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A cellarful of joys

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It’s kinda sorta like a almost a decade since the Laugh Garage came into being, and the next two weeks feature a total of six massive nights of Gala shows with heaps of comedians on each night. The Laugh Garage is a purpose-built comedy venue in Sydney’s CBD (there’s another one operating out of Parramatta, too) that feels like a comedy club ought to: dark room down a set of stairs on a city corner, with a bar at one end. Not at all a theatre or a room in a pub – not to take away from any of Sydney’s great comedy venues that take on that configuration. Over the years, I’ve interviewed the comic who founded and still runs the Laugh Garage, Darren Sanders, and here is a compilation of those conversations, compiled to commemorate this spate of all-star gigs. If you’re interested, I'm on the first night. But it’s the Laugh Garage; like a number of other cool, supportive Sydney venues, I get stage time there quite frequently – you can see me any time. Come to see all of the other great comics on!

 

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“At the moment, everyone wants to be a ‘rock star’,” Darren Sanders insists. “If you want to be a DJ or a radio star, go to radio school.” Darren is referring to the way in which comedy newbies imagine they’re going to become overnight celebrities by getting on stage and ‘telling jokes’. I use inverted commas because few people manage to actually tell jokes the first time they get on stage – usually they say the most outrageous things they can think of, imagining that the laughter of discomfort is automatically proof that an audience has been entertained. This was never the case for Darren Sanders, whose first choice was to be an actor.

Darren Sanders is one of those talents from Adelaide who felt, at least as he was coming through, he needed to be elsewhere in order to make it anywhere. To be fair, Darren is a comedian, and like prophets, comedians are rarely successful in their own towns – they have to travel elsewhere to spread the word. So this isn’t really a blatant exercise in Adelaide-bashing. Point is, by 1990 Darren had headed overseas and landed in the States.

“I was living in America and studying acting in LA, at the Theatre of Arts,” he says. He was making ends meet by selling tickets for the Los Angeles comedy venue the Laugh Factory. It was the fact that he’d use most of tickets himself to go see shows that led to him becoming a comic.  “I used to watch the audience more than the guys performing, to see them laugh. I’d think, ‘How are they making them do that?’ That’s what started my interest in it, seeing that stuff.”

Rest assured, Darren saw “a lot of duds” get up on stage, in his time. People like Eric Douglas, brother of Michael. “It was a shocker; talking about having dinner with Sparticus, all of those sorts of routines…” They’re not comedy routines if they’re not actually funny, so Darren corrects himself and goes with “anecdotes”.

When Darren returned to Australia, he made the realisation – after a week in Adelaide – “I can’t live here!” That was, of course, long before the Adelaide Fringe Festival had become an annual event and its comedy scene had become so strong. Back then, it made more sense to relocate to Sydney, and by that time, Darren had well and truly gotten the comedy bug, written down quite a lot of his experiences as a traveller, and figured they’d work on stage. A ‘debut gig’ as his brother’s best man – telling piss-funny stories over the slide show – convinced him that he had no fear of getting up in front of an audience (he had trained as an actor, after all), so he might as well give it a go somewhere else. ‘Somewhere else’ was Sydney’s own Comedy Store – at the time, located in Bay Street, Glebe.

“I remember hearing laughter, but having no control over it,” Darren says of his first proper stand-up gig. “Some woman said something in the crowd, but I had to keep moving, keep doing the routine. I didn’t have the freedom of talking back or having the comebacks.” Indeed, it was a while before he’d have the confidence to ‘go off-script’. “I remember thinking ‘How the hell am I going to remember a five-minute routine, let alone half an hour or more?’ Once you have the confidence in your material you know it works, then you have the liberty to think ‘Maybe I could stray outside of that…’”

While Darren’s time in the United States served him well – there was a polish and sophistication that spoke ‘showbiz’ that set him apart from other comics coming through with him – he’d been preparing for a life as a comic… although he didn’t necessarily recognise it at the time. “It wasn’t actually mapped out,” he says, “but I can see how I got here from what’s happened”. His school report cards, for example, always read, he says, like the type of quotes you’d want to put on your posters: “Darren’s mind goes at a million miles an hour… He’s a clever, organised thinker…” As far as Darren’s concerned, he first started learning the craft at family barbecues, where his dad and his dad’s mates would forever be telling jokes and doing celebrity impressions. “It was thirty years ago, so it was people like John Wayne, Columbo, that sort of stuff…”

Truth is, you learn the most, and the best, about comedy when you’re actually doing it. “I’ve gone through old notes from when I started doing comedy, and I rediscover gags that didn’t work back then. Now I have the experience to say, it didn’t work back then because I didn’t lead into it properly, or the audience couldn’t tell where I was going with it.” With experience, you learn to set up the joke better, how to make a punch line more powerful. You also learn when it’s time to quit the day-job. For Darren, it was when too much of his energy was being diverted from comedy. “I realised that if I really wanted to make money, then I should put all my energy into my stand-up. When I did, I ended up doing four television appearances on In Melbourne Tonight – which helped me in Melbourne. I’d go down to Melbourne about five times a year and do a week of gigs each time. After appearing on IMT at the start of the week, I could advertise the whole week’s gigs. But it felt weird coming back to Sydney after that, because you’d just had this publicity, a bit of a tour, and then you come back here and nobody knew anything about it; it’s back to getting on the phone and calling around for this gig, or that gig…”

Darren eventually got sick of having to ring around in Sydney to try and maintain the momentum of Melbourne success, which is why he decided to open his own comedy venue. “I wanted to be a professional comedian, and have somewhere professional to work,” he says.

Funnily enough, I remember that event vividly. Well, not the actual event… I’d been to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2001 and happened to be sitting in the Peter Cook Bar in Melbourne Town Hall during a lull, when I got into a discussion about how healthy the Sydney comedy circuit was. I was sitting with someone who used to manage the Comedy Store and was then managing comedians. We’d gotten to a list of 14 venues when someone said, “You forgot one.” What? Which one? “There’s that room Darren Sanders is opening in the CBD.” I’d heard nothing about it at that point. And then, a week later I returned to Sydney to discover my answering machine winking and beeping like a highly strung tourette’s sufferer, and most of the messages were Darren’s, telling me about his new venue, ‘The Laugh Garage’, opening soon in the city. It was time to get in touch again.

At the time, the question was, did Sydney really needed another comedy venue? Darren’s response was that the other rooms mostly catered to local trade (people who lived within “staggering” distance), and usually operated one night a week. “At the moment, the Comedy Store is the only full time comedy venue in Sydney,” he pointed out. “This is the only other full-time venue.”

Nearly a decade later, there are no longer 14 weekly venues in Sydney but the Laugh Garage continues to be one of the couple operating full time. In honour of a great room that supports and in turn is supported by great comics, the Laugh Garage is celebrating with two weeks of ‘Gala’ shows: a stack of great comics each night, three nights a week with major names headlining (this just after shows headlined by international acts and special guest appearances by the likes of Achmed Achmed, out here to promote Iron Man 2).

“Everyone does benefits nowadays,” Darren offers. Radio stations do it, bands do it, “comics are probably the only ones who don’t…”  In the same way that live music venues are cyclical, comedy venues are, too, and at a time when Sydney’s  just lost a couple of decent rooms – one is only temporarily closed, for the winter, the other, an ideal Sunday evening gig, sadly gone for good – Darren’s taking this opportunity to remind punters of the great comedy room he runs. Although Darren has a bit of a theory as to some of the contributing factors to the comedy cycle. “We haven’t had good, big, locally-produced comedy on television in many years,” he says, referring to the type of program that grabs everyone, the way Master Chef does, and the way things like Comedy Company – broadcast on a Sunday evening as the kind of show the whole family would sit around and watchand Fast Forward used to.

“There’s a lot of crime shows on telly now, and there are a lot of crimes being committed; you’d think someone would wake up to that,” he says. “When Comedy Company started, it blitzed 60 Minutes, because people were a bit sick of all that. Now is a perfect time to do it.” Of course, Darren says, adopting a position many a talented comic should, when a station does make a comedy, rather than hiring comedians, they tend to employ actors. “Maybe they don’t trust comics,” he says. As someone running a comedy room and having to depend on comics, he laughs, “I’ve learned not to trust them either”.

The vibe of the Laugh Garage reminds me of all great comedy rooms – places comics like to hang out even when they’re not performing; where you can learn watching other people at work. “That’s the way the Harold Park used to be,” Darren says, remembering the days of one of Sydney’s most important comedy venues. The Comedy Store offered the same ‘family’ atmosphere. And if a venue doesn’t make comedians – irrespective of their style – feel at home, it may just come down to the attitude of comics.

