Here's the deal: legendary US comic Rick Shapiro has been ill. Awesome Aussie comedy wrangler Julie Lawless has organised a fundraiser for Tuesday 21 August 2012. Hilarious Aussie (and unnameable internationals) are performing. Here's the gig. Story follows. Read and come along.
Julie Lawless – venue booker and tour organiser of both hip young talent and established legendary performers – is virtually ‘fresh off the plane’ when I catch up with her for a chat. She’s just been to Montreal’s ‘Just For Laughs’ comedy festival, returning via New York in order to check out new talent and old friends. Which is a good thing for everyone. It’s via Julie, when she was managing Sydney’s Laugh Garage, that we were treated to the likes of Lee Camp, Sam Tripoli, Thai Rivera, Nikki Lynn Katt and the very legendary Rick Shapiro.
I was first aware of Julie as the maker of hilarious and insightful comments on mutual friends’ Facebook pages. One of those mutual friends, comic Julia Wilson [whom fellow comic Danny McGinlay has noted, serves as my ‘good people police’] assured me Lawless was a cool chick worth knowing.
“Bless her,” Julie says. “I love Julia Wilson”. And so say all of us!
Although Lawless had been into comedy prior, she started interacting in the industry in the ‘early noughties’ – “around 2000, I’m guessing”. Reading street publication The Brag one day, she came across “a tiny little paragraph about Chris Wainhouse, who was playing the Fringe Bar. The piece ended, ‘…make friends with Chris on MySpace…’” Having just joined MySpace, Chris Wainhouse ended up being Julie’s first social networking virtual friend whom she didn’t know in real life. Although real life friendship ensued:
“We started hanging out. And that’s what I pinpoint as the beginning. I’d been to see live comedy before, but after having made friends with him and joking around on MySpace and then becoming friends with other comics and going to shows, I got to know people that way.”
It was through another such friend, comic Sally Kimpton – who, for a time, shared a house with comics Wainhouse and Paul Brasch – that Julie started working at the Laugh Garage. “Do you feel like bossing comics around?” Sally asked Julie, handing over an ad the Laugh Garage taken out for the position of manager. “I applied and got the job,” Julie says. “That was my first professional involvement. Via MySpace!”
Part of me thinks the early noughties are a bit early for MySpace. But if Lawless and Wainhouse really did strike up a cyber friendship that early, I may have had a hand in it. I wrote most of The Brag’s comedy copy from 1998 (when it was still Revolver) to 2003. “That’s just awesome!” Julie says. “I’d like to think it was courtesy of Dom Romeo – that would add one more cog to my tale of how I got into comedy. And Chris is still one of my favourite comics to this day.”
Julie no longer manages the Laugh Garage. Now she runs Lawless Entertainment, and in this capacity looks after a number of venues. By ‘look after’, I do mean ‘book’, but it’s often more than that. Julie curates nights of comedy. It started with her simply helping organise gigs for overseas comedian friends visiting Australia. It started as simply as booking them for the Laugh Garage and ensuring there were other opportunities for them once they got here. “I’ve sort of made everything up as I’ve gone along, because nobody’s ever really taught me how to do this stuff,” Julie says. She learnt on her feet. Very quickly. Consider her involvement in the World’s Funniest Island comedy festival, taking place on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour. For the second year, she was programming the coolest stage.
“I totally was!” Julie laughs, appreciating the complement without taking herself too seriously. And then rightfully correcting me: “The two coolest stages, actually”.
Because Julie was in charge of ‘¡Satiristas!’ – Julian Morrow, chairing a discussion on satire that was to feature the likes of Paul Provenza (who wrote the book ¡Satiristas!), Lee Camp, Will Durst and Rod Quantock. “That talk panel was going to be amazing,” she says.
Unfortunately, that second World’s Funniest Island festival never came to be. “When the rug got pulled out from under us, it was pretty heartbreaking for everyone involved, of course,” Julie says. However, she was instrumental The World’s Funniest Wreckage – a showcase of many of the comics who would have performed on Cockatoo Island – which proved a roaring success, as were the various other comedy spots around town, to accommodate the comics who had come over.
