Comedians Frankie McNair and Emma Holland play a mother and daughter in the unruly comedy showcase, Emma’s Debutante.
If you’re of a similar vintage to myself, it’s possible that scenes from US teen drama The O.C. are forever etched in your memory. The series’ fourth episode, ‘The Debut’, revolves around the Newport Beach debutante ball, described in the DVD notes as an occasion for Newport’s “finest young ladies” to “enter society”.
As you can tell from the premise, the debutante ball is a horribly archaic construction. Canberra-raised, Melbourne-based comedians Emma Holland and Frankie McNair were never required to submit to such a ritual, but that didn’t stop them creating an entire comedy show based on what they think might happen.
“My mum definitely had one and I’ve been wearing her actual deb dress during the shows,” says Holland. “But I’ve never been to one, we’ve never seen one, so we just kind of guess.”
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Running for six nights during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Emma’s Debutante is set at the deb ball of 16-year-old Emma (played by Holland). Her mum, Michelle (played by McNair), is a former cabaret artist who, while supportive of her daughter, would prefer to have the spotlight on her.
“Michelle wants Emma to shine, but she still wants to be the star of the show,” says McNair.
“There’s also a fair bit of competition there,” says Holland. “Any time I appear to be slightly hotter, Michelle takes that as a loss.”
Emma’s Debutante isn’t a work of narrative theatre. Each night, a range of guest comedians join Holland and McNair onstage, playing characters, performing sketches or stand up and contributing to the show’s overall sense of chaos.
“We’ve decided a debutante ball is basically an episode of MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 where we bring on people to make speeches about me,” Holland says. “I think a debutante’s usually a lot of people at once, but this is just specifically me.”
Holland and McNair started performing stand up comedy around the same time while both still living in Canberra. The idea for Emma’s Debutante came up three years ago, but they knew they’d need to build a bigger network in order to properly execute it.
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“Post-COVID was the perfect time to do it,” says Holland. “We were pretty confident because we knew a lot more alternative comics who were looking for that space and would be keen to enter a show like that.”
“Also, post-COVID, comics just want to have fun,” says McNair. “Before, everyone was writing solo shows for the festival and grinding really hard. Now people just want to have fun onstage again.”
Each night, Emma’s Debutante features four or five different guest comedians. So how does it flow – is it improv, sketch comedy or something in between?
“Frankie and I have put an embarrassing amount of work into it,” says Holland. “Everything we do is very rehearsed and pre-planned. We make sure our bits line up and drive some kind of very loose narrative.”
As for the guests, they’ve got permission to do anything they want. “Everyone so far has had something prepared to an extent,” says McNair. “It’s a space to try new stuff or just really fuck around and do whatever makes them the happiest.”
Previous shows in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne have included the likes of Ben Russell, Cameron James, Danielle Walker and Randy Feltface. But despite the pedigree of these acts, Holland and McNair see it as their responsibility to guarantee the show is funny.
“We want to make sure that the in-between bits are as funny as they can possibly be,” says Holland. “I’m not a good improviser, so there’s a lot of pre-planning on our part. But the acts, we give them free reign.”
Improv mightn’t be the pair’s strong suit, but Holland and McNair have no trouble bouncing off of one another. In fact, the relationship between Emma and Michelle is loosely based on Holland and McNair’s real life mother-daughter dynamic.
“Well, Frankie’s always been the hot one,” laughs Holland. “I think it was fun to play into that a bit more. It’s definitely also come about from Frankie having more social confidence than I do. Like, if I get an order wrong at a café, she’ll take it back and that feels like a real mum move.”
“I naturally have quite big mum energy,” says McNair. “I think it’s the wide hips.”
“And I think I’m just a ratbag on a general daily basis,” says Holland. “So it worked out well.”
Emma’s Debutante goes down for Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2021 from Thursday April 8 to Saturday April 10, and Thursday April 15 to Saturday April 17. Grab tix here.