Michael Williams; John Wilkes Booth And Other Overachievers

Note: This review is from 2010

Review by Steve Bennett

Lonely, underemployed social misfits with an exaggerated sense of importance and desperate need for attention… comedians and lone gunmen have a lot more in common than either would probably want to acknowledge.

That is perhaps why Michael Williams’s imagination was caught by the story of John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre in 1865. Reaching 27, Williams compared his life not to what he usual role models such as Jesus or Mozart had achieved at the same age, but this notorious killer.

Booth’s story is an interesting one, especially for its cast of supporting characters. A rabid racist, Booth did not act alone but had a gang, including a surprisingly hot baby-faced killer, and a drunk who got too pissed to pull off his assignment. But the best character of all was ‘Boston’ Corbett the man who shot Booth – a man who castrated himself with a pair of scissors to avoid the temptation of prostitutes.

It’s these fascinating facts that hold the show together. Williams is one of those quiet, earnestly quirky stand-ups that festivals in general and Melbourne in particular draw out of their introspection. This talk is illustrated by scores of hand-drawn, child-like images, sometimes with pop-up effects, as if colouring-in is a perfectly acceptable endeavour for a man approaching his thirties. He’s clearly dedicated a lot of time to this task.

In this, his second festival show, Warrnambool man-child Williams embellishes the Booth story with suitably juvenile digressions, with references to old-fashioned video games and ponderings about how the book of his Mr Man alter-ego – Mr Failure – would read.

It’s one of those shows that’s sweet and good-natured… if not particularly hilarious. Williams supported Josie Long on tour last year, which was surely like adding sprinkles to fairy cakes, so similar are their styles, although Williams is neither as infectiously enthusiastic nor as able to coin as delightful a phrase as his British fellow traveller.

The problem is that this lo-fi genre is becoming an increasingly crowded one, and it takes more than quirky drawings and Venn diagrams to stand out. There are a few fine, if isolated, gags and the quirky historical trivia holds the attention, but the show is largely underpowered.

The concept of comparing his life to Booth’s seems formulaic, while the conclusion feels tacked on because that’s what festival shows demand, rather than an organic finale to the show. Similarly a recurring idea of Wilkes writing letters through space and time to Williams doesn’t have the legs to be funnier than a simple callback – it’s as if he knows devices like this need to be employed, but hasn’t quite figured out how to integrate them into the narrative seamlessly.

It’s probably an inevitable conclusion, but for all his modest charm Williams, the arch-underachiever, has underachieved here, too.

Review date: 31 Mar 2010
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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