Cameron James never intended to write a show about love.

The comedian set out to tell a Boogie Nights-style story about working in a theatre restaurant in Newcastle in 2009 – where he sang Robbie Williams songs while dressed as Pirates of the Caribbean’s Captain Jack Sparrow.

But what he ended up with was a story about his relationship with his wife: from meeting on MSN Messenger when they were 12, to him choosing the theatre restaurant over their relationship, to him realising the error of his ways.

“I avoided saying that it was a love story for the longest time and I kind of even avoided admitting to myself,” says James.

“[But] it is a love story, about the mistakes you make along the way to finding the one you’re supposed to be with.”

James’s show Mixtape is part of a spate of stand-up hours this year that celebrated the people comedians care deeply about, whether their partners, parents or siblings: Wil Anderson writing about his father; Geraldine Quinn writing about her late brother; and Rhys Nicholson and Nath Valvo writing about their husbands.

It’s a trend comedy critic Daniel Herborn — who saw 40 shows across the Melbourne and Sydney comedy festivals — has noticed.

“There is a strong trend towards warm, verging-towards-earnest comedy that’s quite relatable and quite optimistic,” he says.

Verging towards earnest

Mixtape — and its predecessor Electric Dreams, where he performed songs he wrote as a teenager — are a sharp turn away from the style of comedy James was performing before the pandemic.

Before the pandemic he had filmed an hour of his best material but, when he sat down to watch it during lockdown, the show made him wince.

“I was just watching it and thinking, ‘I have no idea who this guy is, or what he cares about, or what he feels about anything.'”

James started taking note of the kinds of movies and TV shows that did move him – mostly rom-coms and coming-of-age movies. What would his coming-of-age story be? Or his rom-com?

That’s how he landed on the more earnest style of stand-up and storytelling he performs in Mixtape and Electric Dreams.

It feels subversive in a field where, as James explains, comedians try to project an image of not caring.

“The moment you stand up on stage and say, ‘But there is one person I care about and it’s my wife,’ everyone’s like, ‘Shut up!,'” James says with a laugh.

“It’s taken me a long time to be comfortable with being earnest on stage. I hid behind irony and sarcasm for probably the first 10 years of doing stand-up and then just slowly had to realise that I am a person who has feelings like everyone does.”

Herborn suggests comedians might be more willing to be sincere on stage since the enormous success of Hannah Gadsby’s Edinburgh Comedy Award-winning show-turned-Netflix special, Nanette.

“That really changed Australian comedy — and probably just comedy full stop — for good,” he says.

“You could do a great show that wasn’t just 55 minutes of wall-to-wall laughs; you could really go into some dark and very human territory, and the show could be all the better for that.

“Maybe this [moment in comedy] is a reaction against the trauma narrative, where we’re sort of trying to find the comedy in celebration and positivity, because that’s a challenge.”

Dark and very human territory

Geraldine Quinn’s rock cabaret The Passion of Saint Nicholas, which she performed at Melbourne International Comedy Festival, dared to venture into that “dark and very human territory”.

The show is about her relationship with her late brother, Nick, who died of brain cancer in 2019, with a focus on their childhood in Wagga Wagga and the outer suburbs of Melbourne.

“[He was] the person that I was competitive with in terms of music and we shared these big dreams about performing,” Quinn says.

“[The show is] about how we hold that person with us as we keep moving forward: for me, as I keep performing and doing the very thing that we both dreamed of doing as kids.”

After she performed her Best Show-nominated show BROAD, in 2022, Quinn knew she wanted to write a show about her brother. “[But] I wasn’t ready at that point,” she says.

In 2022, Geraldine Quinn was nominated for both Most Outstanding Show and the Golden Gibbo for an independent show at MICF.(Supplied: MICF/Nick Robertson )

Going to therapy to process both her grief at her brother’s death and later, her father’s serious illness, helped her to figure out exactly what story she wanted to tell.

“I just felt like a really different writer to what I was before I lost Nick,” she says.

“Losing somebody that close and then having this very strange experience that we all went through globally of this forced stasis [of COVID-19] gave me a sense that I just really want to create work I enjoy doing.”

And Quinn enjoyed performing The Passion of Saint Nicholas. She had managed to create a show that was still super silly, including when she acted out childhood arguments with Nick.

Performing the show, she says, “was like I got him [my brother] back for an hour”.

“You can’t feel that enormity of loss without having loved somebody a lot. And that’s a joyful thing,” she says.

