Zoë Coombs Marr resurrects Dave – to take on ‘cancel culture’ and Dave Chappelle | Comedy

Dave is, objectively, a bad comedian. Lurching around the stage, leering at his audience, he is a hack. “They should change that thing’s name from clitoris – to Nemo!”, he yells into the microphone.

With the show Trigger Warning, he was also the biggest hit of the 2016 Melbourne International Comedy Festival: enjoying a sell-out season, upgrading to a bigger theatre, and winning the festival’s highest award the Barry before touring globally, to be nominated for the Edinburgh comedy award.

Dave is the creation of comedian Zoë Coombs Marr, who put him in a coma in 2016. Now she’s bringing the character back – and between the MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, Dave Chappelle and the pandemic, he has a lot to catch up on .

When we speak, it is a week before Dave: The Opener opens at Melbourne comedy festival, and Coombs Marr is fresh off a trial run the night before. “I’m very sore right now,” she says. There is a “particular sort of fitness” required for performing as Dave: the way he slouches across the stage, the way he leans on the microphone stand, the way he thrusts pointed fingers out towards the audience (“He knows what I’m talking about!”), and the strange lecherous stare. “He’s constantly kind of like licking the inside of his own mouth,” Coombs Marr tells me. “It’s a lot of tongue action.”

‘He’s constantly kind of like licking the inside of his own mouth. It’s a lot of tongue action.’ Photograph: Alana Holmberg/Oculi

Coombs Marr started playing around with the character who would become Dave in 2010, when she was a budding comic on the “uncomfortable” Sydney comedy scene. With all-male line-ups the norm, Coombs Marr almost never found herself on a bill with another woman. With Dave, she says, she could go on stage and “confuse people and antagonise the audience a bit. And somehow through that antagonism, I found a way to actually have a voice on the stage.”

“Ironically, my voice was a horrible man,” she says.

She first performed a full-length stand-up show as Dave in 2014. Everything about him – from his bare feet to his sparse yet hopeful facial hair (made of clippings of Coombs Marr’s own hair, attached with glue; “You’ve reminded me, I need to restock,” she says now) – is underwhelming and a little gross. And yet there is something strangely lovable about him. Because, despite it all, you can see he is trying.

“He’s actually a really nice guy,” Coombs Marr says. “Like, he’s so terrible, but he’s … I do love Dave. He’s actually really sweet.”

Coombs Marr clips her own hair and glues it onto her face to perform as Dave
Coombs Marr clips her own hair and glues it onto her face to perform as Dave. Photograph: Alana Holmberg/Oculi

This sweetness is core to Dave’s return. In The Opener, Coombs Marr says, Dave is “trying to have the back of these guys like Dave Chappelle, and be like ‘I’m on your side man!’,” he says, referring to the controversy over transphobic comments Chappelle made in his recent Netflix special, in which he defined himself as “team TERF”. “But then as [the character] Dave’s going through the logic and the ethics of it he is like ‘oh, I think that’s actually a bit mean.'”

Dave started popping into Coombs Marr’s mind again as a new wave of moral panic about “cancel culture” hit the media. She mentions a 60 Minutes episode in 2020 about how political correctness was ruining comedy in which, to a soundtrack of Mad World, a camera pans over an empty comedy club. “I reckon it’s probably empty because it’s daytime at the Comedy Store, and you’ve booked it out to film it?” she says. “It’s just so funny to me.”

“Every time cancel culture comes up, it’s as though it’s for the first time,” she says. “Dave did that show in 2016.”

Zoë Coombs Marr
‘Every time cancel culture comes up, it’s as though it’s for the first time’, says Zoë Coombs Marr. Photograph: Alana Holmberg/Oculi

The show Trigger Warning takes place after Dave’s stand-up has been criticised for being offensive and he takes up clowning instead – only to find his inner clown was a 30-something lesbian comedian called Zoë, whose inner clown was a hack comedian called Dave, whose inner clown was a 30-something lesbian comedian called Zoë. The show was a side-splitting whirlwind, ramping up while getting increasingly complex but carrying the audience along through every turn.

In her 2018 show, Bossy Bottom, Coombs Marr performed as herself, and spoke about her relationship with the audience: the longest relationship she’s had.

It is clear how much care she puts into this relationship. With a character like Dave there is a fine line, Coombs Marr says, between making fun of Dave’s offensiveness, and the show itself being offensive.

She’s constantly asking, “Is it worth doing it and making people feel uncomfortable?” she says. “Comedy is often about taboos and walking fine lines and catharsis and satire …. But you have a duty of care to your audience as well.”

When comics complain “you can’t say anything anymore”, Coombs Marr says, “no, you’re just not working hard enough. Or you’re out of tune with what your job actually is.”

Zoe Coombs Marr as Dave
Dave: The Opener debuts at Melbourne comedy festival on Thursday 31 March. Photograph: MICF

Dave in 2022, is “trying to work some stuff out.” For those who have seen either of his previous shows, much will feel familiar. He is, as Coombs Marr describes him, “a five trick pony”.

“He will bleed. He will vomit. He will fall. He will dance. He’ll turn on the audience. And he’ll probably have some kind of meltdown, possibly drug related.” He’s micro-dosing, Coombs Marr says, “because he heard about it on Joe Rogan’s podcast”.

While politically charged, there is something of a children’s comedy show in Dave. “Dave operates on this very childish level, which I find very joyful and fun and silly. So that is what this show is,” she says.

“It’s politics and #metoo and cancel culture and Dave Chappelle fucking talking about trans people and beating up lesbians. But it’s also just dumb. It’s just real silly. Silly fun, silly props, silly dancing. Some falling over. Have a good night .”

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