I tell James that I am going to a comedy room once a week every week.
What’s wrong with this? he asks, his hands doing a sweeping gesture of the couch and the TV. Isn’t this enough for you ?
I had done many creative things in the past: calligraphy, poetry, lead lighting, painting, all consuming at the time, then all relegated to the too hard, or this doesn’t really challenge me basket. Comedy was just another one of these fads, I could see him thinking and maybe he was right.
My first gig is on Brunswick Street, upstairs at the back of a pool room. The audience are nearly all comics, all waiting their turn, there is a sense of anxiety in the room and not much laughter. Most of the comics look just as nervous as me. They are going through their lines in their heads , barely able to concentrate on what anybody else is doing, let alone laugh at what is being said.
My set is about working in the not for profit sector and something about James and the kids. The adrenaline is out of control, I am agitated and almost shaking with it. I don’t really care how the audience respond, because I am mesmerized at my own physiological response: my voice is almost trapped in my throat. I feel so raw and exposed and yet powerful and invincible. It’s only a five minute set, so the sensation is fleeting, but once I’m off stage I desperately want affirmation from someone, at the same time as wanting to be alone to go over the whole thing in my head but also wanting to get up on stage immediately to give it another go.
On the appointed night I go to see or do comedy, I get an adrenaline rush doing the dishes. Soon I think, as the suds get murky from dinner plates, I will drive through the city to a dark room to listen or do comedy. It distances me from the domestic drudgery, I feel like I have been lifted to a higher plane. As I close the door each week and head to the car, Jessica cries because I have left the house, she is 18 months old. It’s non negotiable though, I have to do this.
I often go out with my mate Anna to comedy rooms, she has a very dry sense of humour. Usually after the first comics’ set we sit Waldorf and Statler like, arms folded, shaking our heads, as the parade of young men get on stage. Their schtick is: they are single, they masturbate a lot and eat MacDonald’s. We shake our heads, knowing that the next comic will be almost identical, but we return each week, always optimistic that someone funny will get on stage and make us laugh, but it rarely happens.
I assume that there is a comedy trajectory, like doing a diploma, then a degree, then masters, then a PHD. According to comedy folk law you need to do 100 gigs in comedy rooms before you are anyone, after that you get to headline or MC. Alternatively you can get lucky, win Raw or know someone in the industry.
The only way I know how to do comedy, is to do the rooms. I haunt them, stand at the bar watching the parade of people giving it a go, trying to be funny. I get up each time thinking that tonight I will crack the comedy nut. That I will make sense of it all, that it will become clear, that I will take this one step, a five minute gig in a room and then another and another and there will be people on the sidelines, willing me on, assisting in the journey, guiding me to the next step all the way to comedy nirvana. My own comedy nirvana is winning an award and being paid to go to Edinburgh Fringe. What tends to happen week after week though is I turn up at a room, do my set, listen to others and then go home. After a while I realize that here is no trajectory, just make shift stages, five minute sets and not much laughter.
When I tell people that I am doing stand up comedy, their reactions give me almost the same buzz as doing comedy. I see a renewed sense of respect, of awe, most ask: ‘but what if it goes wrong, what if people don’t laugh?
Then I work out why people aren’t laughing and I get up and do it again’ I reply.
Comedy makes me feel like I have just birthed. I am comedian, I am funny, I am legend. My marriage is just a backdrop, the mortgage, the habit and the children its’ glue. I say to anyone who will listen.
On the way to gigs, I recite my piece over and over. I can hear my voice on stage is nasally, as if I am trying to be Judith Lucy. I think that if I can just be a little bit like Judith Lucy then that will make me funnier. I am desperate for the response, for the laughter. When I rehearse I imagine where the laughter should go, if it doesn’t come on stage where I expect it to, I falter, loose my track and stall. It’s strangely terrifying to feel so exposed and yet have to remain absolutely in control in order for the comedy to work.
Our dog Holly is all waggy tail and up for another walk every night. I have become the crazy lady in the neighbourhood : talking to herself, sometimes smiling, sometimes laughing out loud, rehearsing comedy gold as I walk the dog.
I imagine deviating from the tightly written script and saying something ad lib, this terrifies me though, almost more than getting up on stage.
On stage, the words, the commas, the exclamation marks are my safety net.
Those early gigs, the nasal voice, the if I can only aspire to be more like Judith Lucy mindset, meant that my delivery was more like a recital than a relaxed - I’ve just thought of this, isn’t it hilarious, set up joke punch line effort.
After 18 months of haunting the comedy rooms I’ve amassed a few jokes that work : the birthing story, tales from my work in the not for profit trenches, jokes about the kids . I decide to register for Melbourne International Comedy Festival with a show called: It’s Not About the Prawns.
Myth busters 101: people think that that you get chosen to do comedy festival, that there is some kind of audition process and that once you get chosen the festival does everything for you.
