“Like a lot of British, I came here backpacking,” Rhys Jones explains. “After seven months I’d run out of money and got stuck in Sydney, and just kind of gave comedy a go.”
I’d like to tell you that stand-up comic Rhys Jones – who hails from Portsmouth, England – is an interesting guy; that he’s an amazing comic; that he’s a close personal friend and it’s been a real pleasure getting to know him; but I won’t. Because no matter how true all of it is, I’m only just getting to know Rhys and I have a certain amount of jealousy that this guy can just pop up out of nowhere and be running a popular open mic room.
Okay, sure, he has been doing comedy for a few years now – paid his dues and all that – and he himself admits that he’s only really started to pick up momentum “over the last six months or so”, but this is also the guy who’ll occasionally give notice for failing to make a gig because he’s landed another, MCing for strippers. When has your excuse for ‘piking’ ever been so good?
Meanwhile, his room, ‘Stand Up, Get Down’ at the World Bar on Bayswater Road, Darlinghurst, has gone from being fortnightly to weekly. And Rhys is helping program comedy for festivals like the up-coming Playground Weekender. So, no matter how good, nice, talented, decent he is, or how hard he’s worked to be as successful as he is, I have to hate him just a little bit on principle. How dare he be that cool, that good, that essential to the growing comedy scene, seemingly out of nowhere?
Long Time Being
“I’ve been here five years,” Rhys explains when we finally catch up for a chat – ostensibly to promote the Playground Weekender festival. Despite being broke and stranded seven months into his visit to Australia, now he is not so broke, and not quite stranded. Rather, he says, he’s “kind of trapped” – but in a good way: “owning things” now prevents him from heading home. Acquiring ‘big things’ like a sofa, accumulating a life, a career, and friends, he is essentially planting roots over here. “I like it,” he says – and it must be liking him back. Friends are certainly harder to offload on www.gumtree.com.au than the sofa, so why not stay! Especially when it was “a dear friend” that finally encouraged Rhys to take a stab at stand-up comedy.
“I was kind of ‘press-ganged’ into it,” he insists. “She suggested it when I’d come up with a particularly witty quip at a dinner party. I kind of just tossed the suggestion aside offhand. I blame her, basically.” Being the “dear friend” that she is, Rhys's buddy entered him into the Melbourne International Comedy Festival/Triple J Raw Comedy competition. Which is a good thing. Because despite growing up a “huge student of comedy” in England, where humour was essentially “embedded” into him from an early age via sitcoms like “Black Adder, Only Fools And Horses and the rest of it”, he probably wouldn’t have gotten around to giving it ago himself. Sure, Portsmouth was a big enough place to afford a lot of live comedy – with their own Jongleurs (part of a UK-wide chain of venues) and “major acts” like Harry Hill and Steve Coogan passing through to play the Guildhall as part of a national tour, and even a fortnightly comedy room at the Wintergreen – but there was no open mic scene to speak of. So even though, Rhys says, comedy was something that he’d thought about doing, something that he’d “almost fantasised about”, where was he going to take the stage in order to learn the art?
Well, of course, there is London…
“To be honest, I found London quite a daunting prospect.” Rhys admits. “Sydney, as a city, is a really good middle ground, because it’s a cosmopolitan city, but it’s not quite as harsh and as massive as London.” It’s also “by the sea”, like his home town. So Sydney offers the best aspects of London and Portsmouth with an easier entre – if you’re willing to take it – into comedy. “Since I’ve tried stand-up in Sydney, and done it elsewhere in Australia, I think Australia’s a great place to ‘learn the trade’, as it were. Particularly in Sydney: most of the audiences are pretty attentive and have a ‘good on the newcomer’ attitude. I don’t think I’d be involved in comedy in the UK – I’d be the funny guy at the pub getting drunk every weekend. Now I’m a guy doing comedy and getting drunk every weekend. And occasionally during the week.”
