Three women and a gay priest walk into a porno theatre. The man of the cloth is from St Matthew-in-the-City and the quartet is at the Adult Cinema in Queen St in 1997 on a mission from God: To free the consonant. Comedian Michele A'Court, present that day, vividly remembers this exorcism of central Auckland's last big-screener of pornography. "He had a bowl of holy water and a Karaka leaf we flicked about the place. It was to get the 'ew!' out because, as a porn cinema, women there had only been able to use vowels. 'Ah!' 'Oooh!'," she breathily exclaims. "We needed to make it a place where women could use whole words." The chairs and signage promising "continuous sex films daily" have long gone, or been repurposed or framed as ironic artefacts, but 20 years later A'Court is still there. The venue, renamed the Classic Comedy Club, has allowed comedians a day-in, day-out opportunity to develop their craft, and in later years has become a production line for television talent. There's been the odd stop-start late-night televising of comedy - Pulp Comedy, A Night at the Classic - but the 2009 launch of 7 Days really signalled the industry had arrived. Nearly all the regulars on that late-night panel show, including nearly a dozen behind-the-scenes writers and producers, cut their teeth - or continue to sharpen them - on its stage. And most recognise that opportunity wouldn't have come knocking without the Classic doors having been opened. Andrew Lumsden, publicly known as the more muttonchop-than-man Te Radar, hasn't performed at the Classic for years but still pays it credit. "Material I developed on this stage 15 years ago, I'm still selling to corporates today." But this development process involves some ugliness. The Classic is a sausage factory, where all the roughness of experimentation - where jokes are brutally ground up to be tested, and either die or get honed into slick bangers - is on show most nights. On a Thursday in the run-up to Christmas and there's a seasonal rush of sorts. The packed house of 120 punters downstairs from the Green Room is almost all work outings: insurance-sellers, bankers, hardware store employees and a table of primary school teachers, who seem to have taken the end of the school year as a license to pre-load.As A'Court says, prepping herself in the minutes before taking the stage, failure is an unavoidable part of this process. "People have died some extraordinarily deaths down there. It's so much fun! It might be me tonight," she says. And on cue, she storms on stage repeatedly tut-tutting the now-rowdy teachers with "Shush! Mummy is talking", and requests for "Hands on heads!" It's a losing battle. A'Court is probably best known for thoughtful columns in newspapers, or smart-auntie commentary on RNZ's The Panel, but here's she runs counter to public form and runs a hard and angry set on pay equity before a dark digression about a visit to the Sistine Chapel to take on injustice and child sex abuse. It's hilarious and brutal, but it isn't working. Her plea for the Vatican to put cardinals on trial doesn't nearly get the response it deserves. The audience seems only bemused and she is dying a slow death. After 20 painful minutes, she stumbles back up the stairs to the Green Room laughing hysterically. Her only response to how she thought it went: "F---ing awful!" Jamie Bowen, a tremendously bearded skinhead MCing the night, offers consolation and notes the audience hasn't provided a consistent response all night: "They're on, then they're off." A'Court agrees: "I can't read the pockets". It turns out it's only the third time she's rolled out her line about Catholics. But despite early knockbacks - and limited commercial appeal - she's not planning on retiring it anytime soon. "It'll never appear in media or corporate gigs, but I'll keep doing CPR on that child-rape gag," she vows. ITS NAME is a hark-back to its days as the Classic Cinema - a theatre for legitimate movies before the porn crept in - and the initial conversion was understandably jarring. Brendhan Lovegrove, now the inappropriate uncle of the comedy scene, remembers the early days where the old and new crossed over. "When we first saw the room we freaked out, because it was an old porn store: perfect. We were running it as a comedy club from upstairs while waiting for the porn side of it to close. I remember going to a meeting, and the sounds coming from downstairs: 'Oh, yeah, give it to me' and orgasms," he says. Scott Blanks, the club's founding manager who has become as much a fixture of the joint as the neon sign out front, talks of the grand cleansing. "There were things that had to be done. Physical things. We had to rid of the carpet. We attempted to roll that up, but it snapped," he says. Blanks - a perpetual verbal machine who stopped coming to every show only after becoming a father seven years ago - says he aimed for the place to have the feel of a "sleazy Las Vegas cocktail lounge meets Taumaranui railway cafe". The venue celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and in the intervening time the fashionable has had enough time to fall out of favour and then become retro, and The Classic now has the vibe of a velvet La-Z-Boy. There's a cosy front bar, festooned with signed pictures of comedians local and international, but the real heart is a mid-sized cavern of a performance space and stage. In the past two decades the venue has become shady landmark of sorts, anchoring a cluster of fringe performance spaces - including the first home for the Silo Theatre that's now become the grungy Basement bar - within spitting distance of the Town Hall and within sight of the Auckland Central Police tower.
"Not that showing your dick is necessarily cutting-edge" - Jeremy CorbettPrior to the comedy, and aside from the porn, the space also used to house a couple of raucous - and at the time illegal - gay nightclubs. Behind the red velvet curtains, in a room part crawlspace and part private club, is the Green Room, where performers compose and psych themselves before descending a narrow staircase to face the crowd alone with only their wit and a solitary mic stand to protect them. The Green Room is a curious limbo, an artificial oasis withlow ceilings and a row of student-flat couches. A framed limited-edition soft-focus portrait of Billy T James (number 102 of 500 limited edition prints) hangs on one wall. A'Court, in the moments before her death, is quick to dispel any illusions the artwork may have value beyond fraternal sentimentality. "It's by my ex-husband," she says of the painter, mock-retching at the memory. "He tried claiming it was valuable in divorce proceedings: but I've probably got another 400 in the garage." Jamie Bowen, with a caveman beard, is down as MC and has the task of both warming up the crowd and feeding actionable intel to the six other comedians scheduled to fill the two-hour show. First up is Aaron Beard, who starts cold and barely gets warm before his time is up. Exhaling as he returns to the Green Room, he explains at least part of the reason was personal history: "My High School crush was in the audience. It was awkward."
