*Fest Years of Our Lives

This week’s edition of The Scrivener’s Fancy is our tribute, if you will, to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF). Unfortunately, I, unlike everyone else who has written for the website in its entire history, cannot write with any real authority on this excellent topic.

I only went to the MICF for the first time three years ago, when I still lived in Sydney. I was then feeling even sorrier for myself than I usually do, due to ‘matters of the heart’, so some kind friends asked me to accompany them on their excursion to Melbourne. They didn’t say in so many words that they were hoping to cheer me up, but I assume that this was the idea, as they must have been heartily sick of me dramatically getting a catch in my voice whenever they tried to talk to me about even the most innocuous subject. We only attended two shows, so it wasn’t a comprehensive MICF blooding for me, but it was, at least, a toe in the comedy waters.

I was wrestled out of my fog of self-absorption for long enough to have a wonderful time, which was only enhanced by the fact that my hotel, for no reason that I could perceive, had in the foyer a blackamoor figurine that was as big as a man. My lasting impressions from the shows I saw were that a) I really admire anyone who can talk for that long without just panicking and forgetting what they were going to say; b) having said that, I start to want to murder anyone who talks for longer than sixty minutes without an interval; and c) it’s hard for a comedian not to sound schoolmarmish when telling off an audience member for talking, especially if they have to slide out of an equable, self-deprecating persona in order to do so. The point is, though, that I was, and remain, most grateful to the MICF for giving me some kind of interest in going on living in those dark days of 2007.

The first-ever festival of any kind that I can remember attending was a small affair that celebrated the next suburb along from the one in which I lived as a child. I couldn’t, and can’t, see why its burghers felt that their locality especially deserved a carnival. While a nice enough place, the most notable thing about this suburb as far as I was concerned was the rapidity with which the businesses on its main road changed hands; all, that is, except for the barbecued chicken emporium, The Charred Chook, which thrived year after year. The festival itself consisted of a small collection of cake stalls and entertainment from a band called The In-Steps.

Another exciting local event was the Manly Jazz Festival, which, I believe, is not a moribund enterprise, even though I’ve never understood why the Puberty Blues-ish Manly and jazz music were thought to have a special connection. The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Manly is an enormous fibreglass shark that used to loom over the fun pier, and the story I heard that skinheads had dragged it loose from its mooring and sent it drifting out to sea. Personally, I’d like the emphasis of any civic event in Manly to be more on this kind of community history and less on Galapagos Duck. You can always relax in the confidence that a Kings Cross festival, for example, will feature a nod to long-deceased local identity Rosaleen Norton, who, in the suburb’s nineteen fifties boho heyday, was known as ‘The Witch of Kings Cross’. (Apparently, being an artist as well as a ‘witch’, she used to paint murals, which, given that she practised the black arts, I would hope weren’t the typical municipal-council-commissioned ones featuring an enormous juggler wearing a harlequin suit and jester’s cap.)

In fact, though, in the early eighties, there wasn’t that much to choose between such humble local festivals and the, now more-or-less esteemed, Festival of Sydney. The Festival of Sydney manifested very differently in those days from the proliferation of John Cale performances and thought symposiums that we can all enjoy so much today. Instead, back then the Festival of Sydney seemed merely to be a collection of face-painting stalls and lawsuit-inducing rides clustered together in Hyde Park, resembling a shantytown under the jurisdiction of a clown. The festival’s advertising campaign consisted of a solitary television commercial, complete with a Billy-Field-sung (and probably Field-penned) jingle that went:

The festival of Sydney, get into it! 
The festival of Sydney, get into it! 
Get into the [something or other] 
Get into the [something or other]
Just get into it … because!

By the early nineties, when the Sydney Festival’s emphasis was less on the rides and face-painting and more on Robyn Archer one-woman cabarets, I had to swallow all my cynicism when I scored a low-level holiday position with the festival that, to this day, is the best job I have ever had. I was engaged as an ‘Information Officer’ and the great thing about this was that, first, hardly anyone ever seemed to require any information and, second, when they did, all we had to do was read the information to them out of the readily available printed program. The only scintilla of pressure my colleague and I experienced was when old ladies gave us angry speeches about the booking fees that applied to every ticket; however, it was easy enough to bat away these females with talk of ‘speaking to the manager’.

Less happily, in 1988, I attended the Sydney Film Festival for the first, and almost only, time, and it’s my understanding that that year’s program has gone down in history as one of the worst ever. Still, I enjoyed myself, sitting for hour upon hour in the Belle-Watling’s-establishment-like finery of Sydney’s State Theatre. This was until, that is, I was traumatised for, I’m sure, the rest of time by a screening of a Flemish-Belgian flick Crazy Love, the climax of which is, not to mince words, a male alcoholic fucking a corpse. Still, going to the film festival temporarily got me into the zone of just upping and leaving a film after half an hour if I wanted to, which I am normally much too concerned with getting value for money to do, and this gave me a feeling of liberty such as I’ve rarely experienced.

So, the beauty of festivals is that they can remind you that there is more to life than humdrummery. No matter how modest a festival may be, the prospect of it can give me that happy feeling I used to have the night before a school fete, with the promise of toffee apples to eat, a hastily-assembled-in-the-gymnasium House of Horror to visit, and the possibility of finding an only-slightly-tattered Partridge Family album among the second-hand goods for sale.

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