Mickey D is a legend of comedy.
Despite not having filmed an HBO special yet, nor yet won the Whatthefuckisit™ Award at Edinburgh Fringe (formerly ‘The Perrier’, and then the IF, but I’ve no idea who sponsors it anymore or what they’re now calling it), Mickey D is an institution of comedy. He jumped on stage straight out of school, scarpered to the UK not long thereafter, and cut his chops through hard work. He established a festival institution: the Phat Cave, a late-night anything-goes room where comics came out to play.
Now he’s returned to Australia, settled down – more-or-less – and established a mid-week room – Project Wednesday – in his hometown of Adelaide. A different room. It’s built on the New York ‘bring three paying punters and you’ll get on stage’ model, which is unexpected, a bit provocative, and quite different for Australia, all at once.
It’s high time we had a chat.
The Mickey Rat Club
“I started doing comedy straight out of high school,” Mickey D informs me. “Formal lessons finished on the 28th of October. We were meant to study for our exams. I got the exams out of the way and on 22nd of November, ten days after my 18th birthday, I did my first gig in Adelaide.”
The ‘meant to study for our exams’ is the telling line. By his own admission, Mickey wasn’t the most studious of kids. “My dad was a publican,” he says. “We moved around a lot, went to a lot of schools. From an early age I was in an adult environment and I had a lot of problems because I’d go to school equipped with stuff I’d heard in the front bar.”
In addition to a tendency towards being the “offensive ratbag”, Mickey admits that he was no mathematician: “Creative writing was my thing. I was a creative writer and debater. But also a bit of a shit-stirrer. And that culminated in Raw Comedy in 1998, the year I left high school.”
That explains an awful lot, actually. Why Mickey D is so at home in pubs – because his home actually was a pub. “That’s where I grew up from the age of seven,” he says. “Thankfully, I’m the only one of my family who’s never worked a week in a pub. I’m always on the other side of the bar.” Mickey has done some shifts as a “glassy”, though. He ended up getting his “arse pinched by some old ladies in an over-aged nightclub”. Ah, Mickey!
Adelaide seems to have a very close-knit comedy scene. When Mickey started, just over a decade a go, it was smaller and closer-knit. He sites Justin Hamilton as a very big influence early on. Lehmo was also very supportive. Adelaide. Justin Hamilton was a very big influence early on in the piece. “ They were my big brothers, really,” says Mickey, “but there’s only so much you can get going at that age when it’s just the three of you there. I got on stage as often as I could with the boys. Then Justin moved on to Melbourne, Lehmo got on the radio, and I had to do something because they were my boys; they were my benchmark. I went the overseas route. I went to London.” Although Mickey D would go on to perform at Edinburgh and establish himself over the course of nine Edinburgh Fringe Festivals, he started his journey in London. “I felt worthless; useless. I thought, ‘Why am I even getting on stage when you can see the Glenn Wools, the Sean Meos? Why do I even bother?’”
It took Mickey a couple of years of “really digging deep and finding self-worth”, gigging four or five times a week and sometimes travelling up to 1500 miles “up and down the island” during that week, to find his voice and work out who he was as a comic. “It was just quantity of work that the quality finally picked up,” he says. Nowadays, he’s up there with the Glenn Wools and the Sean Meos. Although allow me to digress for a moment:
Throughout our conversation, Mickey refers repeatedly to Glenn Wool, his “second favourite comic”. Eventually I ask the inevitable question – to which, I suspect, I already know the answer: Who is Mickey D’s favourite comic?
“Me,” he says, adding “I’d hate to be number three!”
Turns out the top spot for ‘favourite’, as far as Mickey is concerned, is a tussle between Glenn Wool, Doug Stanhope and Mickey D. Glenn and Doug are in fine company.
One of the legendary stories of Mickey D is the one about the year he broke his wrists. It was Edinburgh, 2003. Mickey was playing for a local cricket club called Drummond. “It’s important that I make friends other than just with the comedy fraternity,” Mickey explains. “I wanna ingratiate myself by any means possible in any city I’m in.” The Drummond club, situated “just off the botanical gardens there in Edinburgh”, were a natural fit for Mickey, who was part of the team for three season wins.
After one match, however, in which they’d enjoyed a good nine-wicket win, Mickey had enjoyed a few pints and was perched head and shoulders above the stone wall of an old pub overlooking the senior oval of the team they’d just destroyed. Ever the boisterous comic, Mickey started ‘heckling’ the cricket game that was in play in a thick Aussie accent, to the bemusement of other patrons in the Scottish beer garden. “I yelled out, ‘I’ll see you next year! We’re gonna destroy ya! Yer going down!’”
With teammates hoisting him up on the wall so that he may be better heard, Mickey got right into it: “I’m yelling out, ‘No ball!’ The guy bowls a no-ball. I yell out, ‘Wide!’ and he bowls a wide. I’m thinking, ‘I’m controlling this game!’”
