After a sell-out run at last year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Squeaky Clean Comedy is back and promises a gala evening of hilarity and entertainment – without swearing, crassness or dirty jokes. But the producer of the show, Eugene Wong, is quick to point out that this does not automatically equate to a lack of sophistication.
Wong, of Candlelight Productions, explains that the concept came about when the creators noticed a gap in the market. “We thought there was a lack (of clean comedy) in Melbourne,” he explains. “There's 450 shows in the Comedy Festival and last year we were the only overtly clean show aimed at adults. We knew so many people who wanted to go to the comedy festival but who were put off by the negative aftertaste.” He says that a lot of 'clean comedy' seems to be aimed at children: “'Family friendly comedy' might be child-friendly but it often has a bad rep for not being funny to adults, for being unsophisticated. We thought it'd be a great challenge to try to put on a show that was funny and sophisticated and aimed at adults.”
The first Squeaky Clean Comedy ran in 2008 and now, four years later, it has grown to incorporate a two-hour gala evening and twelve different comedic acts. The acts might all be clean, but this is the only thing they have in common, as Wong explains: “It's a diverse range. There's a whole stack of comedians, a spoken word poet, a ventriloquist, an illustrator who comes in with an easel, we even have dry land synchronised swimmers … there's something in it for everyone.”
Add to this Candlelight Productions' characteristic interactive quality, and you have an explosive combination. Wong says, “We are known for performances slipping off the stage in different ways… we use the arts to build community and one of the ways we do that is to immerse the audiences in a world.”
The MC for the evening, comedian Michael Connell, agrees: “I got to know Candlelight when I saw a production of The Importance of Being Earnest and the front of house staff were out there serving cucumber sandwiches, Pimms, giving elocution lessons… Squeaky Clean is not just coming to see a theatre show, a stand up show – it's so much more than that.”
Wong adds,“Last year all of the front of house staff were dressed as janitorial staff… this year we have a few surprises in store.” He jokes, still on the janitorial theme, “We're thinking about closing the toilets just before intermission, just to keep people on their toes.”
Last year's show filled a 700-seat venue for all three performances and had rave reviews, and tickets are selling fast this year. Wong says, “There is a place (in comedy) for strings of swear words, but it can make you lazy, it can seem gratuitous if you're just using them for shock value. We think it takes a lot more wit to be legitimately funny without relying on any of that. Last year, people would call the ticketing line and thank them, just for putting on a show like this – there was a feeling that we'd restored people's faith in comedy.”
Phil Andrews, one of the comedians performing as part of the show, adds that it was heartening to see that there was such a high demand for this kind of comedy: “There are people out there who want this and who are willing to get out and see it. A lot of the audience said that they had been complaining that there's nothing like this out there.”
Connell feels that the propensity for swearing in stand-up comedy is “A quick way to get a laugh… A lot of comedians seem to assume that you have to swear because everyone swears, but the more I learn about comedy the more I think, there's an art to this. It's harder to write something that's genuinely funny.”
Connell says that he has been interested in keeping it clean since he first started out doing gigs at the Warburton kindergarten. “I was like, 'what's up with Elmo?'” he jokes. “They're a tough crowd…” He was first involved with Squeaky Clean Comedy in the inaugural season of 2008.
One might think that it would be difficult to find comedians who were willing to clean up their act for the gig, but Connell says that many of the acts were excited by the challenge of working clean. “Candlelight has already seen these comedians at shows, and these guys tend to work 90% clean when they're at the comedy club, and clean it up for a corporate gig, so they (Candlelight Productions) choose people who are clever at writing… it's not a challenge to find people who are willing to work clean.”
Wong says, “ I think you speak out of the overflow of what's within you, all of the performers are genuinely lovely people … you don't have the same tension or anxiety over what people are going to say onstage when you know that in everyday conversation they don't go for the cheap laughs anyway.”
Sarah Jones, a ventriloquist and stand-up comedian performing as part of the gala, says, “I tend to work pretty clean anyway, I have a lot of self-referential humour and ventriloquism is generally pretty clean.” She says that the clean nature of the act is part of its charm: “People end up feeling like the puppets, they become real to them… It's harder to have that connection if you're throwing swear-words out there.”
Andrews, who has been performing as part of the Comedy Showcase for five years, says that his comedy is also always clean: “That's just how I operate,” he says. “I think it comes down to who I am as a person. The stuff that makes me laugh out loud tends to be clean anyway.”
He adds that this does not mean that he has to censor himself: “I talk about the same stuff (as other comedians), like sex … I'm a Christian and so one of the things I talk about in my show is the choice I've made not to have sex until I'm married. I approach it in a humourous way so it's just a different perspective… any comedian puts across how they see the world, and my world view is pretty clean anyway.”
Andrews adds that having an organisation like Candlelight Productions behind the show is beneficial: “I was surprised that it completely sold out last year… I'd run Comedy Showcase for four years and I found it a struggle to get people on board with the clean concept. Squeaky Clean with their contacts in the industry were able to raise the profile in a way that was new.”
As far as the process of finding appropriate talent, Wong says there were no auditions. “We actually stalk comedians, follow them around … we tend to watch the shows and afterwards we'll approach them, or hold up score cards. Or we go to homeless shelters…”
Along with Jones, Andrews and Connell, comedians this year include the illustrator Michael Williams, the spoken-word poet Cam Semmens and stand-up comedians Danny McGinlay, Mike Klimczak, Charles Barrington and Mark Trenwith.
Last year, every audience member received a bottle of 'Thank You' water to raise awareness of clean water issues in third world countries. Wong explains, “This year's theme is 'a view of the loo', which might seem contradictory to the ethos of Squeaky Clean Comedy, but nonetheless… we've partnered with World Vision to raise awareness of sanitation issues in third world nations.” Water Aid, an organisation affiliated with World Vision, has built a two-metre high toilet to be unveiled on Opening Night. “[Sanitation in third world nations) is a powerful issue,” Wong says. “It's been really lovely to work with charities and think through how we can support you best. We're trying to be strategic, we don't want to pull a guilt trip on anyone, we encourage people to take ownership of the issue on an ongoing basis. We're keen for people to think about it into the future – that's why we're raising awareness.”
Andrews says that the show is a unique concept in the Comedy Festival, but that he hopes other shows will be encouraged by the massive appeal of Squeaky Clean Comedy. “It's definitely unique, it's the only show in the festival which bills itself as clean.”
Squeaky Clean Comedy is on at the Melbourne City Conference Centre, 333 Swanston Street, Melbourne for three Saturday shows only on April 7th, April 14th and April 21st 2012
For more information and for booking go to http://www.squeakycleancomedy.com.au/