Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow:
Mandy Nolan on the thinking woman’s bogan, working the room and a relatable sense of vulnerability
Laura Kebby for Newcastle Live – 09 Jun 2017
I’ll be the first to admit that all too often I can get caught up in the seriousness of life. Usually this process happens all too quickly and always all at once. But I don’t think I’m alone in this either. The pace of life has a habit of sweeping us up and bogging us down and turning us into everything we never thought we’d be. So sometimes, we need an escape plan. Something that we can fall back on, to lift us out of the rut of our lives and back into something we enjoy. Luckily, we have comedy. Specifically over this glorious long weekend of ours we have a whole heap of comedy. As a part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow, this weekend sees a whole host of talented comedians settle in to help us forget all of our problems for just a moment. Mandy Nolan is just one of the many talents on the bill and in the lead up to opening night at the Civic Theatre this evening, I sat down and spoke to her about the thinking woman’s bogan, working the room and a relatable sense of vulnerability.
“People come for comedy for a lot of different reasons. They come for entertainment but sometimes they come along because they’re having a really hard time or something really horrible has happened in their family and they really need to laugh. You never know what their investment is.”
“I always call myself the thinking woman’s bogan and the bogan woman’s thinker,” Mandy laughs as we sit in the empty theatre foyer, discussing all things comedy. Having spent the past three decades making people laugh on stage, Mandy is much more down to earth then I expected. There’s always a strange misconception that comes with being a comedian, but something that was squashed for me indefinitely as soon as we started chatting. Because there’s a sense of utmost relatability to her and from what I’ve personally seen of her comedic experience and routine, that’s exactly why she’s so funny. “The reality is,” says Mandy “to stay good at it, you kind of have to keep your commonality. For me (when you’re the one on stage) you’re really not different from anyone who’s in the audience. You’ve just developed an ability to articulate your observations and your ideas and opinions in a way that’s funny to an audience. It’s not as hard as you think but it’s kind of like being a magician you know ‘don’t let people know the secret’”.
At the end of the day, comics are at the mercy of their audience, and the energy in the room, the way they present themselves on stage and the pitch of their material all combine together to really hammer home the performance. “It’s amazing in a room how the smallest things can make a difference,” says Mandy. “You don’t know what’s happened in peoples day, or even in their lives. Sometimes people come for comedy for a lot of different reasons. They come for entertainment but sometimes they come along because they’re having a really hard time or something really horrible has happened in their family and they really need to laugh. You never know what their investment is.”
“You should expect to see my undies at some point, I don’t even mean to show them, that probably should actually be a health warning”
Of the comics accompanying her on tour, and of the festival itself, it turns out for Mandy, the performance of her comrades holds a lot of weight as well. “It’s really exciting watching the new young comics come through… They’ve got so much excitement and so many great ideas. I’m always so impressed by how clever they are and how much they think outside the box, the guys on this tour are fantastic.”
But as well as gracing the stage herself, Mandy lends her specific set of skills to those in search of a challenge and a different sort of experience, passing on tips and tricks of the trade to other comedic hopefuls chasing the limelight. But like writing or perhaps a variety of other creative outlets I asked, “can you actually teach someone how to be funny?”. “You can’t teach someone how to be funny… it’s actually so much more of a personal development thing for some people,” Mandy answers. “You’re not really teaching someone how to be funny, you have to teach people to allow themselves to find the humour in things again, which is completely different.”At the end of the day, as much as comedy is there for our entertainment, it provides with with so much more than that. “Things will happen in your life and you’ll stop laughing at yourself. You’ll feel really serious and you start to develop lots of negative self talk and you’re almost frightened to laugh at things in your life”.
Not wanting to give much away about the shows over the weekend, Mandy once again praised her fellow comics and reiterated quite simply, that there will be laughs. On her own performance she says, “you should expect to see my undies at some point, I don’t even mean to show them, that probably should actually be a health warning” (laughs). On a more serious note she added; “I really do think that comedy is an amazing thing because it connects people. It’s really important to remember to laugh. Very often your life will take you to a very hard place and laughter is so very good for you”.
So there you have it, a little sneak peak into the mind of Mandy Nolan, and the comedic experience that is taking over the Civic Theatre this long weekend.
Laura Kebby – 09 Jun 2017
What happened when a writer took lessons in telling jokes on stage?
What makes someone want to tell jokes on stage? And what happens when a Good Weekend writer takes a class in stand-up comedy?
I’M STANDING backstage at the Mullumbimby RSL club in northern NSW, and my knees are literally knocking. I can feel a fine line of nervous sweat running down my spine, and not for the first time I’m wondering why on earth I ever thought that trying my hand at stand-up comedy could possibly be, in any known universe, a good idea. Ideally, I would like to miraculously disappear from this nerveracking situation, and reappear in my living room – preferably with a camomile tea in my hand and watching a repeat of Grace and Frankieon Netflix.
