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April 9, 2018 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Funny Business: A Week in Wellington’s Dank Comedy Scene

Sitting outside Fringe Bar on a Sunday afternoon can be a grim affair. The tightly drawn, forlorn faces of the daytime pokie-players are a sight to behold as they shuffle in, slow and dejected, about to pour their time, money, and souls into machines that give them blinking lights and broken dreams in return.

There is nothing funny on their minds.

Contrary to this, I sit across from a man with nothing but funny on his mind. Joel Wood is as close to a comedy mogul as it is possible to get in Wellington. He runs Dank Comedy, a comedic upstart taking the scene by storm. Last year saw them win best show at the Fringe festival, and they have a lot planned for this week to attempt to hold that title.

Dank was started by Joel and comedian Jundas Capone in 2015 as a response to the needs of youth audiences, and presented itself as a more alternative brand of stand up. Joel had moved to Wellington from Invercargill for the DIY music scene. But by the time he arrived the cooler venues had shut down and most of the scene with it. In response he turned to comedy — “I definitely see comedy filling a void in youth expression. Dank is definitely modelled on this DIY attitude of the music scene.”

Steady success has seen them grow, as Joel says: “At the start this was just a group of mates putting on a comedy show, which it still is just the shows are much bigger. We can now do things like fly people down from Auckland, and the spots are much more sought after.” Even though things are getting bigger for Dank, the focus is still very much on building the profiles of young comics: “We are trying to use Dank to launch careers. All our bookings are strategic, all our shows have the focus of getting the comedian’s name out.”

I am about to spend a week immersing myself in the strange and hopefully funny world of the Wellington comedy scene.

NIGHT 1: Raw Meat Monday

It’s 8:25 pm and I’m already faded as fuck because I spent way too much time with my cat Cheeseburger today and have started to take on her cat mentality. I am having cat hallucinations. Out of the corner of my eye I see a man licking his arm, and in front of me a woman coughs up a hairball into her glass. I make a mental note to kill my cat before they completely take over my mind. Pop punk is blasting out of the house speakers as the Fringe bar team bring half-hearted punters to the front rows. I am crouched in a corner, head hung low curled over the single beer that the Salient feature writers budget affords me. I hope it will last the night.
The room is fairly full, considering this is a night for fresh and seasoned comics to try out new material, and can often go awry.
The lights go down and the MC walks out. He tries his hand at warming up the crowd, but he is either drunk or just naturally disinterested. The crowd gives him a cold response, which causes him to give up on warming the room and he flees off stage, throwing the comedians headfirst into the drink.
The thing about Raw Meat Mondays is that what you are watching is not so much comedy as performed self-mutilation. The comics come out and are not giving you their material honed to guarantee laughs. No, they are trying out the dreaded “New Jokes”, ideas half-concocted and half-baked. Some land, but most fall flat on their faces.
It is incredibly commendable to watch a human being elect to walk on stage and be burnt alive by a group of their peers. These comedians are ripping their guts out trying to make the audience laugh. Although most fail, they fail graciously, bombing so hard it is not something at all to pity, but to marvel at in awe and respect.
In my opinion the jokes that seemed most susceptible to bombing were the edgy ones: school shootings, child castration, graphic sexual content, brutal self-deprecation. The audience is much more likely to withhold their laughter if the content is more shocking than funny. The jokes that worked were the simple observations that everyone could relate to. My favourite joke of the evening came from comedian Jundas Capone who said through a pronounced nervous jitter, “So, uh, first-years are back in town now…,” a pause before he erupts with, “FUCK!”
The night was to witness comedy, raw, unaltered, and unpractised.

NIGHT 2: Jerome Chandrahasen

Jerome and I sit in the back corner of Fringe bar, facing away from the pokies. Jerome has a friendly face half covered by a thick salt and pepper beard and talks excitedly with passion about comedy in Wellington. Jerome is a comedian and the president of the Wellington based Humourous Arts Trust, a charity organisation set up in 2010 to be able to more professionally foster the Wellington Comedy scene. It is the Humourous Arts Trust that set up the Raw Meat show last night, but this is just one of the many things that they do. In giving me the elevator pitch of the group Jerome says their aims are three-fold: 1. Create financial capital 2. Create social capital 3. Create creative capital.
He says that basically, he just wants to “make fun stuff”. Jerome sees the “success of wellington comedy is seen in the relationships between comedians”. Over the years there has been a marked shift in the direction of Wellington comedy. Previous eras have seen a far larger student base for comedy with now-household names of Flight of the Conchords, Taika Waititi, Dai Henwood, and Ben Hurley all cutting their comedic teeth while students in Wellington.
Since those days, the increase of money that comics can get has seen a wider range of people get on the mic: “more money has meant more diversity, people who are working full time now have the incentive to drive out from the Hutt to perform a set.”
Jerome finishes his drink and imparts a final wisdom to me, summing up a lot about what he has learnt from many hard yards working in the comedy scene.
“Laughter is hard, that’s why you pay for it.”