“At the time, it seemed like that was the way you did comedy,” Darren explains. “You’ve got to do the hard yards. Comedy is its own art form.” When it comes down to it, Darren insists he has “all the time in the world” for people who are “serious” about doing stand-up – people who want to learn the craft. They’re the kind of comics who do come to hang out. “Unfortunately, there are too many people who don’t want to put in the hard yards – maybe that’s a sign of the times, but I still prefer to get on a plane with a pilot who’s already flown a few times…”

 

If you want to be taken on some of the funniest flights of fancy by some of the best local comics who have had plenty of flying time, The Laugh Garage is the place to do it: Thurs 24, Fri 25, Sat 26 June and Thurs 1, Fri 2, Sat 3 July. For more information check out the Laugh Garage website.

 

 


Portraits of the artists…

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A couple of weeks ago I got to hear a great new recording by a duo calling themselves Maniac. They consist of Jake Grigg, erstwhile guitarist and vocalist of Central Coast indie rock band Something With Numbers, and Shawn Harris, former guitarist and vocalist with California band The Matches. I then got had the pleasure of interviewing Jake about their new recording – an excellent five-track EP entitled Extended Play – for Live To Ride magazine. There’ll be a fine interview with the band in the next issue of that publication. But during our chat, we got talking about the band’s art, beginning with the band logo – a kind of sloppily executed rifle sight. I’ll pick up the interview where Jake told me about it. But first, enjoy the clip to ‘Die Rad’. And then appraise the symbol. And then start reading!

 

 

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JAKE GRIGG: Yep, it’s similar to that. It looks a bit like an ‘anarchy’ sign as well.

Shawn is an artist. He’s actually a great artist and we’re putting on a show next week. He does all the art for all our stuff. I’m not really an artist but that’s the only thing I’ve ever drawn. For some reason we needed a symbol, and I can draw a circle and an upside down cross. Hang on and I’ll hand you over to Shawn so he can talk about his art.

SHAWN HARRIS: You asked about the symbol? That’s Jake’s masterpiece. But I just want to say that Jake’s the best artist’s subject. I’ve just done a roomful of paintings of his head, seven feet tall. He has the weirdest face. Have you ever looked at Jake’s face? It’s the weirdest thing: he just has all this surface area, and then all his features are in the middle. From painting him, I’ve measured it out, and it’s… wow! You can’t forget it. It breaks all the rules, man.

JAKE GRIGG: I do have the weirdest face.

Dom Romeo: I look forward to you featuring in the Archibald Prize some time soon, but back to the symbol: I suspect it may come to the point where you won’t have to have the name. A t-shirt with just the symbol will say the same thing, kind of like the Radio Birdman symbol.

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JAKE GRIGG: Exactly right. And I’ve been asked before, “What does it mean?” To us, it means the fun that we’re trying to exude out of the music. Every time I look at it, I get that same feeling of fun. We wanted something that people could see and just get that same feeling as hearing the music. But it is just a circle and an upside down cross.


Shawn’s paintings, it turned out, were being exhibited at Blank_Space on Crown Street, beginning Saturday 12th. I turned up for the opening, where I got to interview Shawn and Jake, this time mainly about art.

Dom Romeo: Jake, I know that you designed the Maniac logo, which is the circle and the cross, and there is one artwork that you did, of the circle and the cross…

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JAKE GRIGG: How could you tell?!

Dom Romeo: It’s the one that’s not got any other paint on it…

JAKE GRIGG: Yeah, exactly. It was a very inspirational piece – something I put a lot of time and effort into.

Dom Romeo: I also like the portrait of the two of you nude…

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JAKE GRIGG: Thank you very much. That was actually inspired by both of us naked. It was very inspirational. We stood still in front of a mirror for about 30 minutes and I stroked him.

SHAWN HARRIS: The brush!

JAKE GRIGG: The brush! I stroked the brush…

Dom Romeo: Now, Shawn, what I like is that there’s a painting that you did that has the logo on it, where you’ve gone to great trouble to reproduce the look of it being painted on. It’s a very ‘modern art’ thing1 – tell me about that.

SHAWN HARRIS: I was pretty diligent in recreating the organic brush strokes of Jake’s original, yes. I just got in there with a really fine sable and drew in all of the imperfections if you had done the original logo like Jake did.

Dom Romeo: And along with the logo, the two portraits are… I don’t even know what you call that style…

SHAWN HARRIS: I think the one you’re referring to is probably the most ‘pop art’ of all the pieces. It’s three shades; it’s really almost made straight for silk screen, you know?

JAKE GRIGG: It’s my favourite!

SHAWN HARRIS: Mine too, hey!

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Dom Romeo: Now, I don’t know much about art, but you can clearly paint – and I shouldn’t sound so surprised when I say that – but did you train as an artist?

SHAWN HARRIS: Yeah, until I got completely and wonderfully side-tracked with touring and playing music. I was in art school, en route to being an animator for Walt Disney, which I’d decided I wanted to do when I was about three years old. I wanted to work for Walt Disney. And then I found out he wasn’t alive any more and started playing the guitar and everything changed.

JAKE GRIGG: He’s frozen now!

Dom Romeo: He is frozen!2

SHAWN HARRIS: The only reason I would every leave Maniac is if they thaw Walt Disney and he hires me personally.

JAKE GRIGG: I’ll make sure that never happens. Never happens! I’ll blow up the sun before that happens.

Dom Romeo: Do you paint a lot?

SHAWN HARRIS: I do, yes. I’ve acquired something of a habit of painting to support myself because music pays sometimes and most of the time it really doesn’t. So instead of being a barback or, ah…

JAKE GRIGG: A storage king…

SHAWN HARRIS: … a storage king, or selling coat hangers to old people, like most of my friends do – who also are amazing musicians – I have somehow winged it with my graphic design company.

Dom Romeo: What’s your graphic design company?

SHAWN HARRIS: It’s called Oxen. The website’s www.oxenoxen.com

Dom Romeo: What do you fall back on in hard times, Jake?

JAKE GRIGG: I fall back on…

SHAWN HARRIS: Me!

JAKE GRIGG: Yeah, exactly. I fall back on Shawn, hopefully, selling some art.

Dom Romeo: I assume this series was painted here, in the process of recording the EP and the 31 other tracks that are yet to be released in some other form…

SHAWN HARRIS: Definitely. One of the pieces is basically a ‘remix’ painting of the digital paintings that is our EP cover. So it’s this really sloppy, stoned, crazy, colourful piece based on that one.

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Dom Romeo: I like the drips on that!

SHAWN HARRIS: Yeah, me too. I got right into letting that one be what it was aiming to be. I just kind of moved out of the way for that one; it painted itself.

Dom Romeo: They’re all portraits; did anything abstract come out of the time you were recording?

SHAWN HARRIS: Um… we could play you some tracks that could probably be categorised as ‘abstract’…

Dom Romeo: A lot of musicians come out of the art school milieu – Ian Dury for example was a great British artist who was a musician as well…

SHAWN HARRIS: David Bowie showcases his stuff all the time.

Dom Romeo: Paul McCartney and John Lennon both went to art college. Was music always there in the background when you were a kid, wanting to draw?

SHAWN HARRIS: Music always was, absolutely. This is a weird reference, I don’t know if either of you guys know it, but Harry Nilsson actually did a soundtrack for an animation called The Point. That was actually my favourite record as a kid. Since then, I think Blackalicious has sampled it and made a hip hop song out of it – the song ‘Me And My Arrow’. That was my favourite thing as a kid. Then I come to find out, as I get a bit older, Harry Nilsson was a bit of a protégé of John Lennon, recorded an album with John producing…

Dom Romeo: Pussy Cats

SHAWN HARRIS: Yeah, an amazing album… It’s really funny. The stage that me and Jake are at right now – all roads lead back to Mecca. Whether it’s these paintings or it’s music that we’re creating, all of our references seem to point back to those first records that we heard, before we even knew what was pop, what was rock, what was cool, what was not cool, what our parents listened to or what our neighbours who worked on cars in the garage and had long black hair and tattoos listened to, had no concept of any genre of music or anything – those first songs that connected to us are coming back to be huge influences.

Dom Romeo: What are they? Give me some examples.

SHAWN HARRIS: Like I said…

JAKE GRIGG: Carole King, man…

SHAWN HARRIS: …Harry Nilsson, The Point

JAKE GRIGG: Carole King, Tapestry.

SHAWN HARRIS: Tapestry. I heard that album a million times, and Jake’s been playing it non-stop for the past month and I know every word, like, ‘Damn, man, I was seriously raised on this…,’ you know?

Dom Romeo: Now, you mentioned David Bowie; there’s one track on the EP that the saxophone to me…

Die Rad (Bowiesque sax line)

SHAWN HARRIS: Ha ha!

Dom Romeo: …sounds exactly like David Bowie playing it.           

SHAWN HARRIS: Yes, man, yes!

JAKE GRIGG: Yeah!

SHAWN HARRIS: I’m a flute player myself – that was my first instrument. But it’s actually the same fingering as the sax. So I’ve been working on my chops: I want to play that so bad. I’m not up to speed yet.

