An ex-punk who reckons he's got the funny gene and an ex-accountant who wants to dance; it's more a set-up to a lame punchline than the starting point for a new industry. Yet here we are, inside Auckland's Classic Comedy Club, reflecting on the place a single gag built.
It was 1982, and then 23-year-old Scott Blanks had given up a career in numbers to throw Kerridge-Odeon movie premieres for local celebrities and media.
Once he'd shooed the last punter from the cinema he was off to O'Connell St for a drink or two at Retro, his favourite club, where he sometimes bumped into Bill McGechie, vocalist for Rhythm Method. When Retro advertised an amateur comedy competition, McGechie leapt at it, with Blanks tagging along as his manager to add some unlikely glamour. "It was all a bit of a joke really," says Blanks, founder-owner of the Classic and godfather of local stand-up, "an unknown comedian entering a competition with an unknown manager." But it did the trick because McGechie won, which was cool, though that wasn't the most important outcome.
The pair met up with fellow contestants Dean Butler, Peter Murphy, Ian Harcourt and host Chris Hegan. At that time local comedy didn't exist outside television or universities - most of us would have struggled to name any Kiwi comedian other than Fred Dagg, Billy T. and McPhail & Gadsby - and while this new bunch had careers measurable in weeks, they felt confident enough to have a go themselves.
After brainstorming over beer at Blanks' home, the group became Funny Business. Bill McGechie became Willy De Wit and plans were plotted. "We knew live comedy like this hadn't been done here before," says De Witt. "Not in the sense of young guys on stage not talking about politicians or Maori anyway, this was going to be something different as a night out."
The ambition was quickly tested. Blanks warmed them up with gigs at venues such as the late, lamented Performance Cafe and before long they were appearing every Thursday at Parnell's Windsor Castle. "When we approached the owner he was like: 'Live comedy? Oh, that's not going to work'," says De Witt. "But with Scott running things, the first night went all right, then it became regular, then it was full houses with standing room only, then we were touring and on television ... You have to say Scott is responsible for stand-up comedy in New Zealand. Fact."
But the story came close to ending there because after completing a three-series run on TVNZ, Funny Business drifted apart. Blanks had caught the comedy bug big time, but it was back to his marketing manager day job until a bunch of students from Palmerston North, collectively known as Facial DBX, began drifting north in the early 90s. This group, featuring the likes of Kevin Smith, Alan Brough, Jon Bridges, the Corbett brothers and David Downs, initially hooked up with De Witt and Butler to run irregular gigs at the old Kitty O'Brien's (now The Drake) next to Victoria Park Market. To start with, a show every six weeks seemed fine, but they knew they could do better.
"So someone had the thought: 'Why not bring Scott back on board to increase productivity?'," says Blanks. "They wanted more publicity, more gigs, bigger audiences, and I so got involved again doing everything from promotion and advertising to taking the money on the door."
Shows increased to twice a week with an additional night at the Masonic in Devonport, then the team spent five years working hard while Blanks did everything he could to drag in more punters. He'd been interested in amateur dramatics since his school days at Selwyn College, dabbling in acting, directing and dance - "friends would ask why and I'd say if nothing else it was two guys and 16 girls" - so adding some showbiz theatricality to the mix came naturally. He also had little desire for the spotlight: "Acting wasn't something I wanted to get into fully, most of the people I'd met in that area, no matter their age, seemed to be struggling. I remember talking to [actor] Bruce Hopkins and he said when his kids left home he realised that in a short amount of time they had accumulated more than he had, so it was time to get a real job."
Throw in the influential connections he'd made while schmoozing for Kerridge Odeon and Blanks was a promoter waiting to happen. But his funny machine also needed fresh faces to keep it growing so Blanks launched the Raw Comedy Quest. His first ever winner was Bob MacLaren, who now plays the European comedy circuit while directing shows for a Dutch broadcasting company and starring as Dennis Plant in TVNZ political comedy The Pretender. "I stumbled into Kitty O'Brien's and joined up," he says from Denmark. "Scott said 'why don't you join the contest for the prize of New Zealand's funniest face award as well?'
I refused, but for some reason I've been introduced as the New Zealander with the funny face ever since - it takes a bit of explaining to convince people it's not a prize like largest courgette at the Easter Show.
