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Dr Neal Professor Portenza: Catchy Show Title

Dr Professor Neal Portenza (real name Josh Ladgrove) is in the thick of the Adelaide Fringe when I speak to him. His character, a generous creator of laughs behind a multi-title name, is having its fifth outing at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. The most important thing for Portenza is that the audience is willing to join in on the comedy. "It’s just an extremely interactive show, I mean the way it was described here in Adelaide the other day was ‘collective comedy’, which is really interesting. So it’s character-based, some people say it was a little bit ‘clowny’, I’m not sure I agree with that but I think that it’s character-based, interactive comedy that’s supposed to be fun, and funny."
The abstract nature of Catchy Show Title means it's difficult to pin down what the show is actually about. "The show is never really about anything, which is not a pretentious thing to say, but, you come, some stuff happens, then you leave hopefully smiling. There’s no plot, there’s no story, there’s no arc, it’s just an hour of very different, interactive, fun."
 
Interactive can sometimes be a bit of a scary word for audiences, but Portenza is reassuring about his definition of audience interaction. "My number one rule is ‘never make people feel like idiots’, that cheap, crass, kind of interaction does feel awful and does cause a lot of anxiety…one of the comments I get from time to time is ‘I really hate audience interaction but this was great I felt really comfortable’. Really, really early on I try and make the audience feel really, really comfortable."
 
Portenza leaves his shows open to the possibilities of the night, but he still turns up with a literal bag of tricks to go with the figurative ones. "I started the Adelaide Fringe with not very much of an idea...but at the end of the festival, and by the time the start of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival comes around, there’s really good structure in place, and so whilst I improvise to get from A to B it’s not like organised improv - it’s certainly not the American style of improv, it’s just very specific to that night’s audience, so no two shows are necessarily the same, how I arrive at those points though varies pretty wildly depending on the audience."
 
When listing his influences, it's good to hear they're mainly Australian. "I think the main influence is someone like Shaun Micallef and Sam Simmons, but then older things like Graham Kennedy, really was the king of looseness, and that sort of style of just being really with the audience, not just grinding through my material hoping that every audience is going to be the same from night to night, working hard to find what is funny about this specific moment."
 
Throwing Lano and Woodley in there as well, Portenza gives big props to American comedian Dr Brown. "Dr Brown has been pretty instrumental in kicking my arse actually." I ask if that's personally or on a more metaphysical level. "On a more metaphysical level, letting me have the belief in myself to take the show to places where it couldn’t necessarily get if they were just written sketches."
 
MICF is a time to take a bit of a gamble on your comedy, and it's something that inspires Portenza. "When the audience are up for something a bit different, you can go to some really interesting and special places, and it can be an extremely fun night. It’s for someone who wants to see something a bit different, a bit off the beaten track. It’s a pretty good choice I reckon."
 
BY SAM WILSON 

Venue: Melbourne Town Hall - Backstage Room, Cnr Swanston & Collins St, CBD
Dates: March 26 - April 19 (except Mondays)
Times: 9.30pm (Sundays 8.30pm)
Tickets: $18 - $23