Of course, it was a year earlier, at the initial World’s Funniest Island, that I first encountered the comic, actor, poet and legend that is Rick Shapiro – one of a number of great international, and yet criminally locally unknown – comics featured that year by the Laugh Garage. The Laugh Garage’s – and thus, Julie’s – involvement with Shapiro began with “Superfans in Perth and Melbourne contacting me and getting the ball rolling”.
“I got a Facebook message from a comic I didn’t know called Evan McHugh McAwesome, saying ‘Would you put Shapiro on if we got him out here?’” Julie recounts. “McAwesome and a couple of guys from Perth were obsessed with Shapiro: they’d made a mini-documentary about looking for him in New York and got the ball rolling. We took it from there.” (It's worth noting that some Perth people are, comparatively, obsessed – after all, Tuesday night at Perth comedy venue Lazy Susan's is 'Shapiro Tuesday'!)
For the uninitiated, Rick Shapiro might be considered a kind of be-bop version of Woody Allen: a hip take on the observations of a New York Jewish upbringing. Rather than playing the chords, be-bop is about implying the chords by playing the harmonies. Likewise, Shapiro doesn't do the traditional lead line/feed line/punch line joke structure - he implies jokes by telling stories that talk around the topic and rarely end on pat punch lines, adopting characters and setting up situations that leave room for the audience to interpret and engage without the need to make it obvious. They are organic – albeit hyperactive and highly energised – routines that skitter and dodge and weave much like, you begin to imagine, the comic has been forced to, throughout life.
Watching Shapiro at the World’s Funniest Island was a supreme pleasure, but it meant that other great comics who immediately followed were difficult to watch because it took time to acclimatise to their more linear approach to comedy. “It’s hard to follow a high-energy act like that,” Julie concurs.
Julie knows – she was essentially Rick’s tour manager in Sydney. Having had the pleasure of hanging out with them for an awesome afternoon barbecue (that ended well after midnight) I can say it’s an adventure full of engaging diversions following Rick down the streets to the shops, let alone following him on stage.
Harold Park Hotel
With Julie's gig- and comic-wrangling history, Lawless Entertainment made perfect sense. Management company A-List Entertainment – who look after a number of big names – used to book two rooms that continue to offer the two longest-running comedy nights in Australia: the Old Manly Boatshed (Monday nights) and the Oatley Hotel (Wednesday nights). When A-List divested themselves of the rooms, they sought someone “appropriate” to run them. Someone who “wasn’t a manager, agent or comic, and so would have no conflict of interest”. That person? Julie Lawless.
“They very kindly thought of me. I’ve been running those rooms for about a year and a quarter.”
More recently, Julie is involved in the renaissance of the Harold Park Hotel. This is a major gain – for Lawless Entertainment, for Sydney Comedy, and for the Harold Park. ‘Back in the day’ (from the early ’80s to the turn of the millennium), the Harold Park Hotel was one of two definitive Sydney comedy venues (the other being Sydney’s Original Comedy Store). The Harold Park was a place where you got to see so many amazing talents in their formative years – as well as the cream of the international crop. Robin Williams played there whenever visiting to flog a film.
Sold to developers towards the end of the ’90s, the Harold Park Hotel always promised to retain a ‘wine bar’-type comedy venue, yet its couple of stabs at comedy since have never quite cut it. Its current incarnation is its most promising yet.
“I’ve been booking the Harold Park for about a month and it’s fantastic,” Julie says. “It’s alike a little custom-built theatre created with comedy in mind.” She elaborates: this time round, the comedy takes place upstairs, “right away from the main bar this time”. Which is how they first launched the new Harold Park some years back – before throwing up open mic comics to an indifferent bar.
