“I try not to let it impact me,” Michelle Brasier explains. “Everyone’s got something lurking in the back of their head. Everyone always feels there’s a threat coming. But I think, if anything, it just makes me more present, and it makes me really grateful for the things that I do have…It’s a nice reminder that nothing’s guaranteed. The future is important, but so is now.”
That’s one side of dealing with a hereditary, life-shortening illness that has already prematurely claimed the lives of Brasier’s father and brother. Doctors have told her that she has a 97% of developing bowel, stomach, pancreatic, or ovarian cancer. There is little she can do but hope she catches it early.
The other side of living day in, day out with the looming threat of terminal cancer is closer to how I imagine most – myself included – would react.
“It just makes me freak out, to be honest. Every time there’s a weird lump, I’m like: Shit, this is it! All systems go. And I go to the doctor, and then I go to the specialist, and I go straight to the hospital, and there’s a whole team that I have that looks after me, but they can take it very seriously and then I get into a weird spiral.” When these “spirals” come along, it is Tim, her partner – both personal and professional – that is often the one to “shut it down” again.
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Hailing from the rural New South Wales town of Wagga Wagga, Brasier now lives and works in Melbourne – a place where, despite the health problems, her career is going from strength to strength. Having garnered a full-time lead role on TV in Australia and now able to travel and perform across the world again, Brasier is not only succeeding despite the challenges she’s faced but harnessing them professionally, spreading her remarkably sanguine outlook on life.
“I’ve always found comedy in the dark parts of life. I always liked that comedy, even as a little kid… Everything deserves to be made fun of, as equally as it deserves to be loved and validated, it deserves to be made fun of. I don’t think that those are exclusive. I think they should live together.
“So I’ve always gone to humour when something went wrong in my life, because it made me feel more comfortable with it. Then slowly, I sort of realised that it wasn’t just a defence mechanism, it was actually a really nice way of looking at the world. Being able to frame your own story is so important, because it makes you feel in control of it. Being able to put laughs in there is so nice, and it opens it up for other people who might have similar stories to find some laughs in theirs.”
As readily as Brasier talks about it now, it’s taken a long time to reach this point. Her own diagnosis followed the death of her father from pancreatic cancer in 2006 and her brother soon after. Average Bear focuses on these two losses and Brasier’s own health, but it’s not a snap reaction. It developed as Brasier herself came to terms with the hand she’s been dealt, as well as giving people around her enough time to also realise that they, too, can see the funny side.
“I took a long time to write this show. I was doing sketch comedy, comedy on TV. I had a duo called Double Denim, where we had a very silly character, kind of clown-y comedy. Slowly, I decided I wanted to do some more storytelling because that was always the shows that I loved. I was like: You know what? I’m gonna start doing a little bit of this. I have exactly the story to tell.
“I think everyone [around me] trusted that I knew how to make things funny, and no one was worried about me because I gave it time. I think if you’re going to talk about things that are difficult, you should… it shouldn’t be like a year or two. It should be a long time – enough time that you can talk with your friends. I just think you want to get to a point where you can joke about it and your friends can joke about it and not be like, I don’t know if that’s funny.”
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Brasier was able to take Average Bear – part comedy, part musical, part play – to last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where The Scotsman called it “a gracious tribute to her own resilience and humour in the face of terrible pain”, where Brasier’s “vivacious spirit shines through songs and stories of showy posing undercut with self-mocking wit.” She will be back in Edinburgh next year with a new show (Reform – more on the somehow equally as insane and unlikely path to that later on), but even the simple ability to work again is a luxury for Brasier after the lengthy Covid-19 lockdowns imposed upon Melbourne.
The pandemic and the extent of the enforced lockdowns must have taken an even greater toll on Brasier and indeed, other people in the most unenviable of positions where time is not promised. Seeing the weeks turn to months turn to years, all the while stuck inside, Brasier is open with how challenging she found it.
“We had an hour a day where we could go outside, and I spent it walking. I just walked and walked and walked and walked so far that the same cops wouldn’t find me. It was about 12 kilometres a day because I was so – I was so – depressed. I didn’t have a bathtub, so I bought the biggest plastic storage tub you can get from a hardware store and put it in my shower. I just sat in that and watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And then I would walk my 12 km.
“There was a seal that came into the Yarra River, came in from the ocean, and so everyone was on this seal hunting mission. I became the person who knew where the seal was for all my friends. So you could only see one person a day for a walk, and everyone would book me out and be like, where’s the seal going to be? It was lovely to have something to do and I had a dog and that was beautiful, this old rescue Staffy. He was the best and we walked all day, but he actually had cancer and he died the day before we came out of lockdown, which was quite mad.”
‘Mad’ seems like something of an understatement. Even then, this whole, condensed version of life in Melbourne under lockdown only briefly details the personal effect. Because, as her luck would have it, the pandemic arrived soon after Brasier got her first leading role in a steady-running TV show, and the security and opportunity that this should have brought to a famously unreliable career in comedy were suddenly brought to a grinding halt.
Brasier admits that over the ensuing months, she broadly thought that was going to be that – this cruel, divine misfortune that has seemingly plagued so much of her adult life coming back to bite just as she was beginning to reach the professional heights she’d dreamed of while watching Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival on television as a child in Wagga Wagga.
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And yet, not only has Brasier’s budding television career of her own survived, it is one particularly bizarre lockdown story that will shape where her live stand-up comedy goes after Average Bear.
“I tried to buy a pilates reformer online,” she begins. We’ve been talking for a while by this stage, and I think the peculiar anecdotes covering peaks and troughs must surely now be behind us. “I was trying to be fit even though I was just drinking wine and eating sourdough bread, like everybody in the world was, so I tried to buy a pilates reformer. And this guy sold me one, and he never sent it. Instead of reporting him for scamming me, I tried to counsel him.
“So I said: I don’t know what’s going on for you, man, but let’s figure it out. I asked for his ID or something, and he was like How do I know you’re not gonna steal my identity? Anyway, I said google me, and he googled me, and he turned out to be a fan. He was a really big Auntie Donna fan, which is a sketch group that I work with. Then we had this phone call and instead of going to the police, I became his friend and would counsel him through difficult things he was going through, you know, gambling and drug habits and stuff like that.
“But it was really interesting talking to this guy. I ended up becoming his emergency contact. It was quite insane. I know where his parents live. I know his friends and all this weird stuff…Anyway, so I made a musical out of that…I had a lot of time on my hands and I’ve always been a silver linings person.”
That show will be called Reform, and will feature Brasier’s partner Tim as the mysterious pilates reformer conman-turned friend.
“It’s a friendship love story about this guy who scammed me and about seeing the best in people even though they’re probably, mostly shit.”
Reform can be something to look forward to. For now, for one final time in the UK, there’s a week of Average Bear.
Tickets for Michelle Brasier’s Average Bear – at 9:15pm at Soho Theatre – can be found here.