Comfortable Carlson comedy

Studies Have Shown (Urzila Carlson)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

March 22 – 25

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Studies show knowledge is power and with her knowledge of the absurdity of online surveys, Carlson is well equipped to provide commentary on them, whether they be about cats vs dogs or toilet cubicle comparisons. And the result is her very funny show “Studies Have Shown”.  Indeed, in isolating the absurdities of modern life, Carlson has constructed a very accessible work that combines comfortable observational comedy with personal amusement.

Although there is some literal toilet humour, some of the most humourous moments come from her personal reflections of parenting and the cultural shock of moving from South Africa to New Zealand. And when, early on, she shares her experiences road-tripping around Australia between gigs, with her recall about overtaking lanes and reflection on Canberra audiences, it makes for a comfortable initiation that audience members appreciate.

Carlson is a self-confessed bogan from way back, which only makes audiences love her more. Her demeanour is at once forthright and casual and so very engaging, in a conversational type way. She doesn’t pick on the audience (despite reassuring that she does have the skillset), though there is a serious (and well-received) dig at anti-vaxxers.

“Studies Have Shown” represents a wonderful respite from the confrontational and controversial humour of many comedians today. In finding absurd in the everyday it presents an easy-to-appreciate but still cleverly crafted through-line as it moves from the personal experience to hit some universal truths and it is easy to understand why Carlson’s Brisbane Comedy Festival season was so quickly sold out.

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Surreal Simmons stories

Radical Women of Latin American Art, 1960-1985 (Sam Simmons)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

March 23 – 25

Sam Simmons’ latest show “Radical Women of Latin American Art, 1960-1985” starts with a story… an anecdote of LA Hammer Museum art show attendance with his wife that spawned the show’s obscure title. Although there are later call-backs to some of its components, however, that is about as far as things go in terms of any overriding narrative. Rather, in true Simmons style, the show unfolds as a series of random observations, impressions and songs.

The award-winning confrontational comedian has a surreal, experimental style of comedy that not only sets him apart from others, but makes for the most unpredictable of experiences, especially for those audience members called upon stage or berated with (very funny) insults as he heads into the stalls.

For the uninitiated, his unrelenting absurdism with obscure props and isolated impressions to the narration of an inner voice represents absolute chaos as he takes the audience on mad-cap tour through description of department store racism and a celebrity-only better version of Coles. There is literal toilet humour (good luck looking at a piece of bread in quite the same way again) and an obscure fruit theme in move on from his bread shoes of days gone by. Clearly though, his unique brand of comedy is to many people’s tastes, given the capacity crowd in the Powerhouse’s largest theatre. Long gone are days, it seems when he was Visy Theatre viewing.

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The weird lecture is devoid of any discernible structure and not as stand-up oriented as last year’s “A-K” and it suffers a little because of this. Like any roller coaster ride it is full of highs and lows and some jokes falling flatter than others, especially an anti-climactic question and answer conclusion ending the show with a whimper as opposed to a bang. Bizarre as it may be, show “Radical Women of Latin American Art, 1960-1985” may not be his best but is still classic Simmons and face-achingly funny.

Free range comedy

Organic (Arj Barker)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

December 1 – 17

The audience in the Powerhouse Theatre for opening night of Arj’s Barker’s tenth Australian show is eclectic and wide-ranging in its age demographic. This not only stands as testament to the American comic’s Australian popularity, but the accessibility of his material, which is not controversial or confrontational, but still very, very funny.

In talk of relationships and marriage, Uber and television spoilers, “Organic” is filled with hilarious commentary. Although early references to Benny Hill and the tv show “Monkey” are more appreciated by those audience members of a similar vintage, the well-structured set features a free-range comic style with something for everyone, satisfying for all.

There is only token reference to current affairs and US politics from the Californian and the show is all the better because of it. Instead, the comedian draws upon his knowledge of our politics and culture to build an instant rapport with the Bris-vegas audience as he tries to trademark his own new Aussie saying, peppering the work with hilarious one-liners and throw-backs to previous content in show of the subtle craftedness of the experience. A finale titular song ‘Organic’ is an excellent example of this, even if it ends the show on a whimper more than a bang.

