A cellarful of joys
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Itâs kinda sorta like a almost a decade since the Laugh Garage came into being, and the next two weeks feature a total of six massive nights of Gala shows with heaps of comedians on each night. The Laugh Garage is a purpose-built comedy venue in Sydneyâs CBD (thereâs another one operating out of Parramatta, too) that feels like a comedy club ought to: dark room down a set of stairs on a city corner, with a bar at one end. Not at all a theatre or a room in a pub â not to take away from any of Sydneyâs great comedy venues that take on that configuration. Over the years, Iâve interviewed the comic who founded and still runs the Laugh Garage, Darren Sanders, and here is a compilation of those conversations, compiled to commemorate this spate of all-star gigs. If youâre interested, I'm on the first night. But itâs the Laugh Garage; like a number of other cool, supportive Sydney venues, I get stage time there quite frequently â you can see me any time. Come to see all of the other great comics on!
âAt the moment, everyone wants to be a ârock starâ,â Darren Sanders insists. âIf you want to be a DJ or a radio star, go to radio school.â Darren is referring to the way in which comedy newbies imagine theyâre going to become overnight celebrities by getting on stage and âtelling jokesâ. I use inverted commas because few people manage to actually tell jokes the first time they get on stage â usually they say the most outrageous things they can think of, imagining that the laughter of discomfort is automatically proof that an audience has been entertained. This was never the case for Darren Sanders, whose first choice was to be an actor.
Darren Sanders is one of those talents from Adelaide who felt, at least as he was coming through, he needed to be elsewhere in order to make it anywhere. To be fair, Darren is a comedian, and like prophets, comedians are rarely successful in their own towns â they have to travel elsewhere to spread the word. So this isnât really a blatant exercise in Adelaide-bashing. Point is, by 1990 Darren had headed overseas and landed in the States.
âI was living in America and studying acting in LA, at the Theatre of Arts,â he says. He was making ends meet by selling tickets for the Los Angeles comedy venue the Laugh Factory. It was the fact that heâd use most of tickets himself to go see shows that led to him becoming a comic. âI used to watch the audience more than the guys performing, to see them laugh. Iâd think, âHow are they making them do that?â Thatâs what started my interest in it, seeing that stuff.â
Rest assured, Darren saw âa lot of dudsâ get up on stage, in his time. People like Eric Douglas, brother of Michael. âIt was a shocker; talking about having dinner with Sparticus, all of those sorts of routinesâ¦â Theyâre not comedy routines if theyâre not actually funny, so Darren corrects himself and goes with âanecdotesâ.
When Darren returned to Australia, he made the realisation â after a week in Adelaide â âI canât live here!â That was, of course, long before the Adelaide Fringe Festival had become an annual event and its comedy scene had become so strong. Back then, it made more sense to relocate to Sydney, and by that time, Darren had well and truly gotten the comedy bug, written down quite a lot of his experiences as a traveller, and figured theyâd work on stage. A âdebut gigâ as his brotherâs best man â telling piss-funny stories over the slide show â convinced him that he had no fear of getting up in front of an audience (he had trained as an actor, after all), so he might as well give it a go somewhere else. âSomewhere elseâ was Sydneyâs own Comedy Store â at the time, located in Bay Street, Glebe.
âI remember hearing laughter, but having no control over it,â Darren says of his first proper stand-up gig. âSome woman said something in the crowd, but I had to keep moving, keep doing the routine. I didnât have the freedom of talking back or having the comebacks.â Indeed, it was a while before heâd have the confidence to âgo off-scriptâ. âI remember thinking âHow the hell am I going to remember a five-minute routine, let alone half an hour or more?â Once you have the confidence in your material you know it works, then you have the liberty to think âMaybe I could stray outside of thatâ¦ââ
While Darrenâs time in the United States served him well â there was a polish and sophistication that spoke âshowbizâ that set him apart from other comics coming through with him â heâd been preparing for a life as a comicâ¦ although he didnât necessarily recognise it at the time. âIt wasnât actually mapped out,â he says, âbut I can see how I got here from whatâs happenedâ. His school report cards, for example, always read, he says, like the type of quotes youâd want to put on your posters: âDarrenâs mind goes at a million miles an hourâ¦ Heâs a clever, organised thinkerâ¦â As far as Darrenâs concerned, he first started learning the craft at family barbecues, where his dad and his dadâs mates would forever be telling jokes and doing celebrity impressions. âIt was thirty years ago, so it was people like John Wayne, Columbo, that sort of stuffâ¦â
Truth is, you learn the most, and the best, about comedy when youâre actually doing it. âIâve gone through old notes from when I started doing comedy, and I rediscover gags that didnât work back then. Now I have the experience to say, it didnât work back then because I didnât lead into it properly, or the audience couldnât tell where I was going with it.â With experience, you learn to set up the joke better, how to make a punch line more powerful. You also learn when itâs time to quit the day-job. For Darren, it was when too much of his energy was being diverted from comedy. âI realised that if I really wanted to make money, then I should put all my energy into my stand-up. When I did, I ended up doing four television appearances on In Melbourne Tonight â which helped me in Melbourne. Iâd go down to Melbourne about five times a year and do a week of gigs each time. After appearing on IMT at the start of the week, I could advertise the whole weekâs gigs. But it felt weird coming back to Sydney after that, because youâd just had this publicity, a bit of a tour, and then you come back here and nobody knew anything about it; itâs back to getting on the phone and calling around for this gig, or that gigâ¦â
Darren eventually got sick of having to ring around in Sydney to try and maintain the momentum of Melbourne success, which is why he decided to open his own comedy venue. âI wanted to be a professional comedian, and have somewhere professional to work,â he says.
