Phuklub and Ha Ha Alternative Comedy
Sunday, January 08, 2012
Genius loves company: Blake Mitchell and Jordan Paris on stage at Phuklub
This is the story of the guys who run Ha Ha Alternative Comedy at the Roxbury Hotel - 182 St Johns Road, Glebe (starting up January 8 2012). Hereâs the line-up for the first night.
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.
ââ¦Well, you have met Dalton,â the tall, lean Indian says to the one best described as a kind of Aussie Fidel Castro.
âYouâve met Timothy Dalton?â I interrupt.
âNot officially,â Aussie Castro says. He explains:
âI 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 Iâd never met â a family friend â looked and sounded exactly like Timothy Dalton in Hot Fuzz.â
I see. By ânot officiallyâ, Aussie Castro means, ânot at allâ. 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 â particularly when heâs rockinâ 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 â fat versus thin, white versus black â and stylistically: Ash, instantly likeable on stage, has been known to pull out a guitar; in-your-face Blake, meanwhile, wonât sweeten the message and he doesnât pull any punches in his comedy of the abject. Despite their differences, they can finish each otherâs sentences seamlessly and ad lib the same line in unison.
Together, theyâre promoting Phuklub and Ha Ha Alternative Comedy, a couple of monthly comedy rooms they kind of run.
I say âkind ofâ because Phuklub exists as a collective (some might say âcultâ). Thereâs 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. Itâs alternative and âout thereâ. In some ways, itâs self-indulgent and a surprise itâs still running; it hasnât lost direction or burnt itself out; the novelty still hasnât worn off.
The other, called Ha Ha Alternative Comedy is a harder room to pigeonhole. Founded by Jen Carnevale and Madeleine Culp AKA âCarnevale & Culpâ AKA âThe Cloud Girlsâ (of Triple J fame), it may have been âalternativeâ when it began but now itâs another one of the quality rooms running in Sydney with a high calibre of open mic comics featured. Which is why itâs more difficult to make Ha Ha stand out â itâs no longer as âalternativeâ as Phuklub, even though itâs 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 Sydneyâ¦ if itâs 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 â the Roxbury Hotel on St Johns Road, Glebe (also the venue of Comedy on the Rox on a Wednesday nightâ¦). What both rooms provide is a space for comics to explore more freely what it is they do. There comes a time in a comedianâs development where, rather than merely be funny, they might want to try to say something that matters. But while âsaying something that mattersâ may be a worthy goal, it isnât 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 â the more comedy-savvy ones, really â 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 thereâs still plenty of the totally funny stuff to accompany the material thatâs trying to say something that matters. Thatâs 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 itâs impossible to tell them apart.
The Ooze Brothers
Shut your eyes when heâs talking â or hear him heckling from somewhere up the back â and itâs easy to mistake Blake Mitchell for another Sydney comic, Ben Ellwood. Both comics sound similar, but Ellwoodâs line of humour, while trawling the same mucky vein of humanityâs flawed underbelly, is more polished. Thus, Benâs more accessible and funnier. But for a time, theyâd pal around the same gigs and when one of them chose to give the sub-standard pretender on stage a hard time, youâd 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. âThe Ooze Brothersâ. Blake finds this somehow flattering.
âThat could spring from the constant âgay chickenâ we used to play with each other,â he laughs. âYou heard about the sitcom Ellwood was pitching, right? Two Gay Fatties? Itâs just him and me making out at the windows of 5-star restaurants, trying to get the guests to pukeâ¦â
Though heâs back visiting, Ellwood relocated to the UK with the Cloud Girls late last year. In the time since, Blakeâs developed further and continued to find more of his own voice and persona. That is to say, heâs much less âapprentice Ellwoodâ than before. Particularly with his beard. Give him a cigar â or more appropriately, a âCamberwell Carrotâ (the jumbo spliff made notorious in Withnail & I) â and he is Aussie Castro.
âIf heâs Aussie Castro, Iâm Subcontinental Che,â Ash offers.
âMaybe,â Aussie Castro says. âI hope you meet a similar end, being killed by Bolivian government troops.â
They make each other snicker with their casual, freeform banter. It isnât âroll in the aislesâ 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. Weâve barely begun and there have already been admissions of drug-taking and foolish nonsense that, out of context, will surely offend someoneâs sensibilities. But when I ask if anything should be regarded âoff the recordâ, Blake responds with astonished laughter, appreciative that Iâm polite enough to enquire, but intent that, even if we do exercise caution and err on the side of conservatism, we still wonât cross the line so much as obliterate it as we lumber irresistibly beyond it.
