Traversing multiple platforms, identities and artforms, comedy duo We Are Nemeses are, says Emilie Collyer, a glimpse of the future
I’m going to let comedy duo We Are Nemeses (Vidya Rajan and Alistair Baldwin) introduce themselves. Early on in their show Nemeses: an experimental sitcom live-stream / pandemic performance, a slide appears that says:
Once bitten by a swan
The font on the slide, by the way, is bright purple on a black screen and looks like it was dragged from an ’80s arcade game.
There is so much in this slide that speaks to Nemeses and its creators. Their comedy is about language and identity. It is absurd. It is interested in aesthetic. It’s sharp, social critique that is also almost excruciatingly self-aware.
The duo was supposed to perform a new work at Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2020. Then the festival, along with much of this year, was cancelled. Nemeses was subsequently commissioned by The Wheeler Centre as a special event which Rajan and Baldwin, with the options of a simple panel discussion or reading, opted to make as a complicated, tightly-written, hugely ambitious live-streamed “experimental sitcom live-stream / pandemic performance”.
In Nemeses we meet the characters Vidya and Alistair, a comedy duo, who are navigating the start of the pandemic and the various anxieties it is provoking. The pair makes a pact to resist the capitalist push for endless productivity. This pact lasts until Vidya posts a cheeky satirical video about being an introvert that goes viral on Twitter and Alistair, betrayed, seeks his revenge.
The show weaves fact and fiction together in a truly delicious way. In real life, the pair really did have a show cancelled and Rajan did indeed make this viral video. No doubt the pair has had discussions IRL about productivity, performance and the tensions of their individual versus their collective success.
Both Rajan and Baldwin are prolific creators in their own right, each working across multiple platforms and within multiple forms. These include live comedy, playwriting, critical culture writing and screenwriting. I’ve experienced both of their work over the last few years, notably the hit of Melbourne Fringe Festival 2019, The Lizard is Present: Gala in honour of Marina Abramolizardvic which Rajan created with Xanthea O’Connor, and a large collaborative team including Baldwin as a key artist and performer, and curator Arie Rain Glorie. It was also documented by Baldwin in contemporary art publication Un Magazine.
This is perhaps what is most exciting about the duo: they are deeply embedded in a number of artforms and they are confident and skilled enough to move fluidly between them. It’s not so unusual for performance makers to slip between theatre, live arts and even visual art. It is much more rare for comedians to have serious theatrical and critical culture chops and, if they do, for that content to be jaw-achingly funny.
Nemeses covers miles of cultural and comedic ground: professional competitiveness, identity politics, the comedy industry, online culture, cancel culture, the pandemic. It manages to do this with razor-sharp incisiveness and a lightness of touch that is constantly surprising.
The show begins with a voiceover from Alistair, who makes the observation about the duo that due to their “intersecting and excessive marginalities success surely await[s] them”. The satire is pitch perfect; people with the intersecting marginalities of Rajan and Baldwin have seen very little success in Australian comedy or more broadly in performance culture.
At the same time, the pair lampoons a current “appetite” in mainstream culture for marginalised stories. Off the back of her tweet, Vidya gets multiple approaches from agents, one of whom (played with brilliant polite savagery by Michelle Brasier) slowly brings herself to orgasm as she tries to elicit sufficient “race trauma porn” from Vidya’s life story.
The Vidya and Alistair in Nemeses, it’s worth noting, are far from admirable. Not long after the MARGINALITIES slide comes a CONTENT WARNING slide that includes the heads-up of “Too much time with 2 of the worst people you will ever meet…” Both characters are self-centred and obsessed with achieving fame. Once she knows it’s what they want, Vidya has no hesitation in making up some (admittedly flawed and slightly toothless) family trauma to woo agents. Alistair has a running dismissive callousness towards his flatmate (played with superb deadpan delivery by Kit Richards) who is caring for her possibly Covid-positive mother.
I’m not usually a fan of what I would call “mean comedy” – comedy that trades in nastiness and the worst in human nature. But there is something incredibly satisfying about Rajan and Baldwin’s writing and performance. Part of it is how comfortable they are with mining their own “marginalities” as a direct skewering of how the “non-marginalised” talk about and, talk down to, those “at the margins”.
