Talking the Mickey
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Mickey D is a legend of comedy.
Despite not having filmed an HBO special yet, nor yet won the Whatthefuckisitâ¢ Award at Edinburgh Fringe (formerly âThe Perrierâ, and then the IF, but Iâve no idea who sponsors it anymore or what theyâre now calling it), Mickey D is an institution of comedy. He jumped on stage straight out of school, scarpered to the UK not long thereafter, and cut his chops through hard work. He established a festival institution: the Phat Cave, a late-night anything-goes room where comics came out to play.
Now heâs returned to Australia, settled down â more-or-less â and established a mid-week room â Project Wednesday â in his hometown of Adelaide. A different room. Itâs built on the New York âbring three paying punters and youâll get on stageâ model, which is unexpected, a bit provocative, and quite different for Australia, all at once.
Itâs high time we had a chat.
The Mickey Rat Club
âI started doing comedy straight out of high school,â Mickey D informs me. âFormal lessons finished on the 28th of October. We were meant to study for our exams. I got the exams out of the way and on 22nd of November, ten days after my 18th birthday, I did my first gig in Adelaide.â
The âmeant to study for our examsâ is the telling line. By his own admission, Mickey wasnât the most studious of kids. âMy dad was a publican,â he says. âWe moved around a lot, went to a lot of schools. From an early age I was in an adult environment and I had a lot of problems because Iâd go to school equipped with stuff Iâd heard in the front bar.â
In addition to a tendency towards being the âoffensive ratbagâ, Mickey admits that he was no mathematician: âCreative writing was my thing. I was a creative writer and debater. But also a bit of a shit-stirrer. And that culminated in Raw Comedy in 1998, the year I left high school.â
That explains an awful lot, actually. Why Mickey D is so at home in pubs â because his home actually was a pub. âThatâs where I grew up from the age of seven,â he says. âThankfully, Iâm the only one of my family whoâs never worked a week in a pub. Iâm always on the other side of the bar.â Mickey has done some shifts as a âglassyâ, though. He ended up getting his âarse pinched by some old ladies in an over-aged nightclubâ. Ah, Mickey!
Adelaide seems to have a very close-knit comedy scene. When Mickey started, just over a decade a go, it was smaller and closer-knit. He sites Justin Hamilton as a very big influence early on. Lehmo was also very supportive. Adelaide. Justin Hamilton was a very big influence early on in the piece. â They were my big brothers, really,â says Mickey, âbut thereâs only so much you can get going at that age when itâs just the three of you there. I got on stage as often as I could with the boys. Then Justin moved on to Melbourne, Lehmo got on the radio, and I had to do something because they were my boys; they were my benchmark. I went the overseas route. I went to London.â Although Mickey D would go on to perform at Edinburgh and establish himself over the course of nine Edinburgh Fringe Festivals, he started his journey in London. âI felt worthless; useless. I thought, âWhy am I even getting on stage when you can see the Glenn Wools, the Sean Meos? Why do I even bother?ââ
It took Mickey a couple of years of âreally digging deep and finding self-worthâ, gigging four or five times a week and sometimes travelling up to 1500 miles âup and down the islandâ during that week, to find his voice and work out who he was as a comic. âIt was just quantity of work that the quality finally picked up,â he says. Nowadays, heâs up there with the Glenn Wools and the Sean Meos. Although allow me to digress for a moment:
Throughout our conversation, Mickey refers repeatedly to Glenn Wool, his âsecond favourite comicâ. Eventually I ask the inevitable question â to which, I suspect, I already know the answer: Who is Mickey Dâs favourite comic?
âMe,â he says, adding âIâd hate to be number three!â
Turns out the top spot for âfavouriteâ, as far as Mickey is concerned, is a tussle between Glenn Wool, Doug Stanhope and Mickey D. Glenn and Doug are in fine company.
One of the legendary stories of Mickey D is the one about the year he broke his wrists. It was Edinburgh, 2003. Mickey was playing for a local cricket club called Drummond. âItâs important that I make friends other than just with the comedy fraternity,â Mickey explains. âI wanna ingratiate myself by any means possible in any city Iâm in.â The Drummond club, situated âjust off the botanical gardens there in Edinburghâ, were a natural fit for Mickey, who was part of the team for three season wins.