âAsk whatever you feel you got to, man,â Ash encourages. âFeel free to send a copy of this to NSW State Police.â
âAnd to the CIA and ASIO,â Blake adds.
Ash Jattan at Ha Ha.
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 âgive it a proper goâ. But Ash also came to comedy via music. As a student at Sydney University, heâd play the occasional lunchtime gig in Manning Bar. Heâd also busk occasionally, confessing that heâd sometimes make enough money to catch the last train home from Central!
So when he did give comedy âa proper goâ, 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.
âThe jokes I wrote got laughs,â Ash acknowledges, of his early forays into stand-up âbut the more I did it the more I realised just how f*cking sh*t I was. That didnât put me off, it only strengthened my resolve.â
Ash realised he was trying to second-guess his audience, writing material in order to placate them so that he could âmake them love himâ on stage â 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 âparody sh*tâ.
We all laugh at the self-deprecation that is warranted on some level. But credit where itâs due: âWeird Alâ Yankovic hasnât done too badly with an entire career founded on so-called âparody sh*tâ. Ash concurs. His feeling is, there are a host of comics â yer Weird Als, yer Mick Merediths, yer Chris Franklins, who have done the parody thing better than him. âTheyâre on top of it,â he says. âIf I had a single iota of that, I would be so happy.â
Fact is, Ash has got the âsingle iotaâ. 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: âEspecially if you want an applause break. Because weâre all conditioned to clap as soon as someone stops playing a song.â
So true. Thatâs the source of the guitarâs 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 Ashâs method; he can actually play the instrument, and write real songs containing actual jokes. So why ditch it?
âThere were times when the audience loved it, but I felt it was underserved,â he confesses. âI felt sorry for the guys who didnât bring a guitar along and relied purely on their moxie and the ability to just spit venomâ¦â
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.
âYeah, okay,â Ash agrees. âEvery magic trick has three parts!â
âA false sense of security!â Blake pipes up. âI donât have a chance to lull people into a false sense of securityâ¦â
Too true. Thatâs down to Blakeâs scary countenance. Particularly when he takes to the stage with a freshly shaved head. âItâs like a Folsom Prison stand-off,â he says of those occasions.
âYou look like âAryan Brotherhoodâ material,â Ash adds.
ââI shot a man in Reno to make an audience laughâ?â I suggest.
âAnd also cum,â Blake confirms, ever the Ooze Brother.
And that reminds me of how I first encountered Blake. Not in person, but by reputation.
Blake as âAryan Brotherhood materialâ â Ash
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 Youâre Funny, turning his back on the painfully safe, mainstream road to success by throwing up real challenges for himself, his peers and his audiencesâ¦
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 Ãber-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 didnât give a sh*t about Cryptic Crosswords and resolved to instead start his own weirdo underground avant-garde comedy/variety night.
Blake, however, was â as far as I was concerned â 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 â knotted at the top â which he presented to performance artist Jane Grimley. Jane was, along with Nick Sun, one of the Phuklubâs 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 isâ¦
Blakeâs provocative protein packages were unquestionably gross. Not to be outdone, however, Jane proceeded to put them in her mouth. You know this doesnât end prettily. Perhaps itâs funny. Itâs certainly abject. Is it comedy? Doesnât matter. It wasn't comedy that Blake set out to do.
âI started because I wanted to be Henry Rollins,â Blake says. Ash stifles a laugh. Blake continues:
âAnd then you realise Henry Rollins is a brand all his ownâ¦â Ash manages to continue stifling the laugh while Blake further outlines hindrances to his Rollinsular metamorphosis:
âAnd also, Iâm not in shapeâ¦â. Laughter nigh impossible to contain. Blake:
âAnd even though I have the anger, Iâm too interested in pop culture to be too politically mindedâ¦â
Thereâs no holding back now. Both explode, Ash with laughter, Blake with âGo f*ck yourself!â
âYou wanted to be Henry Rollins!â Ash shakes his head.
