World’s Funniest Island

Island promo

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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Noblesse Oblige: Ross Noble Obliges

Towards the end of the last millennium, Simon Morgan sold the famed Harold Park Hotel after briefly re-branding it ‘The Comedy Hotel’. He had owned it with — I believe, and I’m doing this from memory — his brother (who was at one time married to Gretel Killeen, and went to America to become a producer). The Harold Park Hotel, until quite recently, remained a construction site thereafter, while Simon went on to open ‘The Comedy Cellar’ in the bottom of the then-newly completed Broadway Shopping Centre. The Comedy Cellar became the central locus of two Sydney Comedy Festivals that Simon initiated, the first in 1998 and the other the following year. A third one failed to take place in 2000 when (and despite), let’s face it, Sydney being primed for such an event, what with the Olympics… In time, Sydney’s comedy industry would be shaken and stirred by not one, but two comedy festivals: Big Laugh and Cracker. That’s a whole other story that I’ll write when commissioned.

Back to the 1999 Sydney Comedy Festival: I remember Simon Morgan proudly telling me of the talents he’d secured, one of whom was Ross Noble. “You’ll enjoy Ross. Make sure you shout something during the performance — see what he does with it.” I had no idea what to make of Ross Noble initially, in performance or in interview. Admittedly, his opening night audience were a bit reticent. It was down to one punter right up the back, shouting stuff out. I recognised him. So did Ross, eventually: “Hang on, your the feller who hired me…" Fact is, I wasn’t disappointed by Ross as an interview subject, a performer or, with time, a broadcaster. And neither have been the ever-growing number of people who make up his fan base.

This is the first of a series of interviews I’ve had the pleasure of conducting with Ross Noble. I intend to run them all here, in the lead-up to what I hope is another interview before his next Australian tour (destined to start any minute now) — hence the title of this section. The interview itself has a name that I’m sure I attached to at least one other subsequent article; no doubt there are a multitude of similar-titled articles occupying cyber space and the arts pages of local and city publications the world over. Don’t get to stressed about it. Ross and his comedy are what’s important.

This interview first appeared in Revolver in 1999 — so ignore the show details at the bottom, they are now meaningless.

The Noble Art of Comedy

“Which cartoon characters would you have sex with if you had to?” comedian Ross Noble demands. Apparently it is the sort of topic he discusses with people — fellow comedians, loved ones, colleagues and even interviewers — and claims that it should have been a ‘Family Feud’ question: “We surveyed a hundred people and came up with their top seven answers… ba-BOW!” I have to be honest and admit that when rub comes to tuck, my main cartoon squeeze would be Daphne from Scooby Doo. “She’s a popular favourite,” Ross concurs. “The real question is, ‘Betty or Wilma?’”

Ross Noble came to comedy some seven years ago, from the world of street entertainment. Initially, he and a partner used to present an Evel Knievel tribute show: “We used to do his famous bus jump on unicycles. We had this big plywood ramp and we’d line up these toy double-decker buses and then ride along and jump over them.” The pair would also juggle fire over unwitting members of the audience invited to lie down on the floor. Despite the good fun had by all, the partnership eventually dissolved due to the “couple of times” that Noble accidentally set his partner’s hair on fire. “He was just getting a bit tired of it,” Ross recalls. “He decided that he wanted to become an architect. It’s understandable, after you’ve had your head burnt several times.”

Going solo did not pose a problem, but getting rained on frequently did, so Noble decided to turn to stand-up. Just as his street theatre had a humorous bent, Ross acknowledges that nowadays his comedy retains elements of street theatre. “It was all very much a matter of having set things – tricks – that you had to do and kind of waffling around them. My act is exactly the same now but instead doing a trick, I deliver a punchline. The punchlines are the framework and the rest just slots in between.”

‘The rest’ that Noble slots in, if reviews are anything to go by, consists of unpredictable material dealing with all manner of topics; Ross Noble has a reputation for being an improviser. Noble takes issue with the phrase ‘reputation for being an improviser’, as opposed to merely ‘being an improviser’, but proves my point in doing so by going off on a totally improvised tangent in a sly, know-it-all voice:

“Heard about Noble… possibly a bit of improv; be careful, watch him. We’ll be off script soon as you know it. Don’t trust him — Devil’s in his eye.”

