Did you hear the one about doing comedy for the first time?

By Joanna Mathers

The International Comedy Festival has just wrapped up for another year. Away from the bright lights and big crowds, Joanna Mathers asks why the lesser-known mortals would want to stand up and tell jokes to a bunch of hostile strangers.

'I'm ancient, I'm not a lesbian, I don't use Tinder and I don't swear," says Janet McLarin. "I'm pretty unique in comedy circles."

The grandmother from Massey won't reveal how old she is, but she's happy to talk about her husband Arnold's nether regions. She is also happy to hold forth on super-sized excrement and a male horse with a Boogie Nights-sized appendage, and about exfoliating her "bits" - stories for her stand-up show, a regular at the Classic Comedy Club.

She's one hell of a laugh, McLarin. A hard-case aunty type who'd have you in stitches over family lunch. And for 27 years she had co-workers at an Avondale furniture company doing just that. "We were all like a big family at Titan," she says.

"We'd all get around the table at lunch time and I'd tell them stories and people would crack up. I've -always been a bit of a clown."

Her co-workers said she should be on stage, so when she finished work last year she gave herself a retirement gift - giving stand-up a go.

She now regularly gets in front of an audience making people laugh as she did in the lunch room for all those years.

The International Comedy Festival has just finished and the venues will turn their attention back to plays and concerts.

As top circuit names such as Arj Barker, James Acaster and Lloyd Langford return home from their sell-out gigs, amateurs are choosing to put themselves in the spotlight in front of a handful of punters.

Standing up on stage in front of an unpredictable crowd is the stuff of nightmares for most of us. Speaking in front of a crowd regularly beats out death at the top of the "most-feared" lists - and that's without trying to make people laugh.

Apparently, the buzz is hard to beat when things go right. But when the crowd's not on your side it can be ego shattering.

McLarin started her stand-up life in the way so many Auckland comedians do, at the Raw Comedy nights at the Classic. She contacted owner Scott Blanks, who put her on a 10pm slot on a Monday night.

Much of her material draws on experiences from her early life.

"I'd go and stay with my sister in the holidays as a kid. She had loads of children. I don't know why, cos she had a washable condom that she rolled over the broom handle every morning."

McLarin's husband's private parts also get a public airing: "He once got his willy caught between an anvil and a concrete table, it looked like a platypus. It doesn't work any more."

She likes to make her stories topical, looking for angles that will draw the audience in, before segueing into her own experiences.

McLarin and her husband are set to move to an idyllic if somewhat isolated house on Waiheke soon and she plans to do more stand-up once the move is complete.

"I need people around, so I will go into the city as often as I can to perform," she says.

She has been bumped up the list, moved to a Wednesday night slot with other Raw Comedy alumni.

The Classic was an adults-only cinema back in the day - McLarin reckons some of the comedy on stage now is more explicit than those films. She is not a fan of really X-rated stuff, but she is also not shy about spinning rather colourful yarns when the context is right. "I love toilet humour," she says.

"And I will swear if it's part of the story. But sometimes I feel a bit -embarrassed at what the other comedians say when I have friends and family in the audience."

McLarin says her family - two children and two grandchildren - have been incredibly supportive and think her retirement choice is great - if slightly off the wall.

She admits to a few nerves -before her first show last year, but she was well used to telling stories for a laugh. "I told myself: 'It's just like being around the lunch table'. The crowd ended up being really great."

Getting a kick from standing on stage in front of an unpredictable audience may be predicated by our personality type.

Scott Blanks, founder-owner of the Classic Comedy Club. Photo / Richard Robinson
Scott Blanks, founder-owner of the Classic Comedy Club. Photo / Richard Robinson

Liz Peterson is a senior lecturer in psychology at Auckland University. She says people who enjoy performing stand-up comedy are likely to inhabit the intersection between "extroverted" and "open" personality traits. Extroverts are outgoing, energetic, impulsive and enjoy human interaction, she says.

"Research indicates that extroverts are low in cortical arousal [the part of the brain that controls heart rate and leads to feelings of stimulation]," she says. "These people seek experiences that will make them feel aroused in this way." Extroverts are also very reward-dependent, thrive on feedback and work hard to get positive responses.

Those who enjoy stand-up are also likely to have a tendency to openness - creative, imag-inative types whose minds work on overdrive. The coupling of extroversion with openness can create a personality that enjoys the stimulus of public performing and creativity needed to create unique comedic works.

There can be a down side.

"It seems quite a few stand-up comedians suffer from depression and other mental illness," she says. "These personality types can have overactive imaginations and stand-up can be a counterphobic response to the sadness they may experience."

McLarin made it through to the semis of the Raw Comedy Quest last year. Lana Walters was one of this year's finalists.

