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.


Shady Sam Tripoli

*Warning*

There are some ‘adult concepts’ in this interview – if you’re likely to be offended by a great comedian’s honesty, please check out other entries on this blog that don’t carry this warning.  

Still with me? Excellent. Sam Tripoli is a comedian I’d not heard of before The Laugh Garage had him on posters as an up-coming double-header with Nikki Lynn Katt. I was pleased to discover him to be not only hilariously clever, but a pleasure to chat to after the gig – he’s so naturally funny off stage and generous with feedback for other comics. I hope this is the first of many visits to Australia, because as I write this, his residency at The Laugh Garage is nearly over and not enough people – comics and punters – will have had the opportunity to see him.


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Don’t know him from Adam

“I get all the Adams,” Sam Tripoli explains: “Adam Corolla, Adam Sandler, Adam Goldberg…”

We’re discussing doppelgangers, because I reckon this American comic has a touch of the John Turturros, particularly about the eyes and cheeks, but also around the mouth. And his American accent, to my ears, carries a similar Italian-American tinge. But you can’t draw an eyes-and-cheeks-based comparison to John Turturro without also including Al Pacino in the mix.

“I get that too,” Sam concedes. “A little bit of young– I hope still young! – Al Pacino.”

This line of discussion started because, having the pleasure of doing a five-minute spot before Sam’s hilarious headline performance at the Laugh Garage, I touched on ‘doppelgangers’. I say ‘touched on’ – I took a wrong turn and wasn’t able to make it back to my favourite bit about one of my doppelgangers…

“I do that all the time,” Sam confesses. “I go up on stage and forget the whole thing. I just gotta take it slow and it all comes to me and I hope I piece it together naturally…”

I’ve got to be honest. I’ve just seen Sam slay an audience. And not a particularly easy one, I would have thought, consisting mostly of city insurance brokers (not that there’s anything wrong with them, their laughter’s as good as anyone’s; just harder to solicit in the middle of the week) and some very silent men-in-black types (more keen to observe than actually laugh). And from the MC through to the newbies and especially to awesome support , all the acts grabbed the audience. Sam had ’em eating out of his hand the whole time, even when spinning the darkest of scenarios.

What I’m saying is, it sounds as though Sam’s being disingeniously modest for my benefit. Onstage he looks too in control to ever be out of control.

“I never go ‘A to Z’,” he says, continuing to explain his onstage modus operandi. “I just do whatever pops into my head, and try to make it work.”

Rest assured, it works. And that's probably the best way to do it – the comic letting the bits come as they will, delivering them as they arrive, seeing where they take him. Rather than following a map through every letter from A to Z, it is better to start at A and get to Z knowing what all the major intersections are along the way. If audience interaction feels like the show’s taken a wrong turn, with a great comic, it’s not a wrong turn, it’s just a detour that throws up interesting new material on the way to the next intersection. And it may turn out that there are much better places to pass through on the way Z after all.

Case in point was the night a member of a very boisterous audience indeed posed an unexpected question during a bit Sam does about a guy who died in the process of trying to have sex with a horse. The laughter had started to die down after Sam’s punchline, but before he could move on, someone yelled out, “how was the horse?”

“How was the horse?” Sam echoed the question – seemingly in disbelief, but it might have been more a case of, ‘Thank you, comedy gods, for dropping this in my lap’ than, ‘Why would you even ask that?’ “The horse was fine,” he improvised, “bragging to all its friends, ‘you know those people who jump on our backs and ride us around? I f*cked one of them. To death. High hoof! High hoof!’” And then as the laughter started to subside again, he was able to move on to the next bit. Of course, you’d only know there was a ‘next bit’ to move on to if you’d already seen him perform without an audience member posing that question.

Ultimately, Sam concludes, this approach to comedy constitutes “the better way to work” because “you can’t get buried”. There’s no wrong turn when you’re a great comic; the audience relaxes in the knowledge that you know where you’re going; they’re there to be taken on the ride, enjoying all the sharp turns, tight corners and even the odd spot of road rage if it takes place!

 

Long road to get here 

The reason Sam Tripoli is such an excellent driver is because he’s trained for it all his life. “I wanted to be a stand-up since the day I can remember consciousness,” he says. “The moment I realised I was a being, I wanted to tell jokes.” Friends remember him in first grade doing just that: getting on top of his desk to perform. He is, he says, the only guy who ever went into high school with the one goal, to be class clown. “I dedicated the next six years to achieving that. Everything I’ve done was with the hopes of becoming a stand-up comic at some point.”

It can’t have been easy, surely. Especially since Sam is the son of a Sicilian Italian dad and an Armenian mum. Usually the pressure’s on for a second generation immigrant to work hard and be successful, given that parents have sacrificed much to start a new life in a new country. Showbiz, they usually reason, is all very well, but it comes later – you need an education, a degree ‘to fall back on’.