Sounds good. And according to Julie, it is: “Everyone’s enjoyed all the shows there. We had Dicko there last week, watching Chris Franklin!” On the whole, she says, “they seem to be a pretty smart crowd around there, so I’m trying to give them some clever comedy.”
Stand Up For Shapiro
The Stant Up Shapiro Fundraiser Gala promises to be clever – and very special. While Rick Shapiro continues to play Edinburgh Fringe with his show Rebirth, it is in the wake of what is now being referred to a ‘minor heart incident’ that he had a few months ago. “He was actually hospitalised and wheelchair-bound for about 45 days,” Julie says. A month-and-a-half of incapacitation when your income is stand-up comedy, in addition to the USA’s arcane and downright medieval approach to health care, means no ability to meet what must be astronomical health bills. “I don’t know exactly what they are,” Julie says, “but I got billed $3,000 for a broken finger that I didn’t even get treated, so you can imagine what 45 days is going to add up to.”
There have been a number of fundraisers of Shapiro in the United States. Now, says, Julie, “we’ve decided to show Rick our love over here. Everyone’s working for free on this: absolutely every cent that we raise is going directly to Shapiro, not just to help him with his bills but also to show him that we love him.”
Of course, you want to know who’s on: mostly, comics who relate to Rick and are friends with him. This includes some international acts that I’m not at liberty to divulge – but I am able to list Damian Smith, Sally Kimpton, Ben Ellwood, Darren Sanders and Simon Palomares.
Tue 21st Auguest 2012
Show starts at 8pm, with doors open at 7pm.
Cost is $15 (or $10 if you’ve got student or backpackers id).
“I’m going to ask any comics who turn up and don’t want to pay to put money in the bucket at the door.”
“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 Phukluband 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.
TOP: Blake & Ellwood, theOoze 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.
“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.
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.
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.
Spot the difference: Blake Mitchell, Henry Rollins
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…
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:
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
“Like a lot of British, I came here
backpacking,” Rhys Jones explains. “After seven months I’d run out of money and
got stuck in Sydney, and just kind of gave comedy a go.”
I’d like to tell you that stand-up comic
Rhys Jones – who hails from Portsmouth, England – is an interesting guy; that
he’s an amazing comic; that he’s a close personal friend and it’s been a real
pleasure getting to know him; but I won’t. Because no matter how true all of it
is, I’m only just getting to know Rhys and I have a certain amount of jealousy
that this guy can just pop up out of nowhere and be running a popular open mic
Okay, sure, he has been doing comedy for a
few years now – paid his dues and all that – and he himself admits that he’s
only really started to pick up momentum “over the last six months or so”, but
this is also the guy who’ll occasionally give notice for failing to make a gig
because he’s landed another, MCing for strippers. When has your excuse for
‘piking’ ever been so good?
Meanwhile, his room, ‘Stand Up, Get Down’
at the World Bar on Bayswater Road, Darlinghurst, has gone from being
fortnightly to weekly. And Rhys is helping program comedy for festivals like
the up-coming Playground Weekender. So, no matter how good, nice, talented,
decent he is, or how hard he’s worked to be as successful as he is, I have to
hate him just a little bit on principle. How dare he be that cool, that good,
that essential to the growing comedy scene, seemingly out of nowhere?
