This past weekend, I had the chance to see both Dame Edna and Flight of the Conchords during their recent stints in Boston. Yeah, that's a pretty divergent set of events. But seeing them both within the space of 24 hours provided an interesting comparison between an established performer and a comedic duo in the midst of a meteoric rise.
As you may know, Dame Edna is the popular alter ego of actor/comedian Barry Humphries. Humphries has had a long and successful theatrical career: he played the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry in the original Broadway cast of Oliver. But somehow the Dame Edna character has taken over, overshadowing much of what Humphries has otherwise accomplished. (Speaking of Oliver, allegations have emerged that creator Lionel Bart may have plagiarized, or not given proper credit for, the work of his erstwhile collaborator, Joan Maitland. In fact, it's alleged that he paid her hush money for years. See the full story here. A hat tip to my friend and fellow blogger Kevin for providing the scoop.)
The last time I saw Humphries as Dame Edna was during the national stretch of Dame Edna: The Royal Tour. I recall being convulsed with laughter at the seeming genius of Humphries improvisational skills. Well, upon second viewing, it's clear that while Humphries certainly has a knack at extemporizing, he also has a large arsenal of stock jokes and bits. A very large arsenal. In fact, I noticed very little that was fresh during his current show. Yes, he's still a thoroughly engaging performer, but I had a night-long feeling of déjà vu.
The same was true for much of the set for Flight of the Conchords, the popular comedic, quasi-folk duo from New Zealand. I haven't yet seen the second season of their TV series, so I'm not familiar with a lot of their more recent material. And because of the acoustics -- or lack thereof -- at Boston University's Agganis Arena, I had trouble understanding the lyrics for the songs I'd never heard before. And with the Conchords, it's really about the lyrics: their musicality is primitive at best, perhaps deliberately so. But even their old stuff fell pretty flat for me. The audience members seemed to go nuts as they recognized the first few notes of their favorite songs, but once the songs got going, there was precious little actual laughter.
And therein lies the challenge of comedy, musical or otherwise. To engage your audience, you have to keep developing new material. It's interesting that, with regular singers and bands, we don't mind hearing the same songs over and over again. In fact, we eat it up. But with comedians, we feel somewhat cheated if we hear too much of the same old stuff. One of the refreshing things about Demetri Martin's recent set at Boston's Wilbur Theater was that almost all of the material was new, despite the fact that he's written material for numerous TV specials, a comedy CD, and a new TV series on Comedy Central, all of which I have seen or listened to.
So, Dame Edna could use some new material. The Conchords had plenty of new material, but a 7,200-seat arena was not the ideal place for me to experience it. The Conchords would be far more engaging and effective in a significantly smaller venue, but of course that would mean they wouldn't be able to sell as many tickets, or would need to perform multiple shows. A dilemma, indeed.