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 I’ve known for several years and got
to know better during the Melbourne International Comedy
Festival of 2008.
“Comedy doesn’t necessarily make
a lot of money for a bar on the
night,” Jacques explains. “People don’t really get pissed at comedy.
watching a show, so they aren’t drinking constantly. They don’t hit the
cocktails and build up bar sales.”
Room to laugh
Jacques Barrett is not just a great stand-up comic on the make – one you’d be hearing about sooner rather than later if you hadn’t heard about him already – he’s 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 it’ll provide an instant cash injection for the venue on a night that’s normally dead. It rarely does. What happens instead, especially in a pub, is that a comedy night “gets a lot of people in that never even knew the place existed”. If they enjoyed the food and the selection of beer on tap and got great service, then the next time they’re in that part of town, hungry or thirsty, they’ll go to that pub – as well as returning on the comedy night if they enjoyed it. But it’s on the non-comedy nights when the pub will actually make money as a result of the comedy. Essentially, Jacques says, “a comedy night is a great way to advertise your pub.”
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 ‘best up-and-comers’ 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 tenants’ chicken nuggets therein). Jacques is a master pizza maker. He’s got a taste for the best ingredients (including jalapeno peppers) and knows which part of the oven to cook them in. (Low – bottom shelf – 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 – “bars and kitchens” – 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
“Seven years ago I worked at the Comedy Store as a bartender and waiter,” Jacques explains. “I liked comedy, I’d always thought about giving it a shot and one day I just did it: I got up there. And it didn’t go too bad; I didn’t 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, ‘I got this; I’m all over this. This is my thing’.”
If you know any comics, or have done any comedy, you know where this is going: good first gig; even better second gig…
“Three weeks later, I got up again, and I died. DIED. One of the worst deaths I ever had: pure silence. It was awesome!”
I love that Jacques describes his most spectacular on-stage death as ‘awesome’ 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: there’s always the potential for one better or worse around the corner. Jacques points out a pattern that has proven generally true in his experience: “you usually have your best gig after you’ve had your worst gig, because you learn a lot from the bad ones”. He shares another truism, revealed to him by “one of the greats”, comedian Chris Wainhouse: “You never really learn anything from a good gig; you only ever learn from the bad ones”.
I can’t quite pinpoint when it happened, but for the last couple of years at least, Jacques hasn’t just been having more good gigs than bad ones – he’s pretty much mostly been having great ones! Jacques can’t quite pinpoint it either, but puts it down to ‘reliability’.
“When I get on stage, I have really, really good material,” he insists. “I don’t 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.”
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. “Comedy Zone gave me 12-15 minutes of really reliable stuff and from that I just added extra bits,” Jacques explains. “It got to a point where I had thirty minutes.”
So the transition from good up-and-comer to a comic you’d see any time confidently knowing you’re gonna laugh, happened as a result of Comedy Zone. But Jacques himself can’t pinpoint the moment; it happens as a process. He does remember another great stand-up, Anthony Mir, giving him sage advice: “If you want to get booked a lot, you don’t necessarily have to be incredibly funny, you just have to be pretty funny all the time: you have to be reliable.”
Jacques Barrett got
reliable, and so, he
says, “got 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.”
The next step was MCing gigs. “I was MCing everywhere,” 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 they’ve ‘broken’ the room and it needs to be ‘re-set’ before the next act). It’s often the perfect situation for trying out new material, usually under the guise of ‘talking to the audience’, which is great because “if it doesn’t go that well, you can still save it”: just fall back into your tried-and-true stuff, the ‘really reliable’ 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 ‘Stand Up Get Down’. 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 – the stage set up in front of a massive old fireplace, which is handy, because the mantle serves as a shelf for the comic’s 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 who’d 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 wasn’t going to be the opportunity for payment – would he still want to do the gig?
“I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, I’m here, let’s
try and give these people a show’,” Jacques says. “Everyone was having fun with
it, experimenting.” But the fact that he was now performing for free meant that
he had no obligation to stick to his ‘reliable’ material – 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 ‘routine’, a bit of ‘reliable’ with which to round off before moving on into some other hitherto uncharted territory.
But a strange thing happened: each concluding ‘routine’, 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 then… plateau during the ‘reliable’.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see why. Even if
they don’t realise that they’re hip to it, at some level, punters can tell the
difference. It’s in a comic’s voice, or poise, or pace, the transition to being
‘in the moment’ and improvising with what’s being given to them, compared to
the established material that they’re entirely in control of. No matter how
realistically you can deliver a script, it’s never going to be as ‘real’ as
saying what pops into your mind the moment it appears there. Jacques concurs.
