In Conversation with Lionel Corn is a satiric deconstruction of the conceptual experienced/lived ‘Writer’s Festival’’event’. In this instance the word ‘event’ means both happening and non-happening, event and non-event whereas the term writer is a non-gendered classification for one who writes. Festival traditionally means a group of monomaniacal pedants enamoured with their individuated vocality. To restate as premise: it’s not for everyone.
Chris Taylor and Andrew Hansen use the narrative hook of a writer’s festival Q&A to skewer a banquet of subjects ranging from literary festivals and pretentious writers/readers to analingus. This concept is clever and has a lot of potential but it was a sophomoric self-congratulatory performance of ‘smarter than thou’.
Andrew Hansen and Chris Taylor are two members of The Chaser. While this show shouldn’t be seen as The Chaser Live on Stage this does give an idea of what to expect. Matching the show to the format, this production has the same understanding and biting observations of a live event as The Chaser formerly did with televised formats. This format allows for a connection with the audience, an extended exploration of the idea, and the necessity to take absolute ownership of the role. With experience there is a lot of possibility here.
The live aspect brings a different energy to the production. While there is an opportunity to feed off the energy of the audience, a kind of group think where the entertainment factor increases depending on the crowd, there is also a chance that the audience will turn and the performance will change as a result. The performers seemed to be performing without acknowledging the audience. In a different context this would be understandable, but the conceit is a Q&A which would involve an audience. However, this performance tried to keep a barrier between the audience at the show and the show that was happening in the performance space. The audience was initially responsive but it soon became obvious that the performance was mostly for the performers so the audience removed themselves to a passive position. I’m not sure if this is effective for a comedy festival. This approach could be from habit, for example this is the ideal way to perform a sketch for TV. It might also be a sign of nerves, a way to focus on other things than the fact you are performing in front of a crowd that expects you to be entertain them. Whatever the case, it might be for the best because when the jokes and stage craft had a bit of a wobble the lack of response from the audience was irrelevant. If it is intimidating when a whole group of people expects to be entertained then imagine how nipple twisting it would be if that same group had resigned themselves to being mildly amused.
The material for this idea was interesting but undeveloped. We have here the character Lionel Corn. If you don’t feel like Googling, Lionel Corn is the author of the hugely popular fantasy series ‘The Dragon’s Claw’ (which has been adapted for TV). Lionel has agreed to be in a Q&A session at a festival, complete with corporate sponsorship. While there is enough material here for a 73 volume fantasy series, this show feels like a sketch that has been extended too long. There are moments that are really strong and cohesive but often it feels like a revue with a unifying theme. Mostly this idea is used to motivate the action. The time limit on a speech is a neat trick as an example. Of course, a collection of sketches is a fine working model. Two words: Monty Python (or The Chaser). But both of the characters in this show are strong and it is a shame they are wasted. There are some good running gags such as pedantry, intellectual posturing, and social activism. Some of these seem to emerge organically but very often it seems like they thought of the joke and tried to build a structure around that.
This approach allowed for the gamut of humour from cerebral to physical. This could make it hard for an audience to connect or to know what type of show they are seeing. Audiences are told how to approach a performance. This is why stand-up comedians and musicians have support acts, this is why the first chapter of a novel tells you if it’s your thing, why the first 15 minutes of a film is most important, and why you should be able to take a section from the first part of a script and match it with a section from the latter part. In Conversation appeared unsure of its ability. There were smart jokes for the literary crowd and not so smart jokes presumably for the people who wandered in by mistake. This makes it hard to get the pitch right. A show won’t appeal to every audience member, which is why there can be a festival of shows. It could be seen as wanting to appeal to as wide an audience as possible but that isn’t how it works. The audience is segmented, those who go to A Doll’s House probably won’t appreciate Candida. If you have something for everyone then it’s very likely that there won’t be enough for anyone.
This can be seen in the dumbing down of the material. I know that these two writers are clever, I have seen it before. When you see them on stage they are, or at least perceive themselves to be, the smartest guys in the room. It felt like they backed off, perhaps in the desire to be all things to all people, and they lowered the minimum IQ requirements. I am positive that every audience member was there to be challenged or rewarded. One doesn’t use a review of ‘fiercely intelligent’ if they have an intellectual open door policy. The jokes didn’t really rely on erudition so it came across as a pseudo-intellectual equivalent of ‘how about those nuts on planes’. There were comments in the script that referred to how niche and learned the audience must be but this became both condescending and pretentious. There seemed to be a vibe that if you didn’t get a joke you weren’t smart enough so some people were laughing at unfunny things in hopes that one time they would get it right and end up being the first to laugh at a clever thing.
In summary: This show sets its sights high by aiming at the middle. Not too clever, not too dumb, not too nasty, not too nice. It’s a mediocre show that was even more disturbing because… I like The Chaser, there, I said it. This show isn’t that. And another thing, without spoiling too much, they sure can sing.