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Axis of Awesome –
5 Year Anniversary Sow*

*[sic]

AXIS OF AWESOME_SOW

 

“WE SPENT THE BULK of 2011 overseas,” Jordan Raskopoulos says. “In fact, we’ve spent the last 18 months overseas.”

The ‘we’ to whom Jordan refers are Axis of Awesome, the musical comedy trio he fronts, with Lee Naimo on lead guitar and rock goddery and Benny Davis on keyboards and diminutive stature. They write and perform songs that are both hilarious and clever, the most well-known of which is an impossibly long medley – of far too many songs that share the same chord progression – called ‘4 Chords’. How well known is it? Well known enough, as Jordan tells us on the eve of Axis of Awesome’s fifth anniversary, for them to have entertained troops in Egypt, lived the rock’n’roll dream touring American colleges out of a van for five months, and topping it all off by playing Germany, Sweden and Amsterdam. And although it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, seeing as how well loved they are in Australia, but Europe “really loves” Axis of Awesome

“Sweden is crazy for us. So is Germany. It was great playing a room of 500 people in Amsterdam who all knew the words to ‘Birdplane’.” ‘Birdplane’ is a parody version of the Five for Fighting song ‘Superman’, and despite English being their second language, Dutch fans were able to sing along. Which made Jordan’s tour, let alone his night.

 

 

“It was the first time, as a musical performer, I stopped singing and pointed the microphone at the audience so they could sing the rest of the song!”

This, he says, is “pretty crazy” for a comedy act. Fans of musicians get to know a song well. Fans of musical comedians have less opportunity to know parody songs off-by-heart since, once you know the punch line, you stop laughing. That’s why novelty songs that were very well loved initially can sometimes end up being loathed so vehemently once the novelty wears off. (Whisper it: ‘Shaddap You Face’). Yet fans love ‘Birdplane’. Indeed, fans – from all over the world – love all of Axis of Awesome songs. And not just their songs: also their renditions of other people’s songs. In Germany, their second encore was heavy metal band Rammstein’s ‘Du Hast’. “Although it’s not our song, we really, really enjoy singing German heavy metal,” Jordan insists. “That’s my favourite thing that we’ve ever done.”

 

 

It’s kind of – let’s face it, ‘awesome’ is the best word – that Axis of Awesome have pretty much conquered Germany – a nation at the centre of the last ‘Axis’ hell-bent on world domination – as well as the rest of the parts of the world that they’ve visited.

How does it feel?

“Pretty good. I mean, as any conqueror will tell you, it’s tough-going and there are plenty of sleepless nights on the road, but it’s been great and we’ve had plenty of fun.”

 

Antecedents of Axis

Comedy fans with good memories and/or a decent DVD collection will know Jordan from his time on The Ronnie Johns Half Hour – or, to give it it’s full name (because I can), The Ronnie Johns Good Times Campfire Jamboree Half Hour Show (Now On Televison) – where we remember Jordan as Paulie the Consumer Watchclock (of “gnocchi is potatoes, not pastas” infamy) and the Underground Guy. The more dedicated comedy nerd, however, will know that Ronnie Johns grew out of a couple of live comedy festival shows that compiled the best performers and sketches from various university revues: 2004’s The 3rd Degree: Generation HECS and, the following year, the 3rd Degree show Eskimos with Polaroids. Jordan joined the cast for the second show.

Benny Davis likewise featured in a comedy festival show some years later – alongside Jordan’s brother Steen, as it happens. The show was The Delusionists. However, Jordan, Lee and Benny all knew each other from Sydney’s improv scene – playing Theatresports and the like. 

“Lee was looking for a side project for the two of us to do,” Jordan says. When they decided it would be a musical project, they “got Benny on board because he was always the musical improviser for Theatresports.”

I do find it interesting that Jordan’s Ronnie Johns material was mostly sketch based, rarely dealing directly with musical parody. And yet Jordan’s so naturally ‘the front guy in a band’. He says that he was “writing musical stuff” while doing Ronnie Johns, but, apart from a couple of times, they “never really fit in the format”. Those times were pretty special, though, like ‘The Dominant Claw’ song.

 

 

Point is, Jordan had a bunch of “half-developed song ideas” so when Lee said “let’s do something musical” Jordan was able to bring a heap of stuff to the band. Then, somehow, this ‘side project’ “started to gain traction” after the trio appeared in a couple of satirical election clips.

 

 

Directed for Fairfax Media by 3rd Degree/Ronnie Johns alumnus Dan Ilic (you know him from Hungry Beast), the Election ’07 Rap Battle saw Jordan appear as R. U. Double-D, Lee as Ray Martin and Benny as Peter Costello… Ello… Ello… Ay… Ay…. Jordan and Benny reprised their roles while Lee played Ausralia in the follow-up, It’s Time To Go For Growth.

 

 

While there were a couple more Fairfax Media clips – “we did one about APEC, and I think we did one about the Olympics” – it was the success of the election clips that led the Axis on the road to Awesome. They applied to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival for a Brian McCarthy Memorial Moosehead Award (‘Moosehead’ for short) – a grant issued to comics seeking to present new work at the Festival. Their application proved successful. “We figured the best way to do our first show was to do it as a ‘comeback’ show,” Jordan explains, with The Axis of Awesome Comeback Spectacular featuring at the 2008 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. “Then we got an offer to do Edinburgh. We did Edinburgh and just kept going and going.”

 

4 Chords, How Many Songs?

In much the same way as Axis of Awesome have kept going and going, ‘4 Chords’ just keeps going and going. Literally (each song in the medley gives way to the next; ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ points are decided by the band) and figuratively (fans continue to discover Axis of Awesome via ‘4 Chords’).

The first time the song and the band ‘went viral’ was when it was played on BBC Radio 1 in 2009. “We woke up the next day and had a whole heap of MySpace friend requests – we had no idea where it came from. That got us maybe a million hits on YouTube.”

