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.”


Simon Palomares:
A Spaniard in the Works

This piece got bumped by the magazine glossy fashion mag for which it was written.

Simon looks awesome in an expensive suit, as stylish as any comic, if not moreso. But I thought an interview with him about his life and broad experiences in comedy was a more interesting read than a page of his punchlines, which work much better when you pay to see him do them from the stage (as does he, most likely).

I considered pitching again in time for the broadcast of his SBS doco, but you can only beat your head against a brick wall until your head starts to give, particularly when the wall hasn’t changed at all, apart from the odd fleck of blood splatter pattern.

I should add, I nicked the title from John Lennon.


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Simon Palomares
has come full-circle. His third national tour with quartet Il Dago, who take so-called ‘wog’ comedy to mainstream audiences, embark on their third national tour at the end of November. Having emigrated with his family from Spain aged 10, Simon went on to pioneer the genre with long-time friend and collaborator George Kapiniaris as The Tibaldi Brothers. His last Comedy Festival show, My Two Boys, dealt with being the father of teenagers, and his most recent spate of solo stand-up found him performing to the locals back in Spain, as documented in the SBS special Ko Ho Nas (at the moment you can still watch it online; the follow-up, which will see Simon performing stand-up in Argentina, is already in development). According to Simon, he has more ideas than time to execute them. He still finds time to teach an excellent comedy masterclass. (Details on his website).

Dom Romeo: How do you decide what project to embark on next?

SIMON PALOMARES: Fun. Whether it sparks you up or it doesn’t.

Dom Romeo: How did you end up in showbiz?

SIMON PALOMARES: I tricked my parents by going to teachers college, where I studied drama and psychology. Little did they know… At the end of the day, if you keep doing what you love doing, it pays off, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t really matter because you enjoyed doing it.

Dom Romeo: How much of an effect did ‘being foreign’ have on you as a kid?

SIMON PALOMARES: I grew up in Lygon Street, so to me, Australia has always been ‘ethnic’. It wasn’t until I went to drama school that I realised that there were people who weren’t of European background. I thought that everybody was from somewhere else.

Dom Romeo: Success = recognising a break + making the most of it. Discus.

SIMON PALOMARES: We had a good run. As The Tibaldi Brothers, George and I did one try-out. Someone said, ‘can you do an hour and a half?’ and we went, ‘yeah,  sure.’ We bullshitted our way through it – put a bunch of sketches together. And then someone said, ‘we’re doing this thing called a Melbourne Comedy Festival; can you put something together?’ and we went, ‘sure,’ so we did Wogs Out Of Work. And from that someone said, ‘have you ever written a sitcom?’ and I said, ‘no, but I’m sure we can,’ and we made Acropolis Now.

Dom Romeo: What’s the best gig you’ve ever had?

SIMON PALOMARES: Two years ago I produced three shows in a row and my brain was mush so I took time off and worked as a bike courier around Melbourne. I can’t tell you how much I loved it. I lost about 12 kilos. I could eat anything. Can you imagine doing a job where you could stop for a doughnut or hot chips whenever you feel like it?

Dom Romeo: More along the lines of great showbiz moments…

SIMON PALOMARES: Very few of my life’s ‘greatest moments’ happened on stage or in front of a camera, although working with John Clarke on The Games was a moment like that. Improvising with Peter Cook in the first Melbourne Comedy Festival was like that. You know you’re alive when Peter Cook starts throwing stuff at you and you’ve got to throw it back! And of course, going back to Spain and making a Spanish audience laugh has to be up there…

Dom Romeo: What was it like, returning to Spain?

SIMON PALOMARES: Interesting. Trains and bull fights are the only things that run on time.

Dom Romeo: Do you have any regrets?

SIMON PALOMARES: I had to turn down a role in Underbelly. The thing with creating your own work is that they ring and say, ‘we’re filming between April and August, will you be available for an episode?’ and you go, ”well, no, I’m not going to be sitting around for four months waiting for you to call me for an episode. I’ll be working.”

Dom Romeo: Why do so many locally produced comedy films seem to fail?

SIMON PALOMARES: So much of our film industry is funded by government committee, and the guy sitting at that end of the table wants one thing while the guy over here wants something else. To get the project through, you have to find the medium that pleases the most people, and films made to please the average end up being just that: average.

Dom Romeo: From ‘wog’ comedy to family comedy; from having parents from a different culture to being one in a different time. Explain the transition.

