Excerpt from The Bedroom Philosopher Diaries — the new book from Justin Heazlewood.
It’s a casual, slightly dead-shit Wednesday in Melbourne. I’m onstage, doing my bit about ‘Australia the high school,’ segueing into how awkward we are around Aboriginal people.
‘Let’s not forget about Alice Springs, eh? The Aboriginal kid. Good at football. He’s a new generation indigenous Australian regaling us with stories of capitalist dreamtime.’
I begin my impersonation of an indigenous storyteller:
‘One day echidna went into the forest, and had a realisation of supply and demand.’
80% of the time 60% of the audience laugh, and I love them for it. This is my favourite bit of the show and anyone who appreciates it for the allegory on society it is, is my friend for life.
‘He then offered to trade some leafy foliage with his neighbour Crow, in exchange for some gumnuts.’
I can smell the fear, mostly from the youth. Under 25s are conservative when it comes to race and humour. Their world cleaved into the black and white of political correctness. I see hamster wheels turn, moral compasses spin and etiquette rulebooks fan. Wait, is it ok to laugh at certain elements of indigenous culture? Are we laughing at or with them? Others are laughing, so is it okay? I am lightly confused, a feeling I don’t like, and the performer isn’t conventionally good-looking enough to forgive.
My game of chicken with racism continues.
‘He then invested the property back into his business, until he’d built his own bush mall. Where all the animals would come. To buy things they didn’t need.’
This is the punch line, and 80% of the time 80% or more people laugh. It’s a pressure valve – reassurance that I’m making fun of white people. Lights turn green. Wind pipes fill. Stomachs shake.
‘And gorge themselves on imported eucalyptus leaves.’
I love mimicking accents. I love mimicking accents I haven’t trained for and have no idea where they’ve come from. I delight in the fact my teeth and tongue have instinct. They know where to position themselves, which vowels to draw out and consonants to squeeze. I’ve only heard one other person attempt the indigenous accent – a friend in Canberra. He did it in a playfully derogatory manner ‘ay bruv have you got a smoke?’ I appreciated it because it was authentic and Australian and in the larrikin phrasebook it eluded to acceptance and acknowledgment. Silence isn’t always polite.
Down in front a young man is hunched over and crinkling a wrapper. He’s been fiddling about for most of the show while his drunken girlfriend claps randomly and cheers of her own accord. It’s a Wednesday night and these two are sitting front and centre at a comedy gig, blind. Moments before, I’d done my anti-stand up bit where I target someone in the front row.
‘So, do you come from a town or place?’ The bit works best when the target doesn’t know what to say, or whether I’m speaking to them. I stare into space and harvest the tension. The girl, not in my sights, blurts out ‘FISH CREEK!’
God I love the wisdom and bravado that wine brings.
I know! I can help the show along by yelling things out. It will both keep me awake and let performer dude know I’m enjoying whatever it is he’s doing.
Her partner in crime has been crinkling plastic for far too long.
‘What are you doing down there?’
Dude looks up sheepishly. He is in the process of squeezing goon into a cup.
‘Give it here,’ I say, teacher style.
I hold the crinkly bladder aloft. The crowd sprawls into ‘um ah’ delight. Comedy bronze.
At this point in my life I have several options:
A) Throw the goon away and carry on.
B) Offer some quip about the couple coming from a low-economic area (Fish Creek.)
C) Suggest the couple are Herald Sun reviewers.
D) Force them to drink the rest of the goon.
E) Drink the rest of the goon myself.
F) Interrogate them for a bit, deducing why they say in the front row.
G) Kick them out in a blunt, humourless manner.
Call me Mr G.
I’ve had a few patrons removed over the years. My house policy is two strikes and you’re done. I’m protective of my show like a mother duck. If I sense danger from unhinged audience members then I’ll do everything I can to make them not be there. If anyone’s going to ruin my show, it’ll be me.
It is not easy having a drunk couple kicked out during Comedy Festival.
