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World’s Funniest Island

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While a multitude of comics are tense with the opening of the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it’s worth noting that Sydney’s just scored itself another comedy festival.

I know what you’re thinking, as you tick them off –  those Sydney Comedy Festivals of 1998 and 1999,  the Cracker Comedy Festival, the Sydney Comedy Festival that was really just Cracker under a different name, the Big Laugh Festival  that  used to run parallel to  Cracker once  Cracker was up-and-running… not to mention attempts at Sydney Fringe festivals, Bondi festivals, cabaret festivals, all giving a home to comedy… as well as festivals established or in development for the Central Coast and Bowral – pretty soon there’ll be enough for each and every comedian in New South Wales to have his or her very own festival.

Indeed, the Prime Minister got wind of it and has threatened to take comedy festivals over from the state governments, in order to ensure each adheres to a national standard of comedy. Here’s his National Address on Comedy:

Of course, in this instance, the role of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been played by comedian Anthony Ackroyd. It’s a little eerie how much he looks, having donned KRudd hair, like the bastard offspring of Graham Kennedy and Charles Firth. Kind of fitting that the Prime Minister is a cross between those two, I guess.

All righty, the important question is, what sets this new Sydney Comedy Festival apart from all the others?

For starters, World’s Funniest Island boasts “one ticket, two big days, 18 venues, 200 shows” because it is built on the rock festival template. That is to say, it’s built on a carnival template. With good reason: one of the people behind it is John Pinder, who has a long history in comedy and a great love of circus.

When Pinder was first pointed out to me at a taping of a comedy show, for which he was executive producer, he was described as ‘the Godfather of Australian Comedy’, a description he has forbidden me to use since it fails to acknowledge any of the people who broke comedy ground in this country before him. When I’d finally met him, Pinder was Director of the Big Laugh Festival. I wrote an article about him at the time. I present it here with a portrait of him, painted by Bill Leak.


Comedy Pinderview

John Pinder has been involved in comedy, as well as music and theatre, pretty much throughout his life. In addition to managing acts, owning venues and touring talent, he has had a hand in the founding of such important institutions as the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and the Comedy Channel. Sounds like he’s just the man to be launching a new comedy festival.

“Comedy’s a bit like pop,” Pinder explains. “If pop didn’t re-invent itself, nobody would ever write another good four-chord pop song. It’s the same with comedy. It becomes very easy after a long time to say, ‘I’ve heard that before’. You have to bite your tongue because it’s important that people actually do explore and experiment.” In addition to not wanting to over-analyse what should remain in and of its moment, John Pinder is loathe to talk about comedy because, he says, “comedy ought to be funny” and as far as he is concerned, he is not. He also eschews memorabilia. “There’s no point in keeping it; somebody has to re-invent it all again and if you collect all that shit they’ll look at it and go, ‘it’s been done it before’.” And yet, get him started, and he is a wealth of humorous anecdotes, a store of imaginative memorabilia housed in his own museum of recollection.

One of John’s tricks is to date you by the kind of comedy you first started listening to. If your first love is Monty Python’s Flying Circus, you’re in your mid- to late-30s; if it’s The Goodies you’re about 40 to 45. The Goon Show means you’re old enough to lie about your age if you don’t want to confess to being in your late-50s. “You get your comedy chops about the same age as you first start listening to music,” John explains. The Goon Show began when he was just hitting puberty. For a kid whose family didn’t have a television, hearing The Goons on radio was very ‘rock’n’roll’. “My father liked funny shit on the radio and we listened to it as a family because at seven o’clock on Sunday night we used to turn the radio on like people turn on the television. The Goon Show came along and my parents hated it.” Which succeeded in making John like it all the more – just like rock’n’roll!

Of course, John’s anecdotes and knowledge betray a much broader love of comedy. For starters, his favourite act at the recent Adelaide Fringe was, essentially, a juggler. “I’m really tired of people who say, ‘not another fucking juggler’. There’s something really astonishing about someone who hasn’t even opened his mouth and you’re wetting yourself laughing.” All the great stand-up comics, he points out, incorporate some sort of physicality in their mode of performance. A lot more “would benefit” from being able to mime or juggle. And, logically, “a lot of jugglers would benefit from having some jokes.” Pinder’s love of this other form of comedy also dates back to his childhood, when his family lived next door to a circus lot where Ashton’s and Bullen’s would set up their circuses when they were in town. “I wanted to run away with the circus from the time I was very young,” he says. Fact is, he pretty much has.

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