Photo by Dave Keeshan
“When you finish uni in Tassie, you’ve got two choices: Melbourne or Sydney,” explains comedian and comedy room runner Mark Williamson, who left his native Tasmania in 2002. “I had friends in Melbourne and family in Sydney and thought, ‘blood’s thicker than water, let’s go to Sydney’.”
Mark had never even considered trying stand-up comedy back home, nor in Sydney, initially, until a crap day job ensued. “I started at Westpac bank and just hated it. A year later, a friend suggested Raw Comedy. The plan wasn’t full-time comedy, but I quit my job, did Raw Comedy, took a year off and did nothing – not even comedy – and then Raw came around again. I entered it again, must have done well because I got invited back to the Comedy Store and kept plugging along from there.”
I remember seeing Mark very early on, when he used to call himself ‘The MWOH Show’, because – the legend goes – he often made an audience exclaim ‘oh!’ (‘Mark Williamson? Oh!’) An early routine involved having the audience call out names of other comics, of whom Mark would then do impressions. I remember unsettling him with a request for Ben Elton. “I’m sorry… I’ve no idea what he sounds like,” Mark said. A fair call for a kid his age in 2006. It’d been a while since Elton had last taken to the stand-up stage and was much better known as an author of funny novels, who’d co-written The Young Ones back in the day. However, the impressions are long gone. According to Mark, “another kid came along who could do them much better…” – a comic called Ryan Withers worth seeing, if you haven’t yet. Even though he rarely does impressions these days, either. But if you ever see him do them, you’ll be telling people about it the next day.
Mark’s a lot less interested in talking about himself than he is talking about Comedy On The Edge, a room he runs with Jonas Holt at the Shannon Hotel on Abercrombie Street, Chippendale. But before we get there, we have to start at the beginning.
Mark essentially runs rooms because when he started doing comedy, there wasn’t enough opportunity to get stage time. The Comedy Store offered an ‘open mic’ night – “but I wouldn’t really call it that” he says, since it wasn’t easy for an absolute beginner to get on stage there (and it’s harder now, unless you possess amazing raw talent or fulfill an ability to appeal to a hitherto uncatered for demographic); there was the Mic in Hand, at the Friend in Hand Hotel – “the waiting list was about three months”; there was the Comedy Hole at the Sandringham Hotel in Newtown; and Pear Shaped Comedy, operating out of the East Village Hotel in Darlinghurst.
At some point, Pear Shaped was on the verge of ending, and Mark received a call from a mate asking him if he wanted to take it over. “I naively thought ‘Hey, there’ll be money in this, let’s do it!’” There wasn’t. In fact there rarely is. But, Mark says, “five years, three venues later, Edge is still going.”
Comedy shaped pair
Okay, we need to retrace our steps here.
What happened was, Brian Strain and Krysstal, a comedy duo from the UK, spent a year in Sydney and established a local ‘franchise’ (if you will) of a comedy night that existed back home for them: Pear Shaped Comedy. When they were ready to return home, they handed the room over to a trio of comics, Jonas Holt (more of him later), Chris Strickland and Chuck Boyd. But the time came when they, too, had done with running the room. So Jonas offered it to Mark, who took it over with another comic, no longer on the scene, called ‘Ball Sack’. With the transition came a change in name, as well as a different night of operation. Pear Shaped used to run on a Monday, but so did The Comedy Hole, the Fringe Bar and the Old Manly Boatshed; why compete? More importantly, Mark reckons, why not give comics “two nights of work”? The new name, Comedy on the Edge, reflected the fact it operated on the edge of Sydney’s CBD and also that it was a room established comics could take risks in, trying new stuff out while newer comics could be rough around the edges.
“The thing about open mic is that you can’t read a textbook and become a professional comedian. You need a place to work on your sets,” Mark explains. A brain surgeon gets to work on a cadaver before being let loose on real people, but ‘practicing’ on a room full of dead people would be pointless for a stand-up comic. Newbies have to make their mistakes on stage, doing it, and Comedy on the Edge provided that opportunity. But it is also a room that professionals can come to play in and try out and polish new material that they wouldn’t necessarily risk pulling out in front of a less comedy savvy audience that has paid dearly for tickets.
Co-incidentally, another new room opened the same month as Comedy on the Edge. It was called Comedy on the Rox, run by Kathryn Bendall, and it operated on a Wednesday in Glebe. Both rooms continue to thrive, although neither Ball Sack nor East Village went quite the distance.
“Ball Sack lasted about six weeks before I had to ban him from his own room,” Mark reports. “For those who don’t know him, Ball Sack is a really lovely, lovely person. He really was a lovely guy. But his act could pretty much be summed up with, ‘Racism; homophobia; racism; homophobia; and a lot more racism’. He had a lot of energy, he was an enthusiastic salesman. I didn’t like his act, but I really liked the guy.” On a night when the audience contained some Asian punters, a drunken Ball Sack took everything too far. By the time he’d sobered up the next day he’d graciously agreed to step aside. Where is he now? “The last I heard,” Mark says, “Ball Sack had gotten into cage fighting!”
