ON a Sunday afternoon at the Evelyn Hotel in the inner-city Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, even from a seat in a darkened corner right at the back of the room it was hard not to cringe. Raw Comedy, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s open mic competition, is infamously hit-and-miss. When it’s good it can be great, and the competition has launched the careers of some of the biggest names in Australian comedy (Josh Thomas is a past winner) but when it’s bad it’s terrible.
This time was no exception. For every occasional gem there was the student talking about awful share-house experiences, or the middle-aged country guy telling awkward stories about the fundamental differences between men and women in relationships. There were also a couple of gay comedians in the lineup — you could tell because every joke in their five-minute set ended with the punchline: “I’m gay”, or variations on the theme.
The 25-year-old from Warrnambool in country Victoria has made a career for himself writing what he knows. Starting out himself in Raw Comedy and going on to a high-profile stint hosting national youth radio station Triple J’s breakfast show, Ballard’s shows have almost always dealt with his sexuality in one way or another.
“Talking about that stuff is great because there’s a really rich mine there, and the fact that I’m gay gives me a lot of licence to hang shit on myself or other gay people or play with people’s perceptions of the gay community,” he argued.
When Ballard made the Raw Comedy final in 2006, he lost to another gay comedian: Hannah Gadsby.
Now one of Australia’s most celebrated comedians — and probably Australia’s only host of comedy art tours at major galleries — Gadsby is also no stranger to talking about her sexuality. She defended the young comedians talking about being gay as comparable to what most young comedians talk about.
“Young boys, young white straight boys, the punchline of most of their jokes is masturbating, or body issues,” Gadsby said.
“That’s to be expected, because when you first start doing comedy, you’re usually younger, you’re usually grappling with your identity.”
She was right — the Raw Comedy heat at the Evelyn had included more dick jokes than you could throw a tomato at. More than that, those jokes seemed to get reliable laughs. As Ballard said later, “sex is hilarious, genitals are funny”.
The plethora of queer comedians to emerge from Raw Comedy includes Geraldine Hickey, who was a finalist way back in 2001. Though she’s been doing stand-up for a long time now, Hickey only came out as gay in 2011. She empathised with the young gay comedians at Raw, and said perhaps those gay punchlines came from being worried anything more might be too challenging for an audience.
“They probably feel that way, I reckon I felt that way as well when I first came out,” Hickey said.
“I just wanted to let the audience know — you want the upper hand from the audience, so you’ll say stuff so they don’t have the chance to do it for you.”
On the other hand, Gadsby said she relishes homophobic heckling from an audience member.
“Don’t worry, I always win,” she said.
“I welcome it, because then I get to mop the floor, and I get to give a beautiful example of the fundamental problems with homophobia, in front of an audience, who immediately side with me. So yeah, it never really upsets me.”
The occasional homophobic audience member aside, Gadsby and the other gay comedians said Australia’s tight-knit comedy community is a really welcoming, supportive space. The fact that it’s so easy to list off a heap of local queer comics would seem to bear that out — names like Joel Creasey, Nath Valvo, Rhys Nicholson, Selina Jenkins, Thomas Jaspers and of course Magda Szubanski all spring to mind.
Diversity in comedy isn’t something to take for granted. In the UK last year the BBC came under fire over a lack of women on the channel’s countless comedy panel shows, and Gadsby said her experiences while touring there of the male-dominated comedy circuit were unlike anything in Australia.
Ballard said he’s never copped homophobic abuse from an audience member at one of his gigs, but the basis for his current show, Taxis & Rainbows & Hatred, was a real-life homophobic incident involving a taxi driver in Newcastle.
“He recognised me a little bit, and clearly had seen something somewhere about me being gay, and he asked me if I was gay and if I prayed with a minister,” he said.
“I’d had a really shitty week that week, it was late at night and raining, and the one thing I wanted was to get a cab and go home, and it was so bizarre that who I fuck prevented me from doing that.”
Coming out in a small country town and a major breakup with a boyfriend have been the subjects of some of Ballard’s previous shows, and while he’s sure he’ll continue to find material in his sexuality, he’s aware of not wanting to be pigeonholed.
“I want to talk about lots of different things, and I want to be a comedian who happens to be gay as opposed to a gay comedian, but it’s important with that caveat to talk about the things I really care about and think about, and this is totally front-of-mind for me,” he said.
“I’m conscious of not ramming anything down anyone’s throats — lol — but also trying to make the point and remind people that homophobia is real and still kicking around, and I think that can make some very funny moments, so I’m milking that as well.”
Of course, the age-old tradition of comedians talking about their personal life in intimate detail can also serve as a kind of catharsis. Hickey said when she first came out, she did it on stage — at a gig run by Hannah Gadsby, no less.
“When I did come out, I felt it necessary to point it out every time I was on stage. So I had this thing of, ‘everyone in the audience needs to know I’m gay, so I have to make jokes about being gay. It was this constant coming out on stage,” she explained.
“Also because it had been such a long time, I felt a need to make up for lying for the previous 10 years or whatever. Not that I was deliberately lying, it was more like looking back and going, it’s alright guys, I was wrong, it’s okay, I know now, I know.”
Geraldine Hickey, Tom Ballard, Hannah Gadsby and a whole host of other gay comedians have shows on as part of this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, running from March 25 to April 19.
The Sydney Comedy Festival is on from April 20 to May 17.
**This article was first published in the April edition of the Star Observer, which is available to read in digital flip-book format. To obtain a physical copy, click here to find out where you can grab one in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional/coastal areas.