Every night this week, from October 27th to the 31st, Til is heading out to comedy venues around the Melbourne CBD to try and understand just what it is to be a working comic. There’s no special occasion, no festival. These are your regular weeknight comedy rooms and the people that perform there.
The trick with getting to 5 Boroughs is to look like you know exactly where you’re going. It’s harder than it sounds. The venue upstairs off Melbourne’s Hardware Lane, one of the two streets in which passersby are heckled by restaurants. Once you’ve barrelled through the outdoor seating and discounted European food, a little white sign guides you up a wide staircase and into a plush bar. There’s leather couches and bottled beer. Clumps of people stand, murmuring and watching the red curtain, waiting to be let into the comedy room proper.
The space is somewhat formal. The chairs are uniform and comfortable, the stage is large and carpeted and there’s a little booth for the sound technician. When the lights go down, the audience sits in total darkness. MC Xavier Michelides surveys the room. It’s a small crowd, about a third to half full. Michelides builds a warm atmosphere, his jokes act as stepping stones, each one receiving a bigger laugh than the previous. It’s part of Michelides style as an MC.
“You get out as soon as you have the audience’s attention and laughter.” He prepares and structures his material, throwing in a few variations so that it’s special for the night. Michelides feels good about the gig. “The audience was warm, they seemed to have fun,” he smiles. After seven years of stand up in Melbourne, he’s comfortable in the more formal rooms. “It’s best when the audience are in complete darkness,” which is the case at 5 Boroughs. He’s quick to add to he doesn’t have a favourite room: “each room is different and each night is different.”
Greg Larsen’s set, the second of the night, falls a little flat. It’s frustrating and he doesn’t feel great about it, given how well the same material had gone at both Public Bar and Crab Lab the previous night. “It’s impossible to tell sometimes. You can get too complacent, too relaxed, even with new material like this. There are so many factors.”
This is not to say he bombed, but Larsen thinks of 5 Boroughs as a room where you do what you know and don’t riff too much. This is due in part to the cost (entry is $12). When the audience is paying over $10, it’s best to go with gold material. New ideas belong in unpaid rooms. Larsen enjoys performing at both Spleen and 5 Boroughs. “It’s Karl [Chandler]. He promotes well, it always runs smoothly, he knows who to book, who’s a good MC, he looks after all the little details.” It’s an approach Larsen tries to bring to his own comedy room, Crab Lab. The room has been the best thing to help Larsen’s transition from Brisbane to Melbourne. “It’s instant immersion,” he says. Plus it also means he has a space he’s comfortable in. “I aim for diversity in the line ups, in every sense of the word. Crab Lab’s a place for alternative comedy.”
Even Lehmo trends away from improvisation and crowd interaction. His set, crafted from the same material he performed at Spleen on Monday night, is tighter and more rapid fire. Kate McLennan and Nick Capper both seem uneasy onstage and their success rate fluctuates. Despite this, the audience are warm and both comics pull a respectable amount of well deserved laughs and snorts.
Headliner Jeff Green brings a casual tone to the stage that seems totally at odds with the formality of the venue, but the audience love it. Green is very much at home on the stage and happily jumps about between his prepared material. He structures relatable stories around parenthood, a tough line for a crowd with a median age of 29. It helps that he also jokes about cats and drug use. Spotting Michelides mid interview after the show, Green comes over. Hearing about the week-long series on comedy rooms, he recommends the Local, one of Melbourne’s longest running comedy rooms. Technically it’s an informal space, but over the years Janet McLeod has built a fantastic and welcoming venue, Green says. It’s often at capacity, and consistently draws big name line ups.
Both the Local and 5 Boroughs often pull big headliners who come with a fan following. “You feel like you have to do well,” Xavier Michelides says. There are, he thinks, three levels of fame. The first level is when a person stops you on the street. “They know who you are and they like what you do,” he says. Level two is when people spot you without knowing what you do. ‘They look at you and they’re like “hey, I know you!” but they don’t know why,” Michelides laughs. The third level is everyone knowing your name, like Dave Hughes or Rove. “That’d be hard, I think,” Michelides says ‘I’m just aiming for a bit more of level one.’
5 Boroughs Comedy is every Thursday at 8:30pm. Entry is $12. For line up information, visit the 5 Boroughs Facebook page.
Crab Lab is on every Wednesday at 8:30pm at 16 Corrs Lane. Entry is $5.
The Local is located at 184 Carlisle Street, St Kilda East, and has comedy every Monday night at 8:30pm. Entry is $15.