Stand Up For Shapiro
Interview with organiser Julie Lawless

Shapiro

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.

 

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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.”

 

Lawless Entertainment

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.

As was her other baby, ‘The United States of Funny’: “A bunch of young comics from the US, who were going to come and do half an hour each and kill.” The comics included Julia Lillis, Maggie MacDonald, Danielle Stewart, Lee Camp, Owen Benjamin and Thai Rivera.

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.

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Rick Shapiro

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.

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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.

Fine Print:

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.”


Garage-er than life…

A couple of months back, when Nikki Lynn Katt and Sam Tripoli were headlining at The Laugh Garage, I was invited to stay back and watch Darren Sanders, Paul Warnes, Garry Who, Ally Pinnock, Danny Grozdich, Sam and Nikki partake in a pilot for The Garage. It’s a sitcom set in a comedy club, with comedians playing themselves. Their live performances consist of actual live performances. Heck, they even let me have a cameo (as an annoying comedy nerd. Not much of a stretch there!) I hope there are plenty more eps soon.


The Katt Came Back

*Warning*

This interview contains adult concepts. Please visit other pages of this blog if you don’t like hearing or reading about sexually explicit comedy.

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Does Humour Belong In Music?

“It all started with ‘The F*ck You Song’.” Nikky assures me. “I didn’t know that I was a comedian. I had to have several friends and loved ones – including my grandfather – tell me, before I decided to start singing my songs in comedy clubs. Although my grandfather would lose it if he heard the content of the current songs…”

Nikki Lynn Katt is a gorgeous American woman who sings songs that are rude, clever and – best of all – funny, in the sweetest voice you can imagine. Indeed, that is part of how and why her humour works, at least to begin with: the ‘Sarah Silverman’ effect, if you will. The disjunction of those words coming out of that face (and, if I’m to be honest, on top of that body…) with that voice.

But, as she explains, Nikki didn’t start her career as a singer of ribald songs. That’s a destination you can only arrive at, really, via an interesting detour, having set out for somewhere else entirely. Music was always her first love, of course, and that’s why Nikki attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she set out to be “a regular songwriter”. But the ‘regular’ songs she wrote proved to be “super-sad”.

“If they’re not dirty, silly, funny songs about sex, they’re all songs that would make you want to slit your wrists. Nobody wants to hear sad songs, so they’re just for me. I used to record and perform the sad songs but now I stick to making people laugh.”

Sad songs and funny songs have a similar origin – it’s just a matter of how the songwriter choses to document the inspirational event. Consider, again, ‘The F*ck You Song’, written when Nikki was still a singer/songwriter rather than a comedian. The lyrics are something like,

This is my big f*cking ‘f*ck you’ song to you
You f*cking bastard, and your little slut, too.

“It was sung really sweet and pretty,” Nikki says. A hate song done up as a love song is the perfect source of comedy and proved to be everyone’s favourite whenever she included it in her set. “People started to tell me to write more stuff like that because that’s what people like to hear. That’s how it started.”

Rest assured, Nikki’s path to comedy was “a little awkward” to begin with. Doing ‘The F*ck You Song’ as part of her set at the Hotel Café in Los Angeles – “probably the premiere place for a singer/songwriter to perform” – wouldn’t always prove popular. “Sometimes people was it as a breath of fresh air in an environment where you’d just hear sad songs all the time. But some people thought it was totally out of place. They’re the ones who directed me to comedy clubs.”

The humourless singer/songwriting milieu’s loss is comedy’s gain, clearly. Although the comedy songwriter has to work harder.

“When you hear a great song you say, ‘that song was so great, I want to hear that again’. When someone tells a great joke, you don’t say, ‘I want to hear that joke again’. To write a great song, you have to repeat something memorable, but in order to tell a great joke, you can’t repeat that thing because they already know it. I’ve learned over the years that anything you can do to repeat a hook in a song with some kind of variation that makes it new, is the way to keep it going.”



Nikki’s Record

This is true of two songs that immediately come to mind: ‘When I’m With You’, and ‘Don’t Forget About The Balls’, both available on Hello, My Name Is Nikki Lynn Katt, Nikki’s recently released EP (for sale at gigs, on Nikki’s website and via iTunes). The former song is a not-quite-able-to-break-up ballad, the latter, a song of instruction aimed to better educate young people about sexual health.

