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!
“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 watch – and 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.