JAKE GRIGG: We’ll probably get Bowie to do it.

SHAWN HARRIS: We’ll probably get Bowie.

Dom Romeo: It does sound like it came straight off one of his ’70s albums.

SHAWN HARRIS: That’s the best compliment you could give us, man! A good friend of ours, Matt Appleton, played sax on the EP.

JAKE GRIGG: We said, ‘Sound like Bowie!’ He’s really good at emulating that.

Dom Romeo: I didn’t mention Captain Beefheart when I was listing the musicians who paint. The guy’s a professional artist. He won’t go back to music because it took him too long to be respected as a painter.

SHAWN HARRIS: Really? Well, I’ll always go back to music.

JAKE GRIGG: And if he doesn’t, I’ll always make sure he does, some way or another.

SHAWN HARRIS: Listen, as long as there’s music, there’s visual art. The two will always go hand-in-hand and I will never be in a position where I feel like I have to choose between the two. But if I did, I’d choose music.

Dom Romeo: Now, Jake, I don’t want you to be offended, but I heard someone who was admiring the exhibition say, ‘If I could, I’d have Shawn paint my portrait’.

JAKE GRIGG: I’m offended!

SHAWN HARRIS: Ha ha!

Dom Romeo: Now, Shawn, I don’t want you to be offended.

SHAWN HARRIS: Okay, okay, okay.

Dom Romeo: If I could, I’d have Jake paint my portrait.

SHAWN HARRIS: Yes! It’s like Jake’s got that primal genius, man. He’s just showed up, just figured out how to use a wheel and some fire and taps straight to the source. That’s why I write songs with him, because he does that with music as well.

Dom Romeo: Gentleman, I think that’s an awesome ending for a great interview. Thank you very much!

SHAWN HARRIS: Thank you.

JAKE GRIGG: Thanks heaps, mate. Cheers.

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Footnotes

1) See Lichtenstein's Yellow and Red Brushstrokes, 1966, in which brushstrokes are depicted, but with no actual brush strokes showing… (read Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word for more information).

2) Or is he? Apparently, Disney being cyogenically frozen is an urban legend. Well, that's what Wikipedia says, so who knows?



How to deal with telemarketers Pt 2

Telemarketer: Good afternoon, Sir, how are you?

Dom Romeo: It’s quite late at night, actually – probably too late for you to be cold calling me - but I’m fine. How are you?

Telemarketer: I’m calling from the  Television Ratings Panel, I don’t know if you remember, Sir, but you answered a questionnaire in February regarding how many televisions there are in the house.

Dom Romeo: I don’t remember that.

Telemarketer: That’s okay, some people don't remember. The reason I’m calling today…

Dom Romeo: Tonight.

Telemarketer: The reason I’m calling…

Dom Romeo: Tonight.

Telemarketer: …now is to offer you the opportunity to be on our television ratings panel. You will have the power to determine what goes on television and what gets taken off.

Dom Romeo: Really? Well I’d like my own television show.

Telemarketer: I don’t think I can help you with that, Sir.

Dom Romeo: But you just said you were going to give me the power of what goes on and gets taken off the television.

Telemarketer: Yes, but I don’t think your idea for a television show fits in with programming schedules.

Dom Romeo: You haven’t heard my idea yet.

Telemarketer: Sir, what I’m ringing for…

Dom Romeo: Is to waste my valuable time, evidently.

Telemarketer: Sir, we think you qualify to contribute to television ratings collection. Wouldn’t you be interested in that?

Dom Romeo (in Terry-Jones’s-falsetto-The-Virgin-Mandy-a-ratbag-from-Life-of-Brian-voice): Well why didn’t you say so? Come right in.

Telemarketer: What was that, Sir?

Dom Romeo: Nothing. Say I am interested in being on your ratings panel. What does it entail?

Telemarketer: We affix some hardware to your television, and give you a special remote control with a button you have to press every time you watch television. Do you think you could do that?

Dom Romeo: I probably could. How does the hardware come to me? Who installs it? How does it work?

Telemarketer: They’re all good questions, Sir. We would tell you when and who would come to install it; they would show you identification. You would be there when they installed it. They would show you how it works and answer all your questions.

Dom Romeo: Okay.

Telemarketer: Now we just need to determine if you qualify to be part of the ratings panel. Essentially, your viewing habits would be multiplied by 5000 to reflect your demographic.

Dom Romeo: Right.

Telemarketer: Would everyone else in your household be able to press the specific button on the remote control?

Dom Romeo: I believe so.

Telemarketer: Okay, so how many televisions do you have in your household?

Dom Romeo: Just the one. But I watch a lot of ABC iView online.

Telemarketer: Oh, Sir, good catch. You don’t really qualify to be part of our Ratings Panel.

Dom Romeo: Just what I thought. Because your company is owned and run by the three commercial networks, and I’ve known for quite some time that television ratings are a crock, particularly when I hear the likes of Ray Hadley and other AM talkback radio types blathering about figures – brought to us courtesy of some sponsor – in disbelief that the more interesting show outrates the same old boring crap during morning cab rides. That's why there's shit-all on television whenever I want to actually watch it, and why I mostly resort to ABC iView when I actually have some viewing time, late at night.

Telemarketer: Thank you for your time, Sir.

Dom Romeo: Just my time? Not my opinions? They aren’t as expensive as the time you’ve just wasted for me, but they’re worth noting. Jot them down and report back to your employers.

Telemarketer: I’m sorry to have bothered you.

Dom Romeo: Indeed. Go pedal your snake-oil elsewhere.


Of course, if I actually had the power to put something good on television, I’d start by producing Danny McGinlay’s cooking show. And if I had qualified for the ratings hardware, I’d be raising the figures of his next television appearance by 5000. Here’s a clip of him in action.


The saga continues…

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Shortly after his arrival at Cloud City, Pelic-han Solo is betrayed by Lando Calrissian, who hands him over to Vader to be used as bait to trap Luke. Vader intends to keep Luke in suspended animation via carbon freezing and selects Pelic-han as a test subject for the process, encasing him in carbonite. It is in this state that Vader hands him over to Boba Fett,who will take him to Jabba the Hutt…


Shady Sam Tripoli

*Warning*

There are some ‘adult concepts’ in this interview – if you’re likely to be offended by a great comedian’s honesty, please check out other entries on this blog that don’t carry this warning.  

Still with me? Excellent. Sam Tripoli is a comedian I’d not heard of before The Laugh Garage had him on posters as an up-coming double-header with Nikki Lynn Katt. I was pleased to discover him to be not only hilariously clever, but a pleasure to chat to after the gig – he’s so naturally funny off stage and generous with feedback for other comics. I hope this is the first of many visits to Australia, because as I write this, his residency at The Laugh Garage is nearly over and not enough people – comics and punters – will have had the opportunity to see him.


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Don’t know him from Adam

“I get all the Adams,” Sam Tripoli explains: “Adam Corolla, Adam Sandler, Adam Goldberg…”

We’re discussing doppelgangers, because I reckon this American comic has a touch of the John Turturros, particularly about the eyes and cheeks, but also around the mouth. And his American accent, to my ears, carries a similar Italian-American tinge. But you can’t draw an eyes-and-cheeks-based comparison to John Turturro without also including Al Pacino in the mix.

“I get that too,” Sam concedes. “A little bit of young– I hope still young! – Al Pacino.”

This line of discussion started because, having the pleasure of doing a five-minute spot before Sam’s hilarious headline performance at the Laugh Garage, I touched on ‘doppelgangers’. I say ‘touched on’ – I took a wrong turn and wasn’t able to make it back to my favourite bit about one of my doppelgangers…

“I do that all the time,” Sam confesses. “I go up on stage and forget the whole thing. I just gotta take it slow and it all comes to me and I hope I piece it together naturally…”

I’ve got to be honest. I’ve just seen Sam slay an audience. And not a particularly easy one, I would have thought, consisting mostly of city insurance brokers (not that there’s anything wrong with them, their laughter’s as good as anyone’s; just harder to solicit in the middle of the week) and some very silent men-in-black types (more keen to observe than actually laugh). And from the MC through to the newbies and especially to awesome support , all the acts grabbed the audience. Sam had ’em eating out of his hand the whole time, even when spinning the darkest of scenarios.

What I’m saying is, it sounds as though Sam’s being disingeniously modest for my benefit. Onstage he looks too in control to ever be out of control.

“I never go ‘A to Z’,” he says, continuing to explain his onstage modus operandi. “I just do whatever pops into my head, and try to make it work.”

Rest assured, it works. And that's probably the best way to do it – the comic letting the bits come as they will, delivering them as they arrive, seeing where they take him. Rather than following a map through every letter from A to Z, it is better to start at A and get to Z knowing what all the major intersections are along the way. If audience interaction feels like the show’s taken a wrong turn, with a great comic, it’s not a wrong turn, it’s just a detour that throws up interesting new material on the way to the next intersection. And it may turn out that there are much better places to pass through on the way Z after all.

