Every year, as the Melbourne International Comedy Festival approaches, I vehemently urge people go and see a Neal Portenza show. It's comedy like you've probably seen before, only much much better. Well this year will be the last year I will recommend him because Neal Portenza is hanging up his little red beret and performing his final ever show.
"The rumours are true. This will be my last live Neal Portenza show. I expect there will be a national day of mourning followed by a blood moon at the conclusion of the festival," the brains behind the beauty of Neal, Joshua Ladgrove tells me. For his final send-off, Ladgrove has named his show Fafenefenoiby II: Return of the Ghost Boy, a title that is slightly different to previous shows P.O.R.T.E.N.Z.A and Neal Portenza: Neal Portenza Neal Portenza Neal Portenza Neal Portenza Neal Portenza Neal Portenza Neal Portenza. Tracey, but equally as perplexing and random. "Fafenefenoiby is a Shaun Micallef reference. Hopefully he won’t sue me, but what wonderful publicity if he does. Audiences can expect a shell of a man performing his 22 last ever live shows with a mixture of genuine abandon and cavalier intimacy," he says.
Having performed at countless festivals nationally and internationally - and not always receiving the recognition he deserves, there have been plenty of memorable moments in his long career. "Too many nice things have happened, so I’ll provide two anecdotes in the hope they somewhat tangentially address the question. Just the other day an audience member came up to me after my show and told me that a few years ago she had just suffered her third miscarriage and was depressed and basically hadn’t laughed or smiled in six months. A friend of hers dragged her (somewhat against her will) into my show, and she told me recently that it was the only thing in that period that made her laugh and forget," Ladgrove recalls. "I thought about that later and cried. It’s easy to dismiss comedy as a gratuitous frivolity of Western culture, but for a brief moment, my comedy touched someone and made a positive difference.”
“The other story relates to someone coming to a show in Edinburgh (she knows who she is) and laughing so hard that she burst an ovarian cyst and later had to be hospitalised. My comedy has the power to heal. My comedy has the power to harm."
Ladgrove's comedy is entirely focused on audience interaction and participation and for the most part is completely improvised. As shown above, his absurd take on the minutiae of life can prove to be too much for some people. But the success of shows like Ladgrove's are heavily dependent on the audience on the night and the reality is, sometimes things don't go the way they should. "Once, in Edinburgh, during my Come Heckle Christ show, the cult hero comedian Stewart Lee came in to a media night show that had 37 people in it. 22 of those were reviewers, and the 15 other audience members didn’t want to play along and heckle me, making for the worst show I’ve ever performed. Someone told me that Stewart Lee wrote an article about how bad the show was. I can’t confirm this, I’ve never read it, but if he did, what a horrific cunt of a man. If he didn’t, I hope he finds it in himself to accept my unreserved apology."
So, is Ladgrove ready to say goodbye to someone who has been a big part of his life for close to a decade? “Yes and no. I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed by the thought that a stupid man-child comedy character has been a favourite of people for many years, and so that will be hard,” he says. “At the same time, the grind of live comedy has seen my health (both physical and mental), my relationships, my friendships and my finances all suffer, and so continuing to pursue the dream of 14-year-old me seems fanciful and fraught with misery.”
And what would be the most perfect way to end his last ever Neal Portenza show? Take note Melbourne International Comedy Festival: "A bell tolls 12 times as a marching band plays Auld Lang Syne in the distance. A single dove flies overhead that can only be seen in the reflection of my tears."
So if you do go see but one show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival - which is a huge error to begin with - make sure you book to see a night of comedy that you will literally never see or experience again.
1. My favourite board game is Monopoly because it prepares you for the realities of the capitalist patriarchy. There is a popular communist alternative but you’re not allowed to own any property and all the pieces are the same hammer & sickle.
2. Which movie would you like to see turned into a musical and why?
Chopper, because a camp, all singing, all dancing version of Mark Read would be the ultimate tribute.
3. Which one person would you love to come to your show and why?
Old Jerry Lewis, because I would claim it as a victory if I could make him smile even once.
4. I will try to keep sane during MICF by - it’s easy to keep sane during MICF, because of the “M”. Is there anywhere else you’d rather be in April than Melbourne? Comedy, sport, arts, dumplings, coffee, dumplings.
5. Why did the chicken cross the road?
Because the chicken developed an acute sense of conscious cognition and thought, this side of the road doesn’t seem to be rewarding the particular brand of chickenness it was offering the world and staying on this side of the road would be an active act of personal chicken aggression. The chicken understood, perhaps more slowly than the chicken ought have to, that the other side of the road is pregnant with possibility and potential, and though the comfort and familiarity the current side of the road provides is somewhat reassuring, the other side of the road has been a distant dream for too long, and ignoring it for too much longer would place the chicken at severe risk of living a comparatively cloistered existence. The chicken in effect, began to grapple with the inherent non-linearity and asymmetry present in every day existence and thought that the only way to benefit from such asymmetries, is to move into a position of initial discomfort via a short walk to the other side of the road.
Venue: Melbourne Town Hall, Cnr Swanston & Collins Sts, Melbourne.
Season: 29 March - 22 April | Tues - Sat 9.30pm, Sun 8.30pm
Length: 55 minutes
Tickets: $25 Full | $22 Conc & Tightarse Tuesday | $20 Preview
Bookings: MICF website