(NERVOUS LAUGHTER)21 March 2016
Talking to comedian and actress Felicity Ward on the phone in Hong Kong mid-transit, she leaves me thinking comedy has a much larger role to play than to simply make people laugh.
The word ‘comedy’, manifests from the classical Greek word ‘kōmōidía’, which comprises of the two words, ‘Kōmos’ which is to ‘revel’, and ‘ᾠδή ōidḗ’, which means ‘to sing’. Speaking with three of the biggest names in comedy today – Arj Barker, Tom Ballard and the aforementioned Felicity Ward – I have laughed until my tummy hurts and felt a joy which all humans have strived to evoke in one another throughout history.
Felicity first came to prominence through the Logie nominated sketch show The Ronny John’s Half-Hour, before going into stand-up, which she says felt like “finding the one”. With this moment of realisation she quit her job as a waitress and has been killing the stand-up scene in Australia and the UK ever since.
Felicity comes across the phone as bubbly and hilarious, I feel fuzzy inside as I awkwardly repeat ‘yep, yep’ to her flow of consciousness. Felicity has been open about her battles with mental illness; her ABC documentary Felicity’s Mental Mission explores her anxiety disorder and the way society deals with issues of mental illness. Part of her motivation for talking about her mental health on stage was the “incredibly patronising language” used by people talking about an issue close to her heart.
“How (people with mental illness) behave is actually quite funny, and it’s rare that we get to enjoy that” she says.
Living with anxiety and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) does not immediately bring up connotations of humour, but the two go hand in hand throughout Felicity’s show What If There Is No Toilet?, which she is bringing to the 2016 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
If you journey down to Felicity’s show, you’ll be surprised to see two large pyramids of toilet rolls on stage. The toilet rolls are representative of Felicity’s IBS. People in the audience who don’t know how to say “I have that too” are invited to put away a toilet roll at the end of the show. Felicity graciously pushes away the notion that she connects the audience and aids people through laughter. “There is nothing moral about what I’m trying to do” she says, however there is a subtle sense of hope in her voice that this little gesture will help people battling privately with what she also experiences. I burst out with laughter as she exclaims “I’ll start punching people” upon hearing “fight the stigma” one more time, describing it as a “sound bite”. Rather, we need “money and government” she sings in a passionate cry for all those who suffer from mental illness.
This skill which Felicity possesses, the capability to turn delicate subject matter into laughter, exemplifies why her show is a must-watch at this year’s Comedy Festival for someone who wants to think, laugh and cry.
When I ask Arj Barker how he’d sell his show to students, he darts back “tell them there’ll be free beer, although that wouldn’t be completely honest”. I laugh ecstatically and tell him I’m a bit in love. Arj is amazingly down to earth for someone who has been on David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and starred in the hit HBO comedy Flight of the Concords. He has always had a massive appeal with Australian audiences. He places his success down to “being in the right place at the right time”, but the mere mention of Arj Barker to a fellow student will produce a smile, rendering Arj’s humility obsolete. Arj is as chilled in real life as he is on stage. His show at this year’s Comedy Festival is called Organic, which comprises of completely new material that he hopes will produce a “high LPM (laugh per minute) rate” throughout. The title comes from what the name suggests; everything in the show will have a natural vibe running throughout, a signature of Arj’s comedy for so long.
As we near the end of the interview, I tell him students will enjoy the read. He replies “Well I’ve stayed pretty immature so I hope that helps”. I laugh and can’t wait to do so again at his upcoming show.
Tom Ballard is the pin-up boy for the progressive rational: his comedy festers with you so you’re laughing the whole way home. Charlie Chaplin was described as “always being on, everything was a performance”. The same is true with Tom Ballard.
Tom has always been well liked by young people ever since he was nominated for ‘Best Newcomer’ at the Comedy Festival at only 19 years of age. He was crushing it on the Australian stand-up scene when his JAFFY peers were walking into trees on South Lawn. His show at this year’s Comedy Festival is called The World Keeps Happening, and explores social and political issues which the world currently finds itself victim to. Not the war in Syria or anything too heavy like that. Instead, Tom is focusing on “Justin Bieber being popular” and the “world going to shit because nobody knows what they’re doing”.
Tom is happy to make a fool of himself, while at the same time being extraordinarily witty, only making him more loveable. Upon arrival at his house, his smile and deliverance of orange juice causes my accomplices, Belinda and Mahalia, to smile and giggle at his funny demeanour. “Please don’t judge the way I live, because I have housemates and they’re arseholes” he says to us as we walk down the corridor. The interview starts flowing even before the camera begins rolling. I sit across from Tom and discuss whether the bow tie I’m wearing is too much, he laughs at my awkwardness and makes me feel like I’ve known him a lot longer than twenty minutes. He has the exact same effect on his audiences.
However, Tom is not just a pretty face. He has presented Q&A, where he was “absolutely shitting” himself and has worked for a bunch of social issues, such as sitting on the Midsumma Hypothetical where he discussed homophobia and the pursuit of improved rights for the LGBTQ+ community.
He is also an ambassador for Welcome to Australia and it is his push for refugees and asylum seekers’ rights that has caught my intrigue and admiration. Tom is involved in a second show at the Comedy Festival called Wide Open Plains which acts as a kind of “comedy lecture” in the pursuit of “humanising people”.
The spiel reads partly: “Tom Ballard presents a comedic exploration of Australia’s fucked up immigration situation. From our racist federation to Tampa, to Johnny Depp’s dogs, this show will make you piss yourself and cry.”
When asked what he hopes to achieve with the show, I almost get him serious for the first time in 40 minutes, until he says “I’m here to solve all our problems”. Prior to our departure I give him a wrapped present – a packet of Vegetarian Sausages. Tom is a vegetarian, as well as an animal rights advocate. He laughs as he puts them in his fridge after the camera has stopped rolling. I feel fuzzy inside as Tom sees us out the door, his charming laugh ringing out as he stands in the doorway, his tall frame present until we’re out of sight. Tom has such a likeable demeanour and comedic style, it is one which all students at university can relate to. Tom Ballard is a must see for anyone who has ever done something silly and needs a good friend to laugh it over with afterwards. But more than that, Tom has a rhyme to his reason; a purpose to all of the silliness which showcases comedy as powerful, casting light on dark social issues.
Historically, comedy has long followed human kind as a way to shed light on anomalies in society and unify people through a shared experience. Be it raising awareness for mental health issues, the rights of asylum seekers, or even normalising IBS, it’s clear that Felicity, Tom and Arj convey meaning through the laughter. As the Comedy Festival looms closer, I already have a sense of the kōmōidía: Melburnians will be revelling and singing in a theatre near you.
You can watch Fergus’ interview with Tom Ballard at www.youtube.com/farragomagazine
Felicity’s, Arj’s and Tom’s shows run from March 24 at the Melbourne International Comedy Festivalt. Tickets available at www.ticketmaster.com