Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Comedy Festival: The young contenders

Making a living making people laugh is (drumroll) no laughing matter (rimshot). It mostly takes years of hard yakka scrambling for stage time, working hard for laughs in half-filled rooms and having to make money any way you can. Greg Dixon talks to one young Billy T Award-nominated comic about what it takes to make it and profiles his competition.

'I felt like when I was watching a comedian that they were being far more honest than any preacher I'd heard' - Stephen Witt. Photo / Kate Little Photography
'I felt like when I was watching a comedian that they were being far more honest than any preacher I'd heard' - Stephen Witt. Photo / Kate Little Photography

All the world might be a stage, but upstairs at Auckland's Classic comedy club it's probably best to watch where you put your feet.

Tucked in one corner of the Studio (as the Classic's upstair comedy bar is called), this particular stage is so tiny - not much bigger than a few beer crates pushed together and not much higher either - you might be forgiven for missing it. It's only the presence of a mic stand, a tiny, covered table and a badly hung burgundy curtain behind it that gives it away, well that and the 40-odd chairs in rough rows facing in its general direction.

I've never been in this room. But I gather that if the heart of the Classic is the 140-seater comedy coliseum downstairs, this small, intimate high-ceilinged room is more a sparring room where young contenders give it a try, new material is knocked into shape and young, fragile reputations hit the canvas. With warm spotlights and homely patterns painted on the ceiling, the Studio looks friendly enough. But it's actually more a pocket-sized battlefield where comics kill or die, with the enemy - the audience - right in their faces.

If any of this bothers young comic Stephen Witt, he ain't letting it show. Dressed in a candy-striped shirt of many colours, he bounces on to the stage like a spring lamb happy for the slaughter.

The crowd of 30 or so applauds Witt politely, but they're a slighty tense, undemonstrative audience. Veteran comedian Jan Maree - winner of a Billy T award in 2001 - has, as this Thursday night's MC, struggled a bit to warm them up with her blend of jibes at Hamilton and "naughty 40" and "mutti" (don't ask) gags, while the first of the night's four comics, Mark Scott, has proved why playing guitar and improvising lyrics is something of a high-risk comedy strategy.

Witt - who Maree announces as "incredibly incendrialy [sic] funny" - gets a laugh and even a bit of applause for his first joke, a Michael Winslow (remember him from the Police Academy movies?) type sound effects gag, with Witt using his voice and mouth to make the sounds of handwashing while he's pretending to wash his hands. "No, I'm not going to do it again," Witt deadpans when he's finished, "I wash my hands of that joke ..."

His set this night is a mix of that - groan-inducing puns - as well jokes that don't have formal punchlines, playing mind games with an audience member, a long, fart-fixated story, and one-liners - "10 out of 10 people die, statistically speaking ... and these numbers are alarming".

However, it's his finale - a gag involving a former (no doubt imaginary) girlfriend, a German who was "too German" - that makes me laugh the most. It's completely and utterly silly.

In the intermission immediately after his set, Witt smiles happily. His 15 minutes have gone well, even if the audience was a bit reserved. More importantly it's been more solid stage time as he, a nominee for the 2014 Billy T Award (he is one of five comics up for the major annual prize), prepares to drag himself over the next major hurdle in the local comedy business: doing a solo hour-long show at the annual New Zealand International Comedy Festival. For a young comic, challenges don't come much bigger.

So good stage time is all-important. I buy him a beer to pat him on the back, but also because he's already told me he's "flat f***ing broke". Which is probably why it occurs to me to ask him how much he's been paid for going up there on a Thursday night in late March to try to make 30 people laugh from the smallest stage in the world. "I've been paid $10 per minute for a 15-minute set ... but tonight it was $40."

How does the ancient joke go? You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps?

Something like that. And to be sure, doing comedy for a living is something like that too.

Of course you could argue (quite persuasively) that being paid $160 an hour - the hourly rate if you're earning $40 for 15 minutes - is damn good money. It's probably (I'm now speculating) less than what those flash telly comedians on TV3's 7 Days earn.

The trouble is that Witt - like all young comedians - isn't earning anything like that kind of money; $40 here and $150 there (if he's really lucky) does not add up to a living.

Comedian Stephen Witt. Photo / Kate Little Photography
Comedian Stephen Witt. Photo / Kate Little Photography

It's the New Zealand reality I suppose: to make it as a comedian you don't just have to be funny, you don't just have work your arse off and be in the right place at the right time and get on TV. If you want to make it as a comedian in Auckland, you have to make it as something else too. This year's Billy T nominees all have other jobs, or at least other ways of earning their money, though mostly in traditionally comic-friendly media jobs.

Brendon Green works in promotion for Universal Music. Guy Montgomery was a presenter on TV3's Cadbury Dream Factory and will be seen soon on TV One's Best Bits. Jamaine Ross writes gags for TV3's Jono and Ben at Ten and Tim Batt is the producer of Radio Hauraki's Matt Heath Drive Show. And the 25-year-old Witt? Well, when not moonlighting as a comedian, Stephen Witt is Popcorn the Clown.

