Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Why I am not a stand-up comedian and why I owe Glenn Robbins my life.

Where are they now?

In the late eighties and early nineties I fell in with a crowd of stand-up comedians in Melbourne, which is purportedly the Australian live comedy capital. I got to meet most of the comedians by playing Theatresports, and was lucky enough to end up on a team with Glenn Robbins, and various other experienced comedy practitioners. I was quite good with the word games. In  the ‘typewriter’ game I always played the role of the typewriter, who had to spontaneously come up with a plot and descriptive passages which the rest of the team would enact. I loved the rhyming couplets game. Sometimes as an extra challenge a sequence of rhyming couplets was added to the longer games. I tended to excel at the rhyming couplets and the rest of the team usually left it to me to sort things out and somehow come up with a line that rhymed with one that had ended with the word ‘breakfast’. I found the theatresports nights pretty nerve-racking and rarely felt that I’d put in a good performance. I was rubbish with any games that demanded actual acting skills, and in the physical games (the mime ones, and so forth) I was so bad that I would graciously remain in the wings, watching my fellow team members makeup terrific improvisations for a (usually) appreciative audience.  I only ran on stage if it looked like a lifeline was needed, ie the game really did require a fourth player, albeit one who was weedy and nervous and couldn’t sing or do anything much. Through playing regularly and pretty well, my team, The Gutless Wonders ended up being Australian national champions one year. Glenn Robbins was keen to keep me on the team, because I was the ‘wordy’ one that somehow complemented the other players. He kept talking me into doing it, though it unnerved me and he gave me tips on how to be a good player. The first tip was to try not to be nervous, which was, of course, ridiculous. Everyone got nervous. But the fact that experienced comedians also felt nervous about going on stage with no scripts, and an audience wanting a halfway decent two hours’ entertainment.  (They had paid for tickets, after all.) On some nights there were around two thousand people out there and there was something very ancient Rome about what we were doing. The difference was, if we didn’t perform well we weren’t killed. Though playing a dud game felt like a sort of death. You’d spend the night wishing you’d said something clever or done anything that pleased an audience. And we did do practically anything. There was a fair whack of nudity in some of the shows, though I never dropped my strides.

 Melbourne Town Hall, the heart of The Melbourne Comedy Festival.

The world famous Melbourne Comedy Festival started when Theatresports was at its height. The Gutless Wonders played a special celebrity night against seven other teams made up of well known comedian and TV personalities. We tanked horribly, didn’t even make it past half-time. The whole comedy scene in Melbourne really started heating up. On three of the four free-to-air TV networks, there were prime time weekly sketch comedy shows – and they all worked! That is, they all ran for many seasons and rated well. The characters on these sketch shows became part of Australian iconography. I got the ‘head writer’ gig on The Comedy Company because of my contacts with Melbourne comedians. In this role, I was insufferable. If ever the media needed a comic view on something, they would contact me. All of a sudden I had a sort of gravitas, and I became pompous and unbearable, giving lectures about the science of comedy writing, and so forth. I really do look back at those days with acute embarrassment and I understand why I was not well liked, just tolerated. But Glenn Robbins was incredibly encouraging and kept urging me to do stand-up comedy. At the time there were a lot of comedy clubs (pubs with stages, basically) that had try-out nights. These would be presented by an experienced comic, to sort of tie the thing together. On these nights, people who had never done stand-up comedy before could show the world what talent they had. In particular, The Dick Whittington Hotel in St Kilda, had a monthly try-out night called Comedy Genocide. It was always a vaguely special occasion because even the top Melbourne comics would perform there. But the rule was ‘no old rope’. You weren’t allowed to get up and do stuff you had done before. It all had to be new, untested material. The Comedy Genocide nights were a bit like Theatresports. You never knew what you were going to get. I started doing some of these nights as a would-be stand-up comedian. I always wrote down what I was about to present then memorised it. Because most of the audience was very accepting and encouraging, I went over okay. I didn’t really have an act, it was just a shambles of monologue with bits of bizarre poetry woven through it. The generosity of the audience went to my head and once again Glenn Robbins persuaded me to do some sets at le Joke, the famous comedy bar above The Last Laugh comedy venue in Collingwood. I practically lived at this place, catching every new act and trying to work out how they managed to get the laughs that they did. Some were cool musical acts, like the Bouncing Czechs or Bent Brass. Then there was Circus Oz. One of their drawcards was a drummer hanging upside-down from the ceiling. Believe it or not, the funniest show I ever saw there was a mime, Julian Chagrin. 

