit the moment in a mixture of script and ad lib – “improv” as they call it.

So it’s tough. They are brave and sensitive and intelligent – and funny.

And, be warned, ruthless. Don’t think of heckling. Firstly, you shouldn’t need to because you will probably be laughing.

And secondly, you’ll come off worst.

As Maddy Weeks describes the way she deals with troublesome hecklers (the capitals are hers): “Assert your dominance. IMMEDIATELY.

“They need to know that they’re not ‘helping’ you do the show.

“The good thing is that the audience is immediately on your side when someone heckles you (USUALLY) so whatever you say will generally land fairly well.

“I always think of a better comeback, alone in bed at 4am after the gig, but that’s all right.

“It rarely happens. It’s like, as a kid I thought being trapped in quicksand was going to be more of a problem. But it’s not.

“I’m constantly mentally preparing myself for it though.”

The Canberra Times sought the views of Josh Glass of Whet Brekkie Presents, Chris Marlton and Nick Schuller of Three Blind Men, Idris Stanton of Wham Glam Circus Man, Maddy Weeks of Blade University, Tom Gibson of Disruption, Simon Bower of Not Santa Claus Material, Frances McNair of Frantasia, Lou Maconachie of Lightbulb Improv, Tanya Losanno of The Good, The Bad and The Elderly, Emma Holland of Dolly Doctor Strangelove and Chris Ryan of Bogus.

They’re all appearing at the Canberra Comedy Festival which runs from March 18 to 24.

Steve Evans is a reporter for The Canberra Times.

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