For the last two years or so he has worked as a kid-friendly clown - complete with blue waistcoat, orange wig and little red bowler hat - for his boyhood mate Justin Lane, the owner of Cornflake's Magic World, one of the city's better-known kids' entertainment businesses. Lane, who befriended Witt when they were growing up in Papakura, was mad for magic tricks as a kid and began performing professionally as Cornflake the Clown at 13. By 15 the Krispa food company had signed him as its Poppa Jack clown and by the time Lane turned 20, back at the turn of the century, he had started Cornflake's Magic World.

Witt joined the business after the previous Popcorn the Clown moved on (which, I guess, makes Witt "Popcorn the Clown 2.0").

"I've had an advantage there in knowing Justin," Witt says. "He was really passionate about magic as a child and clowning growing up. He taught me everything there was to know about the core of clowning: how to do this or that magic trick, what gag to do in this situation or that. I watched him perform a lot because I was his mate. I saw his vibe and how he handled a crowd and how he dealt with situations and with children.

"My first clown gig was actually far more frightening than stand-up. You're there for an hour for a start. You've got to entertain a group of children for an hour, so there was far more pressure than there was in comedy."

You'd think that, fart jokes aside, there wouldn't be much common ground between comedy and clowning. But Witt, who has been doing both clowning and stand-up for just two years, believes they integrate perfectly with his clown work, which is obviously far more regular than his stand-up gigs, accelerating his comedy, his showmanship and his confidence.

"A lot of comedians will say you need to do small gigs, rural gigs and they'll toughen you up. But as a clown I walk into a home in Herne Bay, a big beautiful home, and perform for these very smart, very intelligent, well-informed people and their lovely children. And then I will drive to Otara, all in the same day, and perform at a house - this is an actual day for me - where there are Black Power members standing outside and you go and in they're all standing there watching and wondering how you're going to make them laugh.

I'm doing the same stuff, but I have had to find a reckless way and a polite way to do the show.

"In terms of figuring out how to make people laugh and figuring out your audience, clowning has actually served me far more than comedy. I might do 10 shows in a week if it's a busy week, I'm constantly in front of people, constantly developing and honing the craft."

There's another old gag, a Jerry Seinfeld one-liner I believe, along the lines of nine out of 10 people at a funeral would prefer to be in the coffin rather than have to stand up and give a eulogy. This is funny because it's true: standing up in front a whole bunch of people is a nightmare for most us, and the idea of trying to be funny in front of a whole bunch of people could only be made more awful if we had to do it naked.

Laughing might be the most natural thing in the world, but making it your business to make people laugh is an unnatural act. Why would anyone decide they want to do it?

Witt, who admittedly is blessed with a surname that suggests he was born to be a comedian, says as early as his primary school years kids told him he was funny and by the time he reached intermediate his mates were saying "you should be a comedian".

Performing is not in the family, however. He comes from a solid, working class family - his dad is a concrete cutter and his mum a merchandiser; "nice simple trades," says their middle son - who moved to Auckland from Levin when Witt was 8. They lived in Mangere first, then Manurewa and finally Papakura.

"We were living in the ghetto in Papakura. Literally the roughest area. That's where I met Justin, he was living in the same ghetto. I would bike around to his house every other day. We became friends and that has lasted all the way through until now."

He was a happy kid, he reckons, if one who was not much interested in what his teachers had to say. He was cheeky. But the bit that surprises the hell out of me is that this kid who clowns during the day and makes jokes about foreskins at night used to speak in tongues - he was raised a Pentecostal Christian and only stopped being one a few years ago.

"[Our church] was very spiritually orientated, happy-clappy, jumpy. They believe in healings and speaking in tongues."

Religion flavoured much of his life outside the church, too. When he left school with the dream of being an actor he wound up spending at year at the Christian-based Excel School of Performing Arts in New Lynn. Then, when that didn't work out, he got a job at a construction company owned by Exclusive Brethren.

"I left performing arts school and I needed money, so I started landscaping for three months. I left that and needed a job. I ended up getting one in the factory at this construction company. I was sweeping floors. After two years in the factory - I moved up from floor sweeping obviously - the guys in the office thought I was funny and a good character so that put me on sales and got me an office job. I got really, really bored doing it." He laughs. "

I was constantly getting up from my desk and going and talking to everyone else in the office and joking around. I couldn't help it. There just wasn't enough to keep me entertained. I often ended up being the one to make the cold calls and that kind of stuff."

His wandering mind, along with some podcasts a colleague gave him on comparative Christianity, seem to have pushed him to leave the church, although he already had reservations.

"I was very uncomfortable with how ... in order to be part of any church you have to believe in a certain amount of doctrine, like, indefinitely. You can [decide] not [to] believe in that doctrine if you wanted at our church, but if you don't, then you're going to kind of be a little bit alienated. I was uncomfortable with that.

"I felt like that when it came to the arts, I could be far more honest. I felt like when I was watching a comedian that they were being far more honest - it sounds really bad to say - than any preacher I'd heard."

