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.
Spleen is a dive bar. Tucked in to the top of Bourke Street, the lighting is low and the bar narrow. An assortment of chairs are set in neat rows, facing the small stage. It’s a cosy space drowned in loud music and chatter. There are a few empty seats near the front, but it’s a sign of a cautious audience rather than a non-existent one. It’s difficult to tell how close to capacity the room is; it feels full but not cramped. The stage is lined by blue curtains, and the backstage space seems big enough to conceal eleven comics. There is a guitar on stage.
Tonight’s Master of Ceremonies is TV’s own Josh Earl, whose hosting skills complement the night’s structure. Ten comedians, plus Earl, perform over two hours. It’s an interesting line up, and almost everyone is recognisable if you’re a comedy regular: Nick Cody, Greg Larsen, Geraldine Hickey and Jason English (of Anyone For Tennis?). If you’re not, at least Lehmo (Anthony Lehmann) of Gold 104.3’s breakfast team will be a familiar name. There is variation in the material, but it all seems to fit together thematically. However, this is partly due to Earl’s skill as MC. Greg Larsen, Brett Blake and Nick Cody all pull out the traditional passionate Aussie hate/honesty humour, and Geraldine Hickey deadpans it, while Michael Workman and Jason English plumb the depths of their self loathing to successful comedic effect. The atmosphere feels organised but loose and as the evening progresses the palpable Mondayitis of the crowd slips quietly away.
The room is run by Steele Saunders, Karl Chandler and Pete Sharkey, all comedians and “comedy promoters.” And they do promote comedy – Chandler and Saunders are both involved with other comedy rooms (5 Boroughs on Thursdays and Public Bar on Wednesdays respectively) as well as podcasts The Little Dum Dum Club and I Love Green Guide Letters, both of which feature a large selection of local and international comedians.
Post show, Kelly Fastuca shares some of her thoughts. Recently returned from a five year stint in New York, Fastuca has a global perspective on comedy rooms. The scene is much bigger there, 30 or 40 shows a night in comparison to one or two here. Even so, in both cities, fame doesn’t stop comedians from working a room on a weeknight. Having the cushy TV show or the radio slot doesn’t guarantee you’ll have a following or a job next year, even for big names.
They are big names Fastuca drops too, as she jokes about being bumped from line ups by the likes of Louie C.K. For Fastuca, it’s about what works moment by moment. “You aim to be the funniest person in the room today.” She feels good about that night’s set too, and with good reason. Fastuca’s set is a success, a series of rapid jokes about singledom, undercut by sexual desperation which had the audience blushing and bent over laughing. She likes Spleen as a venue too. “It’s the small, tight space,” she laughs, adding, “you have to squash [the audience] in.” Everything is friendlier that way, and the good mood builds faster. Of course, it helps to have a good host.
Luckily, Earl is a good host. As a comedian who has been performing for around a decade, he too knows to be weary of what he terms “the ebb and flow” of fame. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems odd that comedians like Earl would stick around once they’ve “made it”, but audiences forget just how changeable their affections are. Earl’s trick has been to craft a niche audience by addressing avenues that don’t necessarily pay much attention to the comedic mainstream (specifically his shows Josh Earl is a Librarian and Josh Earl vs. The Australian Women’s Weekly Cake Book).
“Once you’ve been doing it for two or three years, you become the “new” thing,” he notes, and you have to work to stay in the public eye once that wears off. Earl is pleased with how the night went. “It started slow,” he admits “but it warmed up.” Part of that is the shape of the venue. Set up like it is, the room is designed to pull focus to the comedians. It can be harder to gain and maintain the audience’s attention in a larger space with chairs positioned around tables a la a cabaret. A lot of a host’s work has to be done on the fly, picking up on successful ‘bits’ and telling complementary stories. Earl’s style involves a couple of props, which can be difficult on such a small stage, but he manages by subtly incorporating the restriction into his use of space. Sometimes though, it’s best to just get the next act on stage as quickly as possible, especially if they’re reasonably famous or if the act before them bombs. Bombing on Spleen’s stage, however, seems unlikely; the comedians make you want to laugh.
Spleen is located at 41 Bourke Street, Melbourne. Comedy hosted every Monday night from 8:30pm. Admission is free and donations are happily accepted. Line ups are posted weekly on their website, Facebook and twitter. For more information visit http://www.comedyatspleen.com/