Warning: this review contains genuine sincerity that might cause distress in some readers. Sorry about that... I was a bit moved. It won’t happen again.
Several times over the past few weeks I’ve heard comedians speak about what it means to them to do the job they do. There have been tales of personal sacrifice, promising careers abandoned, doting parents alarmed, heckles, empty rooms, relentless and often fruitless promotion. Despite all this people are drawn to perform, to get up on stage and try and make people laugh. Or at least smile. Or maybe just not hate them. Too much.
Yet at his recent show New Yorker Jamie Kilstein remarked that no one in America becomes a comedian in order to be a comedian. It’s just a means to an end; a stepping stone to television or Hollywood, rarely a job in itself. It would be understandable if this was the case in Australia too. Not only is there an obvious lack of opportunities to springboard from the appreciating bosom of events like MICF and the Sydney Arts Festival but sometimes just getting a bit of appreciation for what you do can be hard.
Take Melbourne’s own Bedroom Philosopher for example and his show, Songs from the 86 Tram. It’s based around a deceptively simple idea – describing the journey of the (real) 86 tram from Bundoora in Melbourne’s north to Docklands and the microcosm of society that travels together along its length every day. Yet rather than being an hour of cheap gags and condescending impressions of fellow travellers, Songs from the 86 Tram is a curiously poignant celebration of Melbourne life.
The show itself is a mixture of theatre, music and performance held together by a seen-it-all-done-it-all tram driver who talks to the audience through the onboard tannoy. He leads stop-by-stop through Melbourne’s inner north, with mounting passengers brought to life through song. Confused pensioners, disillusioned backpackers, clueless hipsters, over-sexed ticket inspectors, egotistical office workers, African immigrants and bourbon-and-coke addled bogans all share the journey and the spotlight – some more sympathetically than others.
If this all sounds a bit serious don’t worry - it’s also very, very funny. Clueless hipsters, mums with prams and new media workers all cop it good and there is a memorable appearance by an unflattering singlet. It’s just that rather than playing everything for easy laughs the Philosopher (Justin Hazelwood to him mum and friends) looks deeper into the motives of his fellow travellers and comes up with something far richer and altogether more special.
Perhaps it’s because the Melbourne described by the Philosopher is already changing thanks to the insanity of the property bubble, or simply because the 86 was my tram when I first moved here. Either way, Songs from the 86 Tram feels as important as something like John Brack’s famous painting of Melbourne commuter life, Collins Street 5pm.
It’s nice to think that Songs from the 86 Tram might be appreciated half a century from now with a similar kind of enthusiasm to Mr Bracks’ snapshot of Melbourne on the move, although sadly somehow I doubt it. Not only because stand-up comedy’s will'o the wisp ephemeral qualities deny it the same appreciation as other art forms, but because even when placed in context of the 2010 Melbourne International Comedy Festival the critics preferred a show about a penis-shaped puppet and the popular vote went for someone they knew off the telly.
I didn’t see either of those shows, so maybe they were better (whatever that means). Still I doubt that either of them really meant anything. Intended or not with Songs from the 86 Tram Justin Hazelwood not only made us laugh (that is after all why we are here) but in doing so he captured a moment – this moment – with a snapshot of how wonderful and strange and diverse and funny this city can be in 2010. Bedroom philosophy maybe, but at this year’s festival there was none so true.
Visit the excellent Bedroom Philosopher website here and buy the music of Songs from the 86 Tram here.