After six long months, The Civic has staged the closest thing New Zealand will get to a comedy festival this year.
May's International Comedy Festival was one of the many cultural victims of Covid-19, but for one night only we got to pretend the festival went ahead. The Comedy Gala is always a mainstay of the festival, and while it might be here a little later than normal, but after the rollercoaster that has been 2020, three hours of non-stop laughter is more welcome than ever.
This was not your regularly scheduled programming though. Firstly, it's technically the Christmas Gala this year, though nothing felt that festive about it – the only decorations were a dozen towers of glowing orbs of various sizes, which the Topp Twins pointed out halfway through looked remarkably like butt plugs.
Secondly, it was almost entirely local acts. Normally the Gala from the host down is packed with international comedians, but asides from Aussie Laura Davis, it was just Kiwis gracing The Civic stage, turning this year's show into the perfect showcase of Kiwi talent.
And there was no better representation of that then host Pax Assadi. He had an odd role – both the headline act while primarily warming up the crowd for everyone else – but Assadi was perfect for the task. From quickly shutting down hecklers to launching into his set on experiencing Halloween with refugee parents and 'hood dogs', Assadi set the standard for the night and undoubtedly left the audience keen to track down his next full gig.
He set a high bar that the majority of the acts met. From first act, musical duo Two Hearts (Laura Daniel and Joseph Moore), who performed an old favourite about tackling climate change by buying reusable shopping bags, through Guy Williams' closing set on the failure of the cannabis referendum, the show was a consistent hit.
Normally these shows produce a few fizzers, since each act only has a few minutes to sell themselves, but everyone was at top of their game. Even Nick Gibb's slightly off-putting story about a murdered duck – met initially with a rather uncomfortable groan from the crowd – managed to build to a satisfying punchline.
It helped that the lineup was packed with incredible diversity in skills. Ben Hurley and Justine Smith are always reliable for a solid set of straight cut stand-up, while Hayley Sproull and The Fan Brigade joined Two Hearts in spotlighting the musical talents of the local scene.
Few events also let relative newcomers share the stage with comedy legends. I have to admit having never heard of Paul Douglas before, but was a late standout after his uproarious story about reluctantly doing drugs. The Topp Twins again showed why they've lasted so long, toddling on stage as their Prue and Dilly characters, the first act of the night to poke fun at the election, but delivering a waiata that filled every inch of The Civic and rightfully earned the biggest applause of the night.
It's perhaps a result of having a majority Kiwi lineup that the show flowed so well. Too often international comics seem uncertain how to tailor their content for such a short set in a foreign country, and then bristle at the sort of scattered, silent laughter that you tend to get in New Zealand comedy crowds.
It'll be nice to see them back, but Saturday night showed that Kiwi comics can perfectly headline this show entirely on their own, delivering enough laughs to satiate audiences long enough for the festival to return proper.
The Christmas Comedy Gala airs on TVNZ next month.</i>
What:The Christmas Comedy Gala
Where: The Civic Theatre, Auckalnd
Reviewer: Ethan Sills