By Lisa Clark
Karl Chandler came into the comedy world in his late twenties and has since built a small comedy empire of sorts around him. Along with his contemporaries, he played a big part in rejuvenating the Melbourne Comedy scene of the past five or so years. Karl runs two of Melbourne’s top comedy rooms that have been crucial in the developing careers of a new generation of comedy stars such as Ronny Chieng and Luke McGregor. They have also provided fresh audiences for established comedians to try out material and for media stars to perform to live.
Karl grew up in Maryborough then lived and worked in Ballarat before moving to Melbourne. He didn’t really start getting into comedy til he was 29 or 30 and so was a bit more mature and ready to get serious about making a living out if it. As a stand up Karl became well known for his short-jokes. A form of comedy that had not been very fashionable in Melbourne, though the likes of Tim Vine and Milton Jones in the UK were making it popular. Karl’s take on it has a more relaxed, country-bloke laconic quality, a bit closer to Americans such as Steven Wright and (the late) Mitch Hedberg . With a reputation for helping others with their routines Karl has written for television shows such as Good News Week and Spicks and Specks. In 2011 Karl edited and published a book of jokes by local comedians called Funny buggers – (the Best Lines from Australian Stand Up Comedy). Karl was also quick to get in early on the Podcast scene in Australia and with mate Tommy Dassalo has created one of Australia’s most popular podcasts The Little Dum Dum Club.
Live comedy scenes in towns are often as good as the venues available and the people willing to run them. Comedians need a variety of good places to perform, to develop their craft and preferably be valued and paid for their efforts. The Melbourne scene, like many has gone up and down over the years, rooms tend to come and go and around 2007 was in a bit of a lull. Karl with his comedian friends Steele Saunders (who now also runs Public Bar Comedy) and Pete Sharkey started running existing free comedy venue Comedy at Spleen on Monday nights in Melbourne’s CBD in May 2008. It became known as a good quality try out night where no one was paid but newbies got to perform along side bigger names, gradually gaining a strong audience of regulars and a great reputation, spawning two sequels; running on Thursday nights, Karl’s first paid-gig venue Softbelly opened in July 2010, and the short lived but just as excellent Felix Bar opened in St Kilda on Wednesdays from 2011. Softbelly later moved and was re-named Five Boroughs. It has recently moved again and on December 16th 2014 Karl brought his room (and comedy nous) to the Portland Hotel to become Portland Comedy.
At the moment Karl is also getting ready to perform his solo show at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival called Karl Chandler – Worlds Greatest (and Best) Comedian. A brave title indeed. As you can imagine he is a very busy man and hard to pin down, but was kind enough to find a spare moment before a busy night at The Portland Hotel to talk to me about himself and the rooms he runs.
Who do you look up to or who inspired you in comedy?
My favourite, because I do shorter jokes, is Mitch Hedberg, absolute favourite by far, between the jokes and even the character and the charisma… I don’t listen to heaps of comedy but he’s a guy I’ll listen to over and over.
What got you into comedy?
When I grew up I always watched and I’ve always enjoyed watching sitcoms and every form of comedy but I never thought I’d do anything with it. I came quite late to actually doing standup.
I suppose growing up in a country town there wasn’t much opportunity
Well I’d never seen a gig. I had a mate who liked to watch Champagne Comedy on Channel 31. He used to love it because it was so bad. He used to get me round to his house and we would get drunk and watch it and laugh at how bad it was [as did I] and then once after they said at the end of it ‘Come down and watch it live’ we said “What if we went and saw a whole night of this – how bad would that be?” So then me and my mate started going down there and watching it live every week and getting drunk and saying ‘How bad is this?’ and this was the only stand up I’d seen live. Until one night I got that drunk I said to my friend “Right. That’s it. Give me two months and I’ll do it once.” It was just a drunken thing to say but he held me to it saying ‘Nah it’s happening!’ and then told all my friends so I couldn’t back down. So then I had two months to write a routine. Then my friends found out about RAW comedy, I’d never heard of it before and my mate said “Right, you’re booked!” So then I did RAW Comedy without knowing anything else.
Wow, I’m amazed that quite a few people have started out in RAW.
Well if you are not in comedy you wonder, ‘Where do you Start?” It’s pretty intimidating stuff.
But I would’ve have thought RAW Comedy would be… a weird place to start
Yeah, it’s a comedy competition!
You’re right, but I didn’t know any better, I didn’t know what else there was. And it was of course the best way, I don’t know about now, but it used to be a great gig.
There are surprisingly quite a few comedian’s who’s first gig was RAW.
