We all love a good belly laugh. But what’s the difference between creating comedy for the stage, screen, or as a stand up routine? And what’s so different about Australian comedy?
To find out, local comedy extraordinaires Nick Coyle (Playwright, The Feather in the Web), Phil Spencer (Griffin’s Artistic Associate, and Co-Writer/Performer of the upcoming production of The Smallest Hour) and Sheridan Harbridge (Australian Cabaret Star/Actor/Past Griffin Studio Artist) sat down to have a chat, and more than a few chuckles.
Produced with The Prop.
Nick: My name’s Nick Coyle, I’m the writer of Griffin’s new production, The Feather in the Web.
Phil: My name’s Phil Spencer, I’m Artistic Associate at Griffin Theatre, and the writer of The Smallest Hour, by me and Susie Youssef.
Sheridan: My name is Sheridan Harbridge, star of stage and stage, I’m a comedy writer as well. I’m performing in Calamity Jane at Belvoir right now.
Phil: What’s good about writing comedy, and performing it regularly, is that unlike when you write a play, that someone may put on in a year or two’s time, you are continually having a relationship with your audience and your writing, so for me, it’s a really useful practice to try and gig in storytelling or stand up contexts, as regularly as I can fit in around having a young family because it keeps you sharp and reminds you what it is about the way you think about the world or what you want to say about it or how you want to phrase things, or why the word ‘porcupine’ is inherently funny. There’s a kind of… you know, you’re running a marathon with that and you’re regularly touching base with an audience to see if what’s going on in your brain is indeed chuckle-worthy or not. And so I think the value of that and how that comes to bear on my other theatre writing is I trust my comedy instincts a bit, and I know that when I think something is funny and other people don’t, that it’s probably better not to put that one in the play.
Nick: I have a rule that you can have one joke in the play that’s just for you.
Phil: Yes, yeah. And that you willfully enjoy other people not enjoying or getting, and the kind of dead air that kind of fills it afterwards is the sound of your smugness.
Nick: It’s almost annoying when they do laugh.
Sheridan: I have relentlessly pilfered from stand up techniques to develop my own solo work, which is more comedy cabaret or musical comedy. And that kind of came from when I went to Edinburgh Fringe, and just failed night after night—not every night—it would sort of be, maybe two nights a week the show would just go off, and I would go “Ok, I’m back, I’ve got my rhythm, this is how it’s gonna go”, and then the next night, just completely die, because the wrong, you know, people who were not interested in cabaret whatsoever were coming along to see it, and you know, they would answer their phone, in the middle of the audience…
Phil: “Yeah, nah it’s rubbish!”
Sheridan: I know!
Phil: “I think we’ll stay to the end ‘cos we bought tickets, but…”
Sheridan: And one time, there was actually a line in the show where I’d say “This isn’t going very well, is it?”, because the whole concept of the show was that it was falling apart, and someone one night went: “NO”. Oh god! And the concept of the show was my band didn’t turn up, and it was me dealing with all, that, but I did realise after a while that because it was Edinburgh Fringe, and because some shows are so terrible, they genuinely thought that my band wasn’t turning up and it was a disaster, so I had to actually re-write it so I was really performing, and in Australia people loved it because I was really naturalistic, naturalistically going through the disaster… over there they were like “Oh, god… I’ve walked into this show and it’s not happening”… anyway, I—
Phil: But that’s about trust, right—
Phil: That is the thing that I always take away from genre stand up is that you’ve got to get your audience’s trust within the first five or ten minutes, no matter what—
Sheridan: And they weren’t trusting me.
Phil: Once you’ve got their trust, you can let the whole thing fall apart.
Sheridan: My acting was so good, that they didn’t trust—
Phil: You were just so good at acting!
Sheridan: So I had to kind of turn it on and do more “Music theatre, things are going wrong”, and then they went “Oh, this is the joke.”
Nick: “She’s not crazy, she’s acting!”