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Barker is an animated and energetic, but still charming performer and it is easy to appreciate his popularity as even when audience members are called out, his humour is such that is seems like he is laughing with, rather than at, them. This connection is the most endearing component of his comedy. And when he philanthropically announces at show’s end that $1 from every ticket is going to the charity Doctors Without Borders, his integrity is heart-warming.

The show’s title emerges from Barker’s discussion of recent lifestyle changes towards eating organically and going gluten free. This leads to perhaps the show’s funniest segment, where he throws himself into presentation of his caveman bread theory, which is infectiously passionate and well-timed.

If comedians are the new rock stars, then Arj Barker is a supernova of the Australian comedy landscape and with a two week show-run, there is plenty of opportunity to do your face a favour and check out a show that will have you laughing loudly and smiling from start to finish.

The mirth of mediocrity

Disappointments (Judith Lucy and Denise Scott)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

July 19 – 30

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Comedians Denise Scott and Judith Lucy are at that age now where they can’t be bothered doing anything, especially if it involves being present and mindful. As such, they are more into lie-down than stand-up comedy, welcoming the audience to “Disappointments” from the comfort of on-stage beds, with oversized wine glasses alongside (thank-you bendy straws).

The mirth that follows allows the pair to reflect on their lives, full as they are of disappointments, focussing on oversharing about the crushing discontent of being of that certain age. No topic is too taboo, especially when they venture out into the nervous audience for ad-libbed chats around arthritis, dick pics and menopause, amongst other topics.

Scott also talks of her days on television’s “Winners and Losers” and gives amusing accounts of being mis-recognised both in Australian and abroad, while Lucy  shares a clever riff about nostalgia, taking particular aim at Rick Springfield’s 80’s hit song ‘Jessie’s Girl’. And then things descend into a volley of insults to each other, before changing into their notorious (and hilarious) nude suits. For all the show’s self-loathing and self-doubt, however, what resonates is its celebration of life (including the saggy bits) and essential ponder as to why we hate ageing but love nostalgia, evidenced as they take aim at the idolisation of youth in our culture.

Comedy doesn’t get much better than these Aussie treasures telling it as it is, bounding off each other and the audience with razor sharp wit. While there is a lot of laugh-out-loud humour, there is also an essential message about embracing life’s disappointments and the distinctions that exist between our social media selves and real life experiences. As such, “Disappointments” will leave you not only face-aching from laughter but fit to fist pump the sky “The Breakfast Club” style, in embrace of your own aging mediocrity.

Surrealist spirit

Sam Simmons

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

March 24 – 26

Once, a reviewer in Edinburgh noted that Australian comedian Sam Simmons could read the phonebook on stage and still be funny. So in his latest show, “A – K” this is exactly what he does, inset with a whole lot of randomness so cleverly crafted to tie its threads together that audience members remain pretty-much oblivious to their early setup.

As those who have seen him before can attest, when you go to a Sam Simmons show, you really have no idea what you might be in for, but know it will probably be bizarre. Simmons’ own introduction to the show being ‘about badminton with a dystopian future feel’ doesn’t’ reveal much and itself is already quite the contrast to his initial appearance to sing an operatic aria (as soprano due to a soon-explained Hungry Jacks misadventure) dressed in choir gown and neck ruffle.

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This is far from traditional stand-up and what follows is all sorts of offensive as material ranges from porn names to parent’s rooms, Nanna gangs, airport pranks, Cruskits, climate change, Sam’s sexy nemesis dad and nipples (a recurring, key show motif). Nobody is safe as the award-winning veteran of stand-up comedy berates an audience member for not knowing about frûche and gets another on stage to play a bit of badminton … and more. His surrealist humour also sees him having conversations with himself over the phone. Of course, like the rest of the show, they are inappropriate in language and content, but it seems that is how his audience loves it. Indeed his huge popularity seems Simmons in the largest of the Powerhouse theatres for this year’s Comedy Festival, a first in his recent annual appearances.

Despite Simmons’ unpredictability, there is still a relatability to many of the segments. Few can sound as aptly bogan as Simmons in riff on Aldi, Logan and life at the Hyperdome, or Adelaide’s equivalent, Colonnades. And there are also the times when a joke falls flat and he berates the ‘not so special’ Sunday night audience for making it akin to performing in a fridge. There is substance behind the absurdity too; the show is loosely based around the forever responsibility he feels about being a new father (Seven years after meeting his wife in a carpark, they now have a baby girl). And who knew he is a feminist?

