Heâs alright, Jacques
Thursday, May 20, 2010
is putting on a comedy show on Sunday May 23rd. Twice. Comics Jacques
Barrett, James Rochford, Cameron
Knight, Matt Dyktynski, Ray Badran, Sam Makhoul
and Tom Oakley
are performing at The Cleveland Street
Theatre in a showcase called Pimp My Wagon at 5.30pm and
7.30pm, and filming it for DVD release. I took the opportunity to
interview Jacques Barratt, a comic Iâve known for several years and got
to know better during the Melbourne International Comedy
Festival of 2008.
âComedy doesnât necessarily make
a lot of money for a bar on the
night,â Jacques explains. âPeople donât really get pissed at comedy.
watching a show, so they arenât drinking constantly. They donât hit the
cocktails and build up bar sales.â
Room to laugh
Jacques Barrett is not just a great stand-up comic on the make â one youâd be hearing about sooner rather than later if you hadnât heard about him already â heâs also a comic who sets up and runs comedy rooms. The thing about comedy rooms is they wax and wane. Someone starts one up and it does well. Suddenly more pop up. For a while a heap do good. And then one by one, they start to disappear until only the strongest survive. And then the cycle starts again. But, Jacques explains, the problem for anyone starting up a room is the thought that itâll provide an instant cash injection for the venue on a night thatâs normally dead. It rarely does. What happens instead, especially in a pub, is that a comedy night âgets a lot of people in that never even knew the place existedâ. If they enjoyed the food and the selection of beer on tap and got great service, then the next time theyâre in that part of town, hungry or thirsty, theyâll go to that pub â as well as returning on the comedy night if they enjoyed it. But itâs on the non-comedy nights when the pub will actually make money as a result of the comedy. Essentially, Jacques says, âa comedy night is a great way to advertise your pub.â
Jacques has had quite a lot of experience, not just on stage, but also in bars and kitchens. I discovered this a few years ago when he was one of the âbest up-and-comersâ selected for Comedy Zone, a newbie comic showcase the Melbourne International Comedy Festival puts together. It was 2008 and I had the pleasure of sharing a South Yarra flat with Jacques for the duration of the festival. And it was a pleasure (apart from the first time we tried to use the oven and discovered previous tenantsâ chicken nuggets therein). Jacques is a master pizza maker. Heâs got a taste for the best ingredients (including jalapeno peppers) and knows which part of the oven to cook them in. (Low â bottom shelf â for a proper, even cook. As long as lazy cleaning staff have finally come in to remove the old chicken nuggets!) But remember, this is a guy who worked in hospitality â âbars and kitchensâ â for the better part of a decade-and-a-half. And it was while working behind a bar somewhere in the middle of it all that he decided to give comedy a go.
Comedy in Store for Jacques
âSeven years ago I worked at the Comedy Store as a bartender and waiter,â Jacques explains. âI liked comedy, Iâd always thought about giving it a shot and one day I just did it: I got up there. And it didnât go too bad; I didnât die. I got a bit of a taste for it and then the next gig I did, three weeks later on a Tuesday night, open mic night, I went better: I caned it; I smashed it. I was like, âI got this; Iâm all over this. This is my thingâ.â
If you know any comics, or have done any comedy, you know where this is going: good first gig; even better second gigâ¦
âThree weeks later, I got up again, and I died. DIED. One of the worst deaths I ever had: pure silence. It was awesome!â
I love that Jacques describes his most spectacular on-stage death as âawesomeâ rather than awful. This is part of the reason why he is a great comic on the make: he can appreciate the importance of failing. There is a truism that a comic has never done their best or worst gig: thereâs always the potential for one better or worse around the corner. Jacques points out a pattern that has proven generally true in his experience: âyou usually have your best gig after youâve had your worst gig, because you learn a lot from the bad onesâ. He shares another truism, revealed to him by âone of the greatsâ, comedian Chris Wainhouse: âYou never really learn anything from a good gig; you only ever learn from the bad onesâ.
I canât quite pinpoint when it happened, but for the last couple of years at least, Jacques hasnât just been having more good gigs than bad ones â heâs pretty much mostly been having great ones! Jacques canât quite pinpoint it either, but puts it down to âreliabilityâ.
