It’s well known that Aussie standup Alice Fraser is one of the smartest comedians in the business. Her previous shows have been acclaimed as much for a sinewy perceptiveness about the world as for their laughs. In her new show Ethos she takes this approach to stratospheric levels, attempting to distil her thoughts on life, the universe and everything into a single hour.
Like her friend and compatriot Laura Davis‘ Ghost Machine which covers similar thematic ground, Fraser’s show is crafted with fierce intelligence and a magpie curiosity in human nature and the forces that not only keep us functioning on a base level, but separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Her sounding board is an AI named Ethos, to whom she tries to explain ideas like love, sex, race, existence and why placing googly eyes on any object makes it instantly funnier. Ethos mostly plays straight-man, asking questions with a childlike innocence that ties Fraser in ever-tightening knots as she battles to educate her new sidekick in the ways of humanity. It’s unashamedly cerebral and massively ambitious, yet its primary focus is still to entertain.
It does help that Fraser is a fantastically warm stage presence who makes the audience feel like they’re part of an inclusive discussion rather than being lectured to. She takes pains to be as accessible as possible. In among the dizzying torrent of ideas and concepts, there’s always a cheeky, mischievous love of a dodgy pun, a labyrinthine and puerile simile, and a daft parody sing-a-long about the #MeToo movement. She acknowledges shenanigans like parody tunes are usually considered anathema to great comedy, but they provide welcome moments of downtime, and she’s always been great at this kind of silliness. It’s what makes her such a perfect foil for Andy Zaltzman on the Bugle podcast.
It’s true that in taking on a subject that’s fascinated the greatest minds in history for millennia, there’s a slight get-out-of-jail-free card if Fraser doesn’t quite stick the landing. But Ethos is an ode to human endeavour; the journey rather than the destination, and the fact that she has self-admittedly overreached means you would have to be a stickler for perfection to be overly critical. Should a comedy show be so densely packed and occasionally opaque that repeat visits are almost mandatory to get the full measure of it? Is this art-house standup? Ultimately, the conclusion that we’re built to fail may feel a little pat given the multitudes this hour has contained, and there is still the occasional slight technical glitch and a little polish to be applied, but make that return trip later in the run, and Ethos should be wonderful.