SIMON PALOMARES: Sometimes walking into my house is like walking into the cantina in Star Wars: everyone is a different, weird animal. My parents came to Australia from villages in Spain and my kids spend three hours a day talking to friends on MSN – they’re just worlds apart. And in one lifetime, I’ve gone from hiding behind the shed so that my parents don’t catch me smoking, to hiding behind the shed so that my kids don’t catch me smoking.



Five other ‘wog’ comics you should know about:

1. Nino Culotta
Author of seminal text They’re A Weird Mob, the first stab at Aussie wog comedy. The filmed version is one of the few truly successful Aussie comedy films. Only, it doesn’t really count, because ‘Nino Culotta’ is in fact the pen-name of journalist John O’Grady

2. Peter Sellers
Yes, I know, he only pretended to be Indian… but, as fellow comic (and erstwhile ‘brain surgeon who mounts operas’) Jonathan Miller has noted, Sellers was the first who cracked the accent and the mannerisms  – after which, no anglo comic ‘did an Indian accent’; they did their impression of Peter Sellers doing an Indian accent.

3. Russell Peters
Canadian Indian who travels the world selling out massive theatres by word-of-mouth. Appeals to virtually every ethnic minority in each English-speaking nation by dint of having perfected an impression of every non-English nationality’s English accent. And being very, very funny, of course.

4. Goodness Gracious Me
English sketch show featuring a cast of sub-continental Asians (Indians) including Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal and Anil Gupta. If  the title is familiar, it’s because they adapted it, ironically, from a novelty disc that was an early 60s hit for Peter Sellers (in character) and Sophia Loren. Of course, the cast of Goodness Gracious Me made more of a mark in Australia with their subsequent show, The Kumars At Number 42, briefly adapted less successfully in Australia as Greeks On The Roof.

5. Shappi Khorsandi
Gorgeous and funny English comic of Iranian extraction who brought her show Asylum Speaker to the 2007 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, absent from subsequent festivals – despite success and popularity – owing to parenthood.


Wanna hear more?

Here’s a broadcast with me as Rod Quinn’s guest on ABC Local Radio – a conversation about differently cultured comedy, broadcast Australia-wide, November 15 2009.


Show Us Your Roots

Me and the so-called ‘wog humour’ don’t see eye-to-eye, for reasons I’m still coming to terms with. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy the television show Acropolis Now, but I see it as a kind of Aussie Happy Days, and I like the idea of that ground-breaking live stage show Wogs Out Of Work but it seems to me that it just keeps recurring – in only slightly varied forms – far too frequently (like Greeks on the Roof, the Aussie adaptation of The Kumars At No. 42 that replaced the Indian comics with Greek ones – although it also saw fit to include a non-Greek actor doing a cheesy ‘wog’ accent with the evergreen [and purple] ‘Effie’ character).

This inability to deal with wog comedy means that I continue to neglect talented individuals – like Joe Avati and Nick Giannopoulos – who don’t quite fit into the unified field theory of comedy I’ve pretty much been working on since day one. The problem is that they are either preaching to the converted – doing gags that can only appeal to a limited audience – or selling themselves short – deliberately fudging the facts in a patronising and self-deprecating way, in order to appeal to the largest possible audience. Or maybe both those things are close to what I’m doing by avoiding wog comedy.

So then a bunch of comics – some with that Wogs Out of Work ‘wog’ background – take part in a show whose angle is that everyone in it is a foreignor of some sort (cue the Monty Python song ‘Never Be Rude To An Arab’) although the inclusion of an American and the Irishman seem to be the escape clause – the hedged bet for the bits of the audience that can’t or won’t embrace the less Anglo of the ethnic humour. (Ie people like me.)

However, I discover the show is hilarious, and the comedians, possibly even more interesting to talk to in this ‘wog comedy’ context as they would be under any other circumstance. And the presence of the American and the Irishman adds to the insight and the enjoyment, by allowing contrast. They enable me to put the ‘wog’ thing into context, and hence develop that unified field theory. Maybe I will even get around to giving Joe Avati the attention he deserves. But I still draw the line at Nick Giannopoulos!

Having said all of that, the transcript of the interview that used to live on this page was removed, to add to the Radio Ha Ha website, the sound file likewise removed since it appeared in Episode 4 of the Radio Ha Ha. I have yet to restore the transcript, but here is the sound file.