  • The incredible Julian Chagrin

  • Julian Chagrin had an amazing two hour mime act. I, like most people, have a low tolerance threshold for mime artists. Chagrin’s trick was that he would talk throughout the mime, but it would rarely relate directly to what he was miming. So, you sort of had two comedy acts going on at once. One of the funniest bits involved him performing very precisely a mis en scene concerning a bicycle trip to a fishing hole, but he added a BBC voiceover to it, which he would deliver smoothly as he performed. The voiceover was a clever mix of cricket and arts commentary and they got everything wrong. While Julian Chagrin was fairly obviously miming fixing a flat tyre on a bicycle, the commentary would be all at sea. Thus, the mime of pumping up a flat tyre was described breathlessly and awkwardly by the commentators as playing a strange sort of violin to a small bird who seemed to enjoy it.

    Despite being a long way short of having skills like Julian Chagrin, I did two five minute spots  at Le Joke, where I got only sporadic laughter, not guffaws, then I vied for a spot on the New Year’s Eve comedy line-up at the Dick Whittington. I wrote heaps of stuff and learned it. But this was no Comedy Genocide night. I had to face a very raucous crowd of drunks who didn't know me and would have been happier watching a comedian - even a ventriloquist - who told good, old-fashioned jokes, and not one who seemed determined to crap on about everything, or do things that rhymed or whatever I was doing. I don't remember. I completely lost my bottle. I tanked so badly, I could almost feel the audience’s hatred eating away at me like acid.

    And that’s when Glenn Robbins saved my life. He became a paracomic, leaping to my rescue. That is, he emerged from the wings, took the microphone and gently told me to leave while I was still alive (the audience wouldn’t have heard, though it was clearly what they wanted). Professionally, he asked the audience to show their appreciation for me (amazingly, they did clap) then he did what a stand-up comedian is supposed to do – viz, he made people laugh. I never attempted stand-up comedy again. I am a deeply unfunny person, when I don't have a pen and paper. I didn’t luck out genetically in the appearance stakes, I look ordinary and bland. Some comedians like the English star David Mitchell can turn this ordinariness into a strength, but I never could. I wasn’t even ugly enough – pretty bloody close, though - to make a thing out of that. I looked far from impressive or memorable and I just didn’t have it in me to tell straightforward jokes. Or at least jokes that an audience might conceivably want to hear.

    In closing, I would offer some advice to those considering a career in stand-up comedy.

    1.   1. Never get up on stage if you’ve never made anyone laugh before.  At a party you really do need to be the person who cracks everyone up. If you’re not that person, if you haven’t made people laugh in this way, do not be a stand-up comic.
    2.   2. If, by some cosmic accident, you are offered a gig on New Year’s Eve, make sure you’ve got something pretty bloody hysterical in mind to tell the audience.
    3.   3. Never go out on a stage not really knowing what you’re going to say or do, unless you’re brilliantly clever like Josh Thomas or Simon Rogers or Fiona O'Lochlan or Judith Lucy and can more or less cajole the audience into laughing, then surf on that.
    4.   4. Do not drink or take drugs before taking the stage. People notice stuff like that, and the result is usually woeful.
    5.   5. Don’t steal. I was genuinely ignorant of the comic’s code and one night I did a joke that I had seen years ago in a Chris Langham live show. I don’t think anyone would have picked it, as Chris Langham was English and not super famous back then. But I do sometimes lie awake thinking about it. It was a bloody good joke and it got me my only laugh. But I was wrong. I'll go to comedy purgatory for that.
    6.   6. Do not make the mistake of thinking that standup comedians must be wonderfully cheerful and affable people. They aren’t and if they have just done a bad gig, you really don’t want to go anywhere near them.

     Chris Langham, please forgive me.