“You know what, man?” Sam sets me straight. “The fact I’m not pumping gas for a living – my family’s fine with what I’m doing.” Admittedly, Sam does tell us as part of his routine that his dad’s a bit of a gambler – a former ‘special ed’ teacher who got into trouble not so much for educating the kids about odds and probability by teaching them how to play poker, as cleaning them out in the process. His mother, on the other hand, is “a bit of a celebrity” in their home town.  Irrespective, Sam’s folks were “really supportive, right out of the gate”. Rather than asking him when he’d get a real job, they just accepted that this was the one. And perhaps that has something to do with coming from Cortland, 30 miles out of Syracuse in upstate New York. It’s the so-called ‘crown city’ because it is the city with the highest altitude in New York.

“I didn’t realise how redneck and hick it was until I left,” Sam offers. “I remember being a kid, this older guy Bobby Gambetta had a mullet. I remember thinking how cool that was, and I wanted a mullet, so I grew a mullet. I had a mullet when I was really young.”


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Getting LA’d

The ‘wog mullet’ isn’t unheard of – although, let’s face it, it’s usually embarrassingly frizzy. But such issues of identity didn’t impinge on Sam until he left  Cortland for the ‘big smoke’.

“I thought I was white until I moved to Los Angeles,” Sam reports. “Then I became Armenian. Cos that’s what the town does – it makes you fit into a box, and that determines what goes on from there.”

So what other criteria must you adhere to, once put into the ‘Armenian’ box in LA?

“In Los Angeles, an Armenian is angry, drives a taxi, says ‘bru’ a lot; the Armenian suit is a sweatsuit with dress shoes…” The last one is the inversion of the suit-with-hightops look – so I’m safely as un-Armenian as possible. If you’re not familiar with Armenian stereotypes, you are not alone.

“If it wasn’t for the Kardashians, nobody would even know who the Armenians are,” Sam says, referring to the reality show ‘celebutante’ offspring of attorney Robert Kardashian, who was a personal friend and lawyer of OJ Simpson. “They’re great. I love ’em. Because up until that point, nobody knew who Armenians were unless you watched The Shield. Then we were just running money trains all the time; we were criminals.” Not that Sam Tripoli has a problem with that stereotype. No. His problem is, every time he went to audition for the role of an Armenian crim in LA, it’d be his Palestinian friend who’d get it. Or his Italian friend.  Even though, in every other aspect of Los Angelean life, Sam had turned from being just some American kid into, obviously, an Armenian, when it came to playing one on screen he could “never get booked as an Armenian because they thought I was too white”.

But that doesn’t open up any non-Armenian roles. According to the people who cast for film and television, he’s “not American enough” to play the other roles, apparently. “I can’t win! I’m like, what do you want me to wear? A gridiron helmet and sweatpants? Eat chicken nuggets shouting, ‘LET’S START A WAR! LET’S DO THIS!’”

What it comes down to is that while everyone else in LA is a model or aspires to be one, he’s “a fetish! A niche!” Sam’s niche is “women who are attracted to Armenian drug dealers”. That, he says, is his niche, because he has a “shady look” in Los Angeles.


Simply shady…           

‘Shady’ is an interesting concept. Sam’s material deals with a lot of ‘shady’ topics. He’s even dedicated a web page to it. He translates it as ‘troublesome’, for our benefit, the night I see him, but I think ‘creepy’ would be closer…

“The whole bit comes from watching the news and just seeing some man ‘Arrested! Committing horrible crimes!’ And then they show him, and it’s like, ‘How did you not know that guy was up to no good? He looks shady!’ That’s where it came from.”

Sam’s list of things that are shady include “white girls with dreadlocks – SHADY! Lawyers with ponytails – SHADY! Anybody who owns a sword – SHADY! Anybody who drives a taxi – SHADY! Anybody who drives an icecream truck – SHADY! White guys who always wear khaki pants – SHADY! Anybody with a gold tooth – SHADY! Anybody with a tattoo on their face – SHADY!”

Some of them don’t translate as well, like “anybody who wears an Oaklands jersey”. According to Sam, the jersey of the Oakland gridiron team is, essentially, “the gangbanger’s business suit”. Some of them, on the other hand, are universal, like the ‘cool mum’ (or ‘yummy mummy’, or ‘MILF’). “In LA, you always see some hot Latina – she’ll have high heels, her g-string jacked up like overalls – pushing a baby stroller. That’s some shady shit. I mean, I’d still hit it, but it’s shady as shit! Know what I’m saying?”

