As the MC ended her intro and revved up the audience for the last performer of the night, Rachel the barmaid plonked her teatowel on the sink and took the stage, to rapturous applause. Who will get me my beer now, I thought, but only briefly, as the beer FOMO was quickly replaced with, What the Budweiser is going on here?
Turns out, Rachel Joan is one of New York’s finest stand-up comics. She also runs Old Man Hustle, a tiny twelve-seat dive bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan next to a Hebrew religious goods store. The comedy show she organises virtually every night at 8pm is free. And bloody good. The Hebrew store closes at 6, just so you know.
Somehow, me and the missus scored two of the highly-coveted bar stools, despite arriving a few minutes after the advertised kick-off time. When the show started a few minutes later there were another dozen or so folks standing, cramped into the narrow space between us and the wall. A capacity house.
At this point we were yet to learn that our gifted barmaid (I say ‘gifted’ because I know one when I see one) was the headline act.
The MC took the stage to the usual whoops and hurrahs, the audience high on anticipation, or at least on a gutful of the $3 Genesee-and-a-shot-of-tequilas so popular in the area.
If you’re like me, watching amateur performers can make you cringe inside a little. You tend to pray for competence, hoping that no-one is going to be embarrassed, especially me. Comedy is probably the riskiest of all performance genres in that sense; you can listen quietly to a bad guitarist and no-one gets hurt, but when a comic bombs it’s as awkward as getting your scrotum caught in a revolving door and needing help to get it out.
Phew. The moment MC Gracie Canoon hit the stage I knew I could relax. Here was a pro, albeit an unpaid one (at least, tonight), such is the vastly competitive comedy scene in New York. There’s unrecognised talent here who, were they doing the rounds in Australia, would not only have their own TV show but also some kind of monument in their honour, like David Boon does.
But New York City is the big league. Comedy here is a passion for so many folk that the bar is considerably higher than the one we’ve set at home. For some reason, in our country Dave Hughes is a legend, despite his humour being not too far removed from what your typical father-of-the-bride can muster at a wedding. Or Tom Little, whose condescending one-liners to the old folk he interviews on The Project somehow reinforce that mediocrity in comedy is the best we can hope for.
Sure, we have some funny people, but we haven’t seen true excellence in Australia since the likes of The Aunty Jack Show, saving perhaps a handful of bright sparks like the Working Dog mob, who’ve owned the top space since the late 80s. Shane Jacobsen is terrific, but he’s rarely allowed to be, instead settling back into the aforementioned pop comedy mediocrity and jumping through the hoops of commercial television. And yes, some of the talent at local comedy clubs is top notch (a mate of mine, Gavin Baskerville, runs a tight comedy ship in Hobart that’s always worth a look.) But somehow the industry at home has never achieved escape velocity.
if a comic wants to get to the top in NYC they need to pedal hard. There’s simply so much extraordinary talent vying for a place at the mic. It prompted Jess to ponder what they’re trying to achieve. A paid gig maybe (to be fair, more paid gigs – I'm sure some of tonight's acts command a tidy sum when they want). A writing job on one of NYC’s myriad TV comedies? It’s hard to know, and I guess everyone will have a different story. Lots of comics back home do it merely to build confidence, or because it scares them (and they seem to enjoy that for some reason), or just for the buzz. I suspect there are lots here who fit that mould too … but you also get the impression that ‘aspiring comic’ here is like ‘aspiring actor’ in Hollywood. The Big Time beckons, even if when you get close enough it flips you the bird and disappears in a puff of fart.
The upshot of such a vibrant scene is that these guys have had so much practice with their material, so much experience reading a room and adapting to shifting tastes, that everyone can relax and enjoy the insights. Combine this with a heavy Jewish influence and you get extraordinarily fast, ridiculously funny performances from people who were probably hilarious even before they decided to try stand-up.
We’d gotten through half a dozen five-minutes sets from an eclectic bunch of comics all eager to impress. Some hit, some missed, but that’s not unusual in any comedy scene, even in the greatest of clubs. In any case, when you have Rachel batting at number three (sorry, pinch hitter) you know you’re in safe hands. Her material? Buggered if I can remember. I rarely can remember, and not just because of the drinking. All you need to remember is the feeling that, fuck, that was good.
Later on in the evening (much later on) Rachel tricked Jess into appearing on camera giving a testimonial, which subsequently appeared on Old Man Hustle’s Facebook page. Despite being three sheets to the wind Jess made a good point: this was better than the other shows we’d already seen during our stay in New York, including one at the much-feted Comedy Cellar. Some of the performers there – professionals of many years – had some terrific material. Off-Broadway legend Rick Crom is one of them, admirably belting out some hilarious show tunes in between much-practised cabaret gold. Sarah Silverman was amusing but not funny. At The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, 30-Rock icon Judah Friedlander was similarly meh. These are bored people who presumably feel they need to appear in public from time to time or we’ll forget they exist.
Okay, admittedly the Comedy Cellar on a good night is one of the funniest things you’ll ever be a part of – the funniest of the funniest would crawl over broken dreams to appear there. But you’re sharing that experience with 300 others in a packed hall where it’s club policy to allow patrons a maximum of three drinks each for the duration of the two-hour show. I think I’d rather have been back at the revolving door wearing loose-fitting shorts.
We were still at Old Man Hustle well after midnight. It seems that sharing a small, funny space with only a few others is a formula for a good party, particularly when the host is not only piss-funny but keeps bringing you beer. Such an eclectic, friendly, good-natured bunch!
New York is cool, that’s a no-brainer. But when you dive a bit deeper into the local neighbourhoods you find gold. And some really cool Jewish artifacts if you’re there early enough.
Serious stories about communication
told in a silly voice.
I dig a little deeper than most comms folk. From science at university, to a cold-and-wet career as a commercial diver, to working underground, and for the past 15 years as a communicator-at-large, I've had my fair share of weird experiences in all sorts of situations. It's given me a fair-to-middling grounding in all things explanatory.