Culture Victoria

Comedy: No Laughing Matter

By TanyaW Posted Under Comedy - No Laughing Matter

Every year, around Easter, hundreds of thousands of strangely smiling, lustily laughing people are drawn, as if by magnet, to the grand old Melbourne Town Hall, and to a myriad of venues clustered nearby.
It’s the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, one of the three great comedy festivals in the English–speaking (and laughing) world and the largest cultural event in Australia. Peter Cook, Phyllis Diller and Eddie Izzard are some of the great names who’ve appeared.

In 2014 the festival listed 469 shows, and 6,488 performances by 2,228 artists.

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1988 Comedy Festival poster, signed by many inlcuding Phyllis Diller, Craig Charles, Max Gillies, Pete McCarthy, Simon Palomares, Bruce Petty, Wendy Harmer, Mandy Saloman, Barry Humphries, Mary Kenneally, Barry Dickens and Ernie Dingo. Poster by Micheal Leunig. Courtesy of Micheal Leunig and Shane Maloney

But where did this comedy phenomenon begin?

That’s the question Mary Kenneally is aiming to answer by back-tracking to the cradle of Melbourne comedy in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s when the great boom in modern Australian comedy occurred in Melbourne.

In 1970, Rod Quantock, Geoff Brooks, Stephen Blackburn and others found an outlet for their absurdist comedy in the Melbourne University Architects’ Revue.

Meanwhile, at the top end of Brunswick Street, John Pinder was running the TFMuch Ballroom with partner Bani McSpedden, marrying rock ‘n’ roll with mad circus-inspired tomfoolery between band sets.

In Carlton, an industrial building had been changed into the iconoclastic Pram Factory Theatre by the new and challenging Australian Performing Group.

Already the laughs were coming thick and fast.

Around the corner, tiny little theatre La Mama was a powder keg of new Australian ideas.

New bands wrote about contemporary Australian experience. Skyhooks sang of Carlton, not Waterloo, sunsets.

A band of brilliant cartoonists including Leunig, Tandberg, Nicholson and Spooner burst into the spotlight with stunning originality.

Something in the Zeitgeist. An explosion of creativity that had comedians, playwrights, artists, writers, musicians, all co-operating ­­in one wonderful creative boom.

The wasteland that was Brunswick Street Fitzroy became home to John Pinder’s colourful Flying Trapeze Café. A few years later he opened his riotous Last Laugh Restaurant and Zoo in Smith St Collingwood.

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Last Laugh poster. Poster by Laurel Olszewski, inspiration from Le Grand Magic Circus. Courtesy of Laurel Olszewski and John Pinder

Foibles, an extraordinarily decorated theatre restaurant, opened in Palmerston St Carlton. Then the Comedy Café and its comedy tryout room The Banana Lounge lit more bright lights in Brunswick St.

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Foibles Theatre Restaurant poster by Michael Leunig. Courtesy of Michael Leunig

In 1987, in a media conference hosted by Barry Humphries (as Sir Les Patterson) and Peter Cook the Melbourne International Comedy Festival was launched.

Patrons flocked to experience the new hilarity, to such an extent that television comedy producers were forced to leave their offices to see what all the fun was about…

The result? Mary Kenneally, Rod Quantock and Steve Blackburn were head hunted for a Sydney based TV show “Ratbags”. In this show, the comedy characters of Tim and Debbie were such a hit that the Melbourne ABC TV was charged with producing its first ever comedy sketch show – “Australia You’re Standing In It”. AYSII was an immediate cult hit and demonstrated how to transfer the new comedy cabaret to the television screen.

From then on, there arose a stream of home grown television comedy productions that continues to grow to this day.

Comedy: No Laughing matter

To tell the story of the growth of this Melbourne Comedy industry, the University of Melbourne has engaged Mary Kenneally, of Tim and Debbie “Brainspace” fame, to interview the players and to source, collect and archive scripts, photographs, audio and (rare as hen’s teeth) video recordings of those seminal days.

The project, under an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant, is entitled "Comedy: No Laughing Matter”. The result will be a rich and valuable archive.

Poster for the Comedy festival
Comedy Cafe Collage - photos and collage by Robert Colvin, 1979. Featuring Rod Quantock, Stephen Blackburn, Geoffrey Brooks, Neville Stern, Mary Kenneally. Courtesy of Robert Colvin

This is where you come in

Were you a performer, a writer, a producer, a technician, a director or  venue owner during those heady days?

Were you at the Flying Trapeze when Henry Maas [Busby Berkeleys, Bachelors from Prague] shaved off Rod Quantock’s beard on stage, so that Rod could play the Widow Twankey the absurdist political pantomime “Upstairs Upstairs”?

Were you shivering in your shoes as the high-flying artistes from Circus Oz twirled above you and your pumpkin soup at the Last Laugh? Or when Geoff Toll walked upside down across the ceiling and played the drums upside down?

Did you see Renee Geyer, or The Little River Band, or Jeff St John doing wheelies in his wheel chair, igniting the audience at Ormond Hall’s Reefer Cabaret in St Kilda Road? Do you remember the comedy spots in between the rock ‘n’ roll acts?

Do you have any film, any photos, scripts or special memories of the venues and shows of those exciting and hilarious times?

If so, please get in touch with Mary Kenneally: melbournelaughs @gmail.com. She will be most grateful.

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