Sure, shady cool mum is hittable. But there is some shady shit Sam knows to steer well clear of. Like hitchhikers.

“Anybody who hitchhikes is a shady f*ck,” he insists, “cos that means you don’t have anyone in your life who likes you enough to give you a ride. And because I know the signs of shady, I’ll never end up being the victim of some mass murderer or psycho killer like Jason Vorhees or Mike Myers because I’ve watched enough horror flicks to know that shits about to go bad. Like pickin’ up a hitchhiker. Every movie where someone’s pickin’ up a hitchhiker, it’s like, ‘Hey, Captain Creepy, you need a ride? Awesome. Jump in. Let me drive you to where you’re gonna dump my body. That’ll be sweet.’”

Indeed, Sam Tripoli has a wealth of wisdom, gleaned from cinema. “If you’re ever in the forest and your friends are missing,” he advises, “shout for them three times. If you don’t hear from them, assume their dead, get out of there. If they update their Facebook, then you know they made it back.”

But there’s more:

“Never go camping with a supermodel. That’s the number one rule. If you ever go camping with a supermodel, you will die. She will get raped and you will get killed. It’s guaranteed even money. So I never go camping with supermodels.”



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Cinematic truth

Clearly, Sam grew up loving films. But, he says, he never wanted to be “a huge film star”. In fact, he doesn’t even want to be famous because, he says, he has too many vices. “I love too much freaky shit. I like weird shit and I want to enjoy those vices.” Sam harks back to the kind of fame enjoyed by the likes of Frank Sinatra, “where celebrities were respected: you went to a back room and and you enjoyed your vices. Girls knew you either zip it, or your take a dirt nap.” Yeah. Fame was different then. Back when celebrity was bestowed mostly upon the genuinely talented. “These girls now are taking pictures and it’s tattle-taling. I hate it. Fame sucks now.”

I’m not a tattle-taling girl taking pictures, and this is a public blog, but I’m kinda curious what some of Sam’s vices are. The ones he’s willing to admit to, anyway. He has got a predilection for porn, I notice, given his so-called Naughty Comedy Show (visit www.thenaughtycomedyshow.com).

“You know what’s interesting?” Sam asks. Initially it feels like a diversion. “Everybody talks about ‘truth’, but it’s the truth that people want to hear. People like ‘truth’ when it’s something they agree with.” It is in fact a preamble for the following.

“I’ve always been known as a dirty comic because that’s who I am. I am who I am onstage. I’m friends with porn stars. I have porn stars who are friends of mine and I’m fine with that. I trust them more than politicians and religious figures, because they put on a façade that doesn’t exist. They don’t give in to human desire. Whereas a porn star, if she told you some weird shit, you’d be like, ‘well, yeah, you’re a porn star’. You can trust them. There’s no shock, like, ‘I can’t believe that!’”

Clean break

Perhaps ‘the dirty comic’ is who Sam always was, but it seems he hadn’t totally given in to his ‘shady’ side more recently. He admits he used to be a “very political” comic – until he realised, after the 2004 United States Pesidential Election, that it no longer mattered.

“I saw George Carlin on Real Time with Bill Maher,” Sam recalls. “They kept asking him about politics and he kept saying, ‘I don’t care’ and it didn’t play well. But I got it. ‘It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.’ I realised that, after this guy committed all his war crimes and they re-elected him. ‘Why am I up here preaching about this shit when they don’t even give a f*ck?’ So all my stories on stage now are real stories from my real life. That’s what I’m working on right now.”

Real stories. About real life. In Sam’s case, that does mean, at the very least, ‘shady'. And we have strong elements of it in the local comedy scene, he’s pleased to note. “That's something I’ve really liked about working with the up-and-comers out here,” he says of his Australian visit. “They’re smart and there’s some dirtiness. In LA they’re either one or the other: they’re either intellectually trying to jerk themselves off, or they’re actually jerking off on stage.”


Sam’s Legacy

The other truth Sam is embracing is the fact that, by a certain age, men have started to wonder what their “legacy” will be. “What are we gonna be remembered for?” he asks, pointing out that men are remembered for three things, essentially: “creating something great, achieving something great, or going on an amazing crime spree”. I’ll give you three guesses which of those things shady Sam Tripoli most wants to be remembered for. But you’ll only need one.

“I’m not violent,” he says. “I’d never hurt anyone, but I just want to go on a great crime spree.”

What? What sort of crime spree can you go on that doesn’t hurt someone at some level?

“I want to go on a crime spree of awesomeness where people go, ‘that’s the shit!’ That’s where I’m at. That’s the kind of person I am. I wanna be the Robin Hood of sex, laughs and bad decisions. I wanna steal from the rich and give it to the girls who want to party. That’s all I wanna do.”


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

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