In a traditionally male industry, hearing women do and talk about comedy is still, unfortunately, fascinating.
It’s fitting, then, that Zoe Coombs Marr likes turning tradition on its head. Earlier this year she wed fellow comedian Rhys Nicholson in “Melbourne’s first gay marriage”, and she is currently touring Australia with her show “Trigger Warning”, which she performs as a male character, Dave.
This is Dave’s second show. Zoe tells me the character was originally “a response to, or a parody of, the well-meaning, but offensive kind of characters you would see in comedy rooms, the guys who are the epitome of ‘take a joke, love’”.
The show boasts bits like “What’s the deal with online bullying?, mime caught in political correctness gone mad, and the six-foot duck meets crippling-fears-that-keep-us-all-awake-at-night-sketch.”
But if you’re concerned about a show with the title “Trigger Warning” being in Dave’s hands, don’t be. Dave’s hands are really Zoe’s hands and she knows what she is doing.
“Over the last few years there have been conversations becoming more prevalent, particularly at universities, about politics of language, trigger warnings, and making sure people are protected by stuff but also asking ‘how much protection is too much protection?’”
Zoe believes everyone has different interpretations of language. “There are different connotations for different words and that changes all the time. Comedy’s role is to deal with those taboos and create catharsis.”
Creating a character like Dave achieves this by discussing entrenched sexism in comedy.
I ask Zoe if she is tired of being asked about being a woman in comedy. She goes two ways. “Some people really hate it, they say, ‘I’m not going to fucking talk about that shit, it’s boring, I get asked about that all the time, there are only so many answers.’”
At the same time she acknowledges the experiences as a female comedian are more obvious for her. “Other people actually don’t know and I am happy to talk about it, but I can only speak for myself.”
“My experience being in comedy rooms is often like being surrounded by these guys who are all mates with each other and I don’t really fit in. It’s not a super comfortable place for me so I am only there for the comedy,” she said.
“Not because there are these evil guys who are not letting you do stuff, but because audiences receive you in a different way.”
She talks about consistently being the only woman on the bill, and that holding a certain pressure. “You get on stage and a bunch of people get up to go to the toilet. They don’t say, like, ‘Oh, yuck, a woman, I am going to the toilet’, but when it happens consistently you do feel it.”
She leaves me with a sobering thought: “People say comedy is really sexist, but it can only work like that because people are sexist.”
We have made a lot of progress though. “You can’t really be overtly sexist in a comedy venue in Melbourne anymore,” Zoe tells me. Audiences hold comedians to account, especially the sexist ones. You’d also have to have your head in the sand to still think women, especially women like Zoe, are not funny. Above everything else, “Trigger Warning” should make you laugh. “It is supposed to be funny first and foremost.”
Zoe Coombs Mar won the coveted Barry Award at this year’s Melbourne Comedy Festival for Trigger Warning, and she is performing the show in Sydney on the 16th and 22nd of July at the Giant Dwarf.