Aunty Donna’s Coffee Cafe review – sketch comedy trio scramble for laughs in new show

Aunty Donna Merch

Australian comedy troupe Aunty Donna’s previous series, Big Ol’ House of Fun, was set in a shared house – providing an easy means to launch various random encounters. These could come from strangers knocking on the door, for instance, or the antics of the housemates themselves – played by Mark Samual Bonanno, Broden Kelly and Zachary Ruane.

The group’s new showcase of dippy absurdist humour, which premieres on Wednesday, almost literalises that revolving door of comedic potential. It’s based in a newly opened Melbourne cafe, where three owners (again Mark, Broden and Zachary) endeavour to find a marketable point of difference to distinguish their business from all the others.

A video played early in the first episode of Aunty Donna’s Coffee Cafe reveals what other trendy cafes are doing – from selling vinyl to stocking more than 100 types of cereal. One serves popcorn and plays a movie in front of the customer (the joke is that this is a cinema), while another “gives you free books for a bit” (a library). The bumbling entrepreneurs experiment with adding axe-throwing to their menu, which customers don’t warm to; ditto for their Karen’s inspired crack at dishing out abuse. The show begins with 16-year-old employee Stephanie (Gaby Seow) arriving for her first day, the camera at one early point morphing into a first-person perspective to show the wacky trio pelting her (and us) with wild banter and nonsensical jokes.

By the end of the first episode (this review encompasses the first four), that storyline about searching for a novelty has been more or less resolved – and in subsequent episodes is more or less abandoned. The venue offers some locational consistency and some sitcom-like elements, but this is in essence a sketch show – thus inherently random and unpredictable, infused with Aunty Donna’s habit of shifting realities and engaging in postmodern conversations.

When Zachary says “there’s no need to reinvent the wheel” while the group are brainstorming, for instance, director Max Miller cuts to a caricature of an inventor, triggering Broden to comment: “ah yes, heightened characters”. Mark adds: “it’s a great tone for the show.”

The troupe’s best work tends to combine energetic human performance with reality-disrupting visual contrivances. I love, for example, a small bit in Big Ol’ House of Fun, set in a printing shop, when a thought bubble appears above Zachary’s head. Instead of existing purely for the audience, visualising a character’s mental process, Mark and Broden are horrified to see it appearing before them too – freaking out about “the fuckin’ thing on your face!”

The new series is quite good but doesn’t have nearly as many funny bits as its Netflix predecessor – a far better encapsulation of Aunty Donna’s talents. The second episode of Coffee Cafe (penned by the trio, along with head writer Sam Lingham) features an investigation, and subsequent kangaroo court case, into the theft of blueberries from muffins, this terrible crime being committed by the appropriately named “The Blueberry Thief” (a character dressed in cartoonish Beagle Boys-like stripes). This sketch – which includes Richard Roxburgh cameoing as Rake – is kind of amusing but feels like B-side material. By the third episode the show feels like it’s scrambling.

All comedy is difficult but sketch comedy is hellaciously tough. It’s very hard to innovate or be original, one rare recent exception being ABC’s Black Comedy series, which enabled First Nations writers to unearth new kinds of cultural comedy – from the dawning of a lewd catchphrase (“what’s this then, slut?”) to an oppressive, abusive GPS. My favourite sketch comedy series from recent years is the preternaturally funny I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, which often latches on to an inconsequential suggestion or situation and won’t stop running with it, taking a bitty idea – from opening a door to a person jealous of a friend’s meal – to the edge of oblivion.

With an eclecticism that feels almost vaudevillian, Aunty Donna’s rambunctious style is hard to pin down. In fact much joy comes from their zaniness and unpredictability. Unlike the butter-fingered baristas in their new show, the troupe have certainly established a marketable point of difference – and even when they’re not brilliant, their shtick still feels fresh.

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