Getting in to Zoe Coombs Marr’s 2016 Melbourne International Comedy Festival show, Trigger Warning, was the hardest I’ve ever had to work to get a ticket to anything. During peak hours MICF has dozens of shows on at once, in venues across the city; audiences are spread thin. Shows rarely sell out earlier than a day in advance, and even well-known acts struggle to sell mid-week. Coombs Marr is an Australian independent comedian, relying largely on word of mouth for publicity. And yet most of her month-long run of performances sold out. In the second half of the festival, getting a ticket was near impossible.
A Sydney-based comic in her early thirties, Coombs Marr has appeared on Dirty Laundry Live and Comedy Up Late (both on the ABC), but she’s far from a household name. Until this season and her protest wedding to fellow comic Rhys Nicholson, your parents probably wouldn’t have heard of her. She grew up in regional NSW and has been doing stand-up since she was fifteen. A few years ago, Coombs Marr started performing as “Dave”, after growing frustrated with the endemic sexism in the Australian comedy scene. As Dave, Coombs Marr wears low-slung jeans, grotty T-shirts, and sports a ponytail and patchy beard. He is a club comic, used to doing short sets of material at the divey “Laugh Hole” (which I can only imagine is a basement venue where the floor is sticky with beer).
In her first show as Dave (simply titled Dave), premiered in 2013, Coombs Marr makes him spin his ten-minute set into a full hour of material. The show begins with one long monologue on the mystery of the clitoris: “Fellas know what I’m talking about. Everyone’s looking for it, no one can find it! They should change that thing’s name from clitoris to NEMO!” His delivery is crass and blokey. He talks directly to the men in the audience, only addressing the women to make sexual, often sexist remarks.
Soon, things start to unravel. It becomes clear that underneath all his bravado Dave is deeply insecure in his own masculinity. Over the course of the hour, his confidence in his material slips and as the audience turns—increasingly laughing at him—he stumbles, figuratively and literally. He falls and hits his head and, even as he assures the audience that he’s okay, he has to blink a stream of blood from his eyes. He spirals into concussion; nauseous and disorientated, he vomits all down his front.
Dave is a razor-sharp look at the mediocre, often masculine humour which is so prevalent in comedy clubs, on television and in backyard conversations across Australia. But far from being mean-spirited, Coombs Marr portrays Dave almost fondly. She contrasts the traditional jokes of his material with the surreal, grotesque slapstick that he is a puppet within. By making the line between reality and fiction paper-thin, Coombs Marr invites us to look behind the curtain, challenging both audiences and comics to question their pre-conceptions of stand-up.
For several years, there were so many people called Dave performing in MICF that the program dedicated a page to them (titled “The Daves”). For whatever reason, the style of comedy Coombs Marr parodies is particularly prevalent in traditionally masculine Australian comedians called Dave, many of whom fall somewhere on the shouty, bloke comedy spectrum. The first year the program featured “The Daves” page, Coombs Marr and her show were included. The second year, there were so many Daves that she was pushed back to the final page of the program under Z for Zoe.
When, finally, I did get a ticket to Trigger Warning (one of several sold-out, extra shows) I was apprehensive. Despite having seen Coombs Marr’s material before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Dave had required a certain level of comedy literacy to fully appreciate its jokes, and I did not expect Trigger Warning to appeal to everyone. And yet, as far as I could tell from Twitter, everyone (who had got a ticket at least) raved about it. It had been nominated for two of the festival’s biggest awards, including the Barry, which honours MICF’s best show. In the packed, motley audience in the Victoria Hotel’s largest room, I sat next to none other than Andrew Denton.
When he appears on stage Dave tells us that this show isn’t his usual stuff; he’s stopped doing stand-up. That’s wasn’t what the feminists wanted – feminists like weird performance comedy and the wusses who stoop to it. So he’s been to mime school in France (something many local comics have genuinely done in recent years). This is a mime show. If the feminists on Twitter didn’t like Dave’s jokes, he won’t tell any. Sixty minutes of mime, get ready.
For the first twenty minutes Dave attempts to commit to this, doing half-arsed impressions to a soundtrack of “Amelie music”. He tries to improvise a routine using an obviously phallic banana, but without any ideas he quickly realises that he’s just eating a banana on stage. Regularly, he lapses back into doing bits, telling a short barrage of jokes before chastising himself and reluctantly picking up the banana again. It is bumbling and uncomfortable. The audience’s laughter is stilted and awkward, giggles coming more from confusion than anything else.
