Hard News by Russell Brown


Comedy Festival 2: The Genius of Gordillo

John Gordillo's New Zealand International Comedy Festival show, Cheap Shots at the Defenceless, is a careening, anxious meditation on a world of urgent, artificial intimacy; a world in which brands anthropomorphise themselves and demand the kind of relationship we desire for ourselves and the real people we love.

It's also a technically risky performance, one containing, as he muses to himself, some deliberately unfunny stretches. He'll get on a roll and then undercut himself with an awkward, vunerable moment. He'll spend so long contextualising that you wonder if he's going to get to the joke, and then he does and it's great.

Gordillo is a comedian's comedian, and it wasn't an accident that a few local pros were in the house for his first night at The Classic on Monday ("It was lovely," Jeremy Elwood said to me later). He directs other comics: most notably Eddie Izzard as he transitioned back from the screen to the stage, and Ross Noble.

Sometimes I'll see a stand-up and picture myself doing what they're doing. I have, in a different context, stood on a stage, told jokes and made a crowd laugh. On Monday night I sat there actually trying to fathom the commitment that would underwrite an hour-long performance like Gordillo's.

There were rough edges as he had to explain the British super-brands he quoted, and ask the audience for local equivalents, but most of the clunkiness seemed deliberate. In an age when we quote media in seamless digital samples, he reads it off phones and notepads and projects it onto a screen from his shitty little laptop.

In one key stretch, a series of screenshots from a brand perception survey for a hardware chain, the brand actually does seem to become a personality. A really shitty, needy, manipulative personality.

As the show closed, the storied marketing expert I'd been sitting with turned to me: "It's all true," he said.

Can a comedy performance make you see your world differently? I left the Classic vowing to more closely read my commercial communications, examine their conceits. In truth, I don't think we're as far down this road as mega-brand Britain. But we'd be fools to think it's not coming.

The festival has been trying to get Gordillo for more than a decade. Now he's here, you might want to get in.

Last night, we saw two shows in a row at Q Theatre, where the utility rooms have been made into performance spaces. The first was Sara Pascoe in The Vault (downstairs off Queen Street). She was funny and charming and her London accent took me back. But by the time she wrapped up her hour I was still waiting to for her to really get somewhere with it.

It had occured to me that I'd enjoyed review tickets to a string of British comics and a seasoned local pro in Elwood, but I hadn't seen a young New Zealand stand-up. Turned out we'd booked for one, although his name was sufficiently unfamiliar that I'd taken the precuation of writing down his name on a Post-it in case I forgot it when I went to claim the tickets.

Last night at the Q Luna (down the stairs, outside and right around the back of the building) was Matt Stellingwerf's first night of his first solo show. "Thank you for coming to my show!" he said as we arrived. "Oh, are you the one on the ticket?" said Fiona.

The first thing I'd like to do is direct young Mr Stellingwerf to the relevant consumer legislation. The billing for his show was thus:

 The first All Of The Above is an hour for the QI-watching, Carl Sagan lover. Comedy for those who remember more of the Guinness Book of Records 1999 than Chemistry 101.

It was actually bugger-all like that. But it lured us into booking, so fair play.

What we did get to see was a young comedian's first big night go about as well as it could. On the one side, Stellingwerf had a front row of young women who could barely contain themselves and on the other a particularly game group of couples in their fifties and sixties. The room was intimate enough that a groan or a sigh was a good as a laugh, although, as he pointed out, the solo clap is a testing thing for a stand-up to hear.

Not all Stellingwerf's material is gold (I really think it's past time for World War 2 jokes about Germans) but there was enough in his themes of sex, drugs and depression, and in his easy relationship with the crowd, to keep the show rolling nicely. We left feeling good about what we'd seen. For him, and for us.

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