When laughs cost money

In the old days when my knees were good and my hair was funny, I worked as a standup comedian.

It all started in the early 1980s when there was nowhere to do it and people like me worked night clubs, busker’s competitions, anywhere we could stand in front of people, talk and willingly accept liquids, half eaten fruit and lumps of bread.

It was a crazy time. No-one knew what stand-up was, least of all those of us performing it and few knew how to respond to it.

One night as I died in front of about 250 people, a bloke jumped on stage and offered me a plastic cup of wine. This inflamed those left sitting in the audience and they promptly threw their remaining cups at us. The bloke ran for his life leaving me to plead for mine.

Once, in a hotel, as I delivered a rather unkind joke about Rolf Harris, one of his biggest fans dashed to the stage and slapped my face. I turned the other cheek but he was already leaving saying: “Rolf Harris is from Bassendean. Where the hell is that loser from?”

My memory of that bloke’s face suggests he is one of those still supporting Rolf and I am pleased to know I will never see either of them again.

I didn’t go into stand-up comedy to be popular. My comic spirit had an evangelical tinge. I wanted to tell people what was wrong with their lives, the lives around them and the society they inhabited, with a mix of the tragic and comic.

My heroes, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Spike Milligan and Mort Sahl were not always funny. Sometimes they were intense, tortured and sometimes their public battles spilled into their performances. I wanted to be like them and work small rooms, a couple of nights a week, in front of people who wanted to listen, to explore and learn.

There was a period in the mid-1980s when I ran a room under Hay Street, with journalist and novelist Andrew Masterson and two comedians who never surfaced again. We called the night Brains for Concrete. It was a dream come true: underground, cavernous, dark, and barely an audience in sight.

I billed myself as George Gosh, Australia’s answer to Karl Marx.

Content was everything. Skills were a work in progress. It was hard, biting, bitter, satiric, unheard and unhoned.

I created character called Pik vonder Shovel, a South African Afrikaner, who wore a gun and pleaded with his audience to “find the Bantus amongst you, and push them forward, so I can get a good shot at them.”

Pik died the night an Afrikaner came up to me and said: “You are so right, we have to kill them before they kill us. I can pick your accent, man. You are from Pretoria, right?” 

That’s the trouble with satire, there will always be people who take it literally.

There was a comic vacuum until the early 1990s. There were attempts, of course, a room would open, die and another would die before it opened.

The Actors Centre in Northbridge (now the Blue Room) started the big run. It was followed by the Brass Monkey and then the biggest break of all, The Laugh Resort, which still operates today in a room at Yagan Square.

Laugh Resort nurtured many of the nation’s top comics, including Rove McManus, Dave Hughes and Dave Callan.

As for me, well, I had to make a decision: go to Melbourne and hit the big time, or stay in Perth and fade into the background.

I chose to fade and seek other forms.

For many years I worked conferences and seminars as a professional speaker. The venues were mostly small, in front of people who wanted to listen, to explore and learn.

These days I live in Kincinnup, Kinjarling, Albany, Western Australia’s deep south and I write novels

I’m still working the laughs, but only on the street, my favourite shops, cafes and restaurants and at 6.30am, in all weathers, when, along with about 20 others, I plunge into the Southern Ocean. All year round.

And not all the pressure is on me because, as you well know, everyone is a bloody comedian.

(Some of this blog entry first appeared somewhere else, on paper, in the days when paper ruled.)

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