Today, Sydney’s comedy scene is filled with up and coming comedians who are testing some of the most outrageous and ridiculous new ways to make people laugh. Some of those comedians driving the form forward are Zoë Sitas and Theo Murray who often attend and perform in open mic nights. For them, open mic nights are a great way to step into the professional comedy world, gain more experience and test which material of theirs works and which doesn’t. While there are many venues that host these open mic nights, the community that has developed around the Old Fitz Theatre provides a platform for the concerns of young comedians.
During a stand up show, there is nothing hiding the politics that influence writing, creating and performing comedy. The immediacy of the audience and the need to constantly make people laugh in order to prove yourself as a comedian means that it is instantly clear who is performing, and what it is they are communicating to the audience, and controversial issues are a gold mine for reactions.
“A lot of new comedians who start doing stand-up seem to notice that controversy has some effect on the audience, and just play with that, without handling resolving or handling the tension they create,” said Murray. While comedians are often given room to make controversial claims, this can extend to offensive and harmful statements, under the guise that laughter will find the line between right and wrong.
The days of courting controversy as a straight-forward way to audience engagement, however, may be numbered. Comedians and audiences are increasingly aware of the power dynamics inherent in a stand-up comedy set, even if some are still catching up.
“Comedy isn’t defined by what I think is funny, it’s about what the audience thinks is funny and the world is changing around us. You have to keep up with the world but in these little open mic nights it’s like they’re not affected by the world outside,” said Sitas. Murray agreed with this perspective, “If your entry point is open mics, you’ll be met by a bunch of edgy dudes who go for controversy over comedy, and people looking to build an individual name for themselves and hone their own skills rather than build a community.”
As diversity and representation are demanded across society, this belief that comedy needs to be controversial is one that is coming more and more outdated. For audience members, easy jabs at minorities can be exclusionary, especially for those who are trying to enter into the comedy world. “The scene isn’t very varied, the open mics I have been to have had a majority straight white male perspective, with a lot of comedy still relying on outdated jokes about different social groups, and controversy without a real attempt at comedy,” said Murray.
For Sitas, the effect of these jokes was by no means abstract. “Whenever I go onstage at an open mic night I feel like I am carrying the weight of representing all women, I feel like there’s this pressure that I have that men don’t have.”
Sitas described how she has to overcome expectations foisted onto her before she walks on stage that is dominated. “I feel like when I don’t perform well I’m a bad feminist, because if you bomb then people think ‘well women really aren’t funny.’”
Murray has also witnessed these barriers for women; “it’s much harder and less welcoming to people who don’t share that straight white male experience, particularly women, and I’ve seen men advance past more skilled and funny women.”
The idea that women aren’t funny or are less funny is perpetuated by the narratives that male comedians rely upon. “Sometimes you just have to listen to this guy talk about his wife and how he hates her or how boring she is and another guy talking about what makes wet pussy or what dries up a pussy,” said Sitas. These negative narratives around women not only isolates them from performing stand-up comedy, but also de-legitimises their value in these open mic nights. There is an extra barrier set for women to try and be funny, straight after the man before her has spent his set criticisng his wife or girlfriend based on their gender.
Already, this narrative has begun to change. Comedians such as Zoe Coombs-Marr and Anna Benson not only prove that women can be funny — not that it needed to be proved — but showe that women don’t have to talk about their periods or vaginas to be funny. These successes reverbertate down to the local level: “More and more women are pushing their way in and opening that door, and I think things are getting slowly better,” said Murray.
The comedy at the Old Fitz Theatre is a real testament do creating hilarious comedy that doesn’t insult anyone. Comedic duo Mantaur, consisting of Rob Johnson and Harry Milas, created The Recidivists. The performance was weird and really odd. It consisted of a man running around in a morph suit, lots of singing of Neil Young’s Southern Man and an incredible impression of Carl Jung.
Yet at no point did The Recidivists make the audience feel uncomfortable, or force controversial topics down their throat. It didn’t need to; it was hilarious in its own right. Johnson and Milas used their bodies, music and props to create a very unique style of sketch comedy that was dynamic, energetic, crazy and completely mind-blowing, bringing so much joy to the audience.
Despite sketch comedy being very different to stand up, The Recidivists was an important reminder that you don’t have to be offensive or controversial to be funny. One solution to this is to ‘punch up’ rather than targeting those who are the subject of oppression. This is a solid basis, however, it’s not always easy to do this, as Sitas aptly pointed out, this can be hard if you’re a white man, as “where do you punch up to? The bourgeoisie? A guy with an iPhoneX?”
Sitas also noted the importance of writing and speaking from experience. Authenticity not only creates funnier comedy but also much more accurate comments on the world. As Sitas commented, “I heard this guy the other day say, ‘I don’t know about vaginas but parkour dries up a wet pussy.’ You don’t know anything about vaginas. Why should the audience care about your hot-take on another person’s genitals? If you don’t have a lived experience why would we care?”
Murray has a similar philosophy when writing his own comedy, “I like to make people feel good. I avoid leaving controversial ideas unresolved and punching down. I give the audience a high status in general, and earn my status from them by working hard and getting them to like me.”
Another prime example of comedy being portrayed honestly but authentically was One Hander, also at The Old Fitz. Thomas Campbell used his own unique perspective of the world as a man who was born with one hand to make a comment on his life and the theatre industry that he has been involved with.
What made One Hander so hilarious and enjoyable to watch was the way that Campbell used his anecdotal evidence to create this piece of sarcastic, bitter and brilliant comedy. Campbell shared his story by drawing on different genres of performance, such as puppetry and song.
“Unexpected, new and creative styles of comedy are more funny, and they mean you aren’t competing with others to do the same controversial takes. It can just be harder to forge your own way, especially at first,” said Murray.
Sitas sees a way forward through diversity; “the more people see diversity, the more audiences learn about what’s funny and what’s not.” What’s also important is leading the way with positivity, it’s okay for people to make mistakes, but it’s important to guide them in the right direction.
Murray cites spaces in Sydney such as Wolf Comedy, Comic Vigilance and What She Said as those who are leading the way from inclusivity and representation.
Still, spaces such as these are rare, as Sitas reflects, “I just want to get to a stage where I can stand on stage and do my own jokes and not feel like I have to apologise for my existence or represent women in comedy,” said Sitas.