It seems an article can’t be written about Ben Russell without mentioning the fact that he trained at Second City. Perhaps this is because everyone is looking for an explanation as to why he’s so damn funny. Russell is a master of character work, sketch and improvisation, and The Pilot is only more evidence of that.
The stage is set with a simple curtain and a chair. Russell is dressed in theatre blacks of sorts, a turtle neck and revealing thin tights. The sketches and character pieces feel a little ad hoc at times, but they’re threaded together with the kind of loose plot perfect for a comedy show. Part of the joy of Russell’s work is the certainty that even when he fumbles, the audience are uncooperative, or something else slips up it will still result in hilarity thanks to his improvisational nous.
The Pilot, it must be said, doesn’t contain the same kind of easy to empathise with oddballs that The Tokyo Hotel did. The characters here are less fleshed out, broader and more archetypal. Still, Russell’s delivery is unfaltering, and his transitions between characters are seamless. From the uppity head stewardess to the Chicago beat cop, the passengers and crew of this Quell Air flight are distinctive, each with their mannerisms and facial expressions, and Russell wrings them all expertly for laughs. The comedian’s physicality is always a highlight, with cheeky mime work expertly timed to audio cues.
This year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival has a secret slew of superb sketch, and this show is yet another addition to that fabulous line up. Despite its 6 pm timeslot, the show isn’t really suitable for anyone under the age of 16. The Pilot is a buoyantly nihilistic 50 minutes of comedy from a comedian Melbourne is lucky to call its own.
The Pilot is on at the Melbourne Town Hall at 6 pm until 23 April as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Tickets are available online or at the festival box office.