Even in the 90s, when it was a decrepit old movie theatre showing dirty films, it's hard to imagine The Classic feeling as sad and depraved as it did at 10.25pm on a Friday night last month as Tom Sainsbury emerged from the wings to begin his 15-minute stand-up set.
No more than six tables were occupied, mostly by couples. There had been maybe 20-25 people in the audience but that number had dropped precipitously after the preceding comedian became locked in an excruciating exchange with some of the audience, which resulted in the ejection of roughly a quarter of them.
The problems were caused mostly by the occupants of just one table and predominantly one know-it-all at its centre. After the comedian mentioned craft beer, for instance, the guy yelled out: "You know, Mac's was the first craft beer?" and was in the process of adding boring detail to his claim before the comedian cut him off.
For several minutes there was no comedy, just an increasingly uncomfortable back-and-forth between the comedian and the heckler, until finally the comedian completely lost his rag.
"You know what you are, bro?" he said to the guy. "If I can get f***in' psychological on it for a second, you're one of these f***wits that we see all the time and they come here and they sit in the crowd after paying money and they harp on a lot because really they want to be up here doing this but they don't have the f***ing balls, bro!"
He was so angry. It was very hard to watch and to listen to - and he was just getting started. He railed at the guy for a while and the guy said mean things back at him. It finished with the comedian saying: "You need to f*** off. You're walkin' bro ...The whole family. The lot of you can f*** off. You clearly can't handle your piss. So jog on - your whole family."
Finally, the table left, seven or eight of them. As they were walking out, one of them yelled back at the stage, "F*** you! We're not related!"
The MC came back out, did a joke about giving Bradley Cooper a blowjob, then it was time for Sainsbury. There were at least 10 people, maybe as many as 15, left in the audience.
Sainsbury has been nominated this year, for the first time, for the Billy T Award, which is awarded each year to an outstanding "emerging performer with a commitment to their comedy career". You and he could probably both make good arguments that he doesn't fulfil either of those criteria.
He is 36 and has written dozens of plays - his agent Playmarket lists 32 on its website but that is way short of his total output - has written frequently for television, including the award-winning hit sketch comedy show Super City and he is one of our best funny actors, brilliant, for instance, in the otherwise mundane remake of Goodbye Pork Pie.
Greg Bruce: Brave new world called Tom Sainsbury
He also has the ability to bring together groups of funny people to make funny stuff. Apart from all the plays, he's put together a bunch of ensemble stage shows and seemingly endless web series and short videos. His teams have won the 48 Hours film competition more than once and he's just started work on a feature film he's written and will direct, primarily using the funds he's won from those competitions. He calls the film "a tramping horror, with jokes". This is unlikely to be a true representation, but inaccurately downplaying the humour value of his work is something he likes to do.
There were at least 10 people, maybe as many as 15, left in the audience.
He's famously prolific and probably most famous for his prodigious output of short, Snapchat face filter videos involving a massive range of characters, both real and not. His Paula Bennett is his most well-known but his Simon Bridges is the one that now gets the most reactions.
As almost all new stand-ups do, he has moved through the Classic's multi-year festival stand-up development process, starting with a six-minute set at the Raw comedy quest, followed by 30 minutes the year after that and only then graduating to the full hour. This year's will be his second hour-long show.
It features, among other things, an amazing true story about his out-of-control childhood chicken flock at the family home in Matamata. He described it to me thus:
"I was in charge of them and my parents were like, 'You're only allowed to have 10.' But there was a rooster and ..." Here, a tone of astonishment and possibly shame entered his voice: "It got out to 137."
He later came up with a science fair project to find out if the chickens had friends within the group, by documenting which other chickens they chose to roost next to. It was a very good idea - he's never had trouble coming up with those - but he spent his nights watching The Fresh Prince of Bel Air instead of the roosting patterns of the chickens and in the end he just made up the results.
