Raining on my parade

Diane Spencer has a bad time down under

Sunday night, I arrived at the venue, soaked from the rain, to see that the pool tournament posters for Tuesday had replaced mine. I walked into the bar and nothing was set out. Tonight was the fourth performance at the Melbourne Comedy Festival and the fourth time nothing was prepared. I could see some backpackers playing pool; there wasn’t any security on for a Sunday, so people were filing in and out of the bar I had hired, mainly to use the toilet.

Calling out for a staff member, a man on crutches, with his leg in a plaster cast stood up and explained he was the only barman that night, because no one wants to work Sundays. I nervously pointed out that therefore he was responsible for setting out my comedy show, the 50 chairs, the microphone, stand, lights and sound. He said he had done it. I looked round, and saw a microphone limply resting on a table shoved against the wall, it’s wire coil awkwardly around itself, with an amp hidden under the tablecloth. I asked about chairs, sound and lights. He offered to get the manager and I said I would do it; I knew the manager was upstairs.

The manager huffed his way downstairs and laid out seven chairs, with at least a foot gap between each, as if by spreading them out, the illusion would be complete. It looked like a ‘so you’ve been caught speeding’ lecture. He switched on the stage lights and left. Each night, the bar person changed, and each one seemed to know less than the previous one about any kind of technical setup, and Sunday night’s was not only technically incompetent, but physically unable.

Once the seven seats were out, I sat at the top of the stairs at 7.30pm, at the entrance to the bar which was in the lobby of the venue Hotel Discovery, the discovery being that it was a hostel. I was staying in the venue, not realising ‘hotel’ was a misnomer. They provide breakfast which is cold toast on a paper plate, towels that smell like your Granny used them to dry a dog and two showers (out of the eight) worked. Hostile discovery? Hostage Recovery. So I waited at the top of the stairs, as more backpackers walked past me into the venue I was paying for, most of them not speaking English to a sufficient level for listening to ruminations on the correct way to insert a banana into an arsehole.

I sat down in the lobby at 7.30pm, the show was due to start at 8pm. Three minutes in, I looked at my watch. It takes a certain type of nerve to sit there. The nerve knowing that you’ve had no pre-sales on a rain soaked evening. Knowing that you’re off the beaten track. Knowing that it’s a Sunday evening, and the clocks just went back earlier that day. Knowing the venue repeatedly take down your posters, to put up their own. Knowing that if someone turns up and they want to see the show, you’re going to have to go down there, offer your comedy show to a dozen backpackers and knowing when they refuse, you have to kick them out the bar, because you know the guy on crutches isn’t going to do it for you.

Knowing that then you’re going to stand there in a large room that swallows sound and hold the microphone in a certain way so that it doesn’t rattle. Knowing that because there’s no security, people will constantly be walking into the bar anyway, talking over your show. Knowing that most jokes are going to fall flat. Knowing that you’re ‘dead’ before you ‘die’. Knowing that kicking the backpackers out is pointless, and knowing that charging anyone for that experience feels like robbery, no matter how many hours you’ve put into the show. Knowing all of this, and sitting there takes some nerve. I was gripping the table, white knuckle style.

Waiting, watching the door, trying desperately to remember the new pieces, the new structure. It’s my show, I love it, but it’s not ‘right’ yet. It might appear finished; but to me it’s beautiful and malformed. I sat studying my notebook, like watching a duckling on the edge of a pond thinking ‘will he ever swim like the other ducks?’.

It’s not a bad show. I toured to the Adelaide Fringe festival where it got nominated for Best Comedy (Emerging) and sold out twice. But that was Adelaide and this was Melbourne. So at 8pm, I went down to the bar and told Crutches that the show was cancelled because we didn’t have an audience. He said: ‘Oh yeah, you had to do that the other night, as well, eh? The reception said you might not have people again.’ My heart sank with my little duckling. Three backpackers at the bar looked at me with a certain disdain, as if I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, and whatever I was trying, it was pathetic. My comedy was probably crap, why else would I be in a hostel and not on the telly? I packed up and trudged upstairs to my room. It’s not fun living in your venue if it’s public knowledge you’ve had to cancel shows.

From some there is a feeling that everyone needs to ‘pay their dues’ and suffer at some point, but I don’t think that everyone NEEDS to go through this. The idea that someone needs to suffer at some point in their career in order to be good at it, is rubbish. Getting through a hard time, might make you feel personally like you’ve achieved something, but elevating your experience through a back catalogue of poor choices is a backwards exercise in looking forward. It means you have practice at doing poor gigs, which is only useful to determine your own resolve, not in terms of being a better comedian. It’s like a lunatic with a hammer saying ‘I’ve broken so many people’s teeth, I’m an experienced dentist.’ No, you’re a loony with a hammer.

It would be a dream come true to not have to worry about audience, and to only focus on the words mixing in my brain and pouring out my mouth. But at this point in this particular festival, I haven’t got that luxury – I am feeling immensely grateful for the day-to-day gigs back home, where I can walk on to lights, sound, a venue that works, with an audience ready to laugh.

Some might say that the writing/performance is the only job of a comedian, and it’s my fault for choosing to self-produce in a foreign festival. I ascribe to the train of thought that ‘it is useful to know about all aspects of a business’. I like to work from the floor up, to get an understanding of basic mechanics that are involved, but it is not necessary. Potentially you may miss something out, if you do not understand all aspects of the business which you are a part of, but it is not necessary at all. A brain surgeon doesn’t need to know how to correctly wash and sterilise hospital gowns but one day this information may be useful if they shit themselves in a theatre.

The selection of the venue was my fault. I didn’t properly research it, and I wonder, if in hindsight, I was preparing myself purposefully to fail in a self-destructive sense. I’m a clever person, I could have avoided this. I didn’t put posters up this time, because last time, I saw none – it was only when I was in the suburbs, in the arty section of town this time around, that I realised where my posters had, and would have, ended up. In front of a bloody audience.

I went out into the rain to turn up two hours early to a spot gig, I was discovered at the bar by a couple of my friends, also comedians. Two cups of tea, a ginger ale and two conversations later, I realised that I was not alone. Many standups have been through this and, in fact, everyone goes through the hard times. I was so grateful for the people around me and one of my friends loaned me his umbrella for the long walk back.

Everyone has a rainy day. Our choice to do comedy is something we all have in common, and the peaks and the pitfalls are unique to our profession, but shared by everyone. If you are currently under a cloud, it’s likely there are people around who have experienced it too. You are not alone and if you ask; hopefully someone will share their umbrella.

Website: www.difunny.com

Published: 8 Apr 2011

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