A) They are drunk.
B) They think you are joking.
C) The security is your sound tech.
D) He thinks you are joking.
So what to do?
‘Get out’ I say, pointing at the girl. ‘You have to go, seriously, get out of my show.’
‘Go on, off you pop. You’re out.’
‘You’re kidding?’ she says.
‘No. No joke. Get out of my show.’
‘You can’t make me,’ she says.
‘Yes I can, c’mon, you’re holding it up. I’m already in trouble for going overtime. I’m serious.’
’Is he joking?’ she whispers.
‘No.’ Dude laughs, standing.
‘C’mon, just get out’
I’m flipping out in my own special way, but I don’t want to lose my audience, so I don’t swear or scream. I simply communicate my wishes with the efficiency of a fire marshal. After thirty more seconds Andy the tech comes over to give an air of legitimacy to the operation and the pair toddle off. To my surprise, there are murmurs of protest around me. I’m being too hard perhaps.
But I’d already had a song and dance with the girl at the start of the show. That was strike one. As a friend texted me later: ‘Nice boundaries.’
They are escorted from the building.
There is a hole in the front row like a child’s front teeth.
To quote Dave Eggers: ‘I am at once pitiful and monstrous, I know.’
Doing Wit-Bix for the 22nd time to a quiet audience who I wanted to smash in the face with a frying pan, I was challenged as a performer. The golden rule of entertainment is:
‘No matter how exhausted, no matter what kind of mood you’re in, you have to go out there and give those people the best nights entertainment they’ve ever seen.’ (Richie Benaud to Nikki Webster.)
I think of Tom Jones, the mercurial showman. What would Tom do? If he’d done 22 shows in a row and was feeling oversensitive and spiritually mutated, his scattered self-esteem projecting itself onto the murky faces of the back row, reading between the lines of silence to internally belch ‘you’re a knob and we hate you for classified reasons,’ would he reach into some deep treasure box in his loins, spin some credit from a consortium of ego genies and buy himself a shot of adrenalin to sail his showmanship over the line one last time?
I’d been living in my own bubble and my shields were drained. It’s easier for Tom Jones. He’s got stadium sized hype. A cast of showgirls. Big hits he can belt out on auto-cue. I’m faced with sixty people on a Sunday, naked in my stand-up. Outwardly cool. Internally boiling. Not playing Northcote.
Rules of showbiz.
A) The audience are always right.
B) If audience are wrong, refer to rule A.
Rules of showspaz.
A) I’m amazing.
B) Laugh you cunts.
Damn the rules. Damn the audience. Obey the moment, trust yourself and hope for the best. My band, who were forced to huddle in the wings night after night, stated that the most fascinating part of the process was listening to the varying levels of laughter each night. I heard a quote by Sydney writer Nick Coyle: ‘There’s no sound for awe.’ If only there was. A low growl. It would help out musicians, actors and poets. The human body is a versatile instrument. Surely there’s more strings to the bow than clapping like a chimp.
Comedy is a perilous pursuit. You’re only as good as your last gig and some nights, your last joke. You’re a laughter junkie, always searching for your next hit. The audience are either with you or they’re against you. This is why most comedians shout and talk fast, to psyche out the silences. With experience comes the sophistication of knowledge – your thought machine is more adept at calculating audience responses. It takes into account the ebbs and flows of energy, the attention spans, the lateness of the hour. It builds positive data on a crowd have ticked an important box by coming to see you and may be enjoying you quietly – their appreciation painting a smile in the dark. It takes a strong machine to process these busy signals and remain cool amidst doubt-flares and trust-shakes.
(Klap-ter – noun)
When the audience applaud mid-way through a stand up set, to mark a big laugh. Clapter is usually saved for high concept stand-up – i.e. when a comedian machine guns a lot of words at once, or pulls the best punch-line of the night.
