While a multitude of comics are tense with the opening of the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, itâs worth noting that Sydneyâs just scored itself another comedy festival.
I know what youâre thinking, as you tick them off â 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-runningâ¦ not to mention attempts at Sydney Fringe festivals, Bondi festivals, cabaret festivals, all giving a home to comedyâ¦ as well as festivals established or in development for the Central Coast and Bowral â pretty soon thereâll 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. Hereâs his National Address on Comedy:
Of course, in this instance, the role of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been played by comedian Anthony Ackroyd. Itâs 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, Worldâs Funniest Island boasts âone ticket, two big days, 18 venues, 200 showsâ because it is built on the rock festival template. That is to say, itâs 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 âthe Godfather of Australian Comedyâ, 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 Iâd 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.
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 heâs just the man to be launching a new comedy festival.
âComedyâs a bit like pop,â Pinder explains. âIf pop didnât re-invent itself, nobody would ever write another good four-chord pop song. Itâs the same with comedy. It becomes very easy after a long time to say, âIâve heard that beforeâ. You have to bite your tongue because itâs important that people actually do explore and experiment.â 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, âcomedy ought to be funnyâ and as far as he is concerned, he is not. He also eschews memorabilia. âThereâs no point in keeping it; somebody has to re-invent it all again and if you collect all that shit theyâll look at it and go, âitâs been done it beforeâ.â 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 Johnâs tricks is to date you by the kind of comedy you first started listening to. If your first love is Monty Pythonâs Flying Circus, youâre in your mid- to late-30s; if itâs The Goodies youâre about 40 to 45. The Goon Show means youâre old enough to lie about your age if you donât want to confess to being in your late-50s. âYou get your comedy chops about the same age as you first start listening to music,â John explains. The Goon Show began when he was just hitting puberty. For a kid whose family didnât have a television, hearing The Goons on radio was very ârockânârollâ. âMy father liked funny shit on the radio and we listened to it as a family because at seven oâclock 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.â Which succeeded in making John like it all the more â just like rockânâroll!
Of course, Johnâs anecdotes and knowledge betray a much broader love of comedy. For starters, his favourite act at the recent Adelaide Fringe was, essentially, a juggler. âIâm really tired of people who say, ânot another fucking jugglerâ. Thereâs something really astonishing about someone who hasnât even opened his mouth and youâre wetting yourself laughing.â All the great stand-up comics, he points out, incorporate some sort of physicality in their mode of performance. A lot more âwould benefitâ from being able to mime or juggle. And, logically, âa lot of jugglers would benefit from having some jokes.â Pinderâs love of this other form of comedy also dates back to his childhood, when his family lived next door to a circus lot where Ashtonâs and Bullenâs would set up their circuses when they were in town. âI wanted to run away with the circus from the time I was very young,â he says. Fact is, he pretty much has.