The home of the Clas­sic Com­edy Club has had a hard life and it’s no eas­ier now for those who brave its stage. Matt Nip­pert re­ports.

The home of the Clas­sic Com­edy Club has had a hard life and it’s no eas­ier now for those who brave its stage. Matt Nip­pert re­ports.

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS - PIC­TURES: MIKE SCOTT

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 Clas­sic 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-thescenes 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 li­cence 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, a 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. Bren­dan 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 get 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. Prior 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 with low ceil­ings and a row of stu­dent-flat couches. A framed lim­ited-edition soft­fo­cus 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 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.”

Up next, 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 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 longterm 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 per­form­ing 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 fi­nan­cially se­cure and is look­ing to build busi­ness though its shoul­der sea­sons — the club is re­liant on a surge in ac­tiv­ity dur­ing the mid-year In­ter­na­tional Com­edy Fes­ti­val — with a lo­calper­former-fo­cused Ha! fes­ti­val 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 his foray into chil­dren’s’ tele­vi­sion, where he’s put his tal­ent for voices into The Moe Show. His char­ac­ter is be­ing 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.”

Michele A’Court’s first visit to the Clas­sic was for an ex­or­cism.

From left: Some of the club’s alumni; Michele A’Court and Jamie Bowen go over the night’s run sheet; owner and founder Scott Blanks; the venue’s pre­vi­ous life; Te­vita Manukia awaits his turn on stage.

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