There’s no sound for awe, (cats can hear it) but there is a sound for a slurry of lames. A sub-audible anti-atmosphere – a black hole sun. I can see my words being sucked into the cross-armed back-slumped slit-eyed grizzle gobs, all haemorrhaged energy and narky expectations. Sixty minutes is a long time to do a show when you’re over it after thirty seconds. Pride cried and patience blown – awash in a toxic meltdown of back-dated disappointment and self-loathing martyrdom. Arrogant and empty, I punish the audience by finishing a bit, listening to the spurts of laughter dissolve and consuming my water like a snake.
Ballerina on an empty stomach, spinning.
Car with no oil, going uphill.
Mighty douche, trying to be funny.
One of my favourite moments was offering people in the front row a different form of snack each night. The action is, after a song, when the audience are vacant and clapping, you SNATCH THE SNACKS (ten times fast please), step into a lunge so you are bowing before the person with your arms outstretched and yell the snack as a question:
After experimenting, I achieved best results with:
‘CRISP?’ with a bag of Red Rock Deli at the ready. For optimum effect, you should open the bag in the same action as making the lunge – a sign that the treats are fresh. This was funniest when the person refused. Like the bloke in Adelaide who put his hand up and said ‘oh no,’ as if a Ferrero Rocher could ruin everything.
The key to spontaneous snack offering is to be a ninja. The whole exchange should take place in seven seconds, (cue Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry.) A few times this derailed when the girl in the next seat lost her mind, making me giggle. One of the few things an audience wants is to see the performer enjoying themselves. Tom Jones can fake it with his collagen grin, but many can’t. It’s a rare gem when I laugh out loud on stage. A passing of the happiness torch.
The final snack moment goes to the middle aged bespectacled gent who is the same target as my ‘so do you come from a town or place?’ He hasn’t taken to this subversive nonsense and looks at me as if to say ‘Is that all you’ve got?’ I make amends by targeting him with the nightly snacks, a huge bag of:
‘SOY CRISPS?’ As I hover, mid-lunge and vulnerable, the bulbous sack balanced precariously in my hand, a warm smile spreads across his face.
‘Ah yes, I will,’ he says, as if his wife were offering him one at home, such is the ease with which he scoops out a generous fistful of twists. I whip round and carry on with the show. I can hear the man crunching away on his snacks. This is too much. This surly chap, sitting there happy as Larry, chomping away as if he were watching Top Gear.
These are the moments I put up with life for.
In everything I do I like there to be some unknown variables. Some parts where I have no idea what the outcome will be. Leaving My Hairdresser was such a part. While busting out the closing choruses, I’d kick, leap and spin myself off balance while molesting the mic-stand and lobbing the mic in an attempt to create as much carnage as possible. It’s like Angry Birds. Each night I’d catapult my bird but sometimes I’d do no more than rattle the mic-stand back and forth a bit. Other nights, I’d be lying in a pile of guitars, drum cymbals and kick stands, tied up by leads and blindfolded by my hairdressers cape. These were good nights.
One night, mid Angry Bird, on my knees scrabbling about, my guitar stand uproots, bringing my axe down on my head, the nut cracking me hard on the scone. As I belt out the final refrain, a warmth seeps down my face. I touch my forehead and look at my fingers. They are crimson.
‘I’m bleeding from the head’ I tell the audience.
I finish the song, going on a little rant about ‘gee I wonder if this is one of The Bedroom Philosopher’s bits and he had a blood capsule hidden under his wig and he does this every night, or I wonder if he actually is out of control and may have concussion…’
It hurts, but I love every minute of it. This is pure, heat of the moment, one-off chaotic brilliance.
After the show Nature Boy informs me that his friends had asked whether it was a set up and I actually had a blood capsule.
During the season I dreamt I was flying along in a Volkswagen with my Mum. Down below, young men threw eggs up at me. I stood on the roof trying to catch the eggs and throw them back. We reached some houses and now I was by myself. I hopped from roof to roof holding a handful of eggs, looking for someone to throw them at, but there was no-one around.
My discomfort with success.
