Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Chucklebelly

Prelude

The great wave of pomp and circumstance surrounding Melbourne’s Comedy Festival has peaked, its roiling climax crashed into a packed Town Hall. The hot air of laughter floats away, like a balloon once tethered to an etherized audience, disappearing in the night. Left behind are the tears from chortling masses, who, in the coming days will attempt to translate that past April’s experience to friends…friends who now wonder if there was ever anything funny at all during the Comedy Festival. “I suppose you had to be there,” is the amateurs’ only punch line.

Meanwhile, the comedians silently scuttle to their clandestine homes throughout the seas. Our aim is to follow the trail of the comedian; track his claw marks in the sand and get to know his gritty side while the tide is waned. We will crawl to his lair and see where the spectacle is born, where the jokes are smelted, and the craft is honed. And perhaps we can get to the belly of the beast, the Great Chuckle Maker Himself, and see what makes him tick.

The Devil’s Workshop is the breeding ground for Melbourne’s comedy soul. Each Tuesday in North Melbourne, smoke billows like stardust from cigarettes in the night as nervy comedians line up along Errol Street. For here is an old Melbourne haunt, The Comic’s Lounge, hugged by tram tracks, liquor stores, shady lanes, libraries and shops on the outside, and dripping dead silent with red velvet drapes on the inside. This night, from 6pm to 8pm, a new breed of comedian nervously shuffles through these doors, trudges up the steps and walks to the precipice of the stage. He is then welcomed by arms of encouragement from the Devil’s Workshop, comedians all. And when the new soul grabs the mic, blinded by a spotlight, he speaks into what seems to be a void.

But what to say?

Jokes are a good start for a comedian; the workshop points this out. As atoms build molecules jokes build comedy. And though the answer is simple, the art is hardly easy. There is great toiling work in the belly of comedy. And at the workshop, men and women tinker with words, topics and bits, chewing through the offal, spitting out gold. And how one gets to that gold is the stuff the workshop is made of.

The Devil has three acts.
Act I

“Welcome to your new addiction.”

And rest assured, Stand Up is the crack cocaine of the comedy industry…once having experienced the rush, a marked change occurs in the brain. There immediately ensues an attachment to the thrill, a devious addiction to the craft.

The Devil then asks, “Did anyone have any gigs over the past week…how did it go?”

While the successful comedian’s battle cry is a phrase we have all heard, “I killed them. I slaughtered them. I murdered them all,” it must be remembered that beginners attend a workshop. More often than not, “I died,” is the honest response. And honesty is a must if one is going to survive all of this carnage.

“What went wrong?”

The self-appraisal is often inaccurate. It requires moxie. It may have been a lack of confidence on stage. Poor material is another factor. Hack material yet another chink. Often, for the beginner, it is a matrix of all three. And the new comer to the comedy circuit has a tendency to summarize these factors with the soothing coo, “The crowd sucked. They were terrible.”

But it is never the crowd. There instead exists a cancer of the comedian’s soul that will need to be cut away with time, effort and experience. The truth is within the routine.

Voices around the room chime in and new gigs and open mics are announced.

“Spleen on Monday’s is pretty hot right now. It’s on the top of Burke Street, see Karl Chandler, Steel, or Pete Sharkey after the show to book a spot. “

“The Local in St. Kilda on Monday’s is pretty hot, but play your cards right and get introduced by someone who she knows…Janet McCloud won’t let just anyone up on her stage.”

“Vibe is cool on Thursdays…big crowd.”

When the room draws silent, the fun starts.
Act II

“Who wants to get up and work new material?”

Get your hand up early. For anyone can take the stage during the workshop. Yet the comedians hesitate early in Act II. They are, after all, creatures of procrastination who work much better under a closing deadline and the delayed effects of alcohol.

Almost always, one familiar with the circuit will grab the mic first. What are his jokes made of? Opinions and observations, essentially.

“If a Chicken breaks its collar bone, does it get to make a wish?” Neil Sinclair asks the audience.

“Sometimes, I shit on the ground and then jump straight in the air to impersonate an exclamation mark!” delivers Don Tran.

“I used to take LSD. But I had to stop because I learned the hard way that I can’t handle the sound that certain colors taste. And now I have an allergic reaction to purple,” says another.