“I would rather you know how much my brother meant to me and that he’s dead than not know anything about him. Because from my point of view, he’s part of who I am and it feels weird to me that everybody I meet from March 5th 2019 onwards will never know him.”

The impact of COVID

Wil Anderson suggests the pandemic may be behind the rise in personal shows this year, as it gave people the chance to think about what they value.

“A lot of people reframed their work through a prism of what it is that they prioritise,” he says.

He adds COVID-19 also highlighted how the world and political discourse has become more fragmented.

“We’ve lost this idea that there is even some collective narrative or collective consciousness. I think that’s why people have looked closer to home [for material],” he says.

“People are still telling much bigger stories about the world, about life or love or relationships, but they are doing it through storytelling that feels a little bit more personal.”

Anderson denies his new show Wilegitimate is about his relationship with his father. Instead, it aimed to interrogate “emotional truth” in storytelling, by re-writing his very first jokes about growing up.

“Because I drew so much of who I was by how different I was to my dad, I had to examine how much did I reasonably represent him and how much did I not [in my early jokes]? How much did I reasonably represent myself?”

Perhaps best known as host of ABC TV’s Gruen, Wil Anderson has been performing stand-up for 30 years. For at least the last decade, he says his shows have had a celebratory bend.(Supplied: Token)

Cameron James agrees the pandemic may have changed comedians’ approaches to joke-writing.

“Before we were probably all just trying to think of the next joke and the next take on whatever topical thing was happening,” he says.

“And then there was a f***ing global catastrophe and that made us all appreciate our loved ones and want to show them that we care about them,” he says.

Relationships as material

For months during the pandemic, Rhys Nicholson was living in a different country to their partner of 14 years, broadcaster Kyran Nicholson, while filming Netflix’s The Imperfects and RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under. Reunited, the couple appreciated the time they were able to spend together in lockdown.

“It was a little bit of a test I think: Can we handle each other 24 hours a day? And we could,” they say.

Their wedding last year and their choice not to have children formed much of Nicholson’s latest hour, Huge Big Party Congratulations.

It’s not the first time Nicholson has used their relationship for material. In fact, Kyran is an intrinsic part of Nicholson’s work: Together with broadcaster Alex Dyson, they own Melbourne comedy venue Comedy Republic, and Kyran directed and co-wrote much of the new show.

“Something that I’ve always really admired about him is that he’s more than happy to be in jokes and let me throw our relationship under the bus a little bit sometimes and talk about very intimate things,” they say.

Nath Valvo also often finds material in his 10-year relationship with his partner Cody. In fact, his show this year, Anyway, Back to Me, was structured around their wedding in January 2023.

“Each year I have a thing that’s happened that year that everything bounces off … When your full-time job is stand-up and you turn 40 or you get married or have kids, it is pretty impossible to not make those life events the focus of your show,” he explains.

Cody is used to appearing in Valvo’s shows, but the comedian has rules for how he portrays other people in his stand-up.

“I’m always the loser [in the story]. For Christ’s sake, he’s a scientist, hot, triathlete, blonde, blue eyes, bloody Queenslander: I know I’m batting up. My material is always coming from the angle that he could do better if he wanted,” Valvo says.

For Nicholson, the reason they write so honestly and openly about their lives is about more than making a joke.

“I try my hardest never to be like, ‘Queer relationships are like this, straight relationships are like this,'” they say.

“I’ve always tried to talk about our relationship like any relationship to kind of prove that they’re exactly the same. That’s part of the reason I talk a lot about us, and a lot of my shows have been about us.”

Valvo thinks comics are more willing to write “feel-good” shows since the pandemic, but that it’s a difficult thing to master.

“Writing about happy stuff and writing about positive stuff is hard to do,” he says. 

“[But] I don’t think the topic itself has to be ‘feel-good’. I just think that’s the comedian’s job: to make you feel good, no matter what they’re kind of talking about.

“In the last year or two, people are really swinging back to just making sure people feel good when they leave.”

Wil Anderson: Wilegitimate is at Wagga Comedy Fest on June 9, before touring to Geelong, Wyong, Albury, Glenelg Winter Arts Festival, Tamworth, Hobart, Cairns and Sunshine Coast.

Cameron James: Mixtape is at Newcastle Conservatorium on July 6, Brisbane Powerhouse on July 19 and Comedy Store, Sydney, on July 27.

Nath Valvo: Anyway, Back to Me is at Brisbane Hotel, Perth, on June 7.

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