This brings me to a broader reflection on comedy duos and where a couple like We Are Nemeses fits. The duo is also hyper-aware of this question. In a passing comment, Alistair gets in a zinger when he says he doesn’t want to “be the Lano” of the pair. This is a reference – to the much loved pair of Lano and Woodley who “retired” in 2006 after a 20 year career but who are still doing new shows – that maybe only Australian comedy audiences of a certain era will get. It can be read as a jab at Colin Lane, but equally as a homage to comedy legacy and lineage.
The sticky thing is that this “lineage” has looked pretty homogenous for a long time. Prepping for this essay I searched “Best comedy duos” and Google led me to a number of lists and articles. Screen Rant’s 15 Best Comedy Duos Of All Time (2016) names one female duo: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. The rest are all men and all white except for Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan, and Richard Pryor (paired with Gene Wilder).
Other duo-specific lists displayed a smidge more gender and race diversity including Broad City’s Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, musical duo Garfunkel and Oates and comedy superstars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.
An Australia-focussed search unearthed a dreary Wikipedia page with just 15 Australian Comedy Duos named, nearly an absolute majority of them men. Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney and Kath and Kim’s Jane Turner and Gina Riley appeared in “Images” about halfway down the page of search results.
This online search was neither scientific nor exhaustive, but I was surprised and disheartened. Of course my parameters were limited to “duos” so I was not seeing fantastic local comedy juggernauts such as the Black Comedy team and Melbourne International Comedy stalwarts like The Kranksy Sisters. But the results I did find were significantly pale, male and pretty damn stale.
I was going to say there is a “niche” here for We Are Nemeses but it’s more like a wide, gaping chasm. I am definitely not up with the most recent comedy acts making splashes across the globe, but from what I have seen, I would say there aren’t many duos who deconstruct the politics of comedy while crossing gender, race, disability identity politics and differing artforms with the sting and charisma of We Are Nemeses. They should be fielding international offers by the dozen.
The bulk of Nemeses circles around this question of professional representation, as Alistair seethes with jealousy that Vidya attracts the attention of agents in the wake of her viral video. In a fascinating “life imitating art” spin-off, in the months since Nemeses first streamed, real-life Rajan was picked up by Token Artist Management, one of Australia’s most prominent comedy management agencies.
I’m not sure whether Baldwin has representation but he did Tweet not so long ago: “is the agent of your comedy partner your agent-in-law or your step-agent? trying to lock down the nomenclature to better articulate me and vidya’s mutually beneficial parasitism.” I love the level of structural meta-analysis of the comedy industry that continues on in the wake of Nemeses.
The pair has a solid local following. Nemeses was live-streamed on YouTube and the chat was active throughout the show with audience members who clearly knew and were fans of the duo. This genuinely new addition to watching live work (being able to comment and read everyone else’s comments in real time) places the audience in what is in some ways a more “present” position than in traditional live performance venues. Knowing there is an “in crowd” to a work, and that you are somewhere close or far away from the centre, always has a complicated effect of repulsion and attraction. The tensions of this has potential for further artistic exploitation.
In Nemeses, Rajan and Baldwin played a little with the “live” element. The bulk of the show is, as the title suggests, like a televised sitcom, including some truly wacky ads. It had clearly been pre-recorded at different locations, and a lot of care had been taken – for example, the beautifully kitschy, low-fi, high tech visual aesthetic of the work, especially the wormhole world of the mysterious PIVOT platform that emerges as a key plot point, that’s designed by James Collopy.
The pair did appear on screen in real time and started interacting with the live chat towards the end of the piece. This blurring of presence, liveness, pre-recording, mixed realities and time suggests there is much more to explore in live-streaming. Rajan and Baldwin are nudging the edges of the form with Nemeses.
I can’t wait to see what We Are Nemeses does next. Pulling together a complex range of comedy tropes, social commentary, and artform manipulation to hilarious effect is no easy feat. They are doing it with aplomb and I hope it makes them seriously famous, and that their next live-stream sitcom pandemic (or non-pandemic) event is about the hyper-meta-mega-weird-reality of celebrity. What I’d give to see this duo’s take on that.
Nemeses: an experimental sitcom live-stream / pandemic performance, created and written by Vidya Rajan and Alistair Baldwin; AV design/editing: James Collopy; Sound design: Xanthea O’Connor; Performers: Vidya Rajan, Alistair Baldwin, Kit Richards, James Collopy, Scott Limbrick, Michelle Brasier, Jess Nyanda Moyle, Emma Hardy, Vidya’s mum. Live streamed by The Wheeler Centre Monday June 29. The work will be uploaded to The Wheeler Centre website in early September.