11 May 2015

Comedy without conclusion

9:53 am on 11 May 2015

There are people whose stories you read or hear about and you sort of want to get angry on their behalf. Having read his previous writing for The Wireless about growing up Christian, and growing up gay, I wanted to be angry on behalf of Eli Matthewson.

But Eli, comedian and 2015 Billy T award nominee, is honestly, when you meet him, about as angry as a care bear (incidentally, as a kid he wouldn’t have been allowed a care bear). In fact, he's turned his upbringing into material for his latest stand-up comedy show.

In recent years, there's been essentially one popular and accepted way of doing comedy about religion, and that's to trash it. Religious people are stupid; they're backward; they're responsible for the world's ills. In the past decade, Muslims have been a particular target. And with the role various faith groups, particularly Christians in the United States, have played in fanning conflict, social injustice, and removal of human rights, you can't really blame comics for taking it on.

But there's a tide turning, and the faux-edgy (faux because your average comedy club audience won't exactly skew Christian), Richard Dawkins inspired rants are being replaced by a comedy without conclusion; an admission that while a lot of fun can and (and should) be poked at religion's expense, it's not necessarily for the comedian to say who's right.

That's the approach Eli Matthewson's taking for his New Zealand International Comedy Festival Show, Faith, and considering the impact on his life of beliefs he was sold as a kid, like “God doesn't like masturbating,” it’s a pretty generous one.

Growing up, Eli's family was what he calls “super Christian.”

“We used to, like, sit around reading Christian books together and praying for the characters in the books,” he says.

At eight years old, he realised he didn't think he believed in it, which must've been a tough age to have that revelation. It wasn't until later, in his teenage years, that he left the church. What his Comedy Festival show is about is not about whether a decision like that is right, but where it leaves you afterwards.

“[It's about] what you're moving towards and what you're going for, and what you can have faith in anymore if you can't have faith that when you die, you're going to go to a beautiful paradise forever.”

For timing reasons, Eli's the first guest on this Comedy Festival series for The Wireless whose show I was able to actually see in the gap between interviewing him and publishing this article. The thought of an eight year-old agonising about missing out on heaven is so sad that I struggled to imagine how Eli had gotten to the point of moving from anger and bitterness (which he must have had at some point, giggly and upbeat as he is now) to making it hilarious. I can now say, having seen the show, that he's somehow managed to keep it relentlessly positive (in fact, possibly the most tortured bit is about his conflicted relationship with sandwich chain Subway, which is fair enough really).

I think Eli wishes a little bit that his Dad would stop posting things like “Great writing from Eli Matthewson!” under his own name on the Facebook page for the Jono and Ben show

“What I've found is that even the parts that I think are really dark, I've tried them in a few different shows and people have found them really interesting and wanted to know more about them,” he says.

“And I don't think I present them in a way where I'm like [he puts on an agonised voice], 'Oh my goodness, my life is so hard and tragic.' I think I've been able to hopefully spin it in a way that's fun.”

He treats, he says, every belief system with the same opportunity for ridicule. This is evident in a joke about the things Islamic State (not a belief system, I know) terrorists could do at a Westfield shopping mall, which lands spectacularly exactly because he's just been describing the weird things his evangelical Christian family used to do at a Westfield shopping mall.

It's awfully clever, though my bold prediction on Twitter that this was the best ISIS joke I would see at the Comedy Festival has been hotly contested, so it seems like a few people think they have strong ISIS game this year (I can't believe I wrote that). But I maintain that it's Eli's fairness around what he sends up that makes some of his more ambitious jokes work so well.

“I don't think there's anything you should make fun of less than anything else, in terms of religious beliefs because all of them can get torn down to a certain degree,” he says.

“And I think my beliefs, what I believe now, which is not a lot – the fact that I don't believe a lot can be torn down itself.

“The fact that I don't believe in anything in particular is something that makes me jealous of people who are sure of things.”

A sense of that wistfulness comes through in the show when Eli belts out a children's spiritual song with some comedic asides; while the point is poking fun at what the song is teaching to children, its meaning to Eli's family, and to what it suggests about a sense of belonging and inclusion preserved or lost, is clear.

His parents have been really supportive of his career; in fact, I think Eli wishes a little bit that his Dad would stop posting things like “Great writing from Eli Matthewson!” under his own name (last name also Matthewson) on the Facebook page for the Jono and Ben show, for which Eli works as a writer. And he and his mum have reached a kind of truce around faith, where she'll carefully mention from time to time how good church has been and leave it at that.

He says the weird talk around religion sort of eased up when he was around the age of 14, “And my parents found a magical thing called divorce.”

It still took him until the age of 21 to come out. Eli was already a stand-up comedian by then; aged 26 now, he’s a seasoned industry veteran, performing improvised comedy at age 17 before heading to drama school and eventually starting stand-up.

Like many comedians, his first jokes were about where things had gone wrong with past girlfriends. Unlike most comedians, he moved on from those jokes not because they were hacky and boring, but because something in his life had changed. Eli says that when he started coming out as gay onstage, he went (he giggles), “full hog.”

“All my first sets when I started getting professional gigs as a comedian were so… gay-heavy. And the first thing I did when I got onstage was some process of coming out.

“At that point there [weren’t] really any other gay men in the whole country doing comedy. So for me it was like, my point of difference and I went big. And I think the first gig that I did it, I just was sitting backstage, going on to do some old jokes about Pokemon or whatever, and then just before I went on, I just decided that I wanted to talk about it.

“I came up with these jokes right before I went on, and it went alright, so I kind of stuck with it for a while, and there was a long period where all that I could talk about was gay stuff onstage.”

He’s had positive responses to that (as he should), and in fact says the hardest part of comedy in New Zealand has been getting enough gigs; here, two a week is good, whereas in the London scene you could be doing four or five shows a night.

He is, as I mentioned, a writer for Jono and Ben, so that keeps him going, except for a skint time every December in January when he feels like he’s poorer every year than he ever remembers being.

I wonder if writing jokes for other people, the audacity required for that, is nerve-wracking, but he says it’s improved his own comedy immensely.

“You have to write a lot of stuff you’re going to hate,” he says, “You have to write jokes in the full awareness that they might suck.”

His writing process is not especially scientific.

“Usually when I'm walking somewhere, or driving somewhere, or in the shower, I think of a funny idea, and then I put it on my phone, and it usually stays there for a few months before I even look at it again. And then I go through all the notes in my phone, turn some of them into great jokes, some of them into terrible jokes, and some of them I leave where they are.

On that note, if anyone remembers what he meant by “NASA/forestry”, that one is really bugging him. Maybe it’s a topic for once he’s put Faith to rest.