Blake had genuinely set out to follow the Henry Rollins/Jello Biafra literate punk trajectory: in addition to doing âangerâ, he played drums. The move to comedy was ultimately the result of laziness: âI got sick of lugging gear. I just wanted to turn up to a show and do it.â
In addition to Rollins â âwho isnât really comedyâ â Blake was also into Bill Hicks. âWho, people argue, isnât really comedy,â he says. The initial foray into open mic in August 2008 marked the beginning of âfour months of nothing but hack b*llsh*t: Michael Jackson jokes, relationship cr*p, the usual thing.â 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, âfor the past year and a half,â he says, âIâve actually been slowly approaching something thatâs not someone else.â
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 Blakeâs 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.
âThatâs still a problem, I think!â Blake laughs.
Spot the difference: Blake Mitchell, Henry Rollins
Balls of Steel
What Blake doesnât tell you â not for any apparent reason â 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, âfor some reason, I feel my calling is to gain attention from strangers by talking about my dick and my depression on stage.â
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 âBig Babyâ. âIt was just going to be me walking around in a diaper in public,â he says, but itâs hard not to assume that it was in fact a clever ploy to enable him to latch onto random strangersâ breasts. Surprisingly, that idea was rejected.
Blakeâs next pitch involved him âturning 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, âYou canât tell me what to do with my children!ââ This idea was also rejected. âThey thought that was a little bit âart houseâ.â
In the end, Blake auditioned for the part of âObject Sexualâ, in which heâd 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.
âI couldnât actually get to the dick-shaped object so I just jumped in the fountain instead,â Blake says. After frolicking in the water for a bit, he was surprised to hear someone ask, âSweetie, are you okay?â
âI turned around, shocked because someone was actually talking to me, concerned,â Blake explains. âIt was a woman who thought I was mentally illâ¦â
âShe wasnât wrong, really,â Ash suggests.
Cleverly, Blake decided to âaccept the offerâ, 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 Martinâs 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 didnât make the Balls of Steel DVD as a bonus feature. Maybe itâll turn up on the Two Gay Fatties DVDâ¦
If, by now, you donât quite know what to make of Blake Mitchell, Ash Jattan does. âTo be perfectly honest,â he admits, âit 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 Iâm trying to get the audience to like me! Once I started seeing real people â the real grit of their performance â up there night after night, sometimes two or three nights a week, I knew I had to move on.â
Blake takes the compliment, adding, âdoing what I do doesnât get you booked, unfortunately. Which is why we had to start Phuklub!â
And there it is again. Time to address it.
âQuite frankly, Phuklub scares me,â I tell them.
âGood,â Ash says. âMission accomplished.â
Asking direct questions does not result in direct answers.
âWhat is Phuklub?â I demand.
âIsnât that the question?â Ash replies. âI think the answer will vary depending on who you ask because everyoneâs got such a unique experience of it. One of the best descriptions Iâve heard is from a guy called Dan Brown. He says, âimagine thereâs a classroom, and then the teacher leaves, and the kids are just left to their own devicesâ¦ââ
âOh, now I get it. Itâs The Lord of the Flies of comedy!â
âPretty much,â Blake confirms. âItâs kind of a free-for-all. Nick Sun started it originally in late 2008. In the very inception it was on twice a week.â
âYeah, 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?â
According to Blake, when it began it was more like âan experimental open mic anarchy anti-talent quest,â and when I ask, âwho wonâ he and Ash reply in unison:
While âNobody Winsâ could well be the theme of Phuklub, itâs not as good as the motto Blake recently came up with: âShut up and think of death while we do art at youâ.
âYou know how crests have two animals on them?â Ash says. âOurs is going to have a unicorn blowing a gryphon.â
âMaybe it should just be a man holding a microphone, crying,â Blake suggests.
This isnât really getting us any closer to the nub of the gist, as it were, of what Phuklub is. âI donât know how to summarise it,â Ash says. âIt probably would have been a good idea to prepare a good definition for youâ¦â
âThe first rule of Phuklub: No one can define Phuklub,â I offer.
Basically, itâs a collective of comics with a core group that does not remain static. âAt the moment itâs us, Ben Ellwood and Dan Brown,â Blake says. âIn the past thereâs been Jane Grimley and Nick Sun. People sort of float in and out of that core group: Rodney Todd, Nick Capperâ¦â
âWeâre like a sleeper cell!â Ash says, making Blake laugh. âWe donât really have any organised leader. Thereâs no one face you can point at and say, âthatâs the guy whoâs in chargeâ.â
âI think people get confused,â Blake adds, âbecause there is no one personâ¦â
ââ¦Who you can blame?â I cut in.
