April 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Born again

By Leigh Sales
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

On a rainy Monday night in Sydney's inner west, Dave Bloustien is testing new material on 50 people who have squeezed into the small upstairs room of a pub. Bloustein is a 33-year-old comedian with wide sideburns reminiscent of Wolverine from X-Men. He wears a grey pinstriped vest over a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a red silk tie that matches the drapes at the back of the narrow stage.

At 8 pm, Bloustien steps up and takes the microphone. "OK, everyone, I think we'll hold off starting for ten minutes," he announces. "That'll give some more people time to get here, and by that I mean my wife, because she's putting our baby to sleep."

Comics often road-test fresh material at small gigs to assess what makes an audience laugh and what doesn't. The director of Bloustien's show is Alan Brough, of ABC1's Spicks and Specks, and he sits in the back corner, scribbling notes on which gags get the biggest reactions - laughs, applause, groans or, worst of all, silence. Bloustien will use the feedback to re-jig his material for maximum effect before he appears at Melbourne's comedy festival.

Like many comedians trying out routines, Bloustien worries whether people will find the material funny. Unlike many comedians, his self-doubt has a legal precedent: he recently found himself in court with a client who accused him of being unfunny, so unfunny that he didn't deserve payment. Not long ago, Bloustien did a nightmare corporate gig at which he bombed - or, in comic parlance, died. He has been performing stand-up on and off for about five years, and earns a living writing jokes for TV shows such as Ten's Good News Week and, until 2006, The Glass House; but even so, the experience "shattered" his self-confidence.

In 2007, a client - "Goliath" in the new show - asked Dave to perform at a school formal aboard a harbour cruise. Bloustien was broke at the time, he says, so he accepted the gig despite having misgivings. "Corporate events have a history of being awful, because you're going to the audience. They're not coming to you; you're being foisted on them by somebody else," he explains. "It was also on a boat, which means you're trapped there and the environment's not really geared towards comedy - it's not one person on stage with a spotlight." And the audience was made up of high-school kids: not exactly the key demographic for Bloustien's stand-up, which targets young, urban intellectuals.

The event turned out to be a comedian's worst nightmare: standing in front of a roomful of people, all of whom are staring back at you, stony-faced. Everything Bloustien had feared came to pass: the students weren't interested, the material fell flat, the room was all wrong, the sound system was geared for music not speech. To top it off, he had to perform amid the noise and distraction of the dinner service. By Bloustien's own admission, his routine was the low point of the night. "It's one thing to say the event was unsuccessful - I'll go for them on that - but I'd question whether I was the sole reason," he says.

He left the boat so humiliated that he considered giving up comedy. "I had a real crisis. There are some people who never get affected by negative reviews or a bad performance, but there's a level of arrogance you need for that, and I just don't have it." Bloustien figured he'd earned his fee the hard way, and sent Goliath an invoice. Then the run-around started. "I rang his office many times. I think a lot of people have had this experience: they're ‘in a meeting'; they'll ‘call you back in five minutes'; they're ‘out of the office'," Bloustien says. "After a while, you know it's a lie."

He lodged a small-claims action in the local court to pursue the payment. To his surprise, Goliath suddenly materialised, lawyer in tow. The defence case was that Bloustien didn't deserve to be paid for the gig because he hadn't been funny. The comedian was stunned. "Buskers say: If you've enjoyed me, give me what you think I deserve. But that's not what a hired performer does." If you go to an orchestra and don't like the music, you still have to pay; if you visit a cinema and don't enjoy the film, it's not free.

Bloustien suspected that Goliath's line of attack was intended to publicly humiliate him. "I was imagining this whole parade of people they'd bring in to give testimony, like the McCarthy trials," Bloustien says. "It'd be a string of kids, all saying stuff like, ‘This man destroyed my high-school formal,' or, ‘All my memories of youth are ruined.'" The stuff of comedy, perhaps? "Part of me thought: Well, this is an experience I've not had; I could get a show out of it," he admits.

Stage death is something every comedian experiences and dreads. The upside for Bloustien is that dying allowed him to live again - it set off a series of events that led to a mother lode of fresh material. And when he relays his tale to the pub audience, you would never guess how much the experience shook his confidence. On stage he's light-hearted, throwing in gags about the school formal having been even worse than his own, about the birth of his daughter, about the financial crisis. The audience laughs generously and in the right places. It is a risk, building a whole routine around the accusation that the performer isn't funny. It works, for one reason: Bloustien is funny.

The punch line of Bloustien's routine is about who wins the court case. But whether or not somebody is funny is beyond the scope of the law. The only jury for that is an audience, and that's why Bloustien is seeking their verdict before his show opens officially.

After the test performance, Bloustien is surrounded by well-wishers outside the men's toilets. "I know I'm supposed to give notes, but I just thought that was really good," one actor friend tells him. "Dave, that was so funny," somebody else says, shaking his hand. Later on, Alan Brough tells Bloustien that the show works best when it sticks to the core story and doesn't veer too often into tangential anecdotes.

As Bloustien thanks people for their praise, he looks a little distracted. "Hey, can you tell me what the time is?" he asks. "9.15," comes the reply. Bloustien looks pleased. "OK. That means I've got about an hour of solid material. I'm happy with that." He heads to the downstairs bar for a drink and a packet of chips, looking very much alive.

Leigh Sales

Leigh Sales anchors the ABC’s 7.30 program and has written two books.

@leighsales

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