 

 

But when Ashton Kutcher tweeted a link to the YouTube clip of a live version from the 2010 Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala, “it got 5 million hits in a week and it went crazy”. And then the invite-only Montreal Just For Laughs Comedy Festival called, with Axis of Awesome’s invitation; the trio landed US management off the back of it. Oh, and, wasn’t it about this time they got to play in China?

“We had a booking but it fell through,” Jordan says. “We’re still holding out for China; we’ve not done it yet. But we’re still talking; hopefully some time this year we’ll be visiting China.”

 

 

I’d love to see the list of the songs that have made it to ‘4 Chords’. According to Jordan, the list – compiled by Benny – includes “well over 200 songs”. But it’s not like they’ve ever featured in a single, mega-mix performance. In fact, there’s no ‘definitive’ rendition of ‘4 Chords’, seeing as Axis of Awesome have recorded three different studio versions and the basic core itself changes from territory to territory when they play it live. “In the UK there are Australian songs that don’t necessarily hit the mark; same with the US. We try to tailor the songs to the market that we’re playing in.”

In fact, it often changes from one night to the next irrespective of where they are. “Benny will go, ‘I heard something on the radio, let’s throw it in’ and in a panic we’ll re-order the song and make sure we don’t forget it.” Often the changes are short-lived, the new inclusions proving “a bit obscure, or flash-in-the-pan things that were on the radio for a couple of weeks and then disappeared”. The cutest ones are the songs nobody knows, that were never contenders – songs from new bands wanting to fast-track their rise to fame by sending letters to the Axis of Awesome saying, “Hey, we’ve just written a four-chord song, can you please add it to your ‘Four Chord Song’ so that we can be more popular?”

 

 

Finger Lickin’ Hoods

A little while ago some photos did the rounds depicting Lee, Jordan and Benny in the ‘Southern Gentleman’ clobber unmistakable as the uniform of a certain Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Friend Chicken. Turns out it’s for the clip to an excellent song, ‘Ode to KFC’. Unveiling it – as far as their home crowd was concerned – as the encore to triumphant homecoming gigs at the Sydney Opera House, this hip hop paean to fast food saw them literally singing the praises of the so-called ‘dirty bird’, AKA ‘Kentucky Frizzle Chizzle’.

Colonel sanderses


The back story to the song is familiar territory to anyone who has spent some time not just at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, but has been at the late-night HiFi Bar until chucking-out time. It’s the “wee hours of the morning”, as Jordan explains, when there’s “usually a desire for some greasy food”. And there aren’t many options in Melbourne’s CBD at that time. There’s the 24-hour ‘Golden Towers’ (known fondly to comics as ‘Golden Showers’), the finest kebabs you will ever have at Stalactytes, or KFC. Frequently finding himself at KFC with his bandmates and sundry comics, Jordan would yell all sorts of faux-hip hop nonsense in “drunken revelry”, such as “gotta Zinger Burger Meal get your hands up!”. But the song wasn’t as inevitable as you might expect:

“We have, in our office, a great big whiteboard with all our song ideas and I wrote ‘The KFC Song’ up there. Lee and Benny thought it was stupid. It was on the board for a year before we actually developed it for the show.”

It’s proven popular enough to warrant a video clip – which, fittingly, was directed by Dan Ilic. “We got dressed up as Colonel Sanders and travelled around the city.” 

 

 

My Life, Take A Look At Old Man

Another song that always stands out is ‘Song for the Elderly’, about finding an old man in your house. It demonstrates a particular talent for which Aussie comics – and Aussie musical comics in particular – are so adept: pathos. Humour tinged with sadness.

“To be honest,” Jordan says of the ballad that punctuates live shows somewhere towards the end, “I was really down and just wanted to write a really depressing song… and also something that was funny. The concept of coming home and finding an old, lost man in your loungeroom was something that sprung to mind. It’s not something that’s ever happened to me – the story would be much more interesting if it had.”

Most experienced comics will tell you: when you’re doing an hour show, somewhere around the 40-minute mark is where you need to give the audience some kind of break before bringing it home with the big, all-guns-blazing show-stopping ending. “You need a song that’s not really joke-heavy that’s still funny but a bit slower. It’s just that change-of-pace-song that fits really well for us.”

And that’s the other thing about Axis of Awesome doing a show: it is a show – it’s not just a bunch of funny songs by a band that can do ‘funny’ as well as they do ‘songs’. Jordan explains it better:

“Rather than ‘concerts’, what we do, essentially, is a comedy play about a concert. We’re trying to put a show and we’re bickering. It’s a little bit ‘Muppet Show’: people get an idea of the relationship between us and the backstage antics and how the show has come together and arguments on stage. ‘Very much The Muppets’ is a good analogy.”

Which suggest to me that, given the sketch work and the cool clips that have accompanied every stage of Axis of Awesome’s career, a television show can’t be far off.

“We’ve been pitching a show,” Jordan confirms. “When we were in the States we pitched some show ideas to different networks and we’re still crossing fingers and waiting to hear back from them. As the act has developed over the years, the characters are very much a part of it. That’s one of the things the online audience misses out on: when they just watch the clips, they don’t see the ‘band of brothers’ who are always fighting, always picking on each other, but still need each other to get over the line.”

 

5 Year Anniversary Sow

Five years on, the band of brothers are still getting over the line. Hence their 5 Year Anniversary Sow, taking place Friday 20 January at the Factory Theatre.

There’s a reason why it’s a ‘Sow’ and not a ‘Show’: back when they were celebrating their First Anniversary with a First Anniversary Show, Lee mistyped the title on the emails he sent out, inviting Axis of Awesome friends and fans to “come to our Anniversary Sow”. It’s become a running gag as each year they perform an Anniversary Sow advertised with pictures of pigs.

