First published on 5 May 2009. Updated on 16 May 2009.
If there's one Sydney Comedy Festival show you go and see this week, make it Al Pitcher's Picture Show.
The concept is high on originality, risk, effort – and hilarity. Each day, Pitcher starts his show from scratch. He picks a suburb at random and walks around it, taking pictures of anything that catches his eye. And then he uploads the best images into a slideshow on his laptop and weaves a bespoke show out of it.
"I've created a monster," Pitcher says in his hybrid half-Kiwi, half-British accent. Up until this year he had resolutely resisted creating a show using a pun on his name, but the picture show has become his brand. "I've been doing it since January now and so I've created a bit of a niche for myself. It's not really stand-up, it's not quite improv..."
The idea was borne out of a frustration at the insert-place-name-here trap that many touring comedians find themselves falling into. "It gets like that Spinal Tap joke," Pitcher explains. "So many comedians just walk on stage and go 'hello... [looks at hand] ...Philadelphia!' So many comedians just roll up to the venue five minutes before they're due on and ask the MC, 'what's the shittiest area in town?' and then go on stage and say 'So, Penrith – how shit is that place?'"
Pitcher goes to the admirable effort of actually visiting the place he is talking about on the day of the gig. "It's quite scary. I get up in the morning knowing I've literally got nothing for that evening's performance," he says. "My Sydney show starts at 9.15pm and I'll still be working on it until around 8pm. It's seat-of-the-pants stuff, but I think audiences appreciate it all the more when you're taking risks. I'm really living that hour. And because it's a completely different show each night, people come back again and again, which can be a bit freaky."
Pitcher assembles between 50 and 60 images for each night's show, all completely new, all taken that very day. "I don't do any research, I just pick an area and go out and take what I see."
What does he look for? "I'm not looking for victims. I'm not going out and pushing old ladies over and taking pictures of them. And I'm not going around taking pictures of touristy stuff. I'm just capturing the mundane stuff, the things we walk past every day without noticing them. That's where the comedy is."
Pitcher, an amateur photographer, has thousands of images on his hard drive now. "I want to put the best into a book eventually," he says. "Someone suggested a coffee table book, but I'm thinking more of a book you might take into the toilet with you. I want to corner the bog market. I'm also thinking about doing some postcards."
The show itself doesn't have much structure; it's dictated entirely by audience reaction. "It's strange what makes people laugh and what doesn't – and it often goes against what you might initially expect," says Pitcher. "You can click through a load of photos very quickly, just panning for gold. And then you find one that you spend 10 minutes on because people love it."
Australians tend to be prouder of where they live than the Brits, says Pitcher. But people love to laugh at themselves, and to see where they live through different eyes.
There is a serious point to the comedy as well. Pitcher is making a comment about how easy it is to take pictures these days with digital cameras and mobile phones and social networking sites. And yet we are forgetting about the stories that should go with those pictures. We're so busy staring through the viewfinder on holiday or at a concert or on a night out that we don't really take the situation in. "It's like story telling might disappear," says Pitcher. "Instead we'll just pass a laptop around the campfire with our photographs on it."
As a taster of the show, Pitcher has agreed to send his favourite three pictures each day from the previous night's Sydney Comedy Festival gig. He will also put two free tickets to each night's show this week on the door for Time Out readers. To win a free double pass, simply come up with an amusing alternate title for one of the photos in the attached slide show and send it in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the words "Al Pitcher" in the subject heading.
Al Pitcher plays at the Factory Theatre until May 9
Al Pitcher takes the Time Out Comedy Festival Q'n'A Challenge