April 14, 2022

Comedy

‘Dave: The Opener’ by Zoë Coombs Marr

By Daniel Herborn
Image of Zoë Coombs Marr as Dave. Image supplied.

Zoë Coombs Marr as Dave. Image supplied.

Zoë Coombs Marr’s cocksure male comedian returns in another incisive character study

When a friend asked Zoë Coombs Marr what her comic creation Dave would make of “cancel culture” or Dave Chappelle’s would-be edgy special The Closer, she felt her heart sink and her creative gears start to turn. She knew she had to answer that question and step back into the role. First seen in Dave and then refined in the award-hogging Trigger Warning, the character parodies a particular breed of hack male comedian, complete with a graphic T-shirt and neckbeard. 

The titular character in Coombs Marr’s new show, Dave: The Opener, has been in a coma since 2016 when he suffered a serious miming (not mining) accident. Now he’s back with dated references to planking, dabbing, Angry Birds and even the semi-forgotten Russian pop band t.A.T.u. But the comedy industry around Dave has proved depressingly static. The last time Coombs Marr played this character, American comedian Louis C.K. was the toast of the comedy world, romping to a Grammy win. As this show began its run at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, C.K. was welcomed back into the fold with another Grammy, despite having admitted to several incidents of sexual misconduct.

Confecting a reason for Dave to have sat out a few eventful years in the culture wars proves a canny narrative choice. His time in a coma allows the character to gawk at contemporary mores with fresh bemusement. As he notes, he’s much like the protagonists of the limp Sex and The City revival, And Just Like That…, constantly baffled by foreign (to him) concepts like podcasts and gender diversity.

The prolonged break from society hasn’t changed his demeanour. Long before the phrase “taking up space” became topical, Dave was stalking and slouching across the stage with an unearned swagger. But his confidence proves fragile. Here is a comic in a dangerously co-dependent relationship with the crowd. He either loves them as the omniscient validators of his worldview or writes them off as a “shit audience” based on their reaction to each line.

Through Dave, Coombs Marr locates deep-seated desperation and a toxic need for constant affirmation in the all-too-familiar tropes of the cocksure male comedian. It’s there in his catchphrase “The fellas know what I’m talking about!” and in the wheezing “Am I right?” repeated like a verbal tic. 

It wouldn’t be a Coombs Marr show without multiple layers of meta-comedy. Here, we see her initially emerge in a dressing gown, amiably chatting about her creative process as she becomes Dave on stage, pasting snippets of hair (a mixture of her own and her partner’s) to her neck and face, and gradually adopting his loutish mannerisms. 

Yet the physical transformation doesn’t create a clear line between creator and creation. There are moments where Dave seeks Coombs Marr’s counsel through voice-over and others where it feels like he is either going off-brand with some progressive musings or that Coombs Marr is slipping out of character to address the audience directly. “So many people in Hollywood were caught up in #MeToo – Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Bill Cosby, Casey Affleck,” she/he observes at one point. “There’s not many in Australia that I can name… legally.”

Dave: The Opener suffers slightly from coming after something as original and satisfying as Trigger Warning. Having included revelations about Dave’s sexuality and explored his latent vulnerability through his unexpected spell at clowning school in his two previous appearances, there’s a feeling that Coombs Marr has already played her narrative aces. It’s a quandary somewhat reminiscent of another alternately vulnerable and repulsive comic figure, latter-day Alan Partridge. In both cases, the complexities and contradictions of the character are well established, but there’s intrigue in seeing how they respond to new situations. 

Still, it’s a rich, incisive character study of someone who insists on being the centre of attention but is a follower by nature. Dave microdoses LSD because Joe Rogan told him to. He repeats tired, offensive jokes because he’s heard them get laughs. Like Huckleberry Finn recognising Jim’s humanity but dismissing the revelation, Dave realises on some level that Dave Chappelle’s discussion of transgender people in The Closer is blinkered and bullying. He just can’t take the next step to recognise the fallibility of a performer he idolises.

Dave is very concerned about cancel culture ruining comedy, a position he seems to have arrived at not through any independent thought but because more forceful personalities around him have made this argument so vociferously. One of the show’s many audiovisual elements is a clip from a hilariously overwrought 60 Minutes report on the topic. “The stage is empty. There is no crowd,” the voice-over intones, over a lachrymose cover of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World”. It’s a moment that raises laughs but also provokes dismay at the feeble level of discourse around free speech.

For all her formal trickery and intellectual ambition, Coombs Marr has always had a gleeful love of silly jokes and gross-out humour. You spend a few moments in the final stretch of Dave: The Opener wondering how she is going to avoid slipping on the puddle of VB foam that Dave has regurgitated on stage. 

Many of Coombs Marr’s signatures recur here, such as her use of madcap repetition – it’s no spoiler to say that Dave’s drug consumption goes wrong and throws him into a time loop. There’s also the audacious false starts and narrative resets seen in her Bossy Bottom special and the fascination with how badly pop culture dates, also a theme in last year’s COVID-scuppered charmer Agony! Misery!

These offbeat thematic concerns have made Coombs Marr one of this country’s most subversive comics, but she’s nevertheless a playful provocateur who is disinterested in taboo-breaking for its own sake. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any other comedian so concerned about their audience’s welfare. In a Sydney trial show for Dave: The Opener, she repeatedly broke character to assure the small crowd that Dave’s more repellent comments were cloaked in irony and to check in with the viewers about what can be a challenging work. 

I felt the absence of the sublimely ridiculous sight gag of a Zoë/Dave split costume, which appeared in that early iteration of the show. However, the new ending, a delightful callback that combines three of the silliest elements of Dave’s monologue, ends things on a fizzy high.

The optimism here is fitting. Dave the character was borne out of Coombs Marr’s understandable disgust after she saw a failing comedian spit “brutal rape material” at a shellshocked audience. The experience made her feel unsafe, and she contemplated quitting the scene.

The persona has since evolved into a complex vehicle for exploring difficult issues. Coombs Marr isn’t content to merely condemn Dave’s misogyny and his tendency to “punch down” as a comic; rather, she explores the insecurities behind his bigoted output. If Dave was created initially as a way to feel comfortable performing again, now it’s developed into a means to fully embrace the art form with all its flaws. Coombs Marr critiques comedy because she cares about it.

Dave: The Opener suggests that the highbrow, proudly queer meta-humour of Coombs Marr and the lowbrow buffoonery of Dave have some creative overlap; the two approaches are, to varying degrees of success, ultimately attempts to connect with strangers in dark rooms. Both empathy and merciless social critique are integral to Dave’s unexpected return; it’s at once brilliant and horrifying to have him back.

 

Zoë Coombs Marr’s Dave: The Opener plays the Arts Centre in Melbourne until April 24, and Powerhouse in Brisbane from May 17–22.

 

Daniel Herborn

Daniel Herborn is a Sydney-based journalist and novelist.

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