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.”