I write so much about the beautiful, positive aspects of critical culture but last week I was at a friend’s house and Laura Davis, award-winning comedian, bonsai grower and all-round fantastic lady, started speaking about how she experiences criticism in the comedy industry. What she said was so compelling that less than a week later I was sitting opposite her with a microphone. This isn’t about the joys of critical culture.This is a different story. And it is important. It is about what it is like to be a solo performer in an incredibly brutal industry. I wish I could convey her tone of voice, which was so blasé as she spoke of rape threats and reviews rife with misogyny. She just gets it done. She makes comedy. And she is fucking good at it.
Laura’s most recent show, Ghost Machine, recently won Best Independent Show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) and is returning to the Butterfly Club for a brief season June 2nd to June 7th. If you are in Melbourne, go and see her work. She is a fierce and hilarious storyteller. I’m so happy to bring you this interview.
FLEUR: In the early days of your career, how did you cope with the opinions of others?
LAURA: I realised what I was walking towards. I won the Raw Comedy competition in Perth and was being sent to the national finals here in Melbourne. It is a huge part of the industry and yet it is a very small thing. Essentially it is just people trying five minute sets, doing their first, second, third gigs and being judged on that. I won and there was just a tiny little news article online announcing it. Friends started saying, “Don’t google yourself. Don’t look anything up online. Don’t type your name in.” And I was like “Why? Why not?” “Just don’t.”
So I didn’t. I didn’t until I got back form the national finals but when I got back it just felt a little bit unfair that everybody had been reading these things and I was not involved. So I googled it. And about half an hour later I vomited.
It was probably people that I knew, people in the industry and friends of people who didn’t win. It is a very small community in Perth and it was just a very long thread of hate speech: very misogynistic disgusting opinions on my body, some threats, “I hope someone rapes her so she learns a lesson” and stuff like that.
I’d just turned twenty. By the time I did the Raw final it was my fifth gig. That has – It has never happened when a man has won that competition. That scrutiny was because a woman had won. People didn’t like that. And, you know, if they didn’t like me that is totally allowed but I remember at that particular point going “Ah. This is going to be personal forever.”
I speak with my voice. With my face. That’s what I like about the art form but, at the same time, any criticism is very targeted and very personal.
FLEUR: Yes. I feel like the difference between theatre criticism and comedy criticism is that if someone doesn’t like your show in theatre, they don’t like your show. If someone doesn’t like your show in comedy, they don’t like you. As a human being.
LAURA: Yep. As a person walking around in the world. As the product of your parents.
FLEUR: How did that early experience inform how you went forward?
LAURA: I think it was good in a lot of ways. It just felt… It was a shallow lesson to learn. It wasn’t cutting or brutal. I remember it did hurt and it did make me feel sick that people had been so preoccupied with me. But in your first shows, you get reviewed and you still don’t really know what you are doing and they are very personal criticisms. I think I just got to learn fast that it really doesn’t matter. It is one person’s opinion.
I remember doing my first solo show and being nervous about getting the reviewers in and then going “Oh. It’s just one guy.” Like, they sit in the front row and it is just one man. And if we hung out, I might not like him either.
This year I told the reviewers “no” a whole bunch. All the other years I’ve always gone “Everybody! Everybody come! Of course, please review for your blog!” I’ve had a few negative experiences of that. One said, “With her brightly coloured poster and high-pitched voice you would expect Laura to be this and she’s not.” I can’t help what my voice sounds like. It’s just my voice. I’m not comping them to come and write what they think I should talk about.
FLEUR: To me, a lot of what criticism is about is having this documentation of your work and audience and engaging in this critical dialogue. I feel like you don’t trust them to have a dialogue that you have an interest in participating in.
LAURA: There is a comedy reviewer, Steve Bennett. When he comes to review my shows, I’m interested in his opinions because he reviews all the shows in Edinburgh and all the shows in Melbourne. He is one of the only people in the industry that actually reviews comedy. I know he has seen my previous work and I know that he has seen everybody else’s work in the country and the UK so I’m interested in what he thinks of it. If what you’re trying to make isn’t translating and you get reviews that are all confused than it is fair enough to doubt yourself.
FLEUR: What don’t you want to see in a review?
LAURA: Please don’t mention anything that I can’t help. Please don’t mention that I’m young unless you have a point as to why that relates to anything. Don’t mention that I’m female: my name is a girl’s name so people will be able to infer that themselves. Don’t mention what I’m wearing. Don’t refer to me by my hair colour! “The brunette enters the stage!” Don’t refer to any woman by their hair colour!
Don’t critique the venue. I didn’t mind people mentioning it for Ghost Machine because it was part of the show and added a lot to the experience but if it is just in a little theatre, just know that the comedian is paying a ridiculous amount of money to hire that space. There were 580 shows in MICF this year and that’s how many venues we need to find. You get what you get.
Don’t just compare them to other comedians that you like or don’t like. Don’t go “Oh she was good but she was not like this one that I really like!” That’s fucking useless. Don’t give away my punch lines. Don’t butcher them if you do.
Don’t make assumptions. Last year’s show was a personal story about an abusive relationship but don’t write extrapolations on my character based on that: “Laura must be this now because she was this.” “Because of her nature as this, Laura was in this relationship.”
The Age this year gave me 4 stars, which was nice but there were big gaps in her attention. In the review I could tell that she was not listening for parts of it. There’s one part where I’m drinking from a large bottle of ‘wine’ but it is water and I say that. I say, “This is water, by the way. I can’t drink any alcohol. It makes me too introspective.” In her review she writes “Laura stands there shrieking and swigging from a bottle of cheap wine” and you’re like “No. No. I relationally explained exactly what was happening and, whilst I’m loud, I’m not hysterical.” She wouldn’t participate. There are a lot of audience questions in that show. They are not mean and they are not intrusive but they are part of the show. I had asked several people around her and I turned to her and asked “How about you?” And she goes “Oh no!” and points to her notepad. So you can’t participate in the show that you’re reviewing?
FLEUR: You can’t be a part of this thing when the whole experience is being a part of it?
LAURA: Yeah. That really frustrated me. To have her ignoring the show because she was focusing on writing the review.
FLEUR: Going back to that incident after the Raw Comedy. I just think it is fucking gutsy to read all of that and just go “well, this is what my industry is” and keep going. I can’t imagine enduring that at such a young age.
LAURA: I wanted to do stand up so badly. It just felt unfair to go “Well these people think this so therefore I can’t do what I want to do.”
The industry is brutally personal so you just have to learn to deal with it. It has only been seven and a half years that I’ve been performing. These days there aren’t a lot of social consequences that you can deter me with. I’ve had a room of 2,500 people hate me when I know that I have to perform for fifteen minutes to get paid and I’m only at five. You just have to accept that 2,500 people don’t like you today. They don’t like you and you’re not sure why but you’ll work it out later.
It is the same with reviews. If you tweet at me and say something nasty and then ask me out, I can make a pretty good guess about what you’re like as a person and whether or not I value your opinion. If you are too uptight to participate in my show when I ask you a question, I’ll factor that in when I read the review. That feels like the best way to do it: factor in someone’s personality. If you have an old creepy man who wants to ask you out in a review, factor that in when you read his criticism saying that you were short, shrill and frumpy but he would still like to bang you. And if a woman is screaming at all the venue staff that she is menopausal and then writes that you are too young, it is probably because she is menopausal and she hates the fact that you are “too young”.
The only joke I had for that was that if I’m too young she should come back and see it again because I’ll be older then. She’ll like it more and more every night by a fraction.