 

The Axis Of Awesome 2 Year Anniversary Sow
The 2 Year Anniversary Sow poster from Jan 09

 

The 5 year Anniversary Sow launches Axis of Awesome’s 2012 Festival Season with gigs following at Adelaide Fringe, Sydney, Melbourne, New Zealand and – well, pretty much everywhere (check upcoming dates). It also marks the release of their brand-spanking new album, Animal Vehicle. Yeah, I know it’s been available since Julybut did you? Consider this a launch as well as the triumphant return home of Axis of Awesome. Get the album.  And get to a show. Fingers crossed for a second encore of Rammstein’s ‘Du Hast’!

 

594



 


Come Again?
Woman impregnated by a corpse

 

 

Why sell your body to science when there are perfectly good necrophiliac societies around?

There’s a funny thought. And a funny word, too: Necrophiliac. Necrophilia.

From the Greek, of course: ‘Necros’, meaning ‘dead’, and ‘philia’ – the verb ‘to fill’.

Notice when I say that word, ‘necrophilia’, a lot of the younger people down the front visibly stiffen. A lot of the older people down the back there look a bit scared – and quite rightly so!

(c) The Doug Anthony Allstars, Dead & Alive

 

“Dead Man In Mortuary Impregnates Woman” ran the headline of one of the stories of the Dead Serious News yesterday. The article told of Felicity Marmaduke, 38-year-old employee of the Mourning Glory Mortuary in Lexington, Missouri who was bathing one the corpses and noticed an inherent post mortem stiffness about his nether limbs. Figuring ‘what the heck’, she climbed on to claim a little workplace fringe benefit. But who knew a horizontal dance of the dead could have a happy ending? Testing positive to a pregnancy during a routine medical examination some weeks later, Marmaduke related the bizarre circumstances that led to the conception, police were notified and she was charged with desecration of the dead and necrophilia. The final twist was that while she was fined for the crime, she was suing the dead man’s estate for child maintenance.

I was all set to write a blog post. This seemed the ideal forum within which to air a similar horror story of necrophilia – but one with far more pop cultural significance: some years ago, the UK gossip newsletter Popbitch ran a piece claiming “all the local undertakers” took the opportunity to get to know Marilyn Monroe’s corpse a little better after her death.

But before I did, I thought it wise to check the veracity of the Dead Serious News item. The fact that the piece was originally published in 2010 and was being republished more than a year later is a little bit suspicious. And the name of the undertakers – Mourning Glory Mortuary – seems too good to be true given the other meaning of ‘morning glory’. I suppose their motto is “We deal with stiffs!

Except that a quick search of Mourning Glory reveals it to be a legitimate – if inappropriate – name for a firm of undertakers. ‘Felicity Marmaduke’, on the other hand, turns out to be utterly fictitious – as does the story, according to Snopes.

 

Epilogue

When I was in high school, there was one year that I had a seemingly strict English teacher whose favourite admonition appeared to be, ‘stop that, it’s smutty!’ One day, when we were supposed to be working, I was having a chat somewhere up the back in my customary stage whisper. It involved my dropping the term ‘necrophilia’ in front of some other students, one of whom was the form’s stud (every year has one, it's written into every school’s charter).

‘What does that mean?’ the stud demanded.

‘It’s when you have sex with a dead person,’ I replied, relishing the fact that there was one thing sexual in the universe he didn’t have a complete handle on.

‘How do you get to know words like that?!’ was his next line of inquiry, his voice heavy with the tone of disbelief.

‘Well,’ I said, hamming it up, ‘the last time I was in a cemetery pretending to be dead…’

There was a roar of laughter from the front of the classroom. The teacher had been listening the whole time.

‘What, he hopped on top, did he?’ Mr ‘Stop-That-It’s-Smutty’ asked, the imagery he conjured out-smutting us all and leaving us utterly gob-smacked.


Kick Out The Jams

 

I know ‘Kick Out The Jams’ is a song – and indeed, an album – by the MC5, a call to arms, a proselytising of the youth-, counter- and sub-culture to rise up against ‘The Man’. But I didn’t always.

Initially, I knew it as a lyric from a David Bowie song called ‘Cygnet Committee’ – an epic saga of a song that lives at the end of side one of the album Space Oddity. Now I realise it’s kind of a reply to ‘Kick Out The Jams’ – painting a bleak image of the kind of cult that follows an out-of-control messianic figure advocating slogans such as:

Kick Out The Jams
Kick Out Your Mother
Cut Up Your Friend
Screw Up Your Brother or He'll Get You In the End.

And even though I didn’t recognise the reference to MC5, there were other references and influences close to Bowie’s own heart. For example, when

the love machine lumbers through desolation rows

it's easy to assume it's lumbering through streets not unlike the one Dylan speaks of in his own epic song, ‘Desolation Row’, that closes his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. That Bowie was a big Dylan fan is evident in his tribute ‘Song for Bob Dylan’ on the album Hunky Dory:

Oh, hear this Robert Zimmerman
I wrote a song for you
About a strange young man
called Dylan
With a voice like sand and glue.

Of course, Bowie went on to record Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’ at the end of the ’80s with Tin Machine. (The Dylan song, from 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, had massive ironic overtones in England during the ’80s while Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister.)

The line 

Love is all we need

offers an obvious Beatles reference. Turns out Bowie was one of the many acts that Apple Records failed to sign in the late-’60s, despite his auditioning more than once. Bowie’s interaction with the Beatles continue throughout his career. There’s a cute story of Paul McCartney running into him in the street around about the same time as his pitch to Apple, Bowie carrying a life-size cut-out of McCartney as he appeared in the animated Yellow Submarine. Bowie of course covered ‘Across The Universe’ on the album Young Americans in the mid-’70s, the same album that contained his collaborative effort with John Lennon, the song ‘Fame’. On Bowie’s last official original release, Reality, he covers a song George Harrison wrote called ‘Try Some, Buy Some’.

