Alice Fraser is about to begin her third show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Following the huge success of both Savage and The Resistance, Fraser’s latest show Empire looks set to colonise even more hearts at this year’s festival.
Empire addresses the themes of power and revenge, themes present in both previous shows. They’re topics Fraser is drawn to them because she’s interested in how people treat other people. “We live in a world where people want things to be simple, and they’re not” she says. Human beings’ tendency to categorise and label people comes from this desire for simplicity, but really the things, and the people, that get caught up in those categories are much more complicated. It’s a tendency with close ties to power and powerlessness, and our need for control.
Last year’s show, The Resistance, had a strong narrative through-line to accompany Fraser’s punchy humour and those heavier themes. When pushed as to whether Empire would have a similar structure, however, Fraser is hesitant to give much away. “The shape of a story changes the meaning of the story,” is all she’ll say on the matter. It’s a statement with its roots in her time at Cambridge, where she got her Masters in Rhetoric – the art of persuasive discourse, as it were. It’s also a sentiment she wishes the world would take on board. “The way you say something is important, it can change the meaning of what you’re saying,” she reiterates. She also keeps open the option of returning to academia, because she’s obsessed with ideas. But comedy and academia occupy very different spaces and require different approaches, according to Fraser. The further you progress in academia the fewer people read, and perhaps can even understand, your work, whereas with comedy your audience widens as your career progresses. Being a professor is a status symbol she doesn’t need. As Fraser puts it; “I’m not interested in [that kind of] respect, I’m interested in impact.”
Fraser’s comedy isn’t all intellectual musings on difficult topics though – there’s also a banjo. “It’s a happy instrument,” Fraser says. “People associate music with lightness, and I play a lot of major chords. It helps me hide serious topics in songs. I can slide in with barbed lyrics and then move away from them with the music.” Much like how people are more open-minded when they’re seeing comedy (a statement Fraser has made when talking to us before), she thinks people are less defensive when they’re listening to music. “My comedy is a balance of light and dark, and the songs are kind of a cheat code for that.” Plus, she adds, it’s her Mum’s banjo.
Entering her third year at MICF, Fraser feels more comfortable than previous years, but she’s cautious not to be fooled by the feeling that it’s easier. “The first year was a slog,” she remembers “but the problem is that the later years aren’t actually easier, because you’re always trying to expand your reach, book bigger venues and sell more tickets, appeal to more people.” Fraser isn’t trying to appeal to everyone though, being of the opinion that being universally liked comes at the cost of being utterly banal. Instead, audience growth is a part of maintaining that fine balance of sharp-but-friendly comedy, and it’s a balance Fraser keeps expertly, varying it for the appropriate medium. Fraser hosts a podcast, Tea with Alice, as well as writing and presenting for radio. She finds the former has more freedom, because the audience finds her. In radio, you need to provide what the audience wants. “It’s the same difference as between a set at a comedy club and a festival show,” she explains. It’s not a surprise that Fraser’s developed regulars and a strong rapport with her fans. “It’s hard to set boundaries,” she says, “one fan brought me cake at the airport at 2 a.m.” While on the one hand she’s developed a couple of solid friendships with fans, she’s had to tell others they’re overstepping some serious lines.
On the other hand, Fraser is excited about the sense of community surrounding the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Working comedians are often on the road for more than half the year, constantly moving between cities and countries. For Fraser, it’s nice to be surrounded by her friends and people she admires to combat a certain absence of home. At this year’s festival, she’s particularly looking forward to seeing Laura Davis and her show, due to Davis’ ability to integrate her real life experiences into her comedy. She also recommends Larry Dean – “he’s straight down the line, but very smart”. Likewise, Demi Lardner’s silliness is something Fraser is a little envious of – “I don’t feel I have capacity to just be ridiculous!”
Alice Fraser is taking Empire to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival from 30 March until 23 April, with no shows on Mondays. Fraser is performing at the Chinese Museum at 9:30pm and 8:30pm on Sundays. Tickets range between $15 – $27 and are available through the festival website and venues.
Empire will also be at the Sydney Comedy Festival from 4 – 7 May at the Enmore Theatre.