A Very Successful Failure

It takes a lot of talent to come up with a comedian as bad as Dave. Fest sits down with Zoe Coombs Marr, the woman behind the man

feature | Read in About 6 minutes
Published 16 Aug 2015

Five minutes after meeting Zoe Coombs Marr, we're doing what comes naturally to a Scot in the company of an Australian: comparing ancestors who ended up transported to penal colonies. Marr's family lineage, I grudgingly concede, beats mine on delightful detail alone.

"My family have traced it back to a guy called Henry Marr," she tells me, "who was a highway robber and a cross-dresser. So I come from a long line of drag."

This is an unexpectedly neat segue into more immediately relevant concerns: Dave, the eponymous protagonist of Marr's first show at the Edinburgh Fringe, a character she has grown used to inhabiting (and achieved great success with at last year's Melbourne Comedy Festival), but whose general presence in the comedy scene she has felt for much longer.

Dave is a loud, crass, good-natured but none-too-bright would-be standup, whose often desperate attempts to win over his audience often veer, inadvertently or otherwise, into the kind of sexist territory that many will find depressingly familiar. But he's more than just a means of highlighting common problems within the standup community. Dave is a portrait of the comedian in meltdown, providing unexpected insight into what we can learn when comedy goes wrong.

The origins of Dave stretch back almost almost as far as Marr's career. "The idea came out of my frustrations with doing standup, which I had been around and involved in since school, but never really embraced or felt a part of. Watching these guys go up on stage and do their acts, it seemed as if they were all doing the same thing, which I wasn't allowed it do. And I remember thinking that being that 'guy', adopting that persona, actually looked kind of fun. 'Fuck, I wish I could do that.' It's a costume, and I wanted to try it on."

Even the name Marr chose hints at the persona in question: there are, it turns out, a disproportionate number of Daves cluttering up Australian comedy (Jory, Williams, Thornton, Hughes, Quirk, Bloustien), each trading, to some extent, in various brands of masculinity that are as professionally pragmatic as they are comic. As Marr's own career picked up speed, she observed a suspiciously repetitive stream of male comedians who—almost, it seemed, out of comedic necessity—assumed attitudes tinged with prejudice. Her parodic instincts could only resist for so long.

"I started doing Dave as a way of making my tech guy laugh during sound-checks. Afterwards, I told a friend, 'Imagine if I did Dave for a whole hour.' To which she replied, 'God, that would be horrible'."

Obviously, Marr didn't listen. "Initially, when it was a sound-check joke, it was pure parody. But I realised very quickly that it didn't feel right – I didn't actually hate this person I'd created. My friends are comics, and they're nice guys. With Dave, what I was interested in was the tension between who that person is on and offstage. I love Dave. He's just operating in a situation where he has to act a certain way. Which reflects on the audience, and forces them to question what they're laughing at and why."

So, to ask a loaded question, if Dave's apparent sexism doesn't come from within, then where does it come from? "I think part of it comes from the conventions of comedy," Marr muses. "Other times, it's harder to articulate. The show is about the more subtle ways an audience interacts with a comedian. People think, 'Oh, it's a show about misogyny,' and it's not, really. It's about a guy who's trying to be a comic, and he's really bad at it. He's trying to second-guess what the audience will find funny, and failing. It's about trying to win approval, to present an image, to construct an identity. And that on-stage persona is just as constructed for all those real-life Daves as it is for me. I just make it more obvious."

Not obvious enough for some, however. "I got a five-star review and a two-star review that came out the same day," Marr remembers fondly. "The five-star one was for my show, and the two-star one was for Dave's show." A tribute to her acting abilities, I suggest; she agrees. "I put it on my poster."

Growing up in Grafton, a country town in New South Wales, Marr was always drawn to performance, but had few chances to express herself beyond school variety shows. Once she arrived at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney, she found both opportunities and a niche in which she felt comfortable.

"When I went to university, I met a lot of people who became my community – I didn't find that in comedy 'til much later," she remembers. "The people I worked with were radical performance artists. We formed a company, and we're still working together 10 years later."

Marr acknowledges that Dave dominates her professional life at the moment, but is still keen to work on other comedic and theatrical projects. "Since I've been working with Dave, it's been harder to do stuff outside of that. I haven't done comedy as 'myself' for quite a long time. But I really enjoy it, I don't mind being associated with the character, and I've only recently started thinking about what I would do next. I'd like Dave to do another show, and see what the next level is for him. 'Cause this show is about complete failure; the vulnerability of putting yourself on stage, trying to connect with an audience... And it just not working."

Supeficially 'bad' comedy, where the standup's apparent dysfunction conceals such undercurrents of intelligence and subtlety, is a risky endeavour for obvious reasons: as Marr puts it, "If the gig's dark, or you're a bit drunk, some people might think 'This guy's crap'." In her own way, Marr is just as exposed to the whims of the audience as Dave. Yet she is confident that her alter-ego, and everything he symbolises, can strike a chord with any sufficiently savvy crowd, whether in Melbourne or Edinburgh.

"I don't know heaps about the international comedy scene, but some of the problems I've noticed—the sexist material and the attitudes that go with it—are more prevalent and full-on in Australia. Australia has such a small population, the only thing that can sustain an audience is the mainstream, so it's locked in. But I do still think there are fundamentals of how all comedy functions where those issues are always relevant. Society is fucked up everywhere."

No disagreement here.