“People see you having fun, and then you go back to old material, the material you’ve usually done… I think they see it in your face. They kind of go, ‘Oh, you’ve done this heaps of times before. You don’t believe it like you believe that ranty, off-the-cuff stuff.’”
Where it happened so spectacularly was with one of Jacques’s 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 ‘called it’: “Right,” he said, “that was my best bit, and you don’t care about it. I’m going to do the rest of the set from inside the fireplace.”
At which point, Jacques climbed into the fireplace behind the stage, and proceeded to deliver his set from there. Which worked: suddenly he’d re-set the room. Elements of indifference disappeared. Any material now, even the most ‘reliable’, 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 – if they’re interested. How can you not be interested in a guy who just climbed into the fireplace? Suddenly everyone’s on edge, wanting to see how it goes.
“There’s a real joy that comes through in a performer when you know they’re doing something that’s completely ‘new’, something they’ve never done it before,” says Jacques, likening the process to a street fight. “When it goes well, you feel like a real raw comic out there. You’re in the scraps. You’ve got no weapons. You’re not armed with any material. You’ve just got you and you’ve got your bare fists and you’re out there and you’re throwing punches and they’re landing. You’re not just funny because your material is funny; you’re actually funny in the moment as well.”
I guess it’s the difference between a choreographed fight scene and an actual fight. And the difference is, if you’re up for it, and you’ve got the confidence and you’re fit, it’s a fight you’re likely to win. “As long as you can land the first couple of punches,” Jacques qualifies. “You get ’em onside.”
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. It’s interesting because every comic pretty much starts out doing self-deprecating autobiography – ‘talk about what you know’ – but an audience doesn’t 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 ’em funny, with the comic having overcome the hardships, delivering the right twist at the right time to make it about the audience’s entertainment, not about the comic’s therapy. When Jacques tells his stories, they are hilarious. I’m curious to know how ‘true’ they are – if they are utterly made up, have a kernel of truth or are utterly autobiographical. As ever, it’s mostly the middle range (kernel of truth), with bits at either extreme (made up, utterly autobiographical) that makes the story funny.
“My parents were real estate agents, so they went through sporadic periods of not having much money if the market was bad,” Jacques relates. “I was fat. I was teased pretty bad.”
According to Jacques, his parents “begged, borrowed and stole” to get him into a private boys’ school. But even though he did attend a private school, there wasn’t “that much cash lying around”. Rather, everything his folks did, they did to get their kid educated in a ‘good’ school.
“It was a big school, and I did stand out,” Jacques says. “I was in the top two per cent of the fattest kids in the school.” Even though he’s shed that weight, he claims to still have “that fat kid mentality: ‘please like me; please like me for my personality’.” 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 “being fat at school”:
“People I didn’t even know would be teasing me at school. I didn’t 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, I’d 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 that’s why I never lost the weight.”
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.
“When you’re putting yourself on in your own room to develop comedy,” he explains, “it has to be a real comedy room to actually know whether what you’re doing is funny.” By ‘real comedy room’, he means a room that appeals to every-day punters; people who aren’t necessarily comedy-savvy, but who will be able to watch a show in that room and laugh. “Sometimes when you’re doing an open-mic room, you’re playing to an audience that’s 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 it’s only that audience and they laugh, when you go to an actual comedy club and do it, like the Laugh Garage, for example, it’s not funny. Ridiculous, dark, off-the-wall kind of stuff makes other comedians laugh. It’s strange and weird stuff. But that stuff doesn’t necessarily work at a mainstream comedy club.”
So the reason why Jacques’s 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. “We 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.”
Where to start
Jacques and James had been considering setting up a room for a while. “I’d run rooms before,” Jacques says, “but they didn’t really work out very well, although I got invaluable experience and now know how they work, what to do and what not to do.” He and James had spent some time “scouting around” and had “knocked up a little proposal” by the time Jacques had spotted the perfect venue, BBs, on Bondi Beach. “A guy I worked with at a bar, that was his local,” Jacques says. “We went in there and the guy said, ‘We were thinking of doing comedy in here as well, so it’s perfect’. We went, ‘Great, three weeks from now, let’s do a trial night’.”