âWhen I get on stage, I have really, really good material,â he insists. âI donât like to do anything below that standard. But it took me a long, long time before I got to a point where I had 15 minutes that worked pretty much universally.â
Actually, there was a time where that started to happen more often than not, and it was the month of the 2008 International Melbourne Comedy Festival, when Jacques was in Comedy Zone with Tom Ballard, Jack Druce and Lila Tillman. âComedy Zone gave me 12-15 minutes of really reliable stuff and from that I just added extra bits,â Jacques explains. âIt got to a point where I had thirty minutes.â
So the transition from good up-and-comer to a comic youâd see any time confidently knowing youâre gonna laugh, happened as a result of Comedy Zone. But Jacques himself canât pinpoint the moment; it happens as a process. He does remember another great stand-up, Anthony Mir, giving him sage advice: âIf you want to get booked a lot, you donât necessarily have to be incredibly funny, you just have to be pretty funny all the time: you have to be reliable.â
Jacques Barrett got
reliable, and so, he
says, âgot more gigs because of that reliability. And the more gigs I
more material I got that was reliable. It got to a point where I was
reliable and the phone rang a lot.â
The next step was MCing gigs. âI was MCing everywhere,â Jacques recalls. The beauty of being able to MC is that a lot of your job is functional. You need some material, but you also need to interact with the audience and bounce of the acts that have just been on (particularly if theyâve âbrokenâ the room and it needs to be âre-setâ before the next act). Itâs often the perfect situation for trying out new material, usually under the guise of âtalking to the audienceâ, which is great because âif it doesnât go that well, you can still save itâ: just fall back into your tried-and-true stuff, the âreally reliableâ material.
Stand Up Get Down In The Fireplace
A couple of weeks ago, for example, I saw Jacques headline at World Bar, in the room Rhys Jones runs with Dan Chin, as âStand Up Get Downâ. World Bar is one of those Kings Cross venues that was clearly a stately old home back in the day. The comedy room was a spacious drawing room or lounge room once â the stage set up in front of a massive old fireplace, which is handy, because the mantle serves as a shelf for the comicâs drink. It has a lot of character. But it was a strange night: the audience began as minuscule; it would grow to quite a nice size as punters wandered in for a bit and then disappeared again; then it would shrink to only slightly larger than the core keen kids whoâd been there since the beginning. During one of the lulls in audience size, Rhys put it to Jacques that as there were so few punters, there wasnât going to be the opportunity for payment â would he still want to do the gig?
âI was like, âYeah, sure, Iâm here, letâs
try and give these people a showâ,â Jacques says. âEveryone was having fun with
it, experimenting.â But the fact that he was now performing for free meant that
he had no obligation to stick to his âreliableâ material â he could have fun
and experiment too. Jacques spent most of the evening riffing and bouncing of an
audience that, by the lead-up to his set, had swelled to a good size, and rather than shrink, appeared to continue to grow while he was on the stage.
Perhaps because he was now playing to a fair amount of punters, Jacques frequently chose, after each leap into the unknown, to bring the show back to a spot of established âroutineâ, a bit of âreliableâ with which to round off before moving on into some other hitherto uncharted territory.
But a strange thing happened: each concluding âroutineâ, building on observations and improvised banter with the audience, should have blown the roof off. Instead, the free-form material would build and build and thenâ¦ plateau during the âreliableâ.
In hindsight, itâs easy to see why. Even if
they donât realise that theyâre hip to it, at some level, punters can tell the
difference. Itâs in a comicâs voice, or poise, or pace, the transition to being
âin the momentâ and improvising with whatâs being given to them, compared to
the established material that theyâre entirely in control of. No matter how
realistically you can deliver a script, itâs never going to be as ârealâ as
saying what pops into your mind the moment it appears there. Jacques concurs.
