Comedians share their highlights from the 500-plus shows on offer during April’s bumper laughfest
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
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 18–23 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 March–23 April
Our pick: Arj Barker – Organic
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 March–16 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 & 19–21 April