Comedy on the Edge was at the East Village Hotel some two years and then ended abruptly when the comics and audiences “rocked up one night” to discover the premises chained shut. “Turned out it had gone bankrupt.”
That night, Comedy on the Edge was out on the street, the steps of the pub serving as the stage. The punters loved it! Afterwards, Mark and fellow comic Seizure wandered the city in search of a new venue. “We found Hotel William, which it was a perfect space: big, open, and most importantly, free to rent”. They sailed through their six-week trial with massive crowds.
Things went swimmingly at the new venue, but not always on the same night. “When we started there were only two rooms operating on a Tuesday night – us and the Comedy Store. But at its peak, there were eight rooms on a Tuesday in Sydney: Laugh Garage, Marble Bar, Impro Night at the Roxbury, a room in Lidcombe, a room in Cronulla…”. In addition to trying to avoid clashing with so many rooms, Mark – what with having a day job and being a gigging comic elsewhere – wanted his weeknights back. So he decided to try running Comedy on the Edge on a Sunday afternoon. “The first one was a trial, in the lead-up to World’s Funniest Island…” – a festival taking place during the days and nights of an October weekend – “…and we were absolutely packed. I thought, maybe there was more of an audience on a Sunday. But for the next four weeks, we had an unusual warm spot in winter and so, although nobody stayed at home, few of them wanted to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon in a pub. So we went back to Tuesday nights.”
Things were going well – until the owners of Hotel William decided they would make much more money if they turned their watering hole into a tourist trap titty bar. While many comics wouldn’t have minded (consider: Cheech & Chong started out performing in a strip joint) it wouldn’t have been the ideal situation for comedy lovers. Time, gentlemen, to decide whether to call it a day or look for a new venue.
At about the same time, Jonas Holt was calling time on a venue he was running at the Harlequin in Pyrmont, essentially a writers’ group that also performed. It didn’t quite take off, but after six weeks, rather than looking for a better venue, Jonas and Mark joined forces to find a new home for Comedy on the Edge. For some reason it took Mark some six years to realise his local, The Shannon, which he’d been walking past every day, had a disused function room equipped with a PA system in its basement. Problem solved quite brilliantly. And the opening night was particularly auspicious: after several years of drought, Sydney’s first proper, heavy rains resulted in some flooding. “We got there and the room which we now use was a swimming pool,” Mark recalls. Thankfully, Paddy who owns the pub did something not many pub owners whose pubs host a comedy night would most likely do: he actually cared – and set up the PA in the main bar so that it could serve as the performance space that night.
Comics’ll tell you: working a bar is a different thing to working a comedy room –a bar can be full, but remain indifferent to the presence of comedy, punters chattering among themselves and insisting on playing their pool game right in front of the stage. Whereas, people who go to the effort of moving into a separate room in a pub actually want to be there.
However, that opening night at the Shannon went off: a packed pub enjoying a full bill of some of the best comics working the circuit. “We got a lot of new people who wanted to check it out, and our regulars. From week two we were downstairs; we’ve been going strong ever since.”
Friday on my mind
Comedy on the Edge has moved beyond just Tuesday night open mic. It has embarked on staging additional monthly shows with those pros that often come to play, teaming them up with comics Mark refers to as the “[Future] Comedy Superstars”.
Why take that step now, you might wonder? “My rent went up and I needed a way to make more money…” Mark offers, laughing, before offering the real reason.
“At the moment, Sydney is blessed with so many brilliant comics and not enough places to perform.” He lists all the great rooms we have in Sydney – Comedy Store, Laugh Garage, Mic in Hand, Fringe Bar, Comedy on the Rox, Old Manly Boatshed, Oatley Hotel, Cargo Bar, Happy Endings, … but there are only so many times a comic gets to play those rooms – rarely enough to give up the day job. And the transition from killing with five minutes in an open mic room to doing your first support spot at Manly and Oatley, say, is a big one. So a monthly Friday night show in the otherwise empty Comedy on the Edge/Shannon Hotel room is a fine idea. “Let’s take five comics coming through, who are on the verge of having a great ten minutes, and combine with a brilliant headliner and a big name comic who will MC. Let’s sell tickets and see what happens.”
I can tell you what happens.
The first one takes place tonight, Friday 24 June, featuring Mikey Robins (yes, the Good News Week team leader!) as MC, with Bruce Griffiths – who has written so many hilarious gags that you’ve laughed at when they’ve come out of other people’s mouths on television and radio, and you haven’t even realised they’re the work of Bruce Griffiths. There are two special guests that won’t be named (but I know who they are, and they are so worth seeing) plus those future superstars: Michele Betts, Oh WoLfie, Drew Bowie, Mark Williamson (of course) Christina Eakins and Jonas Holt (foolish not to).
What happens, Mark?
The show sells out. Sure, there are alleged to be a limited number of tickets on the door tonight – but they’re gonna sell quickly. So take your chances: Comedy on the Edge, the Shannon Hotel, 87 Abercrombie Street, Chippendale. Might see you there – probably drowning my sorrows in the beer garden out the back because it’s impossible to get a seat inside!