EJ Rovedi and the Comic’s Comic

In the world of stand up comedy, a special place is reserved for the ‘Comic’s Comic’. Comedians whose names you’re more likely to hear in comedy club smoking areas than office lunch rooms or late night talk shows. Those who forsake television, film and podcasts to single mindedly pursue the craft they love. Performers who’s laughs often come loudest from the back of the room, where their peers lean against walls, notebooks in hand, and ask themselves ‘why didn’t I think of that?’. 

And yet, for the comedians themselves, such a label might be considered a back-handed compliment; a comics success is contingent on their audience after all, and no amount of eye rolls or whispers of ‘hack’ from bitter contemporaries can drown out the roar of a crowd in raptures. But for EJ Rovedi, there are few compliments higher than being branded a comedian’s comedian. 

“One of the biggest things for me is peer respect…if these people are here everyday grinding in the trenches, failing, succeeding, like I am, and they’re paying attention to me…that’s a good compass”

EJ’s drive for peer respect is evident in the integrity of all elements of his stand up: his writing is razor sharp, every word is scrutinized, each syllable has to earn its way to the stage, with premises that are absurd, insightful, and undeniably his own. On stage, his delivery is hypnotic; it leaves you unsure if he’s in a trance or just leading you into one. Most of all, every line is presented with an unshakeable confidence; if you could watch EJ perform on mute, it would be near impossible to tell if he was killing or bombing, he holds himself with a poise that says ‘you’re welcome to think this isn’t funny…but you’d be wrong’. The end result is a comedic style defined by idiosyncrasies, one that is truly distinctive in the Sydney scene, impressively so for a comic with less than three years experience. 

“My brother’s a really good skater, and I would watch skaters with him and go ‘that guy looks good’, and he’d go ‘nah, that guys a beamer’…and then I saw it, he wants everyone’s approval, whenever he lands a trick, the first thing he does is his head goes on a swivel, like ‘did everyone see that?’…I like not beaming…I don’t want to be a beamer.”

But considering EJ’s life story, it would be ignorant to expect him to be anything but unique. EJ grew up in a family of Jehova’s Witnesses, one that struggled so much with finances that for 6 months he shared a bed with his brother and father. EJ’s Dad is one of Sydney’s most successful Private Investigators, and at 18 years of age, EJ established his own, rival PI firm, losing thousands of dollars in the process. Five years after leaving school, EJ began dating his high school crush, who almost a decade earlier, he wrote a letter of unrequited love that was later passed around his school assembly and read aloud to anyone who cared to listen.

Yet EJ tells these stories with a baffling air of indifference, as if these experiences are too commonplace to ever belong on stage. 

“No, I don’t want to write about [my life]…Sure that’s pretty funny about my Dad, but everyone writes about their Dad…I’ve just never thought I had anything interesting to talk about really, not about myself…I’m trying to find new land” 

When EJ talks about finding ‘new land’, he means going beyond unique takes on the everyday world. He’d rather mine subject areas people had never even considered before. But in comedy, uniqueness is a double edged sword. There’s an accessibility that comes with familiarity; Netflix is filled with comedy specials of everyday guys and girls who would rather talk about dating gaffes and supermarket shopping than the gender murder gap or the evolutionary origin of squirting (two of my favourite Rovedi premises), and in stand up, points are awarded for relatability. But for EJ, pandering to an audience is the surest path to failure,

“I think if I tried to be an audience member’s comic…it would be like keeping up a lie the entire time. I think if I have any chance of being a success, it’s just being true to what I am and being a comics comic.”

Such a mindset comes at a price, I’ve heard comics theorise that the best path to success is knowing where the line of ‘hack’ is and standing just behind it. Despite what you might expect, there can be a distinction between comedy that’s good and comedy that works, and modern comedians can hardly be blamed for focusing on the latter. But in a time where the world’s most successful comedian alternates between selling out football stadiums and co-starring in films with The Rock, I am forever thankful for the comic’s comic.    