Comedy sounds like it's Witt's new religion. He is, like all the comics I've met, a total geek about the business, a total student of the craft who likes nothing better than yarning about the comics he admires (Zach Galifianakis, Louis CK and, unsurprisingly for a part-time clown, Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean), how important it is learn how to read audiences, the marketing of comedy and how confidence is the key to everything.

He certainly doesn't seem to be lacking the latter. It wasn't always so; he's come a long way since his first shot at stand-up five years ago. "My material wasn't that funny. I'd written it far too personally. I went out there, didn't get many laughs and it was horrible - and incredibly demotivating. And being quite young then, too, it just sort of wrecked my confidence in a way: 'I don't think I'll try that again'."

It wasn't until two years ago - actually in the same week Lane offered him the job of Popcorn - Witt tried again, signing on for the 2012 Raw Comedy Quest, a sort-of talent quest for untried, wannabe comics. He finished a finalist and graduated to a showcase show for young local comedians at last year's International Comedy Festival.

Witt has even - and you have to admire his big brass ones for this - established his own comedy business (with his mate Lane) with a now-and-then comedy night called "The Encore Comedy Show" at the Encore Cabaret on K Rd. Dai Henwood headlined the last one, and Paul Ego will top the bill at the next. However, he's yet to make a dollar out of it; it's been putting these nights together that's kept him poor.

No matter, his new religion sustains him: "I was actually kind of liberated by comedy," he says, quite seriously. "They say it's like one of the hardest things to do, one of the hardest jobs. But it's equally as liberating. Because there are so many variables in a show and so many approaches you can take, it's equally as exciting, equally a rush. People laughing in your face is a big rush. It's instant appreciation for something that you've spent months trying to refine. So there's a big reward to match the risk of putting yourself out there and being that vulnerable."

In the meantime though, it's clowning first, comedy second. But he's hoping it will be the reverse before too long.

"I say I'm an entertainer, but I spend most of my time thinking about comedy. I make my living off being a clown. But comedy is the end game."

This year's Billy T Award nominees

Billy T nominees Tim Batt, Brendon Green, Jamaine Ross, Guy Montgomery, Stephen Witt. Photo / Kate Little Photography
Billy T nominees Tim Batt, Brendon Green, Jamaine Ross, Guy Montgomery, Stephen Witt. Photo / Kate Little Photography

Tim Batt

I'm incredibly resourceful [when it comes to making money] and have managed to parlay my genetic propensity for liver regeneration into cash.

I once worked at the complaints department of Inland Revenue. It was the professional equivalent of playing with homemade fireworks - you were dealing with a lot of volatility and never knew quite how things would blow up but were always hoping for the best.

The organ harvesting is probably the best job I've had, as it requires little of myself in terms of effort - just resting up with a nice PS3 game while my liver regrows to size.

"A Billy T nomination is surprisingly critical. In the organ market you have to find every
competitive advantage possible. With so many people getting in on the action these days, it's all about differentiation. The Billy T Nominated logo shifts livers, simple as that.

Brendon Green

It's funny how the struggling part of being a struggling artist is seen as almost a badge of honour by some people. It can seem like a competition to be the most pitiable in the eyes of "non-creatives", which implies a greater artistic integrity. I don't think that's the case at all. Sure, you're not going to be rolling in money, but your job is to write jokes to make people laugh. That's the opposite of tough.

My mother was a budget adviser, so I was raised with a crippling fear of debt. I always have a back-up plan, which is important. I was on the unemployment benefit for a couple of months, which wasn't fun. I felt like I was less of a person because I had to rely on everyone in New Zealand to feed me. I don't enjoy owing a friend $20, so feeling like I owed money to just over four million people made me hate myself.

I think of the Billy T nomination as motivation to up my game and force myself to get better. I look at everyone who has won it in the past and I stand in awe of their talent. I'd better not mess it up, right?

Jamaine Ross

I'm an editor and writer on Jono and Ben at Ten.

So I guess you could say comedy pays all the bills.

The Billy T nomination is about an eight on the importance scale. Out of 100. With a reverse ranking system. So pretty important, I guess.

What will I spend my first million made from comedy on? There will be myriad things. But I'll definitely buy a new queen-size duvet set at some point as my current one is wearing out.

Guy Montgomery

How tough has it been to keep the wolf from the door? Well, because we lay a meat trap in our flat every night it has been increasingly difficult to keep the wolf from the door.

We're always getting hounded by wolves. I don't even know why we're laying the meat trap, to be honest.

Worst job? I've done quite a lot of promo work, which pays quite well but at the cost of your dignity. I once dressed up as a Popsicle at the Christchurch A&P show.

I'd consider the Billy T nomination more flattering than important. Comedy is so subjective. When you get judged as being funny, it's like a comforting pat on the back that you are doing something right.

The NZ International Comedy Festival runs from April 24 to May 18.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 27 Dec 2014 03:10:01 Processing Time: 625ms