The Melbourne International Comedy Festival, on a tour of India as part of the ongoing Australia Fest, is winning over audiences one joke at a time.
Mel Buttle had an invitation for coffee from a fan in New Delhi even before she started her tour of India. And that is not a joke for the Australian comedian, one of the four members of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow visiting the country. “The fan posted on Instagram that he wanted to take me out for a coffee when I am in Delhi,” says Buttle, a standup comedian from Brisbane. “The internet is helping comedy. You can have fans from anywhere in the world,” she beams.
Buttle’s first joke of her act in Delhi showed why it is so. “You would love my mom because she is the same size as a cow,” she deadpanned, beginning a bunch of jokes drawn from family, friends and wider global society. “A lot of material for my jokes comes from my family,” says Buttle, the co-host of the reality show, The Great Australian Bake Off. “My parents are offended if I don’t mention them in my jokes,” adds Buttle, who works on the principle that the funniest moment of a show must come unprepared.
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And it invariably does. During a gig in the countryside in central Australia, Buttle was suddenly greeted by pouring rain. “The standup was for a charity to raise money for local farmers hit by a drought,” she recalls. Her best line of the show was: “We fixed it.” Buttle’s works also rely on the trust she builds with her audience. “Our job is to make people laugh, so they can trust you,” says the comedian, who is seeing more women now coming into a profession still dominated by men. “Only a quarter of the whole industry comprises women. But it is picking up.”
The tour of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival is enlivening the six-month Australia Fest in India, which began in October. The festival is considered the third-biggest international comedy event after the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Montreal Just for Laughs, respectively. In its 33rd year, the festival draws comedians from all over the world during April when clubs and bars in Melbourne become hunting grounds for jokes. “This year, we had 2,500 comedians doing 550 shows in just four weeks,” says festival associate director Gideon James.
If the comedians are from Down Under, cricket jokes are inevitable. Guy Montgomery, a comedian from New Zealand and the only non-Australian member of the tour, takes on that responsibility. “I was watching a sports channel in India and saw this programme, Men in Blue: Victorious, which highlights the Indian cricket team destroying all other countries,” says Montgomery, the co-host of international smash podcast The Worst Idea of All Time. “If I were to do a similar show in New Zealand, it would be called Men in Black: Trying.”
Montgomery, who has moved to New York now, the home of live comedy, says the sense of humour of New Zealanders is the best in the world. “People in my country make me laugh all the time,” he says, reeling out names of compatriots like Taika David Waititi, the filmmaker-comedian who directed the Marvel superhero blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok, and Rose Matafeo who won the top prize for comedy at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year for her show Horndog. Montgomery offered more cricket jokes in the group’s show in Delhi on November 14. “I saw Shane Warne’s autobiography in a bookshop in Kolkata,” he says about the Australian spin legend’s recently published book. “It is called No Spin. He avoids the one thing that could have made a difference.”
Like his tour members, Montgomery’s self-deprecating humour rebounds from hopeless dates to his pitiful existence as a single man in New York. The brazen confidence with which American people speak has added to his armour as well. Montgomery, who prefers to be silly than serious, stays away from “hot issues” like politics. “You just go by your day and you write it down when something funny happens to you. I usually write on my mobile phone or record,” he says. “There is no guarantee the jokes will be good. If I get one good line from one hour of writing, that is more than enough.”
Australian comedian Daniel Connell’s parents were initially sceptical about his line of work. “Now that I am well-known, they support me,” laughs the tall and affable Connell, a big name in Australian comedy. As much as 30% of his material is drawn from family and friends, “and my sister’s kids”. Connel, who performs four-five times a week in his home town of Melbourne, likes to “go dark and twisted”.
Connell, who has performed around the world, including at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, once had a fake gun in his bag while checking into an airport. “The security guard asked if I had any other weapons in my bag,” he says. His reply: “My notepad has got killer jokes.” Connell, who likes interacting with comedians from India who participate in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, believes standup is gaining ground in India. “Comedians are going to play an important role in India in the next 20 years. When you are a comedian, you are contributing to free speech,” he adds.
The slapstick humour in immigrant communities, which is increasingly becoming a major element of the repertoire of international comedians, hasn’t escaped the tour from Down Under either. Aaron Chen, a second-generation Australian born to Chinese immigrant parents, has become a sensation in Australian comedy with his prickly lines and stinging delivery. It all started with a half-time interview Chen conducted during a friendly match between visiting Liverpool club and Sydney Football Club early last year. “I played a naive character, asking silly questions instead of doing half-time match analysis,” he says about the match in his native town of Sydney. Chen’s innocent questions threw the audience off balance. “What is your favourite possession?” Chen asked one player. “A lot of people thought I didn’t know anything about football,” he remembers. Playing fool made Chen, a serious football fanatic, an instant hit with his comedy act going viral on the internet.
The success story of Chen is an example of Australia’s efforts to promote young talent. Only 23 years old, Chen is a product of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s development programme for school-age children. “I joined the programme at the age of 15,” says Chen about the festival’s Class Clowns programme for school children. Voted the Melbourne festival’s Best Newcomer last year, Chen’s immigrant jokes are lethal: “I once started using a new brand of toothpaste that guaranteed whiteness within three brushes. Three brushes later, I was still Chinese.”
Talking about the Indo-Australia connection, Rod Hilton, deputy high commissioner of Australia to India, says, “Australia and India are alike, we both laugh a lot… Comedy is a good way to have a social commentary on society and the fact we are able to do that reflects a free and robust democracy.”
The five-city tour of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow will end with a performance in Bengaluru on November 25.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer