Two years on from the pandemic, many live performance industries are still struggling to recover, but Canberra’s local stand-up comedy scene is bigger than ever.
While the city has hosted venues for decades, the lockdown seems to have bolstered a new wave of talent to go up on stage and make people laugh. In the lead-up to the stand-up festival season, Riotact spoke to some of this new crop of comedians, along with local legend Chris Ryan and a founding member of Comedy ACT, Tom Gibson.
Chris Ryan, now based in Sydney, regularly returns to the capital, which she feels has changed a great deal over the past two years.
“There are so many new and diverse faces now, which makes me very happy. A lot of older women (my particular forte) are coming on stage and not just performing, but also growing the scene by opening rooms.”
Ryan mentions Sarah Stewart who recently started shows at the Durham Castle Arms in Kingston, Jackie Richards and Chris Hurley who are performing the Canberra Comedy Festival show ‘The Women’s Room 2 – Just Add Estrogen‘, and Suma Iyer who runs a room alongside fellow local icon Chris Marlton.
“It’s so great to see the Canberra scene finally growing, being organic, and spreading its tentacles into the suburbs.”
Caitlin Maggs, an electrician by day and comedian by night since 2019, thanks her growth in the craft to Ryan, a “huge inspiration”. After taking Ryan’s course on comedy at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre where many new performers have gone, Maggs was surprised by how supportive Canberra’s comedians and volunteers were.
“I heard before I got into comedy that they’re all cutthroats and snipey, but it absolutely hasn’t been my experience; we are so lucky here.”
While Ryan adores the Canberra crowd and appreciates her hometown’s well educated population who challenge the scene to rise above their base instincts, she states that “not all of them are bloody coming to comedy and that annoys me”.
“It’s one thing for it to be five degrees, but if you never leave the house and just watch **** Netflix, you’re never going to figure out what you actually like.”
Laura Johnston, a recent ANU graduate who began her career four months ago, believes the issue is due to the APS as everyone gets busy at the same time of year. Although what she really struggles with, is doing crowd work on Canberrans as they are “usually people that are roughly my age or a little bit older who I’m so intimidated by because they have real jobs”.
One such audience member who transitioned from a ‘real job’ in investment banking to stand-up in June 2022, is Jeff Shen. After reading a book by a palliative nurse who asked her patients the question ‘What are your regrets?’, Shen was inspired by their answers.
“Nobody said, ‘I wish I spent another day in the office, I wish I made more money’. Most people tended to gravitate towards wishing they had taken more risks and actually pursued what they were passionate about.
“I am happier than I used to be. There’s no rulebook on how to do it like in the investment world. You have to have the courage to do it, the resilience to be consistent, and forget about making money for a long time.”
Ryan echoed this sentiment.
“Yes, I still love it and no, it doesn’t pay enough, but I would rather have it this way than be financially secure and dead inside.”
Since 2009, Comedy ACT has been coordinating and supporting much of the local scene. The organisation was started by Emo Parsonson, Tim Duck, Daniel Connell, Tom Gibson and J. Sullivan. Gibson said: “Often people start a comedy room to get more stage time and further their own career, but the people behind Comedy ACT just love comedy and putting events on.”
He wished to also pay credit to Dave Graham who came to the team later on but was crucial to the foundation of the Canberra Comedy Festival which he now directs.
“Everyone loves it because they really make sure the comedians and audience have the best experience possible,” Gibson said.
The first two heats of the national Raw Comedy Competition will be on 8 and 9 February, followed by the ACT final on 17 March. Then between 16 and 26 March, the Canberra Comedy Festival will be showcasing some of the best local talent, along with Australian and overseas stars.