Meanwhile, read the story.
Two comics are already in a bar
I arrive at the pre-appointed pub a little after the pre-appointed time, so the comics are already deep in discussion. About some James Bond-related minutiae, it turns out.
“…Well, you have met Dalton,” the tall, lean Indian says to the one best described as a kind of Aussie Fidel Castro.
“You’ve met Timothy Dalton?” I interrupt.
“Not officially,” Aussie Castro says. He explains:
“I had to take drugs to deal with my family on Christmas day. I was so out of my god-damned mind at Christmas lunch that this guy I’d never met – a family friend – looked and sounded exactly like Timothy Dalton in Hot Fuzz.”
I see. By ‘not officially’, Aussie Castro means, ‘not at all’. This is going to be fun.
Aussie Castro is in fact Blake Mitchell, an imposing, baby-faced Anglo Australian who can come across quite scary – particularly when he’s rockin’ a shaved head. The tall, lean Indian is Ash Jattan. They are Sydney comics who regularly appear on the open-mic circuit and, though not officially a double act, they carry some of the classic hallmarks, from the way they complement each other physically – fat versus thin, white versus black – and stylistically: Ash, instantly likeable on stage, has been known to pull out a guitar; in-your-face Blake, meanwhile, won’t sweeten the message and he doesn’t pull any punches in his comedy of the abject. Despite their differences, they can finish each other’s sentences seamlessly and ad lib the same line in unison.
Together, they’re promoting Phuklub and Ha Ha Alternative Comedy, a couple of monthly comedy rooms they kind of run.
I say ‘kind of’ because Phuklub exists as a collective (some might say ‘cult’). There’s not really a single person in charge and the stalwarts of the room have healthy enough egos that nobody wants a title so much as they want to collaborate to ensure the room exists. It’s alternative and ‘out there’. In some ways, it’s self-indulgent and a surprise it’s still running; it hasn’t lost direction or burnt itself out; the novelty still hasn’t worn off.
The other, called Ha Ha Alternative Comedy is a harder room to pigeonhole. Founded by Jen Carnevale and Madeleine Culp AKA ‘Carnevale & Culp’ AKA ‘The Cloud Girls’ (of Triple J fame), it may have been ‘alternative’ when it began but now it’s another one of the quality rooms running in Sydney with a high calibre of open mic comics featured. Which is why it’s more difficult to make Ha Ha stand out – it’s no longer as ‘alternative’ as Phuklub, even though it’s not as weird. When the Cloud Girls decamped to the UK, rather than see the room end, Ash put up his hand to keep it going. It remains the one place you can dependably see a good comic on a Sunday night in Sydney… if it’s the Sunday night that Ha Ha happens to be running.
Phuklub and Ha Ha are flip sides of the same coin: they take place in the same room of the same pub – the Roxbury Hotel on St Johns Road, Glebe (also the venue of Comedy on the Rox on a Wednesday night…). What both rooms provide is a space for comics to explore more freely what it is they do. There comes a time in a comedian’s development where, rather than merely be funny, they might want to try to say something that matters. But while ‘saying something that matters’ may be a worthy goal, it isn’t always an easy one to arrive at. The journey may include delivering material that says something, that happens to be less funny. And few audiences – the more comedy-savvy ones, really – have much time for the material that happens to be less funny, no matter how clever it might be. So comics trying to say something that matters have less opportunity to get good at it. Rooms that actually encourage it have to be able to pull off a balancing act in order to ensure there’s still plenty of the totally funny stuff to accompany the material that’s trying to say something that matters. That’s why rooms like Ha Ha and Phuklub exist: to provide a dedicated space for comedians to explore what they do.
TOP: Blake & Ellwood, the Ooze Brothers. (Photo of Ben by Cassandra Lee Noad)
BOTTOM: Close your eyes and it’s impossible to tell them apart.
The Ooze Brothers
Shut your eyes when he’s talking – or hear him heckling from somewhere up the back – and it’s easy to mistake Blake Mitchell for another Sydney comic, Ben Ellwood. Both comics sound similar, but Ellwood’s line of humour, while trawling the same mucky vein of humanity’s flawed underbelly, is more polished. Thus, Ben’s more accessible and funnier. But for a time, they’d pal around the same gigs and when one of them chose to give the sub-standard pretender on stage a hard time, you’d actually need to look over your shoulder in order to see which of the two it was. Their love of exploring the more unsavoury aspects of the human condition and a seeming interchangeability enabled them to be considered a kind of single entity: Blake and Ellwood. ‘The Ooze Brothers’. Blake finds this somehow flattering.
“That could spring from the constant ‘gay chicken’ we used to play with each other,” he laughs. “You heard about the sitcom Ellwood was pitching, right? Two Gay Fatties? It’s just him and me making out at the windows of 5-star restaurants, trying to get the guests to puke…”
Though he’s back visiting, Ellwood relocated to the UK with the Cloud Girls late last year. In the time since, Blake’s developed further and continued to find more of his own voice and persona. That is to say, he’s much less ‘apprentice Ellwood’ than before. Particularly with his beard. Give him a cigar – or more appropriately, a ‘Camberwell Carrot’ (the jumbo spliff made notorious in Withnail & I) – and he is Aussie Castro.
“If he’s Aussie Castro, I’m Subcontinental Che,” Ash offers.
“Maybe,” Aussie Castro says. “I hope you meet a similar end, being killed by Bolivian government troops.”
They make each other snicker with their casual, freeform banter. It isn’t ‘roll in the aisles’ hilarity, just leisurely play. Perhaps a kernel of an idea will be planted, a seed that, taking root and growing, will burst unexpectedly through the soil of their psyche as a more fully-formed joke somewhere down the track, without their being able to trace it back to the silliness that gave rise to it.