Funnily enough, I remember that event vividly. Well, not the actual eventâ¦ Iâd been to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2001 and happened to be sitting in the Peter Cook Bar in Melbourne Town Hall during a lull, when I got into a discussion about how healthy the Sydney comedy circuit was. I was sitting with someone who used to manage the Comedy Store and was then managing comedians. Weâd gotten to a list of 14 venues when someone said, âYou forgot one.â What? Which one? âThereâs that room Darren Sanders is opening in the CBD.â Iâd heard nothing about it at that point. And then, a week later I returned to Sydney to discover my answering machine winking and beeping like a highly strung touretteâs sufferer, and most of the messages were Darrenâs, telling me about his new venue, âThe Laugh Garageâ, opening soon in the city. It was time to get in touch again.
At the time, the question was, did Sydney really needed another comedy venue? Darrenâs response was that the other rooms mostly catered to local trade (people who lived within âstaggeringâ distance), and usually operated one night a week. âAt the moment, the Comedy Store is the only full time comedy venue in Sydney,â he pointed out. âThis is the only other full-time venue.â
Nearly a decade later, there are no longer 14 weekly venues in Sydney but the Laugh Garage continues to be one of the couple operating full time. In honour of a great room that supports and in turn is supported by great comics, the Laugh Garage is celebrating with two weeks of âGalaâ shows: a stack of great comics each night, three nights a week with major names headlining (this just after shows headlined by international acts and special guest appearances by the likes of Achmed Achmed, out here to promote Iron Man 2).
âEveryone does benefits nowadays,â Darren offers. Radio stations do it, bands do it, âcomics are probably the only ones who donâtâ¦â In the same way that live music venues are cyclical, comedy venues are, too, and at a time when Sydneyâs just lost a couple of decent rooms â one is only temporarily closed, for the winter, the other, an ideal Sunday evening gig, sadly gone for good â Darrenâs taking this opportunity to remind punters of the great comedy room he runs. Although Darren has a bit of a theory as to some of the contributing factors to the comedy cycle. âWe havenât had good, big, locally-produced comedy on television in many years,â he says, referring to the type of program that grabs everyone, the way Master Chef does, and the way things like Comedy Company â broadcast on a Sunday evening as the kind of show the whole family would sit around and watch â and Fast Forward used to.
âThereâs a lot of crime shows on telly now, and there are a lot of crimes being committed; youâd think someone would wake up to that,â he says. âWhen Comedy Company started, it blitzed 60 Minutes, because people were a bit sick of all that. Now is a perfect time to do it.â Of course, Darren says, adopting a position many a talented comic should, when a station does make a comedy, rather than hiring comedians, they tend to employ actors. âMaybe they donât trust comics,â he says. As someone running a comedy room and having to depend on comics, he laughs, âIâve learned not to trust them eitherâ.
The vibe of the Laugh Garage reminds me of all great comedy rooms â places comics like to hang out even when theyâre not performing; where you can learn watching other people at work. âThatâs the way the Harold Park used to be,â Darren says, remembering the days of one of Sydneyâs most important comedy venues. The Comedy Store offered the same âfamilyâ atmosphere. And if a venue doesnât make comedians â irrespective of their style â feel at home, it may just come down to the attitude of comics.
âAt the time, it seemed like that was the way you did comedy,â Darren explains. âYouâve got to do the hard yards. Comedy is its own art form.â When it comes down to it, Darren insists he has âall the time in the worldâ for people who are âseriousâ about doing stand-up â people who want to learn the craft. Theyâre the kind of comics who do come to hang out. âUnfortunately, there are too many people who donât want to put in the hard yards â maybe thatâs a sign of the times, but I still prefer to get on a plane with a pilot whoâs already flown a few timesâ¦â
If you want to be taken on some of the funniest flights of fancy by some of the best local comics who have had plenty of flying time, The Laugh Garage is the place to do it: Thurs 24, Fri 25, Sat 26 June and Thurs 1, Fri 2, Sat 3 July. For more information check out the Laugh Garage website.