The process for nominating Billy T contenders involves them performing six minutes of their best material in front of judges. From there, judges select five nominees for the award. Six minutes is a good length of time for someone who likes doing one-liners or shortish "bits" but it's not a good length for someone like Sainsbury, who likes "a good yarn".
At the judging, he had planned an opening joke about teachers, so he asked if there were any teachers in the audience. A whole table put their hands up. That got a laugh, but it also derailed his performance because he had to acknowledge it and deal with it, and after that he only had three-and-a-half minutes left and hadn't yet started his six-minute-long yarn. He raced through it, talking as fast as possible. (He says of it now, "People were laughing - no time to laugh.") There was no time to bother with timing or rhythm. He finished just in time, got his foot caught in the microphone cable, tripped, just managed to save the microphone stand from crashing to the ground, then walked off.
Of his subsequent nomination, he said: "I think I only got in because the comedy of the disaster of it worked in my favour."
I asked if that felt like a metaphor for his life.
"Yeah, great," he said. "The derailment of my life: a metaphor."
He went on: "I live a lot by the TV show Survivor and what Survivor has taught me - and I've kind of taken this on board too much - in Survivor , one final thing at the end can win you the game. So you kind of f***ed up everything and then in the last five minutes one thing changes and everything improves. So that's one way of playing the game. The other way is doing it very methodically, doing everything along the lines. I feel that's a better way to live. It's calm, you're kind of plodding along. How does that connect to the metaphor? Yes, my life is haphazard and I hope things work out in the end - I presume things will work out in the end - but I've got nothing to base this on. I guess I've got a house, got money coming in, all that kind of stuff, but in terms of glorious things happening to me that I could have achieved by hard work? Nah."
It's a claim that's fraught, truth-value-wise, because he's produced such an absurdly large volume of work, but his point, I think, is that the work could have been better, had he been more disciplined.
He said: "The thing about the videos is it's pure joy, me doing it most of the time and it's not too demanding of my time but I want to make films and write books and all that kind of stuff and you can't do that the night before."
He said, "I hate my life. Why am I like this?" He answered: "I think what the psychology is, it's not that I've got too much on - I could be a lot more disciplined. Sometimes the morning is like, 'It's one o'clock in the afternoon! What have I been doing? Watching memes all day.'
Time management, he said, is his big issue.
"I've got big lofty dreams and all that kind of stuff: television shows, films, books and things like that but I've had those for years and I haven't done them. So my only goal now is to try to do four hours of work - four hours of creative generation - a day. And I've failed. I fail daily. I fail daily. But even if you just do 15 minutes … because there used to be weeks of me not doing anything. You need to have a timer. I'd love to get a little egg timer."
"That and exercise - half an hour a day - those are my only goals at the moment, really breaking it down, and hoping that will unlock everything."
He spends a lot of his time procrastinating, often by reading about the work processes of leading authors. "And they all say: 'You've actually got to do it, you've got to spend time doing what you're doing, because nothing's going to get done.' And I remember reading about Murakami, because he writes five hours a day and I was like, 'That's nothing!' But now I'm like, 'Five hours is so hard!'"
He estimates his current daily average at about one-and-three-quarter hours.
He said he wants to create a character that is so embraced by the public it has a life of its own. He cited the example of Dracula.
"It's like being God," he said. "Essentially, I want to be God."
"That's a big goal," I said.
"Yeah," he said.
"Do you think that's going to happen?"
"I'm optimistic anything will happen. Who knows? I feel really dedicated to life. My life is constantly ... I feel like some people would be like, 'It's time to give up' or, 'I'm not getting what I want so I'm going to go get a normal job' - not giving up, but they essentially give up. I feel like that's never going to happen with me. I'll just keep creating even if I have to live in the barn on my sister's property."
"Is the barn nice?"
"It's terrible," he said. "I'd just be sleeping on the floor."
"So you'd make any sacrifice for this life?"
"Yes," he said. "People also say to me, 'That's brave' or something like that, that I'm following my dream, but part of me's like, I'm too lazy to do another job. If I was like, 'Okay, I need to make money so let's do an office job for six months,' I couldn't do it."