Well, that’s not quite how Nikki introduces ‘Don’t Forget About The Balls’ on stage. She says she wrote it as a form of sexual health instruction for a school audience, but she wasn’t allowed to perform it in front of said audience. It’s clear why: ‘Don’t Forget The Balls’ gives kids more information than they’d really need or want – which makes it all the funnier. But that’s not the only time Nikki’s provided perhaps more information than the audience requires. Straddling music and comedy as she does, Nikki can still occasionally find herself placed, if not on the ‘wrong’ bill, certainly a ‘bad’ one. Like the time she opened for a Christian artist.

“I didn’t know,” Nikki insists. “I opened with a song called ‘Jewish Girls Don’t Do Anal’. I was experimenting with survey-taking. I passed out an anal sex survey, and all of these Christian people who had come to see the Christian artist were horrified.”

How could anyone stuff up by booking Nikki and a god-botherer on the same bill?

“LA is different in the sense that club promoters don’t actually promote shows. They find musicians who will play a show for free and invite all of their friends. The promoter of that show just put a random bunch of artists on the same bill with no thought how those artists would mesh.”

The result?

“People definitely were upset and they left.” Pause. “The anal sex survey didn’t go very well, either.”

Although ‘Jewish Girls Don’t Do Anal’ isn’t on the Hello, My Name Is Nikki Lynn Katt EP, the other songs are as full-on in lyrical content. Nikki describes the collection as “a bunch of recordings done over the years” and though it’s mostly voice-and-guitar recordings made in friends’ bedrooms and living rooms, it sounds much more cohesive and professional. Probably because some of the numbers, like ‘The Sock Song’, were recorded in a “proper studio” with a full band and “proper production”. It also has a video clip that’s had 10,000 hits on YouTube.

“Everything in ‘The Sock Song’ is factual,” Nikki says. “My neighbour who was my very good friend slept with my boyfriend and I had to live next door to her for four-and-a-half years and share a parking space with her and share a laundry with her, and I totally just hated her but I had to be nice to her or else it would have sucked to live next to her.

“One day we were both doing laundry and her sock ended up with my clothes. The song literally came out of me thinking what horrible things I could do to her sock to repay her.” Rest assured, Nikki didn’t actually have her friends pleasure themselves into the sock. But if she had, that wouldn’t constitute nearly as good revenge as the song does. Nikki agrees.

“What I would really like to happen is a friend tell her, ‘Dude, did you see this song by Nikki Lynn Katt?’ and for her to say, ‘Oh, that girl’s my ex-neighbour’, and look at it, and see what it’s about.”

We can only hope.

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While ‘Heartbroken Vagina’ is about “losing your mojo after a break-up” and “not being interested in the things you used to be interested in”, ‘This Halloween’ is another band recording. Essentially, it’s about how Halloween is the night to dress sluttily despite the discomfort, or risk being ignored.

“I hate being uncomfortable for any reason whatsoever,” Nikki explains, “and Halloween is one of those nights: it’s the last day of October so it’s really, really cold and you’re kind of required to wear these skimpy outfits…”. In the video, Nikki is dressed in “a dorky pumpkin piñada” which is warmer and hardly slutty at all, but comes with consequences, as Nikki explains: “If you go as that girl, you’re just gonna be the girl in the corner on your own the whole night because the rest of the party is a parade of cleavage and upper thigh… So that song was basically about embracing the fact that you’re gonna be uncomfortable but when it comes down to it you have one night to let your inner whore come out. It’s a night that gives you a free pass.”

The clip of the song has proven popular, even Downunder. “I was very surprised when I got notes from people who had heard the song or seen the video in Australia,” Nikki says, “because my understanding was that it wasn’t a very big holiday in Australia. It’s interesting to know that it’s growing.”

It is growing – few people went ‘trick-or-treating’ when I was a kid. Lots of kids do it now. I’m in favour of it, I tell Nikki, not just because it is the universal ‘night of the casual whore’, but also because it was Frank Zappa’s favourite holiday.

Good call,” she approves.

One track that does stand out on the EP is ‘Elements Of The Ridiculous’, a ‘throw-back’ to Nikki’s earlier work as a singer/songwriter of beautiful sad songs. “I guess I just wanted to show that I have more than one face,” Nikki initially says of the song’s inclusion. “No, that’s not what I wanted to show…”

I think it is exactly what Nikki wanted to show – that she’s not just some one-trick pony. Although the trick – clearly not her only one – is pretty impressive, I suspect a part of her still wants to be known for the serious stuff as well as the funny stuff.

