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‘Kids are like the drunkest crowd at a late night gig’: The comedians who perform stand-up, for kids

Stand-Up For Kids is the only show in the Comedy Festival aimed at one very specific and special audience: children. Sam Brooks talks to performers Tessa Waters and Chris Parker about performing for kids, and why young audiences love comedy.

Sam Brooks: So what’s the appeal of doing stand-up for kids, for you as a maker/performer?

Tessa Waters: I LOVE working with kids, they bring so much energy and joy but they are also some of the toughest audiences! Like the worst thing that can happen in a show with adults is the odd heckle, but with kids if they don’t like you they just turn around and start playing with something else.

But I love it, I’ve been doing my kids show around the world for about a year and it’s all about body positivity and confidence building through dance and rock ‘n roll, and the energy and commitment the kids bring to this is so much fun!

How do you test out material like that? Is it any different from working out a show like Over Promises?

Nah exactly the same! For me it’s all about having the idea and then just getting up and trying it. If you get a laugh that’s a win and a sign to keep following that idea and if not, in the bin with you!

But with kids it’s also about clarity, they can get wild and the show I do kind of encourages that, not wild so much as involved, expressing themselves, and letting their freak flag fly. What I love about kids is they are still playing every day so the jokes can go forever and we go to some hilariously unexpected places.

That’s really amazing. I’ve been thinking about how much I would’ve loved to see a performer like you when I was a kid! What do you think the kids get out of it?

From my stuff I really see them gain confidence and come into their own. I do a bit where I ask them to pick a fave part of their body and then ask them to celebrate in a dance move, so you get lots of ‘hip’, ‘legs’, ‘arms’ but every now and again you get something more existential, like last week in Auckland this little four year old legend of a girl said ‘brain’ was her favourite part of her body, and her dance move was loads of spinning. In Edinburgh we had one four year old kid with a thick Glasgow accent say his intestines!

Oh my god! And how do you maintain your energy? You’re so high energy! Someone said you were doing like three different shows a day in Melbourne.

People often ask me this and there’s boring answers like sleep and eating well, but really – and this might sound sappy – it just comes from my absolute love and passion for what I do. Comedy making and performing is what gets me out of bed, I love connecting with people and making them laugh, always looking for that perfect alchemy of stupidity and writing. And the more you do the more show fit you get, I guess.

I think more than any other performer I’ve seen, you amp up an audience into giving so much of themselves, and that must also be so energising, right? Even more so when they’re kids.

Yeah totally, the energy goes both ways. I get a buzz then the laughter starts and that then feeds the roller coaster we go on. With my kids shows, they are up and involved pretty much from the get go, and performing on stage alongside me. I love seeing them do awesome stuff and then they realise they are awesome and then become more awesome.

God, that is so cool. I am very, very gutted there is not a time machine where eight year old me can go see Tessa Waters perform somehow. And last question! What’s your best story about performing for kids?

I had one little kid come to my Melbourne Comedy Festival show and she was really shy and kind of took a little while to get involved in the show. I don’t put pressure on the kids to be involved but sort of kept asking if she felt like she wanted to join the rest of us on stage.

And slowly she got up and starting joining in, and then by the end of doing the splits and high kicks and she gave me this big high five as she left and as she walked out of the door pumping fists in the air she shouted ‘I LOVE COMEDY!!’. Her mum was equal parts laughing hysterically and totally mouth agape. This kid was six years old, what a legend.

Tessa Waters

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Sam Brooks: So like, in your mind, what’s the biggest difference between performing for kids and performing for adults, especially in this kind of context?

Chris Parker: Well you can’t do any swear words. That’s the number one rule. But apart from that the main difference is that kids make for really honest audience members. If they don’t like you they will tell you. If they love you they might try run on to the stage and hug your leg. Kids are like the drunkest crowd at a late night stand up gig.

Do you like, have to change the register that you perform in to match them? Especially I guess if they’re so honest, it must be super easy to see if they tune out or if they’re really invested in what you’re doing.

You can’t phone it in with them for sure. I perform for kids in kids shows a lot but there is something about the energy the kids bring when they know they are going to a “comedy gig”. They are nuts! Screaming, yelling, running around they just love it. So as a performer you have to match that. You’re only on stage for 10 minutes but you age 10 years.

And the feedback must be so instantaneous, right? I mean stand-up is pretty instant as is, but with kids it must be so clear when they REALLY love something!

I have seen comedians being attacked by hundreds of hyperactive children because they were loving it so much It’s utter chaos! So brilliant.

And what do you think the kids get out of seeing something like this at their age? Maybe I was a sheltered child but I can’t remember going to anything like that when I was a kid.

Well that’s exactly it, there is not a lot in terms of live comedy for kids. There are lots of theatre shows for kids and lots of television for kids. But our goal as comedians for this show is to get the kids screaming with laughter. So it all focused at them. That’s really special. It’s such a highlight of the festival for me.

And last question! What’s your best story re: doing stand-up for an audience of kids?

Last year I decided it would be a good idea to walk through the crowd in my banana costume. Suddenly I was attacked by 50 children who were all screaming and trying to tear off my banana costume. For a split second I was concerned for my safety. One kid very nearly managed to pull down my pants before a usher helped me to safety. You would never get that with an audience filled with boring adults.

Stand-Up For Kids is on this very weekend! You can get tickets to Stand-Up For Kids in Auckland here, and in Wellington here.

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