Is This Thing On – The Dave Berry Story

A conversation about long term ‘try out’ comedians over Spanish Tapas in Edinburgh in 2008 with fellow ex ‘try out’ comics Adam Hills and Heath Franklin was the catalyst for ‘Is This Thing On‘.

Hillsy revealed the story of an English stand up who had featured in a TV documentary. The crew needed to get away quickly and asked if they could interview her about her gig before the she’d been on stage and get her to comment about how it went. So convinced that she would fail [again] that she spoke of how badly it went before the inevitable transpired.

That was the template for the story with the exception that ‘Dave Berry’ was an optimist with a delusional self-belief in his own funniness.

Dave is a nine-year veteran of the try-out comedy circuit. Rather than being dissuaded by the lack of laughs Dave has persevered. Taking advantage of the growing influence of electronic media, he begins uploading every gig, bad or good, onto Youtube. A film clip to his comedy single ‘What’s The Difference Between Men & Women‘ goes viral. A German documentary film-maker hears of the clip and is drawn to Dave. He makes an award winning film about Dave and his cult continues to grow – but what is everyone laughing at? Dave has tried everything to get famous – prop jokes, musical parody, characters – he even tried unsuccessfully putting on weight to do fat jokes. Suddenly, for reasons beyond his control everyone wants to see the guy who is so bad he’s good … but will it last?

Produced by ‘The Victorian Arts Centre’ as part of the ‘Full Tilt’ program in the ‘Blackbox Theatre’ for MICF 2009, the show was directed by brilliant director and award winning playwright Marcel Dorney. Damian’s second cousin, Dorney brought his VCA director course expertise to the table in a show that required deft hand to make Theatre about Stand-Up.

Review 1 – Same Same – Travis de Jonk

When you look at Damian Callinan’s past work on shows like Skit House, you might expect his show Is This Thing On? to be all mild mannered, unassuming, innocent and just for laughs. But you couldn’t be more wrong. Nothing is what it seems in his fantastic show!

It begins by lulling you into false expectations. Is This Thing On? starts out like a backyard stand up comedy gig. There’s some jokes told, and then Damian breaks through that fourth wall for a bit of friendly audience interaction. Before you know it you’re comfortable and ready for a great night of laughs.

Callinan’s show tells the story of Dave Berry – a nine year veteran of the try-out comedy circuit. When a documentary about him airs, he becomes an overnight cult figure – but what is everyone laughing at?

Dave has tried everything to get a laugh – prop jokes, musical parody, characters – he even tried unsuccessfully to put on weight to do fat jokes. Ultimately, he’s just not funny. On the cusp of giving up his dream, the documentary throws him a lifeline. Suddenly everyone wants to see the guy who is so bad he’s good… but will it last?

Callinan uses brilliant comic delivery, great storytelling skills and your sense of expectation to weave a tale about this prolific but totally talentless stand up comic. Thoughts slowly move from ‘this is hilarious’ to ‘Oh God, should I be laughing at this!” Dave Berry becomes a carefully planted device to tell a far more important story.

Big laugh moments include ‘the buffering’ physical gag, and of course the song ‘the difference between men and women‘. Hilarious. And Callinan will make you wet your pants with his impressions of other comics like Rachel Berger and Sam Simmons.

To say much more would be to ruin the experience of this outstanding show that is at once hysterically funny and disturbing. Which way you experience it depends on what you view as the punch line and who you view as the butt of the joke. Are you the joke? Are you being laughed at? Or is it Damian Callinan? Or perhaps Dave Berry? Or the media? Who is the deluded one?

Through this powerful show Callinan asks some very important questions, and makes some equally powerful statements about our society, while managing to make you laugh in the process, albeit a bit uncomfortably. Though it is very funny, the laughs seem to come in second to the statements being made.

Is This Thing On? features as part of the Full Tilt program, Victoria’s premiere cabaret performance incubator. It certainly is cabaret at its best. It crosses art forms from stand up to theatre to musicals, and packs one hell of a punch. Callinan has created a sophisticated, complex and layered work, that is biting social commentary and satire, cleverly disguised as simple story told as part of a comic routine. It’s one of the most intelligent and powerful pieces I’ve seen in the 2009 comedy festival so far. It’s the kind that stays with you way after it’s all over. If you like it dark and funny, this is a must see.

Damian Callinan – Is This Thing On? The Dave Berry Story: Melbourne International Comedy Festival

Review 2 – Arts Hub – Tim Potter

Hosted at the Blackbox Theatre in the Arts Centre, Is This Thing On? – The Dave Berry Story invites you – via a slow-motion walk across stage – into the world of Dave Berry: veteran of the amateur comedy circuit, husband, father, all round true-blue Aussie and the next big thing.

Damien Callinan is well known for his character comedy, and it is put to good use in his latest production. We are introduced to Dave Berry in his element, performing live stand-up. He is blisteringly bad: Callinan is able to elicit the same cringing awkwardness that T.V. shows like The Office have been known to exploit.

The introduction of a German documentary maker who plays the role of narrator puts us in capable storytelling hands and the theatrical convention is clearly established. With a fascination of those who pursue wholly unsuitable vocations, our German filmmaker creates a documentary of Dave Berry and we witness the rise of this simple man’s star. It’s intelligently written and astutely performed; Callinan guides us through each stage of the story with ease, and shifts smoothly between an array of characters without the need to signpost the deed.

With simple staging, efficient use of lighting, recorded voice and video, we are led from the Pilates room of a community hall to a palatial theatre, from a Raw Comedy open-mike session to the lounge room of Dave and his family. Although the show is, for the most part, a comedic piece of character theatre rather than stand-up, Callinan effectively makes use of his alter-ego by weaving elements of improvised, audience-based material throughout the show.

It becomes clear that Callinan has created something that reaches beyond an amusing parody. As an audience member laughing at Dave Berry’s earnest performance of his hit song ‘What’s The Difference? (Between Men and Women)‘ (made popular by YouTube and a massive hit in Germany), you can’t help but wonder – as the shows blurb asks – What is everyone laughing at? One can relate to this fool’s whole-hearted attempts to entertain, and in a way it lets you laugh at your own attempts to succeed, your own perceived successes and failures.

And laugh we did. It’s a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying show. Never once did I doubt Callinan’s ability; he has a comfortable presence on stage, and his timing is impeccable. Is This Thing On? – The Dave Berry Show is at once an ode to – and a parody of – the world of comedy; it has been created by an artist whose experience and talent in that world is evident.