Long Time Being
“I’ve been here five years,” Rhys explains when we finally catch up for a chat – ostensibly to promote the Playground
Weekender festival. Despite being broke and stranded seven months into his
visit to Australia, now he is not so broke, and not quite stranded. Rather, he
says, he’s “kind of trapped” – but in a good way: “owning things” now prevents
him from heading home. Acquiring ‘big things’ like a sofa, accumulating a life,
a career, and friends, he is essentially planting roots over here. “I like it,”
he says – and it must be liking him back. Friends are certainly harder to
offload on www.gumtree.com.au than the sofa, so why not stay! Especially when
it was “a dear friend” that finally encouraged Rhys to take a stab at stand-up
“I was kind of‘press-ganged’ into it,” he insists. “She suggested it when
I’d come up with a particularly witty quip at a dinner party. I kind of just
tossed the suggestion aside offhand. I blame her, basically.” Being the “dear
friend” that she is, Rhys's buddy entered him into the Melbourne International Comedy
Festival/Triple J Raw Comedy competition. Which is a good thing. Because
despite growing up a “huge student of comedy” in England, where humour was
essentially “embedded” into him from an early age via sitcoms like “Black Adder, Only Fools And Horses and the rest of it”, he probably wouldn’t
have gotten around to giving it ago himself. Sure, Portsmouth was a big enough
place to afford a lot of live comedy – with their own Jongleurs (part of a
UK-wide chain of venues) and “major acts” like Harry Hill and Steve Coogan
passing through to play the Guildhall as part of a national tour, and even a
fortnightly comedy room at the Wintergreen – but there was no open mic scene to
speak of. So even though, Rhys says, comedy was something that he’d thought
about doing, something that he’d “almost fantasised about”, where was he going
to take the stage in order to learn the art?
Well, of course, there is London…
“To be honest, I found London quite a daunting prospect.”
Rhys admits. “Sydney, as a city, is a really good middle ground, because it’s a
cosmopolitan city, but it’s not quite as harsh and as massive as London.” It’s
also “by the sea”, like his home town. So Sydney offers the best aspects of
London and Portsmouth with an easier entre – if you’re willing to take it –
into comedy. “Since I’ve tried stand-up in Sydney, and done it elsewhere in
Australia, I think Australia’s a great place to ‘learn the trade’, as it were.
Particularly in Sydney: most of the audiences are pretty attentive and have a ‘good
on the newcomer’ attitude. I don’t think I’d be involved in comedy in the UK –
I’d be the funny guy at the pub getting drunk every weekend. Now I’m a guy
doing comedy and getting drunk every weekend. And occasionally during the
in the Raw
One point I am having trouble with is that
Rhys Jones was a Raw Comedy contestant in Sydney – having judged pretty much
all the Sydney heats for the last I-don’t-know-how-many years, I must have
judged Rhys’s. How come I wasn’t aware of him until he was doing well enough
for me to be jealous of his success? According to Rhys, his two attempts “ended
in a bit of a disaster” – as far as early attempts at amateur comedy go. “The
first one was the first ever time I did comedy, and I lost my train of thought.
The second one, I forgot the last two minutes of my routine. After a promising
start, I just walked off.”
I’m kind of relieved – I’d hate to have
failed to spot a genuine talent. And, better still, it proves my strongest held
tenets about comedy and competitions: the point of doing comedy is to make the
audience laugh, not to win competitions. And the point of doing comedy
competitions is to make the audience laugh, not to win competitions. Some of
the finest talent you will ever be amused by, failed to win competitions – the
comedians who make it are the ones who keep getting back up on stage. And the
ones who start running their own venues so that they can keep getting back up
have a better chance of that. Rhys agrees. “The only way you learn is through
those bad gigs. I think I’ve come along a lot.”
Too true. In fact, you learn a lot more
from a so-called ‘bad gig’ than you do from walking away from a ‘good’ one. In
fact, in my limited experience, it’s easy to walk away from a successful
performance a little bit proud and cocky, and then totally stuffing up the next
one as a result! Again, Rhys concurs: “I think the key to getting anywhere in
comedy – and I’m still just starting out –is building a thick enough skin to deal
with the low blows.”
Which leads to the other golden rule of
stand-up comedy: no comic has ever done their best or worst gig. There’s always
going to be one down the track that could set the new benchmark! That’s just as
true – possibly more so – when running the room. Again, Rhys knows this only too
well. “You really get an insight how tough it is marketing comedy to people,” he
says of his experience with ‘Stand Up, Get Down’. “There’s been a bit of an
explosion with venues in Sydney in the last year. Some of them are doing better
than others. Ours is going steady. We’ve got a particular niche… We do try and
promote the little guy, to a certain extent. I’m all a bout giving headline and
MC spots to guys who are up-and-coming who perhaps wouldn’t get on in a similar
capacity at other venues.”