And then it goes just a bit far: one teammate jostles just a little too much and Mickey’s over the wall. “I needed to save this beautiful money-maker that is my face, even though I’m no Danny Bhoy,” Mickey explains. So he put both arms out – and received “two absolutely symmetrical breaks on either sides of my wrists.”
For the record, however, Mickey was only three pints into the celebrations by that stage. “I wasn’t drunk, just comfy. Quite relaxed, actually, which was good, because if I was any more stiff I’d have broken more than just me wrists.”
Now, all this happened before that year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. So Mickey ended up playing his whole season in casts – two arms solidly outstretched in front of him. “I went out there full of morphine and a lot of doubt,” Mickey recalls. “People were going, ‘this is a joke’, grabbing my arms, twisting them. People were handing me two pints: ‘hold these’. I was on morphine and having jokes played on me.” Canadian comic Tanyalee Davis had the most fun. She’s all of three and a half feet tall and made of the most of the opportunity: “she ran her hand up my leg and played with my balls”.
Adam Hills – a regular of the Adelaide comedy scene from his time hosting breakfast radio there – would give Mickey a plug at the end of his show: ‘Go and see the guy with the broken wrists’. “I was the freak,” Mickey says. “I remember doing seven gigs one night in Edinburgh because everyone wanted me in their late shows. That’s where I got the idea that there is definitely an audience for late night comedy.”
And so Mickey D the legend was forged that season. And so were the seeds for his legendary room, the Phat Cave.
To the Phat Cave, Robin
The Phat Cave is a late night venue that Mickey established in Edinburgh and now runs there and at other festivals, where comedians could come and unwind at the end of the night. Chances were, by that stage, they’d have had a few drinks and were more likely to ‘play’ rather than merely ‘perform’: visit material that they wouldn’t usually do to the regular public; take each other on; blow off steam. In its heyday it was a dingy room with an audience consisting mostly of comics, with some hardcore punters along for the ride. “I bill it as ‘the unsafe haven’,” Mickey says, “where comedians come to play, rather than do shtick. It’s a yardstick of your own mettle, really. If you want to see if you can hold your own, this is the place. It’s a curated bear pit.” According to Mickey, “you walk through hell to find the garden”; the comics are mostly playing, the punch lines don’t necessarily come thick and fast.
According to Mickey, Brendon Burns – the “stunt comedy clown” and “angry genius” – summed it up best. “If there’s enough of us in the room” – ‘us’ being ‘the comedians’ – “the punch line will always build itself.” But it’s the brave late-night punter who’s willing to sit through that to get to the pay-off. And it’s not always the pay-off you’d expect or want. Mickey explains it this way:
“How many times have you heard, ‘Oh, you’re a comedian; it must be great hanging out with other comedians’. No. We’re hateful, twisted wrong’uns, and what we need to have fun is to see someone scamper. Not flounder, but nearly have a melt-down.” The Phat Cave provides that environment for comedians to challenge themselves and go to comedy places regular gigs won’t allow them. “Off the top, I welcome the general public into something special because they’re outnumbered. They’re seeing what we do.”
The Phat Cave provides a vital outlet for comics, allowing them a safe haven to push the boundaries and cross the line. Those lines and boundaries are important – they define a society. A comic’s job is to test them.
“You don’t know where the boundaries are until you’ve crossed them,” Mickey says. “And you’re not a good comedian unless you can come back from them. If you can set an audience off the wrong way, and you can come back from that, that’s art. You can make someone angry and then back it up with your good material, but if you can do that all in the same paragraph and breath, you are clearly a craftsman and a master.”
The Phat Cave also provides that pressure cooker safety valve – if comedians have the presence of mind to make the most of it. “I’ve seen comedians walk out because they think it’s too much,” Mickey says. “If it’s too much, shout out, don’t walk out. Stick in there, be part of it. I want everyone to get involved. It’s where we can go and test each other playfully.” This is the perfect environment for those comedy showdowns that nowadays take place online: when Comedian A’s material is far too close to Comedian B’s material, after they happened to play the same bill way back when. “Instead of reposting footage and using iMovie on your Mac to put the date and graphic on there to say ‘he stole my bit…’,” Mickey insists, “come and talk about it on stage. Work it out.”
So well established in Adelaide is the Phat Cave that nowadays it sells out its entire Adelaide Fringe run in the 200-seat Bosco Theatre in The Garden of Unearthly Delights. Because of the pressure of the general public coming, it has to be a proper ‘show’ show. Which it can be, of course. “I’ve got a lot of talent up my sleeve,” Mickey says: “all my mates wanting to perform for f*ck-all”. Although Mickey does get to return to the original ‘dingy, illicit comedy room’ blueprint when he runs the room at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival or Sydney’s Cracker Comedy Festival. Although those audiences require a bit of coaching to embrace it fully: “Where I’ve grown up and honed this is in Edinburgh, where you might still be on stage at quarter past four. People have got their third wind on the piss. You’ve got a whole cross-section of people fighting for attention, be it the audience or other comedians.”