Rhys in the Raw
One point I am having trouble with is that Rhys Jones was a Raw Comedy contestant in Sydney – having judged pretty much all the Sydney heats for the last I-don’t-know-how-many years, I must have judged Rhys’s. How come I wasn’t aware of him until he was doing well enough for me to be jealous of his success? According to Rhys, his two attempts “ended in a bit of a disaster” – as far as early attempts at amateur comedy go. “The first one was the first ever time I did comedy, and I lost my train of thought. The second one, I forgot the last two minutes of my routine. After a promising start, I just walked off.”
I’m kind of relieved – I’d hate to have failed to spot a genuine talent. And, better still, it proves my strongest held tenets about comedy and competitions: the point of doing comedy is to make the audience laugh, not to win competitions. And the point of doing comedy competitions is to make the audience laugh, not to win competitions. Some of the finest talent you will ever be amused by, failed to win competitions – the comedians who make it are the ones who keep getting back up on stage. And the ones who start running their own venues so that they can keep getting back up have a better chance of that. Rhys agrees. “The only way you learn is through those bad gigs. I think I’ve come along a lot.”
Too true. In fact, you learn a lot more from a so-called ‘bad gig’ than you do from walking away from a ‘good’ one. In fact, in my limited experience, it’s easy to walk away from a successful performance a little bit proud and cocky, and then totally stuffing up the next one as a result! Again, Rhys concurs: “I think the key to getting anywhere in comedy – and I’m still just starting out –is building a thick enough skin to deal with the low blows.”
Which leads to the other golden rule of stand-up comedy: no comic has ever done their best or worst gig. There’s always going to be one down the track that could set the new benchmark! That’s just as true – possibly more so – when running the room. Again, Rhys knows this only too well. “You really get an insight how tough it is marketing comedy to people,” he says of his experience with ‘Stand Up, Get Down’. “There’s been a bit of an explosion with venues in Sydney in the last year. Some of them are doing better than others. Ours is going steady. We’ve got a particular niche… We do try and promote the little guy, to a certain extent. I’m all a bout giving headline and MC spots to guys who are up-and-coming who perhaps wouldn’t get on in a similar capacity at other venues.”
Clearly, I’d suggest, Rhys must be getting right, seeing as ‘Stand Up, Get Down’ has gone from a fortnightly room to a weekly one.
“Yeah, we changed that in December, the reason being that it was impossible for people to keep track of what weeks we were on. The idea to go weekly is just so people know every Wednesday there’s comedy at the World Bar, instead of having to faff around trying to work out which week the night falls on.”
“The weekly comedy room at the World Bar is attached to a night called ‘The Wall’, run by my business partner Dan Chin. Every week he has a different artist exhibiting upstairs and we run the comedy out of that room. ‘Stand Up, Get Down’ is also known as ‘Comedy At The Wall’ because it’s affiliated with this art space night.”
Oh, okay. So Rhys Jones in a nutshell: came to Australia to realise the lifetime of comedy embedded into him, hitherto only fantasised about, and contributes significantly to the local stand-up scene. But there’s more: in the process he also starts helping establish some of the cooler aspects of the UK comedy scene Downunder. The Playground Weekender festival, now in its fourth year, is the prime example of that.
“Playground Weekender is a festival started by English expats,” Rhys explains. “They started up Good Vibrations a few years ago before selling it on. The whole ethos is a British-style festival, so it has a lot more of a laid-back aesthetic than, say, your Big Day Outs or your other music events; the whole ethos is fun. I’ve been to every one and seen it grow, which has been great.”
From barely 2000 attendees that first year (still a significant start, of course), the Playground Weekender festival had quadrupled in size by its third year: 8000 people. This year they’re expecting 12,000. Not only that: this year there’ll be comedy. Using the British model, where every festival has a comedy venue, Playground Weekender is offering two hours of comedy on each of the festival’s four nights, in ‘The Shack’.
“Dan and I are both extremely chuffed that they’ve asked us to host the comedy stage. We’ve got one of the main stages to run. It’s a beautiful setting as well: the Del Rio resort at Wisemans Ferry, on the Hawkesbury River. It’s just a really laid- back ‘anything goes’ attitude, really. Like any music festival, it’s what you make of it. You can go for the quiet time, or you can go crazy.”
