Melbourne comedy festival: top picks from Arj Barker, Hannah Gadsby and Zoë Coombs Marr

Comedians share their highlights from the 500-plus shows on offer during April’s bumper laughfest

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Hannah Gadsby, Arj Barker and James Acaster, who are appearing at the Melbourne International Comedy festival

Spanning three weeks in April, the Melbourne International Comedy festival is a huge, eclectic, eccentric event – the kind of festival where one of the most coveted prizes is literally a piece of wood.

It’s a truly world-class gathering, attracting both marquee names and hungry young comics vying to turn their makeshift venues into underground comedy dens. The sprawling nature of the festival, which runs to well over 500 shows, means you can easily miss a real gem. That desperate-looking character pushing a flyer into your hands outside Town Hall may actually be a comic genius.

To help you navigate, we asked our picks of the festival to share their own insider’s highlights.

Our pick: Zoë Coombs Marr – Trigger Warning

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Zoë Coombs Marr as herself and her alter ego Dave.

Returning with a short run of her Barry award-winning show, Coombs Marr’s masterpiece to date is a knotty meta-comedy starring a neckbeard-sporting comic called Dave. The show follows its chauvinistic antihero to some truly unexpected places, not least Philippe Gaulier’s fabled clowning school, where he discovers his inner mime character: a “cranky lesbian” called Zoë.

It’s a multilayered, wholly uncategorisable work, given extra depth by the compassion it shows for the potentially buffoonish Dave, who Coombs Marr says she misses when not performing the show.

“Satire can be a bit two-dimensional unless you have empathy,” she explains. “Ironically, when you have that empathy for characters you can make them more awful – plus vulnerability is very funny.”

Dave’s latent vulnerability has indeed proved dangerously hilarious; Coombs Marr says her favourite reaction to the show has been audience members who have injured themselves laughing.

Zoë Coombs Marr’s Trigger Warning runs 1823 April

Zoe Coombs Marr’s pick: Isabel Angus – Bliss

“There’s always the surefire stuff like Hannah Gadsby and Sam Simmons, and I guess I better recommend my husband [Coombs Marr married fellow comedian Rhys Nicholson at last year’s festival, in a protest for marriage equality] – I’ll be in the doghouse if I don’t! But I always get excited to see the newer stuff, so I’d recommend Isabel Angus. She’s generally done shows in a duo with Rachel Davis but this is her first solo show. I haven’t seen any of her new stuff but this one is about fitness and I’m pretty sure it will be very, very funny.”

Isabel Angus’s Bliss runs 30 March23 April

Our pick: Arj Barker – Organic

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Arj Barker describes the Melbourne International Comedy festival as ‘summer camp for alcoholics’

Arj Barker’s louche Californian drawl and permanent bed head belie an endlessly active comic imagination. Whether playing the stoner philosopher who wants to share his latest weird observation with you, or the know-it-all constantly having life slap him in the face, he has perfected a brand of comedy which goes down so easily it’s entirely possible to miss the skill and artistry of it all.

Though he puts his success in Australia down to luck and timing, his laid-back, seemingly effortless style has a particular resonance with local audiences. He has been a consistently popular draw at Melbourne, though now, as he enters his early 40s, he admits to withdrawing slightly from the festival’s storied late-night social scene, which he lovingly describes as “summer camp for alcoholics”.

Arj Barker’s Organic runs from 31 March16 April

Arj Barker’s pick: Steve Hughes

“Steve Hughes is a really nice, sweet person. I first ran into him in the UK when he had some stuff that went viral that was just really poignant and funny. I’m envious of [his writing] because it’s so simple, but also so smart. I don’t follow other people’s careers closely, but it’s quite likely he will become a big name. I like the fact that he’s well-versed on conspiracy theories and alternative ways of interpreting things. I could go on and on talking to him because he’s just a fascinating guy.”

Steve Hughes’s standup show is on 1 & 1921 April

Our pick: Josh Earl and Daniel Tobias – Josh Earl’s Festival

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Josh Earl’s latest work is a collaboration with Die Roten Punkte multi-instrumentalist Daniel Tobias

Some comedians bludgeon their audiences into laughter; others bamboozle them with verbal dexterity. Josh Earl just kind of pours you a beer, kicks out a chair and starts chatting away. A passionate music nerd (and erstwhile Spicks and Specks host), he has found a niche as an amiable, approachable comic with real musical chops and an affinity for daggy Australiana – a previous hit show centred around the Australian Women’s Weekly birthday cake book.

His latest – a sketch and song collaboration with Die Roten Punkte multi-instrumentalist Daniel Tobias – promises to be an affectionate look at the types of artists who frequent music festivals, from a 90s nostalgia act to a mysterious pair of DJs who only appear in helmets.

Earl’s humour is sharply observed but unfailingly good-natured and informed by his own fandom. “It comes from a place of love,” he says.

Josh Earl’s Festival runs 30 March23 April

Josh Earl’s pick: Xavier MichelidesLettuce Do This

“Xavier Michelides is a really strong standup. He’s from Perth originally but he’s been on the Melbourne circuit for about eight years, and he just makes me laugh every single time. [In Lettuce Do This] he’s doing sketches – something that’s a bit different from that straight standup, guy-in-jeans-and-a-T-shirt-telling-jokes thing. I caught his best-of show in Perth and that [different] approach really filtered through in a lot of his best stuff.”

Xavier Michelides’ Lettuce Do This runs 30 March23 April

Our pick: Josie Long – Something Better

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 Comedy ‘can reassure you that you’re all right, that you’re not mad’, says Josie Long. Photograph: David Bebber for the Guardian
Trump, Brexit, fake news: times have been tough for idealistic progressives like Britain’s Josie Long, but Something Better pushes to the forefront the intelligent, hard-won optimism that has been an undercurrent throughout her work. “The whole challenge has been to stay engaged,” she says.

This year the UK comic reprises a trilogy of acclaimed shows: 2014’s Recogniseconcerns his apparent ambition to be an undercover cop, Represent uses a spell in jury duty as its narrative backbone, and Reset ponders starting your life again, video game-style.

Acaster constructs his shows like Jonathan Coe constructs novels, with apparently superfluous bits later taking on a greater resonance – and a narrative which takes hairpin turns just as it appears to be ambling along. His singular work seems the product of meticulous perfectionism; even years after debuting Recognise, he’s still tinkering with it. “It’s never finished,” Acaster says. “I’m always writing, always working … one year I wondered why I wasn’t enjoying Edinburgh much. It was because I wasn’t writing.”

James Acaster’s Trelogy runs 416 April

James Acaster’s pick: Trygve Wakenshaw – Nautilus

“Trygve is a clown, and has done many amazing shows. In Edinburgh one year, Nautilus was on after my show so I got to see it a lot. It is something like an hour and a half, a really epic show. I also thought his show Kraken had one of the best beginnings of a show I’ve ever seen; he got naked in it like every clown does but I thought it was funny he got naked right at the start.

“There are actually a lot of great New Zealand acts coming through. I’d also recommend Guy Montgomery, he does a podcast called The Worst Idea of All Time. I don’t listen to podcasts much, but that one is my favourite – and Rose Matafeo has a new show which should be great. So that’s my advice: watch the Kiwis.”

Trygve Wakenshaw’s Nautilus runs 1122 April

Our pick: Hannah Gadsby – Nanette

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