Well it’s advertised. I think that’s part of the reason. I think my mate saw it in the paper, whereas you don’t see other open mics advertised. You see, that was never in my… head, I certainly never had the idea to see comedy live or anything.
It’s a weird thing to jump into and suddenly go ‘Alright I’m doing this from now on’.
When did you, Steele Saunders & Pete Sharkey start running Spleen (a venue that already existed)?
I can only speak for myself. It was about eight years ago, and I was so sick of doing gigs that weren’t very good
I remember that time well and it was a bit of a low point in the rooms available to see comedy in Melbourne. It goes up and down and that was a bit of a bad time.
Yes and I remember people saying ‘You can’t do comedy in the city’. Maybe because I’m a bit of a control freak or a perfectionist – I was just sick of going to gigs and thinking ‘well this is shit, why are they running it like this? They should be doing it like this.’ I finally went I’m sick of this complaining about everything why don’t you do something yourself?
The owner of Spleen still says ‘Oh I made a good decision choosing you’ But it wasn’t like that at all. What happened was; Spleen was an existing gig, but it was not that great, the numbers weren’t there at all, about 10 people turning up each week. About four people ran it before us. They went through four different people. I went in there drinking with my mates one night and I really believe this, I think the owner thought ‘I’ll kick these current people out and I’ll get these guys to run it because they’ve got seven mates here and they’ll bring their mates every week and that’ll be it.’ So I think he thought ‘They’ll bring their mates every week and that’ll be a business’ and I thought ‘well it’s time to put up or shut up’. So it was me and Steele [Saunders] and [Pete] Sharkey and we were all in. We were all serious guys we all had common sense and wanted to do it properly.
The first week we honoured the line up that had been booked and it was the worst fucken line up. I mean honestly looking back at it, if you tried to fuck up a night – the start of a new room – this is how you would do it. It was literally the 10 worst comics in town at the time and we got there and they didn’t even turn up. Because they’d been booked by the previous management. So I remember clear as day, 8.35pm having no audience members and being out the front of the gig and ringing people to say “Can you please come down and do this spot?” So it was quite bad.
The second week was more or less the same and I remember the owner saying to me “This can’t keep going on” and me saying “You’ve only given us two weeks so far, you’ve gotta give us more than two weeks”. After that I remember the third week wasn’t so bad and then it sort of took off. Within six months we were full every week.
And you know, that’s not a big deal now I reckon.. It sounds a bit like ‘Old Man Chandler telling a story’, ’cause there’s a lot of rooms around, but I fully believe that Spleen gave birth to a lot of rooms. I’ve given a lot of people advice on how to run rooms, so they’ve all come from that. I think Spleen is sort of like the heart of the comedy rooms that we’ve had in the last five years.
At first we were too scared to get big names to come down. We didn’t want to go ‘Come down Tom Gleeson, come down Lehmo and play in front of 10 people.’ So we made sure we were consistently really good before we started saying ‘Hey, if you want to come down…’ and it sort of built & built from there.
We’d been on for six and a half years and someone said ‘Oh aren’t you sick of it?’ and I’ve never been sick of Spleen. Even though we’re running it as a sort of open mic room I love it, you hang out with your mates and it’s such a good gig and I hop on every two weeks and do material. I feel at home, that’s my home ground. I feel so comfortable there. I actually feel a bit scared and sad that one day I won’t be there. Like someday… if you have to pass it on. If I got successful enough that I didn’t have to do that gig anymore, I think I’d still be trying to find a way of still doing it.
Has Pete moved interstate?
He’s moved away, he’s got married and had a kid and he’s in Perth now. He left eighteen months ago. So it’s just me and Steele running Spleen now.
What is the concept behind Spleen?
The whole idea of it is ten acts about five minutes each and we want a nice range of acts. This is the sort of gig we wanted when we first started. We started running Spleen about 2 years into doing comedy and we tried to build it as the sort of gig that we would’ve been able to get on or would’ve been a great gig to get on at.
So even though you’d been doing gigs for a couple of years, in the comedy world you would be still considered newcomers. It’s pretty amazing for newcomers to be running such a successful room.
Sure but Steele and I are around the same age, we’d had jobs and had run things before. We weren’t like the typical open mic-er; a 21 year old who’s never held down a mainstream job, may never get one. We had business savvy about us.
We designed it so it was ten acts, with a good Emcee, there was always going to be space for new people to hop up. That’s how it’s always been, but it does get over booked now. Which means it’s always a bit of a shame when people think I don’t book new people. We do, but the thing is there’s that rule where you’ve gotta come down and sign up. You’ve got to come down and support the gig.
