This piece of writing was written for and read aloud at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival, 2019 Opening Night Gala.
“MWF19 swoons into the arms of Melbourne with its opening night gala, where three heart-connected pairs tell stories of their first hello. Comedian Kitty Flanagan and her younger sister, author and musician Penny Flanagan; globally celebrated children’s book writers and real life partners Andy Griffiths and Jill Griffiths; and poet Omar Sakr with his fiancee, blogger Hannah Donnelly.”
My sister calls me. There is a conspiratorial edge to her voice.
“Don’t tell anyone, but I’m thinking of trying stand-up comedy.”
The weirdest thing about this phone call is: she expects me to be surprised. Which is like someone who has been carrying an oar around all their life saying, “Hey, I know this is totally out of left field but I think I’m going to go canoe-ing.”
I’m not surprised. Not in the slightest.
This phone call came in the early ‘90s and she was 25 years old. By that stage she’d been carrying the oar around with her for most of her adult life – pretending she wasn’t ever going to do anything with it. Oh this thing? I dunno, I just picked it up somewhere, what do you think it is? She’d literally circumnavigated the entire continent of Australia in her ruse to pretend she was never going to do anything with that oar. Across the Nullabor in a combi, from Bunbury up to Broome, over the top end in a beat-up station wagon and back home again. Everyone she met, knew she would eventually do something with that oar. But she just kept pretending it wasn’t there. And right when we all thought she’d finally own up to it, she announced a sudden vocational calling to P.E teaching (which to be honest, was so weird none of us knew what to say).
Then at 25 years old, she finally decided to own up to it. She’d had that oar for a while and now she was going to use it for its intended purpose. She had five minutes of jokes and she was going to try them out at an open mic night.
And that’s when she called me.
“Can I come over and do my jokes for you? And you tell me if they’re funny.”
She came to my share house in Newtown and I sat in an armchair in the corner of my bedroom while she stood in the empty space where my bed wasn’t. I gave her my full attention and she started telling her jokes. I saw the spark of fear in her eyes. But she got out that oar and tried to get the hang of things.
I was firm but fair. If something wasn’t funny, I gave her Sphinx face, at which point she would quickly up the ante, adding a physical gesture, or a funny inflection to make it work. When it was funny, I laughed hard. Overall, it was a very funny five minutes. I gave her the go ahead and off we went.
That evening at The Harold Park Hotel, we arrived to find, not a sparsely populated, low key open mic night but something else altogether. The room was packed. There were amateur comics huddled nervously in groups everywhere and punters were filing into the comedy room in a steady, pay-and-be-stamped stream. She’d accidentally enrolled herself in the inaugural Harold Park Hotel Comic of the Year competition and she was one of two women competing in a heat of about 15 to 20 acts.
There were a lot of men on stage that night and as a result I heard a lot of jokes about masturbating. I also saw a lot of men gesturing to their wang, using two hands to show how big it was and using one or the other hand to show all the things they had done with it at various points in their lives. Somewhere in the night, a dolphin also got sodomised. In short, it was an early ‘90s, pre #metoo dickfest.
I started to worry that my sister – that mouthy little broad with too much hair – wouldn’t be able to exude the right gender brand of confidence to pull this caper off.
When the MC said her name and she walked onto the stage, I panicked. I was surrounded by strangers in the darkness and she was up there under careless stage lights, about to tell jokes that she’d only ever tried out on me, in my bedroom, five hours before.
At this point, I suddenly realised that there was a very real chance that what I thought was funny, would not be funny to anyone else. At this point, the whole thing suddenly seemed like a really bad idea.
The last time we’d convinced each other something was hilarious and then taken it to a broader audience. Things hadn’t gone so well.
Our earliest collaboration, was a performance art piece of sorts. We called it, ‘I’m scared’ and it involved a flute and a walk-in wardrobe. We took it in turns to perform it, so it was, I guess, a one-woman show with a rotating cast of two. The performer would start out in our parents’ walk-in wardrobe and begin, unseen, to play the flute. When I say, ‘play the flute’ what I mean is just blow into it and make weird flute-y tweety noises like a manic, hysterical bird. Then the performer would emerge from the wardrobe, eyes darting left and right, looking scared, while still blowing erratic tweets from the flute. There was also some bow-legged, performance art style dancing. But that was basically it. We performed it to each other over and over, never tiring of how funny we were and then, convinced of the quality of our comedy stylings we took it out wide. We called in our mother for an exclusive preview.
Mum sat on the edge of the bed in the master bedroom, looking bored and endured it for a good 10 seconds before announcing that she had to put the dinner on and leaving the room.
(To be fair we hadn’t really worked out how it ended.)
So it was with that auspicious background in comedy performance that my sister walked out onto the stage at the Harold Park to a full house of punters who would be baying for blood at the first sign of weakness. She took her place at the mic and she started talking. Her first joke landed and a wash of relief spread across the room. Because in those days, woe betide the female comedian who wasn’t funny – if women weren’t funny, the audience turned on a dime. It was like: ‘You shouldn’t be up there anyway, and now you’re not even FUNNY?!’
But after the first laugh, everybody – including my sister – relaxed into the idea that a woman could be funny: you could say, we all leaned into it. She started adding bits that she hadn’t even tried out in my bedroom. At some point she took the mic off the stand and started moving around the stage like this was where she had always belonged. The five minutes of jokes, told to me in my bedroom only hours before, got a roar of approval and then it was over.
But that was it, the moment she came out, so to speak. The moment she said to everyone, ‘this is who I want to be’. The moment she took that oar and paddled downstream into her future. That was the moment she became Kitty. And I was there, in the dark, watching her glide.