TWO mild-mannered IT experts walk into a bar.
The bar is Babushka and BallaRatCat Comedy producer Beth Lamont has organised an information session and open mic night for Ballarat’s budding comedians.
An unlikely group has come together over beer to plot strategy, forge new alliances and potentially grow the very cultural fabric of the city.
And to crack gags of course.
“I want to start the ball rolling on a network of comedy performances and people who want to be involved,” says Lamont, who had previously worked on the Melbourne and Edinburgh comedy festivals.
Earlier this year she started up a monthly comedy show at The George that has so far attracted the likes of Tom Gleeson, Claire Hooper and Justin Hamilton.
The venture marked a return to work for Lamont after having two children. But it’s also the start of a long-term vision to establish a culture of comedy in Ballarat that creates opportunities for emerging local talent.
Lamont believes comedy is important to have as part of the culture of every town. Part of the role of a comedy scene is to make fun of the people in charge and the events of the day, she says.
For example, after the recent six-hour marathon Ballarat City Council meeting to determine the fate of the Civic Hall, @BallaRatCat tweeted: “Council might demolish themselves after sitting through that!”
“A bit of satire is always needed, it’s always helpful,” Lamont says.
The open mic session at Babushka has attracted a small, but diverse crowd, including friends and former classmates Rhett Nunn and Peter Jones.
IT workers by day and aspiring comical geniuses by night, the two men began their stand-up journey 10 months ago when they signed up for Australia’s biggest open mic competition RAW Comedy.
Their friendship is more of a double act than a competitive one, Nunn says: “We tried to outdo each other at first, then we thought it was better if we complement each other as we go.”
Jones says the hobby has come to consume “pretty much all” of his spare time outside of his day job.
“When I’m not at work I’m thinking about comedy or driving to Melbourne to get to comedy,” he says.
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. His worst gig involved no laughs and heckling from a crowd that wasn’t into comedy.
Jones performed in RAW Comedy for the first time 10 years ago, but, unfortunately, things didn’t go to plan.
“It bombed,” he says.
“I wasn’t funny. I was painfully not funny. And I was 19, so I think that also went wrong.”
Armed with a more mature outlook and “just a short 10-year hiatus” between gigs, Jones made a comeback at this year’s event and progressed all the way to the state finals.
The pinnacle of open mic competitions in Australia, RAW Comedy attracted more than a thousand entrants this year, with the winner going on to perform in Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival competition.
Nunn said it was nerve-wracking to find himself on stage in front of 100 people, blinded by the bright spotlights and unable to make out the faces in the crowd.
But there was a real buzz afterwards.
“You feel like high-fiving everyone in the audience, but actually you just play it cool.”
Nunn’s material is based on observational and abstract topics, such as the size of his own head.
“That’s a physically large head, not an ego thing,” he clarifies.
Jones draws from much of his inspiration in pop culture.
Both men say it’s no laughing matter there aren’t many opportunities to show off their material to audiences in Ballarat.
Melbourne TV writer Gerard McCulloch is one of BallaRatCat’s supporters. He’s passionate about getting more comedians on stage in regional areas, pointing to the success of Warrnambool as a feeder city for talent.
McCulloch describes a shared laugh as “a really pure moment of human bonding”.
“There’s something very personal about that. If you’re responsible for that, it feels pretty good, whether you’re a comedian or the guy at the pub who yells the right statement,” he says.
His advice to aspiring comics is – don’t be afraid.
“Everybody you could name started off dying on stage,” he says.
“You start your first year struggling, but you have to enjoy that.”
Running the comedy room at The George has been the culmination of a five-year dream for Lamont and she believes humour is a great way to engage people who wouldn’t normally go to an arts show. Having a laugh has always been popular.
Ballarat’s scene has come with a “slow build”, but Lamont believes the time is right to cultivate it.
“We’re a fast-growing city,” she says.
“I’ve had a great response from the industry. They love going to little rooms like this where they can relax a bit.
“Everybody who knows about it loves it. It’s been overwhelming really.”
Lamont currently has plans for a series of monthly open mic nights at Babushka Bar from October 20.
Lamont says it will help to provide opportunities for local aspiring comedians to build up their skills.
For more information visit www.ballaratcat.com.au