Sheridan: But then I started seeing stand up there, which I had never seen live before, and started to see how the stand up comedians, all of them did this: they didn’t start their material until about ten minutes in and they literally were like, melting the audience’s day away from them, by just making little jokes about what you were wearing, being a bit derogatory but being derogatory to themselves as well, gaining that trust as you say, and I took that and completely re-wrote the first ten minutes of my show, to take requests on the ukulele which I could not play, and that just putting me on the back foot in front of them, which they loved, and then the show just went bang bang bang bang, and I ended up getting booked to tour to Poland and Berlin and all these… which was just a whole other experience, they really valued comedy over there. That’s a whole other big story but… you know, in Australia, you do comedy, and for me, people would go “Oh, you wrote that funny show, you’re so good at that”, but it’s not anything more important to them other than “You gave me a good time”. In Poland, I came off stage and it was a room of like five hundred people and they were full screaming out in Polish, I didn’t understand anything that was going on but I went “Oh, they liked it”, and I was a little bit sort of self-deprecating afterwards and the festival director grabbed me by the shoulders and she was like “What you do is important. You make people happy!”, and I’m like “Ok, ok, I do, it’s really important!”, which was great, yeah.
It’s a hard thing to pin down but I think that drama is seen as a harder pursuit, even though anyone who actually is in the biz knows that they are equally difficult to pursue, and of equal importance. I don’t think in Sydney, that we program joy and love in the main stage theatres at all, so when it happens, people’s minds are blown. But I don’t think that ADs—Artistic Directors—sit around and go “We need some joy, we need some love” they’re “No we want grit, we want a mirror, we want hard things”. But I think joy and love is really important to people.
Nick: Well, you can tell. At the end of your show, when everyone’s just frothin’.
Nick: The audience is such a big part of that, which is similar to stand up, because it’s the relationship between the comic and the audience, and your show does that.
Sheridan: Yeah. It’s pretty special. We had the same with The Dog/The Cat, which is like a rom-com on stage. You never see rom-com on stage, it’s relegated to music theatre.
Phil: Well, it’s funny you should say that, because Susie Youssef and I are currently writing a rom-com that’ll be on at the end of the year.
Nick: Oh, what are the dates?
Phil: Oh, just uh… some point at the end of the year. I agree though, that the idea that certain genres are in a pecking order. But yeah, it is kind of funny as someone who also works as part of curating and programming. It’s no mystery, though—comedy sells lots of tickets, because people… you know, not everyone is like us: theatre nerds who studied theatre and are kind of still holding onto this notion that we should all be doing a Brechtian thing where going to the theatre is the most political and mobilising experience for the proletariat. It’s like, no no, people go to see all sorts of stuff, and often people want to get a babysitter and spend seventy bucks and go and see something that is life-affirmingly joyous and funny, and… but I think in terms of what the difference between stand up is and theatre is, is what an audience’s expectations are. In a theatre, they’re going to do more than just have a giggle. Whereas you can go and see a stand up show and be like “Great. Really funny one-liners, or a great little story about a poo in the toilet, that was excellent, I’ve had my twenty five bucks worth, that was a good show…”
Sheridan: See, I’m harder on stand up I reckon. My expectations of stand up are so hard.
Sheridan: Which makes me go like…
Phil: That’s why I don’t invite you to my shows anymore!
Sheridan: Like when I watch it, if the joke is, it’s a one to ten and it’s only, they’re only hitting sixes and sevens, I am relentlessly unforgiving. Ten, ten, ten ten ten! As opposed to in theatre, because other things are going on, I’ll take their bog-standard average joke and go “Oh, that was nice.” Yeah I’m really mean about stand up.
Sheridan: That’s why I won’t do it myself!
Nick: I am just constantly surprised by the audiences of stand up, who love stand up, because it’s just a mic and a person. They’ve prepared those jokes at home, guys.
Nick: They’ve thought it through. They’ve tested them. They’re pretending that they’re telling it for the first time, and you’re all buyin’ it! I’m like, “Gimme something for my eyes!” Do another character. Put a wig on. Do something. That’s why I’m like, shocked, that people are like “Theatre’s boring”, but there’s always something happening on stage—
Phil: I think though, stand up is a gateway drug for getting to the theatre though.
