My 20th Anniversary in Comedy – History Will Remember
Today is Easter Sunday in the year of our Lord 2016, revered as the day when a great man thought to be slumbering in his grave instead defied all expectation and returned from the dead – that’s right, it’s my 20th anniversary of doing stand-up comedy today AND THERE IS HOPE FOR MY CAREER YET! I WILL RISE AGAIN HAHA!
I thought I should write something to commemorate this truly momentous occasion, even though nobody cares or would even know about it if I hadn’t shouted about it on the internet. What to pen? Perhaps a repository of my great wisdom, garnered from my amazing journey throughout the ages? Perhaps a history of my trials and tribulations, in danger of turning into a full blown autobiography? How about a controversial tell-all exposing the shady back room deals, insider trading and match fixing rife in the stand-up comedy industry? Or maybe something surreptitiously bitter, designed to inflict a bleak sadness upon unsuspecting readers, in order to punish them for my own disappointment over a largely pointless career?
In the end, I decided to tell a bunch of funny stories! Ha ha!
Thus, enjoy! Let us cast our minds back to the beginning of all things, 1996, when I was just a teenager, all bright-eyed and with the vestigial bump on my lower spine just beginning to sprout hair. A series of recollections then, from my very first years in stand-up comedy! Ah, forsooth, forsay, etc. Did I say funny stories? I meant sentimental nonsense!
My first gig was in Raw Comedy, a then-new competition designed to discover comedic talent, run by the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and triple j radio. I had been planning my explosive entry into stand-up comedy for some time, and I figured that a competitive environment was a good place to set the tone. I applied for Raw and, after I found out the date of my spot, I wrote it on a piece of paper and stuck it to my bedroom wall. Every morning I would wake up and ponder this date and its ever hastening approach. I knew it had significance. I knew it would change me somehow. The 27th of March, 1996. If the gig went well – if I had what it took? – perhaps this was the first step to achieving that thing that everyone dreams of – a way to avoid a job where you have to get up early in the morning.
When the day came, I informed my parents I would be wagging school and instead wandering around the park talking to myself like a madman. They agreed this seemed like a good course of action. I took off with printed set list in hand, to stalk those trees and grassy spaces, ranting and raving, striking fear into the hearts of children and some pigeons.
The gig was at the famous (at the time) (amongst certain circles) (within a certain geographical distance) Harold Park Hotel, which had a two hundred-ish capacity theatre where comedy ran all week. Because I was all of sixteen and two bits, my father had to accompany me into the premises. I forbade him from actually watching the show, banishing him to the poker machines, but he snuck into the theatre anyway. I don’t remember much of the actual gig, except that I did okay for a sheltered middle class kid talking about things like strippers and cot death.
‘I’m looking after my baby cousin at the moment, which I enjoy. I like to tell him cot death statistics before I tuck him in to bed. I’m like “did you know that every year thousands of babies die in their sleep, and no one knows why? Good night.”’
Even though people laughed at that, it was one of the first jokes I ever dropped from my act.
I don’t think I made it through to the semis that time, but the infection was in the blood.
I began to do regular spots. Dad and I got to know the publican of Harold Park, Simon. Simon said he would watch out for me if Dad didn’t want to come to the pub every single time I was performing. He said that if anyone asked, he would tell them he was my ‘legal guardian’. I was amazed at this loophole, and wondered why there weren’t other publicans taking advantage of it and proclaiming themselves legal guardians over whole creches of underage drinkers.
I saw of a lot of comedy too. I saw comics such as Carl Baron and Steve Hughes doing the coveted ‘new comic’ spots. I saw Bill Bailey play to a couple of hundred people. Most importantly I met the established comics of the local scene, people like Tommy Dean, Peter Berner, Peter Meisel, Subby Valentine, Gary Eck, Akmahl Saleh, Sarah Kendle, Tom Gleeson and Fred Lang. There was also a guy called Paul Rowland, who would tell this joke in every one of his sets:
‘Imagine if you were lost in the desert and all you had to eat were salt and vinegar crisps.’
Haha! Imagine that indeed.
Ask most brand new open mic’ers what they fear the most, and they will likely tell you it’s their first heckle. I was no different, and because I knew I wanted to stick at comedy, my first heckle was a looming inevitability.
It came maybe ten or so gigs in. It had been a big day at school or something (maybe we had a finger painting due) so I wasn’t really ‘with the program’. I performed my spot on autopilot, just running the words and not feeling anything or being present. Jokes that had worked every other time were meeting with silence, and I didn’t have the experience to pinpoint the problem. Towards the end of the set, a guy up the back spoke up.
