Dave, the hapless male comedian who is the alter ego of Zoë Coombs Marr, began as a backstage joke.
“I was doing a lot of stand-up in clubs as myself – but Dave had been brewing,” says Coombs Marr.
“I used to do it in down time to make the techies laugh.”
Dave, a wannabe comic whose lacklustre observations tend to begin: “What’s the deal with….”, is a paragon of failed masculinity, a hack comic without the wit and the smarts to make his observations stick.
But he’s been a winner for Coombs Marr, who landed the Barry, Australia’s top comedy award, for Trigger Warning – which sees Dave embrace the Gaulier method of clowning only to discover his true comic self is a thirtysomething lesbian, very much like the real Zoë Coombs Marr.
“Originally he was called Joey. He became Dave because there were so many Daves in Australian comedy. At Melbourne Comedy Festival, where I listed him as Dave, rather than under my own name, he was on a page where there were eight other Daves.”
Trigger Warning becomes a struggle between Dave and Zoë, between the male comic creation and the woman who is behind him.
“I haven’t done stand-up as myself for about five years – so this is me returning to stand-up and about the struggle between me and Dave.”
But surely the odds are weighted in favour of Zoë?
Not necessarily, she says. “I love Dave. I have very real genuine affection for him.
“When I have a gap and I’m not doing Dave for a while, I really miss him. That’s why I keep going back to him. I wouldn’t do that for a character I really hated.”
So who is Dave?
“Dave is an incredibly mediocre comic. He is just doing the most standard, middle of the road things and he’s not being good at it. He’s trying to take a mainstream road but he is inept.
“He’s hopeless, but he’s a human being and he’s doing his best.”
Although Dave is a ridiculous figure in a lot of ways he is also a sympathetic character.
“It is not: ‘This is what men are.’ It is also a role men have to perform.
“Men are oppressed by the patriarchy in the same way women are. They just have a different role to perform.” She said she found it “hilarious” when she first came up with the idea of a wannabe Jim Jefferies going to clown school and discovering his inner lesbian. In Trigger Warning, Dave and his gay female clown self engage in an epic struggle. It is a parody of clowning, while also being clowning and a parody of stand-up while also being stand-up.
She’s not sure yet whether this show will lead to a return to doing stand-up as herself. “I think I’ll get through this show first and see what happens.” This is only Coombs Marr’s second time in Edinburgh. “I was a bit scared of the Fringe – but I found it exciting last year. There are so many people and everyone is seeiing stuff and talking about what they’ve seen.”
Since she was last here, she has made headlines in Australia and around the world not just for winning awards, but for her activism.
This April Combs Marr married fellow comic Rhys Nicholson, in a bid to highlight the lack of gay marriage in Australia. “It started last year in Edinburgh. I proposed to Rhys Nicholson in the Spoon cafe.
“In Australia neither of us can marry our partners. Rhys is engaged to his partner Kyran. I’m not interested in getting married personally but I am in a long-term relationship with my partner Kate.”
Coombs Marr and Nicholson married in the last week of the Melbourne Comedy Festival at an event programmed as The Wedding.
Fellow performers including Celia Pacquola, Hot Brown Honey, Asher Treleaven and Hannah Gadsby took on key roles during a ceremony, which was performed by a celebrant who was symbolically blindfolded and wearing ear plugs. The real family and partners of Coombs Marr and Nicholson were also present.
“For us the whole thing was to say, ‘Look how ridiculous it is that Rhys and I can marry each other but can’t marry our partners’. It made a lot of straight people aware of that.
“It was about approaching it from a different angle, to shed a bit more light on what this really means to people.”
Although the ceremony was disrupted by demonstrators carrying Australian flags and shouting, ‘Leftie scum”, it was, she says a joyous occasion, a happy summer wedding which also encouraged people to think about human rights and human happiness.
Combs Marr is an instinctive activist who sees stand-up as inherently political.
“I sometimes feel like everything I do is political. It’s a political act to be a queer woman and stand up on stage.
“When comedy is political, its greatest strength is showing up the ridiculousness of the world we live in.
“Humanity and compassion are often seen as something less important than things like the economy and national security. But it’s important to remember that that was not always the way politics were run.
“It sometimes feels like that conversation has been shut down.
“It’s important to realise that things like human rights are the point of politics.”
l Zoë Coombs Marr: Trigger Warning is at Underbelly, Cowgate, until 28 August. Today 6:50pm.