If ‘Cygnet Committee’ didn’t seem to be so obvious a reply to ‘Kick Out The Jams’, I would cite the reference as a nice little tribute also. I don’t know that Bowie was a particular fan of the MC5, but he was fond of other Detroit-based punks, like Iggy Pop and the Stooges.

But as I say, at the time I didn’t realise the line ‘Kick out the jams’ had any life beyond the Bowie song. Now I’m kind of surprised I didn’t see – or imagine – some sort of link between the line in the Bowie song, and a line in a Beatles song: the John Lennon-penned ‘Come Together’ refers to ‘toe jam football’. Toe jam is the gunk that accumulates between dirty toes; kicking a football may lead to jamming your toes; neither of them amounts to ‘kicking out the jams’. But ‘Come Together’ seems, like ‘Cygnet Committee’, to be another ‘answer’ song to ‘Kick Out The Jams’, albeit a much more peaceful one. Recall that although Lennon identified, to a degree, with revolutionaries, he was never quite sure if, when the time came to lay it on the line, he wanted to be counted ‘in’ or ‘out’. His ambivalence is outlined in the different versions of the song ‘Revolution’.

The most interesting version of ‘Kick Out The Jams’ I ever heard was so unexpected…

Back in 1995 the angelic-voiced Jeff Buckley appeared out of nowhere charming the world. He visited Australia on a promotional tour, and, serving at the time as the music reviewer for an independent newsweekly called The Sydney CityHub, I managed to blag my way into his gig at the Phoenician Club. That venue, originally situated on Broadway, is long gone, but I still remember that day well: the venue crammed well beyond capacity, me surrounded by a heck of a lot of chicks making out (who knew that was his demographic? Well, the chicks did, probably.)

Everyone was in thrall to Buckley’s softc*ck shtick as he woo’d them with those gorgeously wussy ballads like ‘Grace‘, ‘So Real‘ and ‘Hallelujah’. But he won me over when he returned for his encore, because he hit the stage with guns blazing as he led with his version of ‘Kick Out The Jams’. You can hear him do it on the expanded Legacy Edition of the album Grace, but here he is delivering it live at Sin-è:

 

 

When I got to write about Super Detox Foot Patches for my job at JigoCity Australia, ‘Kick Out The Jams’ was the obvious cool reference to drop. Since the product is about jettisoning the toxins and stuff that jam you up via the feet, you are more-or-less kicking ’em out – so it’s the perfect call-to-arms. Or, in this case, call-to-feet.

A buddy pointed out that she leaves detoxing to her liver – politely telling me that, as far as she’s concerned, this product appears a bit dodgy. I’m not interested in engaging on that level – but when I do have a liver cleansing product to write copy about, I know that my starting point will be ‘Liver Let Die’.

Although, judging by the product image, it looks more like a case of ‘Kick Out The Teabags’!

 

00515330013257303326628footdetox-main-jigocity


Phuklub and Ha Ha Alternative Comedy

N211600559_31059103_3315
Genius loves company: Blake Mitchell and Jordan Paris on stage at Phuklub


This is the story of the guys who run Ha Ha Alternative Comedy at the Roxbury Hotel - 182 St Johns Road, Glebe (starting up January 8 2012). Here’s the line-up for the first night.

Meanwhile, read the story.

 

Two comics are already in a bar

I arrive at the pre-appointed pub a little after the pre-appointed time, so the comics are already deep in discussion. About some James Bond-related minutiae, it turns out.

“…Well, you have met Dalton,” the tall, lean Indian says to the one best described as a kind of Aussie Fidel Castro.

“You’ve met Timothy Dalton?” I interrupt.

“Not officially,” Aussie Castro says. He explains:

“I had to take drugs to deal with my family on Christmas day. I was so out of my god-damned mind at Christmas lunch that this guy I’d never met – a family friend – looked and sounded exactly like Timothy Dalton in Hot Fuzz.”

I see. By ‘not officially’, Aussie Castro means, ‘not at all’. This is going to be fun.

Aussie Castro is in fact Blake Mitchell, an imposing, baby-faced Anglo Australian who can come across quite scary – particularly when he’s rockin’ a shaved head. The tall, lean Indian is Ash Jattan. They are Sydney comics who regularly appear on the open-mic circuit and, though not officially a double act, they carry some of the classic hallmarks, from the way they complement each other physically – fat versus thin, white versus black – and stylistically: Ash, instantly likeable on stage, has been known to pull out a guitar; in-your-face Blake, meanwhile, won’t sweeten the message and he doesn’t pull any punches in his comedy of the abject. Despite their differences, they can finish each other’s sentences seamlessly and ad lib the same line in unison.

Together, they’re promoting Phuklub and Ha Ha Alternative Comedy, a couple of monthly comedy rooms they kind of run.

I say ‘kind of’ because Phuklub exists as a collective (some might say ‘cult’). There’s not really a single person in charge and the stalwarts of the room have healthy enough egos that nobody wants a title so much as they want to collaborate to ensure the room exists. It’s alternative and ‘out there’. In some ways, it’s self-indulgent and a surprise it’s still running; it hasn’t lost direction or burnt itself out; the novelty still hasn’t worn off.

The other, called Ha Ha Alternative Comedy is a harder room to pigeonhole. Founded by Jen Carnevale and Madeleine Culp AKA ‘Carnevale & Culp’ AKA ‘The Cloud Girls’ (of Triple J fame), it may have been ‘alternative’ when it began but now it’s another one of the quality rooms running in Sydney with a high calibre of open mic comics featured. Which is why it’s more difficult to make Ha Ha stand out – it’s no longer as ‘alternative’ as Phuklub, even though it’s not as weird. When the Cloud Girls decamped to the UK, rather than see the room end, Ash put up his hand to keep it going. It remains the one place you can dependably see a good comic on a Sunday night in Sydney… if it’s the Sunday night that Ha Ha happens to be running.