Nick: Stand up is just like: “So what’s the deal with my kids?”
Phil: Bad stand up is, but I think stand up is now everywhere, right? In the last fifteen years, right-
Nick: Yeah, it’s exploded.
Phil: Stand up doesn’t even really mean anything anymore, does it, because the amount of people who access comedy, and the amount of artists who are kind of working between genres… what’s fun about certain, being able to work in comedy, is that you can blur the lines of what audiences are coming and that’s really excellent, about enticing a stand up audience to the theatre to see a comedy show, and ask them to maybe play a bit more make believe than they might do when they go and see a more regular kind of observational situation.
Nick: Yeah. Or you can be programmed into the Brisbane Comedy Festival.
Phil: Go on.
Nick: And it’s your first solo show and you’re playing a medieval teenage girl. And the show can be completely sold out, with, turns out very judgmental Queenslanders. And then when you curtsy at the end, they don’t clap.
Nick: That can happen.
Nick: I dunno where. I dunno when.
Nick: Let’s just say, two thousand and… I dunno, thirteen? To me.
Phil: That’s just one instance.
Nick: That’s just one instance. Lessons were learnt.
Sheridan: Yes. But that is… yeah, I am so nervous about ever booking something I do into a comedy festival, for that reason. Stand up comedy audiences, I don’t write for. I’m not for their sense of humour. But yet my shows are comedy. I would prefer someone to be coming for a bigger experience and then they get comedy on the way and it delights them, as opposed to comedy where—
Nick: “Gimme the jokes!”
Sheridan: Yeah. I find that—it’s hard. I mean, to me, Edinburgh audiences were like that. “Where are the jokes?”
Phil: “It’s been thirty-five seconds, and you’ve not even tried to make me laugh.”
Nick: But if you put your show in the theatre part of the program-
Sheridan: Yeah, it’d be—
Nick: No one comes.
Sheridan: Yeah. True.
Phil: ‘Cos theatre is boring!
Phil: Yeah, it’s pretty boring. How are you making theatre not boring with The Feather in the Web, Nick?
Nick: Well, it remains to be seen. But, um…
Phil: But that isn’t a play that any other playwright could have written, right, in terms of how you…
Nick: It’s not a proper, well-structured play, and it’s not trying to do things I think often plays are trying to do, which is really, delve into an idea, and really investigate something, and really show off the prowess of the playwright. That’s not what I want to do. I want to – my dream is to, what you were saying Sheridan, creating something bigger than the sum of its parts. It’s not just comedy, it’s not just catharsis, it’s unexpected and it’s surprising and it’s contingent on the audience of the day, and it’s also entertainment. I think that’s something that’s changed in my work, growing up. Before I used to be like: “Sit down, and experience some unadulterated Nick Coyle.” And now it’s like—
Sheridan: I want that.
Nick: Now it’s—thank you! Now it’s like, “Listen, I know you didn’t have to come, I know theatre is a tiny audience, I know you work really hard. I’m going to try really hard to give you a great night. And I’m not going to succeed all the time but that’s what I want to do.” That’s why I go to the theatre. Not to laugh or to cry but just to feel anything. To feel connected to something magic. And the dates of my show are the fifth of October to the seventeenth of November.
I’ve put on a billion plays, but this is actually the first time another director has done it. So Ben Winspear’s directing the show, and I haven’t worked with him in any capacity before and he’s been amazing, and it’s been amazing, and now I can’t imagine ever directing my own work again.
Sheridan: That’s interesting. Why is that, is it because they just see something beyond what you’ve put down?
Nick: Yeah, they see something more, and also they’re much more reverent of the work than I am.
Phil: I agree yeah, when you’re in it, and have written it, and it’s maybe you and one other person, you’re so much quicker to not trust your material because you don’t back yourself, whereas when you’re—
Sheridan: They try and solve it.
Phil: Yeah, yeah.
