Comedy career more than a laugh

By David Maida

Getting up on stage and making a crowd laugh is something everyone has thought about doing. But comics who do it as a full-time career are a breed apart.

Canadian comedians Kevin Gillese and Arlen Konopaki, who have been performing improv for three years, are in New Zealand for the International Comedy Festival.

"It's pretty sweet. We get to see a lot. We get to travel. We've been all over the world this year. It's a perfect way to see the world, to get to go and do shows in different cities everywhere," Konopaki says.

The men, who use the name Scratch onstage, have a background in theatre.

"If we weren't savvy to the acting industry and didn't have acting agents back home and weren't familiar with how to audition well, we wouldn't get the gigs," Gillese says.

They say the world's audiences are all different.

"The beauty about improv is that as we're going, we can change our stuff. With stand-up, they're kind of locked into their material," Gillese says.

And when a live audience isn't laughing at your material, it's pretty devastating. For this job, a thick skin is as important as a good sense of humour. Konopaki says it's not something many people can handle and admits it's brought him to tears on several occasions.

"If you can get through that stuff and still want to be a comedian, then it's obviously the right thing for you. It's enough to make pretty much anyone want to quit," Konopaki says.

Starting out as a comedian is tough.

"There was definitely a time when it was not uncommon for us to drive three hours to do a gig where we're making 150 bucks performing for a bunch of drunken yahoos in some bar in northern Alberta," Gillese says.

It's not a lifestyle many people would envy but it's the only way a comic can become recognised.

"Honestly, the only way we've gotten to where we are now is by doing a lot of shitty tours," Gillese says.

"If you're a young performer trying to get out there and make it happen, you just have to say `yes' to absolutely every opportunity and just perform as much as you can and see where that takes you."

Taking the knocks from a hostile audience and living to tell the tale and laugh about it afterwards is the only way to become a successful comic.

"That can just pound any desire to be a comedian out of you and if that does, you probably weren't meant to be a comedian anyway," Gillese says.

But being a comedian requires more than guts of steel.

"You've got to be driven. You've got to really want it. You have to be able to look at the big picture as well. You have to see where this is all headed and have a master plan," Gillese says.

Keep your eye on the future and remind yourself that the crummy gigs are just a stepping stone to something better.

Financial uncertainty is something all comedians learn to live with.

"It's almost like you're surfing the crest of that wave, where if you go down you're totally screwed. But if you can manage to keep your balance, you're going to make it to the next day," Gillese says.

Scratch manage to keep enough gigs on their calendar that they don't fear a financial crisis.

"Our bank accounts aren't huge but we always seem to manage to make it through the day just based on hope, luck and managing to get enough laughs that people want to pay us," Gillese says.

Like many comics, Scratch have regular gigs to provide a steady baseline income.

When not on tour, they do two weekly shows back home in Edmonton and additional jobs come along.

"As soon as we go home, we're hosting an environmental awards show. We get paid a few grand for that," Gillese says.

The diversity of gigs means a good comic will rarely be completely out of work.

"The only way that we're going to lose our jobs is if we suddenly start sucking," Konopaki says.

But the success of Scratch has seen them doing television shows and making comedy videos.

"We've got so many different projects on the go because you never know which one is going to be one that's going to get you through the next year," Gillese says.

The lifestyle may be uncertain, but he says there comes a time when every comic must decide to quit their day job and go full-time.

He says you'll know it's time when you have to turn down a gig because of your other work.

"You're going to be poor for a while but you just have to leap off that cliff. If you really want to be serious about it, you've got to accept that there are sacrifices that need to be made along the way," Gillese says.

In New Zealand, once a comic starts getting regular paid gigs, a busy comic can expect to make around $30,000 a year.

Native-born comedian Al Pitcher says comics usually start at the Classic Comedy Theatre on Auckland's Queen St.

"If you want a career in comedy in New Zealand, you have to have some relationship with the Classic. If you want to do it, contact the Classic and try to get an open mic night booked in," Pitcher says.

Pitcher is known as Danger Mouth and is performing at the Comedy Festival.

But his first attempt at comedy started with five minutes on an open mic night.

"I got no laughs in the five minutes. There was a little stage and I just accidentally fell forward and fell off the stage."

For his fall, Pitcher received a great reaction from the crowd and he says he's been hooked on comedy ever since. But stage fright can be disastrous in this job. Some comics can't even eat before a gig.

"When I first started, I'd be vomiting at the side of the stage," Pitcher says.

It takes a bit of an egomaniac to be a comic, but when a show is successful, Pitcher says the feeling is amazing.

"It's like getting on a bungee jump. You just get on and see what happens. It's the biggest adrenaline rush I've ever had," Pitcher says.

Comedy has now evolved into more of a recognised career.

"You can actually make money and you can actually get a DVD out. The marketing and PR is really important. I've got an agent who books my gigs and then takes 15 per cent."

Online community websites are other outlets where comics can gain some exposure.

"Things like Facebook and having a website, it's just getting your name out there is really important. There are some amazing comics but they don't know how to get their name out there."

A background in theatre has helped Scratch further their career, but Danger Mouth says it's not mandatory.

"I don't think there's any training in comedy. I think that's why it's quite exciting. I think that's why people have looked at it now as a career," Pitcher says.

But one thing you need to be astute at is observing people.

"It's better as a comic not to have headphones on because you hear the person next to you saying things like, `I'm going to go home and shave my cat.' You hear that kind of stuff and it goes straight into the act."

But nothing you put into an act is guaranteed to work.

"With stuff that you think is funny with your mates; people will just stare at you as if you've just shot a dog."

For those who do manage to develop a successful career as a comic, the thrill is unparalleled.

"I'm travelling the world acting like an idiot. That's all I do and what an amazing life. Just have the guts because the rewards are incredible. The feeling you get from a great gig is amazing," Pitcher says.

* Contact David Maida at: www. DavidMaida.com

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