Comedy

Interview: Neal Portenza

11 April 2016

For the past six years, Josh Ladgrove has been gracing the stage with his unique and crazy character, Dr Professor Neal Portenza. In the midst of the 30th Annual Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I had the opportunity to pick Josh’s brain about comedy, his origin story and his career.

When did you first realise that you wanted to be a comedian?

Probably 2007 in Melbourne Uni. I had been sick so I had a year off uni and I was reading the Monty Python biography and then randomly, there was an opportunity to audition for the Melbourne Uni Law Revue and I thought “yeah! That sounds like a thing.” So I auditioned for that, and got in and did that. It was so much fun and I fell in love with comedy. Doing it, I realised how much of a drug laughter is. Makes you realise that, well, it’s a cliché, but it’s one of the most beautiful things having a room full of people laugh, together, at something dumb. It’s so enriching and rewarding.

What sort of stuff did you do in the law revue?

Very traditional sort of one man sketches really. Very silly, very horse guy. Every sketch would end with the word “guy”. Wasn’t so gender diverse, and it wasn’t so collaborative either. I was a bit selfish I think. I’ve always loved characters and I sort of have a Shaun Micallef sense in me. It was always just me doing silly characters.

I did a bit of research and according to your website, Dr Professor Neal Portenza was born in 2010. Can you talk us through how he was created?

From the law revue I had all this sort of craziness inside me that I wanted to let loose. So I decided I wanted to do a one man show. I lost my voice one time and my friend was like “oh, that should be the voice for the character” and I had all these weird and disparate ideas and smashed them together and thought “this could be funny” and that was that. That was how Neal was born.

How has he adapted or changed over the years?

I think it’s become probably one of the most interactive shows that there is. It’s extremely audience driven, it’s extremely spontaneous. I think for what it’s worth, I’m a much better performer and probably a bit quicker and sharper and funnier, so I can get away with a little bit more. So Neal is a little more playful and cheeky and you know, if I’m doing a bit and it’s not working but something else happens then I’ll go down that other path, like “Okay, this is funny today. Let’s explore this”.

So, is a lot of it improvised then? How much do you have planned when you do a show?

It’s like a roadmap. It’s like, putting in 10 dot points then being like “Okay, how do we get from a to b to c to d. It’s dependant on the night and the audience and all that. And then, if we only get from a to b and that’s the show then so be it, lovely. So that’s the plan. But no script. I haven’t written a script for like four years.

Wow. That is terrifying to me.

Yeah, it’s terrifying to me as well.

Do you have a career highlight so far?

I did a show called “Come heckle Christ” in Adelaide and I got protested by these ultra conservative Catholics so that was really funny. Probably as Neal, doing big gigs when they work. Gigs to 300-400 people, making a room that size laugh is just such a beautiful feeling.

To someone who has never seen you perform before, how would you describe your show?

I wouldn’t describe it. I would discourage them from seeing it. No, that’s not true. I’d tell them see it, but have no expectations, it’s not about anything. I wouldn’t try and describe it so you’d have to come and see it and keep an open mind. You’ll either find it one of the most rewarding and fun experiences or you’ll leave and go “That was a bit unusual”.

Do you have any advice for anyone who would want to get into character comedy or any kind of comedy at all?

Just, don’t be discouraged at all. I think that’s the secret. Some of us are funny off stage and then you get onstage and discover that it’s a totally different thing if you believe in yourself. If you believe in what you’re doing and you stick with it then you can forge a hell of a career. I know some people who are extraordinarily famous now to the point where a couple of these people are pretty much household names in the US and the UK and when I first saw them, I can absolutely tell you that they sucked. They really really sucked. And sometimes you’ll enter, say, RAW comedy or something and you’ll kill it but then you don’t get through or you know, something will happen that will discourage you but I just say if you want to do comedy it’s really a war of attrition and just keeping a positive attitude and believing in your own crazy.

Do you have any advice on how to find your comedy voice?

Just get stage time. As much as you can. And living in Melbourne is a luxury because there’s so many comedy rooms. It doesn’t matter if you do stand up or sketch or if you’re a weirdo like I am. Just do what makes you laugh, do what you find funny. If people come along for the ride then so be it. If not, go home, work on it, refine it, practice and don’t be scared to be shit. That’s probably one of the most important things. You have to suck heaps before you get good.

You can see Josh Ladgrove in “Neal Portenza Neal Portenza Neal Portenza Neal Portenza Neal Portenza Neal Portenza Neal Portenza. Tracey.” In the Melbourne International Comedy Festival every night at the Town Hall until 17 April.


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