Nick: Before, when I was directing my own stuff, I’d say: “Look, in this scene, this is the, it’s all leading up to this moment, this is the kernel of the scene and this is what you should focus on, everything else is kind of getting you there”. But this process, Ben’s been like “What does… what car are they in? What are their jobs? Why are they saying this stupid line?”, and in my head I’m just saying, “It’s just filler!”. But he’s investigating and finding stuff that I could never have found and changing it, making it such a… like a more three-sixty immersive world for the actors to inhabit, which, it’s been amazing to watch.
Phil: Yeah, and then you have to sit there with a sort of poker face and nod as they say “I didn’t realise there was that much subtext in that bit”, and you go “Yes, that was always there, you just needed to—”
Nick: “Yes, I am going to claim that credit”. But I have, I often have a section in the show where I don’t know what will happen.
Sheridan: Oh, that makes me feel sick.
Nick: Well, it’s the same as audience interaction, you don’t know what they’re going to do.
Sheridan: It is, yes.
Nick: So, there was one show where I would ask an audience member their name, and then I would have to write a song on the spot, sing a song about that on the spot. And sometimes people were like “What, is that a friend of yours, is that a plant?”, and sometimes it was just like “I can’t rhyme anything with your name, I’m sorry”, and everyone was like “What a bold, unfunny part of the show”. But, especially if you’re doing the show a million times, I think it’s important to have a bit where you’re shit-scared.
Phil: See, it’s a no from me, because I have not come from a stand up, or improv world. Improv’s not a thing. Obviously like, I’m not from around here. I’ve been in Australia for ten years, but like, improv was just not a part of anything at all in the UK where I grew up, other than, I dunno, the closest was like the student revues or whatever, but even those were scripted sketches, I just never… so it was kind of weird to move here, and there’s obviously quite a thriving improv scene in Sydney, and whether you’re fully part of it, or whether that’s kind of ingratiated into the wider comedy of the scene. For me, it was just like “Nah”, and I’m working with Susie, who’s like the queen of improv, but I’m like “This is a play, Susie, we’ve written all the jokes, it’s like…”
Nick: “Please respect my script!”
Phil: And also, for me, even though something’s going really well, I rarely ad lib, because I’m much funnier if I’ve thought about it in advance. Days, weeks in advance! Rather than like… mostly maybe because I just end up saying stupid things, but… so I have an immense amount of admiration for that improv skill. And I suppose in a way, when you go to the theatre, often the bit that is the funniest, right, is—
Sheridan: When there’s a mistake.
Phil: When someone’s jacket falls off, or the light goes out, and you get that genuine connection in that moment—
Nick: That’s when the audience is like “Oh, I’m not watching a movie”.
Nick: “I’m in this.” I did a show, my meditation show, I asked audience to write problems in their life, and put them in a bucket, and then, halfway through—
Phil: You’re asking for trouble!
Nick: And I solve their problems while they’re meditating, and it’s always hilarious, but sometimes it’s definitely not.
Sheridan: What do you do?
Phil: Is there any improv, or that spontaneous thing that’s going to be a hangover in The Feather in the Web? Where they’re going to have some free reign?
Nick: There’s a few, at least one bit where they break the fourth wall.
Phil: Oh, cool!
Nick: I remember when I first started doing solo shows I couldn’t look at the audience. I would look above them. Or just blur my eyes and shake my head to not see their faces.
Phil: It’s funny, I’m kind of the other way.
Nick: Now I’m like, “I’m going to look directly into your eyes madam, and I’m going to see your soul.”
Phil: I think I’ve come the other way round. I grew up with this unabashed self-confidence that I would even get on stage and start talking, and I would do a lot more kind of “House lights are on, how is everybody” sort of, not improv but sort of “Guys, this is a show”. And you know how we were talking about preamble, I was all about the Kitson preamble of like, forty minutes, “Let me finish my cup of tea” and like, start. But now I’m like, I’ve kind of erased all of that and I’m like “You’ve come to hear what I’ve done, rather than hear me potter about and postulate”. But yeah, so I’m a bit more like “Cool, it’s great that you dropped that bottle, but we will just keep going”. But it took a while to get there, I think.
