Comedy is no laughing matter

North Coast comedians (clockwise from left) Mandy Nolan, Jean-Paul Bell, mime artist and clown doctor, and Alan Glover and 'S'.
North Coast comedians (clockwise from left) Mandy Nolan, Jean-Paul Bell, mime artist and clown doctor, and Alan Glover and 'S'. The Northern Star

THE old-school comedian slips on a banana skin and mimes the pain of his tumble – and we laugh, because by some trick he has transformed the tragedy of a fall into comedy.

How did he do that? Did we laugh because we saw it coming, and he didn’t? Were we relieved it happened to him and not to us?

“Comedy and tragedy are both sides of the same coin of life,” says S Sorrensen.

S is a stand-up comedian, writer and for the past eight years convenor of the Woodford Folk Festival comedy program.

“When things were tough in the kingdom,” says S, “the court jester was the only person with a licence to tell truths for which other people could be executed. But the jester had to present terrible facts in a palatable way, and for that he had to use all the tools in the comedian’s kitbox: irony, mimicry, parody, blasphemy, obscenity, pathos and more.”

S is a comedian whom audiences can empathise with instantly, because his material is personal, honest and based on everyday situations to which everyone can relate.

He did a now-famous show in Lismore on a night when his heart was breaking after a special relationship had ended.

Starting with the admission ‘I never know how much I love them till they’re gone’, he managed to get the whole room laughing and crying at the pathos of his situation – including the lost lover, who was there.

“Stand-up comedy is all about truth,” S says. “There are no costumes, no props and very little room for artifice.”

Is anything taboo? Too tragic to be good comedy?

“No, but you have to be incredibly sensitive to your audience,” S replies. “My partner in comedy, Alan Glover, and I performed in northern Victoria a fortnight after the bushfires. Alan and I both live in the country in bushfire-prone places and there would be nothing funny about a fire around us.

“But that said, and our vulnerability having been exposed, we were able to joke about the fires in a way that showed our respect and sympathy. There were floods on in Queensland at the time. We took that as a counterpoint.”

Imagine trying to be funny while standing in a shabby hospital in a Third World war zone while a mother and her baby lie dying of poverty right in front of you.

Mime artist and clown doctor Jean-Paul Bell, former resident of The Channon and frequent visitor to the North Coast, has been there and done that.

Wearing his silly hat and red nose, he joined with Humour Foundation pioneer Patch Adams from the US, and an international team of clown doctors, to visit hospitals in war-torn Afghanistan in 2002.

But despite the healing effects of humour, he discovered that clowning is no substitute when food, medicine and basic hospital equipment are needed.

He was so moved by the experience that he returned four years later with his partner Maggie, having sourced a great deal of hospital equipment from around Australia, donated to equip a 14-bed pediatric surgical unit in Kabul.

A pediatric surgeon there had asked for help. He had recently had to operate on a boy with encephalitis, who needed an incision through his skull to relieve pressure on his brain.

The surgeon had done the operation, successfully, equipped only with a pair of nail scissors.

“Equipping that clinic would help them get to a level where they could laugh again,” Jean-Paul says.

Jean-Paul has personally trained more than 70 clown doctors in Australia.

The movement is spreading from pediatric and general wards and is now in aged care.

“I’m hoping we can move into palliative care too,” Jean-Paul says.

“People facing death are more ready to laugh than you might think.”

♦ ♦ ♦

MANDY Nolan of Mullumbimby is the recognised queen of the North Coast comedy scene.

“I’m sometimes known as the Queen of Clubs, too,” Mandy says.

“I’m always putting shows on at RSLs, RSMs, golf clubs, bowling clubs and workers clubs.”

Mandy is not only a performer but a teacher and facilitator of the art of comedy in many places. She has taught stand-up comedy to more than 1000 people, from children to the aged, and continues to offer regular adult education courses to the general public.

She organises, promotes and MCs regular comedy shows all over the North Coast.

When assessing what qualities make for good stand-up, Mandy puts ‘likeability’ at the top of the list.

“You know straight away if they’re going to be likeable. But they also have to demonstrate authenticity, a good sense of humour, the ability to send themselves up, as well as connect with people from the stage, and have a sense of timing.”

Many people think it would be tragic to be struck by dementia and lose the capacity to remember names, words, or faces, but Mandy is currently running an eight-week course for dementia patients in Lismore, which will culminate in a performance for their families and friends.

“It’s great fun – they love it,” Mandy said.

“As long as you stay in the moment with them, because you can’t rely on their memories all that well, they are often less inhibited than others.

“They are very good at being put into role-play situations.”

Mandy uses her life stories as the basis of her own routines. “The person who’s the butt of my jokes is me,” she says.

“What becomes likeable about someone as a comic is most often what is unattractive about them, like their flaws and struggles, because people can relate to that, and identify with them.”

Mandy believes the serious global issues we face, such as climate change, the financial crisis and rapid social upheaval, are all legitimate fodder for comedy.

“The environmental lobby has brought us to new levels of fundamentalism which we all have to abide by – and hopefully, laugh at,” she says.

“Are we sorting our garbage right? Using too much water? What’s our carbon footprint? How many of us are confident we are doing the right thing? We’re all uncertain!

“And we have to laugh.”

 ♦ ♦ ♦

NEW comedy graduates from Mandy Nolan’s classes will take to the stage for the Virgin Sacrifice show at Byron Services Club on December 14.

The next night, one of Mandy’s most successful students, Hannah Gadsby, who went from her ACE course to Melbourne, Montreal and Edinburgh in just four years, will be at the Courthouse, Mullumbimby.


A documentary made during Jean-Paul and Maggie’s last visit to Afghanistan will be screened on ABC TV on Thursday December 10 at 9.30pm.

The Woodford Folk Festival Comedy Club this year will feature more than a dozen comedians from all over Australia in nightly shows, no two programs the same; as well as a Great Comedy Debate, and the Joke and Choke lunchtime show featuring the gaspingly funny double act of S Sorrensen and Alan Glover.

North Coast comics Mandy Nolan, Akmal Saleh and Jean-Paul Bell will also be performing at the festival, which runs from December 27 to January 1. Woodford is one hour’s drive north-west of Brisbane.

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