Having observed Gen-Y’s disconnection with Aboriginal culture, I thought I could offer the community service of writing some stand up about it. After hearing a friend say ‘No, you can’t do stuff about Aboriginals, the whole audience will freeze up,’ it seemed like a good challenge. As a humourist I would argue that no matter what the subject, there are always jokes to be found. Like a horticulturalist stares at an overgrown path and spies a bush flower or native moss, I would look at the muddled thicket of our post-sorry relations and find some twists of wit.
As part of my training, I MC’d a comedy night in St Kilda. It was here that I debuted my indigenous bit. It was a cataclysmically high degree of difficulty. MCs are supposed to keep the night buzzing along and the crowd were south-side conservative. I was prepared to fail, but at the same time, I flatly refused to let the occasion beat me. It was two days before Australia Day, so I knew that link would buy me some time. My heart was an anxious stallion, sweating mint.
‘Sometimes I wake up and think ‘I’ve never had a proper conversation with an Aboriginal person. And the older you get the more awkward it is. I think I’ve said about ten words, and they’ve consisted of ‘no’ and ‘sorry.’ (Groans.) I know, well at least I said sorry before Kevin Rudd did, that’s a feather in my cap. Sure it was ‘sorry, I don’t have any money.’ (Tsk.) I know, and I did have money, I was just really late for a hair appointment, you know how it is? (!?) And one time I gave an Aboriginal woman a two dollar coin and she just looked at it and said ‘Oh great. A depiction of a deceased indigenous person, which is a taboo in my culture.’ And threw it back in my face. And I thought, ‘Man, this issue’s complicated!’’
The laughs are down, but I’m rewarded with a feeling of solidarity as my adrenalin, instincts and skills link arms to offer me resolve in this trial by fire. The key to the routine is having back up prepared for when the audience shuts down. I’ve written a code that as soon as the laughter drops to 20% and stays there for 20 seconds I activate evasive manoeuvres.
‘Look at you all clamming up, my little clams.’ (Air is released.)
‘You’re like ‘aarghwhyareyoudoingthis? It feels offensive to laugh about this. I came out to have a good night whyareyoudoingthispleasemakeitstop!’’
‘It’s okay. Somebody’s gotta talk about this stuff. It’s like comedy muesli. It’s good for you, at first you’re not sure about the taste, but tomorrow you’ll wake up and go (rubbing belly) ‘nah, I’m glad I had that. I feel really good down here.’ C’mon, let’s get a bit Ben Lee (swaying arms) – ‘we’re all in this together.’’
The audience are 40% more onside, which is enough to work with. As a performer I’ve acknowledged their plight. I’ve said ‘I know this bit is hard work, and the last thing I want to do is punish you, but I do want to challenge you, so let’s meet each other halfway.’ The audience say ‘okay lesbian man – we haven’t seen you on enough panel shows to trust you fully, but we accept this token of respect and will permit you a couple more minutes of faux-subversive hipster politics before erasing it from our memory and replacing it with the latest hilarious song from YouTube sensation Jon Lajoie.
On two nights during Wit-Bix in Melbourne the audience were so good they didn’t need the de-clammer. The first time I said it anyway out of habit, evoking an air of faint hostility.
‘Hey, don’t patronise us Mr Showbiz, our great grandmothers were Buddhist lesbian atheists and we’re delighting in your fresh approach. No need to give us the Saturday night dumb-down you twerp.’
The second time I was ready. On the final Friday the audience shot their laughter into the sky, warming me like a firework of enthusiasm. I wanted to eye-kiss them all and decorate their chests with medals for intelligence and open-mindedness. I’d shed a few rays of sun on the thick ice of indigenous guilt. I’d been successful in affecting the players in my personal world.
‘Art is what you can get away with.’ Andy Warhol.
Keep going till someone issues a cease and desist.
The Bedroom Philosopher Diaries by Justin Heazlewood.
Avail. as an E-book through Affirm here:
Image via Chase & Galley