You can see EJ performing at stand up nights all over Sydney, and follow him on Instagram @elliottrovedi

Fady Kassab: Writing from the back of your head

Fady is walking me through his set from the 2019 RAW Comedy Competition National Final, a set I must have heard at least 6 times. As he does I’m taken aback by the number of details that went over my head: a biblical reference to the Garden of Eden hidden in a one liner; an allusion to his father’s battle with diabetes disguised in a joke about sugar cravings; a hero’s journey story arc jammed into a five minute performance. When illuminated, the brilliance is clear, but you’d struggle to see any of it if you weren’t looking for it. I ask Fady, what is the point of this level of subtext if an audience doesn’t pick up on it?

“It’s for you…you always write for you” 

Every year, close to a thousand comedians across Australia compete in the RAW Comedy Competition. As an amateur-only event, judged by representatives of the country’s foremost talent agencies, success at RAW serves as recognition from the industry of a rare yet essential characteristic of new comedians – potential. To qualify for the National Final, comedians must first progress through three stages within their State – a Heat, Semi Final and Final, outperforming hundreds of their peers in the process. Fady has entered RAW twice, first in 2018 when he was unable to make it past the first Heat, and again in 2019, when he was crowned National champion. The difference in those two years? A fundamental shift in mindset:

Last time I tried to do things that would make people laugh…this year I said I’m going to say what I want to say…George Carlin is the reason I won Raw…he said you need to write from the back of your head, not the front. Not what would people think is funny, but what is it you want to say” 

When you watch Fady perform, you could be forgiven for thinking his approach to comedy is flippant; filled with wordplay, puns and one liners, his material feels light and joyful, but Fady’s silliness should not be mistaken for irreverence. Fiercely funny on the surface, with endless layers of subtext beneath it, Fady’s comedy is a manifestation of an exceptional life story. 

Fady was seven when Israel invaded Lebanon; as a boy he would spend summer afternoons with his brother searching for undetonated bombs in the fields of his village, and using them to make fireworks. The son of a translator, Fady remembers sitting with his father and converting English classics like Huckleberry Finn and Oliver Twist into Arabic; an experience that was fundamental to developing his own passion for languages; today he speaks six. When Fady moved to Australia in the early 2000s, the world was in the midst of post-9/11 hysteria, and as a Middle Eastern man, he was subject to all of the subtle and not so subtle racism that came with it. A father, a soldier, a business owner, a linguist, a scholar, a comedian…this combination of identities is what makes Fady so fascinating on stage; he possesses life experiences that have culminated in a truly unique perspective of the world, and a love of language that has offered him an undeniably captivating way of expressing it. 

As a result, there is a purposefulness to Fady’s performance. Despite first impressions, nothing he says is frivolous, every joke has a point and every word is working towards it. Fady credits the precision of his writing to a course he took over a decade ago, while working as a journalist for SBS:

“They gave us a bunch of facts…a tornado had come in and destroyed this many houses and 20 people died and $30 million in damage was done, and so on, and they told us to write a radio story about it. So I wrote my piece, included all the key details, then we went around the table and all read what we wrote.
The teacher said ‘Fady had the best, most succinct version, but it’s still wrong.’ 
I said ‘why is it wrong?’
He said ‘Fady, what’s the story?…20 people died today Fady…that’s the story’. 
That one sitting influenced my life from that day on. Whenever I’m writing, I’m asking myself; what is my joke? What am I trying to say?” 

In 2018, another RAW winner was responsible for a divisive moment in the world of comedy. Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette was the starting point of an unresolved debate about the purpose of comedy – should comedians sacrifice laughs in the pursuit of making a point? The brilliance of Fady’s stand up is rendering such a sacrifice irrelevant – his approach to comedy allows him to convey his perspective through his jokes, not in spite of them. Whether the majority of an audience can explicitly pick up on the depth of his material is arbitrary, it is there for anyone who cares to look for it. 

Winning RAW brings its accolades and opportunities, but with them, an expectation is placed on the comic’s shoulders – now that their potential has been recognised, what will they do with it? In May this year, Fady will perform his debut solo show ‘Borderline’ at the Sydney Comedy Festival. While all comedians cut their teeth in five and ten minute sets, they make their career on hour long performances. A debut show is the first step to a true career. After watching Fady’s RAW performance, witnessing the level of depth, arc and resolution he can fit into five minutes, I can’t be alone in wondering; what could he do with an hour?

