Comedy Fest Chat: Ben McKenzie

If anyone says that Ben McKenzie is uncool, they will have to answer to me! But if they say that Ben McKenzie is Uncool is cool, then that’s cool. Ben’s done lots of shows, often with with other splendid chaps and wonderful folk, but he’s going solo for MICF. It’s about being a nerd. He chats with Anne-Marie about other terrific Melbourne comedians and about why you need to believe in what you joke about.

Ben McKenzie
What MICF shows are you most looking forward to seeing?
I don’t see much comedy the rest of the year as I’m busy on non-comedy projects, so I always want to see everything! But I’m most excited about Laura Davis, Lisa-Skye, Alice Fraser, Cal Wilson, Jon Bennett, Jen Brister, Celia Pacquola, Damian Callinan and Hannah Gadsby…look, there are probably more, but I doubt I’ll even make it to all of those this year!

What makes MICF different from all the other festivals?
Well, while it’s not as big as others, it’s still massive – 450 shows this year! And they’re all comedy! So it’s a month where everything that happens is comedy and you get to realise how diverse an artform that is. Not only in terms of practice – stand-up vs cabaret vs sketch etc. – but in terms of content. What you find funny is so personal, but there’s literally something for everyone at MICF.

What’s an absolute must do (place/eat/adventure) for you when you visit Melbourne? If you live in Melbourne, what do you insist that visiting artists do?
I try to get visitors to come to Melbourne Museum! I ran a comedy tour there for five years and I love the place. And Melbourne Zoo. But I live in Brunswick, so I also try to take them to cafes and pubs and bars. Not the really cool ones, just the ones with the best food or coffee or cider. It’s usually a ploy to make them move here, and it sometimes works – especially if they’re from Perth or London.

What comedians/performers have influenced you the most?
Of the big names, Bill Bailey for sure: his slightly manic style of mixing absurdism, or at least silliness, with smart ideas. And Josie Long: her gentle-yet-passionate style, and fearlessness to talk about what really matters to her, I aspire to that. But my biggest influences are my peers; people like Lawrence Leung, Linda Catalano, Damian Callinan, Laura Davis and Jon Bennett. Watching them has helps me figure out what kind of comedian I want to be, and after being away from stand-up and solo performance for so long, I still need that inspiration.

What’s advice do you wish you’d been given before your first gigs?
Be succinct! That’s something I learned from a dear friend much later. I used to ramble in my jokes, now I cut out all the unnecessary stuff. For stand-up, anyway!

Do you do still your own leafleting? Can you tell us something great or horrific that’s happened to you when leafleting?
Oh, of course – though I’m in Fitzroy this year, far from the Town Hall, so I’m not yet sure if it’s worth it this year. I’ve had a pretty good run in previous years. I try to be helpful and conversational; I’m a sniper, not a shotgun, when it comes to flyering. But the worst moment was in 2006 when I was flyering for some friends: four shows from one producer and two of them were women. I’d had a number of people tell me they don’t like women comedians – but then a woman told me! I asked her whether that might have been because she hadn’t seen many, and so the odds of her seeing a woman who suited her sense of humour were much lower, but she adamantly said she just didn’t think women were funny. It was the first time I’d come across that attitude in real life, and I was flabbergasted.

What’s the best (or worst) thing a review has said about you or your show?
The first year of the Museum Comedy Tour there was an infamously harsh critic in The Age giving out super low scores, including two with zero stars! You’re speaking to one of the recipients. I think the review said something like “it might be a tour, but it certainly isn’t comedy”. It was so harsh. The audiences loved the show, though, I know we did get better in later years, but still. My favourite has to be from a review in the Herald Sun last year of Late Night Letters and Numbers, which described me as “no Carol Vorderman to look at, but considerably funnier”. I thought it was great, but weirdly pretentious, since Vorderman is the mathematician in the English equivalent to Letters and Numbers, Countdown; he couldn’t have said Lily Serna so people knew what he was talking about? But I still love that quote. It’s on my posters this year!

If you could invite anyone to see your show (and you know they would come), who would it be?
What a terrifying question! I mean, what if they didn’t like it? I’d be like that band that wrote to David Bowie politely asking him never to come to their gigs again because they love him so much they couldn’t play properly knowing he was in the crowd somewhere. But having said all that, maybe Josie Long. I really love her work, and she’s really lovely. I’d hope she’d have a good time, and I think I could trust that even if she didn’t she’d be nice about it afterwards.

What comedian (alive or dead) do you wish you’d seen live?
Sarah Silverman. I can never afford it when she’s been out, and she’s so great.

When did you realise that being funny is the career for you?
I’m one of those kids who’s always been a performer, but it was acting mostly. My first real success with comedy was performing Rowan Atkinson one-man sketches in drama competitions at school. But I think I knew it was really the road I wanted to go down when I was in my first original sketch show back in university. That remains one of the greatest collaborative performance experiences of my life, and I made some lifelong friends there.

What’s the best heckle you’ve received?
Being a nerd doing nerd comedy, I was once corrected mid-joke about the age of the universe. I think that’s the best.

Is there anything you’re not prepared to joke about?
It’s not about subject matter for me, it’s about being true to what I believe. I’d never perform a joke – and I’ve written a few that stay unperformed – if I couldn’t honestly say I agreed with its sentiment. Which isn’t to say I don’t do satire, obviously then the joke is about the opposite of what is being said, but I believe in “kicking up”.

Comedians do have that privilege of being able to say things some others can’t say, but we have a responsibility to use it for those who don’t have that voice, not to amplify the already very loud opinions of those with privilege and power. Sexist or racist jokes aren’t edgy, for example; they just put into words the systematic discrimination that is part of our society. Those jokes are as mainstream as you can get, there’s nothing edgy about them. But a joke in which sexist behaviour is the butt of the joke, is the one being made fun of? That’s great. Not to say you can’t just write a joke for fun, of course – but if you say it on stage, be prepared to back it up and believe in it.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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