By GREG DIXON
Ric Salizzo stares silently, smirking ever so slightly. A bloke, a big-fat-goatee guy in fact, is telling a joke from the balcony above the set of Sports Cafe.
"So this duck walks into a bar, right," says big-fat-goatee guy. "He walks up to the bartender and says. 'Do you have any bread?' The bartender says, 'No I don't have any bread', and the duck leaves ..."
As a warm up, Salizzo has asked — like he always does, he says — for a warm-up gag from the 80 or so squeezed in the arena of Auckland bar Float for the live broadcast of Salizzo's mad, bad eight-year-old creation.
Big-fat-goatee guy is apparently the only one in the audience with enough booze in his belly to have a crack. If only he had said when.
"So the duck goes back into the bar and says to the bartender, 'Do you have any bread? ..." (the joke seems to repeating itself ad nauseam now ... ) "and the bartender says, 'No, and if you come back in here asking for bread again I'll nail your bill to the bar' ..."
The audience is squirming, some are looking at their watches, Salizzo stares, smirks ... "so the duck goes back into the bar and says to the bartender, 'Do you have any nails?' and the bartender says, 'No', and the duck says 'Well do you have bread?'
Salizzo smirks some more. The audience groans. As an opening act, big-fat-goatee guy honks like a big, fat goose.
"That's the most aggressive duck joke telling I've ever heard," Salizzo proffers as the clock ticks towards 9.20pm.
In 10 minutes, he — along with Marc Ellis, Lana Coc-Kroft, Eric Rush, Graeme Hill, Eva the Bulgarian, That Guy and band, and this night's sports celebrity guests — will be broadcasting live.
And while Salizzo projects a smirking calm, the audience is terribly excited.
They should be. Sports Cafe is a master class in seat-of-the-pants television. It makes a virtue — a hilarious joke in fact — of its hit-and-miss, damn-good-taste-and-the-defamation-lawyers approach to the medium.
And, when you tune in of a Wednesday evening, you know that this Wild Bunch, like us, have stuff-all idea of what is about to happen.
Which is why, with 10 minutes to go before on-air time this night, there is still no sign of Ellis. This is one of the show's running gags of course, Ellis the Tardy, and Salizzo asks the audience to keep an eye out for him. Ho, ho, ho etc.
Mind you a few weeks ago, Ellis wasn't there for the first part of the show at all. So there is a chance he actually is a slacker.
But in the tag team ensemble that is Sports Cafe, Ellis, when he is there and on song, is the one worth watching all of the time.
A few weeks ago he started the show with full Mexican bandito whiskers which, as the show progressed, slowly disappeared in a Hitler moustache and then nothing at all. Brilliant.
Another night Ellis managed, when up against Kiwi darts rep Stumpy, to get a bullseye with his first throw. Brilliant, the sequel.
The clock keeps ticking towards tonight's kick-off. As Rush tells another joke of questionable merit to keep the audience occupied, the camera operators and assorted telly crew fuss with gear.
The makeup woman wanders on to the stage too and starts dusting slap-head Salizzo's hairless summit with powder. The crowd whoops at the sight, clearly such carry-on is unmanly.
The house band — Leigh "That Guy" Hart, Greg Hart and Matt Johnson — arrive dressed like pantomime undertakers. It appears that they are to be the Three Tenors this evening.
Eva the Bulgarian, in jeans and black low-cut top, saunters into the arena and on to the stage and there is a sharp intake of breath from the boys from the Canterbury under-21 hockey team sitting beside me.
Young Eva smiles as the male part of the audience (about half) cheers the fact that she is alive, well and standing within 5m of them. She plonks herself on one of the set's couches to wait, as Salizzo, Coc-Kroft and Hill make their way to their usual positions.
Perhaps it's just that TV distorts or hides, but it's only when seated opposite Sports Cafe's set that you discern what a truly awful creation it is.
The backdrop, a sort country pub facade, looks like a set stolen from an amateur theatrical society's production of Oklahoma!, while the two red couches — which seem to be a football field apart on the telly but are only 2-3m from each other on stage — might have been found discarded on the street.
"One minute," calls the show's floor manager, then barks for everyone to shut up and we're on.
It turns out being a live audience on a live show — even on one as wonderfully shambling as Sports Cafe — is like watching the big game at the park.
There is plenty of atmosphere but you have to wait until the break to get an overpriced drink. You can see everything but nothing in detail.
And unlike in your living room at home, you can sometimes barely hear what is happening on the pitch. This night's interviews with Blues rugby player Deacon Manu and Tiger Woods' caddie Steve Williams seemed at times to be a game of sporting whispers.
All of which perhaps explains why the typical Sports Cafe audience always sounds, from home, a little muted: they can't hear what is going on.
The hour on air disappears quickly and more quietly than usual. Ellis and his duck decoy have a restrained evening and Eva says almost nothing, as usual. Salizzo just smirks and smirks.
Perhaps he was still thinking about that awful duck joke.