Former Saturday Night Live star turned late night host, Conan O’Brien performed his first comedy show outside North America in Sydney’s State Theatre on Tuesday night.
Opened by Australian comedians Steen Raskopoulos, Becky Lucas, and Rhys Nicholson, it was a night dominated by self-deprecating humour, quick wit, and tales Aussie charm. Scared that great Australian comedy was beginning to fade, these comics proved me wrong.
Steen Raskopoulos, though not a stand-up provided some laughs, although his skits were marred by forced audience participation. Nevertheless, when Raskopoulos took the limelight with an explosive interpretive dance, the energy of the audience returned.
Next came Becky Lucas. Her comedy style exposing her infamously low self-esteem, perfectly meshed with Conan’s self-admitted ‘creepiness’. While her dead-pan delivery set her apart from the acts to follow, her casual monologues on sex and lack of self-confidence ground her in reality, while her accent and humour at the expense of others (as well as herself) makes her act uniquely Australian.
Rhys Nicholson was the stand out of the warm-up stand-ups (behind Conan of course). Bursting onto stage in a blue pin stripe suit, hair dyed electric red, and bearing a striking resemblance to what I imagine Conan must have looked like in his Simpsons days. His jokes and quips came like rapid fire, with each proverbial bullet knocking the air out of you as you laughed so hard, you weren’t allowed a chance to catch your breath. He covered everything from drugs to LGBTQ culture, and anxiety disorders. His delivery was so energetic but maintained a constant pace, meaning off-hand comments and sardonic retorts could strike a perfect beat with the audience. Nicholson’s modest use of physical comedy accentuated the eccentricity which hid his slightly mutilated sense of self. Not only did this resonate with us, but it also laid the perfect foundation for the man himself to take the stage.
Enter Conan O’Brien. Wearing black skinny jeans, and a dark blue button-up accompanied by a black tie, he stood there: all 193 centimetres of him (although about 180 of those centimetres were being used for his legs) before striding up to the mic to the backdrop of rapturous applause. The room was electric, laughing at his every move – not just out of respect, but because he was a comedic genius. Starting out a little slow, O’Brien began by discussing the quirks of visiting Australia. However, he was eventually able to show all he could do as a legendary comic and entertainer.
His comedic style was well paced throughout the night as he drew us deep into his anecdotes, navigating us through its intricacies, before throwing us back out in fits of laughter. It is precisely this ability to turn the smallest stories into the most raucous laughter that is a testament to why he is still a comedy giant even after more than 30 years in the business.
Conan continued to prove his talent by playing the guitar and singing ACDC’s Shook Me All Night Long and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo in his tribute to Australia. Admittedly, the references went over my head since I was probably a bit younger than the audience that Conan was expecting, but what made this performance was not its contents, but rather it’s delivery…. By a certain audience member. After Conan put on his best impression of Angus Young, he invited an audience member up, and he blew us away with his energy as a shining example of the Australian can-do attitude, even using the same tone and rock-and-roll physicality for Skippy the Bush Kangaroo.
Conan closed with an engaging Q & A. The audience either shone or were shamed. Cringeworthy questions such as one where the enquirer asked about Conan’s feud with NBC and Jay Leno weren’t off limits. Golden moments included a giveaway of a Jordan Schlansky cut-out, and a few homemade presents from fans. These extremes show how Conan brings out both the best and the not-quite-the-worst side of us. And though I do wish people weren’t getting up to go grab beers from the lobby in the middle of the show and screaming unnecessarily crude remarks about NBC, there is nothing we can do about Australian audience culture.
Nevertheless, Conan and his Australian Friends was a phenomenal show. It showed that Australian comics are more talented than ever, that Conan is just as funny as he was even back in 1987, and that Australia and, Sydney in particular, can still play host to this brand of smart, witty, dry, self-deprecating, and intellectual comedy.