‘You know what, mate,’ he called in a forthright tone, ‘these jokes are funny – you’re just a little bit tired.’
I was thrown by how supportive this was, and mumbled something like ‘thanks’. I think people laughed at that point. The ‘heckler’ found me after the show in the bathroom – not usually a sentence you want to hear – to clarify his position.
‘It was good material,’ he said, ‘it’s just that your delivery was just a little bit off.’
His kindness did little to prepare me for 6000 punk rockers all screaming ‘fuck off’ at me simultaneously, which was also a thing that happened.
I Used To Be a Virgin
In 1996, cable in Australia was a mewling newborn (without much reach), and thecomedychannel was two guys working in a shoebox, mainly concerned with the acquisition of rights to broadcast overseas shows. One of the guys was Brad, an enthusiastic fellow who wanted to break out and do a original documentary on characters from the local comedy scene. He asked to interview me outside my school, since my age was the only unusual thing about me. We started talking about sexual material in comedy, so it also came up that I happened to be a stone cold virgin. We joked about that for a bit, then moved on to other things.
That night I lay awake thinking teenage thoughts. ‘When the documentary comes out, everyone at school will know that I’m a virgin’, I thought, as if my frizz mullet and acne weren’t give away enough. ‘This will probably lead to teasing and more chance of remaining a virgin.’
With a strength of mortified embarrassment that only a teenager can muster, I called Brad the next day.
‘Brad? It’s Sam! The school found out we were filming on the grounds! They’re saying we didn’t get proper permission, and they’ll sue us if the footage goes to air!’
‘Oh, dear,’ said Brad, very worried. ‘Yes, of course, don’t worry about it. I won’t use the interview.’
‘Okay!’ I said. ‘I’m really sorry about this! I had no idea they would be so uptight about it! I thought it was a really great interview, by the way! It’s such a shame we can’t use it! That virgin stuff was really funny!’
‘No, no, thank you for letting me know. These things happen.’
Phew! My ‘secret’ was safe, and I was already getting good at avoiding media attention, a trait I would only grow more adept at in years to come.
A comic who showed up at open mic nights often was Adrian Callear. I learnt that he was going to university out in Bathurst, a small town over the Blue Mountains, and he regularly drove all of three or so hours to do five minute spots in the open section.
‘And do you drive home after?’ I asked.
It seemed like an awfully long way to come for five minutes, and I promised myself I would never find myself going to university in Bathurst.
New Years Eve
I got my first paid work by the end of my first year – about as close to the end of my first year as was actually possible. It was, in fact, on the New Years Eve Comedy Blitzkrieg at Harold Park. I was paid $50 for a short spot in a completely rammed gala shortly before midnight. I was happy to be on before the clock struck twelve, because the audience had all been given streamers and whistles and poppers to let off at the appropriate time. I went on to a calm and polite crowd, then sat back watching all the other comics combating explosions and celebrations once midnight passed.
I think I may have had a beer or two. A kid can have a beer on New Years Eve after his first paid comedy gig, right? Especially if his legal publican guy is around somewhere. Oh, and I lost my virginity that night too!
No, I didn’t.
End of an Era
High School, which I loathed utterly, finally came to an end. At 18 years old I was actually allowed to enter my beloved Harold Park, but the time had come to take off to university at Bathurst, bet you saw that one coming.
I did not realise it then, but I had witnessed the last of the Harold Park as I knew it. Soon after I took off to the country, the pub was bought by an investor who planned to turn it into apartment blocks. Once he had the pub half knocked down and the apartment building half erected, he ran out of money. The site sat there languishing in architectural purgatory for the better part of ten years, until it was finally purchased by someone who wanted to turn it back into a pub again. It was rebuilt much changed, and the theatre, unfortunately, is gone – although I’m told that sometimes, up the back of the pub, where the entrance doors used to be, as the hour grows late and there’s nay too many patrons left about the shadowy corridors and carpeted expanses, during a rare cessation of beeping and binging from the poker machines, if you listen closely to the breeze created by the closing door of the gents, you can hear the ghostly echoes of jokes once told.
‘… salt and vinegar crisps … salt and vinegar crisps …’
And there! Enough. I’m glad I didn’t try to write about all twenty freakin’ years. I did want to write something, you understand, and in the spirit of my celebrating my career, I wanted it to be something not many people would read.
Now, however, the time has come to forget what was, and what used to be, and to remember the true meaning of Easter! Time to consider the hope promised by rebirth and renewal, to stand upon shores of light with the universe in one’s hand, looking to the future with, if not exactly optimism, then at least a kind of grim, begrudging fortitude.
To view snippets from my illustrious career, check out my stand-up here.