Wordgasm Smackdown styles itself as the ‘Fight Club for word nerds’. Alas, it appears Brad Pitt, who may have been able to provide some respite from the evening’s high jinks in the form of brooding eye candy, was unavailable on this occasion. In keeping with the boxing theme it employs, Wordgasm Smackdown could accurately be accorded the title of the ‘bumble in the jungle’. Despite talking a good game, the poetry-slam-cum-primary-school-playground insult contest, perhaps still in its teething stages, fails to deliver on its own hype.
Kicking off at 10:55 pm on a Friday night, the audience, perhaps having enjoyed a salutary drink or three to usher in the end of the working week, is in fine voice and contributes obligingly to the atmosphere of the evening. There is some definite DIY charm to proceedings. The contest is appropriately located in the industrial concrete surrounds of the Tuxedo Cat, and a makeshift boxing ring has been constructed with the aid of the ever-versatile milk crate and rope. Wordgasm Smackdown is curated and directed by Poet Laureate Telia Nevile, who is slick in her role as the amiable announcer; she hovers ringside, hypes up the crowd and signals the end of each round with a throaty roar.
Wordgasm Smackdown is a format that, in theory, has some potential. Devised as a series of ‘word battles’, the contest is split into two rounds. The first round consists of single words, usually uttered with gesticulation or wry understatement, in hopes of garnering the approval of the crowd. The second round is the domain of the ‘long-form insult’, in which contestants attempt to deride their opponent in the most creative, witty or downright bizarre way. The audience’s applause is then measured to determine the victor.
Wordgasm Smackdown cajoles a revolving lineup of ‘fighters’ each week, bestowing an amusing epithet (‘Mauler’, ‘Sucker-Punch’, ‘Total-knock-out’) upon each. Prepare to feel transported back to your Year 9 camp talent show, where a captive audience must bear witness to insecure drama students’ ill-fated attempts at humour and improv. At its most successful, the humour is derived from excellent delivery of imaginative non-sequiturs and glib charm. At its worst, it’s bewildering and unfunny.
Although generally conducted in jovial spirits, the second battle this evening ends on less-than-friendly terms: one contestant is accused of misogyny while another is offered advice on their mental health. “I thought I’d stop it before someone cried,” says Nevile, intervening as everyone shifts uncomfortably on their milk crates. Things recover, and the best insult of the night goes to “You are a night out in Canberra!”. Mocking our nation’s capital is practically a national sport at this point, and jokes at its expense should never fail to elicit uproarious laughter from a parochial Melbourne crowd.
Points for effort are awarded, but ultimately, Wordgasm Smackdown fails to live up to the bluster of its brief. If you’re searching for entertainment late on a Friday night, Wordgasm Smackdown is a cheap and cheerful option (‘free’ being a key word to bear in mind). Though perhaps a case could be mounted for staying home with wine and Bill Hicks DVDs instead.
Wordgasm Smackdown is playing 20 and 27 September and 4 October at the Melbourne Fringe Festival.