Phuklub and Ha Ha are flip sides of the same coin: they take place in the same room of the same pub – the Roxbury Hotel on St Johns Road, Glebe (also the venue of Comedy on the Rox on a Wednesday night…). What both rooms provide is a space for comics to explore more freely what it is they do. There comes a time in a comedian’s development where, rather than merely be funny, they might want to try to say something that matters. But while ‘saying something that matters’ may be a worthy goal, it isn’t always an easy one to arrive at. The journey may include delivering material that says something, that happens to be less funny. And few audiences – the more comedy-savvy ones, really – have much time for the material that happens to be less funny, no matter how clever it might be. So comics trying to say something that matters have less opportunity to get good at it. Rooms that actually encourage it have to be able to pull off a balancing act in order to ensure there’s still plenty of the totally funny stuff to accompany the material that’s trying to say something that matters. That’s why rooms like Ha Ha and Phuklub exist: to provide a dedicated space for comedians to explore what they do.

BlakeNEllwood
TOP: Blake & Ellwood, the Ooze Brothers. (Photo of Ben by Cassandra Lee Noad)
BOTTOM: Close your eyes and it’s impossible to tell them apart.

The Ooze Brothers

Shut your eyes when he’s talking – or hear him heckling from somewhere up the back – and it’s easy to mistake Blake Mitchell for another Sydney comic, Ben Ellwood. Both comics sound similar, but Ellwood’s line of humour, while trawling the same mucky vein of humanity’s flawed underbelly, is more polished. Thus, Ben’s more accessible and funnier. But for a time, they’d pal around the same gigs and when one of them chose to give the sub-standard pretender on stage a hard time, you’d actually need to look over your shoulder in order to see which of the two it was. Their love of exploring the more unsavoury aspects of the human condition and a seeming interchangeability enabled them to be considered a kind of single entity: Blake and Ellwood. ‘The Ooze Brothers’. Blake finds this somehow flattering.

“That could spring from the constant ‘gay chicken’ we used to play with each other,” he laughs. “You heard about the sitcom Ellwood was pitching, right? Two Gay Fatties? It’s just him and me making out at the windows of 5-star restaurants, trying to get the guests to puke…”

Though he’s back visiting, Ellwood relocated to the UK with the Cloud Girls late last year. In the time since, Blake’s developed further and continued to find more of his own voice and persona. That is to say, he’s much less ‘apprentice Ellwood’ than before. Particularly with his beard. Give him a cigar – or more appropriately, a ‘Camberwell Carrot’ (the jumbo spliff made notorious in Withnail & I) – and he is Aussie Castro.

“If he’s Aussie Castro, I’m Subcontinental Che,” Ash offers.

“Maybe,” Aussie Castro says. “I hope you meet a similar end, being killed by Bolivian government troops.”

They make each other snicker with their casual, freeform banter. It isn’t ‘roll in the aisles’ hilarity, just leisurely play. Perhaps a kernel of an idea will be planted, a seed that, taking root and growing, will burst unexpectedly through the soil of their psyche as a more fully-formed joke somewhere down the track, without their being able to trace it back to the silliness that gave rise to it.

But perhaps some ideas that were meant to die here will instead fester and rot in a manner not intended for public consumption. We’ve barely begun and there have already been admissions of drug-taking and foolish nonsense that, out of context, will surely offend someone’s sensibilities. But when I ask if anything should be regarded ‘off the record’, Blake responds with astonished laughter, appreciative that I’m polite enough to enquire, but intent that, even if we do exercise caution and err on the side of conservatism, we still won’t cross the line so much as obliterate it as we lumber irresistibly beyond it.

“Ask whatever you feel you got to, man,” Ash encourages. “Feel free to send a copy of this to NSW State Police.”

“And to the CIA and ASIO,” Blake adds.

76293_102623713144300_102621036477901_16919_6445679_n
Ash Jattan at Ha Ha.

Parody for the course

Ash came to comedy the way a lot of open mic comics do: as the funny guy at the water cooler at work and the joker at the pub whose colleagues and mates encouraged to “give it a proper go”. But Ash also came to comedy via music. As a student at Sydney University, he’d play the occasional lunchtime gig in Manning Bar. He’d also busk occasionally, confessing that he’d sometimes make enough money to catch the last train home from Central!

So when he did give comedy “a proper go”, entering Raw Comedy in Sydney, he established himself as a topical comic who could actually play guitar (not all guitar-wielding open mic-ers can) and write original, funny songs.

“The jokes I wrote got laughs,” Ash acknowledges, of his early forays into stand-up “but the more I did it the more I realised just how f*cking sh*t I was. That didn’t put me off, it only strengthened my resolve.”

Ash realised he was trying to second-guess his audience, writing material in order to placate them so that he could ‘make them love him’ on stage – a phase of development common to most comics. He soon decided to move away from that, and the first step was to ditch the guitar and avoid writing “parody sh*t”.

We all laugh at the self-deprecation that is warranted on some level. But credit where it’s due: ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic hasn’t done too badly with an entire career founded on so-called “parody sh*t”. Ash concurs. His feeling is, there are a host of comics – yer Weird Als, yer Mick Merediths, yer Chris Franklins, who have done the parody thing better than him. “They’re on top of it,” he says. “If I had a single iota of that, I would be so happy.”

Fact is, Ash has got the “single iota”. More, in fact. Rather than base his shtick around it, however, he can use it to make his stand-up stand out. In the hour-long performance scenario, for example, around the 35 to 45 minute mark when, irrespective of the style or genre, something needs to happen to change the pace and create more tension before pulling all the threads together: that would be the perfect time to pull out the guitar, especially if everything that has gone before was spoken word.