âPeople see you having fun, and then you go back to old material, the material youâve usually doneâ¦ I think they see it in your face. They kind of go, âOh, youâve done this heaps of times before. You donât believe it like you believe that ranty, off-the-cuff stuff.ââ
Where it happened so spectacularly was with one of Jacquesâs best loved bits (best loved by the comic and his fans), a very clever, very funny routine. And after it played to near indifference, Jacques âcalled itâ: âRight,â he said, âthat was my best bit, and you donât care about it. Iâm going to do the rest of the set from inside the fireplace.â
At which point, Jacques climbed into the fireplace behind the stage, and proceeded to deliver his set from there. Which worked: suddenly heâd re-set the room. Elements of indifference disappeared. Any material now, even the most âreliableâ, had been at the very least physically re-contextualised. When all you are is a head, a hand and a microphone, you are forced to put more into delivery and an audience is forced to do more in watching and hearing â if theyâre interested. How can you not be interested in a guy who just climbed into the fireplace? Suddenly everyoneâs on edge, wanting to see how it goes.
âThereâs a real joy that comes through in a performer when you know theyâre doing something thatâs completely ânewâ, something theyâve never done it before,â says Jacques, likening the process to a street fight. âWhen it goes well, you feel like a real raw comic out there. Youâre in the scraps. Youâve got no weapons. Youâre not armed with any material. Youâve just got you and youâve got your bare fists and youâre out there and youâre throwing punches and theyâre landing. Youâre not just funny because your material is funny; youâre actually funny in the moment as well.â
I guess itâs the difference between a choreographed fight scene and an actual fight. And the difference is, if youâre up for it, and youâve got the confidence and youâre fit, itâs a fight youâre likely to win. âAs long as you can land the first couple of punches,â Jacques qualifies. âYou get âem onside.â
The fat kid in history
Some of what gets punters onside for Jacques are admissions of growing up a poor, fat kid and a victim of indifferent schooling in Brisbane. Itâs interesting because every comic pretty much starts out doing self-deprecating autobiography â âtalk about what you knowâ â but an audience doesnât like having to give a comedian pity, no matter how much it is warranted. They want a comic who is in control. Tell those sad stories, by all means, but tell âem funny, with the comic having overcome the hardships, delivering the right twist at the right time to make it about the audienceâs entertainment, not about the comicâs therapy. When Jacques tells his stories, they are hilarious. Iâm curious to know how âtrueâ they are â if they are utterly made up, have a kernel of truth or are utterly autobiographical. As ever, itâs mostly the middle range (kernel of truth), with bits at either extreme (made up, utterly autobiographical) that makes the story funny.
âMy parents were real estate agents, so they went through sporadic periods of not having much money if the market was bad,â Jacques relates. âI was fat. I was teased pretty bad.â
According to Jacques, his parents âbegged, borrowed and stoleâ to get him into a private boysâ school. But even though he did attend a private school, there wasnât âthat much cash lying aroundâ. Rather, everything his folks did, they did to get their kid educated in a âgoodâ school.
âIt was a big school, and I did stand out,â Jacques says. âI was in the top two per cent of the fattest kids in the school.â Even though heâs shed that weight, he claims to still have âthat fat kid mentality: âplease like me; please like me for my personalityâ.â It is, in effect, the root of Jacques Barratt, the comic, wanting to be loved by an entire room full of strangers on a regular basis. And Jacques knows it. He knew it back when he was âbeing fat at schoolâ:
âPeople I didnât even know would be teasing me at school. I didnât know their names, but they knew mine. They knew who I was and it almost felt good. It almost felt like, if I lost weight, Iâd blend into the crowd and nobody would know me. Instead, I stood out because I was chunky and people would pay me out. I almost liked the attention. Maybe thatâs why I never lost the weight.â
Build it and they will laugh
After Jacques had arrived with his reliable routines, he did something a lot of comics do: he opened a room. He and fellow comic James Rochford started up a company called Wagon Productions, and opened a comedy room at BBs, a bar on Campbell Parade, Bondi Beach. More about the room later.
Traditionally, comics do this to ensure they get quality stage time. Eddie Izzard, for example, ran a cool room in London for a while, just before he broke through. But if the comic is too new, and too indulgent, it can mean a quick end to the room as they put themselves on too much, failing to entertain an audience with quality comedy. Newer comics may also fall into the trap of spending too much time building the empire when they should just be building up their own skills and material. Jacques found a way to strike a balance, to ensure that the room and his comedy both progressed healthily.