Clearly, I’d suggest, Rhys must be getting
right, seeing as ‘Stand Up, Get Down’ has gone from a fortnightly room to a
“Yeah, we changed that in December, the
reason being that it was impossible for people to keep track of what weeks we
were on. The idea to go weekly is just so people know every Wednesday there’s
comedy at the World Bar, instead of having to faff around trying to work out
which week the night falls on.”
“The weekly comedy room at the World Bar is
attached to a night called ‘The Wall’, run by my business partner Dan Chin.
Every week he has a different artist exhibiting upstairs and we run the comedy
out of that room. ‘Stand Up, Get Down’ is also known as ‘Comedy At The Wall’
because it’s affiliated with this art space night.”
Oh, okay. So Rhys Jones in a nutshell: came
to Australia to realise the lifetime of comedy embedded into him, hitherto only
fantasised about, and contributes significantly to the local stand-up scene.
But there’s more: in the process he also starts helping establish some of the
cooler aspects of the UK comedy scene Downunder. The Playground Weekender
festival, now in its fourth year, is the prime example of that.
“Playground Weekender is a festival started
by English expats,” Rhys explains. “They started up Good Vibrations a few years
ago before selling it on. The whole ethos is a British-style festival, so it
has a lot more of a laid-back aesthetic than, say, your Big Day Outs or your
other music events; the whole ethos is fun. I’ve been to every one and seen it
grow, which has been great.”
From barely 2000 attendees that first year
(still a significant start, of course), the Playground Weekender festival had
quadrupled in size by its third year: 8000 people. This year they’re expecting
12,000. Not only that: this year there’ll be comedy. Using the British model,
where every festival has a comedy venue, Playground Weekender is offering two
hours of comedy on each of the festival’s four nights, in ‘The Shack’.
“Dan and I are both extremely chuffed that
they’ve asked us to host the comedy stage. We’ve got one of the main stages to
run. It’s a beautiful setting as well: the Del Rio resort at Wisemans Ferry, on
the Hawkesbury River. It’s just a really laid- back ‘anything goes’ attitude,
really. Like any music festival, it’s what you make of it. You can go for the
quiet time, or you can go crazy.”
Furthermore, there are live art
installations that culminate with a charity auction at the end of the festival,
hosted by Rhys. “We did that a few years ago and it was a huge success,” he
says. I’m impressed. More so, when I ask Rhys if he was instrumental in
ensuring comedy become a part of the festival. “All the legwork was done by
Dan,” he says. “I’m just clinging onto his coattails and sorting out some
comics and getting the word out, I guess.”
Talented, successful and humble. Rhys, I
really want to like you, but you make it so difficult… And it gets worse:
“Our grand vision is to introduce this
format to other weekend festivals around Australia. In Britain it’s a given:
there’s always a comedy tent in every festival you go to, which generally runs
all day, every day.If we could
introduce a scaled-down version, and perhaps, further down the line, have the
financial backing to get some really big names out, It could be something we
take around Australia with us.”
Um… Rhys, mate, I’m just wondering… is
there any more room on those coattails?
Playground Weekender runs for a four-day
weekend at Wisemans Ferry, from Thurs 18 Feb to Sun 21 Feb. A four-day ticket
is $219. A three-day ticket is $199 (plus booking fees). There are day tickets
available as well.
Musical artists include Orbital, Lupe
Fiasco, The Polyphonic Spree, The Cribs, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Jamie
Lidell, Steve Lawler, Bluejuice, Bjorn Again, Gui Boratto, OK GO and LTJ Bukem.
