Image description: head-shot of Zoe Coombs-Marr, with her hands angled around her face, looking seriously into the camera.
Zoe Coombs-Marr is a comedic goddess. I have watched every one of her videos on YouTube. I have read countless reviews of her show Trigger Warning; she’d taken all of the shitty, sexist tropes of standard stand-up comedy and composted them into neck-bearded racist, misogynistic, homophobic Dave. She creates stunning parodies of the hyper-masculinity endemic in Australian comedy on television, in pubs and in our conversations. She makes us question gender roles in comedy. She also plays the flute, like Lizzo! She’s also a lesbian from regional Australia, making it in comedy! Like Hannah Gadsby! She is a powerful feminist and she’s got a new show.
Walking into see Agony! Misery! at the Pleasure Garden, my friend I talked about how we didn’t really know what to expect from this show, but that was okay. From Coombs-Marr’s Facebook page, we knew that this was a show, “about getting older doing new shows about old shows.” I had a feeling that we needed to maybe be more literate in all of her old shows, but also a feeling that we would probably be fine.
And at the beginning of the hour, when she told us she would be trying some new material, “This means some of the jokes here, you might be the only people who ever see them!” All I could think was what a privilege and what an honour to be in this audience at the Big Top. And then, “Don’t worry – if the jokes are shit – you’ll know it, I’ll know it, and we will both be fine.” What a consummate professional, I thought.
But maybe because I went in expecting some sort of parody, or some sort of transcendental comedic experience, I was just so confused. Was this a show about the time she played a flute solo on band camp? Was that the old show? Or, was this a show about the oldest kinds of shows – the patriarchal nature of some kinds of storytelling? Or, is Zoe Coombs-Marr really depressed and convinced her girlfriend hates her and ran out of time to meaningfully link all this meta-analysis of comedy and storytelling together? Or are we still taking the piss out of the meaningless crowd work a lot of male comedians rely on that is both isolating and inconsequential? Or is this about the faulty nature of memory?
I was confused when Coombs-Marr said very quickly, “I hate storytelling.” Was this meant to be subversive? What better way do we have to connect and empathise with other people? And then, “No really, I think it’s a patriarchal construct that favours linear storytelling and cause and effect. And there’s research to show that storytelling reflects a male orgasm – build up and climax.” Then, when everyone stared at her blankly, waiting for more explanation, “That should have got a laugh.” I thought that should have got more explanation. Also I thought that was a joke from Hannah Gadsby’s critically acclaimed Nanette?
Because then Coombs-Marr explained she thought stories looped back in on themselves and were often a lot more circular and experiential, a lot more like a female orgasm. So I knew not to expect a clear narrative arc from the show, but even so, if this was a show about female pleasure and its parallels to storytelling, I didn’t come. And there were a lot of graphic fisting jokes. And, for every latecomer to the show, reminders she was a lesbian from regional Australia.
Memory is inherently unreliable and the final five minutes of the show are a brilliant testament to that. As any history student would know, the way we remember and retell events can change the events themselves. Coombs-Marr parodied her story of band camp, by retelling it as a speech from a palm card at a speech eisteddfod. My friend and I were laughing to the point of tears, it was one of the most savage and brilliant parodies of a Year Seven’s first prepared speech ever.
I’d seen Is This Thing On – Coombs-Marr’s play about Briana, a female stand-up comedian navigating the comedy scene. We see four versions of Briana – all at different ages and stages of life played by different actresses. It’s one of my all-time favourite pieces of theatre. The same experience of stand up is different for teenage Briana, then mid-twenties Briana, then mid-thirties, then mid-forties…We see her memory of her experiences changing and so the way she tells her story changes, too. It was a perfect match between a concept and an execution of a concept.
In Agony! Misery! we hear about Coombs-Marr trying to save a cow, making experimental theatre, navigating her teenage years, doing mushrooms, what ‘crushing pussy’ actually looks like (some people think it’s taking a fistful of strawberries and squeezing) and how country people have overbites and rich people have dry hair (@Gina @Camilla). And I didn’t get it.
There were some excellent one liners (I hate the male gaze….but I’m friends with so many!) and a lot of old content. I was recognising jokes from videos I’d seen years ago. The whole show felt like a night of development and maybe that is what Perth Fringe is for a lot of eastern states artists – the first in a long run of festivals, to try out new material. I’d love to see this show again at the end of the run.
But it left me wondering what is left after parody. When you take down and fight against structures, what is left to replace them? Maybe it is an hour of comedy that is shambolic, chaotic and frenetic, like memory. Or dizzying with moments of euphoria, like climaxes. Or, maybe it’s a lot of research about storytelling tropes, a lot of confused audiences, a long festival circuit and a lot of almost orgasms.
Agony! Misery! is on at the Big Top at the Pleasure Garden for another few nights. Tickets are $29 and you can get them, here.
Two flutes out of five
Katie is waiting for Nigella to reply to her email.
Image courtesy of FRINGE WORLD Festival.
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