Nick: I write the start of my solo shows… I always write a reason for the character to be nervous.
Sheridan: Yes. Yeah! Being vulnerable, it’s just such a way in.
Sheridan: Same, now that I think of it. They’re always a bit, they’re on the back foot. There’s some damage that they’re mopping up, and the audience has seen it, so you’re in it together.
Phil: Yep. You need them to be on all of it, yeah.
Nick: The climax of my second solo show, which was called Double Tribute, was the character performs a trailer for this movie he’s written, but he does it in a Kiwi accent, like a very racist Kiwi accent. And I’ve also vomited and got a nosebleed, and I’m covered in vomit and blood and I’m just like “Ladies and Gentleman, let’s have a fantastic night at the movies!”, doing a terrible New Zealand accent. And crowd goes wild. Every time. Turns out in the UK, there’s no difference to the ear, with an Australian and a New Zealand accent. I don’t know how. One accent is very… how is “Fush and chups” the same as “Fish and chips”?
Phil: Why are you looking at me like that?
Sheridan: Your people are wrong.
Nick: So the first time I did it in London, I come out and I – ‘cos there’s no jokes, the only joke is that I’m New Zealand, Kiwi.
Sheridan: It is just a generalisation.
Nick: It’s just a very brutal generalisation of a parody of a Kiwi accent. And doing it in London everyone was just like “Oh, well the show certainly took a dark turn at the end, didn’t it?” Why did he choose to do that? And I couldn’t solve it, we’d made all the backing tracks and visuals and everything, so I had to just do it fifty thousand times!
Sheridan: You wouldn’t be able to solve it!
Phil: Just knowing at the start of the show that no matter how well it’s gone that the last five is gonna-
Nick: I’m going to drop a name now but the only time it paid off was I did it after Edinburgh in London and I was like “Here we go, let’s go to Wellington and do this bit!” and I did it and one man was laughing his butt off and it was Jemaine from The Flight of the Conchords. And I was like “You’ve made it all worthwhile. You’ve made it all worthwhile. Thank you so much, you’ve been fantastic.” So that’s a joke that didn’t translate.
Sheridan: My only one really, was with Songs for the Fallen, all the characters are real potty-mouths, and that is funny. That it’s set in 1847 and it’s having this attempt of being a sort of belle époque, beautiful, romantic – it’s based on La Traviata. So the idea is that it’s the high brow, with this dirty fuckin’ mouth. They’re still really prudish in America, and it was like violence, every swear word was a bit violent so we pared some of the swearing back. But I do think there’s a very naughty, cheeky flavour in Australian humour, like they’re trying to really skirt a line of being very naughty. To me, that comes across in a lot of Aussie work.
Phil: I think some of the most successful comedians and comedy acts in the last five or ten years have been Australians, like winning the Fosters Comedy Award, Sam Simmons, people who are… you know, you go and see a Sam Simmons show, and you can see that at the Malthouse in Melbourne, or you can see it in the back of a pub in Soho, and you know, there’s lots of people like Nick as well who kind of make theatrical comedy, things that are…
Sheridan: Yeah. It’s breaking the form.
Phil: Yeah, exactly, and I think there is an appetite for that in a world that is inundated with white men talking about the price of pizza, there’s a real audience and appetite for ambitious, alternative, interesting comedy, and I think Australians and New Zealanders, having been here the ten years I’ve been here, which is the bulk of when I’ve been making my own work, we do have an environment that is supportive of people making new and interesting ways to try and make people laugh, I think.
Nick: I think that’s it, I think that’s definitely it. I think you’ve summed it up!
Phil. I’ve solved it!
Nick: But I’ll add to it. Yeah, I think it’s an irreverence for the form.
Sheridan: Yeah… is it?