After one match, however, in which theyâd enjoyed a good nine-wicket win, Mickey had enjoyed a few pints and was perched head and shoulders above the stone wall of an old pub overlooking the senior oval of the team theyâd just destroyed. Ever the boisterous comic, Mickey started âhecklingâ the cricket game that was in play in a thick Aussie accent, to the bemusement of other patrons in the Scottish beer garden. âI yelled out, âIâll see you next year! Weâre gonna destroy ya! Yer going down!ââ
With teammates hoisting him up on the wall so that he may be better heard, Mickey got right into it: âIâm yelling out, âNo ball!â The guy bowls a no-ball. I yell out, âWide!â and he bowls a wide. Iâm thinking, âIâm controlling this game!ââ
And then it goes just a bit far: one teammate jostles just a little too much and Mickeyâs over the wall. âI needed to save this beautiful money-maker that is my face, even though Iâm no Danny Bhoy,â Mickey explains. So he put both arms out â and received âtwo absolutely symmetrical breaks on either sides of my wrists.â
For the record, however, Mickey was only three pints into the celebrations by that stage. âI wasnât drunk, just comfy. Quite relaxed, actually, which was good, because if I was any more stiff Iâd have broken more than just me wrists.â
Now, all this happened before that yearâs Edinburgh Fringe Festival. So Mickey ended up playing his whole season in casts â two arms solidly outstretched in front of him. âI went out there full of morphine and a lot of doubt,â Mickey recalls. âPeople were going, âthis is a jokeâ, grabbing my arms, twisting them. People were handing me two pints: âhold theseâ. I was on morphine and having jokes played on me.â Canadian comic Tanyalee Davis had the most fun. Sheâs all of three and a half feet tall and made of the most of the opportunity: âshe ran her hand up my leg and played with my ballsâ.
Adam Hills â a regular of the Adelaide comedy scene from his time hosting breakfast radio there â would give Mickey a plug at the end of his show: âGo and see the guy with the broken wristsâ. âI was the freak,â Mickey says. âI remember doing seven gigs one night in Edinburgh because everyone wanted me in their late shows. Thatâs where I got the idea that there is definitely an audience for late night comedy.â
And so Mickey D the legend was forged that season. And so were the seeds for his legendary room, the Phat Cave.
To the Phat Cave, Robin
The Phat Cave is a late night venue that Mickey established in Edinburgh and now runs there and at other festivals, where comedians could come and unwind at the end of the night. Chances were, by that stage, theyâd have had a few drinks and were more likely to âplayâ rather than merely âperformâ: visit material that they wouldnât usually do to the regular public; take each other on; blow off steam. In its heyday it was a dingy room with an audience consisting mostly of comics, with some hardcore punters along for the ride. âI bill it as âthe unsafe havenâ,â Mickey says, âwhere comedians come to play, rather than do shtick. Itâs a yardstick of your own mettle, really. If you want to see if you can hold your own, this is the place. Itâs a curated bear pit.â According to Mickey, âyou walk through hell to find the gardenâ; the comics are mostly playing, the punch lines donât necessarily come thick and fast.
According to Mickey, Brendon Burns â the âstunt comedy clownâ and âangry geniusâ â summed it up best. âIf thereâs enough of us in the roomâ â âusâ being âthe comediansâ â âthe punch line will always build itself.â But itâs the brave late-night punter whoâs willing to sit through that to get to the pay-off. And itâs not always the pay-off youâd expect or want. Mickey explains it this way:
âHow many times have you heard, âOh, youâre a comedian; it must be great hanging out with other comediansâ. No. Weâre hateful, twisted wrongâuns, and what we need to have fun is to see someone scamper. Not flounder, but nearly have a melt-down.â The Phat Cave provides that environment for comedians to challenge themselves and go to comedy places regular gigs wonât allow them. âOff the top, I welcome the general public into something special because theyâre outnumbered. Theyâre seeing what we do.â
The Phat Cave provides a vital outlet for comics, allowing them a safe haven to push the boundaries and cross the line. Those lines and boundaries are important â they define a society. A comicâs job is to test them.
âYou donât know where the boundaries are until youâve crossed them,â Mickey says. âAnd youâre not a good comedian unless you can come back from them. If you can set an audience off the wrong way, and you can come back from that, thatâs art. You can make someone angry and then back it up with your good material, but if you can do that all in the same paragraph and breath, you are clearly a craftsman and a master.â
The Phat Cave also provides that pressure cooker safety valve â if comedians have the presence of mind to make the most of it. âIâve seen comedians walk out because they think itâs too much,â Mickey says. âIf itâs too much, shout out, donât walk out. Stick in there, be part of it. I want everyone to get involved. Itâs where we can go and test each other playfully.â This is the perfect environment for those comedy showdowns that nowadays take place online: when Comedian Aâs material is far too close to Comedian Bâs material, after they happened to play the same bill way back when. âInstead of reposting footage and using iMovie on your Mac to put the date and graphic on there to say âhe stole my bitâ¦â,â Mickey insists, âcome and talk about it on stage. Work it out.â
So well established in Adelaide is the Phat Cave that nowadays it sells out its entire Adelaide Fringe run in the 200-seat Bosco Theatre in The Garden of Unearthly Delights. Because of the pressure of the general public coming, it has to be a proper âshowâ show. Which it can be, of course. âIâve got a lot of talent up my sleeve,â Mickey says: âall my mates wanting to perform for f*ck-allâ. Although Mickey does get to return to the original âdingy, illicit comedy roomâ blueprint when he runs the room at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival or Sydneyâs Cracker Comedy Festival. Although those audiences require a bit of coaching to embrace it fully: âWhere Iâve grown up and honed this is in Edinburgh, where you might still be on stage at quarter past four. People have got their third wind on the piss. Youâve got a whole cross-section of people fighting for attention, be it the audience or other comedians.â
In addition to taking care of the high-end of comedy â the curated bear pit in which the great comics can play, and the fans of great comedy can watch, Mickeyâs also taken it upon himself to work with comics at the other end â relative newbies. Heâs starting a Wednesday open mic room at the Rhino Rooms, âcultivating a welcoming environmentâ for comics.