But perhaps some ideas that were meant to die here will instead fester and rot in a manner not intended for public consumption. We’ve barely begun and there have already been admissions of drug-taking and foolish nonsense that, out of context, will surely offend someone’s sensibilities. But when I ask if anything should be regarded ‘off the record’, Blake responds with astonished laughter, appreciative that I’m polite enough to enquire, but intent that, even if we do exercise caution and err on the side of conservatism, we still won’t cross the line so much as obliterate it as we lumber irresistibly beyond it.
“Ask whatever you feel you got to, man,” Ash encourages. “Feel free to send a copy of this to NSW State Police.”
“And to the CIA and ASIO,” Blake adds.
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.
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.
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.
Zen and the art of complete and utter chaos
If I have misgivings or concerns about Phuklub, it’s the way in which it comes across as a naughty boys’ club. There’s room for girls if they can hold their own, titillating with out-grossing antics. That’s how it seems on the surface.
This isn’t the case, however. Ash and Blake offer the example of Sue Thomas, a regular fixture on the Sydney open mic circuit and of Phuklub. By day she’s a “librarian who used to stalk Paul McDermott”.
“Sue’s on virtually every Phuklub,” Blake says. “She reads erotic fiction while we play the theme from Twin Peaks over the top of it.”
That’s not to say there aren’t edgy, scary moments – but the audience seems to dig them. “People have come up after a show and asked if there are videos of past performances available,” Ash says. “They genuinely would like to buy them.”
“They’re kind of like diet snuff movies,” Blake says.
“It’s ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Snuff’,” Ash says.
“It’s ‘I need to see the guy on stage break and drop the microphone, because the sound guy keeps drowning him out with the Seinfeld theme ever ten seconds‘,” says Blake.
Is that what it is: a deliberate deconstruction of stand-up comedy, a breaking it down and rebuilding it, so that practitioners can learn how to it better?
“That’s part of it. It gives space to explore the kinds of areas that you’re not going to have the opportunity to explore at other comedy rooms or on other nights. It’s our therapy session, once a month,” Blake says. “When the same old tired beige b*llsh*t in every other room stops making you laugh, turn up. When you’re sick of hearing, ‘So I was walking down the street the other day’ as a set up – because, no you weren’t, you f*cking idiot…”
Ash picks it up: “‘A funny think happened to me on the way here…’ No it f*cking didn’t! ‘I’ve got this friend who…’ No you don’t!”
Blake: “You’re fabricating this whole thing. And talking about Harry Potter…”
Ash: “That is what drew me to that room. When I started out and I saw a lot of people doing comedy, I laughed out of politeness at a lot of the stuff, and then I got to the point where I thought, I don’t think any of this is funny. Why aren’t I letting them know that?”
Now I understand. There are times when you’re in the audience thinking, ‘What? You made them laugh with that?! I don’t know who I hate more – the audience for falling for it or you for getting away with it!’ That’s when it’s time for Phuklub, right?
“Yeah, that’s right,” Ash confirms. “When I first realised nobody was really funny, I thought, ‘Hang on Ash, it’s probably an ego thing; you’re still very new to this, your opinion really doesn’t matter…’ – and I still don’t think it matters that much. But when I came to Phuklub and I saw people who were just so happy to play at that level, it was comedy Zen for me. It was where you went to get the ego that you build up for yourself absolutely destroyed. Decimation of the ego was what it was all about for me, and I thought, ‘I need to be a part of this’.”
“Just because you are on stage with a microphone doesn’t mean you deserve our attention,” Blake explains citing “the first ever Phuklub as the best example of this point being illustrated.
“Nick Sun got on stage. He had the mic, and he had some effects pedals, and he just started talking: ‘All right folks, tonight I guess what we’re gonna do is…’ and he kept talking, but he hit something on the effects pedals and it turned into noise. Just garbled nonsense. And he kept talking. It was one of the funniest things I have ever seen. That was the start of it.”
So virtually anyone can get on stage at Phuklub. To stay on stage – and not be drowned out by heckles, voice-overs, audio stings, sound effects and the rabble, they have to have something to say that’s worth hearing. That seems to be about it.
And even though it still seems like nebulous chaos, the collective – or cult – of comics who run it have “found their feet” when it comes to making it work. “Nick Capper is the Voice of God a lot, so he’s on the microphone up the back,” Blake explains. “I’ll do sound if Ellwood’s not in town.”
“I’ve MC’d a couple,” Ash offers. “MCing Phuklub is a very different experience to MCing a normal comedy room. It’s more like being a fire-starter…”
“You’re the captain on a burning Viking ship,” Blake elaborates, “and it’s going into the water, but you gotta ensure it goes down as nobly as possible.”
“So you’re effectively shouting, ‘Row, you f*ckers’?” I suggest.
“Yeah,” Blake says.
Ash illustrates it rather poetically:
“Row, you f*ckers! If this were to be our end, we’ll meet this end with such glory that they will write about us. It will be such an end, worthy of remembrance.”
So every Phuklub ends in flames, but everyone still makes it to Asgard?
“Ideally, yes,” says Blake. “We made it to Asgard the last few times. But we had a run in the middle of the year where we didn’t make it; we couldn’t even see the Rainbow Bridge on the horizon. If we’re to be honest, every room, no matter how good or bad, has good nights and bad nights. But with Phuklub, if we’re being completely honest, it’s how every single room should be: every night is a dice roll. Some are a little more certain than others.”
“That, to me,” says Ash, “has always been the beauty of it.”
Well that’s Phuklub explained. We’re still no closer to explaining Ha Ha Alternative Comedy, unfortunately. But why should we? You know it’s on, you know who’s on. There’s nothing better to be doing on Sunday at 8pm.