âWhen youâre putting yourself on in your own room to develop comedy,â he explains, âit has to be a real comedy room to actually know whether what youâre doing is funny.â By âreal comedy roomâ, he means a room that appeals to every-day punters; people who arenât necessarily comedy-savvy, but who will be able to watch a show in that room and laugh. âSometimes when youâre doing an open-mic room, youâre playing to an audience thatâs mostly open mic-ers and friends of open mic-ers and we have such a strange taste in comedy that if you do something in an open-mic room and itâs only that audience and they laugh, when you go to an actual comedy club and do it, like the Laugh Garage, for example, itâs not funny. Ridiculous, dark, off-the-wall kind of stuff makes other comedians laugh. Itâs strange and weird stuff. But that stuff doesnât necessarily work at a mainstream comedy club.â
So the reason why Jacquesâs own comedy was working at the same time as he was running rooms and appearing in them was because he made an effort to make those rooms as much like the mainstream club circuit rooms as possible. âWe paid the acts as much as we could. We got an MC, two or three suppot acts and a headliner. Pretty standard stuff. And that meant that people who came to see comedy got a show, as opposed to coming to support open mic-ers. If I got up on my stage and made them laugh, I was going to make people laugh in other venues. It helped my comedy.â
Where to start
Jacques and James had been considering setting up a room for a while. âIâd run rooms before,â Jacques says, âbut they didnât really work out very well, although I got invaluable experience and now know how they work, what to do and what not to do.â He and James had spent some time âscouting aroundâ and had âknocked up a little proposalâ by the time Jacques had spotted the perfect venue, BBs, on Bondi Beach. âA guy I worked with at a bar, that was his local,â Jacques says. âWe went in there and the guy said, âWe were thinking of doing comedy in here as well, so itâs perfectâ. We went, âGreat, three weeks from now, letâs do a trial nightâ.â
As it happens, Jacques knows a lot of people in Bondi, a lot of surfers, and knows that âword-of-mouth in a beach suburb is crucialâ. So they put the word out and they organised the opening night of [email protected]. âWhen we got there, there were about a hundred people crammed into a space that holds 80. I MCâd it, we had Tommy Dean headline, James did a spot, Ray Badran did a spot, Tom Oakley did a spotâ¦ From the second I put my foot on stage, people were ready to laugh. They let us all know, âYes we want comedy here and this is going to workâ. It killed. It was one of the greatest nights of comedy ever.â
[email protected] is still going strong, and whatâs more, the audience is strong and demanding. âThey have slowly built up a knowledge of comedy and now thereâs a standard they expect. Itâs pretty high, and it pushes comics: you get a decent crowd, but youâve got to make sure you bring decent material. You canât fluff around.â Thatâs part of the reason Jacques got so good so fast â the quality of the room he was running. âIt raises your level. Thatâs been a contributing factor to some of my newer material and the snappy, punchy nature of it. The crowd at BBs is very much, âMake me laugh now until the night finishes. Do not stop making me laughâ.â
In addition to [email protected] on a Tuesday night, Jacques and Jamesâs other room, Coogee [email protected] Rugby Club âis rippingâ on Thursday nights. âThe back cocktail room only needs about 40 people to feel full,â Jacques reports, âbut the crowds weâve been getting down there â they love it. They love comedy so much, they laugh straight away. Theyâre not pretentious; theyâre not expectant; they just get into it. Coogee will go with the dark, strange comics as much as the straight-down-the-line ones. Theyâll appreciate where youâre coming from.â
Although Jacques intends heading overseas later this year, and Jim has a full time job, Wagon Productions is going strong. Theyâre working with other comics â Ray Badran, Sam Makhoul and Tom Oakley â to ensure everything continues to run smoothly. âWeâre gonna pass the keys on to those guys,â Jacques assures me: âBondi and Coogee are going to function, as long as there are people there to rip tickets. Itâs just keeping the numbers really high â thatâs where the work comes into. Because you can rest on your laurels and people will come for a certain period of time, but after about three months, if you havenât promoted with fliers and posters and stuff like that, the numbers go down a little bit. Thatâs the kind of maintenance thatâs required by the guys weâve recruited. We handpicked them because we knew they were guys who have the same motivation and are at the same level as Jim and I. Theyâll keep it going like that.â
Pimpinâ the Wagon
Speaking of fellow comics with the same motivation and at the same level, Jacques and James are taking the next brave step with Ray, Sam and Tom, and two other great comics, Matt Dyktynksi and Cameron Knight. Theyâre putting on two shows, back-to-back, in a theatre, to be turned into a DVD.
