By BRUCE DENNILL
The Very Big Comedy Show / Hosted by Rob Van Vuuren / Virtual National Arts Festival / PG13
A comedy show featuring several high-profile comics generally covers the same sort of ground – an MC linking sets with (hopefully) funny banter and warming up the crowd for each new performer, who still has to wrangle hecklers and project over the general buzz if they’re going to be successful on the night.
For The Very Big Comedy Show 2020, much of this formula had to go out the window. For a virtual festival, the MC is trying to link an audience he can’t see to performers who are alone in their homes, with iffy lighting and delays when their internet speed dips. This is if other technical issues don’t play a role – Kagiso Lediga, scheduled to be part of this line-up, was unable to appear due to a power failure, for instance.
The other major change for this show is that the comics involved were not asked to prepare a set, but rather to recall disastrous gigs they’d suffered through – a humorous reflection of sorts on the situation both performers and their fans find themselves in now.
Rob Van Vuuren, as a veteran of three decades’ worth of National Arts Festivals, is a reassuringly familiar face to introduce proceedings and keep things moving. He’s warm and enthusiastic and as funny as his charges for the evening, starting off with a story about setting fire to his own butt, which is as good a place as any to begin a series of tales of wise-cracking woe.
Alan Committie sets the bar high as the first guest, with his recollection of performing for a large crowd of truckers – and feeling pretty much like the support act for a couple of strippers – sound excruciating, even if Committie’s relating of it is hilarious. Tumi Morake, equally accustomed to full houses and supportive audiences, takes viewers back to when that was not the case, and it was deemed acceptable, at an early-career show, to stage an event in a parking basement with no set-up to aid her.
To this point, Van Vuuren as host has been keeping the pace and energy of the show high with pointed interjections and hugely enthusiastic responses to the comics’ storytelling, so Robby Collins’ opening gambit of “I love your fake laugh, Rob” is the best kind of antidote for reasonable cynicism about inside jokes and the preservation of a showbiz veneer to make something seem more glamorous than it is – not least because the comment sends Van Vuuren into a giggly paroxysm as he’s caught off guard. He has an opportunity for revenge when Collins reveals that he’s started to learn to play saxophone, and is willing to give a rather underwhelming exhibition of his budding skills – cue a comment from Van Vuuren about this being his worst gig ever…
Final guest Lindy Johnson is a loose cannon, mixing a story about a show where the audience – who had been in a pool for most of an afternoon – were too hammered to get to where she was asked to perform when the gig ran late with graphic grumpiness about a broken loo in her house.
This is a format that should be used more often. Genuinely funny people telling true tales in uproarious ways is a far more amusing thing to watch than someone with an opinion and a microphone trying to force a perspective through a political or cultural filter that sucks much of the joy out of it.
This very different version of The Very Big Comedy show might have been borne of the necessity to adapt to challenging circumstances, but it might point towards something that, if not an outright improvement on much of the most mainstream aspects of what has come before, is at least a viable and enjoyable alternative.