Thrown a laugh-line

The 2012 Melbourne International Comedy Festival was the biggest yet. More than 600,000 people attended shows during the three-week event in March and April, and the box office took more than $12 million.

But as audience members packed out venues and enjoyed the big name acts, a real-life drama was unfolding behind the scenes. Unbeknown to most outside the festival’s inner sanctum, veteran technical producer Adrian Cherubin, who has worked with the festival for more than 20 years, suffered a stroke and was rushed to the Alfred Hospital.

As word spread among the staff and performers, the sense of shock grew. Almost immediately, plans began to take shape for a fund-raising event. Many of the biggest names in Australian comedy put their hands up to help in any way possible.

Yo, Adrian!, which will take place at the Regent Theatre on Wednesday, will feature Dave Hughes, Charlie Pickering, Wil Anderson, Denise Scott and Judith Lucy, among others. Money raised will go towards Cherubin’s ongoing care and rehabilitation – he has since moved from the Alfred to Caulfield Hospital, where his family is encouraged by his progress – and the event will also raise awareness of the Alfred Hospital’s annual Father’s Day Appeal.

“You wouldn’t have heard of Adrian, but he’s one of those superstars of production that makes our theatres look so good during the festival,” says Comedy Festival general manager Virginia Lovett. “The comedy community and the sense of benevolence and humanity is quite overwhelming,” she says.

“I’ve worked in the arts world for 20 years and I’ve never seen a benefit show come together as quickly as this.”

Speak to anybody involved with the festival and it becomes clear just how popular Cherubin, 52, is. The Project regular and festival veteran Kitty Flanagan regards him as an instrumental part of her touring success, and says he is “the reason the festival looks and feels like a world-class event.”

Among many roles at the festival, he has worked on the staging and set design for televised events like The Gala, The Great Debate and the RAW Comedy National Grand Final. Outside the festival, Cherubin has served as tour manager and set designer for Flanagan and Carl Barron.

“The man is a genius,’’ says Flanagan. ‘‘Lots of people can create a nice set but Adrian can create a brilliant set that also fits in a suitcase.

“He always has good advice and clever ideas, and he’s always up for a nice glass of red at the end of a show.”

Cherubin’s sister, Lisa, has spent countless hours by her brother’s bedside in the past five months, and says the family is only now realising how loved he is in the comedy world.

“We knew Adrian toured with some well-known comedians but he was never one to name drop or big note,” she says. “So to be receiving cards and emails from so many people in the comedy world has been extraordinary. Some have written and spoken of their gratitude to Adrian for the great work he’s done and others of how he has nurtured them in their careers.”

As Lovett points out, Cherubin’s long stint with the festival means he has seen comedians such as Hughes and Anderson progress from playing tiny rooms to headlining in 2000-seat theatres.

“For these comedians, he’s been that helping hand there for their entire careers,’’ says Lovett. ‘‘He’s got a great reputation for being generous with his knowledge when emerging artists are setting out and that’s why so many comedians want to help out now.”

Stand-up comic Justin Hamilton echoes the sentiment, saying Cherubin (“or Pops, as he is affectionately known”) has shown him nothing but kindness, “whether I was just starting out or an established part of the comedy community, like I am now. Seeing Pops and having a yarn between shows was one of the little things you looked forward to each festival.”

Hamilton says Cherubin is important to the comedy scene because “you have a lot of egos vying for attention”. 

“If it wasn’t for people like Adrian, there would be no platform for all of us to show our talent, to get further in the industry or to make something exciting happen in our lives.”

The Australian comedy community has always rallied around its own. In 2009, big names came together to raise money for Melbourne comedian Dave Grant, who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After Grant’s death the following year, a second event featuring the likes of Rove McManus and Jimeoin financially supported his family. 

Years earlier, Lynda Gibson was the focus of a benefit show before the comedian lost her battle with breast cancer in 2004. In her honour, the festival continues to award an annual cash prize, known as the Golden Gibbo, to an emerging act.

Dave Thornton, who is on the Yo, Adrian! bill, says comedians invariably come out of the woodwork to help when somebody is in trouble.

“Comedians are, on a whole, quite giving people who just demand the attention and laughter of others,” he says.

There is no financial target for the event, but Lovett has been “blown away” by how quickly tickets have sold and says “we’ve raised beyond our wildest dreams already”.

Several members of Cherubin’s family will attend, but Adrian will remain in the rehabilitation centre, where he has begun the long road to recovery. “When I first saw him after it happened, it was pretty confronting,” says Lovett. “But I saw him recently and the improvement was amazing.”

Cherubin is unable to speak and is paralysed down the right-hand side of his body. His sister says that in the first few weeks after his stroke, just staying awake for any length of time was a good sign. 

“Over the past five months, he has progressed to being able to shave, brush his teeth and feed himself,” she says. “We celebrate each small advance towards meeting the goals set for him.”

Lisa says the love and support the entire comedy community has shown will be a factor in his recovery. “We are unsure of the destination of the journey ahead, but Adrian knows he will be supported every step of the way.” n 

Yo, Adrian! will be at the Regent Theatre on Wednesday, September 26. Tickets available through Ticketmaster from $50. Donations can also be made towards Adrian’s rehabilitation. 

Details: visit comedyfestival.com.au.

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