A Comedy Festival Dispatch: Reginald D. Hunter, Stephen K. Amos, Flashdunce

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts
At the New Zealand International Comedy Festival 2014: American comedian Reginald D. Hunter’s New Zealand debut; Stephen K. Amos returns with What Does the K Stand For?; plus, Jackie Van Beek and Jonny Brugh’s sketch act.

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img_reginaldhunterReginald D. Hunter
Comedy Chamber, Auckland | April 29-May 3

While rushing from Reginald D. Hunter’s 90-minute show to my next comedy engagement, I was all abuzz and aflutter. For the first time since seeing the standup of Maria Bamford, I had been confronted by a comedian who had not only offended me, and offended me in the best and most intellectually stimulating way, but had given me an act that was not something to simply laugh at and put away. It was 90-minutes on stage to digest.

Even a night later, I’m not sure how I feel about the show. In some ways, it deserves the high compliment of saying that it moved me. It shifted me a little bit to the left, in more ways than one. It should go without saying that Reginald D. Hunter is funny, but he is. Even as somebody entirely unfamiliar with his work, this wasn’t a surprise to me. He sets up a joke like a golfer lines up a putt and then calmly sinks it in. He is as practiced a comedian as Lydia Ko is a golfer.

It’s the politics and the morals that Hunter, and his show, are mired, in that truly fascinates and troubles me. I found myself agreeing with all of his statements about race, especially his use of the n-word not as something offensive, but as something that is part of his vernacular. I’ve felt the same about my own use of the f-word (the second f-word that will come to mind), and how I’m allowed to use it because, in short, I’ve had the training. It’s a part of my vernacular. Hunter makes statements about race and society that come from a place of lived-in knowledge and a somehow bright brand of world-weariness.

It’s his comments on gender that sent my mind into dark and turgid places. Hunter makes statements about women, and jokes about the relationships between men and women, like many other comedians do, and specifically like many other male comedians do, and some of these jokes are offensive. My companion to the show found him offensive and dismissed him outright, which is an utterly valid point. As a duh-feminist—a feminist who is a feminist because duh!—I disagreed with a large amount of what Hunter was saying about women, which included an admittedly funny joke about what a man will do for a woman that a woman won’t do for a man.

The difference between Hunter and other comedians in this regard is that I didn’t turn off from what he was seeing, but considered the life that he comes from and the life that he’s lead. Hunter so confidently put me in his position, and in his life, with those seemingly effortless set-ups, and then slayed me with the punch lines. I’m still trying to work out how he got me in that position—not that I was challenged in my opinions or where I stand on issues of race or gender—while allowing me to genuinely understand where he comes from and where that humour comes from.

Hunter’s show was also special in revealing his visible unease with a New Zealand audience, in what must have been a very different experience for a comedian who is clearly so comfortable with his US and UK audiences. He stopped and started several times throughout to make clear that he was feeling us out to see how far he could go with us, so unsure he was of our problems in the world and where we stood as a society.

It’s a rare experience to see a comedian in this environment. Hunter didn’t bomb—that couldn’t be further from the truth—but to see somebody at the height of his profession going through some very human moments onstage is something that you don’t get to see very often, and even as somebody who regularly goes to comedy, it’s probably not something I’ll see again.

In some ways this review isn’t representative of what you might get at a typical Reginald D. Hunter show. In a show full of prefaces and addendums, especially to his more potentially objectionable material, Hunter promised that he would be better in a few nights and offered anybody a free ticket to a future show if they wished to take him up on it.

I can’t imagine anybody doing so, but then I’m my own kind of person. If you’re into an easy laugh, don’t see Reginald D. Hunter. If you want a comedian who will make you think and genuinely challenge what you think, see Reginald D. Hunter. It will be an experience I doubt you’ll forget anytime soon. I definitely won’t.

img_stephenkamos1Stephen K. Amos, What does the K stand for?
Q Theatre, Auckland | April 25-May 3

Stephen K. Amos is a Comedy Festival favourite for a reason: he’s great.

Even when heckled from the front row before he’s gotten a joke out, which he deflects with practiced but somehow spontaneous grace, Amos is a welcome presence on our shores. Not only does he seem to genuinely enjoy our country and its bizarreness—and is delighted and horrified by the fact that we raffle meat off—but he knows how to draw the most out of a typically reticent 7pm crowd.

It’s no surprise that Stephen K. Amos is funny. I saw his show last year and justly raved it to anybody who would listen to me. With What Does the K Stand For? he dips one toe into the political arena. A brief sidestep into discussing sexuality gives the rest of the material some weight—a weight that is rewarded by a bizarre yet fitting coda after he leaves the stage—and it proves that Amos’s intelligence is not limited to cutting observations of the many places he has performed in. Indeed, he has a keen sense of social awareness. Admittedly, as a gay black man born into 1970s England, it would be very hard not to be socially aware, but Amos has truckloads of charisma and an unbeatable stage presence to really sell it.

It’s curious how little of What Does the K Stand For? does delve into his sexuality and race, with more of the latter and almost none of the former. Some vulnerability would be a beautiful thing to see from a comedian who clearly has so much to give us, but it’s still tremendously satisfying to see one of the funniest comedians in the world make it look as easy as Amos does. I’m sure he’ll be back next year, and when he does, I hope it’s with a show that is even funnier and hopefully deeper.

Basement Theatre, Auckland | April 25-May 3

Sketch comedy is a bleak prospect at even the best of times. It recalls high school talent quests or underwritten sketch shows seen at 10pm on network TV, which after a month are dumped before anybody even has a chance to forget them. But when sketch comedy is done right, it can be the funniest thing you’ve ever seen.

Flashdunce is not the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, but it’s pretty damned close. I’m going to say straight up that I don’t think I’ll ever laugh more in an hour this Comedy Festival than I did at Flashdunce, and that I don’t think there’s a funnier comedy duo in this country than Jackie Van Beek and Jonny Brugh. My Brother and I are Porn Stars, which I was unlucky enough to miss, casts a long shadow on this production. My only experience with either performer are comic roles in other shows—Van Beek as Corn in last year’s Basement Christmas Show was a bizarre joy, and Brugh was a lot of fun in Live at Six.

There is nothing less illuminating than describing how and why somebody is funny, so you’ll have to trust me on this. The sketches themselves range from two unwilling teachers monitoring an exam through to a recurring sketch where two people in Eastern Europe march through a cold winter (funnier than I’m describing), through to the funniest of them all, a cop pulling over a drunk woman who will do anything not to be arrested.

What’s best about this show isn’t that it’s funny; rather, it is a kind of funny that feels entirely particular to these performers. Van Beek and Brugh bring an enviable energy to each skit, and even though some of them felt a bit long on opening night, it was always a joy to watch their reactions. It’s the kind of show you would love to see from conception through to closing night, just to see the myriad of ways they could take a sketch or twist a line for a different laugh.

Flashdunce is not only sketch comedy at its finest, but comedy at its finest. Don’t miss out.

The New Zealand International Comedy Festival runs from April 24-May 18 in Auckland, Wellington, and selected nationwide venues.