Josh Ladgrove has been performing as Neal Portenza at the Adelaide Fringe since 2011. I first met him a bit later than that, though, in 2013, when I saw him perform a skit at the late-night variety show the Tuxedo Cat used to host. He spied my media pass and, ever the self-publicist, approached me after the show, and we've known each other since.
I caught his main show twice, that year, and have visited his shows each year since. And part of the reason I always catch up with him is because even when Josh is struggling to find his feet, he's still often doing something different or interesting with his material. But also because he has a knack, as a performer, for fostering a sense of community in the audience – for inviting people in to the show, who often end up coming back for more.
I got a chance to speak with Josh while he was here for the Festival, where I recorded a chat I had with him I had on the banks of the Torrens. We spoke the day after Alexis Dubus published his Facebook missive regarding the Adelaide Fringe and now, hilariously late – I blame the two new jobs I started – I am posting the transcript of that interview. If you're in Melbourne, you still have a few more days to catch his latest show.
So tell us, how was Perth?
Josh Ladgrove: Perth was, in a word, great. The bubble has burst for sure in Perth Fringe in that a lot of artists, after successive years of going there and selling everything out, and having a great time and cultivating an audience, a lot of people would go back to the East Coast and say, “Perth is a gold mine. They’re cashed up, they’re starved of art, and once a year there’s this great festival and everyone gets on board.”
JL: And so Perth was this wonderland, this utopia, and it was like an ATM, you’d go and you’d make your six or seven grand, thank you very much. And I suspect the Fringe will retract next year and I think that people will have gone back and said, “Aw, I definitely didn’t sell out every night, it’s not as good as I was expecting.” And I’m hoping that that will actually scale it back. Because the biggest issue with Adelaide Fringe is it’s too big, there’s too many thing happening simultaneously. From the punter’s perspective, you only have so much disposable income, so therefore why would you take a gamble on six shows you’ve never heard of?
JL: You wouldn’t. You wouldn’t go spend a hundred and fifty bucks on those shows, you would go and see something in the Garden [of Unearthly Delights] knowing I would see at worst a three star show. I think, here, I don’t necessarily know that the Fringe has as much pull as perhaps the Adelaide Fringe organisers suspect it does. And certainly the conversations I’ve had this year, and they’ve been spontaneous, it’s been people saying, “I’m having a rough time.”
It’s all good and well for the [Adelaide] Fringe organisers to say the Fringe is growing every year, but what does that mean?
JL: I remember last year sitting behind a guy in the Garden, and he was on his phone, and I overheard him, and he said, “I’m at the Fringe, having a beer.” And I was like, “Aw, that’s interesting, you’re just sitting in the Garden.” So I spoke to him and I said, “Hey man, you having a good night? What shows have you seen?” And he was like, “Nah, I haven’t seen anything.” So I was like, “Aw, cool, are you going to see anything?” And he said, “Ah, probably not.” But he’d said to his friend, “I’m at the Fringe.”
JL: So what has inadvertently happened is that the Garden has become this behemoth, because it’s where all the money is, and it’s corporate and well run and well organised, and this is not a slight on them because like I say, I get it, that’s how every venue should be run. But the reality is every venue doesn’t have that advertising budget, every venue can’t get someone from tele, and so how can the other venues compete? They can’t, they just can’t compete, so there’s this enormous disconnect. And it’s all good and well for the Fringe organisers to say the Fringe is growing every year, but what does that mean? Is it growing in the sense that the American domestic economy is growing but the 1% are getting richer?
JL: And, look, ultimately the onus is on each and every performer to have a show that people want to see. I get that. I’ve been the beneficiary of having such a show. Just being funny is not enough, it’s gotta be, “Oh my God, you need to come and see this idiot do this stupid shit.” And that might not happen in Adelaide, and I’m okay with that.
You’ve been coming to Adelaide Fringe since 2011. How have you changed over that time and how has Neal changed over that time?
JL: I think I’m a bit more calm and I think that was a function of having quite a turbulent year last year, so I probably changed the most in the last twelve months, actually. I’m a little more pragmatic perhaps in my approach to how I do things, I’m a little bit more realistic in my approach to how I do things. So from that "Josh" perspective, I know that I’m coming into battle with a show, and that it will be tough, and that there will be good days and bad days, and that I have to respect the fact that the Fringe is a marathon and not a sprint. I have that understanding.
JL: How Neal has changed? I think he’s less annoying than he used to be? In my first year I was flyering seven hours a day just to get an audience of three people. So Neal has changed so much, every thing in the first few years centered very heavily around the concept and the idea. “Here is my silly idea, here are my silly props.” Whereas now I think there’s a clearer sense of what a Neal show is: and that it’s interactive, it’s chaotic, it could all fall apart at any minute, and it’s fun.