Furthermore, there are live art installations that culminate with a charity auction at the end of the festival, hosted by Rhys. “We did that a few years ago and it was a huge success,” he says. I’m impressed. More so, when I ask Rhys if he was instrumental in ensuring comedy become a part of the festival. “All the legwork was done by Dan,” he says. “I’m just clinging onto his coattails and sorting out some comics and getting the word out, I guess.”
Talented, successful and humble. Rhys, I really want to like you, but you make it so difficult… And it gets worse:
“Our grand vision is to introduce this format to other weekend festivals around Australia. In Britain it’s a given: there’s always a comedy tent in every festival you go to, which generally runs all day, every day. If we could introduce a scaled-down version, and perhaps, further down the line, have the financial backing to get some really big names out, It could be something we take around Australia with us.”
Um… Rhys, mate, I’m just wondering… is
there any more room on those coattails?
Playground Weekender runs for a four-day weekend at Wisemans Ferry, from Thurs 18 Feb to Sun 21 Feb. A four-day ticket is $219. A three-day ticket is $199 (plus booking fees). There are day tickets available as well.
Musical artists include Orbital, Lupe Fiasco, The Polyphonic Spree, The Cribs, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Jamie Lidell, Steve Lawler, Bluejuice, Bjorn Again, Gui Boratto, OK GO and LTJ Bukem.
More importantly, here are the comedians appearing – in Rhys’s words, “our favourite performers of 2009:
Eric Hutton – Stand Up, Get Down’s favourite headliner and a highly original funny man. The Voice of Barry White with the delivery of a highly accurate postman [I’d say he’s the illegitimate product of an illicit tryst between The Chaser’s Charles Firth and Andrew Hansen, but whatever – Dom], this strawberry blond dynamo is a truly originally comic / the best freestyle rapper in town! http://erichuttontime.com/
Nick Sun – Fresh from a tour of the States supporting Doug Stanhope, and on the verge of a fourth show at the Melbourne International Comedy festival, Nick is a unique comedian who eschews the artificiality of traditional stand up for a more insightful, honest and god damn, sharp as a knife hilarious brand of comedy… http://www.nicksun.com/pages/multimedia.php
Shane Matheson – Highly unconventional, brilliantly inventive and always hilarious, Shane is about to venture to Melbourne International Comedy Festival for his third festival show. Superb improviser and great “randomist”, Shane combines the fearlessness of Sam Simmons, with the characterisation of those British legends Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hu-oOGmbJho
Ryan Withers – Natural born funny man,
armed with a rapier wit and rather girlish looks, Ryan Withers aka DJ Randy
Winters, is a regular performer, and organisational contributor at Stand Up Get
Down. About to burst forth at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival with
his first solo show, Ryan has supported the likes of Arj Barker and Jamie
Kilstien here in Sydney. 2009 was a massive year, but it looks like 2010 is
truly going to be where this young Maestro really hits his stride. For an
insight into the truly unique mind of Ryan Withers read this recent column
where he interviews himself, wow, crazy fun! http://www.throwshapes.com.au/2009/12/17/comedy-gatecrash-ryan-withers-vs-ryan-withers/
The Cloud Girls aka Carnovale and Culp –
Past performers at Sydney Cracker, Melbourne Fringe and Adelaide Fringe
festivals, the Cloud Girls are truly unique character based comedians. Taking the
everyday mundane and turning it into great sketched routines, the C and C
laughter factory is going to be one not to miss! For a tiny taster check out
this clip http://www.youtube.com/user/carnovaleandculp#p/a/u/1/3XDCHQJIj60
With ample support coming from the likes of
Rhys Jones, Nick Capper, Dain Hedgpeth, Ray Badran, Rod Todd, John Cruickshank,
Ben Ellwood and more to be announced, expect a hilarious and diverse show from
Sydney’s best alternative comedy collective! For more information or questions on Stand
Up, Get Down please contact Rhys Jones at [email protected]
With ample support coming from the likes of Rhys Jones, Nick Capper, Dain Hedgpeth, Ray Badran, Rod Todd, John Cruickshank, Ben Ellwood and more to be announced, expect a hilarious and diverse show from Sydney’s best alternative comedy collective!
For more information or questions on Stand Up, Get Down please contact Rhys Jones at [email protected]