Blake agrees: “Especially if you want an applause break. Because we’re all conditioned to clap as soon as someone stops playing a song.”

So true. That’s the source of the guitar’s contention in stand-up comedy. Invariably, an audience reacts with enthusiasm far beyond the level earned by a newbie comic who pulls out the guitar or a backing track for a half-baked song at the end of a set. Multiple verses of essentially the same punch line to a blues accompaniment in E can somehow undo the damage of a badly delivered collection of hackneyed and derivative observations and predictable reveals. But that was never Ash’s method; he can actually play the instrument, and write real songs containing actual jokes. So why ditch it?

“There were times when the audience loved it, but I felt it was underserved,” he confesses. “I felt sorry for the guys who didn’t bring a guitar along and relied purely on their moxie and the ability to just spit venom…”

God bless Ash Jattan for being so pure of heart a comic. My position would be: lull the audience into a false sense of security with the guitar, and then spit venom.

“Yeah, okay,” Ash agrees. “Every magic trick has three parts!”

“A false sense of security!” Blake pipes up. “I don’t have a chance to lull people into a false sense of security…”

Too true. That’s down to Blake’s scary countenance. Particularly when he takes to the stage with a freshly shaved head. “It’s like a Folsom Prison stand-off,” he says of those occasions.

“You look like ‘Aryan Brotherhood’ material,” Ash adds.

“‘I shot a man in Reno to make an audience laugh’?” I suggest.

“And also cum,” Blake confirms, ever the Ooze Brother.

And that reminds me of how I first encountered Blake. Not in person, but by reputation.

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Blake as “Aryan Brotherhood material” – Ash

 

 

Rollins with me, Henry

There was this thing called Phuklub, a weird, alternative room started by comic Nick Sun, one of the legendary local open mic-ers who did amazing things: winning Raw Comedy nationally, going on to win the UK equivalent So You Think You’re Funny, turning his back on the painfully safe, mainstream road to success by throwing up real challenges for himself, his peers and his audiences…

This is the Phuklub manifesto:

PHUKLUB is the brainchild of Nick Sun, who received a divine vision from a higher power one night when he ate too much blue cheese before bedtime. While lying in bed dressed in his superman pajamas pondering the possible contraindications of a high dose tyramine and MAOI medication interaction, a mediaeval dressed Alien being appeared him, and speaking in Über-camp ye olde English, transmitted the answers to the Weekend Cryptic Crosswords in an exhausting marathon game of charades. Upon waking up the next morning covered in baby filth in a drainage ditch in Hamburg, Parramatta, Nick realised he didn’t give a sh*t about Cryptic Crosswords and resolved to instead start his own weirdo underground avant-garde comedy/variety night.

Blake, however, was – as far as I was concerned – some guy who popped up in one of the various Phuklub stories Ben Ellwood used to like to tell. Apparently Blake once attended Phuklub with an envelope containing two spent condoms – knotted at the top – which he presented to performance artist Jane Grimley. Jane was, along with Nick Sun, one of the Phuklub’s prime instigators and Agent Provocateurs; she seems to come across in stories as somewhat of the Den Mother to whatever kind of cult Phuklub actually is…

Blake’s provocative protein packages were unquestionably gross. Not to be outdone, however, Jane proceeded to put them in her mouth. You know this doesn’t end prettily. Perhaps it’s funny. It’s certainly abject. Is it comedy? Doesn’t matter. It wasn't comedy that Blake set out to do.

“I started because I wanted to be Henry Rollins,” Blake says. Ash stifles a laugh. Blake continues:

“And then you realise Henry Rollins is a brand all his own…” Ash manages to continue stifling the laugh while Blake further outlines hindrances to his Rollinsular metamorphosis:

“And also, I’m not in shape…”. Laughter nigh impossible to contain. Blake:

“And even though I have the anger, I’m too interested in pop culture to be too politically minded…”

There’s no holding back now. Both explode, Ash with laughter, Blake with “Go f*ck yourself!”

“You wanted to be Henry Rollins!” Ash shakes his head.

Blake had genuinely set out to follow the Henry Rollins/Jello Biafra literate punk trajectory: in addition to doing ‘anger’, he played drums. The move to comedy was ultimately the result of laziness: “I got sick of lugging gear. I just wanted to turn up to a show and do it.”

In addition to Rollins – “who isn’t really comedy” – Blake was also into Bill Hicks. “Who, people argue, isn’t really comedy,” he says. The initial foray into open mic in August 2008 marked the beginning of “four months of nothing but hack b*llsh*t: Michael Jackson jokes, relationship cr*p, the usual thing.” 2009 saw Patton Oswalt replace Henry Rollins as the performer Blake most wanted to be, followed by a break. After six months travelling, Blake returned and, “for the past year and a half,” he says, “I’ve actually been slowly approaching something that’s not someone else.”

All of this explains the perceived role of Apprentice Ben Ellwood early on: not having a multitude of varied influences prior to starting, it was the comics closer to home who influenced Blake’s development. There really was a time when Blake was on stage, but if you shut your eyes, it was Ellwood with as much anger but less punch lines.

“That’s still a problem, I think!” Blake laughs.

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Spot the difference: Blake Mitchell, Henry Rollins

 

Balls of Steel

What Blake doesn’t tell you – not for any apparent reason – is that he went to film school and has worked on some choice features like Superman Returns, Gabriel, Australia, Wolverine and even a bit of Underbelly. But, he says, “for some reason, I feel my calling is to gain attention from strangers by talking about my dick and my depression on stage.”