What on earth has led us all – me and the other 14 stand-up “newbies” sharing the stage in front of the small but raucous audience – to this night of potential humiliation and mortification that our teacher, local comedian Mandy Nolan, has so cheerfully dubbed the “Virgin Sacrifice”?
In the past 10 years there has been huge growth in the numbers of people wanting to try their hand at stand-up. No less an authority than Tim Ferguson, of Doug Anthony All Stars (DAAS) fame, says so. To wit: Ferguson’s book, The Cheeky Monkey: Writing Narrative Comedy, which was published in 2010, is still in print. Ferguson has been around long enough to pick up on trends. In 1986, DAAS’s full-frontal musical comedy/ alternative rock/verbal assault won them the Pick of the Fringe Award at the Adelaide Fringe Festival. In 2016, they won the Edinburgh Spirit of the Fringe Award at the Scottish city’s festival.
“The main thing that’s happened in the past 30 years is that people have realised that being a comedian is an actual job,” says Ferguson. “You could ask a kid at primary school what they want to do when they grow up, and they could say ‘be a comedian’, and nobody’s going to laugh at them – so to speak. I think that’s why so many people these days are attracted to the idea of comedy classes.”
Mandy Nolan has been teaching comedy in her home town of Mullumbimby for 20 years. “I started out with just a handful of students in the classes,” she says, “and now they’re booked out every time. What I find is that people are at a stage in their lives where they want to shake things up.
“I teach people to be themselves and develop a world view. Stand-up is not just joke telling, it’s a window into a mindset.”
As Nolan tells the class at our first lesson: “It’s up to you as a comedian to draw people into your mindset. Once you know who you are, you never run out of things to say. Your life – whatever it is – is your material, and it doesn’t end until you do.”
For Nolan, stand-up has been a lifetime love affair. She was born north-west of Brisbane in Wondai, in the middle of Joh Bjelke-Petersen country. “My mother went through a period I call ‘the first pew years’,” she says. “As newly formed Catholics, I’d sit through the sermons, and actually think to myself at the age of seven that I could do better than the priest, and that I might be able to make people laugh instead of sending them to sleep.”
She left Wondai when she was 16 to study for a BA at the University of Queensland and did her first standup show when she was 17. “I cringe to say it, but it was about my first period and it was really bad, but somehow my wonderfully high self-esteem saw me through. People booed me and threw things at me, and I came off and said, ‘I think they liked me.’ ”
In our first class, Nolan talks about the power of performing. “There’s nothing quite like the thrill and mad power of making a roomful of people laugh, of twisting them at will, of making them wait – of surprising them,” she says, making stand-up sound more than a little sadistic.
Surprise is the golden key to comedy, Ferguson confirms. “It’s why you don’t laugh at a joke twice. It’s why, as a comedian, you have to surprise the audience with a twist on something they know, or that with just one more second they would have seen coming. Mammalian brains respond to surprise and fear in exactly the same way.”
CURIOUS THINGS happen to our minds and bodies when we laugh. It’s well known that laughter releases endorphins or neurotransmitters that have similar effects to drugs which are responsible for feelings of euphoria. When we laugh, our whole bodies laugh. Our facial muscles contract, our breathing is erratic, and even our tear ducts can be activated – as in “I laughed ’till I cried.”
As far back as the 1960s, Dr William Fry of Stanford University first suggested that laughter should be studied for its potential health benefits. Research has since shown that laughter boosts the immune system and reduces the levels of stress hormones in the body, including cortisol and epinephrine.
In one study, Fry found that laughing 100 times is equivalent to a 15-minute workout on an exercise bike. Laughter, something he calls “internal jogging”, also lowers blood pressure and improves respiratory function and memory. Maybe we’re hungry for comedy because we’re learning more about just how good it is for us. Nolan, however, is convinced that it’s to do with our wanting 15 minutes of fame.
“Most of us have been sold this dream at some time in our lives that we’re special, and secretly everyone wonders if they’re going to be famous,” she says. “The fact is that if you can’t dance, can’t sing, aren’t beautiful, then you think, ‘Hey, I might just be a comedian.’ You can’t underestimate the power of narcissism.
“All comedians are narcissists; the good ones are just narcissists with insight. In our minds, we’re all brilliant. People want to think that they can be brilliant and funny – everybody secretly wants to be like that – and in a way we are magicians, except that instead of rabbits and doves we pull anecdotes and selfdeprecating observations out of our hats.”
Comedian Chris Radburn, who took up comedy after quitting law at 25, was drawn in by the feel-good element. “My father is a barrister, and my brother is a lawyer,” says the 41-year-old, “so comedy wasn’t exactly an obvious career path for me.