At clown school, where it is obvious that Dave struggled to fit in, he had to “discover his inner clown”. Only it turns out that Dave’s clown is a grumpy, thirtysomething lesbian comedian, called Zoe. Dave, understandably, is not too pleased about this. He switches into the “character” of Zoe and we see her talking at a panel on gender in comedy, discussing the concept behind her alter ego, Dave. Which, as Dave screams at us when he comes back, is just not funny.
We flip between Dave and Zoe, going “deep into the mime”. The show is a mind-bending series of tricks and reveals, planting seeds that grow and tangle their way through the narrative. As soon as you see one call-back coming, another catches you from behind. The discomfort that was palpable in the audience at the start of the show morphs into empathy and the laughter becomes louder, less stilted. Suddenly, we are all on Dave’s side. When he realises that perhaps he is Zoe’s clown, not the other way around, we feel genuine warmth for him, trapped in his spiralling identity crisis. Despite the fact that Coombs Marr never pretends Dave is anything but her with hair stuck to her face, his character is so complete, so recognisable, that it’s easy to get lost in his struggle.
Trigger Warning was almost universally critically acclaimed. The Sydney Morning Herald and Herald Sun both gave it four-and-a-half stars, and Coombs Marr swept the floor on awards night. Hers is only the second show in MICF’s history to win both the Golden Gibbo (for best independent show) and the Barry. Both awards are judged by a panel of industry experts, and the shortlists tend to reflect audience and critical reactions. MICF is one of the largest comedy festivals in the world, second only to Edinburgh Fringe; as the festival’s most prestigious award, the Barry is one of comedy’s highest honours.
The Barry is typically awarded to comics at the peak of their career. The last three winners have been Rich Hall (61), Denise Scott (61) and Sam Simmons (39). These are the kind of comics that even your parents have heard of. Hall and Scott perform very traditional material, lacing stories about their lives and families with pithy one-liners, whereas Simmons starred in his own ABC TV series in 2012 and in 2013 appeared on Conan. These are acts that sell out the festival’s largest rooms, who regularly appear on television and are represented by major management companies. Last year I saw Scott reprise her Barry-winning show at Hamer Hall, a venue with a capacity of almost three thousand. I felt very out of place and, sitting in the front row, Scott heckled me throughout for being too young to understand her references.
In contrast, Trigger Warning was programmed into two rooms at the Victoria Hotel; the original seated about thirty people, the larger room used for extra shows double that. In previous years Coombs Marr has performed predominantly to young, progressive audiences in venues like the Tuxedo Cat, which features comedy that tends toward theatre. Unlike practically every person to win the Barry since its inception, she does not have a Wikipedia page; she doesn’t even have a functioning website. The Barry is, generally speaking, not an award given to emerging comics. Let alone ones as deeply strange and feminist as Coombs Marr.
Last year, I only saw shows by women at MICF. When I originally wrote about the project I said, “In a perfect world, seeing only female comics wouldn’t be a statement. In a perfect world it would be possible to do it by accident.” A year ago, the average punter stumbling into multiple female-driven shows seemed impossible; not only were there more than three times the number of male comedians, many of them were better known and better promoted. Last year Coombs Marr told The Guardian, “I think we live in a sexist world and comedy is a reflection of its audience. And Australia is really parochial – it’s a small audience so there’s not enough people to sustain any kind of niche stuff. I think female comics are still seen as a niche.”
But at MICF this year, it felt like maybe change is finally coming. Local, independent female acts were selling out, again and again. It’s hard for audiences to find the performers on the fringes of a festival like MICF – such shows typically struggle to breakout, and many never really manage. For a show like like Trigger Warning to receive mainstream coverage, awards and audiences is remarkable. It’s easy to only talk to people who are equally open-minded and enthusiastic about experimental comedy, and inside such an echo chamber it’s not hard to see this shift as inevitable – but forgetting the tastes of the general populace means denying how significant these changes are. Comedy plays an important role as a diver of social discourse. It allows comics and audiences alike to explore divisive issues—race, gender, sexuality, politic—with a spoonful of sugary jokes.
Coombs Marr has created a show which challenges the roles gender plays in comedy. According to her, Dave is “instantly political, because [he] makes people question what they’re laughing at.” He challenges the role of toxic masculinity in humour, while asking important questions about the place of women in an industry that still sometimes regards “female comedian” as an oxymoron. Trigger Warning is a meta-textual look at the ways comedy reinforces traditional gender roles, especially in Australia. Given the show’s reception, it seems this is a conversation we are more than ready to have.
Alexandra Neill is the Project Officer for Heywire. In 2015 she was named one of Melbourne Writers Festival’s 30 Under 30. Her fiction and non-fiction has been published in various places including Voiceworks, Award Winning Australian Writing, Scum, Junkee and Metro. She spends her spare time tweeting and playing Dungeons and Dragons.