More importantly, here are the comedians
appearing – in Rhys’s words, “our favourite performers of 2009:
Eric Hutton – Stand Up, Get Down’s favourite
headliner and a highly original
funny man. The Voice of Barry White with the delivery of a highly accurate
postman [I’d say he’s the illegitimate product of an illicit tryst between The
Chaser’s Charles Firth and Andrew Hansen, but whatever – Dom], this strawberry
blond dynamo is a truly originally comic / the best freestyle rapper in town! http://erichuttontime.com/
Nick Sun – Fresh from a tour of the States
supporting Doug Stanhope, and on the verge of a fourth show at the Melbourne
International Comedy festival, Nick is a unique comedian who eschews the
artificiality of traditional stand up for a more insightful, honest and god
damn, sharp as a knife hilarious brand of comedy… http://www.nicksun.com/pages/multimedia.php
Shane Matheson – Highly unconventional,
brilliantly inventive and always hilarious, Shane is about to venture to
Melbourne International Comedy Festival for his third festival show. Superb
improviser and great “randomist”, Shane combines the fearlessness of Sam
Simmons, with the characterisation of those British legends Vic Reeves and Bob
Ryan Withers – Natural born funny man,
armed with a rapier wit and rather girlish looks, Ryan Withers aka DJ Randy
Winters, is a regular performer, and organisational contributor at Stand Up Get
Down. About to burst forth at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival with
his first solo show, Ryan has supported the likes of Arj Barker and Jamie
Kilstien here in Sydney. 2009 was a massive year, but it looks like 2010 is
truly going to be where this young Maestro really hits his stride. For an
insight into the truly unique mind of Ryan Withers read this recent column
where he interviews himself, wow, crazy fun!http://www.throwshapes.com.au/2009/12/17/comedy-gatecrash-ryan-withers-vs-ryan-withers/
The Cloud Girls aka Carnovale and Culp –
Past performers at Sydney Cracker, Melbourne Fringe and Adelaide Fringe
festivals, the Cloud Girls are truly unique character based comedians. Taking the
everyday mundane and turning it into great sketched routines, the C and C
laughter factory is going to be one not to miss! For a tiny taster check out
this clip http://www.youtube.com/user/carnovaleandculp#p/a/u/1/3XDCHQJIj60
With ample support coming from the likes of
Rhys Jones, Nick Capper, Dain Hedgpeth, Ray Badran, Rod Todd, John Cruickshank,
Ben Ellwood and more to be announced, expect a hilarious and diverse show from
Sydney’s best alternative comedy collective!
I have had the pleasure of watching Dave Jory develop as a comic, having judged his very first Raw Comedy heat in Sydney a few years back. He was a bit scary then - the bald head and the suit made him resemble one of those villains in a Guy Ritchie flick.
I was kind of eyeing the exits to make good my escape if he proved to be as dangerous as his image threatened.
Afterwards he came up and asked for advice. I told him he needed to be less scary up front, to win the audience over - one of the other judges thought he might cut them.
He learnt pretty quickly. Now Dave Jory lives up to the the title of his show - he's a polished stand-up comic. Hence his Melbourne International Comedy Festival show, Dave Jory is Polished.
I should also tell you that the basic design of Dave's flyer is by Kim Longue, who does the poster artwork for Sydney's original Comedy Store.
I am also producing Going Halves, a show also featuring two comics on the rise. James Lieutenant I have been watching in Raw Comedy for several years now; it's not something that crops up in the normal corse of interacting with him as a stand-up comic, but James is a gifted visual artist on the verge of something major. The same is true of his comedy.
Tom Gibson has been doing comedy for about as long, and last year placed third in Canberra's 'Green Faces' comedy competition.
These guys are the fresh face of the next generation of Aussie stand up.
And I want to add a note about the flyer. James organised the photo and insisted in no uncertain terms that I was to use it as is, without manipulating it in any way. I guess he wanted to ensure I didn't do to it what I did to the photos that made up the flyer for his Cracker show, Painful Truths, in which he split the bill with Ben Ellwood.
I'm producing two shows in the current Cracker Comedy Festival. Come and see these guys. I've had the pleasure of watching them all rise from Raw Comedy heats. They've all got unique world views that'll make you laugh, and, occasionally, if you're so inclinded, to think as well.