Fady will be performing his Sydney Comedy Festival Show ‘Borderline’ at The Factory Theatre on Saturday & Sunday, 16/17th May. For tickets, visit https://www.sydneycomedyfest.com.au/single-event?show_id=2591

Steph Broadbridge: 10,000 Hours, 10 Minutes at a Time

It’s the first week of November 2019. So far this year, Steph Broadbridge has performed stand up comedy 304 times.

“So, I’m a little bit behind…but I have been MC’ing a lot and that cuts out doubles”. 

Malcolm Gladwell claims that mastery of any craft is within all of our reach, it is simply a matter of dedicating 10,000 hours of our lives to it. Think of a 14 year-old Bill Gates sneaking out of his bedroom window to code until sunrise, or of John Lennon and Paul McCartney playing 8 hour sets at Hamburg strip clubs seven nights a week. The moral is clear – success in any passion or pursuit is a product of hard work first and talent second.

But stand up comedy is a unique art form; one that can’t be honed from the refuge of a library or bedroom. One where practice is utterly dependent on an audience and their attention span. I wonder if there would be a Microsoft had Bill Gates learned to code in four-minute increments upstairs at Hotel Sweeneys, for the amusement of two first-dates, three backpackers and a lonely drunk, holding a Carlton Draught in one hand and a 50-cent chicken wing in the other. 

When it comes to stand up, opportunities like these are, quite simply, the only path to improvement. There are no short-cuts or secret tricks. There is only one tried and tested method for developing any ability at all: stage time, and lots of it. So comedians like Steph Broadbridge take every opportunity they get, determined to chip away at their 10,000 hours, 4, 10 and 15 minutes at a time.

In a short three and a half years, Steph has become an incredibly proficient comic. Her performance boasts a distinctive voice that possesses a nuance well beyond her years. Her material is meaningful yet subtle, allowing her to explore pertinent issues without ever sacrificing laughs. But arguably, Steph’s greatest asset as a comedian is her mindset, one that guarantees success by disregarding it. It’s not the promise of fame, money or recognition that drives Steph, instead, she is powered by a pure passion for growth. 

“You don’t want to ever nail it, you don’t want to say ‘I’m the best comedian’, you want to find something you can always improve on, that way you’ll always have something to do…:”

Through this lens, Steph’s superhuman work ethic begins to make sense. If improvement is your only imperative, no gig is below you, every effort is worthwhile. Performing 400 gigs a year is a necessity for any comic with their sights set on mastery, and a near impossibility for one who pursues anything else. 

Steph’s perpetual desire to improve is clear in her creative choices on stage. She relishes challenge, taking chances and attacking grey areas, never content to settle for the easy path. She tackles subjects that are deliberately divisive; secure in the knowledge that if it’s good enough it’ll work anyway. Most of all, she is determined to be different; the minute a topic becomes trodden ground she abandons it and moves on, preferring to construct her own perspective than to share one with anyone else. 

“It’s all about what’s harder, I like what’s hard, I like to improve, I like to challenge myself. The harder the sell, the better you have to be.”

Steph herself acknowledges this isn’t always the surest path to success, “we should get difficulty points from an audience…but we don’t”, but you should write the harder joke regardless, because you love it. You’re more passionate about it.” Such a perspective is what distinguishes good comedians from great ones. Performing 400 times a year will make you good, but an enduring respect for the artform and a never-ending desire for progress is what makes you great. With this in mind, there’s little question why Steph is widely regarded as one of the most promising prospects in the Sydney comedy scene today. 

We are living in a golden age of stand up; today, people have more opportunities to watch, attend and perform stand up comedy than any other time in history. In a given week, Sydney will host somewhere around 30 gigs, that’s 1,600 shows a year. In 2020, if you find yourself at any one of them, keep an eye out for Steph, there’s a 1 in 4 chance she’ll be there. 

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