The other thing Blake has spoken of on stage at least once is the time he auditioned for the Australian version of Balls of Steel. Blake had initially pitched an idea for a character called ‘Big Baby’. “It was just going to be me walking around in a diaper in public,” he says, but it’s hard not to assume that it was in fact a clever ploy to enable him to latch onto random strangers’ breasts. Surprisingly, that idea was rejected.

Blake’s next pitch involved him “turning up to places with a little tea party set, sitting down to have tea with stuffed toys, and then getting up to scream at people, ‘You can’t tell me what to do with my children!’” This idea was also rejected. “They thought that was a little bit ‘art house’.”

In the end, Blake auditioned for the part of ‘Object Sexual’, in which he’d find himself sexually attracted to everyday objects in public. The filmed audition took place in Hyde Park, where Blake spied a phallic rod protruding from a fountain. He decided it would serve as the ideal penis substitute and made for it, while a producer and cameraman filmed from a distant vantage point.

“I couldn’t actually get to the dick-shaped object so I just jumped in the fountain instead,” Blake says. After frolicking in the water for a bit, he was surprised to hear someone ask, “Sweetie, are you okay?”

“I turned around, shocked because someone was actually talking to me, concerned,” Blake explains. “It was a woman who thought I was mentally ill…”

“She wasn’t wrong, really,” Ash suggests.

Cleverly, Blake decided to ‘accept the offer’, playing the role perfectly as the lady coaxed him out of the fountain and onto a park bench, all the while enquiring after his carer or parents. When the producer finally arrived, Blake gave him a dose of Steve Martin’s Ruprecht the Monkey Boy, from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, falling onto him with a big embrace and demanding hamburgers. The great pity is that this footage didn’t make the Balls of Steel DVD as a bonus feature. Maybe it’ll turn up on the Two Gay Fatties DVD…

SubcontinentalChe
 Subcontinental Che?

 

Nobody Wins

If, by now, you don’t quite know what to make of Blake Mitchell, Ash Jattan does. “To be perfectly honest,” he admits, “it was the Ben Ellwoods and Blake Mitchells and people like that who made me look at what I was doing. These guys are so fearless and raw, whereas I’m trying to get the audience to like me! Once I started seeing real people – the real grit of their performance – up there night after night, sometimes two or three nights a week, I knew I had to move on.”

Blake takes the compliment, adding, “doing what I do doesn’t get you booked, unfortunately. Which is why we had to start Phuklub!”

And there it is again. Time to address it.

“Quite frankly, Phuklub scares me,” I tell them.

“Good,” Ash says. “Mission accomplished.”

Asking direct questions does not result in direct answers.

“What is Phuklub?” I demand.

“Isn’t that the question?” Ash replies. “I think the answer will vary depending on who you ask because everyone’s got such a unique experience of it. One of the best descriptions I’ve heard is from a guy called Dan Brown. He says, ‘imagine there’s a classroom, and then the teacher leaves, and the kids are just left to their own devices…’”

“Oh, now I get it. It’s The Lord of the Flies of comedy!”

“Pretty much,” Blake confirms. “It’s kind of a free-for-all. Nick Sun started it originally in late 2008. In the very inception it was on twice a week.”

“Yeah, but what is it? A collective? A workshop? Who gets to perform? Are people booked? Are their names pulled out of a hat? Is it a punishment?”

According to Blake, when it began it was more like “an experimental open mic anarchy anti-talent quest,” and when I ask, “who won” he and Ash reply in unison:

“Nobody!”

While “Nobody Wins” could well be the theme of Phuklub, it’s not as good as the motto Blake recently came up with: “Shut up and think of death while we do art at you”.

“You know how crests have two animals on them?” Ash says. “Ours is going to have a unicorn blowing a gryphon.”

“Maybe it should just be a man holding a microphone, crying,” Blake suggests.

This isn’t really getting us any closer to the nub of the gist, as it were, of what Phuklub is. “I don’t know how to summarise it,” Ash says. “It probably would have been a good idea to prepare a good definition for you…”

“The first rule of Phuklub: No one can define Phuklub,” I offer.

Basically, it’s a collective of comics with a core group that does not remain static. “At the moment it’s us, Ben Ellwood and Dan Brown,” Blake says. “In the past there’s been Jane Grimley and Nick Sun. People sort of float in and out of that core group: Rodney Todd, Nick Capper…”

“We’re like a sleeper cell!” Ash says, making Blake laugh. “We don’t really have any organised leader. There’s no one face you can point at and say, ‘that’s the guy who’s in charge’.”

“I think people get confused,” Blake adds, “because there is no one person…”

“…Who you can blame?” I cut in.

“Literally, chaos reigns,” Blake insists. “That’s how its run.”

“It’s ‘Occupy Comedy’,” Ash concludes.

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L-R: Aussie Castro; but also, Aussie Dude Abides



Zen and the art of complete and utter chaos

If I have misgivings or concerns about Phuklub, it’s the way in which it comes across as a naughty boys’ club. There’s room for girls if they can hold their own, titillating with out-grossing antics. That’s how it seems on the surface.

This isn’t the case, however. Ash and Blake offer the example of Sue Thomas, a regular fixture on the Sydney open mic circuit and of Phuklub. By day she’s a “librarian who used to stalk Paul McDermott”.

 

“Sue’s on virtually every Phuklub,” Blake says. “She reads erotic fiction while we play the theme from Twin Peaks over the top of it.”

That’s not to say there aren’t edgy, scary moments – but the audience seems to dig them. “People have come up after a show and asked if there are videos of past performances available,” Ash says. “They genuinely would like to buy them.”

“They’re kind of like diet snuff movies,” Blake says.

“It’s ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Snuff’,” Ash says.

“It’s ‘I need to see the guy on stage break and drop the microphone, because the sound guy keeps drowning him out with the Seinfeld theme ever ten seconds‘,” says Blake.

Is that what it is: a deliberate deconstruction of stand-up comedy, a breaking it down and rebuilding it, so that practitioners can learn how to it better?

