The Butterfly Club has built a reputation over the past decade as one of Melbourne’s finest performing spaces, particularly for cabaret and comedy. It has famously nurtured talented artists such as Tim Minchin and Eddie Perfect. You might have heard that after crowd-sourcing help last year The Butterfly Club has moved premises from South Melbourne to a laneway in the heart of the city. This proved particularly convenient during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, as the venue is now a short stroll from The Town Hall and other festival venues.
Owner, Simone Pugla is proud of showcasing world class cabaret and comedy at The Butterfly Club. He has recently launched a new comedy room called Brackets late on Friday nights run by fellow ex West Australian Clayton Steele. Also coming up is a short season of comedy nights called The Greatest Show on Earth run by Tegan Higginbotham. I interviewed both Clayton and Tegan about their new nights.
There has always been a tradition of intelligent comedians. From Shakespeare’s King Lear, where the Fool is clearly the smart one in the play, through members of Monty Python and The Goodies who were university students often giving up careers in law and medicine much to their parents’ horror no doubt. Here in Australia we have many working comedians who gave up lucrative lives as Surgeons (Rob Sitch), Lawyers (Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Julian Morrow, Craig Reucassel, Libby Gore), accountants (Lehmo) or architects (Rod Quantock, Barry Humphries). Brackets is a room that wants to give comedians a space to showcase their brains to an appreciative audience. We were there on opening night and discovered that you don’t have to have a PHD to have a great time in the audience.
Tell us a bit about your background in comedy and how you found yourself working in comedy?
I lived in Melbourne for a short period in the early 90s and, having known Matt Parkinson (Empty Pockets) and Judith Lucy from working together in Perth, I naturally found myself frequenting the Espy and the Cheese Shop. I was hooked.
I moved back to Perth and after searching for like-minded souls, managed to find the local scene which, at that stage, was still in its infancy.
We established The Laugh Resort (a comedy co-op) and eventually I found myself running it for many years. During this time we saw the emergence of talent such as Rove, Dave Callan, Brendan Burns, Dave Hughes, the list goes on.
After that I was still always involved, judging, coaching, writing, whatever it took to get my fix.
Now living permanently in Melbourne, I fill my time directing, producing, coaching, writing and secret stuff I can’t talk about.
How long have you been in Melbourne?
About 5 years. Long enough to know that those horse and buggies in the city can do hook-turns better than most drivers.
How do you see the current state of comedy in Melbourne (or generally)?
I see the Melbourne scene in particular as problematic and I’ll focus on this scene because that’s where I am.
It would be easy to focus on the positives. The potential and the talent is there but I don’t believe the industry is as healthy as it could be.
I think there are too many people in this industry who want to use it only as a springboard to something else. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with comics going on to do TV or Radio. It’s the prevalence of comics, who got into the industry solely as a way to become famous, I find disrespectful and damaging to the art form.
I think that Melbourne comics (and perhaps others) have become too festival-centric. It seems that what you see in rooms nowadays is a trial for an upcoming festival show. The way that it is supposed to work is that a festival show is meant to showcase your highlights from the year. It would appear sometimes, to be a case of putting the cart before the horse.
I think that we have lost our way with how rooms are run. If you charge nothing to see comedy, do you want punters to think that that comedy is worth nothing? People are prepared to pay $19 to see a projected recording of a Michael Bay movie, surely a live performance is worth something. Why does it cost $19 to see a movie? Because movie stars get paid so much. Why do movie stars get paid so much? Because people are prepared to pay $19 to see a movie.
Having said that, open-mic nights are an exception. The problem is that open-mic nights in Melbourne are advertising big names to compete for the audience. A choice has to be made. Are you running an open-mic or are you running a professional room? If the latter, you need to respect the performers. Rather than competing for the same slice of pie, we need to focus on making the pie bigger.
And, if I’m going to be on my soap box, I think we have moved way too far into the realm of audience participation. At last year’s Comedy Festival I was dragged on stage on 6 separate occasions. Audience participation is great for the extroverts in the audience but I personally know a lot of introverts who will not go to comedy because of this. If you really have to involve an audience member, learn how to read their body language. An unwilling “stooge” can quite easily become a comedy ex-punter.
How did Brackets come about?
I spend a lot of time outside venues. It’s what I refer to as exit-polling. If punters are leaving a room and rather than talking about something they just experienced, they are talking about what they are doing tomorrow, maybe they haven’t been engaged.
I see this a lot more now than I ever used to.
Back in the day, comics were very proud of their material and competitive about how clever their gags were. Now I see a tendency towards shock tactics and, quite frankly, I’m not shocked by a rape gag, I just think it’s become rather hack and you have to ask the question: Do those jokes make the world a better place?
Another thing that has bothered me is that the norm is for rooms to have short sets. I feel like the comic never has enough time to get to the “meat”. Short sets are like take-away food, they satisfy the hunger but sometimes you just want to sit down to a nice meal.
So, I knew what I wanted, I just had to find the right room.
The answer came in the form of Simone from The Butterfly Club. As a fellow Mensan he shared my yearning for intelligent comedy.