"It's a bungy jump. The first one is terrifying, because at some point you have to leap into the unknown" - Scott Blanks on facing the crowd.Up next, brick-house Tongan Tevita Manukia, wearing track pants and Jandals, manages to get some movement - fitting given the venue's history - with a low-brow detour into blue humour. He recounts a phonecall from his brother in Fiji, who compared Tropical Cyclone Winston to his first marriage: "At first the blowing was tremendous. And the sucking. But after it all, I lost half my house." Back in the Green Room, talk has turned to disaster. Blanks recounts one newcomer, losing his way, hurling the mic full-force into a brick wall, then toppling audience members and chairs as he stormed out of the venue. "We never saw him again," he says of this remarkably short career. He doesn't seem upset over the smashed mic. Blanks says public speaking rates as one of humankind's greatest fears and it's not surprising people balk on the edge. "It's a bungy jump. The first one is terrifying, because at some point you have to leap into the unknown." Bowen says he's learned to roll better with the punches, and now doesn't let a cold patch doom his set as a bomb. "I've had some great gigs, and some awful gigs. There's that half-hour of painful indifference as you just think to yourself 'I'm going to get paid'." A'Court recalls someone pissing themselves on stage. Not with laughter, either. The club itself almost carked it back in 2000 when its pool of 23 original backers realised, after pouring in more than $250,000 to launch the place - at the time a sum more valuable than a Ponsonby villa - that their investment was sunk. Blanks, an accountant by training if you believe it, called a meeting of shareholders, who agreed to self-liquidate and start again. "We took over a big chunk of debt and I took over repaying it myself. Everyone else lost everything." These weren't faceless backers either. Jeremy Corbett, now host of 7 Days, was one of the 23: "It was one of the major investments in my life, not just emotionally, but financially. That's 20 grand I'll never see again." In some ways that $20,000 acted as a down payment on his later wedding, which Corbett held at the Classic in 2007. And A'Court also managed to score a long-term relationship in the building. She talks of luring fellow comedian Jeremy Elwood to the Green Room on his birthday. "At the bottom of the stairs over there, I snogged him quite hard. And we've been together 17 years now." THE SHOW has hit half-time and the crowd and comedians are hitting the booze. In the Green Room Bowen ponders his financial sense. "It would be interesting to work out how much of my earnings each year went straight back over the bar. It would have been at least 30 per cent." Beard, now married, think that estimate is low. "It'd be more, way more, as a single guy." But booze only part-explains the lack of decorum when comedians begin perform for their peers, or just let their hair down. Bowen and A'Court riff in the Green Room on a comparison of IRA and ISIS, bemoaning the "good, honest, terrorism" of old. Much of the intra-comedian banter taking place is unprintable. As someone who has been caught up in the Classic's orbit over the past decade*, I've seen things you wouldn't believe: The tape-faced Sam Wills on fire, dancing with his shoulder. I've watched C-listers splutter in the dark after a great run on Shortland Street. And that's just the on-stage antics. Dai Henwood has arguably seen worse: "Sometimes, after a few drinks, late at night, there is a guy in a top hat, doing a haka, naked. It happens." Corbett says he's "always been proud of the slightly edgy, slightly dangerous atmosphere," recalling somersaults off the bar and multiple instances of public nudity. "Not that showing your dick is necessarily cutting-edge." Blanks recalls a mid-Comedy Festival costume party where a prop fibreglass horse was dragged to the middle of Queen St at 3am and ridden by a cowboy, who except for a hat was - no prizes for guessing - naked. All this is a far cry from the safe and slick televised snippets that most people see of New Zealand comedy. If comedy is not yet big business, the Classic and its associated ecosystem as at least helped it become a mature one. Blanks says after the shaky beginnings, the club is now financially secure and is now looking to build business though its shoulder seasons - the club is heavily reliant on a surge in activity during the mid-year International Comedy Festival - with a local-performer-focused Ha! festival starting in late January. Simon McKinney, who isn't even on the bill tonight, arrives to sink beers with colleagues and swap tips on the current market. He confides he's spent more days at sea than on land over the past three years after hooking into the cruise-ship circuit. Bowen is impressed: "I hear you can make $6000 a week doing just three shows, maybe one for kids?" McKinney, who's a touch jaded by the at-sea experience ("I realise I wasn't cooking my own food or doing my laundry anymore, and was turning into a pudding") says that amounts to only a couple of corporate gigs. He's much more excited about the rewards on offer from children's' television, where he's put his talent for voices into The Moe Show, and earlier as Hamish the Fish on Squirt. His character in the latter was immortalised in plastic form by a fast-food chain, a tribute unimaginable 20 years ago. "When we were told we were getting Burger King toys done, we knew we'd made it. That's about as good as a knighthood." * Matt Nippert is married to Michelle Lafferty, who's been the publicist for the New Zealand International Comedy Festival since Dai Henwood performed in spandex. Although they've both spent more time at the Classic than is healthy, she had no role in the writing of this piece: they never cross the beams.