A journey into musical comedy
Written by Suzana Trajanovska, with Benjamin Stevenson and published in the AMBA Magazine
For identical twin brothers Benjamin and James Stevenson, life has been a barrel of laughs. They have marketed their whole career around the fact they are identical twin brothers. We spoke with James, on behalf of the pair, about their journey into musical comedy.
Graduating from university with arts and engineering degrees, both knew that they wanted to pursue their passion in creative arts and fulfil their childhood dream of becoming comedians. “I remember Beej and I used to glue ourselves to the television when the Melbourne International Comedy Festival gala was on. We loved everything about it. Even now, every year when it comes on I glue myself to it.”
Combining to form the musical comedy duo The Stevenson Experience, these 28-year-old brothers have performed at comedy festivals around Australia and in 2017 made their debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Growing up in Canberra, Benjamin and James kicked off their comedy career when they were in high school − winning the state finals of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s Class Clown competition. As state finalists, they were provided the opportunity to perform at the National Grand Final in Melbourne. It was during this trip to Melbourne that they went and saw several comedy acts, including Tripod. “We had all of Tripod’s DVDs and had watched them to the bone. But seeing them live really cemented our passion in comedy and including music into our act.”
As one of their key influences, it’s not surprising The Stevenson Experience were a little nervous when they supported Tripod. “That was one of our first major supports. We were really nervous because they’re music and we’re music, and [we] felt the pressure. We did our stuff and hoped it was okay and then we watched them do such an amazing show. Afterwards they were really nice and complimenting. It was a great experience.” Since then The Stevenson Experience have performed with Amy Schumer, The Doug Anthony All Stars, Jimeoin, Sammy J, Matt Okine, Charlie Pickering, Bo Burnham, Wil Anderson, Dave Hughes, Fiona O’Loughlin and many more, and have also appeared on Channel 10, ABC Television, The Comedy Channel and radio.
Benjamin on keyboards and James on guitar. Photo Credit Carrie Hardie, A List Entertainment.
And if that isn’t enough, Benjamin and James are also founders and associate directors of the Canberra Comedy Festival. Travelling to Melbourne and Sydney regularly to perform at these festivals, they saw a gap in the market. “There wasn’t one [comedy festival] in Canberra. So Beej and I and a group formed the festival together. Now there’s five directors and it’s going well.” That was back in 2013, and 2017 was the Canberra Comedy Festival’s biggest year.
Despite being in the same profession and living together in Sydney, Benjamin and James do have differences that make them unique. According to James, Benjamin is much more reserved than he is, and likes to plan things to ensure that they go smoothly. And he’s a little quieter than James. Whereas James is a bit more social and active, and likes to strut some moves when on stage. Although identical, there are subtle differences in their appearance too. “The differences to me are huge. Obviously, I think they’re huge, because I’m so used to them. I’m a bit taller. I have a scar on my forehead and slightly broader shoulders. And our voices are slightly different.” To their friends, they describe themselves as the thinner or fatter one, “but that doesn’t always work, as in six months it could change the other way”, he laughs.
Growing up in a suburb of Canberra meant that Benjamin and James went to the same school and kept similar friends. Throughout primary and high school, they were in separate classes, however found that they were interested in similar subjects, such as drama and maths. “Being in separate classes, which I personally believe was a good thing, didn’t really matter much to us. We would make friends in our own class and those friends would come to our house and we would both end up becoming friends with them. Also, Beej and I enjoyed similar classes and developed the same interests, so at times would end up in the same class.”
Attending the same university, both were keen on the creative arts and completed the same degree, but in slightly different areas. James pursued subjects such as filmmaking and Spanish, whereas Benjamin subjects in writing. “Now I work more in production and Benjamin also works in publishing.“
While on stage they may argue a lot, however off-stage they are the best of mates. “We’ve always been close. But now we work together and live together and hang out together. And that’s quite unique given that we spend a lot of time with each other. So, we’re probably a bit more casual about how we deal with things.”
Just like any siblings, when off-stage there are times when they do argue. “We argue a lot when we’re writing shows. We can spend an entire day arguing over one word in one line, but that’s because we’re striving for perfection.” Regardless of the minor tiffs, when it comes to The Stevenson Experience everything is equal. “A lot of the time, one of us will write a pitch or an idea for a song or a melody for a song, and then we’ll both write the whole thing together. We’ll change it, tweak it, critique it.” And writing is a very communal process between the two. “It has to be, as you need to make the other person laugh. The other person has to like what you’ve written, otherwise they’re not going to believe in it when they perform it.”
And how they decide who delivers the punchline depends on the flow of the show and the character they are playing. “We provide a lot of equality in sharing the glory. A lot of the way that we work is like a return serve. If it feels out of place for someone to say something, then the other person says it. If one person is better at it than the other, then they should say it. If one person has had two punchlines in a row, then you hand it off to the other person where it makes sense. It all becomes very natural.”
So, when asked − out of the two, which one is the funniest? “Me! Definitely, hands down. But if you were to ask Benjamin the same question, he would say he is!”