Case in point was the night a member of a very boisterous audience indeed posed an unexpected question during a bit Sam does about a guy who died in the process of trying to have sex with a horse. The laughter had started to die down after Sam’s punchline, but before he could move on, someone yelled out, “how was the horse?”

“How was the horse?” Sam echoed the question – seemingly in disbelief, but it might have been more a case of, ‘Thank you, comedy gods, for dropping this in my lap’ than, ‘Why would you even ask that?’ “The horse was fine,” he improvised, “bragging to all its friends, ‘you know those people who jump on our backs and ride us around? I f*cked one of them. To death. High hoof! High hoof!’” And then as the laughter started to subside again, he was able to move on to the next bit. Of course, you’d only know there was a ‘next bit’ to move on to if you’d already seen him perform without an audience member posing that question.

Ultimately, Sam concludes, this approach to comedy constitutes “the better way to work” because “you can’t get buried”. There’s no wrong turn when you’re a great comic; the audience relaxes in the knowledge that you know where you’re going; they’re there to be taken on the ride, enjoying all the sharp turns, tight corners and even the odd spot of road rage if it takes place!

 

Long road to get here 

The reason Sam Tripoli is such an excellent driver is because he’s trained for it all his life. “I wanted to be a stand-up since the day I can remember consciousness,” he says. “The moment I realised I was a being, I wanted to tell jokes.” Friends remember him in first grade doing just that: getting on top of his desk to perform. He is, he says, the only guy who ever went into high school with the one goal, to be class clown. “I dedicated the next six years to achieving that. Everything I’ve done was with the hopes of becoming a stand-up comic at some point.”

It can’t have been easy, surely. Especially since Sam is the son of a Sicilian Italian dad and an Armenian mum. Usually the pressure’s on for a second generation immigrant to work hard and be successful, given that parents have sacrificed much to start a new life in a new country. Showbiz, they usually reason, is all very well, but it comes later – you need an education, a degree ‘to fall back on’.

“You know what, man?” Sam sets me straight. “The fact I’m not pumping gas for a living – my family’s fine with what I’m doing.” Admittedly, Sam does tell us as part of his routine that his dad’s a bit of a gambler – a former ‘special ed’ teacher who got into trouble not so much for educating the kids about odds and probability by teaching them how to play poker, as cleaning them out in the process. His mother, on the other hand, is “a bit of a celebrity” in their home town.  Irrespective, Sam’s folks were “really supportive, right out of the gate”. Rather than asking him when he’d get a real job, they just accepted that this was the one. And perhaps that has something to do with coming from Cortland, 30 miles out of Syracuse in upstate New York. It’s the so-called ‘crown city’ because it is the city with the highest altitude in New York.

“I didn’t realise how redneck and hick it was until I left,” Sam offers. “I remember being a kid, this older guy Bobby Gambetta had a mullet. I remember thinking how cool that was, and I wanted a mullet, so I grew a mullet. I had a mullet when I was really young.”


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Getting LA’d

The ‘wog mullet’ isn’t unheard of – although, let’s face it, it’s usually embarrassingly frizzy. But such issues of identity didn’t impinge on Sam until he left  Cortland for the ‘big smoke’.

“I thought I was white until I moved to Los Angeles,” Sam reports. “Then I became Armenian. Cos that’s what the town does – it makes you fit into a box, and that determines what goes on from there.”

So what other criteria must you adhere to, once put into the ‘Armenian’ box in LA?

“In Los Angeles, an Armenian is angry, drives a taxi, says ‘bru’ a lot; the Armenian suit is a sweatsuit with dress shoes…” The last one is the inversion of the suit-with-hightops look – so I’m safely as un-Armenian as possible. If you’re not familiar with Armenian stereotypes, you are not alone.

“If it wasn’t for the Kardashians, nobody would even know who the Armenians are,” Sam says, referring to the reality show ‘celebutante’ offspring of attorney Robert Kardashian, who was a personal friend and lawyer of OJ Simpson. “They’re great. I love ’em. Because up until that point, nobody knew who Armenians were unless you watched The Shield. Then we were just running money trains all the time; we were criminals.” Not that Sam Tripoli has a problem with that stereotype. No. His problem is, every time he went to audition for the role of an Armenian crim in LA, it’d be his Palestinian friend who’d get it. Or his Italian friend.  Even though, in every other aspect of Los Angelean life, Sam had turned from being just some American kid into, obviously, an Armenian, when it came to playing one on screen he could “never get booked as an Armenian because they thought I was too white”.

But that doesn’t open up any non-Armenian roles. According to the people who cast for film and television, he’s “not American enough” to play the other roles, apparently. “I can’t win! I’m like, what do you want me to wear? A gridiron helmet and sweatpants? Eat chicken nuggets shouting, ‘LET’S START A WAR! LET’S DO THIS!’”

What it comes down to is that while everyone else in LA is a model or aspires to be one, he’s “a fetish! A niche!” Sam’s niche is “women who are attracted to Armenian drug dealers”. That, he says, is his niche, because he has a “shady look” in Los Angeles.


Simply shady…           

‘Shady’ is an interesting concept. Sam’s material deals with a lot of ‘shady’ topics. He’s even dedicated a web page to it. He translates it as ‘troublesome’, for our benefit, the night I see him, but I think ‘creepy’ would be closer…

“The whole bit comes from watching the news and just seeing some man ‘Arrested! Committing horrible crimes!’ And then they show him, and it’s like, ‘How did you not know that guy was up to no good? He looks shady!’ That’s where it came from.”

Sam’s list of things that are shady include “white girls with dreadlocks – SHADY! Lawyers with ponytails – SHADY! Anybody who owns a sword – SHADY! Anybody who drives a taxi – SHADY! Anybody who drives an icecream truck – SHADY! White guys who always wear khaki pants – SHADY! Anybody with a gold tooth – SHADY! Anybody with a tattoo on their face – SHADY!”

Some of them don’t translate as well, like “anybody who wears an Oaklands jersey”. According to Sam, the jersey of the Oakland gridiron team is, essentially, “the gangbanger’s business suit”. Some of them, on the other hand, are universal, like the ‘cool mum’ (or ‘yummy mummy’, or ‘MILF’). “In LA, you always see some hot Latina – she’ll have high heels, her g-string jacked up like overalls – pushing a baby stroller. That’s some shady shit. I mean, I’d still hit it, but it’s shady as shit! Know what I’m saying?”

Sure, shady cool mum is hittable. But there is some shady shit Sam knows to steer well clear of. Like hitchhikers.

“Anybody who hitchhikes is a shady f*ck,” he insists, “cos that means you don’t have anyone in your life who likes you enough to give you a ride. And because I know the signs of shady, I’ll never end up being the victim of some mass murderer or psycho killer like Jason Vorhees or Mike Myers because I’ve watched enough horror flicks to know that shits about to go bad. Like pickin’ up a hitchhiker. Every movie where someone’s pickin’ up a hitchhiker, it’s like, ‘Hey, Captain Creepy, you need a ride? Awesome. Jump in. Let me drive you to where you’re gonna dump my body. That’ll be sweet.’”

Indeed, Sam Tripoli has a wealth of wisdom, gleaned from cinema. “If you’re ever in the forest and your friends are missing,” he advises, “shout for them three times. If you don’t hear from them, assume their dead, get out of there. If they update their Facebook, then you know they made it back.”

But there’s more:

“Never go camping with a supermodel. That’s the number one rule. If you ever go camping with a supermodel, you will die. She will get raped and you will get killed. It’s guaranteed even money. So I never go camping with supermodels.”



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Cinematic truth

Clearly, Sam grew up loving films. But, he says, he never wanted to be “a huge film star”. In fact, he doesn’t even want to be famous because, he says, he has too many vices. “I love too much freaky shit. I like weird shit and I want to enjoy those vices.” Sam harks back to the kind of fame enjoyed by the likes of Frank Sinatra, “where celebrities were respected: you went to a back room and and you enjoyed your vices. Girls knew you either zip it, or your take a dirt nap.” Yeah. Fame was different then. Back when celebrity was bestowed mostly upon the genuinely talented. “These girls now are taking pictures and it’s tattle-taling. I hate it. Fame sucks now.”

I’m not a tattle-taling girl taking pictures, and this is a public blog, but I’m kinda curious what some of Sam’s vices are. The ones he’s willing to admit to, anyway. He has got a predilection for porn, I notice, given his so-called Naughty Comedy Show (visit www.thenaughtycomedyshow.com).

“You know what’s interesting?” Sam asks. Initially it feels like a diversion. “Everybody talks about ‘truth’, but it’s the truth that people want to hear. People like ‘truth’ when it’s something they agree with.” It is in fact a preamble for the following.