âThe seven guys weâve got, on paper weâre very similar; weâre all about the same age, weâre all guys, we do comedy that works,â Jacques says of the lineup, âbut individually, weâre all different. Itâs a really good example of how unique and diverse comedy can be. Off stage you go, âtheyâre all kind of the sameâ but then you see our acts, theyâre such different points of view on everything. Thereâs a little bit of everything for everyone. Thatâs why I wanted to make a DVD of it.â
One of the things they all have in common is the fact that theyâve not yet become âTV comicsâ. âIf we have been on TV, it hasnât been in any massive way. So we thought, letâs do something ourselves, letâs get something filmed, make it look good, get our names out there as best we can. Because we all want to get known for our comedy, as opposed to just getting on TV for any other reason. Thatâs the one common thread: we all just love doing comedy.â For Jacques â and, he argues, for the rest of the group, including NIDA-trained actor Matt Dyktynski whoâs had roles in everything, and Cameron Knight, who hosted Stand Up Australia for the Comedy Channel â the ideal is to make a living out of stand-up comedy, âwith TV as the odd, extra-curricular activity to help get more stand-up. Comedy is the main passion and career. We all have that in common.â
According to Jacques, if you see the shows, or end up buying the DVD down the track, what youâll be doing is getting a taste of good comedy you just wouldnât see on television. âItâs safe and similar, the comedy that you see on TV. And I think people need a bit of a shake-up, and to see comedy that includes people who say stuff thatâs a little bit wrong. Chances are, even though itâs a little bit wrong, people are into that. Chances are thatâs what really makes them laugh.â
Of course, the greater project is to try to make stand-up comedy as popular in Australia as it is in the UK, where itâs one of the top three forms of entertainment that people actively go out to see. âItâs such small amount of people who go, âLetâs go see some comedyâ and consider it a legitimate form of entertainment here,â Jacques says. âI donât really know why thatâs the case because 75 per cent of comedy gigs you see in Sydney, youâd go, âWow, that was really greatâ.â
I know part of the reason why thatâs the case: in the UK, you just canât sit outside at nighttime for most of the year. You go indoors. And when youâre indoors, even when youâre drinking, thereâs something else you can be doing. Comedy is one of those indoor things you can go to. In Australia, you can spend most of the year outdoors at night. Weâre an âoutdoorsâ culture. But if your ideal pastime is sitting on the back veranda sinking the piss with your mates while you all talk bollocks, why not go to a pub and sink the piss with your mates while someone on the stage talks bollocks?
Jacques agrees, but suggests another cultural reason why comedy doesnât do as well here as it does in the UK just yet. In Australia, he points out, thereâs a sense of everybody being funny. âEveryoneâs got a sense of humour, everyoneâs funny to their own mates, and I think some people have a bit of a problem seeing someone whoâs funnier than them or perhaps not as funny as them but getting more attention to them. Cos theyâre the larrikin at the barbie, the guy who tells the good story, everyone listens to them around the watercooler, theyâve now got to go to comedy and watch these other guys get more attention and get way more laughs. At the same time, though, we do it for a living and maybe, if youâre the guy used to being the centre of attention, the larrikin, you should give it a shot. Itâs a lot of fun to do if youâre popular with your mates. Be a part of it. See what itâs all about.â
Absolutely. And some of the places to do it would be [email protected], Bondi Beach, on a Tuesday night, and Coogee [email protected] Rugby Club on a Thursday night. And at one of two gigs, 5.30pm and 7.30pm, this Sunday 23rd May at the Cleveland Street Theatre, Surry Hills. (Ticket info here). Or, otherwise, on a DVD thatâll be shot there.