“That’s part of it. It gives space to explore the kinds of areas that you’re not going to have the opportunity to explore at other comedy rooms or on other nights. It’s our therapy session, once a month,” Blake says. “When the same old tired beige b*llsh*t in every other room stops making you laugh, turn up. When you’re sick of hearing, ‘So I was walking down the street the other day’ as a set up – because, no you weren’t, you f*cking idiot…”

Ash picks it up: “‘A funny think happened to me on the way here…’ No it f*cking didn’t! ‘I’ve got this friend who…’ No you don’t!”

Blake:  “You’re fabricating this whole thing. And talking about Harry Potter…”

Ash: “That is what drew me to that room. When I started out and I saw a lot of people doing comedy, I laughed out of politeness at a lot of the stuff, and then I got to the point where I thought, I don’t think any of this is funny. Why aren’t I letting them know that?”

Now I understand. There are times when you’re in the audience thinking, ‘What? You made them laugh with that?! I don’t know who I hate more – the audience for falling for it or you for getting away with it!’ That’s when it’s time for Phuklub, right?

“Yeah, that’s right,” Ash confirms. “When I first realised nobody was really funny, I thought, ‘Hang on Ash, it’s probably an ego thing; you’re still very new to this, your opinion really doesn’t matter…’ – and I still don’t think it matters that much. But when I came to Phuklub and I saw people who were just so happy to play at that level, it was comedy Zen for me. It was where you went to get the ego that you build up for yourself absolutely destroyed. Decimation of the ego was what it was all about for me, and I thought, ‘I need to be a part of this’.”

“Just because you are on stage with a microphone doesn’t mean you deserve our attention,” Blake explains citing “the first ever Phuklub as the best example of this point being illustrated.

“Nick Sun got on stage. He had the mic, and he had some effects pedals, and he just started talking: ‘All right folks, tonight I guess what we’re gonna do is…’ and he kept talking, but he hit something on the effects pedals and it turned into noise. Just garbled nonsense. And he kept talking. It was one of the funniest things I have ever seen. That was the start of it.”

So virtually anyone can get on stage at Phuklub. To stay on stage – and not be drowned out by heckles, voice-overs, audio stings, sound effects and the rabble, they have to have something to say that’s worth hearing. That seems to be about it.

And even though it still seems like nebulous chaos, the collective – or cult – of comics who run it have “found their feet” when it comes to making it work. “Nick Capper is the Voice of God a lot, so he’s on the microphone up the back,” Blake explains. “I’ll do sound if Ellwood’s not in town.”

“I’ve MC’d a couple,” Ash offers. “MCing Phuklub is a very different experience to MCing a normal comedy room. It’s more like being a fire-starter…”

 “You’re the captain on a burning Viking ship,” Blake elaborates, “and it’s going into the water, but you gotta ensure it goes down as nobly as possible.”

“So you’re effectively shouting, ‘Row, you f*ckers’?” I suggest.

“Yeah,” Blake says.

Ash illustrates it rather poetically:

“Row, you f*ckers! If this were to be our end, we’ll meet this end with such glory that they will write about us. It will be such an end, worthy of remembrance.”

So every Phuklub ends in flames, but everyone still makes it to Asgard?

“Ideally, yes,” says Blake. “We made it to Asgard the last few times. But we had a run in the middle of the year where we didn’t make it; we couldn’t even see the Rainbow Bridge on the horizon. If we’re to be honest, every room, no matter how good or bad, has good nights and bad nights. But with Phuklub, if we’re being completely honest, it’s how every single room should be: every night is a dice roll. Some are a little more certain than others.”

“That, to me,” says Ash, “has always been the beauty of it.”

Well that’s Phuklub explained. We’re still no closer to explaining Ha Ha Alternative Comedy, unfortunately. But why should we? You know it’s on, you know who’s on. There’s nothing better to be doing on Sunday at 8pm.


Ha Ha Alternative Comedy Returns

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The Short Version:

Ha Ha Alternative Comedy is starting up again Sunday 8 January at the Roxbury Hotel - 182 St Johns Road, Glebe.

It's a brilliant line-up for the first night: Nick Capper, Ben Ellwood, Blake Mitchell, Nick Sun with feature Shane Matheson and MC Ash Jattan (okay, to be honest, I would have included some alternative, funny women in the line-up too, so it wouldn't just be an boys' club – it's not as though there aren't brilliant, hilarious women on the scene even while the Cloud Girls and significant other stalwarts are overseas; but that's a discussion for another blog post).

It starts at 7:30pm. You want a good night of comedy, come.

 

The Long Version:

Now lives here.


Predictions for 2012

PrestonPig Colour

As regular readers know, there are periods during which you’d read more regularly than I update, and those periods tend to coincide with full time work. Lately, the full time work has also involved maintaining a blog. Makes sense to me to update this by pointing to that.

Most recently, I wrote up a list of Predictions for 2012. It covers Arts and Entertainment (including the so-called ‘vulgar arts’), Politics, Science, Astrology… (By ‘covers’, I mean, ‘I might have the odd gag regarding’.)

Here’s an example: my prediction regarding Reality TV in 2012 (hence Alex E Clark‘s brilliant caricature of Matt Preston as a Suckling Pig, above):

Big Brother is returning in 2012. That’s great. You know what would be even better? If they ramped it up. Here’s the Reality TV format that would nail the ratings: The Biggest Celebrity MasterChef Brother. Biggest Loser-type people – including Matt Preston – are trapped in the Big Brother household, kitted out with an impressive industrial kitchen and  nothing to eat except each other. Last one standing wins.

You’d tune into that. For the recipes, of course. And imagine how big a seller the book of the series would be. Top that, 2013 Reality TV!

Pretty good prediction, huh! If you liked it, go ahead, read more…