Life is hard, weird, scary or stupid…and these observations and opinions create familiar tension in us. We identify. We follow the comedian on the journey, which is his chosen topic. For Stand Up is an open expression of an artful opinion, where one seems likely to be controversial, but ends up being quite harmless. Once we recognize this harmlessness, the tension is broken in us and we laugh.

The wise amongst the Devil’s Workshop attend a session before attempting any jokes; the bold tend to grab the microphone first chance they get; and very likely, the most talented never say anything at all. The fear grips their talent by the throat and throttles anything funny before it can bubble up. Lacking that boldness, the talented cower back home to remain the funny friend, husband or coworker: the amateur. Forever saying, “I guess you had to be there.”

Yes, boldness more than talent separates the successful comedians from the wannabes.

For while much of humanity avoids public speaking at all cost, lest they be judged, ridiculed or laughed at, the comedian’s sick and inverted ego consciously seeks out this experience. It is a rare one indeed who can recreate the environment of familiar laughter for a group of strangers upon demand. Especially early in the comedian’s career. It requires a willingness to be judged as bad, and then withstanding that judgment under the scrutiny of a spotlight. A calloused skin develops. It is a type of cocoon that will allow the comedian to undergo metamorphosis. This requires years of development.

“Anyone new want to try it?” The Devil tempts the fresh souls. For no one enjoys their first go. But, like every addiction, the first willful experience is your entry price.

A common mistake is to vehemently attack controversy. Vulgar, crude, misogynist views are expressed. Abortion, Christianity, Islam are attacked. The average man’s sense of humor fails to mature past thirteen.

“I don’t want to sound like a racist, but…” there almost always follows a misattributed cultural reference and a raunchy accent. The first jokes are often offensive.

There is complete freedom of expression at the workshop, though one attempt at censorship was once loosed upon an unsuspecting soul. Word escaped that a television crew would cover the workshop, and comedians came like cockroaches to visit the Devil. Simon Palomares, attempting to resurrect his dying career, openly censored a new comedian for being a misogynist. It was a terrible abuse of power in a sad attempt to grab the camera’s attention.

The comedian’s are left to develop their own material as they see fit. Some are given tutelage by the more experienced. Yet trial by fire is the best administer of justice for the new performer.

Since its inception, the craft remains basically unchanged: one comedian, a microphone, his material and the audience. The feedback is direct and immediate. The crowd’s faces may glow in the comedian’s essence; contorted into a geometry of laughter…this is when the skull’s muscles contract at their corners to let the chuckles bubble out. Alternatively, a face called grimace is displayed in silent bewilderment, abandonment, or vicarious embarrassment.

Yet always, if a comedian is worth his salt, he’s plunged into his chest, ripped out his metaphorical heart and presented it to all who care to watch it burn. Please understand that Stand Up Comedy is the realm of courageous philosopher and not for the fool hardy clown.

Act III

“Please put your hands together and welcome to the stage…” each week, the Devil invites a seasoned comedian to share their professional experience. Some familiar topics are covered…writing new material, delivery, stage craft and gigs. They point out the pitfalls.

“Don’t tell stories that go nowhere.”

“Know your material.”

“Get to the gig before you have to go on, and feel out the stage, the crowd, and the microphone.”

But, as Fox Klein points out, it is in the doing that one understands the craft. “Here, up on the stage is where you learn. There’s no secret to this.”

First and foremost, get gigs.

Though we can study and view the ghastly, weird spectacle-with a-microphone from a distance…though we can weigh him on scales for scientific prodding and inspection from all angles, we immediately reach our limits. For no matter how well we poke, prod, ponder or quantify…from a distance we can only describe that creature, the Stand Up Comedian, as a sallow, bug-eyed beast. Lost in translation to us is his experience as a performer. For it is in the doing that one understands the craft. And it takes an odd combination of the twisted ego to be driven to say to the world, “I am funny, and I am going to be funny, on my own, in front of that crowd of strangers over there…right now!”

This savage grit is distributed sparsely amongst souls by the Great Chuckle Maker Himself.

And at the end of Act III, the Devil raises his arm's like Nixon and shouts, “That’s the end of The Devil’s Workshop! Tonight’s show starts in thirty minutes. Come and see me if you want to book a spot.”

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