He claims that when he walks into the Peter Cook Bar after a Melbourne International Comedy Festival gig, he can “hear them whispering: ‘There he goes. There he goes with his lack of preparation…’”

When challenged, Ross Noble says that what makes him laugh is “seeing things fired from cannons”. He claims to have discarded the telly and invested in a small cannon. This is merely the preamble, however. The funniest thing he has seen in a while, Noble claims, is a photograph of a hamster that looks exactly like Andy Warhol – “the hair, the little face, everything. I started to believe that this guinea pig was actually the great artist himself, reincarnated in a rodent form.” And now, Devil in his eye, the notorious improviser is off-script: “…But an Andy Warhol guinea pig fired from a cannon, that would be really funny. With a large-headed child — you know when you see toddlers that have got really big heads? I’d like to see one of them walking across the road and getting hit by an Andy Warhol guinea pig fired out of a cannon. That would be the ultimate laughter-frenzy for me.”

What amuses Noble most, it seems, are uninhibited conversations where the mind is free to — well, associate, I guess, for ‘free-association’ seems to be the basis for this comic’s wild improvisations.

In answer to Ross Noble’s earlier question of “Wilma or Betty,” I am forced to reply “Wilma”. Given my Daphne-from-Scooby Doo fixation, it’s clearly a redhead fetish, I’m sure.

“You see, I would go for Betty every time,” Ross says. When I ask why, he replies, flabbergasted, “Oh! Have a look!” And he’s off again: “Look at Wilma’s hair! What’s that thing on the top? Betty’s cute… But what’s going on with Barney’s eyes? Has he got cataracts? They’re just circles. Fred has proper eyes…”

“That’s the sort of thing I talk about,” Noble concludes. “It’s fairly heavily cartoon-based.” He goes on to relate “one of the most entertaining conversations” he claims he has ever had, which took place recently with American comic Rich Hall. “It was about people who have shit themselves when they should have been working.” He outlines the examples that both he and Hall offered of the same, after which I admit that I have “no further questions, your Honour”.

“What’s wrong,” Ross demands, “are you scared?”

Yeah, I’m shittin’ myself.

See Ross Noble fire strangely shaped ideas from his free-associating cannon at big-headed members of the Comedy Cellar audience this week.

Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2007


I have had the pleasure of watching Dave Jory develop as a comic, having judged his very first Raw Comedy heat in Sydney a few years back. He was a bit scary then - the bald head and the suit made him resemble one of those villains in a Guy Ritchie flick.

I was kind of eyeing the exits to make good my escape if he proved to be as dangerous as his image threatened.

Afterwards he came up and asked for advice. I told him he needed to be less scary up front, to win the audience over - one of the other judges thought he might cut them.

He learnt pretty quickly. Now Dave Jory lives up to the the title of his show - he's a polished stand-up comic.  Hence his Melbourne International Comedy Festival show, Dave Jory is Polished.

You should come and see him live.

Book now.

I should also tell you that the basic design of Dave's flyer is by Kim Longue, who does the poster artwork for Sydney's original Comedy Store.

going halves

I am also producing Going Halves, a show also featuring two comics on the rise. James Lieutenant I have been watching in Raw Comedy for several years now; it's not something that crops up in the normal corse of interacting with him as a stand-up comic, but James is a gifted visual artist on the verge of something major. The same is true of his comedy.

Tom Gibson has been doing comedy for about as long, and last year placed third in Canberra's 'Green Faces' comedy competition.

These guys are the fresh face of the next generation of Aussie stand up.

Book now.

And I want to add a note about the flyer. James organised the photo and insisted in no uncertain terms that I was to use it as is, without manipulating it in any way. I guess he wanted to ensure I didn't do to it what I did to the photos that made up the flyer for his Cracker show, Painful Truths, in which he split the bill with Ben Ellwood.