âLiterally, chaos reigns,â Blake insists. âThatâs how its run.â
âItâs âOccupy Comedyâ,â Ash concludes.
L-R: Aussie Castro; but also, Aussie Dude Abides
Zen and the art of complete and utter chaos
If I have misgivings or concerns about Phuklub, itâs the way in which it comes across as a naughty boysâ club. Thereâs room for girls if they can hold their own, titillating with out-grossing antics. Thatâs how it seems on the surface.
This isnât 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 sheâs a âlibrarian who used to stalk Paul McDermottâ.
âSueâs on virtually every Phuklub,â Blake says. âShe reads erotic fiction while we play the theme from Twin Peaks over the top of it.â
Thatâs not to say there arenât edgy, scary moments â but the audience seems to dig them. âPeople have come up after a show and asked if there are videos of past performances available,â Ash says. âThey genuinely would like to buy them.â
âTheyâre kind of like diet snuff movies,â Blake says.
âItâs âI Canât Believe Itâs Not Snuffâ,â Ash says.
âItâs âI 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 secondsâ,â 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?
âThatâs part of it. It gives space to explore the kinds of areas that youâre not going to have the opportunity to explore at other comedy rooms or on other nights. Itâs our therapy session, once a month,â Blake says. âWhen the same old tired beige b*llsh*t in every other room stops making you laugh, turn up. When youâre sick of hearing, âSo I was walking down the street the other dayâ as a set up â because, no you werenât, you f*cking idiotâ¦â
Ash picks it up: ââA funny think happened to me on the way hereâ¦â No it f*cking didnât! âIâve got this friend whoâ¦â No you donât!â
Blake: âYouâre fabricating this whole thing. And talking about Harry Potterâ¦â
Ash: âThat 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 donât think any of this is funny. Why arenât I letting them know that?â
Now I understand. There are times when youâre in the audience thinking, âWhat? You made them laugh with that?! I donât know who I hate more â the audience for falling for it or you for getting away with it!â Thatâs when itâs time for Phuklub, right?
âYeah, thatâs right,â Ash confirms. âWhen I first realised nobody was really funny, I thought, âHang on Ash, itâs probably an ego thing; youâre still very new to this, your opinion really doesnât matterâ¦â â and I still donât 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, âI need to be a part of thisâ.â
âJust because you are on stage with a microphone doesnât mean you deserve our attention,â Blake explains citing âthe first ever Phuklub as the best example of this point being illustrated.
âNick Sun got on stage. He had the mic, and he had some effects pedals, and he just started talking: âAll right folks, tonight I guess what weâre gonna do isâ¦â 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.â
So virtually anyone can get on stage at Phuklub. To stay on stage â and not be drowned out by heckles, voice-overs, audio stings, sound effects and the rabble, they have to have something to say thatâs worth hearing. That seems to be about it.
And even though it still seems like nebulous chaos, the collective â or cult â of comics who run it have âfound their feetâ when it comes to making it work. âNick Capper is the Voice of God a lot, so heâs on the microphone up the back,â Blake explains. âIâll do sound if Ellwoodâs not in town.â
âIâve MCâd a couple,â Ash offers. âMCing Phuklub is a very different experience to MCing a normal comedy room. Itâs more like being a fire-starterâ¦â
âYouâre the captain on a burning Viking ship,â Blake elaborates, âand itâs going into the water, but you gotta ensure it goes down as nobly as possible.â
âSo youâre effectively shouting, âRow, you f*ckersâ?â I suggest.
âYeah,â Blake says.
Ash illustrates it rather poetically:
âRow, you f*ckers! If this were to be our end, weâll meet this end with such glory that they will write about us. It will be such an end, worthy of remembrance.â
So every Phuklub ends in flames, but everyone still makes it to Asgard?
âIdeally, yes,â says Blake. âWe made it to Asgard the last few times. But we had a run in the middle of the year where we didnât make it; we couldnât even see the Rainbow Bridge on the horizon. If weâre to be honest, every room, no matter how good or bad, has good nights and bad nights. But with Phuklub, if weâre being completely honest, itâs how every single room should be: every night is a dice roll. Some are a little more certain than others.â
âThat, to me,â says Ash, âhas always been the beauty of it.â
Well thatâs Phuklub explained. Weâre still no closer to explaining Ha Ha Alternative Comedy, unfortunately. But why should we? You know itâs on, you know whoâs on. Thereâs nothing better to be doing on Sunday at 8pm.