If it were a reality TV show it would be called Race Around The Festival or The Amazing Race of Australian Comedy.
Instead, it’s a real-life marathon that sees aspiring reviewers and arts critics sprint between shows called Funny Tonne.
Organised by the Melbourne International Comedy Festival each year, Funny Tonne is a race to see and review as many shows as possible to win the honorary title. If you’re a comedy enthusiast, it is a dream gig – free tickets to lots of shows. Lots of them. Multiple shows, every single night, for the whole month of the festival.
The all-time record holder is Sarah Trevarthen, who in 2015 saw a staggering 178 shows over the Festival, which equals 59-60 shows a week. In 2018, Alistair Bryant clocked up 161 shows or 53 per week. However, it’s not just a race to see who can see the most shows, the gig also requires these comedy-obsessed contestants smash out click-worthy reviews on a daily basis.
There’s no waiting until the end of the festival when you can catch your breath and write at leisure as a Funny Tonner’s job is to be cranking out engaging and enthusiastic content to help prospective audience members decide what to see.
Both audiences and comedians alike are reading these reviews, too, with Funny Tonne reviews hitting 79,000 page views on the MICF website last year. This has prompted the festival to up the ante and the 2020 Funny Tonne title will be decided based on the depth of and engagement with these reviews online, as well as the number of shows seen.
Last year, Chris Heaslip was scurrying between shows with his notebook on him and his spreadsheet back at home.
“It was pretty intense,” he recalls, especially as he was still working full time during the day (yet he was still able to set a personal best of seeing six shows in one day). However, for him, it was the realisation of a wish he’d made as a teenager.
“I’m from Sydney originally and I remember watching the Gala as a little kid and mum promised me that she’d take me to Melbourne International Comedy Festival one day. And she did, when I was around 14. We really enjoyed it, we raced around and saw as many shows as we could, it was very expensive. Even then we talked about, ‘I wish there was a way that we could see every show’,” he says.
A few years later, Heaslip moved to Melbourne. “I loved the festival. I’ve taken part as an artist and I heard about the Funny Tonne online and tried to get one of them to come and see our show, and from there, recognising that idea my mum and I had all those years ago, thought that I’d be really good for it,” he says.
For him, his background performing sketch comedy helped him be able to review. While this isn’t a requirement, he felt his understanding of comedy meant he was “able to make constructive criticisms, rather than just saying something is good or bad”.
Previous winner of Funny Tonne, Nick Taras, who is now based in the US and working for Instagram as a content strategist, shares a similar sentiment.
“Funny Tonne taught me to be a more original writer. I mean, how the hell do you write about 100+ shows without repeating yourself or leaning on clichés?” he says.
Reviewing for Funny Tonne pushed him to go beyond describing shows as “funny”.
“Was there a unique message? How did they build tension? What challenged your views? By the end, your voice is more developed and nuanced. And you’ll be surprised how much more interesting your writing becomes when you’re immersed in innovative comedy every night for weeks,” he says.
There are other benefits as well, says Heaslip. “If you do the Funny Tonne, you become like the most nerdy, indie, hipster comedy person in any friend group. It’s like that one friend who knows every cool band that no one has ever heard of. If you do the Funny Tonne you know every little weird comedy person in Melbourne, or around Australia. You know everyone’s name”.
So if you think you’ve got what it takes, head to a RAW Comedy Heat or Final, review two contestants and fill in this form here. Applications are open now and close Friday 13 March.