One thing you’ve talked around is about having to cut things back because you were recently diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. Can you talk us through the process of finding that out and how you’ve adjusted to it?
It’s pretty fucked to say this, but if I had been diagnosed with cancer, I probably would have been a bit more relieved.
JL: Yeah, I was in LA with Dr. Brown [Phil Burgers] working on his show, and I just stopped sleeping, basically. So I had quite a bad-timed insomnia and then my body clock just couldn’t adjust to being in a different timezone, and it was very hot every night. And then I went to Edinburough and I was even more tired, but just pushed through it, and then at the end of Edinburough was just sleeping and waking up and just totally exhausted. So I sort of suspected in September that I might have chronic fatigue but knowing that there’s no cure for it, and that it’s just a thing you have to live with, for a year or two years or six months, or potentially permanently, I was hoping I’d have something else.
JL: It’s pretty fucked to say this, but if I had been diagnosed with cancer, I probably would have been a bit more relieved. And that’s a horrible, horrible thing to say, and I genuinely do not say that lightly, but it would have been something to latch onto. And I would have gone in to the chemotherapy and everything saying, “Let’s blast me. Hit me with the hardest shit you’ve got, and I’ll deal with it.” I’ll deal with vomiting, I’ll deal with pain.
JL: And chronic fatigue is insidious because it’s not really a diagnosis, it’s just a lack of having anything else clinically, diagnostically wrong with you. So as I was going through all the blood tests, and having a GP who I’m pretty sure didn’t believe me. And then I went to a physician, and the physician sent me for all the blood tests and was checking for connective tissue disease and all these other things, fibromyalgia, and it all came back negative.
And so, when there’s nothing left to diagnose you with, you’ve got chronic fatigue.
JL: And I knew when I was getting the blood tests, it was like, “Nup, there’s nothing wrong with me.” At the blood tests, where they check you on the spot, they said, “You are very healthy. Like, everything: your cholesterol, your blood pressure, your magnesium, your iron” – and I’d just gone vegetarian a few months before so I thought maybe not getting enough iron was the cause so I started eating beef again. And they were like no, everything is bang on. And so, when there’s nothing left to diagnose you with, you’ve got chronic fatigue, but the trouble is my chronic fatigue, and Sarah Smith’s chronic fatigue, might be two totally different things but present with the same symptoms. And the mechanism for it isn’t known or understood that well. They think now it’s a similar mechanism as depression, and that it just manifests in a different way. So I’m on anti-depressants to create more dopamine – I don’t know if that’s working so well. It’s helping a bit. And I’ve started taking some very strong probiotics, which I think has actually helped more. Because I’ve been reading this very new research that suggests particularly in males it could be an overgrowth of yeast in your stomach which can happen as a result of trauma, and that you stomach acts as a second brain. It’s fascinating stuff.
JL: So, I got proscribed with that, and things have been a struggle. There’s just a lack of sympathy, because I cut my hair and I shaved, and everyone is saying at the moment, “Oh, you look so healthy and good!” And I’m like, “I’m not.” And there’s no scars, so people’s sympathy is almost non-existent. And that makes it tough because they either just think you’re being lazy or apathetic and it’s the worst thing.
JL: And when you don’t have energy, you can’t be nice. You don’t have energy to be nice. So you’re short with people, you’re grumpy, you’re tired, but then you can’t sleep and it’s just this insidious pattern of insomnia and then the fatigue, and the fatigue and then the insomnia. It’s pretty awful, so I’ve just made this commitment to myself that if I’m tired, just accept it for what it is. I’m on the anti-depressants, which actually have the unintended consequence of making me less grumpy when I’m tired, and that alone is worth it. I don’t know that they’re helping with the fatigue that much, or as much as perhaps physicians think, but the fact that my attitude is just slightly – not heaps – it’s not like Prozac it’s just a little anti-anxiety anti-depressant, and I think it’s giving me just that extra, just that self-determination to go, “Come on”, or to say, "You know what, I’m exhausted, this is a medical condition, chill the fuck out and just lie down." And I never used to give myself permission to do that, I’d push through everything, and I think that’s why my body has rebelled.
And this is something you’ve channelled for this recent track you’ve released.
JL: Yeah, music and comedy are my two passions and I’ve ignored music for ten years. I recorded some music ten years ago and I found the CD of it and it’s so hilariously bad. It’s so funny. But, hey, you gotta try. Actually, I recorded it with the drummer of the Melrose Place theme song [laughs]. He was an interesting guy. [Putting on a voice] Eric G, this cool guy.