“I’ve always been known as a dirty comic because that’s who I am. I am who I am onstage. I’m friends with porn stars. I have porn stars who are friends of mine and I’m fine with that. I trust them more than politicians and religious figures, because they put on a façade that doesn’t exist. They don’t give in to human desire. Whereas a porn star, if she told you some weird shit, you’d be like, ‘well, yeah, you’re a porn star’. You can trust them. There’s no shock, like, ‘I can’t believe that!’”

Clean break

Perhaps ‘the dirty comic’ is who Sam always was, but it seems he hadn’t totally given in to his ‘shady’ side more recently. He admits he used to be a “very political” comic – until he realised, after the 2004 United States Pesidential Election, that it no longer mattered.

“I saw George Carlin on Real Time with Bill Maher,” Sam recalls. “They kept asking him about politics and he kept saying, ‘I don’t care’ and it didn’t play well. But I got it. ‘It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.’ I realised that, after this guy committed all his war crimes and they re-elected him. ‘Why am I up here preaching about this shit when they don’t even give a f*ck?’ So all my stories on stage now are real stories from my real life. That’s what I’m working on right now.”

Real stories. About real life. In Sam’s case, that does mean, at the very least, ‘shady'. And we have strong elements of it in the local comedy scene, he’s pleased to note. “That's something I’ve really liked about working with the up-and-comers out here,” he says of his Australian visit. “They’re smart and there’s some dirtiness. In LA they’re either one or the other: they’re either intellectually trying to jerk themselves off, or they’re actually jerking off on stage.”


Sam’s Legacy

The other truth Sam is embracing is the fact that, by a certain age, men have started to wonder what their “legacy” will be. “What are we gonna be remembered for?” he asks, pointing out that men are remembered for three things, essentially: “creating something great, achieving something great, or going on an amazing crime spree”. I’ll give you three guesses which of those things shady Sam Tripoli most wants to be remembered for. But you’ll only need one.

“I’m not violent,” he says. “I’d never hurt anyone, but I just want to go on a great crime spree.”

What? What sort of crime spree can you go on that doesn’t hurt someone at some level?

“I want to go on a crime spree of awesomeness where people go, ‘that’s the shit!’ That’s where I’m at. That’s the kind of person I am. I wanna be the Robin Hood of sex, laughs and bad decisions. I wanna steal from the rich and give it to the girls who want to party. That’s all I wanna do.”


Sam Tripoli is at headlining at the Laugh Garage with Nikki Lynn Katt this week. Book online.

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Cool McCool

Sam McCool is performing a great show at the Cleveland St Theatre this Saturday, called Around the World in 80 Jokes. Before you read the interview, get a little feel for the ease with which Sam can bung on an accent with this little snippet of our conversation – and then read on:



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“Man-made borders are ridiculous,” Sam McCool insists, citing any number of examples of seemingly endless disputes in the world between people who, for all intents and purposes are far too similar to be killing each other over their differences. “It’s this silliness that we’ve created about these artificial borders that make up nationalities and national identity,” he says.

It’s such differences that inform Sam’s comedy. Which is ironic, because his current show, Around The World In 80 Jokes, involves him performing as a number of different characters, each of a different nationality – Indian, Samoan, Scotsman, Italian, Irish, French, Scottish, Maori – and the fact is, he’s convincing as every one. But perhaps that’s not the irony. Perhaps the irony is that – and I say this as someone who’s known Sam McCool for years – even though he’s clearly not a first generation, Anglo Australian, it’s hard to pinpoint just what kind of ‘wog’ he is.

Now don’t get het up, let me make a disclaimer here. I am of Italian descent, and I’m writing this in Australia. The word ‘wog’ isn’t offensive here. Unlike in England, where it’s short for ‘golliwog’, it doesn’t have the same connotations. It’s been reclaimed, and not like the n-word, which can only be uttered with impunity by someone of African American heritage – anyone can say it. It only becomes offensive when used to cause offence, and anybody who claims it’s difficult to know the difference when that’s happening is either a fool, or lying.

But even with that disclaimer, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

 

Campus Comedy

Like a lot of comics not of his generation and not just from Australia, Sam cut his teeth while at university. In addition to faculty revues, the University of Sydney offered much opportunity to be funny on stage. There was Theatresports – pretty much run, at the time, by Adam Spencer – and a weekly stand-up competition known as ‘Five-minute Noodles’ – pretty much run, at the time, by Adam Spencer. Sam availed himself to both extra-curricular activities.

My first mate at uni was a guy called Craig Reucassel,” Sam recalls. The name should sound familiar – Craig went on to be a member of the Chaser team. “I remember going to his house and testing material out on him. Little did I know who he’d then become. I guess that’s the toughest audience you can get, really: a one-man audience of Craig Reucassel.”

As it happens, the University of Sydney was rich with up-and-coming comedic at the time. One of the first winners of the Five-minute Noodle competition was Tom Gleeson, a fine stand-up comic who, for a time, regularly appeared on television as the Australian Fast Bowler, on Skithouse. Other finalists of that season who went on to greatness included Sarah Kendall, a hot stand-up in the UK right now; Bec De Unamuno, not only one our nation’s best improv thatre performers, but the one Jason Alexander specifically requests as part of the ensemble with which he tours Australia; Chas Licciardello, another key Chaser member.

“I’ve still got a video of that final somewhere,” Sam says, and although I reckon it’s time to find it and leak it onto YouTube, it’s a slight sticking point for him that he’s the odd one out – the one who hasn’t made it to (inter)national prominence. Or at least notoriety.

“I got into it for a bit,” Sam says. And he did. He had started making inroads into the local stand-up circuit – before the travel bug bit and he chose “a different path” that took him overseas. “I went out there for life experience before deciding to come back into my first true love, which is comedy.”


Comedic journey

Fact is, Sam’s travels ought not to be dismissed. He’s “racked up” 50 countries over the last little while, and that life experience serves him well. Having a life actually gives you something to talk about when you do get back on stage, as Sam well knows.

It comes through when I’m MCing,” he acknowledges. “Particularly when you’ve got a bit of diversity, audiences that are not your generic, homogeneous, middle class Anglo Saxons – places where you’ve got travelers and backpackers.” When bantering with such audiences, Sam’s able to easily pick where punters are from, and, having done so, can follow through with a brilliant observation regarding their homeland that’ll make them, and everyone else, laugh. I’ve generally got a good idea of where people have come from and something about their place or country to make them laugh.

And that, essentially, is the core of Sam McCool the comedian: he combines his two passions, comedy and travel, to create an informed view that “isn’t so much ‘global’ as ‘international”.

If you’ve seen Sam McCool on stage, you’d know he’s good at accents. There was a time when he’s routine involved the truism, about how anything becomes funny in the right accent. And to prove it, he could give us a perfect Jimeoin or Billy Connolly impression. Often both. But Around The World In 80 Jokes takes that a lot further. In the last year, rather than doing a routine that included some accent-based impressions, he’d instead take the stage in character.

“Whether it be Scottish or Lebanese or Indian or Pacific Island or whatever, I would start off in that accent and that character and allow the audience to believe that’s actually who I am and where I’m from. When I’d get to a lovely spot about ten minutes in, I would break their belief – and every preconceived idea they’d built up in me being a Pacific Islander or an Indian or whatever, by flipping into a totally different character.”

The result is palpable. You can hear the audience’s surprise. You see the looks on their faces: “Wait a second… Hang on…” They’re genuinely thrown. “I like that angle,” Sam says. And it all lies in the first bunch of assumptions the audience has made. Given the quality of the accent presented and the observations made, they’ve no reason not to accept the comedian in front of them is anything other than as he appears. And if there is an underlying message, it’s that “comedy is comedy”; the bottom line is, as ever, “make ’em laugh”, so it doesn’t really matter if he’s Samoan one night, Indian another, and French another. When he’s all of those and more in the one night, in the same act, audiences actually start to become aware of their own preconceptions, expectations and reactions. Audiences can sometimes be “so confused at the end of the gig” that they approach Sam with comments like, “We’re having a bet about this… where are you actually from?”

Like I said upfront, it’s hard to tell exactly what kind of wog he actually is. “That,” he says, “is the beautiful thing. People are trying to find a label, but when the show works well, their final conclusion is, “We just spent 20 minutes laughing at this guy. Don’t really know where he’s from; doesn’t really matter!’”

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(H)accent on the character

If I can get a bit philosophical for a moment, I reckon the show is an extension of the struggle every second-generation Aussie – or every second-generation person in any ‘foreign’ country – faces in life: a search for identity. Sam concurs. “Anyone who has been brought up with a certain culture at home and a slightly different culture outside has that identity crisis,” he offers. “If you’re brought up Italian, in Australia you’re Italian, but in Italy, you’re Australian.” Although Sam suffers from it “the same as anyone else”, because he was born to travel as surely as he was born to tell jokes from a stage, he has finally realised that he’s “a nomad and a gypsy, and it doesn’t matter what label anyone puts on me – today I’m Australian and tomorrow I’m… whatever”.