Certainly a Simmons show is not to everyone’s tastes. His spirited, surrealist comedy is, in itself, uncertain in its unconventionality, however, his ability to respond to each individual crowd’s energy and the deceptive craftedness of his shows make him a performer to see. Besides, he’s got to be better than those Simmons-identified self-righteous comedians like that Tom Ballard bloke.

Fine funny times

I’m Fine (Rhys Nicholson)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

February 28 – March 5

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When he appears at the Brisbane Comedy Festival, Rhys Nicholson is as debonair as ever, in contrast to the not-so glamorous life of touring on the standup comedy circuit… especially in places like Tasmania, he tells the audience.

Like previous shows and indeed perhaps all quality comedy, Nicholson’s latest show “I’m Fine” is anchored by its personal subject matter (‘you’ve got to write what you know’ he emphasises) including share of his fear of dancing and tell of what his ghost story would be. From tales of the transitions into adult life, the changes that come with couple cohabitation and expose of whether health really equals happiness, Nicholson takes audiences to some unexpected and often inappropriate places. There is only touch on the political with talk of white guilt and marriage equality. Self-deprecation features as a central focus in his recall of at-school stories of initial unpopularity and later promiscuity.

While Ivan Milat backpacker jokes ensure that it is certainly not for the easily-offended, “I’m Fine” is full of entertaining anecdotes and many very funny moments as evidence of Nicholson’s charisma as a performer.

Entitled entertainment

Botox Party (First World White Girls)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Rooftop Terrace

March 7 – 12

When as part of his Brisbane Comedy Festival show comedian Rhys Nicholson made an Ivan Milat joke, it was to the gasps of some the audience in ‘oh no he didn’t’ shock. But that was nothing compared to First World’s White Girls’ song about accidentally hooking up with Gabel Toste (#toosoon?). Clever though the song is, however, it is not even the most memorable part of Judy Hainsworth’s and Meggan Hickey’s show, “Botox Party”, which is filled with up-to-date references, including a catchy song and dance routine for current newly elected President Trump, simply titled ‘Donald’.

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The show’s songs all showcase some incredibly cleverly writing in their highlight of social issues and resulting social commentary. With light-hearted approach “Botox Party” balances topics such as climate change and Tinder misadventure, with labiaplasty and accessories. Laughs abound due to its politically incorrectness, relevant satire and cascade of comic moments. Add a touch of physical comedy and the celebration of self-privileged ego, written by Hainsworth, is nothing short of excellent.

Equipped with their at-hand Norwegian waters, trust fund princess Tiffany (Hainsworth) and Noosa’s own Maddison (Hickey), with help from Miguel from Mexico as accompanist (Max Radvan), are endearing in their narcissism and very, very funny… because sometimes the best comedy comes from being able to say things that you couldn’t otherwise. And clearly, people are letting their guards done as audience members themselves stand up and share their own first world problems about flight delays and downgrades, and missing “Married at First Sight.”

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From the gentle strains of ‘Celebrity Died Today’ to the revealing final ‘Window Pane’ expose of the secret to a best-selling song, each song has its own unique and catchy melody and it is wonderful to see ‘Little Black Babies’ making a reprise from previous outings. Hainsworth and Hickey both showcase excellent vocals in their delivery whether together or in their solo numbers. Hickey’s “Snowflake” which comes complete with tap-dancing, trumpet playing and piano playing is hilarious in its steal of Tiffany’s limelight. And Hainsworth’s ‘Memory’ lament of pre-middle-aged late night partying and carb indulgence is perfect for share of some commanding vocals.

Even the most time-poor of everyday boring people need to find time for the gospel according to the entitled First World White Girls. And you don’t have to live by the bible of WWKKD (what Would Kim Kardashian do), accessories your active wear or carry around a cute extra-wrinkly dog as testament to your taste, to appreciate its laugh-out-loud comedy. “Botox Party” is about more than freezing your face; with its abundance of balloons, comically oversized syringes and pom poms, it is all about fun, fun, fun, fun.