As it happens, Jacques knows a lot of people in Bondi, a lot of surfers, and knows that “word-of-mouth in a beach suburb is crucial”. So they put the word out and they organised the opening night of [email protected]. “When we got there, there were about a hundred people crammed into a space that holds 80. I MC’d it, we had Tommy Dean headline, James did a spot, Ray Badran did a spot, Tom Oakley did a spot… From the second I put my foot on stage, people were ready to laugh. They let us all know, ‘Yes we want comedy here and this is going to work’. It killed. It was one of the greatest nights of comedy ever.”
[email protected] is still going strong, and what’s more, the audience is strong and demanding. “They have slowly built up a knowledge of comedy and now there’s a standard they expect. It’s pretty high, and it pushes comics: you get a decent crowd, but you’ve got to make sure you bring decent material. You can’t fluff around.” That’s part of the reason Jacques got so good so fast – the quality of the room he was running. “It raises your level. That’s been a contributing factor to some of my newer material and the snappy, punchy nature of it. The crowd at BBs is very much, ‘Make me laugh now until the night finishes. Do not stop making me laugh’.”
In addition to [email protected] on a Tuesday night, Jacques and James’s other room, Coogee [email protected] Rugby Club “is ripping” on Thursday nights. “The back cocktail room only needs about 40 people to feel full,” Jacques reports, “but the crowds we’ve been getting down there – they love it. They love comedy so much, they laugh straight away. They’re not pretentious; they’re not expectant; they just get into it. Coogee will go with the dark, strange comics as much as the straight-down-the-line ones. They’ll appreciate where you’re coming from.”
Although Jacques intends heading overseas later this year, and Jim has a full time job, Wagon Productions is going strong. They’re working with other comics – Ray Badran, Sam Makhoul and Tom Oakley – to ensure everything continues to run smoothly. “We’re gonna pass the keys on to those guys,” Jacques assures me: “Bondi and Coogee are going to function, as long as there are people there to rip tickets. It’s just keeping the numbers really high – that’s 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 haven’t promoted with fliers and posters and stuff like that, the numbers go down a little bit. That’s the kind of maintenance that’s required by the guys we’ve 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. They’ll keep it going like that.”
Pimpin’ 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. They’re putting on two shows, back-to-back, in a theatre, to be turned into a DVD.
“The seven guys we’ve got, on paper we’re very similar; we’re all about the same age, we’re all guys, we do comedy that works,” Jacques says of the lineup, “but individually, we’re all different. It’s a really good example of how unique and diverse comedy can be. Off stage you go, ‘they’re all kind of the same’ but then you see our acts, they’re such different points of view on everything. There’s a little bit of everything for everyone. That’s why I wanted to make a DVD of it.”
One of the things they all have in common is the fact that they’ve not yet become ‘TV comics’. “If we have been on TV, it hasn’t been in any massive way. So we thought, let’s do something ourselves, let’s 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. That’s the one common thread: we all just love doing comedy.” For Jacques – and, he argues, for the rest of the group, including NIDA-trained actor Matt Dyktynski who’s had roles in everything, and Cameron Knight, who hosted Stand Up Australia for the Comedy Channel – the ideal is to make a living out of stand-up comedy, “with 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.”
According to Jacques, if you see the shows, or end up buying the DVD down the track, what you’ll be doing is getting a taste of good comedy you just wouldn’t see on television. “It’s 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 that’s a little bit wrong. Chances are, even though it’s a little bit wrong, people are into that. Chances are that’s what really makes them laugh.”
Of course, the greater project is to try to make stand-up comedy as popular in Australia as it is in the UK, where it’s one of the top three forms of entertainment that people actively go out to see. “It’s such small amount of people who go, ‘Let’s go see some comedy’ and consider it a legitimate form of entertainment here,” Jacques says. “I don’t really know why that’s the case because 75 per cent of comedy gigs you see in Sydney, you’d go, ‘Wow, that was really great’.”
I know part of the reason why that’s the case: in the UK, you just can’t sit outside at nighttime for most of the year. You go indoors. And when you’re indoors, even when you’re drinking, there’s 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. We’re an ‘outdoors’ 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 doesn’t do as well here as it does in the UK just yet. In Australia, he points out, there’s a sense of everybody being funny. “Everyone’s got a sense of humour, everyone’s funny to their own mates, and I think some people have a bit of a problem seeing someone who’s funnier than them or perhaps not as funny as them but getting more attention to them. Cos they’re the larrikin at the barbie, the guy who tells the good story, everyone listens to them around the watercooler, they’ve 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 you’re the guy used to being the centre of attention, the larrikin, you should give it a shot. It’s a lot of fun to do if you’re popular with your mates. Be a part of it. See what it’s all about.”
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 that’ll be shot there.