“You need to understand something really salient about me and my generation,” says Penny Arcade, a 60-something vision with a bob of bright-pink hair. “We were not going to grow up.”
Fifty years ago Susana Ventura, a teenager from Connecticut, arrived in New York City. She renamed herself Penny Arcade, got acquainted with the city’s art scene, and rubbed shoulders with Andy Warhol, Patti Smith and Quentin Crisp, before evolving into a stand-up comedian, avant-garde performer and something of a legend.
“When we were young we were told we were cool,” says Arcade. “But we didn’t believe it. I am now doing what I envisioned when I was 17. I couldn’t do it until now. So I’m now this old 17 year old.
“But I have never wanted to be any age other than the age I am right now,” she says. “I’ve always lived in the present.”
She’s just as interrogative and anarchic as ever, and her new show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Longing Lasts Longer, is about a whole raft of interconnected grievances about the present. Culture is obsessed with youth instead of vitality. Gentrification is destroying cities. She is not, repeat not, nostalgic.
Penny Arcade moves at about a thousand miles an hour, so here’s where you’ll need to pay attention as we define some terms:
Hipsters: “I think Melbourne is the city with the most intellectual connoisseurs in the world,” she says. “Twenty years ago, when I first came here, Melbourne was a very hip place, in the real meaning of the word ‘hip’. Being hip is about being informed. Now it’s filling with hipsters, who are incredibly uninformed people. Hipsters follow trends. Hip people create them.”
Gentrification: “I walked to Brunswick Street the other day, and while there are many, many more cafes and things, it still has the same vibe. It’s not suddenly all wine bars. I think Sydney is pretty much destroyed. Take a place like Kings Cross. Wine bar central. They tore down Barons, one of the oldest, most freewheeling pubs in the world! I used to take Jeff Buckley there.”
Nostalgia and longing: “As soon as anyone over the age of 25 critiques anything in contemporary culture they’re called nostalgic. But there’s a difference between nostalgia and longing. Nostalgia is sentimental. Longing is not about the past, but the future. Longing is wanting a world where there isn’t a terrorist bombing every six days. It’s 2016. We should be living in a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity. That’s what I was told in 1960, when I was 10 years old. But here we are, going back into medieval conditions.”
Youth: “I met this 25-year-old girl from Sydney when I was last in Adelaide. She wanted to tell me her favourite places in Sydney. Every single one of them was an expensive restaurant. What are 25 year olds doing in restaurants with tablecloths? That’s supposed to be for when you’re old. Young people are having their youth stolen from them. You see young girls wearing thousands of dollars worth of clothes and high heels originally designed as fetish wear. Young people used to make their own style.”
Arcade, though, is keen to point out that her show isn’t a criticism of young people, but what’s being done to young people.
“I have a lot of friends in their twenties, and I have to continually kick them. They’re fearful of getting out of their twenties when every other generation couldn’t wait to get out of their twenties. Imagine thinking your twenties were the high point of your life! That’s pathetic.”
She’s worried that young people are being deprived of their individuality by being scared into security, into settling for less, into accepting that youth is everything and accepting the hand that’s dealt to them. “It’s hard to explain it, but I’m trying,” she says. “I’m trying to give people an inoculation against mediocrity.”
To do this she trafficks in the absurdity of real life. “I just think it through a little further than most people,” she says.
It’s not much different to someone like Bill Hicks, who she counted as a friend. “Bill wanted to be me when he grew up,” says Arcade, “but sadly he got cut off. What he and I share is the combination of hatred and love. We’re both totally disgusted by hypocrisy.”
Roll all of this together and you get Longing Lasts Longer.
“As you get older – and you will – you’ll find out that longing lasts longer than anything else,” she says. “It lasts longer than love. Longer than youth. The only thing that doesn’t change is longing.
“But remember,” she says. “My show’s a comedy.”
Penny Arcade: Longing Lasts Longer is at Giant Dwarf from April 6 to 8. Tickets available here.