The requirements to get on stage are interesting are the requirements to get on stage. Itâs stuff like being punctual â first come, first served, from 7:30pm onwards, for an 8pm sharp start time â and bringing an audience â you need three paying punters if you want to get on stage.
The âbring your audienceâ model is standard for New York open mic rooms. Some London rooms do it too.
âThe âthree friend minimumâ policy is in place in New York to enable promoters to pay the rent,â Mickey explains. âHere, itâs more or less to create a wider awareness and teach the comics important skills to help them debut their fringe show, and that is, how to rustle up a crowd.â According to Mickey, âwrangling peopleâ is among the key arts to establishing yourself as a performer.
âItâs something that will ensure that youâre someone whoâs still alive in the industry in five years, because youâve learnt how to find your audience: youâve gone about making it yourself. If you learn that from the start, itâll be a natural part of your being a comic.â
The irony, however, as Mickey points out, is that once you do make it, you donât have to worry about that kind of stuff because people will start generating their own word of mouth. But in the meantime, he insists, âitâs integral to getting started. Itâs how you get the ball rolling.â
When you think about it, if youâve done open mic and seen it being done, it makes good sense for the comics to help bring the audience. Iâve played rooms where there have been more comics than audience. Itâs good practice â getting on stage is always good practice â but it reinforces the wrong things in a comic: the other comedians are going to be laughing at different things. Theyâll either be too hard on you â laughing when you stuff things up â or too easy â laughing because they understand where youâre coming from, even though you havenât developed the idea adequately, or worked out the best way to set it up, deliver it, or end it. Then you take that stuff to a room with a real audience, a paying audience of punters, and the material you know got laughs just the night before falls flat.
These sorts of rooms cropping up all over London, where comics who needed stage time were essentially playing to other comics, were part of Mickeyâs inspiration. âI witnessed a development of a sub-circuit in London,â Mickey says. âI didnât want people to stumble onto an open mic night and think âis that what comedyâs all aboutâ, because thereâs no middle ground between the Channel Ten Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala and a little, ramshackle open mic night.â Mickeyâs aim is to provide that middle ground â somewhere between those rooms where comedians get together and more-or-less workshop material to each other (which all comedians love â all stage time is good stage time!) and those performance opportunities that take years of development before you get to play them.
âComics will go, âI need to get gigs somewhereâ. If I can help regulate a decent level of quality and environment for them, everyone wins.â
Everyone does win. Because, you might wonder, whatâs in it for Mickey? Well, Mickeyâs just gotten married (congratulations Mickey, to you and Minnie D!) and more-or-less settled down in Adelaide for the time being. Itâs got a great comedy circuit, but like every other city in Australia, itâs no London. He needs to ensure he keeps his comedy muscles supple. So heâs MCing every week: a regular hour on stage to develop material. And if the room gets a regular audience â which it will: at least thirty punters â he wonât get away with doing the same material every week.
âExactly!â Mickey agrees. âThe pressureâs on. The hardcore supporters will be putting the immediate pressure on comics, including myself, just by their presence.â Everyone does, indeed win.
Thereâs also a bonus prize, from time to time. If a visiting comic â a mate of Mickeyâs â happens to be in town, there might be a bonus headline act. For example, tonight, Wednesday 20th October 2010, there may well be a special guest. Usually, the deal is theyâre doing it for free, so you canât announce them. But a local paper reported that it was Fiona McLachlan. Whoever that may be.
Before I let Mickey go, I commend him on the artwork for the event: eye-catching, clever, creative. Mickey likes it too.
âI was on a tight deadline to get it in the street press, and the artwork came through,â he says. âI hadnât had a coffee. I thought, âI like the crate, I like the writingâ. But I donât know why heâs stained the crate. Whatâs the black stuff heâs âspilledâ on it?â
Mickey admits that he âdidnât twig all morningâ that it was a picture of him. In fact, his missus was the one who had to point it out!
Iâm kind of glad, to be honest. I like the fact that Mickey Dâs ego is so healthy he doesnât automatically attenuate to images of himself. Even if he is his own favourite comic. âSubconsciously healthy,â Mickey agrees.