It’s been said that ‘comedy is just tragedy reversed’, but as self-confessed ‘clean comedian’ Hannah Boland tells Jen Vuk, humour has the power to heal, too.
Hannah Boland is on a roll. ‘Did you hear the one about a Christian stand-up comedian who toured Australia?’ she says, before pausing for effect. ‘Missionaries were sending her money.’
You can say that Hannah, a NSW-based comedian, published author and professional musician, is also on a mission of her own. She wants to change the way we think about comedy.
‘We are sorely in need of more genuine clean comedians in Australia, especially in a culture that is intent on pulling people down,’ she tells Warcry. ‘So I am 100% on board with getting audiences to laugh without a single swear word or crass sex joke.’
And the best way to test this theory? Launching a brand spanking new show at one of Australia’s most popular comedy festivals—the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF)—of course.
Hannah’s show The Best Medicine opens this Friday on 8 April* and it’s little wonder that just prior to coming to Melbourne, she’d been feeling just a little ‘terrified, exhausted, broke…yet somehow, incredibly excited’.
The festival’s eclectic audience is why she’s swapped ‘Christian for clean’ for her inaugural MICF performance. As she says, ‘At MICF as well as various other secular festivals, I am simply performing as a clean comedian. I am not there to preach (although that would be hilarious, because I am sure I would be a terrible preacher!).’
Born and raised in Melbourne, Hannah grew up in a Christian household, but walked away from her faith in her early teens, before reconnecting with God shortly after meeting and marrying her husband Michael.
Classifying herself as a ‘stay-at-home mum’, Hannah juggles caring for her three living children (the distinction is important—more on this later), with caring for her live-in elderly parents, one of whom has dementia, blogging (for a blog also called ‘The Best Medicine’), writing books (three to date) and coming up with new comedy material.
Not to mention having to live with a debilitating condition called fibromyalgia, which causes chronic widespread pain and heightened and painful response to pressure. Some days, says Hannah, the pain is so bad that she’s unable to hold a coffee mug.
And yet she seems to handle a microphone—and a number of instruments—just fine. It’s a mystery, even to her, but Hannah reckons that everyone has to deal with hardships and she’s lived with fibromyalgia for so long that she’s determined to control it as best she can.
‘I take pride in standing up there and doing my best,’ she says, ‘and I don’t want to make excuses.’
It’s no surprise that this can-do attitude is part of Hannah’s repertoire—she’s been primed, if not shaped, by recent events that shook her tight family unit to the core.
Back in 2011, Hannah and Michael were already parents to Allison (now eight) and Harry (seven) when baby number three was conceived.
‘About a year after my parents came to live with us we fell pregnant with baby number five (we had two miscarriages prior to this), our son Steven,’ she says, ‘and we went to the 20-week ultrasound to discover that he was perfect in every other way except he suffered from a rare brain abnormality which meant that much of his brain was missing.
‘He was born alive at 34 weeks and lived for a precious 47 hours before he was taken to heaven. (Hannah wrote a book about this called 47 Hours With a Prince.)
‘I don’t think it was any surprise to anybody that I suffered from PTSD or a deep depression and that I really struggled with my faith,’ she says. ‘So obviously that was a tremendously difficult time.’
Twelve months later, in 2013, Michael and Hannah found themselves expecting again.
‘We fell pregnant straight away with Esther and we got through the 20-week ultrasound scan and were delighted to find that everything was as it should be,’ she says, ‘and I can’t explain how devastating it was when Esther was stillborn. The umbilical cord had wrapped itself around her neck.’
Once again Hannah fell into a deep depression, but this time the resultant PTSD included acute clinical anxiety to the point where Hannah would experience seizures.
‘So the wheels really fell off after that and I lost any ground I thought I had gained back with my faith after losing Steven,’ she says.
‘Welcoming baby Isa into the world in 2015 was
So it goes without saying that Hannah was ‘really terrified’ to find out she was pregnant again.
‘I found out about a week before my final show during the last tour I did in 2014,’ she says. ‘I admit that I spent 60–70% of that pregnancy in bed and not just because of the physical sickness.’
Welcoming baby Isa into the world in 2015 was ‘beyond words’, she says, and while she ‘still struggles’ to this day, what the experience has given Hannah is an insight into mental health issues and the vital role that faith can play in recovery.
‘I’m very passionate about talking about the way mental illness can impact faith and also about having a really careful look at what actually is “cultural”, as opposed to what is “gospel”.’
And, as it turned out, Hannah was also ready for yet another ‘baby’. Her new show.
‘I tried to give myself about 12 months off, but I must say it was about eight months and then I started to make plans to come down to Melbourne for the comedy festival,’ she says. ‘Aside from writing a whole new show I also decided that I’d teach myself a new musical instrument so I probably have an undiagnosed case of ADD, as well,’ she says with a stifled laugh.
After what she and her family had been through, it seems beyond doubt that Hannah’s inaugural MICF appearance is as much about embracing life as rebuilding it.
‘I do think it’s an outlet for the brain and if you speak to creative people they’ll invariably say that if you don’t allow yourself to be creative in some format it’s almost like you’re dying inside.’
As for the question over whether a comedian can be clean and funny, Hannah says she’ll leave that to the cameraman who filmed her show in 2014.
‘He was the kind of guy who loved the pub scene and dirty humour,’ she recalls. ‘When we looked at his particular camerawork from the show it was simply awful, but I later found out it was because he was laughing so much.’
*Hannah Boland The Best Medicine, Friday and Saturday, 8–9 April, 8 pm, Gasworks Arts Park Studio, also Friday, 15 April, 8 pm,The Chapel, Melbourne City Conference Centre. Tickets $28 adults, $25 concession. Book via hannahboland.com.au.