Zoë Coombs Marr’s character Dave has woken from a coma and everything since 2016 is new to him. He has missed the MeToo movement, JK Rowling’s pivot from beloved to controversial, the entire pandemic, thousands of new cultural references. Coombs Marr’s new show, The Opener, asks, how would Dave respond to all of that? What would this caricature of a hack male comedian have to say about “cancel culture”?
The Opener begins with Coombs Marr explaining that she was asked this question at a dinner party, and felt compelled to create a show that answered it. Performing a “pre-show chat” in her dressing gown, she sets out the context: in 2014 she created Dave, in order to parody the blokey, toxic masculinity that she’d seen again and again in comedy. Dave was both a comment on how alienated Coombs Marr felt entering the stand-up scene and a way to address it by shielding herself behind performance.
Having performed as herself since 2016, after her award-winning run of Trigger Warning, Coombs Marr clearly relishes returning to Dave. As he’s warming up, Dave jokes that he has missed being on stage, but it is clear that Coombs Marr has too. We see more than just glimpses of his creator peeking through; “Zoë” is a character within the show just as much as Dave is. At times, her voice speaks from the rafters to help direct the show. She interrupts Dave’s routine, sneaking in her own jokes between his. Dave stops multiple times when his own material veers outside his voice, asking out loud why he is speaking more as the “angry lesbian” inside him. I’ll admit I also wondered sometimes why he was the one telling these jokes. In the moments when the show deals most directly with its subject matter, it feels more like Zoë’s voice we are hearing.
Zoë is the one who addresses the slap at the Academy Awards and Louis CK winning a Grammy. Both these events speak so directly to what the show is about, it would be odd not to mention them – but both also happened in the last 10 days. Not only is Dave catching up after waking from a coma, Coombs Marr is catching up to the news cycle, trying to parody a culture that gets more toxic with every awards show. While this tries to be a tightly structured hour of comedy, the seams are still showing in many places. A lot has happened while Dave has been in a coma, but a lot has also happened in the months since Coombs Marr began trialling this show earlier in the year. It is little wonder then, that The Opener lacks the polish I’ve come to expect from her shows.
When it works, the relationship between Zoë and Dave is the highlight. Trigger Warning saw Dave realise he is a character; The Opener sees him find comfort in that identity, with Zoë as a collaborator rather than nemesis. They discuss the flaws in his motivation, grapple with sharing the same body and even workshop his pronouns. This is a Dave that feels more settled in himself.
Despite its faults, this is still a show worth seeing. Coombs Marr’s absurdist and theatrical approach to stand up is refreshing. And The Opener is full of great jokes: it is difficult to craft the type of tight one liners that you’ll find here. They are clever and sharp and made me gasp with laughter.
Few do it better than Coombs Marr, who is excellent at what she does, combining her theatre background with a love of jokes to produce surreal and deeply silly comedy. Dave was what shot her into the limelight and helped her cement a place within the Australian comedy scene – but since he’s been gone, she’s also cemented a place without him. There is joy in seeing Dave again, but it is the glimpses of Zoë where this show shines. While Dave insists he came back because he was needed, I’m not sure Coombs Marr needs him anymore.