Anyway, I mostly remember Scott as the weird commerce student-type guy with a small cash box who sat by the door charging the comedians as well as the audience to get in. Then he'd head off with the hottest girls, leaving us comics fantasising about a glamorous life in accounting." By 1996 Blanks had established something of a part-time comedic enterprise while a few others managed to get the annual Comedy Festival up and running.
Both efforts saw the audience for comedy grow steadily, along with the pool of comedians. It was time for his big idea. "By then," says Blanks, "everyone was thinking: 'Well, we've been doing this for five years. What are we going to do next? Let's open our own venue'."
From his stint in the film industry he knew about the Classic Cinema, an ill-smelling, former purveyor of porn squashed between a Christian bookstore, an old punk venue, and the Auckland Youth Theatre. But to Blanks it possessed an intriguing air, and besides it was right on Queen St. So he rallied the troops, formed a new company, and signed up 25 shareholders, mostly DBX comics and sundry relatives. The Classic opened in October 1997.
As well as allowing for more regular gigs, the new venue hosted a few series of the television show Pulp Comedy, with every cent raised going into refurbishments. "Certainly there were sceptics," says Blanks. "Like people in the hospitality industry, they couldn't imagine what business there would be for us. There were no comedy clubs in New Zealand and if they hadn't noticed what had been happening in places like Kitty O'Brien's they couldn't get their heads around it. They just thought we were kids and apart from cabarets like Ace of Clubs or Debbie Dorday's Burgundys, there were no precedents anywhere." Maybe the sceptics would have been mollified if they'd seen the ground work.
Over the previous five years Blanks had travelled extensively, recruiting international talent while visiting every comedy bar he found. His ideal was the Improv in Los Angeles which had a purpose-built performance space with associated hospitality areas. If the Classic seemed fully formed the moment it opened, it was because of that research and their focus on creating a comedy venue built by comedians for comedians. "That meant everyone stopped doing what they were doing elsewhere and we pooled all our business, all of our focus, and all of our audience here. It was no overnight success by any means, I mean there have been all sorts of milestones, but it's been a slow burn."
To keep that flame going, Blanks continues to focus on fostering new talent while trying to build a quasi-career path they can aspire to. He is now linked with various venues around New Zealand and has recently returned from a trip to set up similar relationships in Australia.
After 11 years, he estimates the Classic stable can boast about 20 comics who make their living from being funny, another 20-odd who could but choose to do it part-time or as a hobby, and another 20 looking looking to make a name for themselves. Many of them were found while he was touring his show around the country as pro performances were often matched with amateur open mic sessions.
One of the most successful faces he stumbled across now serves as a case study in the persistence Blanks encourages. "That was our first gig in Christchurch, 1989 or 1990. I took some comics down to give them a taste of what we were doing and we did an open mic; there's always someone who thinks they're funny. That's when [Flight of the Conchords' straight man Murray] Rhys Darby popped up, he was doing impressions of Frank [Some Mothers Do Have 'Em] Spencer. He went into the army after that, but then he moved to Auckland after the Classic opened and began appearing there.
Rhys was never the most obvious stand-up and he didn't always work, but he knew why he was funny - he had this more theatrical style and he stuck at it. Anyway, look where he's got. It's a great buzz to see things like that happen. To have played any kind of role in helping someone reach his level is priceless, you could say it's turning into a life's work.
If I think of others who came up the same way, like Dai Henwood and Brendhan Lovegrove, I can say I've met some this country's most fantastically talented, and sometimes fantastically raw, people." He'd also have to say that he'd become a guy who's work/life balance was seriously out of whack. Yes, he says, but he'd prefer to look at it as a lifestyle choice. For the first eight years of Classic's one-man-band existence he would arrive at work around 9am-ish to get the office work done, sort out his comics, dole out advice and guidance, organise advertising, plan more tours, manage his support staff, maybe squeeze in lunch, then open the bar, watch whatever show was on that night before getting back to his bachelor pad after midnight to prepare for the same thing the next day.
Which is why, four years ago, so many were surprised when he turned up to Dean Butler's wedding. Their association may go back to earliest the Retro days, but it was common knowledge that Blanks hadn't missed a single Saturday night show in three years.