“In fact, my father still has trouble believing it’s a ‘proper’ job but, in a way, what a perfect career to have. You get to drink beer for free, tell jokes and – if you’ve got children, as I have – you can be there for them in the daytime.”
Radburn, from the NSW Northern Rivers region, now lives in Sydney and performs full-time. “I was 25 when I walked away from the law,” he says. “I wanted to study acting, and while I was doing that I worked at the bar at the Comedy Store in Sydney’s [then] Fox Studios. That was where I really began to imagine I might be able to do this stand-up business.”
When Radburn finally took to the stage at his first open-mic night, he felt as if he’d come home. “I just knew that this was what I was supposed to be doing – not that I didn’t have to do the hard yards to progress to being a professional comedian, but I knew that this was it for me.”
Radburn has also noticed that the amount of people enrolling in stand-up courses – and the number of comedians on the circuit – has increased tremendously in the past decade. “What I would say, though, is that while it’s true that there are lots of people trying their hand at it, there are still very few who make it through to the level of being a full-time comedian.”
Radburn’s comedy could be politely called full-on, foul-mouthed and blue. (He hails from Casino, the self-proclaimed Beef Week Capital of Australia, which might, he says, “explain my obsession with balls”. Boom boom.) Like a lot of comedians, he attributes part of the attraction of doing stand-up to the “high” of performing in front of an audience.
Ferguson believes that much of the physiological cycle the audience passes through also applies to performers. “It’s why performing is addictive,” he says. “It’s a highly charged state of mental and physical arousal, fed by the audience’s laughter.”
Ferguson is a good advertisement for the addictive power of comedy: affected by multiple sclerosis, he has gradually had to accept more and more physical limitations and now performs in a wheelchair.
“DAAS has always enjoyed shocking our audiences,” he says, “and we still do it now. The two DAAS Pauls [McDermott and Livingstone] sing a song called The Carer’s Lament, which opens up all sorts of stuff nobody is ever supposed to mention about how hard it is to look after someone with a disability, and in the UK they were screaming with laughter at it.”
An extreme example, perhaps, of what, according to Nolan and Ferguson, is the secret to comedy: finding your own voice and using your own life. But there are ways of conquering this somewhat daunting task – namely, by understanding the construction of stand-up.
Ferguson says it can be broken down into four basic principles. “Comedy employs the same four elements over and over again: deconstruction, in which you take any activity and reduce it to its basic elements; perspective – the ‘how’ of comedy; context – bringing to the audience something they’ve never noticed; and illumination, when you show the audience that something they do is something we all do. “And last of all, as [Australian comedian] Carl Barron does, for instance, taking things literally, as in: the waitress asked, ‘Would you care for an orange juice?’ and I said, ‘Only if it cared for me.’ ”
What is just as important as material, says Nolan, is what could be described as “stage presence”, emphasised through words, pauses, body language and space.
“It’s quite different to writing for the page,” she tells us during one of our lessons. “On the page, the words stay the same – so what is written is what you read. On stage, the words shift and change, and good comedy is as much about delivery as content. The audience needs to be able to come with you on this journey, so pauses, for example, are very important – they give the audience time to catch up with you, or to know there’s a punchline coming.”
Gradually, during the first few weeks of the course, we begin to flex our comedy funny-bones. Comedic voices begin to emerge, some laconic, others abrasive, a few downright blue. But there are a couple of casualties along the way as well.
“People freak out and disappear, and never get in contact with me again,” says Nolan. “I used to find it personally very disturbing, and think it was all about me, but I’ve realised over the years that performing stand-up is simply too confronting for a lot of people. It isn’t until you actually begin to perform a routine in front of an audience, however small, that the reality of how hard it is to make people laugh really makes its presence felt.”
Towards the end of the course, I have a small personal epiphany. I really am not, I discover, very funny, but I do enjoy telling stories. This comes as a bit of a shock, because like most people I always secretly thought I might have it in me to be a comedian but, alas, apparently not. I discover that I’m more Dave Allen than Billy Connolly, you could say, and once I realise I’ll be happy if an audience finds me only mildly amusing, the fog of worry lifts somewhat.
FIGHTING PERFORMANCE anxiety is another thing entirely. So here I am at the Mullumbimby RSL club, sweating away, and suddenly the next thing I know Nolan is introducing me. I stumble into the light.
“You know there’s one sure-fire way to become a millionaire,” I tell them, “start as a billionaire, and buy horses …” I launch into a description of my animals, and they’re laughing. But I won’t be giving up my day job any time soon.
The Sydney Comedy Festival is on from April 24 to May 21. Candida Baker will not be performing.
Candida Baker for the Good Weekend – APRIL 15 2017