Very rarely do you find the perfect fit with a venue but Simone, Xander and, for that matter, everyone at The Butterfly Club have made it feel more like joining a family than I could have ever dreamed.
Did it occur to you that it might be hard to find sufficient smart comedy to fill Friday nights? – Or are you confident in our local comedians’.brainpower.
I have a list of comics who could justifiably play the room and, if they all did, I would have a 6 month turn around. Comics, by their very nature, are generally highly intelligent and they all seem to relish the opportunity to show their capabilities.
I think that some comics have been guilty of occasionally playing to the lowest common denominator but who can blame them? It’s easier and the audience isn’t invested anyway.
The harder part is getting the message out to the audience who “get it” and are prepared to do a bit of thinking themselves. I know they’re out there.
Have you had positive feedback from the Mensa people so far?
As far as I can tell they are loving it… Or they are just really polite.
Do you think smart people in general are attracted to comedy?
I think human beings in general are attracted to comedy.
I’m not saying that “smart” comedy is superior. I have a lot of respect for your Kevin Bloody Wilsons etc. Benny Hill was a genius who found a niche and hit it hard. I just don’t happen to fall into that niche and I need to have a bit of a puzzle to solve for me to feel comedically satisfied.
For some, the audience participation, the physical involvement in a performance is necessary, for some it’s titillation, for me and, I’m sure, others it’s all cerebral.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I do want to explain the basic idea of what we are doing.
By saying “intelligent” comedy I am not saying that it is necessarily intellectual. It isn’t jokes about Maths or Tunisian politics. What the room is about is attracting an intelligent audience which in turn will give the comics the freedom to explore areas they may not otherwise feel comfortable in.
To me, shock comedy is nothing more than verbal slapstick. Stand-up comedy can be, and should be, much more than that. We have a responsibility as an industry. We get on stage and ask a group of strangers to listen to us. We better damn well have something to say
Future line ups at Brackets include:
Information and tickets for Brackets can be found here
Tegan was asked to put these nights together in a bit of a rush and managed to get a top line up to perform over the four nights. The performers include herself and Adam Mckenzie as Watson, Justin Hamilton, Girls Un-Interrupted, Randy, Lessons With Luis, Adam Richard, Rama Nicholas and Adam Rozenbach. I spoke to her about what putting the show together was like.
Do you consider yourself the ‘curator’ of this show?
I suppose that technically I am the curator. Adam will be helping with things, of course, as that production is “Watson presents…”. But I think I’ll be doing a bit more of the heavy lifting given the late notice of the whole event. So “Ruling Overlord” is probably name I’m more comfortable with.
Did you have help?
So far Simone, Adam and Hammo have all been very helpful, yes.
Have you put a show together before?
Several. This show is an exciting little show out of a Festival setting, and I think it will be perfectly timed for everyone who’s beginning to feel the SADs a little. But as far as shows go, in the past two years I’ve put together a Melbourne Fringe show, 2 solo Comedy Festival shows and 2 Comedy Festival shows as a part of Watson.
Have you had a big idea like this bubbling away in the back of your mind for a while or did it all come together quickly?
The show itself has come together very quickly, but Adam and I have been talking about doing mini-shows throughout the year for a while. We also have plans for a big old Christmas show too.
How is it going to work, will all of those acts be performing on the same evening or will it be a different line up each evening?
The line-up will change each night. Some acts will do more than one night, like Hammo. Some guest will only join us once or twice. The idea is that all of the artists will be using this event as an opportunity to try something new and different.
Was it hard to get the line up you wanted?
I was pleasantly surprised how of my wish-list acts jumped on board. With Roadshow happening at the moment, I was expecting many comics to be too busy. But I also feel that there is a lot of good energy toward the Butterfly Club and comics are keen to jump behind the venue.
This feels a bit like a mini-The Shelf….? (Or is it just that they were the logical go–to people because you know and work with them?)
It is definitely logical because I know them and work with them, but it’s also because I know all these people will put on a good show. And in the case of Girls Un-Interrupted, Rama Nicholas and Randy, these are 3 acts that havn’t hit The Shelf stage yet (but I’m kind of hoping will)
Is this Justin Hamilton’s first outing of his mini festival-type show? Does he plan to expand on it or perform it in the future or is this a way of getting it out of his system.
I’m not sure what Hammo plans to do with the show in the future, but it will be it’s first outing.
Anything you would like to add? (about performing at The Butterfly Club?)
I visited the new Butterfly Club only 3 weeks ago and was really excited by how amazing the space is. Upon further conversation with Simone, I got to hear how much effort the venue puts into supporting its artists and creating an artist community. This is the sort of thing we need in Melbourne. So if by doing this show we can create positive buzz not only for a load of great comedians (some of whom will be heading into a Fringe season soon) but also a great comedy venue, then I’ll be incredibly happy.
The Greatest Show on Earth is on from Thursday June 13th until Sunday June 16th Thur – Sat at 8.30 and Sun at 7.30. Bookings can be made here
For more information about upcoming shows go to The Butterfly Club website