“Hilarious” is the word Sam’s looking for, but for the record, Sam is “Australian born, Leb bred”. So on one level, life was about trying to determine who he was. That’s one of the reasons comics turn to the stage. But for a ‘wog’ turning to comedy the search for identity continues on stage. What do you do on stage? Every comic begins the same way, doing self-deprecating autobiographical material. But the comic’s job is to find some ‘accepted’ common ground between the himself and the audience and then revealing the differences. That’s a bit harder when there’s so little common ground. To talk about your own experience as a wog to a mainstream audience can be difficult unless they share some knowledge of the context. Pioneering comedy like Wogs Out Of Work made the breakthrough, turning wog experience mainstream. There is a danger, following in that wake, of making the same old observations that a mainstream audience no longer digs, or making the observations they can’t possibly get. Or, the added problem only wog comics have, of trying to appeal as a mainstream Aussie comic.

“Can I sit there and just do mainstream Aussie jokes? Of course I can, and I’ve done that. But I’ve had success lately because I’ve stayed true to talents I have. One thing that I do as well as other people, if not better, is accents. And beyond the accents is the knowledge of those countries and the ability to change those as and when necessary, to suit a crowd.”

It’s a difficult task for all comics: finding their voice and their audience. But because of stereotypes and attitudes, it’s a bit harder for a non-Anglo comic to find the right voice and right audience without seeming too much like every other wog comic that preceded him. Someone’s already gotten the laugh about Miss Helena never seeing you through her magic mirror on Romper Room because your name was too difficult or out-of-the-ordinary; someone’s already commented on the smelly, but awesome three course meal your mother would fix you for lunch. Not that that was an issue for Sam.

“Another wog comic doing wog stuff about being a wog – that’s not true to me.”

Early on, Sam was given the opportunity to play the National Theatre in Canberra as part of Show Us Your Roots, a comedy night that showcases comics of a non-Australian heritage. “I was asked as ‘a Lebanese coimc’,” Sam reports. “I did four minutes of my five-minute routine doing ‘dumb Leb’ jokes, and then I said, ‘I’ll let you in on a little secret: I don’t actually talk like this. I talk like you guys.’ And a thousand people went, ‘Oh, right…’” Adamant that he’s not trying to judge anyone else’s humour or how they’re trying to do it, Sam says he “always felt like a bit of a chameleon” and tries to bring that to the stage.

So being able to do a multitude of accents does add a good, new dimension. Mostly.

“I’m going to have to ask a potentially difficult question,” I hazard.

That’s okay,” Sam says. “I’m going to give you a potentially difficult answer…”

Gulp. Here goes. Some comedians are of the opinion that impressions are easy, or ‘hacky’; they get laughs more readily than not doing them… Admittedly, it’s the comedians not getting laughs with accents, possibly because they can’t do them, saying that. But what does Sam think? Are there some jokes you can ‘get away with’ by bunging on an accent, that you couldn’t make fly without one?

“Absolutely,” Sam says. “But that doesn’t mean the accents are easy…”

No, of course not. If they were, everyone would to them. But given you have the talent for accents, do you agree that some jokes that wouldn’t be good enough necessarily without an accent, can be funny with an accent?

“Of course,” Sam says, explaining why. “It‘s the thing of…” – and he bungs on an Irish accent to explain – “put an Irish accent on, and people just listen. They don’t care what you’re talking about, but it’s a lot funnier in an Irish accent…” – bunging on a Scottish accent – “and you’re doing a wee story, and people are absolutely mesmerised by your accent.” Reverting to his real speaking voice, Sam adds, “at the end of the day you can stand up and do an accent and still not be funny. It’s all about the delivery and the performance. You’ve got to be the comic first and then the character.”


On with the show

Of course, there’s nothing easy or hacky about weaving a whole stack of characters with accents into a full-length show with a narrative. Around the World in 80 Jokes, Sam explains, is “about a guy who loses his sense of humour and has to travel around the world to find it”. He travels on a magic carpet with the help of an Indian guru. The original idea was to have the main character travel to different comedy festivals around the world in order to showcase different types of humour. Instead, different humour is now ascribed to the various comic characters, all of whom embody “some weird derviation of humour: the French guy is a mime; the German is a Professor of Comedy; the Russian is a comedy assassin.”

Added to the mix is a series of filmed inserts – “to drive the narrative along,” Sam says, “and to give me time backstage to change into different characters. It’s literally a one-man stage show.”

It sounds great. But the story of a guy who loses his sense of humour and travels the world to find it? I suspect I know how it’ll end; the main character sounds remarkably like a guy I know who took time off from comedy in order to concentrate on his other passion – travel – and realised his ideal destination, wherever he ended up, was being funny on a stage.

Around the World in 80 Jokes - 7pm Sat 5th June - Cleveland Street Theatre, 199 Cleveland Street.


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J’adore Jon Dore

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“Hi, my name is Jon Dore. I can’t get to the phone right now. My roommate Steve Patterson is a racist. Please leave a message. Thanks.” BEEP

In the process of contacting Canadian comic Jon Dore for an interview before he arrives in Australia, I repeatedly reach his voicemail; performing in the LOL Sudbury Comedy Festival in Ontario, he’s understandably busy. So I leave a message for his ‘racist’ roommate Steve Patterson – a great Canadian stand-up who I met on one of several Australian visits – and assure Jon I’ll phone again. At least the delay enables me to watch a few clips online, not just of Dore’s stand-up, but also excerpts from the television show he landed after serving as the ‘whacky correspondent’ on Canadian Idol.

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that,” Jon offers as his icebreaker, when I tell him. I figure I should just get stuck in. It seems to me Jon must have some experience in improv-based comedy, seeing as there’s a strong physical aspect to his comedy, and he’s able, when interviewing on his show, to ‘accept offers’ and bounce off them to go in a new direction.

“Absolutely,” Jon says – about the improv experience, I assume, since he carries on with, “but when you say ‘physically’, I’m not sure what you mean.”


“That bit where you take the stuff off the stool, move it, sit on it and start swinging your legs as the set-up for a joke,” I offer as a clear example.  “There is a physicality to what you do.”

“Oh yeah,” Jon agrees. “I would say that’s a very specific moment where there’d be some physicality. I do walk onto the stage – so it’s starts pretty physically…”

There may be other clear examples that constitute evidence of a ‘physical’ approach to Jon’s comedy, he concedes, but he wouldn’t actually know. “I don’t think I’ve ever analysed it that way. I mean, I like to take it easy as much as I can and not move around much. I get tired.”

Fair enough. But as far as the improv aspect goes – there is clear evidence of it at work in one of my favourite clips from The Jon Dore Show, in which Jon turns to a little kid for help with giving up an addiction to cigarettes. It doesn’t look as though the kid’s been fed lines.


“We couldn’t feed him anything,” Jon confirms. Julian – the child in question – was chosen out of “a bunch of kids” because they were after someone who wouldn’t sound “scripted”. Although they soon discovered that Julian was no slouch when it came to ‘improvising’ either. “There was no way of controlling him,” Jon recalls. “He would get off the couch and run into the kitchen and pretend to shoot bad guys who weren’t there. He was a genuine child, completely unaware that there were cameras there.” The trick was to ensure that Jon ‘accepted all offers’ – bounced off whatever Julian did, using it as inspiration for the next bit. “We shot for about half an hour. We had to sculpt the interview into some kind of sensible viewing.” According to Jon, moments like those – “getting kids on the show, treating them like adults – are among his favourite. “That’s my theory: treat the adults like kids and the kids like adults. That seems to work out all right.”

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Go (mis)directly to comedy

Jon got into comedy “the way anybody would”, he reckons: when he was a student in his early 20s, a comedy club opened in his neighbourhood in Ottawa so he went there and started telling jokes. “I was terrible, and I then just kind of kept at it. A lot of my heroes were comedians and were funny, but I never thought I’d be a comedian by profession. I always thought it would be a fun thing to try, and you just continue to do it and it seems work out.”

At the time, Jon was “slinging drinks” in a bar to supplement his student loan while he studied television production – a degree he completed. “It solidified what I wanted to do,” he says. “I had no idea what I wanted to do in life, and then I studied TV broadcasting and found out I loved writing and directing and editing.”

Hence, Jon has a hand in all aspects of The Jon Dore Television Show, from writing it with his friends, to producing it while friends direct, to sitting in on the edits and liaising with the network regarding notes on the show. In other words, he says, “I was a bit of a control freak. It was the only way it could have happened.”

Perhaps ‘being a control freak’ is the only way the television show could have happened; the beauty of Jon’s stand-up is that there is no clear-cut way any of the jokes happen. That is to say, the only way to predict a punchline would be to predict the most unpredictable outcome. He always seems to be subverting audience expectation. Is this because he is always able to see a multitude of different options and pick the seemingly least likely? A good question, according to Jon, but one to which he doesn’t have know the answer.

