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Print Version

NZ International Comedy Festival

at Opera House, Wellington
4 May 2013

Reviewed by Caoilinn Hughes, 5 May 2013

It's no revolution in the realm of stand-up comedy for the comedian to adopt a stage persona, particularly when that persona lends the comedian a ready-made platform from which to have fun with a cultural stereotype.

With Australian comedian Heath Franklin, the persona is flicknife-ready Chopper Read. The stereotype lampooned is the hard-as-nails, no-holds-barred outback redneck. With New Zealand comedian Jesse Griffin, the persona is cowboy country and western singer, Wilson Dixon. The stereotype lampooned is the cousin-loving, bull-riding hillbilly from Cripple Creek, Colorado, where “you wait for nothing to happen”, while enacting psychological warfare with your horse.

There is easy comedy and a level of predictability with both performers that can be enjoyable for its accessibility and for its honing of the stereotype (and you do know that this is what you're signing up for). This style of comedy often relies on cracking one-liners – and you do get a number of these with Dixon. However, there are two interesting differences between the comedians in their personas.

Firstly, the whole Chopper portrait is self-perpetuating. The show is all about this exaggerated state of mind, and every ‘bit' from the shows derives from this hilarious hard-as-nails persona. The source of the comedy is pretty consistent.

With Dixon, the show is largely the geeetar-playing straw-chewer (which is confusing, as the persona is from Colorado, as opposed to the ‘Deep South': Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina…) but the stereotyped outlook doesn't inform all of the comedy.

For instance, the opening song is about Wellington, with simple jokes about the windy city (which are very funny; this was the highlight of the show for me), but they are generic jokes, rather than a hillbilly's unique perspective of Wellington. There is another song (the next best) about how hard it is to watch or listen to his partner eat. Very funny, but the persona is unrelated.

The second difference is that Chopper, while being a similarly scripted comedian, boasts a level of freedom that Dixon doesn't attain. Chopper revels in his persona, has a huge amount of fun onstage and improvises now and then, out of pure enjoyment and confidence. There isn't an improvised moment in Dixon (apart from a failed one when an audience member goes to the toilet). This is not a criticism per se, as scripted comedy has its own place in the comedy spectrum, but in this case, it demonstrates a lack of freedom in the comedy and it prevents Dixon from having as much fun with his shows as he might.

The lack of freedom is also demonstrated in the fact that Dixon conforms to a comedy packaging that is not needed and incongruous to the persona. He opens the show with local jokes (e.g. about the state of our umbrellas) and he closes with a ‘what's life all about?' song, which attempts to “tie together all the things I've been talking about tonight.”

Dixon shouldn't feel he needs to tie together the show in this contrived way: stand-up comedy shouldn't pretend at having a narrative arc where there isn't one. If a show has a unifying theme or angle (for instance in Rhys Darby's This Way to the Spaceship), then it would need to be interspersed throughout. But when you're dealing with an on-stage persona, the character/ outlook is unification enough.

There are people crying laughing in the audience (I can hear them during the laborious pauses Dixon takes between jokes, to be absolutely sure they've sunk in), and Griffin's style of comedy does have an audience. But that audience would be much bigger if he had more fun on stage, let loose in his persona and veered away from his CD routine.
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