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Published October 30, 2014

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.

Opposite the Queen Victoria Market, on the corner of Victoria and O’Connell streets, sits Public Bar. Replete with $10 jugs until 8pm and Miss Katie’s Crab Shack, Public Bar would be buzzing with hipsters even without the Wednesday night comedy crowd. But the comedy is here and so is the crowd. Excitedly standing around the door to the back room, $5 clutched in their hands, a disorderly line forms, much to the bemusement of the young woman taking money and stamping wrists.

public bar exterior

The crowd are right to line up; the room is small. Every wall is lined with chairs, but most of the seating comprises of little wooden stools in rows. Even the front row fills up. The room is run by comedian Steele Saunders, who also co-runs Comedy at Spleen and hosts the podcast I Love Green Guide Letters. The podcast has a large following and a fair section of Public Bar’s audience are clearly fans. Tonight, Saunders is also MC.

Things kick off a little rockily; one heckler makes a “your mum” joke and Saunders responds with a series of rapid quips that cut through the crowd’s hesitation. He has a way of cultivating the improvisational feel of the room: “It’s good to get an in joke going with the crowd,” he says later. “It makes it special.” Saunders has prepared material, but it’s a back up and rarely gets used.

Because of the podcast fans and the midweek timeslot, the audience are usually what Saunders terms “comedy savvy”: “You can trust the audience here. Comedians can muck around. You can perform new, untested material to a full house and the audience are a good gauge.” This trust is why so many big names – names like Lehmo, Cal Wilson, Greg Fleet – appear on such a small stage, especially before the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. And they’re just the names that appear on the bill. Plenty of famous comics, from Dave Thornton to Tom Gleeson and Tony Martin, drop in as “mystery guests”, unlisted so as not to overhype the room or their material.

“It’s a safe space,” Saunders says proudly. The shape of the room helps too. Spleen is a totally different atmosphere. “Spleen is rapid,” Saunders says. “You’ve got to fight for the attention of the people at the back of the room, and you’ve got a shorter time to do it.” Public Bar, by contrast, has longer acts and a captive audience.

Ash Williams onstage
Ash Williams onstage

Tonight though, the audience are a little testy, but opening act Nick Cody does a good job of warming them up. Gearing up for his Comedy Festival show, Cody has performed at Spleen and the Imperial Hotel on Monday and Tuesday nights, doing the same material. “They’re dot points,” he explains, adding: “I’m getting more confident with them, improvising, seeing where they go.” There’s a clear difference too. Lines that received a snort of appreciation on Monday evoke bursts of laughter on Wednesday. He starts with three funny thoughts and builds up through repetition and improvisation. “It’s like folding a samurai sword, you know? You just fold and fold and fold and eventually you end up with this great thing.”

After eight years of stand up, Cody has a bit of leeway, meaning he can drop in and practice. It helps that he and Saunders are friends. “Steele knows his shit,” Cody grins. “Public Bar is pretty much the perfect space.” The night could improve though: ‘Thursday’s the easiest night. Towards the end of the week, people are ready to relax and write Friday off.” The Wednesday crowd is mostly comedy nerds, and Cody’s glad to have the fans. “It’s cool there’s people now who have been to my shows three or four years running.”

PB poster

Also on the line up are Greg Larsen, Jack Druce, Linda Beatty, Sean Bedlam and Ash Williams. Larsen has some of his successful material from Spleen fall a little flat, but his recovery is quick and his new material is a hit. He is taken aback but pleased: “I finished that like three minutes before the gig started,” he admits onstage.

Jack Druce’s set runs smoothly. He’s nervous but alert; there’s silence in the set ups and a roar after the punch line. Linda Beatty is a comedic Joanna Newsom, all harps and whimsy. Sean Bedlam, by contrast, strides around the stage, physically punctuating his jokes with movement. Ash Williams headlines, and it’s clear he’s comfortable in the space. The audience don’t quite know how to respond to Williams. A regular I Love Green Guide Letters guest, Williams leans on that background a little too heavily, leaving about half the audience thoroughly confused, but still laughing. At the end of the set he asks if anyone has questions, and Saunders quips: “Yeah, did you prepare anything for tonight?”

Williams laughs. “I thought it was prepared. I thought it was prepared, but it wasn’t.” Offstage, Williams admits that a large section of tonight’s material – two large stories – were brand new. “It’s about the timing,” he says. Much of Williams’ humour lies in the use of pauses and silence that complements the laid back, self assured delivery of the jokes. Even unprepared, it’s a style that lands at Public Bar.

Public Bar Comedy is on every Wednesday night at 8:30pm. Entry is $5. Sometimes it sells out, so be sure to get there early. Line up information can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and at www.thepublicbar.com.au

Steele Saunders, Ash Williams and Nick Cody all tweet. You can also hear them I Love Green Guide Letters.

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