NIGHT 3: Dank Chilli Night

The heat is in the air Wednesday night at Fringe bar. Comedians and punters alike pace nervously around the bar, drinking as much liquid as they can because however hot it feels at present, it is only going to get hotter. The name of the game is chillies, and the aims of the game are sadism and masochism. The sadism of a crowd of punters who payed to watch people destroy their mouths for a joke, and masochism for the comedians willing to do it. Earlier in the week Joel told me that he enticed punters into attending the show with the line: “It’s gonna get fucked.”
In my opinion the show starts off pretty fucked with the wild-eyed crazy MC David Correos leaping onto the stage with an unhinged energy that leaves one laughing in fear of what this man might do. David plays his cards with an open hand and a naked body, immediately stripping down to his jockeys. The crowd laughs but this is not enough for Correos he grabs the mic and starts screaming, “Who wants me to take them off!? Who wants to see me take them off!?”—  confused cheering from the audience — “Alright I’m gonna do it!” and in one fell swoop he rips off his jockeys to reveal a smaller pair of colourful women’s underwear.
When the comedians came on stage I quickly realised that the chilli element of the show was not just a gag or a bit, but something much more real. The comics were absolutely destroying themselves on chilli. It was not just a single pepper they were eating either, they were grabbing handfuls of the stuff chewing, crunching, and then washing the hot mess down their throats with shots of hot sauce. Red spice and saliva rolled down chins and tears flowed freely from the pain. Some jokes were told in the midst of all of this, although more vomiting than punchlines were seen. It was like watching JACKASS: Live on Stage. The final comic was a young man named Joel Hansby. It was his job to eat a single California Reaper, the hottest chilli in the world. Joel’s reaction to the chilli was not only to sweat and cry like the others. He also lost his goddamned mind. He was as great a comic as you can be when your brain is being fried by the heat of a pepper that is 600x hotter than a Subway Jalapeno. After the show I sought him out to give him a hug as he sweated through his shirt, pupils dilated to differing degrees of cognition, hallowed eyes of someone 7 hours deep on a 6 hour trip. I told him I liked the show and he said, “Thanks, but I need to lie down for like 5 hours”.

NIGHT 4: Dank Magic Night

As I sit down near the back of the crowd I notice that they have gotten the sparkly curtain out for this one. Which makes sense, because tonight’s show is going to be a magical event.
To be perfectly honest there was not a lot of comedy going on, but the magic more than made up for things. It is always a wholesome experience to watch true to life magic nerds wow an audience with their hard-learned tricks. After the show Joel was as excited as a kid, telling everyone within earshot outside, “How awesome was that?”

Night 5: Dank 29

A man walks into a bar for the fifth time in a week. This sounds like the start of a joke, but it is simply what my life has become. Comedy has sapped all sense of reality out of my daily toil, and now I am stuck in an existential loop of punchline after punchline, meaning nothing but laughter in the crowd around me. I can’t wait to get inside.
Tonight’s show has sold out. Not a small achievement with the amount of other Fringe shows going on.
Janaye Henry walks out as MC, she wears a fluffy yellow jacket which looks like it could be the fur skinned off some minor character in Monsters Inc. She warms the crowd up brutally, a trial by fire, immediately asking for names and questions and job description from punters. There will be no hiding under darkness tonight.
The show kicks off with a great set from Gabby Anderson who pulls from her Catholic past to great comedic effect, without relying on the tired crutch of church-bashing. Another great comic was Jundas Capone. He jittered on stage with his strange energy and a nervous smile. My favourite joke of the night goes to him: He announces, “I am now going to do some impressions,” a breath, “this is an impression of my Dad,” in a deep moronic tone, “blah blah blah blah blah”. This joke knocked me for six. The headline act was the incredible Li Alimoana. His energy was probably my favourite moment of the whole week. He has such a positivity about him, and his jokes made you feel good. He swears a bit, but you get the feeling that he wouldn’t have to cuss at all to make you laugh, a rare thing in this era of “edgy” comedy. He uses his multi-cultural family as fodder for his comedy, but in a positive way that makes you feel good about living in a community where such cultural mixing can happen, and be laughed at, with relative ease.

The show was a cracker way to finish off what had been a Dank week. Outside the venue I had a yarn with a couple of first year kids who had left the haven of Te Puni to brave downtown for the sake of a few laughs. I asked them what they thought of the show.
“Oh it was all good ai! Comedy is fucking sick!”
Yeah, I guess it is.


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