“Running the circuit”
In the wake of the cancellation of Sydney’s “World’s Funniest Island” festival, Daniel Nour discusses the humourless world of open microphone standup.
I hate this. Having to steel myself every time, having to meet a bunch of crappy ‘peers’, each ego bigger and each joke hackier than the last. I find myself in the upstairs of some hotel in the inner-city. They’ve all formed a circle around the club owner, laughing stupidly at his lame Masterchef jokes, while he revels in these few moments of adoration. He is a child, they are all weirdoes, the room is pretty empty- and this is your typical Sydney Open Microphone night.
Open mic rooms can be found all over this town, but most are the city and Inner- West. Most performance spots can be booked online through a club’s website. With some of the more popular clubs, a few emails need to be sent before getting anybody’s attention. The quality of performers at the dingier venues, or those with a more lax competition style entry, is often pretty poor– less funny than they are just plain shocking.
I’ve heard this circuit described as ‘heinous’. For me, it’s been the same haunting monologue every night, for the last two years, “What the hell am I doing here?” I quickly tell myself that “it’s all just for fun”, about the way it “builds character”, and that “it’s a good night out”. I promise myself that I will keep applying with the Comedy Store in Moore Park, who I will this time telephone because they haven’t been responding to my e-mails, or that I will apply for Raw again next year, the National Competition run by the Melbourne Festival. However, all this self-talk does nothing but momentarily abate the gnawing fear that I am wasting my time. You see, in trying to make it big as a stand up comic, I am starting to believe that working Sydney’s open microphone circuit is just that, a waste of time.
Not alone in my frustration, I have been lamenting with comic friend Toby Sullivan, a 2005 Melbourne Class Clowns Competition winner, and Raw State finalist, with an appearance on the Footy Show to boot. I asked him how it all worked out for him and he replied “I got a big novelty cheque, but I didn’t get any money”. Truer words had never been spoken about Sydney Open Mic. ‘Yeah I suppose that’s what made me stop’, he said, ‘I got disillusioned with how far you could get’. For Toby, ‘Too much entry level and not enough main stuff’ are to be blamed for the arbitrariness of this circuit. Worse yet, Toby worries that ‘People go see average comedians and think that all comedians are standard’.
At the drinks bar now, I am faced with the attention grabbing social retardation of the other performers. For these, I exist only as an audience, upon which their rote learnt acts can be regurgitated. Most have that thin, pale, anemic vaguely gothic deviant look about them. Also, many say offensive, perverse things. It would seem rude if I didn’t laugh at this crap, with every one of my attempts at a change in conversation being somehow rerouted to the corresponding section of their acts, and then just repeated verbatim.
Demetrius Romeo, long time Sydney Comedy Critic, journalist and former ABC radio presenter, attests to the grueling undertaking, that is ‘act preparation’- explaining, “As a comedian you’ve got to connect with the audience but without letting them know that’s what you’re doing” adding that “if you betray that you don’t know where you’re taking them yourself then it’s all over…like when a relief teacher is scared, they have no chance” It’s true that a performer is only as good as his last gig, that nobody can tell you how to feel, that producing self-confidence is like holding on to water in your cupped palms. Magical showbiz feels like jack knives in my gut.
In that dim mood lighting now, on a set of couches, I lean over to the Indian guy up after me. He exploits my willingness to seem friendly, with the following interrogatory measure up: “So how long have you been doing this? It’s strange I haven’t seen you around here, seeing you said you’ve been doing this for a couple of years. Are you on you-tube?” Evidently, he didn’t care to ask for my name. His delightful routine, consisted of a giddy combination both of abortion and masturbation jokes. Enchanting.
Former associate director of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and comedy Producer since 1991, Toby Duncan, was sadly unable to restore the enthusiasm for me. While Toby termed Sydney ‘a fertile breeding ground’ for new comedy, this seemed irreconcilable with his assertion that open microphone clubs were only a good place to start. What I should do from here remained vague and hypothetical. I was frustrated even further by Toby’s well meant recommendations about throwing ‘your rod in the water’ and that success would take a combination of ‘half dumb luck and half persistence’. I had heard all of these placations before. What should I persist in? Where do I require luck? Whose attention should I be working for? Those Melbourne scouts? Where are they? Should I go to Melbourne?
The night lurches along at the same agonising pace, like the Director’s Cut Saw VI, or the Matty John’s half hour. Finally, now totally anti-climaxed and irritable, it’s my turn, I do my ‘Kerry Anne has a problem with syllables- like she’s always having a stroke’ bit, insisting that she’s a national treasure, but in that geriatric type of way. I end with my ‘Why does Judge Judy say baloney so much, I didn’t think a Jew would be such a big fan of pork’ routine. Most of that tiny crowd laughs, but as I leave, my agonising interior monologue begins all over again.
Michael Brown, Sydney Comedy Store producer, and old hand witness to the Sydney Comedy Scene, explained that open mic clubs, while useful, were not worth doing to less than a crowd of thirty people and that the ‘inherent value’ of the open microphone circuit is more to do with developing material. The better clubs seem the allusive way to go.
The not-very funny, ‘World’s Funniest Island’ debaucle, which struck a blow to Sydney events organisation last week, offers even less hope to the plight of struggling new comics. Even the festival and gala circuit seem unreliable and shaky. By reason of a ‘drop off in sponsorship’ and the implied disinterestedness of Sydney crowds at large, a promising comedy gala, in which your truly was eager to perform, was totally canned, shelved far too quickly and simply.
I still suggest that few comic scouts seem to patrol the circuit, and those that do seem uninterested in hiring or even recognising a new performer. Thus, we perpetually run the cycle of arbitrariness called the Sydney Open microphone circuit, like rats with low–self esteem.
Maybe I should start a blog?