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 Imperial Hotel is, by all appearances, a very normal pub. There’s at least three different kinds of sport playing on an array of screens at any given time. The beer on tap is cool but not snobby. The bar staff are efficient but not standoffish. Everything seems reasonably priced for a place directly opposite State Parliament. It’s familiar and comfortable. It’s hard to tell which patrons are here for the comedy and which are just having a drink with a friend. Slowly though, groups of people make eye contact with each other, gesturing to the stairs past the bar. One of them will shrug in reply, and then, somewhat uncertainly, they’ll all make their way upstairs.
The room itself is large with high arches separating the seating and standing areas. A curtain to the right of the stage shields the comedians from their audience, though most of the acts are just as happy to mill in front of it as behind it. The crowd is big, but not big enough that anyone braves the front row before the show starts. Instead they stand, gauging their chances of being picked on.
It becomes clear pretty quickly that the Imperial is not that kind of space. The comedians are looking for support, not a fight. MC Tommy Dassalo (co host of The Little Dum Dum Club podcast) is friendly and inviting, so much so that people do take up those conspicuously empty front seats when he asks.
Before a joke, Dassalo admits his relationship ended recently and a lot of his material still uses his ex, so he’ll just use the past tense for this one. It’s beats of honesty like this that establish the tone for the night. These acts perform with a part of themselves that wouldn’t necessarily make it into a more rehearsed set, but that doesn’t detract from the humour. Demi Lardner even manages to turn accidentally disassembling the microphone stand into a laugh.
Dassalo has been performing for a decade, and his experience shows in his relaxed manner. ‘When I started, I would plan the I’d do jokes, and I’d do those jokes’ Dassalo says. Now, he lets the atmosphere of the night direct him. “The host has a responsibility,” Dassalo thinks, to make things run smoothly. The Imperial sees a lot of comedians trying new material, so you’ve got to be alert but also relaxed. The stakes are low, ‘it’s kind of like an open mic mentality.’ Mentality wise maybe, but the Imperial Hotel’s line up is consistently plum with big names. The night’s headliner is Luke McGregor (as seen in a suite of shows on the ABC, including Utopia and It’s a Date) and there are performances from Ash Williams, Toby Haligen, Fahey Younger, Corey White and Adam Knox.
Laughing in the crowd is stand up Laura Davis. She’s not on the line up; she’s there to support her friends and watch the room. You learn a lot, Davis comments, by watching the way other comedians work and the crowd responds to them. For example, during Adam Richard’s (as seen on the reboot of Spicks & Specks) act one audience member just couldn’t process his outlandish style. ‘They kept pulling faces and then looking around at other people, astonished that they were laughing,” Davis notes.
The comic is responsible for knowing if the audience is ready for their style, their persona, and even specific jokes. “You need to judge the room,” Davis comments, because even if every act before you has flopped, the onus is still on you to get laughs. In some rooms, that’s a difficult task, but at the Imperial, the energy fluctuates and the audience is forgiving. Recovering from someone else’s low impact set or even your own failed joke is a matter of timing and energy; “you’re responsible for your position,” as Davis puts it.
The supportive nature of the room lends itself to trying new material. After it’s all over, Stuart Daulman is 80% happy with his act, but is already working on improving it. “As soon as I got off stage I knew what worked and what needed work,” he says. Daulman, originally a sketch comic, has been performing stand up for a year and a half, and it’s been a steep learning curve. “It took me a long time to be comfortable,” he admits.
Having struggled to find the right voice, Daulman has settled on a heightened persona. It’s still an extension of himself but also a character he can inhabit on stage. It’s a style that not all of the audience got behind, but the content of the jokes was enough to win them over. “Tonight was fun, there’s not too much pressure,” Daulman says, adding: “it’s a very supportive room, and that’s Ang’s doing.”
The ‘Ang’ in question is Angela Thompson, who runs Comedy at the Imperial. She’s pleased that “supportive” is the buzz word of the night. Thompson puts comedians who are friends on together, something she’d previously avoided. “It means that if someone bombs they can get help. Everyone takes care of each other.”
She’s also shortened the line up and stacked it with more headliners. Most weeks she’ll approach half of the comedians and the other half will come to her. After 2 years of comedy promotion and production, she’s a well known industry name. ‘It’s great being able to just call up people like Luke or Fiona (O’Loughlin) and be like “oi, I need a headliner”.’ The downside of working comedy is Thompson only gets to see her friends when she books them. “We hang out around gigs, which is a terrible way to run your social life.”
Another struggle is money. “It’s hard, being a free comedy room,” Thompson sighs, especially one that runs on donations. But the cost informs the atmosphere, particularly from an audience perspective. The less it costs the crowd, the happier they are to go along for the ride, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons so many comedians use the Imperial Hotel to try out new material.
New material does not mean bad material by any stretch. McGregor brings his notebook on stage and apologises after every joke, yet the audience are still in stitches. It’s the combination of McGregor’s usual nervous stage persona with the honesty of the notepad, the crowd can’t help but trust him. It’s a comedic contrast that’s been in play for most of the night: from opening act Toby Haligen’s emotional outpouring on the difficulties of gay romance via absurd analogies to penultimate performer Adam Knox’s structured incongruities. As such, Comedy at the Imperial is a comfortable room filled with funny people.
Imperial Comedy runs every Tuesday night at 8:30pm. Entry is free, donations accepted. The Imperial Hotel is located on the corner of Bourke and Spring Streets, Melbourne. You can follow them on Twitter and Facebook for information about upcoming shows.