“It’s probably good for you” – Alice Fraser on not avoiding heavy topics, strange childhoods, and international comedy scenes
Comedian Alice Fraser has been quietly performing alongside some pretty intense day jobs for a long time. From Sydney arts law to New York City Lawyer, via a Masters degree Cambridge, Alice has nursed a love and talent for comedy, performing and writing of all kinds. These days she’s just as busy as a full time, award-winning comedian, writer and performer, turning her impressive intellect towards just about every topic. Her newest show, The Resistance is part of this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Katherine Back asked her some questions about it, ‘patchwork careers’, and social justice.
Your show, The Resistance, is about strength, power, and – unsurprisingly – resistance. What do these things mean to you, and how are you covering them in the show?
The show is about the falling-down house I grew up in (a block of flats owned by my holocaust survivor granny), and the mad, beautiful and damaged people who lived there. They were all sort of mad characters and it wasn’t till I grew up that I found out their incredibly stories and their power of resistance against the world. Each of them had a really incredible history, where they’d stood up against injustice. They were living symbols of how hard it is to be a good person, and the damage it can do to you.
How did this show come about? What led you to talk about these subjects on stage?
You don’t realise you had a weird childhood until you grow up and find out that other people didn’t have a manic depressive Chilean Gardner with seven and a half fingers who lived upstairs. So I wanted to talk about that. Also, I think we’re all a bit sick of watching people congratulate themselves online for being good people – curating an identity for public consumption, and I wonder a lot about how many people actually would have the courage of their convictions if it inconvenienced or hurt them at all.
When it comes to social justice issues, do you find comedy makes it easier to broach certain topics? What are the challenges when it comes to using comedy to cover this kind of subject matter?
I think social justice issues are incredibly difficult to talk about outside of “preaching to the choir” scenarios. Comedy is one of the few forums where people are open and relaxed enough that they are even capable of taking on new ideas. A joke can change the world in someone’s head.
The challenge of covering complicated, tragic or difficult material can be to do it without disrespecting, minimising or trivialising the material. The way I tend to do that is by not trying to lighten up the material at all. I joke around it, rather than about it. The joke’s the spoonful of sugar and the medicine is the medicine. I’m not making sickly sweet cough syrup.
You’ve had an incredible range of experiences in the comedy scene, from New York to Edinburgh and beyond. What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you while doing comedy?
I had a venue in Edinburgh without a door, for my show Savage, and a physical fight rolled in from outside in the middle of a relatively delicate part of that show. That was surreal. There was also this time I got picked up off the street with my Banjo and ended up telling jokes on German cable television until I missed my train and they let me sleep in the penthouse of the casino which was owned by one of the producers. Hm.
Melbourne likes to talk itself up when it comes to our comedy scene, and our Comedy Festival. How does it hold up against the likes of the Edinburgh Festival, and comedy scenes around the world?
Every comedy festival is a bubble – which is to say, no matter how big or small it is, when you’re in it, it feels like the whole world.
Which other acts are you excited to see this Festival?
I love everything Laura Davis does. She’s brutal and dark and wildly funny. Sammy J and Randy always make me laugh. I hear Sarah Millican will be coming in for two shows, and if I can get a ticket to her through any means short of actual murder, I’ll be there. James Acaster, if he’s coming out this year.
Your background features a strange patchwork of different careers. What made you leave behind law, academia, and everything else to focus on comedy?
Patchwork career. Welcome to the modern world.
I left law because corporate structures feel pathological to me, and I can’t not take them personally. Working in a large organisation which can recognise only its own immediate financial benefit as a good, is like being an organ inside a sociopath. I don’t want to be a conscienceless liver for an imaginary entity.
Might go back to academia one day though. I don’t know. It feels like the opposite of comedy though, in that the higher up the ranks of academia you go, the fewer people read your stuff. Which seems elitist and weird.
What’s your proudest on-stage moment?
I don’t know if I’m ever proud of what I do. I was a fish once in a kindergarten play, and my mum made me and my twin brother these amazing fish costumes out of cardboard boxes with little braces holding them up. I felt like we were definitely the coolest.
What can the audience expect from The Resistance? What do you want them to take away from the show?
Expect the unexpected, I guess. I try to pack in a lot of different things into my show, in terms of tone and content. So there’s likely at least one thing you’ll like but also maybe something you won’t like. Sorry about that. It’s probably good for you.
The Resistance is on at the Forum Theatre from March 23rd until April 17, at 7:15pm Tuesday to Saturday, 6:15pm Sundays, and no Mondays.