“I think that’s just where, as a writer or a comedian, I naturally started to go,” he offers. “I started to see what would make audiences laugh, and it was the unexpected. The misdirection – making them feel like I’m going one way and taking them in a different direction – is what I became comfortable with. I don’t know when that happened or why that happened, I think that it’s just a natural way of evolving as a writer.”

Although, as far as Jon is concerned, “all comedy is misdirection”. Not knowing what the comedian is going to say next is part of what makes you laugh. “Sometimes it’s a more familiar punchline,” he concedes, “but I prefer to work in a world where the punchline is not going to be something familiar, it’s something the audience wasn’t thinking.”

Jon’s reluctant to analyse it further. Or at all, really. That mode of comedy comes naturally to him. “It’s how I behave with my friends. Having beers and talking, and then saying something they weren’t thinking always seems to get a response.”

 

Patterson’s curse…

Jon hasn’t visited Australia before. On the verge of departure he’s “very, very excited”. He’s also “scared”. In fact, he says, “I’m a whole bunch of things”, partly because he knows very little about the country – just what he learned at school and what friends have subsequently told him. “I imagine it’s a warm place,” Jon says. “People have told me that it’s very similar to Canada in terms of politics and personality.”

“Your flatmate would have told you that breakfast costs too much,” I tell him. I remember Steve Patterson remarking, from the stage, that the base price of a café bacon-and-eggs breakfast in this country appears to $15, whereas back in Canada, it is $5.

“My flatmate?” Jon says. “Oh, yeah, I got your message. You’re thinking of a different Steve Patterson.”

What? Surely not…

Turns out the Steve Patterson Jon shares a place with is different to the Steve Patterson who has come to Australia a few times. “I know the Steve Patterson you mean,” Jon says. “I’m also friends with him.  He now lives in Montreal. My friend Steve Patterson is another comedian and writer, who also helped me write The Jon Dore Television Show.”

“I was certain there was only one funny Steve Patterson in Canada…” I offer.

“You know what?” Jon says, “I think they both wish there was only one funny Steve Patterson. This confusion is what we constantly run into now.”

Anyway, I soldier on and point out that the other funny Steve Patterson’s observation: breakfast costs too much in Australia.

“Is that right?” Jon says, unfazed. “Here’s where that won’t affect me: I won’t be up till afternoon! That’s how I save a little bit of money.” 

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Silly fun

Not having seen a lot of Jon Dore’s work, I can’t make any sweeping generalisations regarding what his material is ‘about’. So I ask him to break it down. “I enjoy being facetious,” he says, proving it by adding, “I love lying – if you believe that! And I love being silly as well.” Like all good comics, Jon is drawn to any “so-called ‘taboo’ subject”, but adds, “not for any greater purpose – just that when tension’s built, it’s fun to relieve it.” Although he wouldn’t describe himself as “controversial”, and doesn’t specifically focus on ‘heavy’ issues like race and religion, Jon acknowledges the “built-in tension” of controversial topics that draws him to them. “If there is tension there, it’s a fun topic to approach,” he says.

‘Fun’ itself is a fun topic to approach, I reckon. I put it to the comic: what does Jon Dore do for fun?

“Interviews!” Jon says. Not just a clever response, given that he’ll derive comedy from interviews on his television show. But he is a comedian, after all; isn’t ‘fun’ a comedian’s raison d’etre? Well it is in Jon’s case, almost by definition, since he adds that he does “just about anything” for fun, and that “everything’s kind of fun”. He can be more specific, of course:

“I love hanging out with my girlfriend. We just ordered ‘heelies’ online. Adult-sized heelies.” ‘Heelies’, Jon explains, are “the shoes with wheels in the heel” that you see kids scooting along in. “We just found them incredibly cheap: $40 a pair, delivery included. So that’s fun.”

Grown adults in heelies. It is fun. But it’s also… rather childlike. Perhaps that’s where Jon’s theory – about treating adults like children, and children like adults – has its origins. As a comedian, he’s always ‘embracing the child within’, surely, in order to see the world fresh with a child-like innocence. Or not.

“I don’t know,” Jon says, sensibly avoiding any high-falutin’ philosophical nonsense. “I don’t think about it. I just know, for television purposes anyway, for whatever reason, it’s just fun to be childish and ask child-like questions of adults because they come across as a little more honest, a little more realistic, because they’re not crowded down with red tape and rules. And then to treat a kid like an adult and make them respond to various questions, they come out with some very earnest answers.”

It’s another one of those perfect comedy disjunctions and Jon cites a classic example of it: the show Kids Say The Darndest Things, best remembered for when Bill Cosby took over from Art Linkletter as host. “There was something fun about that: an adult in a suit with a microphone, asking a child to respond to a very adult-like situation and then saying something very childlike and honest.”

Treat adults as children and children as adults. I almost feel bad publishing it. It’s too good a secret to share with the rest of the world. Nobody needs the competition of other people who know ‘the secret to good television’. Jon’s not so precious.

“We’re all gonna die one day,” he reminds me. “Print what you want.”


Jon Dore is headlining at the Comedy Store for two weeks, supported by Jacques Barrett. Book tickets.


The Katt Came Back

*Warning*

This interview contains adult concepts. Please visit other pages of this blog if you don’t like hearing or reading about sexually explicit comedy.

  5

Does Humour Belong In Music?

“It all started with ‘The F*ck You Song’.” Nikky assures me. “I didn’t know that I was a comedian. I had to have several friends and loved ones – including my grandfather – tell me, before I decided to start singing my songs in comedy clubs. Although my grandfather would lose it if he heard the content of the current songs…”

Nikki Lynn Katt is a gorgeous American woman who sings songs that are rude, clever and – best of all – funny, in the sweetest voice you can imagine. Indeed, that is part of how and why her humour works, at least to begin with: the ‘Sarah Silverman’ effect, if you will. The disjunction of those words coming out of that face (and, if I’m to be honest, on top of that body…) with that voice.

But, as she explains, Nikki didn’t start her career as a singer of ribald songs. That’s a destination you can only arrive at, really, via an interesting detour, having set out for somewhere else entirely. Music was always her first love, of course, and that’s why Nikki attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she set out to be “a regular songwriter”. But the ‘regular’ songs she wrote proved to be “super-sad”.

“If they’re not dirty, silly, funny songs about sex, they’re all songs that would make you want to slit your wrists. Nobody wants to hear sad songs, so they’re just for me. I used to record and perform the sad songs but now I stick to making people laugh.”

Sad songs and funny songs have a similar origin – it’s just a matter of how the songwriter choses to document the inspirational event. Consider, again, ‘The F*ck You Song’, written when Nikki was still a singer/songwriter rather than a comedian. The lyrics are something like,

This is my big f*cking ‘f*ck you’ song to you
You f*cking bastard, and your little slut, too.

“It was sung really sweet and pretty,” Nikki says. A hate song done up as a love song is the perfect source of comedy and proved to be everyone’s favourite whenever she included it in her set. “People started to tell me to write more stuff like that because that’s what people like to hear. That’s how it started.”

Rest assured, Nikki’s path to comedy was “a little awkward” to begin with. Doing ‘The F*ck You Song’ as part of her set at the Hotel Café in Los Angeles – “probably the premiere place for a singer/songwriter to perform” – wouldn’t always prove popular. “Sometimes people was it as a breath of fresh air in an environment where you’d just hear sad songs all the time. But some people thought it was totally out of place. They’re the ones who directed me to comedy clubs.”

The humourless singer/songwriting milieu’s loss is comedy’s gain, clearly. Although the comedy songwriter has to work harder.

“When you hear a great song you say, ‘that song was so great, I want to hear that again’. When someone tells a great joke, you don’t say, ‘I want to hear that joke again’. To write a great song, you have to repeat something memorable, but in order to tell a great joke, you can’t repeat that thing because they already know it. I’ve learned over the years that anything you can do to repeat a hook in a song with some kind of variation that makes it new, is the way to keep it going.”



Nikki’s Record

This is true of two songs that immediately come to mind: ‘When I’m With You’, and ‘Don’t Forget About The Balls’, both available on Hello, My Name Is Nikki Lynn Katt, Nikki’s recently released EP (for sale at gigs, on Nikki’s website and via iTunes). The former song is a not-quite-able-to-break-up ballad, the latter, a song of instruction aimed to better educate young people about sexual health.

Well, that’s not quite how Nikki introduces ‘Don’t Forget About The Balls’ on stage. She says she wrote it as a form of sexual health instruction for a school audience, but she wasn’t allowed to perform it in front of said audience. It’s clear why: ‘Don’t Forget The Balls’ gives kids more information than they’d really need or want – which makes it all the funnier. But that’s not the only time Nikki’s provided perhaps more information than the audience requires. Straddling music and comedy as she does, Nikki can still occasionally find herself placed, if not on the ‘wrong’ bill, certainly a ‘bad’ one. Like the time she opened for a Christian artist.

