REVIEW: Functional Bottom, Jessi Ryan – Melbourne International Comedy Festival

Exposing flaws and foibles has been a theme this festival. Other stand-up comics need to dig deep and craft a show around observations of political, social or moral issues. Some go with high-concept premises that allow them to spin-off in any direction.

Jessi Ryan is telling audiences about their year after emergency surgery, when they had to live with an unexpected guest star - a colostomy bag. A whole year worrying about three very specific things: the rip, the drip and the possibility of explosion.

Jessi’s style is raw and in-your-face, but don’t worry – they are considerate enough to give trigger warnings for sex, the Liberal Party, Neo-Nazis and poo. Lots of poo. And it’s not all bowel- or colostomy bag-related.

Stories of struggling to become a journalist blend in with Jessi’s years away from writing and working in hospitality, where they’d play “who’s going to gay bash us tonight” with a fellow bartender. Working at a club is not all bad – you can go have an existential cry in the cool-room and then bounce back!

Jessi’s life changed one night when their guts exploded and they ended up at Austin Hospital on their possible death-bed. After years of partying and poor-life-choices, Jessi was worried they’d made a mess of a body that had withstood everything they’d put it through so far.

Functional Bottom is a frank and honest look at a life run at full speed and then, unexpectedly, put in limbo. Jessi’s chaotic style – jumping off script, throwing in some physical comedy, and eventually finding their way back to the story – is mesmerising to watch. And the wild swings in tone and delivery are perfect for a year-in-the-life that has lots of downs and many ups, as Jessi redraws life as they know it.

Jessi is a performance- and visual-artist and this is their first stand-up show. I could tell this was Jessi’s first stab at comedy, but they are so clearly possessed by the ability to tell a story and entertain a crowd that even if a joke doesn’t land, it’s okay, because the truth of Jessi’s struggle shines through.

The specific details are what make the show (the behavioural contract, the sugar daddy, their housemate/landlord, finding the power in journalism, and on and on) and the theme of remaking and reimagining a life resonates with a lot of us post-lockdowns. Wanting a change after any major trauma in our lives makes sense.

Jessi’s honesty about their strengths and flaws ensures this autobiographical hour has real power. I laughed, I gasped and I was surprised with all the twists and turns, and how Jessi found strength while they carried their own poo around in a bag. 

Functional Bottom closed last night, but I’m sure it will return. You can't keep a good storyteller away for the microphone for too long.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First