The Melbourne International Comedy Festival wrapped up its 30th year late last month. A significant achievement for live comedy in Australia. Although perhaps less impressive these days, with all this “30 is the new 20” kind of talk. Still, it was especially significant for me as it was where I chose to perform my first festival show.
It was a great experience. An emotional roller coaster at times, but I’m certainly glad I did it. Here are some things I learned.
1. Having a festival pass is awesome
As this was my first festival as a participant, it was also my first festival with a coveted “festival pass”. Having one of those beauties gets you into 95% of the shows at the festival for free (unless the show is sold out). It’s an expensive time of year to have so many comedian friends, and in previous years I could usually only afford to see 5 or so shows. This year I saw 15. They were:
Emily Tresidder – Crazy Is
Ryan Coffey – Beat
Dave Warneke – Facty Fact vs. The Audience
John Dore – Revolving Dore
Rhys Nicholson – Bona Fide
Alasdair Tremblay-Birchall – Oh Hey Guys
Peter Jones – This Show May Be Recorded For Quality Purposes
Lisa-Skye – Spiders Wearing Party Hats
Guy Montgomery – Guy Montcomedy
Yianni – The Simpsons Taught Me Everything I Know
James Masters – The King of Humility
Andy Matthews & Matt Stewart – Logistical Nightmare
Andy Matthews – Plenty
Nic Spunde – Asexual Healing
Jay Morrissey & Danielle Walker – Illuminati Karate Party
Every one of them made me laugh. Some more than others, as you would expect. I’ll spare you the minor details as I’m not in the review game any more (they usually result in me being fired from a television show or an awkward conversation years later, so I’ll leave the reviews to the actual reviewers).
2. Poster politics
You know comedy festival has come around again when you start seeing posters of funny people pop up around town. Their placement is the sort of thing you only notice in passing, until you’re tasked with actually putting up some yourself. There are a couple of companies you can pay to put up your posters, but I wanted to keep costs down, so I put all mine up personally. Great way to promote your show. Can’t have a show without a poster. Though you probably could have a poster without a show. Kinda would be a waste of time however.
I had the most success with shop windows on and around Smith Street and Brunswick Street. To my delight, I found that most owners/managers were more than happy to let you put up a poster in their window. Obviously you ask first. I learned pretty quickly not to waste my time with chain stores. They’ve got franchise agreements that prevent them from thinking independently or God forbid, engaging with the community.
Not everyone was up for it, and it was quite funny hearing some of the lazy, nonsensical excuses. People telling me with a straight face they have a “no posters policy”, while standing in front of a dozen posters for other comedy festival shows. Or the guy behind an unnamed bar on Gertrude Street who told me he could only display a poster for a comedy show that wasn’t taking place in Melbourne: “I don’t promote rival venues. If your show was in Ballarat, that’d be different.” Great, I’ll make sure to go back there when I want to advertise a gig that’s happening at least 100km away. At least he was open to the idea of offering SOME help. Provided his help is in no way helpful.
My favourite was the juice bar on Degraves Street in the city. On the wall I saw a comedian’s decaying poster from 2014! It was about 3PM, no other customers, and the guy working there was emptying an entire can of Mortein across every square inch of the place. I asked if I could update his two year old poster with a fresh one. “No mate, we’re closed.” “It’ll just take a second. I’ve got my own blu-tac?” “We’re closed.”
The lifespan of a poster also varies wildly. I reckon some of the ones I put up had been torn down or postered over within a couple of hours. Others lasted the whole festival. The one on the brick wall outside PBS is still there, despite all the thunderstorms. And unless that juice bar gets shut down by the health department, I expect I’ll see that 2014 poster turn 3.
3. Flyering is fun
Can’t do a comedy show without a flyer. It’s like a poster people can hold in their hand and pretend to look at. I spent a few evenings outside the Town Hall and around Smith Street in Collingwood handing out flyers. I was dreading this, but actually, it was pretty fun. I often stood next to the info booth, where one of my posters was conveniently positioned about eye height just on the edge (below the air conditioner). I’d wear the same clothes I was wearing on the poster and just stand there and point to it when people made eye contact with me. Made a lot of people smile. I figure if that was the end of the transaction, that’s better than nothing.
Was surprisingly tiring though. I think it was all the smiling. I was quite selective with who I approached (mainly because of the small number of flyers I had printed – I had to go for quality flyering, not quantity). So I only talked to people who looked like they wanted me to. Most either politely declined or politely took one. Some people stopped for a little chat, and asked me questions about the show, or about my experiences. A few people recognised me from my various audio-visual capers, either explicitly or in the “you look familiar” way. One lady came up and asked me if I was Josh Earl. I instinctively said no. I’m kicking myself now I didn’t say yes.
There was really only one nut I encountered. He stopped and chatted for a very long time, far longer than anyone else. After about 5 minutes, I’d pretty much said all I could, and it was at a time between shows where a lot of people were wandering around outside the Town Hall. I wanted to get to some of them while I could. But this guy sticks to me like glue, and keeps with the small talk and the jokes (“Feel free to use that in your show” etc.).
So I say to him, “Well it’s been great chatting, but I really have to hand out the rest of these flyers”. He comes up with an idea to “help” promote my show, and proceeds to start tearing down another comedian’s poster from the wall of the info booth. “Quick, give me some of your flyers. I’ll put them up here!” I clutch my flyers tightly to my chest. “Uh… I don’t think the comedy festival is going to like that.” “Na seriously, come on. I’ll put your flyers up here and everyone will see them!” I start to slowly back away. “Yeah… you know I reckon it’ll be more effective if I actually hand them to people.” “Come on, don’t be an arsehole. Gimme the flyers.” “Yeah… I’ve really got to go. Great to meet you. Hopefully see ya tonight.” “Fuck you man! Fuck you!”
