Readers of The Footy Almanac would recognise instantly the sensibility of Damian Callinan, the comedian whose show The Merger is on at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
Callinan knows footy, every nook and cranny of it, sometimes despite himself. (His nature is to shy from the get-stuck-into-’em aspect of the game.) He’s also got an acute radar for the nuances in relationships among family and friends.
From these familiar platforms, he first took a great leap (the Warwick Capper kind; I think he’d like Warwick’s absurdity) into the fantastical world of Troy Carrington, his otherworldly country footy coach. In Sportsmen’s Night, his Troy Carrington vehicle, the ever-searching coach shuns the predictability of an end-of-season drinking trip to Adelaide to take the boys on a jaunt along the arts trail from Prague to Vienna. The footballers let down their tightly cropped hair with a bit of homage to Mozart before returning to pavlova at Christmas and another pre-season.
The Merger is a follow-up to Sportmen’s Night. In The Merger, Callinan takes a leap from footy and family into the world of politics, specifically the issue of asylum-seekers. Saeed is an Afghani key forward who learned to play footy while stuck in detention on Nauru for two years. His recruitment to the Bodgey Creek Roosters helps to stave off a merger with the Hudson Flat Cougars and set the Roosters on the path to recovery.
Bull Barlow, the bellicose Roosters president, is among the Bodgey Creek locals who find that dealings with Saeed and the Afghani recruits enable the scales to fall from their eyes. Saaed has learned all he knows about Australia by reading the football biographies of one of the guards on Nauru, starting with Just Crackers, the first instalment from Crackers Keenan (a reasonable starting point), and building up to the works of the man who Saeed comes to regard as Australia’s most eminent philosopher, Kevin Sheedy.
The Merger works on the familiar themes of footy and family and their fast grips on our southern Australian worlds, but it’s tackling of the refugee issue lends a sneaky gravitas. I would not go so far as to say it’s powerful, but it stirs your soul while jolting the funny bone.
The work could be more powerful if the writing were tighter. While Callinan’s acting and rapport with the audience are excellent, I think his script wanders off track too often. I found myself wondering whether he should read some US crime writers, the hard-boiled types who jettison every single detail that saps from the momentum of the story, but then I reneged. Callinan is more Bodgey Creek than the mean streets of LA. That is the point of him.
At a festival where the most successful comics seem to be those who portray a universal experience, I like Callinan’s work because it’s so local. When Callinan mangles the Bodgey Creek theme song by jolting out every second word in just such a way, you know he’s been there. You know he’s belted out a club song in a dank, concrete changing room with 20 teammates, and, yes, it’s silly and absurd, but it’s also kind of nice because it speaks of shared achievement and togetherness, and because it’s of us.
Years ago, I grew tired of seeing comedians talk about wanking, the drugs they took at university and the vicissitudes of share houses in North Melbourne. I like Callinan’s assessments of common bonds. He speaks, often using footy as a vehicle, of adults who deal with each other with imperfect grace in a murky world.
I know it’s my world because of the detail in Callinan’s rendering of the Bodgey Creek song (I laughed until I almost leaned right off my chair), and because of the way he says the word “Nana”. He’s not edgy enough to become an international hit, but he’s warm and affectionate, and he reflects the world in a way I recognise.
Callinan is a bit like Tim Winton: daggy, timeless, brilliant. Go and see him.
The Merger is on at 8.30pm in the Regent Room of the Melbourne Town Hall until Saturday 17 April.