Bah - bow!
The reality is that anyone can go online, register, jump through the endless administrative hoops, upload their photograph, make up a show title, create a show blurb, book a venue, do a press release and pay the money and do the funnies.
I agonise over every word for the show blurb.
Justine Sless Presents It’s Not About the Prawns:
Ready for some capacity building? Accountability weary and sleep deprived community worker Justine Sless slips out of a meeting to reveal all about social engagement and the politics of biscuits. So never mind the strategy documents, pass those bloody Tim Tams before we all go mad.
I attend an information session: ‘so you want to do a show at Melbourne Comedy Festival?’
There is plenty of advice on marketing, on capturing an audience through Arts Access, the benefits of doing an Auslan Signed show, what your poster should look like, how to get on radio and in the news paper.
I decide to perform the show at a venue run by local government in an arts precinct in my neighborhood . It is clean and a lot more upmarket than a comedy room.
I have to take out public liability insurance, I’m really unclear why I need it, maybe it’s incase some one laughs so hard they sue me for replacement knickers.
The registration process for MICF goes on: upload reviews, upload you tube clips, pay registration fee of $400, write a press release.
I try and cover all bases, to make the show as accessible as possible: Auslan signed, cry baby day time show, wheelchair access, complimentary tickets to Arts Access clients.
I have had a few gigs in comedy rooms, and have become oddly shameless about telling people that I do comedy. I am astounded at my level of hutzpah, I pitch and self promote continually.
I pitch to a new place every week, to large NGOs and welfare agencies.
Please let me add levity to your strategic planning day, let me come to your staff planning days and be funny.
I ring up VicHealth : Let me talk to your CEO and offer my service,s I am funny and comedy is the best health promotion tool there is, book me please I’m hilarious.
The returns on my calls and pitches are few and far between, but I keep going.
I have become unbearable, like I have joined a cult, found love for the first time, been to a foreign country and come back with 10,000 photos that I want everyone to see. But I can’t stop, if a mate asks :
How’s the comedy going?
I tell them about the intellectual challenge, how I try to find the funny in everything, that finding comedy is the best thing that has ever happened to me and on and on I drone.
I don’t even know if I’m good or not, I just want more more stage time, I’m desperate, this is a full blown addiction.
Through a work connection, I get invited to do a set at a conference. There are cool mints in bowls and delegates everywhere. I am delirious; I am a comedian at a conference.
I rip the piss out of the not for profit sector,I have done this material in comedy rooms for a while now, but there aren't stunned mullet faces at the conference, there are 100’s of community workers lined up in front of me all sporting non threatening footwear. I do the routine where I am a prophet who can read people’s future via a crushed Tim Tam between meetings. There is much laughter. I have landed, I am home and the gig can only be described as in the pocket.
It’s all a million miles away from comedy rooms, badly lit with young chaps talking masturbation and comparing dick sizes.
People come up to me afterwards: Could you do exactly that for our AGM? I have died and gone to comedy heaven. I stand awkwardly receiving compliments and nod yes I can ‘do’ your AGM. How much do I charge is the response. I’ll ring you I say, I’ll ring you and we can talk details.
I try a few times to get a gig in The Local, a long standing room in St Kilda, I feel like I will have made it if I can get a gig there. I go there week after week. I ask the woman who runs the room for a spot, she fobs me off again and again. Then one week she says as she pats my arm:
I don’t think that you are ready for a gig in my room yet.
Mortified I can barely look at her.
I have birthed 2 children for gods sake, how can I not be ready for a five minute spot in your room? I think to myself as I slink out.
It’s not About the Prawns evolves every day, after work and deep into the night. I write long tracts about the writing process in the show, how it is like birthing. I link the birthing bit to the birth of my second child. Explain that my home is run like a strict agenda and that everything is minuted during dinner conversations.
I had been doing comedy for nearly two years but I had no comedy mates. It was not like community work where you network, you share, there’s collegial support.
Parlty it was because I only did a room a week , many comics did a room a night, and drank together after wards. I felt like an awkward child trying to get attention at rooms. There was a hi how you going, kind of thing, and occasionally, nice set murmured in passing. But on the whole things never progressed to friendship status. I was often the oldest there and the ratio was usually 6 boys/men to one woman and really I couldn’t stay after gigs because I had to get home, get to bed and usually be woken up by Jessica at 6am.
There was my friend Jenny though, who knew loads about performance techniques and gave me endless good advice. I would stand in her kitchen and go through the show and Jenny would say things like:
You need to know this script backwards, so that it rolls off your tongue.
You need to tell a joke, commit to it and believe that it will work.
If you look or sound like you don’t believe the material the pitch of your voice goes down, then it’s going to be so much harder to deliver the next joke, if you finished the last joke badly.
Own the stage: you need to look like you are in control, if the audience get a whiff that you aren’t in control, then you will loose them.
