Comedy festival review: Improv leaves room for improvment

Rose Matafeo
Tessa Waters

Sassy Best Friend
Rose Matafeo
Basement Theatre, Auckland; until May 6
Wellington Rowers Club, Wellington; May 16–20

Over Promises
Tessa Waters
Basement Studio; until May 6
The Propeller Stage at BATS; May 10–13

The shows of two comics in the NZ International Comedy Festival’s first week were a study in how to handle improvisation.

The first, Rose Matafeo, is a New Zealand darling: She has been on New Zealand TV screens since 2011, back when U channel was still a thing, and continues to appear on Kiwi late-night viewing on Funny Girls.

Her continued exposure set quite a precedent in my head for what her latest show, Sassy Best Friend, would be like: her trademark sarcastic and sardonic humour delivered with all the awkwardness of a girl just hitting puberty. If nothing else, that title promises it.

Yet her show didn’t hit the mark for me. It started strong, with Ms Matafeo characterising herself as the “sassy best friend” in her own life, followed by a quick analysis that no leading ladies in rom-coms have curly hair because of their race. Even the fact she verged on sounding like she was re-purposing a Funny Girls piece (a skit-based comedy TV show that constantly riffs on pop songs) by replacing the word “work” in Rihanna’s ‘Work’ with “white” didn’t faze me too much. It’s what's expect from her after all.

She had other strong points: Screaming the real effects of birth control pills (“this will destroy any self-worth you have,” “you will be stuck in toxic relationship for three years”); a continued skit of trying to make an audience member fall in love with her through classic rom-com antics; and any impressive routine demonstrating how the lack of glasses transforms a leading lady’s attractiveness choreographed to a pre-set soundtrack.

It was the periods between that were the major letdown. If she lost her place in her set she would bend over at the waist and face the floor as she collected herself, then continue her set facing the floor before powering up to face us again. Usually, I wouldn’t notice it, but when she was staring at the ground in silence for a full five seconds, it got uncomfortable.

It didn’t help that she drew attention to her inability to make eye contact. Her continued self-critiques were unnecessary; I thought her jokes were funny until she commented: “That wasn’t a good joke” whenever the audience didn’t give her rapturous laughter on her improv (I hope it was improv).

I don’t mind when people go off-script; it happens. What isn’t helpful is when the comedian stops, runs to her stand to look at her watch and comments she’s running out of time and she has to cut parts out. Twice.

It was the first show of her run and it showed. Maybe if she had stuck to her script more and didn’t fall into the Amy Schumer baby voice during her improv, she would have managed to convince me of her experience in stand-up.

I hadn’t seen any of Tessa Waters’ work before going to her show but I carried expectations of it at a similar level to Ms Matafeo’s after reading she was voted one of the top character shows at Edinburgh Fringe, and she studied clowning and mime at Philippe Gaulier in France.

Ms Waters is slapstick and unashamedly so; her very first movement after coming through the curtain was to straighten it. The aspect I applaud her most is how many themes she held through the whole performance, from the scripted ‘birthing’ of imaginary children to the improvised, miming an audience member lapping at their popsicle.

Her outfit was outrageous: sequins and gaudy applique on a cape, crop top and hot pants reminiscent of The Rainbow Fish books. Even so, that's not the reason she’s funny.

Ms Waters’ set is quite reliant on a willing audience. Those who sit in the front two rows of a comedy show know they are putting themselves in prime position to be picked to volunteer or to be targeted (granted, ‘volunteering’ can be very similar to ‘targeting’). The whole audience in this show is involved, which Ms Waters makes clear by declaring an exercise in crowd work within the first five minutes. And you won’t even care.

That being said, the show I went to was full of theatre folk and comedy enthusiasts but even the most reticent attendees joined in making chainsaw sound effects – she was miming chopping up a body, by the way.

Where Ms Matafeo fell, Ms Waters flourished. Ms Waters’ set counted on randomness: Making us laugh purely by saying the word “nose” is admirable.

It flowed through to the audience participants who joined her: a partaker dubbed ‘Hoopy’ by Ms Waters very quickly became a comedic mime and another audience member started squealing for help (he was stuck in an imaginary water slide) before she indicated what she wanted him to do.

Improvisation is notoriously difficult. Both performers have been on the comedy scene for years, yet one was a success on the night and the other failed. Funny that.

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2 Comments & Questions

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A good comic understands the dynamic of Timing; being attuned to the audience's responses that's elicited from your own performance; thinking on your feet in rapid time -- when ad libbing seamlessly is conflated with improvisation -- if you can't master that, then, you haven't got what it takes.

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I think perhaps Brian might not be the target audience for Rose's work. I have always found her comedy shows wonderful. Then again, comedy is very subjective. Gonna call hot not, schmagnetic on this review

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