“I didn’t know,” Nikki insists. “I opened with a song called ‘Jewish Girls Don’t Do Anal’. I was experimenting with survey-taking. I passed out an anal sex survey, and all of these Christian people who had come to see the Christian artist were horrified.”

How could anyone stuff up by booking Nikki and a god-botherer on the same bill?

“LA is different in the sense that club promoters don’t actually promote shows. They find musicians who will play a show for free and invite all of their friends. The promoter of that show just put a random bunch of artists on the same bill with no thought how those artists would mesh.”

The result?

“People definitely were upset and they left.” Pause. “The anal sex survey didn’t go very well, either.”

Although ‘Jewish Girls Don’t Do Anal’ isn’t on the Hello, My Name Is Nikki Lynn Katt EP, the other songs are as full-on in lyrical content. Nikki describes the collection as “a bunch of recordings done over the years” and though it’s mostly voice-and-guitar recordings made in friends’ bedrooms and living rooms, it sounds much more cohesive and professional. Probably because some of the numbers, like ‘The Sock Song’, were recorded in a “proper studio” with a full band and “proper production”. It also has a video clip that’s had 10,000 hits on YouTube.

“Everything in ‘The Sock Song’ is factual,” Nikki says. “My neighbour who was my very good friend slept with my boyfriend and I had to live next door to her for four-and-a-half years and share a parking space with her and share a laundry with her, and I totally just hated her but I had to be nice to her or else it would have sucked to live next to her.

“One day we were both doing laundry and her sock ended up with my clothes. The song literally came out of me thinking what horrible things I could do to her sock to repay her.” Rest assured, Nikki didn’t actually have her friends pleasure themselves into the sock. But if she had, that wouldn’t constitute nearly as good revenge as the song does. Nikki agrees.

“What I would really like to happen is a friend tell her, ‘Dude, did you see this song by Nikki Lynn Katt?’ and for her to say, ‘Oh, that girl’s my ex-neighbour’, and look at it, and see what it’s about.”

We can only hope.

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While ‘Heartbroken Vagina’ is about “losing your mojo after a break-up” and “not being interested in the things you used to be interested in”, ‘This Halloween’ is another band recording. Essentially, it’s about how Halloween is the night to dress sluttily despite the discomfort, or risk being ignored.

“I hate being uncomfortable for any reason whatsoever,” Nikki explains, “and Halloween is one of those nights: it’s the last day of October so it’s really, really cold and you’re kind of required to wear these skimpy outfits…”. In the video, Nikki is dressed in “a dorky pumpkin piñada” which is warmer and hardly slutty at all, but comes with consequences, as Nikki explains: “If you go as that girl, you’re just gonna be the girl in the corner on your own the whole night because the rest of the party is a parade of cleavage and upper thigh… So that song was basically about embracing the fact that you’re gonna be uncomfortable but when it comes down to it you have one night to let your inner whore come out. It’s a night that gives you a free pass.”

The clip of the song has proven popular, even Downunder. “I was very surprised when I got notes from people who had heard the song or seen the video in Australia,” Nikki says, “because my understanding was that it wasn’t a very big holiday in Australia. It’s interesting to know that it’s growing.”

It is growing – few people went ‘trick-or-treating’ when I was a kid. Lots of kids do it now. I’m in favour of it, I tell Nikki, not just because it is the universal ‘night of the casual whore’, but also because it was Frank Zappa’s favourite holiday.

Good call,” she approves.

One track that does stand out on the EP is ‘Elements Of The Ridiculous’, a ‘throw-back’ to Nikki’s earlier work as a singer/songwriter of beautiful sad songs. “I guess I just wanted to show that I have more than one face,” Nikki initially says of the song’s inclusion. “No, that’s not what I wanted to show…”

I think it is exactly what Nikki wanted to show – that she’s not just some one-trick pony. Although the trick – clearly not her only one – is pretty impressive, I suspect a part of her still wants to be known for the serious stuff as well as the funny stuff.

“That’s exactly what it was,” Nikki agrees. “I’m trying to show that I’m not a one-trick pony. In my fantasy land, I get to play all the different kinds of songs that I play in one place.” She toys with the idea of making a record that embraces both styles, the happy and the sad, which she’d call Bipolar. She quickly points out she’s not seeking to ridicule or annoy people who suffer from bipolar affective disorder. Although it would appear on the surface that the sad songs and the comedy songs are poles apart, the fact is they are two sides of the same coin. The ‘sad clown’ is a universal archetype. “I hadn’t thought about it like that,” Nikki says. “Yeah, I am the sad clown.”

  8


Novelty Downunder

This isn’t Nikki’s first visit to Australia. She visited a year ago, she tells us, while MCing an open mic night at the Laugh Garage. The process that brought her here then, and has led to her return, began late one night in Los Angeles, as she lay in bed watching Jimmy Fallon.

“Andy Samberg came on and he was talking about his song ‘Jizz in my Pants’ and said that it was a number one hit in Australia…”

Indeed it was – despite being banned from radio play by most stations, it was, for a time, the number one download on iTunes.

My ears perked up and I did a little bit of research and found out that comedy records are the biggest selling records of all time in Australia.”

Again, indeed they are. I can’t be bothered working out which, but the top spot must be heavily contested by the likes of Austen Tayshus’s ‘Australiana’, Joe Dolce’s ‘Shaddap You Face’ and Chris Franklin’s ‘Bloke’. Point is, as far as Nikki Lynn Katt is concerned, her ambition is to make a “proper comedy record” with a “proper label” and “proper marketing”. So, she says, she decided to take the risk and come to Australia on her own and try to make some connections.

“I came out, played some open mic rooms, met Julie Lawless…” – manager of the Darren Sanders-owned Laugh Garage – “…who is now a lifelong friend and booked my whole tour for me. I also came out to take a meeting with a record label. That label and I are still in talks, but it’s maybe not the right fit, so I’m still looking for someone to help me put out my record.”

  9

Does Humour in Musical Sex Education?

While a comedy record is a goal, Nikki Lynn Katt’s greater project is ‘musical sex education’. “I do songs about STDs and safe sex practices,” she explains. “I’d really like to do a college tour where I combine songs about herpes and urinary tract infections and songs like ‘Don’t Forget About The Balls’ – sex-related health education.”

I can’t help myself. The question has to be asked. “Where does this burning desire…”

I stop myself.

“‘Burning’ is obviously the wrong word…”

Nikki laughs.

What I ask is, what happened during Nikki’s formative years that made her decide to essentially write a musical about sexual health? Is she from a background where all of this stuff was taboo?

According to Nikki, at age 25 she found herself “doing a little soul-searching”, thinking about all the world’s problems, trying to determine what the biggest ones were and how they might be solved. “It seemed to me that the root issue is that there are too many unwanted children. The world would be a much better place if people only had children when it was on purpose – that they came together and went, ‘I want to bring another human being into the world and raise it’.” Her solution to how to ensure there are less unwanted children is to talk to kids, acknowledge that they’re “going to do what they’re going to do” in terms of their behaviour, “and if they’re going to do those things, help them figure out how be safe and responsible about it.”

To that end, Nikki applied to become a high school outreach speaker through a US public health organisation, and after completing the training courses, was sent out to high schools  “to talk to kids about safe sex and birth control and STDs and the whole nine yards”. This instilled within her a desire to communicate to people the message of being safe and responsible. Her favourite slogan that sums it all up is: “Love carefully”.

And here I was thinking the introduction sto ‘Don’t Forget The Balls’ – that it was written for a school audience, in order to educate them about sexual health, but that she was no allowed to perform it to school kids – was a joke. “No,” Nikki assures me, “it’s true”. And now it’s even funnier!

A noble undertaking, educating kids to take responsibility for their actions. Using comedy for a purpose other than merely being funny begs the inevitable question: can comedy change anything?

“Comedy can change a lot of things,” Nikki says. “People laugh at something when they relate to it. So if you can get someone to laugh about something, you’ve gotten them to understand it.” And it's as true on a personal level for Nikki Lynn Katt, as she cites her “boring day job at a law firm”. Asked to explain why she worked so much overtime, Nikki “drew up an outline called ‘The Top 7 Reasons It Takes Nikki Longer Than Everyone Else To Her Job’” and included jokes. By the end of reading the outline, she’d managed to communicate to them in a non-confrontational and fun way the issues that have an effect on her work. “That’s just a small way that comedy can make differences in every-day life,” Nikki says. “And when comedians are sent to entertain troops overseas, that’s a way in which comedy’s making a big difference.”


Nikki Lynn Katt is at headlining at the Laugh Garage with Sam Tripoli this week. Book online.