It’s always been my advice to young comedians that if you want to get up in any room you’ve got to go down to the venue first and hang out there for a while. Get to know the audience, the other performers and the people who run the room and how they run it.
Well we never got given that advice when we started and anyway there was mostly bad rooms and the bigger places where we couldn’t get on. So we always try to make that space for new people to get on because we see ourselves through those eyes.
I don’t think I did a gig with anyone remotely famous inside my first eighteen months. At Spleen we’ve had people doing their first gig with Tom Gleeson or their second gig with Dave Hughes. We find that a really cool thing to be able to pass on to people.
None of the performers at Spleen are paid but then you opened up another gig where you can pay the comedians with more experience.
So once we were running Spleen on Mondays for eighteen months to two years we were killing it and it was great but I noticed there was that market and because I’d learnt a lot of lessons and been successful I thought, you know what? I could do another room. Also I had quit my job and thought, what do I do well? I run a room well, maybe I can run another one. So I started running a Thursday night room which was Softbelly which became 5 Boroughs and has now become Portland Comedy. The model for this one is big names and an Emcee with acts being paid.
Again there was not a room quite like it running in Melbourne at the time. After Spleen a few similar free rooms popped up. I thought it was time for a good paid room with big names in and it sort of became the Best of Spleen. I turned Spleen in my head into a bit of an audition room for the good gig. It was new and a bit of a struggle at first.
It seems easy now ‘cause you’ve got so many rooms happening but back then in was in a bit of a lull. I think it might be that people didn’t know about it but now you’ve got the Internet…social media has really helped with that sort of stuff. Back then you put an ad in the street press and few posters around and that’s about it. I would always flier to start with for my rooms and comedy people would remark “Oh that’s for Comedy festival” but I would say “No that’s for business!” You can’t sit on your arse and think ‘I hope people find this place’ plenty of people have tried that concept!
So flyering did help?
Yes, definitely and I still do it…. because you get a lot of tourists going through. Not so much for Spleen anymore because we couldn’t fit more people in but for here I do. [Karl has recently moved his Thursday night gig to The Portland Hotel and changed it’s name but both nights I’ve been there it’s been pretty packed out.] It’s effective in Comedy Festival, why wouldn’t you do it here? It’s only because no-one likes to be rejected, I mean I’m the same but it’s business.
It’s not personal.
You’ve named all your comedy rooms after the venue they are in. Have you thought of not doing that, so you don’t have to change the name every time you move?
Yes I know. It’s a very valid point. The plan was at the start that we wouldn’t move around. The other thing is that I want to give value to the venue. So if I call it ‘HaHa Comedy’ you have to explain it. It has to be HaHa Comedy at The Portland Hotel – it becomes a bit complicated. But the gratifying thing is that each time I’ve moved people seem to follow. Definitely if I had my time back I would probably do that, but it seems to have worked out anyway, so it’s fine.
How Long did the Felix Bar run for in St Kilda.
It began about nine months after Softbelly started and ran for two and a half years. It was an up and down gig that was never bad but I think it was just harder, it may have been being in downtown StKilda.
Because it was mainly Backpackers?
I don’t think so, because it was a different model room – it wasn’t a free room. It was a $12 room and backpackers don’t really want to spend $12. The lowest crowd we ever had was 25 people but at it’s peak we had 130 in there and people would say to me that that was the best room of all of them. When it was good it was amazing, but it was just too much work and it never got that flow on. Whereas Spleen and this gig at The Portland had flow on; where they hit their mark and people said ‘well we’re coming here every week’. Whereas Felix never flowed. One week we’d have 130 people in for a big name then we’d have another pretty big name in the following week and only get 30 people and I’d think, ‘Well what do we have to do?’
So as well as running two major rooms a week, you have a podcast with Tommy Dassalo, [The Little Dum Dum Club which includes regular live recordings], you’re doing a Festival show – [The Worlds Greatest (and best) Comedian]. You sound pretty busy!
Well I do all that and I also do TV writing. I’ve been really busy the past three years because of the TV writing. Well you just try to take on as much as you can.
Because you never know when the work is going to dry up
Yes I think to do full time comedy, unless you are a big name, you’ve got to have a lot of strings to your bow.
Karl certainly has a lot of strings to his bow.
Comedy at Spleen is on at 8.30 on Monday nights
Portland Comedy is on at 8.30 on Thursday nights
The Little Dum Dum Club can be downloaded here
Karl Chandler and Tommy Dassalo Live Podcast Little Dum Dum Club at MICF
Karl Chandler – Worlds Greatest (and Best) Comedian
Thanks to Peter for the Photo