James Pender is searching for meaning. His search takes us into the depths of human depravity, from the technology age’s proliferation of dick pics to Viking rape and plunder, racist train commuters and stadiums of ‘Strayans pressuring girls to ‘get their tits out for the boys’ (which I was honestly not sure that he was really critiquing.) As his show description states, Pender has spent the better part of the last decade lawyering for war criminals in the Hague, and so ‘it’s been a while’ since he has performed comedy. Unfortunately for Pender, it shows. The audience were not unforgiving; there were smiles and a few chuckles throughout – we all wanted Pender to succeed. He was full of energy and enthusiasm, and didn’t let the (not-so) odd silent punchline interrupt his flow. But wanting someone to succeed because they seem like a totally nice person is not same as enjoying a $30 comedy ‘hour’ (which actually only ran for forty minutes), and so by the end I was left more with a sense of that fabulous German sentiment: Fremdscham
There isn’t a strong sense of cohesion or unity to the show, despite his broadly thematic ‘search’ amongst the depths of human depravity for some glimmer of meaning. Instead, Pender leaps from subject to subject with sometimes confusing or weird and frustrated segues. The few golden moments come in those jokes that touch something personal, when Pender engages in the human depravity of his own experience, rather than general and overdone observations such as incest or Tinder. There is a wealth of potential in the stories of his time in The Hague working on the case of war criminal and former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, a man who, Pender pointedly revealed, won his campaign with the slogan: ‘he killed my ma, he killed my pa, I’ll vote for him.’ Seriously, what? But Pender fails to deliver the necessary subtlety and finesse that would allow such a statement to work comically in the context of the rest of his show. His pre-law experience on the Ronnie John’s Half Hour as loin-clothed, thrush-treatment spokesman Jesus Christ is another anecdote with a lot of potential. But the accompanying insight about his minster father fails to enhance, lampoon, nor even connect the two experiences in a way that builds the joke as a coherent whole. Where this joke does succeed is when Pender reveals, almost as an aside, that a show featuring Jesus Christ as a thrush expert was ‘nominated for a logie!’ But perhaps this reveals the problems inherent in Pender’s delivery. He seems too caught up in reaching a ‘punchline’ rather than letting the subtle elements of his observations come together organically to reach some sort of rollicking climax. This too affected the ending, which arrived surprisingly after what I expect was supposed to be a comically poignant anecdote about a meaningful metro card encounter with a stranger. I’d like to think that there is potential in Pender’s material that is yet to be realised, and perhaps after this ‘let’s get started’ period he’ll find his feet again.
This review originally appeared in Dirt & Candy