Engaging. That would be one of the words I would describe Ben Darsow. Stepping onto stage with a cap turned backwards and a pint in his hand, he opens to the audience in a relatable and funny manner, getting laughs easy and early in. He also, without the cap, looked a bit like Tom Gleeson.
Building a connection with the audience immediately, Darsow exhibits many of Australia's down-to-Earth traits. His jokes are almost conversational and you forget that you're in a room full of other comedy go-ers until you hear yourself laughing along with them. His disposition is friendly, he can't help but laugh at his own joke halfway through and the jokes themselves are completely relatable (I don't get cheered on every time I successfully submit something before the deadline the way comedians are cheered just for stepping on stage - something Darsow touched on which I guess to find out you'll just have to attend his show).
His material draws on the typical Australian experience - from stepping into a cafe to order a thickshake (the waiter had no idea what a thickshake actually was, how "un Australian"), to completely unloading on the poor fourteen year old serving you at the check out when they ask you how you are and how your day is. Tip: When they ask you how you are, you don't reply in a robotic "good thanks how are you", instead you venture deep within the crevices of your torn and crippled heart and as Darsow says "You unload all that shit onto them and you traumatize them for life."
Darsow connects his material and experiences with the premise that it's "saying what everyone is thinking", which, it almost always was. Moving away from the light and jokey material, Darsow stepped into the more serious issues. Unfortunately what could have been a very promising set of thought provoking jokes that made fun of the irony of political ideologies, foreign policies and stereotypes, were lost on the tipsy bar crowd. However, realising this, Darsow broke up the tension in the room, adjusted himself, made a joke about it and moved on from the heavy stuff and back to the lighter topics of the night.
Moving away from Australia, he told the audience about his travels abroad, awkward nights spent bunking in rooms and then finding himself stuck in an embarrassing situation, brought big laughs from the crowd. He then moved onto awkward dates, his current girlfriend and his love life (which got down to the nitty gritty and some of the time actually quite dirty stuff). This was then followed with banter with the front-row audience members, where hilarious moments ensued and answers sometimes so perfect it was hard to believe that the audience member hadn't been planted.
What I found myself being particularly drawn to was just how good his observational humour was, and how he engaged and got the audience laughing at each other and themselves. His gentle but fun conversations had with certain members of the audience showed his experience and love for performing stand-up comedy and interacting with the crowd. Improvisations were classic, with Darsow doing well thinking off his feet. I found myself laughing a little too loudly, but it was often drowned out by the laughs and reverberations made by the rest of the audience.
Darsow wrapped up his set with jokes about Perth, making a joke about the mining industry, overpriced everything and of course, the people of Perth. And although he took stabs at Perth, many of us in the audience couldn't help but laugh and agree, "exclaiming that's so true!" to each other. The tables were soon turned though, with a couple of "friendly hecklers" making fun of Darsow's hometown of Adelaide. Darsow brought it back to Northbridge, demanding and encouraging his newly sought out bar minions to join him and the rest of his posse to take over the streets of Perth.
His charisma and humanity shone through the brief awkward moments, and post his routine I was fortunate to speak with him. Thanking almost all of the guests he could, as they left the Elephant and Wheelbarrow, he demonstrated more of that thoughtful and likeable personality of his. He connects well with people not only in group settings while doing stand up, but also individually, and on this occasion I was lucky to ask him a couple of questions. Through his answers he further demonstrated that earnest and rich persona that shines through his act while he's on stage.
1. What sparked your interest in comedy and what was the defining moment that made you say "This is what I want to do" and why you chose stand up?
My interest in stand up was sparked as a kid watching Jim Carrey doing movies like Ace Ventura. I would try and copy his facial expressions and do impressions to my friends in primary school. They laughed and I thought 'how good is this!'
The moment that sparked me to actually do standup was, to the best of my memory, the passing away of my uncle whom I'd been living with for a year or so whilst my parents were putting each other through the courts with their divorce. I had a YOLO moment and a few weeks later I was on stage.