Kinda happy he didn’t show up to my show later that evening.
4. PR was surprisingly hard
As it was my first festival, I didn’t bother putting any money into PR beyond a few bucks to boost some Facebook posts. I didn’t buy any print media spots. Figured I wanted a more low key (and low cost) debut. Also, with that journalism degree and years of media experience and contacts, I figured I could manage to get a little something on my own, maybe a community radio interview or a review from a blog.
Actually, no I couldn’t. I vastly underestimated how competitive it would be. Hence hilariously, I had a media night with no media. But any disappointment in the back of my mind was overshadowed by the fact it just reinforced my opening gag:
“The first rule of Fan Club is… you do NOT talk about Fan Club. I must say the Australian media is doing an exceptional job of following this rule. You open any newspaper in the country, you will not see this show, or my name, mentioned. At all. In hindsight, maybe not the best PR strategy, but too late now. Something to get right next year.”
So no reviews, for better or worse. Did get some lovely tweets though.
5. The stress
The first festival show was always going to be stressful. It’s stressful for every comedian. Even seasoned veterans. One thing’s for sure: there is no better laxative than knowing you’re performing stand-up comedy that evening. Or maybe that’s just me? I’m just a regular guy. Possibly too regular.
Actually though the nerves always peaked just before walking out on stage. Once I’m up there, it’s fine. It’s the waiting to go on that’s the worst.
And something else I experienced for the first time was a strange cartoonish rash on the palms of my hands. It would always appear after a show as a bunch of spots on either my left or right palm. It was either one or the other, never both. And it would always be gone by the next morning. Could be stress. Could be an allergy to one of the metals in the microphone. Possibly some combination of the two. I don’t know. Funny though.
Glad it’s over and I’ve got my evenings back again. For now. If anything, doing the festival this year reminded me of the importance of taking time out to relax and recharge.
6. Playing to small audiences can actually be great
Preparing for this 50 minute show, I started going to open mic nights again. Typical audience numbers range from maybe 15-30. Occasionally, it’d get up to 40 or 50. That’s a nice crowd to perform to. Most people I talk to reckon the more people in the audience, the scarier it is for the performer. Personally, I find smaller audiences much more intimidating.
A small audience creates a completely different dynamic. It’s less like performing to a crowd and more like performing for individuals. And my festival show gave me the chance to perform to some of the smallest and largest audiences of my career thus far.
Some nights, I was performing to 2 people. A couple of them were actually really good. Those 2 people were really into it, and it made for a much more intimate show (obviously). Another night, there were 3 in the audience: A woman from Germany, a woman from Thailand and a guy from Adelaide who was in the year above me in high school who I happened to spot while flyering one night. Needless to say, some of the gags with local references didn’t go so well. So I had to change a few things on the fly, which made things interesting. Had a drink with them afterwards and they seemed to enjoy it (who really knows though, right?).
One of the other 2-person audience nights was made a bit difficult by one of those 2 people being a jerk who was essentially behaving like a human Twitter feed throughout the show. That was about as challenging as it got for me. Was glad to get to the end of that one.
During the festival, I did a couple of 7-minute guest spots with other comics doing the same. One at Boney and one at Toff in Town. Those crowds were something like 80-100, and I got some great laughs. It’s nice when you do the same material to a decent sized audience and are suddenly reminded that the jokes are actually funny.
7. Ad-libbing is great
Having a 50 minute show with a script to fall back on means you can afford to go off on a tangent if the opportunity arises. And often, the funniest things in the show are the unexpected reactions from people in the audience. Plus at times I got a bit sick of doing the same gags the exact same way. So it was great to try slightly different variations on bits and on occasion, just ad-lib something and not think about the consequences. I wouldn’t ever do that at an open mic night because I’ve usually got something very specific to try out and you only get 5 minutes up there.
I went on some very fun tangents this festival. Sometimes, it’s the best thing you can do at the time. Just go with it.
8. Comic comradery
Tony Martin once told me Melbourne is home to the world’s bitchiest comedy scene. That may be true. Well, I mean, it’s true that he told me.
But I reckon there’s a quiet respect between all comedians doing a comedy festival show. Everyone’s in the same boat. Everyone’s show is on at the same time. Everyone’s vying to sell tickets. Everyone’s swimming in debt before they’ve even started. Everyone wants to get a good review. Flyering around the Town Hall, I’d occasionally make eye contact with a fellow comic and exchange a nod of recognition or a handshake. You’re never alone.
This was the first time I’ve ever felt part of the scene and it’s great. Sure there’s a bit of bitchiness. Everyone wants more gigs and we all wish we thought of that hilarious killer line instead. But there’s also support, laughter and friendship.
There’s also Dean Watson:
Thanks Dean for manning the door and sitting through my show 8 times. Thanks also to Antonio Cafasso for his superb graphics and Alexis Kotlowy for the fabulous midi tunes. To Michael and all the staff at Caz Reitop’s Dirty Secrets in Collingwood. And everyone who came along.
I’m not sure if I’ll do another festival show next year. To be honest, I think my heart is still in TV, web and radio-based comedy (10 years today since my first time on radio, by the way!). But I’m sure I’ll do another one some day.
That little voice in the back of my head won’t let me stay off that stage for long.
– David M. Green