Phil: Because there isn’t necessarily in Australia an audience who’ve been… the same audience hasn’t been going to the theatre for twenty years, the audiences are… People who go to a stand up comedy room in the UK aren’t going to see things at those theatres in London. They might go see The Book of Mormon, or something, whatever? I don’t know, I can only really speak about Sydney but what I think we’ve been trying to do, or what has been happening, in the last few years anyway, is that there is a bit of a fluidity in terms of audience, how people program things… but how people program things is only influenced by the work that’s being made by the artists and so I think there are particularly, you know, comedy actors being cast in main stage theatre shows, but I think there’s a bit of a confluence and fluidity between what the artists are doing and what the audiences are coming to see.
Sheridan: Is it because in Australia there is no clear pathway to the top? That people head to the sides with the form? I think that in London and America, you know, if you want to get into comedy, you’d make your tight five, you’d try and get spots—
Nick: You work your way through—
Sheridan: And you try and get on TV, yeah, that’s not…
Phil: Well exactly. If you’re good, you get to the Comedy Store in a year or two, but then where do you go?
Phil: If you’re a stand up. And then if you do all the sorts of things that we do that are in a bit more of a theatre context, like Nick’s got a play on this year, we probably won’t put another Nick Coyle play on for a while—
Phil: Because there’s not enough stage space for writers, you know.
Phil: And I think there’s a shelf life to things. But also what we unfortunately don’t have in this country is the thing if it goes bananas, the reason lots of people move to LA and London, obviously, is that, yeah, you’ve put ten years of hard labour into figuring out how to write jokes, you’ve nailed it, you’ve got your show that’s brilliant…
Sheridan: And a run of two weeks! In an eighty seat theatre…
Phil: You can’t just keep doing Sydney Comedy Festival and Melbourne Comedy Festival, you’ve got to go and share what you’ve got with the world, which has been happening, and I’m always like, really stoked whether it’s an antipodean who wins a big award somewhere.
Nick: I think when you’re overseas, people often say Australian comedy’s so weird, and I think it’s just because, for everything you just said, both of you. People are just kind of doing more what they want, rather than what they should, as an avenue to get somewhere, or they haven’t been influenced by a structure that supports them. They’re just like “I’m putting on another show, I don’t know what it is.”
Sheridan: Here, take my rent.
Nick: Yeah, and then they forge an identity that maybe is a bit left of field.
Phil: The thing that I would love to see that is an extension of that is the great comedy writers who we know who are then, and performers, who then end up on your TV screens… I would love to see that be better.
Phil: And I’d love the ABC to kind of get out of the way of things and just let people come up with ideas for their own shows, rather than sort of squeezing people, squeezing amazing, you know, your Steen Raskopoulos’s of the world, brilliant, brilliant performers, and just putting them in bit parts of not funny shows that have been written for them. Like, it would be nice in the TV world if they could kind of get out of the way, and that’s why actually, I love theatre and comedy and making it, because there’s no one in my way. There’s no one telling me how I should write my show. I can write a forty minute show if I want to write it. I can write a two hour show if I want to write it. I can have as many costume changes as I like, I can bring in people… you know, all those decisions rest with me.
Nick: You can change it every night.
Phil: Yeah, exactly, you can mix it up as you go, and I think that unfortunately, when comedy gets passed up the food chain to TV, it dies miserably often through being manhandled by scriptwriters or producers who are not…
Sheridan: I think the thing with screen comedy is in the edit, and you see it all the time and go, “That should have been funny”.
Nick: I saw an interview with Tony Kushner and he was saying that his opinion of the audience is, once everyone is together, they’re smarter. The unification of a big group of people, they become like one entity, smarter than individual people. So that’s why you have to be ahead of them, and also create something that is worthy of their intellect. And I’ve definitely been in rooms where the comedian has said something horrifying and the whole room laughs hysterically, and it’s a terrible, terrible feeling. But they’re all bonded by hate in that moment, and that’s the opposite of what I want to do. I think you have to punch up, and you have to be mindful of diversity, and representation, and inclusivity. And also, I’m mindful that I have a platform as a privileged, able-bodied – beautiful bodied – straight GAY man. I’m privileged, and what I do is hard, and challenging, and not financially viable, but it’s a privilege. So, I’m lucky.