Comedy Festival 2009
Reviewed by Kate Blackhurst

Wayne Brady (Wellington Town Hall, May 4) performs cabaret shows in Las Vegas and you can tell. He’s slick, sharp and competent with his improvisation routines, comfortable patter and rhythm and blues songs. He is accompanied by a two-piece band and a couple of dancers, who are also slick, sharp, competent and male. This is a variety show.

Volunteers are called for to help out with being props or making sound affects and no one gets humiliated, even if they are useless. Brady asks for material from the audience so he can improvise songs and skits about their typical day. It’s unfortunate, and rather unglamorous, that one in four people in Wellington work for the government (actually, I just made that statistic up, although there are a lot of them in the front two rows) but Brady and his accomplice, Jonathan Mangum work well with what they get.

The highlight is impersonations of singers ranging from Prince to Mick Jagger. Brady sings songs based on song-titles suggested by audience members before the show. If said audience members hadn’t identified themselves, I wouldn’t have believed the brilliantly-named Glitter is the Herpes of the Craft World (to the tune of Rod Stewart’s Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?) wasn’t pre-planted.

Brady then sings some of his own songs from his forthcoming album. They’re good, but I keep expecting them to be funny and they’re not. I am strangely disappointed by this but judging by the swooning women and the standing ovation, I am in a minority.

*   *   *

If some shows seem over-prepared and others seem under-rehearsed, then Jason Cook (San Franscisco Bathhouse, May 5-9; The Classic, May 11-23) gets it just right. The man could turn personal tragedy into an art form. This is not to say that he is gloomy – far from it. Despite the frequent visits to his family of the bad luck fairy (I won’t say exactly what, but he has a list of the top five Cook family disasters, and they’re pretty bad), he manages to find joy in every situation.

Illustrated with projected photographs, Cook’s show draws us into his world. He is a Geordie with a new wife – he proposed in New Zealand so ‘it’s all your fault with your romantic scenery and your strong wine’ – and a bad haircut, which he readily (and humorously) acknowledges.

His delivery and material is first class as he chats about relationships, weddings, parents, and his love of Christmas – there’s a special treat in store for those who share that yuletide glow. If it weren’t for the microphone, and the stage (and the rest of the audience) you could almost believe you were talking with a mate down the pub – with him doing all of the talking of course.

It’s a cold, wet night, and he seems genuinely pleased that we’ve all made the trip to see him. He really does share his sense of joy with us, and I am smiling all the way home. Jason Cook is an alchemist – he takes the worst of ordinary life and creates comedy gold.

*   *   *

To a background of motivational music and inspirational quotes, Beau Tyler (Peter Fenney; Downstage Theatre, May 8-23) bounds on stage and tells us that he can change our life in just one hour. He is equipped with a suit and tie, immaculate hair, cheesy, insincere smile, and dynamic hand gestures. So far; so typically self-help.

But his theory addresses the lucrative personal improvement market from a different angle. He suggests we all stop struggling to achieve success and instead find fulfilment in failure. Based on the premise that there is always someone worse off than you are, he counsels we surround ourselves with morons who make us look good and feel better about ourselves.

He can’t do anything about the three ‘C’s or unavoidable disasters – crime, cancer and Celine Dion – but his patented power purges, in which you dump all your negativity on a support buddy – can help you to be the cream of the crap. But be quick, because this is a pyramid scheme and there is only a limited number of losers out there.

The show is funny and a little different from the usual, but be sure to read the small-print; there will be audience participation.

*   *   *

Disney ruined Sammy J’s (Downstage Theatre, May 8-23) life, by making him believe that the good guy always wins and there are genies in bottles. When he neglects to pay his power bill (the plot isn’t the show’s strength) he passes through a magical portal into the Forest of Dreams, ‘peopled’ by strange foam puppets, shadow shapes and talking trees. The next hour is devoted to sending up the saccharine cartoon genre in a wonderful Muppets meets South Park world.

Sammy J befriends Farlo (best described as a blue thing) and although adamant that this is not going to be some unlikely Shrek and Donkey camaraderie scenario, Sammy J is soon donning pantaloons and skipping around the forest collecting berries. He talks and sings in ridiculously funny ‘olde-worlde-speake’. Thus, ‘Whence is where in the past tense, hence is in the future, so whence becomes hence; it’s pretty intense.’

All the crude and colourful characters are voiced by Sammy J himself and the (mainly) hidden Heath McIvor. Even when they don’t speak they manage to be funny, and can even illicit our sympathy, which is pretty good work for a blob of fuzzy felt with fixed eyes. The creativity behind this show is incredible, with two people creating a range of emotions and innovative portrayals of scenes and genres, including romance and battle. I particularly like the parody of Les Mis complete with flag waving.

Moral of the story? You can’t always be a hero, but you can try and be less of a dick. In these recession-stricken, down-sizing, low-expectation times, that seems more than good enough.