Besides, he hadn't bothered to RSVP. One who was certain to attend was bridesmaid Bridget Suttor, an occupational therapist travelling up from Wellington. She knew few of the people attending and had never even heard of the Classic Comedy Club, so her meddling friends scribbled a list of likely bachelors for her to consider.
In grand rom-com tradition, Blanks didn't make the list but he crashed the party, crashed into her, fell in love and they're now married. But until that day the pair bounced between Auckland and Wellington each weekend allowing Suttor to slowly fathom what she'd walked into as Blanks reconnected with his social life. "By the time I came up to live with Scott," says Bridget, "he'd re-established a life outside of the club. His old friends said it'd got to the point where they never saw him unless they went to club, so I don't think I appreciated the extent of the comedy thing in those early stages. And I didn't appreciate how many people were involved - getting to know Scott means getting to know another 40-odd people, he's got a big circle of close friends ..." That circle came into its own this year.
Everyone at the Classic talks about being part of a family regardless of whether they're the talent or one of the 16 employees, but it wasn't until the Blanks' daughter Kate was delivered stillborn in February that everyone realised just how tight they were.
The wagons circled instantly; there were the Blanks to be looked after, the club to be run, Comedy Festival preparations to be started, and for the first time comedians became the drivers rather than attractions for a charity fundraiser; in this case for the midwives who'd done so much for the grieving couple. "I think losing Kate affected the whole comedy community quite severely," says Bridget.
"But with everyone mucking in, it brought us all together and proved to everyone that this is a special group you can trust and rely on. People can come and go from here as they please, but you'll always be looked after. It also made me realise that I really was part of everything as well, there had been this sense of being more than Scott's wife."
Comedian Michele A'Court agrees, but suspects the support was always there. She drove the midwives benefit. "This is only a young industry, what, 15 years or so, and Scott's been there since the beginning. He's like the granddad of stand-up, and then Bridget arrived and joined in. So we're all really close, and even though comedy can be a lonely, isolating kind of job, we feel like the big Classic family. We've always been there for each other. Then when this awful thing happened, everyone was devastated, but no one knew what to do. How do you deal with that?" That time aside, it seems that this extended family deals with life's difficulties by keeping everything as constant as possible.
Audiences change faster than the jokes and their unpredictability means failure is always only a dud joke away, so that may be why the Classic has almost become a safety blanket with its familiar faces and familiar fittings. When Bridget took over the administration she started making a few decorative changes to spruce up the areas that were starting to get tatty. And every time they'd be changed right back again.
No matter, she eventually found the perfect way to manage a thorough refit. The carpet has been replaced. With the same carpet. Everything has been repainted. In the same colours. So it's all new and exactly the same, apart from the odd rainbow - in tribute to Kate. "I think that's part of why we don't lose people," says Bridget. "It is a safe place, an old clubhouse for comedians, the place where they can come alone for a drink and just chat to the bar staff. It's an extension of everyone's living rooms." And the person working to ensure it stays that way as long as possible is 49-year-old Scott.
His regular State Of It meetings with the comedians run in much the same way as an All Black coach pulling his squad together. He might never have told a joke on stage, but after watching him deliver a pep talk to the up-and-coming Rhys Matthewson, it doesn't seem to matter.
"I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing, but I've seen more live comedy than anyone else in New Zealand, ever. That's not supposed to be some grand claim because I've seen a lot of rubbish too, but I've seen more and produced more than anyone, and that's really important. If this is to work I need to know what works and why. I need to know why different people crash and burn, I need to learn what makes an audience tick and how rooms work. But having said that, until I met Bridget I was probably guilty of spending too much of life on all of that. I like to think it's about quality rather than quantity now, but it really is what my life is about."
Having heard all that, Willy De Wit remains unconvinced that Blanks will have the funny thing cracked until he faces the audiences himself: "So my challenge to him is to get up on stage and do it. There's a frustrated comedian in there, I know. He was always full of ideas, so let's be hearing them." "Hell no," says Bridget. "If he was on stage we'd never make any money.
* The 2008 Comedy Guild Awards are held on December 7 at the Classic Comedy Club, Auckland.