He said: "It's so much energy. It is so much energy and such spiritual, psychological and emotional things to be doing something that you don't want to do, getting into the doing it 9 to 5. I mean, I'm in a privileged position where I don't have a family to support and all that kind of stuff but I just couldn't do it."
n 2015, he wrote a crime thriller with his friend Linda Olsson (now 71). Olsson is a serious writer and internationally successful. Her debut novel in 2003 was an international success, published in 17 countries, to critical acclaim.
She now spends six months in New Zealand and six months in her native Sweden. They met because Sainsbury was friends with her daughter-in-law and son and, when he got pneumonia from his damp flat, she invited him to move in to her place for $50 a week, on the condition he looked after her dog.
She introduced him to Scandi-noir books and he liked them and then they decided to write their own. He said they did it because they're friends and because it was an activity to do together. He said their strengths are complementary, by which he meant her beautiful language and his facility for structuring a story. He said it wasn't funny at all.
"There was one chapter in it that ended up being cut out by the editor, going, 'This has no point,' that we would read and be crying with laughter."
I said it seemed way out of character for him to do something not funny.
"Well, this is what you say," he replied. "Look, I think I'm the great tragedian. No, this is what I think: When you don't give a s*** about something is when you can do quite well. There's often this thing about actors who come into auditions and when you don't give a s*** about it or you've got something else so you're not really focused on it, that's when you get the job. There's something good about the energy of doing something you don't really care about.
"So, comedy: I like comedy and stuff like that, but it's not my true passion. So I think maybe it comes naturally to me or something because I don't give too much focus to it. I'm much more interested in, like, I went to see [thriller] Us last night. I'm much more interested in thrillers and drama."
He said those have always been his preferred genres. "What I like about thrillers is that it's the basest - tapping into the basest - human emotions which, for some reason, I quite like doing. You know, when you've got life problems, paying bills and stuff like that, then you go watch a thriller where it's basically you survive or don't survive. There's something ... calming about that."
He says he doesn't want to give up making comedy; it's just that he doesn't care about it as much as you'd expect.
"Above all, I just want to do truthful portrayals and, like, my favourite comments on my videos are where people say, 'That's spot-on.' The comedy's kind of secondary to it. If people say, 'That's so hilarious' or 'I'm dead' - like honestly, the imagery for people thinking things are funny is so violent - but that doesn't make me nearly as excited as people saying, 'That's so true' or, 'That's so spot-on.' My favourite films or little performances and things is when you watch someone do something and you're like, 'Oh my God, that's really true.' And comedy and drama both have that."
Simon Bridges discusses Slushies... And Auckland! My solo stand up show is on next month!! https://www.iticket.co.nz/events/2019/may/nzicf-tom-sainsbury-tom-fooleryPosted by Tom Sainsbury - Comedian and Snapchat Dude on Sunday, 28 April 2019
Every good stand-up comedian knows the importance of testing their material, seeing what the audience likes, refining it, testing it again. The April night I saw Sainsbury do his 15 minutes in the sordid near-emptiness of The Classic, he wasn't there toiling away in the salt mines of comedy for the glory; he was there to find out if his material was working. He has a string of sold out comedy festival gigs coming up and he wants to make sure they're good.
He opened with a five-minute story about driving the brother of one of his friends to the Coromandel, followed that with a story about a former flatmate of his called Cloud, then told a story about some other flatmates of his with eating disorders. At the end there was a sort of bonus section where he did some very good impressions of cats.
The audience, such as it was, seemed to enjoy the material more as it went on. After the machine-gun horrors of the preceding act, it probably took them a while to adjust their sensibilities and attention spans to Sainsbury's elongated yarns.
It was hard to tell if what he was saying was true, but it felt like the sort of thing that might have been. Anyway, there were still plenty of opportunities - weeks, days, hours - in which for him to develop and refine and make it great.
Tom Sainsbury performs at the NZ International Comedy Festival from May 21-25.