“That’s exactly what it was,” Nikki agrees. “I’m trying to show that I’m not a one-trick pony. In my fantasy land, I get to play all the different kinds of songs that I play in one place.” She toys with the idea of making a record that embraces both styles, the happy and the sad, which she’d call Bipolar. She quickly points out she’s not seeking to ridicule or annoy people who suffer from bipolar affective disorder. Although it would appear on the surface that the sad songs and the comedy songs are poles apart, the fact is they are two sides of the same coin. The ‘sad clown’ is a universal archetype. “I hadn’t thought about it like that,” Nikki says. “Yeah, I am the sad clown.”

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Novelty Downunder

This isn’t Nikki’s first visit to Australia. She visited a year ago, she tells us, while MCing an open mic night at the Laugh Garage. The process that brought her here then, and has led to her return, began late one night in Los Angeles, as she lay in bed watching Jimmy Fallon.

“Andy Samberg came on and he was talking about his song ‘Jizz in my Pants’ and said that it was a number one hit in Australia…”

Indeed it was – despite being banned from radio play by most stations, it was, for a time, the number one download on iTunes.

My ears perked up and I did a little bit of research and found out that comedy records are the biggest selling records of all time in Australia.”

Again, indeed they are. I can’t be bothered working out which, but the top spot must be heavily contested by the likes of Austen Tayshus’s ‘Australiana’, Joe Dolce’s ‘Shaddap You Face’ and Chris Franklin’s ‘Bloke’. Point is, as far as Nikki Lynn Katt is concerned, her ambition is to make a “proper comedy record” with a “proper label” and “proper marketing”. So, she says, she decided to take the risk and come to Australia on her own and try to make some connections.

“I came out, played some open mic rooms, met Julie Lawless…” – manager of the Darren Sanders-owned Laugh Garage – “…who is now a lifelong friend and booked my whole tour for me. I also came out to take a meeting with a record label. That label and I are still in talks, but it’s maybe not the right fit, so I’m still looking for someone to help me put out my record.”

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Does Humour in Musical Sex Education?

While a comedy record is a goal, Nikki Lynn Katt’s greater project is ‘musical sex education’. “I do songs about STDs and safe sex practices,” she explains. “I’d really like to do a college tour where I combine songs about herpes and urinary tract infections and songs like ‘Don’t Forget About The Balls’ – sex-related health education.”

I can’t help myself. The question has to be asked. “Where does this burning desire…”

I stop myself.

“‘Burning’ is obviously the wrong word…”

Nikki laughs.

What I ask is, what happened during Nikki’s formative years that made her decide to essentially write a musical about sexual health? Is she from a background where all of this stuff was taboo?

According to Nikki, at age 25 she found herself “doing a little soul-searching”, thinking about all the world’s problems, trying to determine what the biggest ones were and how they might be solved. “It seemed to me that the root issue is that there are too many unwanted children. The world would be a much better place if people only had children when it was on purpose – that they came together and went, ‘I want to bring another human being into the world and raise it’.” Her solution to how to ensure there are less unwanted children is to talk to kids, acknowledge that they’re “going to do what they’re going to do” in terms of their behaviour, “and if they’re going to do those things, help them figure out how be safe and responsible about it.”

To that end, Nikki applied to become a high school outreach speaker through a US public health organisation, and after completing the training courses, was sent out to high schools  “to talk to kids about safe sex and birth control and STDs and the whole nine yards”. This instilled within her a desire to communicate to people the message of being safe and responsible. Her favourite slogan that sums it all up is: “Love carefully”.

And here I was thinking the introduction sto ‘Don’t Forget The Balls’ – that it was written for a school audience, in order to educate them about sexual health, but that she was no allowed to perform it to school kids – was a joke. “No,” Nikki assures me, “it’s true”. And now it’s even funnier!

A noble undertaking, educating kids to take responsibility for their actions. Using comedy for a purpose other than merely being funny begs the inevitable question: can comedy change anything?

“Comedy can change a lot of things,” Nikki says. “People laugh at something when they relate to it. So if you can get someone to laugh about something, you’ve gotten them to understand it.” And it's as true on a personal level for Nikki Lynn Katt, as she cites her “boring day job at a law firm”. Asked to explain why she worked so much overtime, Nikki “drew up an outline called ‘The Top 7 Reasons It Takes Nikki Longer Than Everyone Else To Her Job’” and included jokes. By the end of reading the outline, she’d managed to communicate to them in a non-confrontational and fun way the issues that have an effect on her work. “That’s just a small way that comedy can make differences in every-day life,” Nikki says. “And when comedians are sent to entertain troops overseas, that’s a way in which comedy’s making a big difference.”


Nikki Lynn Katt is at headlining at the Laugh Garage with Sam Tripoli this week. Book online.