Sam Brooks explains his decision to cut all men out of his comedy festival diet.
Yeah, that’s a clickbaity headline.
The fact is, this year I saw a fraction of the comedy festival shows I usually see. Last year, when I was the comedy editor here at The Spinoff, I saw 42 and reviewed almost all of them. The year before, when I was just a supportive friend and comedy enthusiast, I saw 39. This year, I only managed to see seven, due to a mixture of poor scheduling on my part and circumstances more or less beyond my control.
But why only women?
Honestly, I wanted to see what it was like to only see women perform comedy. It’s not that I think the male stand-up comedians in the festival are bad, or even offensive – for the most part I’ve gotten through the last few years without seeing any material that was overtly offensive – but I harp on a lot about how I prefer women comedians to men comedians, and yet I always end up seeing a shit-ton of male comedians anyway. I decided that this year, a year when I wasn’t obligated to see a lot of shows, was a year to experiment. What would it be like to only see women?
Turns out, it’s great!
Hayley Sproull‘s Phase was a dream of a theatre-kid show. Sproull isn’t a triple-threat, she’s an absolute hydra of threats. She can sing, dance, act, write, and take you along for a ramshackle ride while doing all of these things.
Alice Snedden‘s appropriately titled Self-Titled Volume II was like the darker b-side to last year’s show, Self-Titled. It combined the dry-as-bad-gin wit and self-referential confidence of last year with edgier material and a complete lack of desire to make an audience comfortable. Bring on Volume III.
I’ve shamefully never actually seen a full hour-long Fan Brigade show, but I’ve always been impressed by their spots on line-up shows and on TV. If they win in that format, they absolutely soar over an hour that allows their chemistry, charisma and seriously solid pop songs to bloom and bump each into each other. There’s a genuine joy they find in giving the audience pleasure, which is more rare than you’d think in a comedy festival.
In a similar vein, while Donna Brookbanks shines as part of improv troupe Snort, she’s an absolute delight over an hour, and no performer makes me feel more at home than her when she’s onstage. You feel director Hamish Parkinson’s hand prints on this show a bit, and it proves that they’re a fruitful match: Parkinson’s absurdism finds a warm resting place in Brookbanks’s performance.
Melanie Bracewell is a deserved Billy T winner – her show was a masterclass in the old-school, lean-on-a-mic style of stand-up with enough new-style performance flavour to keep it relevant. She’s a hell of a writer too, and the last ten minutes is so beautifully structured that I was red with jealousy.
Why Does This Feel So Good? was a perfect 10pm show, and a solid showcase for relative newcomers Brynley Stent and Rhiannon McCall. It was a bit loose, a bit raucous and showed off both performers’ strengths – Stent’s absurdist bent, and McCall’s straight-up dryness – without ever falling apart.
Sieni Leo’o Olo showed amazing promise – she has presence, comic timing and a physicality that seasoned pros would be jealous of, despite a slightly rough 40 minutes (where I bravely volunteered for audience participation because nobody else was) and I can’t wait to see what she does next year. The Q Loft is an unforgiving space for even the most seasoned of performers, and while Olo doesn’t quite meet the literal high ceilings of the place, she’ll be more than up to the task sooner than any of us are ready for.
I went into shows knowing that I was unlikely to deal with sexist or racist material (although it’s not like women can’t be racist, even within the confines of this festival) and that I was probably going to stay firmly within my comfort zone. Hell, I even made sure that I would be seeing women I knew I would enjoy – the usual Basement crowd, a woman of colour, and two people who I’ve loved on TV.
As a gay man, I’ve found more kinship and more to relate to in both the comedy and the drama of women than men, and as someone who has been watching stand-up since childhood – when there wasn’t a huge number of gay male stand-ups – I’ve connected a lot more with women. Margaret Cho, Wanda Sykes, Gilda Radner – these are the women I grew up connecting with. I don’t even know who George Carlin is. (Don’t message me, I know who George Carlin is. He’s Kelly Carlin’s dad.)
And then, when I’d seen all seven shows, I thought: Did I just enjoy myself because I was seeing women… or because this was the first year I hadn’t run myself ragged trying to collect all the shows?
The truth is I didn’t actually see enough to satisfy my thesis – there were 22 shows with no men onstage in this year’s comedy festival. I saw seven of those. That’s not a great sample size by any stretch of the imagination.
And honestly, only seeing those seven shows revealed the frustrating limitations of the task I’d set myself. I missed out on shows by both Rhys’s – Mathewson and Nicholson – two of my favourite comedians. I missed two of the most buzzed about shows in the festival, the Fred-winning Camp Binch by Chris Parker and Giddy, by Leon Wadham. And most galling of all, I missed out on the Billy T nominated show by duo Two Hearts, who did my favourite show of last year’s festival.
Earlier this year, I got diagnosed with a boring long-term disease that wreaks a lot of havoc on my energy levels and wreaks a moderate amount of havoc on the rest of my life. The first week of the comedy festival coincided with my first treatment, which counted me out for any show that week, and these past two weeks I’ve still been recovering from that. The last thing I want to do when I’m recovering from treatment is sit and listen to jokes from a man whose experiences probably don’t line up with my own. That’s not my comfort zone; that’s the peak of my discomfort zone.
When you’ve been beaten and broken down by the simple act of getting alive and getting through the day, you don’t want to make yourself even more uncomfortable (unless you’re a self-destructive protagonist in an indie film). The truth is, if I hadn’t set myself this assignment, I still probably would’ve only seen women.
But there’s something important about spending some time in your discomfort zone – at least once or twice. Rent your discomfort zone, don’t lease it. Hear opinions that aren’t your own, learn what you don’t like, maybe open yourself to concepts that make you question your philosophies and your approaches to life. I’m fortunate in our year of the lord 2018 that I write for a publication where people aren’t going to burn our server farms to the ground for saying that I only went to see women in the comedy festival. But if I said that I only saw men I’d have to mute my mentions for a few weeks.
So, despite the entire thesis of this piece, I’d encourage people to step out of their comfort zone. Don’t just go to comedy shows by the people you’ve seen on TV. Don’t just see dudes. Go see a person of colour. Go see a woman! Go see someone who falls somewhere else on the social spectrum than you do! Stand-up is one of the easiest ways to broaden your horizons, because all you have to do is sit there and laugh.
In years past, I’ve barely curated my festival experience at all. I’ve had the energy, the time and, last year, the employment imperative to see as many shows as possible and comment on them. One of my best friends (who also took a bit of a break from the festival this year) and I would compare scorecards throughout the three week festival and be proud of how many shows we’d seen. We were Monsters™, the energy drink. I’d see shows I’d love, shows I’d hate, and shows I’d feel nothing about because it was Friday of the third week and nothing was funny anymore.
This year, I didn’t have the energy. I didn’t want to open myself up. I wanted to be entertained, and I wanted to be comfortable. I wanted to sit and laugh at people I knew would make me laugh, people who I knew would make me feel seen and people who were giving so much energy onstage that it recharged me a little. And seeing only seven shows – eight women, in total – did that. I needed recharging, y’all. This monster needed a Monster™.
Also yes, I still think women are funnier than men and I can highly recommend only seeing women at your next comedy festival.
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The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.