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Award-winning comedian Laura Davis talks comedy writing and how a show comes together.
Like most jobs in the creative industries, from the outside stand-up comedy looks easy. If you’re outgoing, can crack jokes off the cuff and don’t dissolve into a silent mess at the thought of speaking to a crowd, then surely there isn’t that much more to it. Plus, don’t you only have to work in one hour bursts? It’s basically a dream job. Except of course, it’s an iceberg – the one hour on stage is just a fraction of what goes into making a show successful.
Laura Davis has been performing stand-up for ten years. In 2015 she won Best Independent Show at MICF and Best Comedy at Melbourne Fringe and in 2016 she won the Moosehead Award. Earlier this year she performed an hour-long special on ABC, and at present she is performing her 8th solo show, ‘Cake In The Rain’, at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF). In a brief break between sleeping (not enough) and performing (pretty much every night for three weeks) she talks to Writers Bloc about how shows don’t just get written in a set time frame – that they’re the result of a constant sifting process.
You’re Pretty Much Constantly Writing Your Show
Davis arrives holding a terrifyingly large folder of what turns out to be her raw material. Inside are scraps of paper of all different sizes on which she has handwritten ideas at all stages of development. There are some which are just key words, others written out pretty much in full, and lists. So many lists. “For comics it’s very rare that you have the time luxury of making a thing from start to finish” she tells me “you hardly ever get to go ‘oh I’m gonna write a show on this, alright. What will joke one be and what will joke two be?’”
There also isn’t much breathing space between seasons. Comedians are barely done performing a season of a show before they need to submit their idea for next year’s performance. “You don’t get a lot of mulling time.” So instead of working in a concentrated block at the end of a season, Davis writes down her ideas and tests them out on different audiences in five minute increments across the year.
She ends up with more ideas and material than could possibly fit in a one hour show, and so when the time comes to finally put a show together, she has to take a step back and see what theme naturally emerges. “It quite often feels like you’re making a pottery exhibition or something I guess” she laughs. “You make a little thing and you go ok, that will kind of match the next thing, and at the end of the year you’ll look at the big pile of jokes that you have and you try and see what the theme and the connections are - then you arrange it. You have to put in your segues and all the connecting bits that make it beautiful and stop it being just ‘oh so pipe cleaners…and dogs!’ That’s the bit I find most satisfying – laying out a big pile of what I have and trying to work out how I can make it look like it was all written in one go.”
Often You Find Yourself Promoting A Show That Doesn’t Yet Exist
Festivals don’t just happen overnight; programs need to be printed, venues need to be arranged, and so a lot of information needs to be provided many months in advance. “The media deadlines are well before the creative ones” Davis explains. “You have to have title and images locked in and only after that go ‘well if I wrote the show eventually that would be good too’ - but that’s further down the track.”
Davis’s current show is called Cake in the Rain, and she had the title well before digging into the giant folder of content. She explains how ahead of MICF she had already submitted the show under a different title, but that it didn’t sit quite right with her. Then, after a friend texted her saying “you’re happy but you’re miserable at the same time” she responded “yeah, I’m like a cake in the rain” – and the title stuck.
Success Can Hinge On What You Put On Your Poster
Over the past few years Davis’s posters have been wildly varied – one has her brandishing a sword as she floats through a pool on an inflatable flamingo, while another hides her completely under a sheet. Her most recent one is, quite literally, her holding a cake in the rain, her head completely submerged underwater.
When asked about why her posters are always so ambitious and out there, her response gives a depressing insight into how society views female comedians. Initially “it was frustration about of the standard comic posters of like white background scratching your head or stroking your chin, looking quizzical”. But, then she noticed a trend. “I started taking my face off the posters because it sold more tickets. People don’t always look at a young woman and think ‘oh I wonder what her political opinions are’ and so I started taking my face off Ghost Machine and Cake in the Rain - and people take the flyer out of your hand much more often. It kind of shrouds it enough that they give it a chance. They go in thinking ‘I don’t know what this is. Oh! I like it!’ Rather than ‘oh I think I know what this is oh it’s not that, well then I’m angry that I’m wrong.’”
Memorisation? It’s not always segue to go.
Each night the show is a little different because Davis responds to each individual audience. “It’s a dialogue” she explains, so she doesn’t have a script – just set points she needs to hit, kind of like a set list. “It feels like just trying to monkey bar between things. So as long as I know the thing is there, I don’t care how I get to it in terms of segue.”
This means she can recalibrate if the audience responds with silence to something that usually goes down well – something which wouldn’t be possible if rigid segues and lines were in place.
Comedy is ordered chaos – when it’s done well, it looks effortless. But, one look at Davis’s overflowing folder shows that she is not short of ideas – so anything that does make it into the hour long act has been carefully thought about and polished. Some of her thoughts are jotted down on the back of old posters, and when I ask her about this she responds, as usual, with a comment that balances flippancy with deeper commentary. “It saves paper…and there’s the nice metaphor of turning over a new leaf – literally.”
Cake in the Rain is showing this week at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
Elizabeth Flux is a freelance writer and the editor in chief of Writers Bloc. Her nonfiction work has been widely published and includes essays on film, pop culture, feminism and identity as well as interviews and feature articles. Her most recent fiction publication is a short story in The Legend of Monga Khan. She previously edited Voiceworks and On Dit, and in 2016 she attended the Hong Kong International Festival funded by the UNESCO City of Literature Travel Fund. Twitter @ElizabethFlux