2. Who is your favourite comedian in the industry and why?
I think Tom Gleeson is the most naturally funny comedian we have in Australia. I admire Wil Anderson for his workrate and the support he has given me and so many other comics coming up through the ranks in Australia. I like Ricky Gervais because he's very smart and he doesn't care what people think of his opinions. I like an Australian based in the UK named Steve Hughes as well - he applies comedy to 'conspiracy' topics very capably.
3. Where do you get your material, do you draw on friends stories as well as actual incidents that have happened to you?
I try and open my eyes as much as I can about what's going on around me. I write every day, not necessarily comedy. Jokes then seem to come from nowhere.
4. When it comes to creating your own routine, do you enjoy writing it as much as performing it?
I've had an aversion to the discipline of writing comedy until only a few months ago. Facing that and starting to become more comfortable with the process of playing around with ideas and structures at my desk has refreshed my career hugely and I'm having a lot more fun on stage as a result.
5. I understand that you're still working through getting the right material for the right audience, what direction are you trying to head in?
No comic is ever not working through the process of getting the right material for the right audience - that's something you face every single time you get on stage. I am beginning to explore more topics of significance that interest me and I am enjoying the process of learning to translate my thoughts on those into standup that gets as strong laughter as standup done on more everyday topics like relationships, work, etc.
6. What do you do when the audience doesn't laugh, or rather, what's going through your head?
Fix it. Either with a change of tact (i.e audience interaction), another joke that could recover the vibe, or simply calling that a particular joke didn't work as intended. Sometimes simply calling that 'elephant in the room' is enough for the audience to release the tension of the situation and allow the show to move on undamaged, or even better for it.
7. How will you know that you've made it? (Is there a particular scenario? e.g. you're laying on a deck chair in the South of France and Jerry Seinfeld is serving you mojitos.)
I feel like Iike I've had an incremental 'I've made it moment' quite recently actually. Simply performing to such good audience sizes these first few nights of Perth Fringeworld (Friday and Saturday in excess of 120, Thursday and Sunday just under 100) has felt like a breakthrough. My next breakthrough moment will be gaining the confidence in my creative abilities to produce a quality full length show again over the next 12 months, so that I can come back and build upon the good foundations created this festival.
I don't really have any 'South of France mojito scenarios' envisioned - I just want to regularly create new content based on the things that interest me in my life, commit to every performance, travel relentlessly to audiences all over the globe and have great fun doing it - if I can fulfill those goals I think the whole ride will feel like one big 'I've made it moment'.
8. Tell us about yourself, what are a couple of your other interests?
I love golf, basketball and bikram yoga. I'm a massive zombie movie nerd. I don't watch much stand up or comedy in general. I'm a nice person who cares a lot about other people.
9. What is your best memory at a gig or a show and the best interaction you've had with the audience?
Nothing springs to mind in particular. I just love the feeling when you know you're really connecting with an audience - that point in a gig where it feels like you're friends, not audience & comic. It doesn't happen every gig but it's happening more and more, which is a good sign I think.
11. What do you love about doing your shows?
See above! Sharing an authentic aspect of myself with an audience and doing so in a way that (hopefully) lifts them up, even if just for a few minutes or an evening.
10. If you could have any superpower out there, what would it be and why? You can only have one.
Man I would love to fly - that would be so kickass.
Darsow's show is a good mix of relatable and "almost can't believe it's true" truths, (wait was that a line from his show?) but is expertly rolled up and packaged in a one hour stand up routine. Since coming fresh off the back of a breakout tour of the US and Canada, it's been non-stop for Ben Darsow, participating in the Fringe World Sets all over Australia. I'm excited to see what more he will do in the future, what other material he will get his hands on and to see if he really does develop that superpower to fly. But for now, he's doing a pretty great job at being a stand up comedian, as he is, after all, a stand up guy. Excuse the pun.