In addition to taking care of the high-end of comedy – the curated bear pit in which the great comics can play, and the fans of great comedy can watch, Mickey’s also taken it upon himself to work with comics at the other end – relative newbies. He’s starting a Wednesday open mic room at the Rhino Rooms, “cultivating a welcoming environment” for comics.
The requirements to get on stage are interesting are the requirements to get on stage. It’s stuff like being punctual – first come, first served, from 7:30pm onwards, for an 8pm sharp start time – and bringing an audience – you need three paying punters if you want to get on stage.
The ‘bring your audience’ model is standard for New York open mic rooms. Some London rooms do it too.
“The ‘three friend minimum’ policy is in place in New York to enable promoters to pay the rent,” Mickey explains. “Here, it’s more or less to create a wider awareness and teach the comics important skills to help them debut their fringe show, and that is, how to rustle up a crowd.” According to Mickey, “wrangling people” is among the key arts to establishing yourself as a performer.
“It’s something that will ensure that you’re someone who’s still alive in the industry in five years, because you’ve learnt how to find your audience: you’ve gone about making it yourself. If you learn that from the start, it’ll be a natural part of your being a comic.”
The irony, however, as Mickey points out, is that once you do make it, you don’t have to worry about that kind of stuff because people will start generating their own word of mouth. But in the meantime, he insists, “it’s integral to getting started. It’s how you get the ball rolling.”
When you think about it, if you’ve done open mic and seen it being done, it makes good sense for the comics to help bring the audience. I’ve played rooms where there have been more comics than audience. It’s good practice – getting on stage is always good practice – but it reinforces the wrong things in a comic: the other comedians are going to be laughing at different things. They’ll either be too hard on you – laughing when you stuff things up – or too easy – laughing because they understand where you’re coming from, even though you haven’t developed the idea adequately, or worked out the best way to set it up, deliver it, or end it. Then you take that stuff to a room with a real audience, a paying audience of punters, and the material you know got laughs just the night before falls flat.
These sorts of rooms cropping up all over London, where comics who needed stage time were essentially playing to other comics, were part of Mickey’s inspiration. “I witnessed a development of a sub-circuit in London,” Mickey says. “I didn’t want people to stumble onto an open mic night and think ‘is that what comedy’s all about’, because there’s no middle ground between the Channel Ten Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala and a little, ramshackle open mic night.” Mickey’s aim is to provide that middle ground – somewhere between those rooms where comedians get together and more-or-less workshop material to each other (which all comedians love – all stage time is good stage time!) and those performance opportunities that take years of development before you get to play them.
“Comics will go, ‘I need to get gigs somewhere’. If I can help regulate a decent level of quality and environment for them, everyone wins.”
Everyone does win. Because, you might wonder, what’s in it for Mickey? Well, Mickey’s just gotten married (congratulations Mickey, to you and Minnie D!) and more-or-less settled down in Adelaide for the time being. It’s got a great comedy circuit, but like every other city in Australia, it’s no London. He needs to ensure he keeps his comedy muscles supple. So he’s MCing every week: a regular hour on stage to develop material. And if the room gets a regular audience – which it will: at least thirty punters – he won’t get away with doing the same material every week.
“Exactly!” Mickey agrees. “The pressure’s on. The hardcore supporters will be putting the immediate pressure on comics, including myself, just by their presence.” Everyone does, indeed win.
There’s also a bonus prize, from time to time. If a visiting comic – a mate of Mickey’s – happens to be in town, there might be a bonus headline act. For example, tonight, Wednesday 20th October 2010, there may well be a special guest. Usually, the deal is they’re doing it for free, so you can’t announce them. But a local paper reported that it was Fiona McLachlan. Whoever that may be.
Before I let Mickey go, I commend him on the artwork for the event: eye-catching, clever, creative. Mickey likes it too.
“I was on a tight deadline to get it in the street press, and the artwork came through,” he says. “I hadn’t had a coffee. I thought, ‘I like the crate, I like the writing’. But I don’t know why he’s stained the crate. What’s the black stuff he’s ‘spilled’ on it?”
Mickey admits that he “didn’t twig all morning” that it was a picture of him. In fact, his missus was the one who had to point it out!
I’m kind of glad, to be honest. I like the fact that Mickey D’s ego is so healthy he doesn’t automatically attenuate to images of himself. Even if he is his own favourite comic. “Subconsciously healthy,” Mickey agrees.