But just it’s so bad. And this song, maybe this song is as bad, I don’t know. But it’s very like dark country Beatles, someone said, and I like that description. And I thought, well, what would I write about? Maybe chronic fatigue.
In that song – you’ve been playing the red clown for a long time, as Neal Portenza, but also the white clown through Gary Portenza–
JL: Yeah, I’m not super into clowning. I know a little about that stuff, I’ve done clown school for a month and it was cool and interesting, but I’m not as much that traditional clown as people expect.
No, not traditional. But you’ve got these lyrics where you’re like referring to the “funny man”. Lyrics like, “Funny man wants to do a trick up there, funny man wants every body to stare, pay him twenty bucks and we’ll call it square, doesn’t matter if it’s right or if it’s fair…” Is that a bit of a comment on Neal as the person who stands up and makes everyone laugh?
JL: Yeah… I think it’s more an indictment on myself, actually. That little paragraph in that song is probably the most pressing or poignant thing…
It seems like the most jaded thing you said in that song…
JL: It’s interesting that you read it like that. It’s not as jaded as that. The most jaded line is, “Yes we’ve met before, on one occasion maybe even more.” Where I think I’ve met people five times and they’re like, “Hi, I’m such-and-such.” And I’m like, man, we’ve spent an hour at a bar together. This is crazy. How can you not remember? And it’s not ego it’s just, fuck this life.
But that previous line is more the fact that you’re putting yourself on sale. It’s such a weird phenomenon and that perhaps over the past few years I haven’t been a very good friend to my friends. I haven’t fostered and cultivated my friendships and treated them with enough care as I perhaps should have. I think a few years ago I said I’d rather have fans than friends…
What context was that? That you said that in?
JL: I was in a weird mood and I was talking to this girl. And I was thinking if I had this choice of not having friends but having a sold out audience every night I think I’d prefer that.
Did you think that was a dickish thing to say as you were saying it, or...?
JL: Yeah… I think I meant it at the time. Maybe still I feel that a bit. I love my friends, I have some amazing friends, and I’m very very lucky that the friends I have, and particularly a few really close friends, who after all the turmoil of last year were there to support me when perhaps I didn’t deserve to be supported, ultimately. And so those lyrics are, perhaps I just need to do a better job of making sure my friends know that I love them and that there’s more to life than selling out shows, even though that’s what I want to achieve. And so, that’s all it is. It’s not jaded – that whole perspective is reflecting on myself and not reflecting on the situation that is comedy.
[But the song is] a reflection of everything. The stuff that makes me different levels of tired. I’m tired of meeting the same person eight times, I’m tired of the game of comedy, I’m tired of coming here.
JL: But it’s that thing of, you can put yourself on stage in front of people, and Neal is not a mask for me. Neal is more real to me than I am. And I’ve got to the point where I’m like, I don't need Neal, but I enjoy it so much, and it feels so true comedically, for what I want to say, that I feel, Look at me, I’m half a man and half a boy. That’s all Neal is; the voice and the makeup and the costume is a means to an end. I don’t need it, but I love it. [But the song is] a reflection of everything. The stuff that makes me different levels of tired. I’m tired of meeting the same person eight times, I’m tired of the game of comedy, I’m tired of coming here. But I’m still doing it. And why? I don’t know. I think because it is what I want to be doing. And if I was working in an office in a job I didn’t care about, what sort of life is that?
Neal Portenza is a studiously unpretentious character. But despite that, what do you hope people get out of seeing him perform?
JL: The biggest laughs they’ve ever had in a live setting. That’s it.
JL: That’s it. And I’ve yet to achieve that. It’s still on my to-do list. It’s the truth.
Well, if you’ve yet to achieve it, what are they currently getting out of it?
JL: Last year in the Melbourne comedy festival there were ten nights in a row where I was feeling like, “Woah, something is happening.” And I knew the show wasn’t perfect, buh there was this big thirty minute chunk where it got – this is it. This is the belly-laugh moments, just where it’s this rolling laughter that builds upon itself. And for Neal the challenge is to have that heaving, physical laughter of, "I can’t breathe." And now what they’re getting is some smatterings of that, but in Adelaide, because it’s a developmental show, they’re getting like… it’s very sinusoidal . “Haha!” wade through some shit - "haha!" - wade through some shit. But hopefully to get out the other side with something worthwhile.
Let’s just watch a 30-year-old grown man behave like a six-year-old.
JL: Because Neal is an idiot. That’s all it is. I’m not being political, I’m not being satirical, I’m not being clever. Maybe I am? It’s clever in its stupidity. It’s important for me to find… I call it next level. It’s that next-level laughter where you don’t have to think. I’ve done the thinking, you just have to laugh. Let’s just watch a 30-year-old grown man behave like a six-year-old.