When you sell tickets for a show online, you can track sales, who has bought them, what date they are coming and so on. Everyday I would check sales. I would woop if one had been sold, I would woop even harder if one had been sold to someone I didn’t know.
The way that publicity works for MICF is that you submit a press release during the registration process that goes to the MICF publicist team, they then distribute a publicity guide to print, radio and television stations, the media folk then read through it all and decide who and when they are going to give publicity to, reviews, radio interviews.
I get a slot on Triple R, on Joy Radio and 3CR, the local paper do a photo shoot of me holding a pile of cookies looking pensive for an article: Local Comedian reads biscuits.
I believe finally that I have got some traction, that after this show, after the reviews, after I receive an award ( the speech is already written) that I will climb the comedy ladder and shout : move over Judith Lucy, Slessy has arrived.
James has shown no interest in the process of registering for comedy festival and has declined to comment on the picture and 60 word blurb that is in the MICF guide.
When the guide comes out, I stare at my image and read my blurb and the other 400+ shows and wonder what the odds are of someone buying a ticket having seen my image and read those words.
I feel like I have over indulged financially on the family budget. Maybe, it would be easier to justify a wardrobe full of Italian leather shoes, rather than a putting on a show during MICF.
Registration, venue hire public liability insurance, hire of microphone, payment of a light and sound technical guy, posters costs me $2,800.
The Age is saturated with all things comedy in the run up to the festival. There is an article about ‘how much money it takes to put on a MICF show.' One guy in the article says his show will cost him over $20,000. James reads the article and murmurs his dissent, ‘better not be costing you this much, bloody hell’- His only acknowledgment that I’m even doing a show.
I’m doing 7 shows across 5 days. It’s exhilarating: this is the most comedy I have ever done in one hit. At the rate I’m going : five minutes a week, the show equates to around ten years worth of 5 minutes gigs over 7 days.
Doing a MICF show allows me to be in control, I don’t have to suck up to comics who run rooms to get a five minute spot, then spend weeks waiting for a response only to be told I’m not ready yet. Doing a MICF show I can bang on about what I want to at the pace I want to.
Many comics during the festival are doing 20 plus shows, but I don’t think that my bank balance or my family could handle any more than one week of it.
The venue seats 80, that’s a total of 560 tickets to sell out every night. I need to sell 215 concession tickets over 7 shows to break even. The ticketing company take a big cut from ticket sales.
I heavily comp the show and give tickets to :Deaf Victoria, local and federal politicians, not for profit organisations, friends, family, strangers in the street, neighbors any one who I think just might come along and sit in a seat.
Seven shows later, including 1 sold out show with 90 in the audience, extra chairs dragged in at the last moment, the audience made up of nearly every teacher at my daughters primary school, I feel euphoric, I am overwhelmed by the support of family and friends, I break even.
I have managed to veer off script by the end of the week, I ad lib and it’s often funnier than the script.
On the last night as I say the last line: It’s not about the prawns, this sensation of release come over me and I forgive James: for his apathy about the birth of our second child. He dealt with it in his way, I don’t understand why he dealt with it like that, but as the last line is uttered I know I can not hold onto the grudge.
I find out many years later that James was in fact terrified about the birth of our second child. He was terrified it would be like the first birth, a traumatic, 36 hours of blood filled exhaustion slipping into a near death experience. He had, I think, the male version of pre and post natal depression. He but didn’t articulate his fear about the impending birth of Jessica, because his fear was too great.
James and the kids had come to see a show. James expression is like he is at the dentist: how long will this take, will it be painful and how much will this cost me? The kids laugh and afterwards ask if they can have their Tim Tam read too.
At times during the season, I ask myself why am I doing this? This is ridiculous, one night hardly anyone laughs, there are mates at every show, most are supportive, but some just look at me with open pity.
I have put on a one woman show, done the publicity, sold the tickets, taken the applause, stood back stage almost shitting myself that I would have to go out there and make people laugh, but I had crossed a divide, I could deliver more than just a 5 minute set and I felt like a bloody legend.
The euphoria though, was tempered by the fact that no one from the MICF office came to see the show and that despite ticking every conceivable box ,no one from the MICF office said we must see this show, this woman is inclusive, community minded and above all funny.I don’t get a review either.
I wait for the call from the MICF office saying that in fact an ‘undercover person’ from the MICF office came to see your show and can you get to awards night to receive the best newcomer trophy.
A post show world is not a good place to be, the adrenaline has run out, the dishes are still there, the day job can’t be left, I am just a mum again, who stood up on a stage, banged on for an hour or so and got some people to pay for some tickets.
I slink back to the comedy rooms: to the badly lit spaces, the makeshift stages. There is no pay, there is little or no affirmation from other comics, but I can not stop. I am addicted, compelled,driven. I want to be drenched in comedy, to be sated by it, to understand it and to understand myself.