Like McLarin, Walters has always been a storyteller. The administrative worker at Air New Zealand's Koru Club has always been obsessed with comedy but didn't realise it was something she could do herself. Her "aha" moment came when a mate told her he was going to do stand-up at a Raw Comedy night.

"It clicked that this was something an everyday person could do," she says.

She, too, got a Monday night slot at the Classic. She had three months to prepare her material, whittled and fine-tuned to fit a six-minute segment.

"I performed the material for my flatmates initially, and they liked it." Walters comes from a theatre background so is pretty comfortable in front of an audience, but admits to having a "pit in my stomach" before the first gig.

"Yeah, I was pacing up and down backstage before I went on," she says. "But fortunately the first night went well and I had a really great response."

Life and love in the digital age provide Walters with rich pickings. She riffs on internet relationship advice and the minefield of hook-up apps like Tinder.

"According to one website, men only have a certain amount of words to use each day, so it's best not to talk about serious relationship issues in the evening cos they will only have 100 words left," she says, laughing.

She was delighted to get to the Raw Comedy Quest finals and is committed to keeping her comedy dream alive. "I love it and want to keep performing.

"It would be great to get a group show together for next year's Comedy Festival as well."

Scott Blanks - often referred to as the godfather of Auckland stand-up - has years of experience in the game. He ran stand-up events in Auckland in the 1980s, was part of the Funny Business gang and owns the Classic Comedy Club. He has seen many a hapless wannabe crumble before a tough audience.

"One poor chap couldn't stand the fact the crowd didn't find him funny and he threw the mic against our brick wall and stormed out through the audience, pushing over a punter on the way," he says.

He talks about another man who was "voted off" in a comedy competition and was so enraged he kicked the front door on the way out and broke it.

Blanks admits that the stand-up game isn't for everyone. It appeals to people for a wide range of reasons, but you need to be tough to survive.

"Everyone will trip over in their early years," he says. "It takes five years to become a competent pro and around 10 years before you are a true headliner.

"Everyone becomes a better comedian with stage time but not everyone will become a great comedian."

The Raw Comedy Quest for newbie and amateur comedians runs throughout the Auckland Comedy Festival and is a breeding ground for new talent. Previous contestants are a line-up of New Zealand's biggest and brightest, the likes of Paul Ego and Jesse Mulligan.

The show has been running for more than two decades and attracts about 200 entries a year.

"This is whittled down to about seven finalists from Auckland, two from Wellington and one from Christchurch. The latter two cities run their own elimination heats and semifinals."

Blanks says there are key traits that make for a successful stand-up comedian.

"They must have a hunger and craving to succeed; some life experience and the ability to articulate it; acute powers of observation; the ability to stand on the fringe and see the centre," he says.

"Additionally, they need a thick skin, the right kind of ego that is able to be bruised, and respect for fellow performers and for their audience."

McLarin, with her ability to see the funny side of life's minutiae and laugh through the hard times, ticks all the boxes. And she is aching to perform. "Now the Comedy Festival is over I'll be back up there on stage. I just love it."

Radar, aka Te Radar, born Andrew J Lumsden, says he became a comedian because he "couldn't sing". Photo / Doug Sherring
Radar, aka Te Radar, born Andrew J Lumsden, says he became a comedian because he "couldn't sing". Photo / Doug Sherring

It's all about . . . timing

"In London, I had an audience split between people who thought I was great and people who were shouting for me to f*** off," says New Zealand comic Radar.

"And I performed in Canada to four people in a 400-capacity room. Audiences can be pretty tough."

Radar, aka Te Radar, born Andrew J Lumsden, says he became a comedian because he "couldn't sing".

Desperate for a role in the stage production of Treasure Island at Ohinewai Primary in Waikato, his inability to hold a tune led to him being cast as the narrator in the play, "which is actually the best role".

The audience appreciated his talents, and the hunger for performance was born.

It took a while for Lumsden to get up on stage as a stand-up however - years of Shakespeare and debating and avid watching of comedians like Bill Cosby (before the rape bombshells) and Billy Connolly.

His first real taste of comedy was at an Otago University comedy competition.

He and his team won the competition ("the group then had a meteoric rise to fame, with everyone leaving apart from me," he says), and he went on to perform his first stand-up at a late-night venue in Dunedin.

"That performance is pretty blurry," he admits.

It must have gone well because he continued to perform, giving up on a career in law, "which is also basically narcissistic talking".

Lumsden believes comedy is all about timing.

"You could give the same piece of paper to 10 people to read aloud. Some will be terrible, some will be hilarious.

"You can't teach timing. People can practise and get better at it, but if you don't have it you'll never really be successful as a comedian."

And he believes a healthy respect for the audience is essential for maintaining your edge.

"You always have a fear of the audience. Once that goes you become complacent."

- NZ Herald

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