by Laura Ferguson
The setting of the BATS theatre is classic stand-up, though there is a lack of a brick wall. A single stool and mike stand positioned centre-stage interrupts an otherwise stark stage I am delighted by this. I think this is going to be a really great show if O’Leary is confident enough in his material not to need any extraneous props. And, whoa, does O’Leary deliver!
He launches right in with brilliantly constructed thoughts on New Zealand society. Every sentence has a double meaning. Like a Pixar film, all of us are able to laugh at the surface humour, but O’Leary has hidden caches of philosophy all through his show. As a Masters degree graduate in Philosophy from Victoria University, O’Leary layers the boons of his education like a comedic parfait. A reference to Buckminster Fuller makes one line sweeter, found with a smile. Nietzsche turns them tart with a wry twist of my mouth. Socrates offers crunchy pieces that have rolled their way through millennia and even now continue to find relevance.
As a classicist, I lit up with these discoveries. As I watch O’Leary, mirroring the structure of his show, my enjoyment becomes dual-layered. Firstly, I was laughing so much and in such a showcase of variety I could have recorded my own laugh track. And, just like a sitcom, there is not a pause of more than 20 seconds or so that I am not giggling, chortling, or (apologies to my companion) guffawing. Though, I will clarify that O’Leary is much more of a Black Books type of sitcom than the drivel Chuck Lorre produces. Secondly, I get to play a game of Philosopher Jeopardy in my head: “Is that Francis Galton? Or could that have been Jeremy Bentham?”, “I know that one was Marx, but was the other Confucius?” It is so much fun.
Even if you’re not a philosophy nerd like myself, the relatable content of O’Leary’s show has his audience laughing hard. We hear critique on the justice system, and of those who want to harshen the justice system. We laugh at social stigmas, tales of giving blood and charity donations. See, O’Leary wants to be a good person and wants to show us how he is trying to achieve that goal. It is absolutely hilarious to see the way O’Leary ties himself up with arguments and counter-arguments, over-thinking issues so they rebound on themselves. Every time he states an absolute and my critical brain goes, “But-” he’s right there, taking that thought and running three steps ahead with it. It’s so clever, and astoundingly funny.
O’Leary’s humour can go to some dark places, but with his laconic delivery, he manages to steer away from being offensive. His words have purpose and resolve to anchor them. I love the reasoned, logical arguments for heavier issues he addresses, like racism and the inequalities faced by those in the LGBTQI+ community. However, O’Leary also releases his more ridiculous self, relating various mortifying mistakes he has made while trying to be a good person. As O’Leary brings us laughing to a hootingly loud climax, I think of the Alexander Pope quote: “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” And aren’t I lucky to be part of such a holy audience?
I get home and badly retell all my favourite parts of the show, yelling through the bathroom door while fixing myself for bed. I notice the strange pop I felt about halfway through O’Leary’s show was actually a ladder that had appeared in my new tights. I laughed so hard, I over-worked the elastic capabilities of nylon.
So, obviously, I loved A Pessimist’s Guide to Optimism, maybe a little too much, in fact. Though, the Grecian philosopher, Epicurus, would say that the goal in life is happiness, and the Hasyayoga practice is the philosophy that laughter leads to happiness. Therefore, I can only conclude that Ray O’Leary made me laugh, made me happy and made me look forward to his future shows. And, to be honest, I think this is the optimism O’Leary was aiming for all along.
A Pessimist’s Guide to Optimism is unfortunately sold out for its run at BATS Theatre from the 9th – 13th of May. I implore you to keep an eye out for this talent and his future shows. You can still catch him in Auckland next week and find tickets here.