Comedian Matt Stellingwerf and the madness of Auckland crowds

Used to be the only people who could stay calm in the face of barbarity were psychopaths and Buddhists.

That’s what I thought, until I started seeing open mic in Auckland. Comics belong on that list..

Comedians have a tough enough job keeping a group of strangers focused. The problem with Auckland is the people in the audience fucking suck.

Not all the time. But I have to say, by the power invested in me as a culturally superior New Yorker to condescend from my celestial alight upon you gormless nobs , doing open mic in New Zealand is like introducing the people of Deadwood to soap.

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I’m not even saying that a lot of people are like this. It just takes one or two assholes to make a room difficult. And usually there are five or six (including the subs for the assholes that leave).

That isn’t really a value judgment. It’s just well-known that free or low-cost open mic venues have only begun to proliferate in the last 18 months. Snatch, the Lumsden, the Patriot in Devonport, the Thirsty Dog, to name a few off the top of my 8 GB capacity head.

So, naturally, some people just aren’t know quite what to make of it when they see open mic for the first time. These are the same people who can’t really make much of anything else. So it isn’t surprising that they’re the ones that have to be the dicks.

Croaker croeger

The thing I’m learning (after performing forty–scratch that– four times) is that, like it or not, you have to address the crowd situation. If someone’s making a dick out of himself, you can’t just talk over him. You have to spin it some way.

I could not adopt, however, the relaxed posture of Matt Stellingwerf. Not to be too New York again, but I’m too neurotic.

I chatted with Stellingwerf a few weeks about how he works to develop his act:

Simon: You told me once you have a general idea about what you’re going to say on stage, and that you add material on the spot. How does one get to the point where they can do that?

Matt: I don’t know. I think it’s something that has grown more as I started MC’ing more. It just grows as you grow as a comic, as well. You start going more off the script. I never was a huge script guy. My material in its most complete form is still bullet points or one word. So it gives me room. I know it, and nine times out of ten it will come out exactly the same, and word for word. But I’ve never actually set it out as this is the way I’ll do it.

S: You’re not writing it, but sort of working it out, out loud?

M: Yeah I sort of just play with it. Everyone does something different. Mine is in the shower. Or just before I fall asleep when I’m lying in bed. Which is why I waited until I didn’t have a girlfriend before I started to do comedy. Because the light would be switching on two hours after going to bed. You always think you’re going to remember something, but you never do. So, that or in the shower, and they just kind of grow. And once they get to a certain stage, it’s a process of cutting it back down and getting rid of the fluff.

S: How do you determine what’s the fluff?

M: It’s done and trimmed in front of the audience. Perhaps I’m not qualified or experienced enough to be able to do it at home. I have a general idea of what will work: that won’t, this will work with that kind of crowd, what is unnecessary, what could be funnier. And that’s something you can sort of work out at home. It’s not so much written as it is improvised on a good night. That’s why a lot of comics recommend recording their bits. But after a while the other comics know your material so well they’ll come up to you and say you did that different this time. When you’re jiving and the crowd is really good, things just happen. And you’ll find segues between material. I’ve got shorter bits and longer bits, I tend to construct my set on the fly, and I know more or less how long bits are and I’ll chop and change and mix them together.

S: Does that sense of time come with experience?

M: Yes, I think so. Because another hard thing is when you start going off topic you stumble. The more experience you have the more free you feel to stop halfway through and vent and chat about something that happens at that moment. That can become very difficult. You can lose a lot of time without even thinking about it. Also, in a 15 minute set, you can spend three or four minutes of it with quick interactions with the crowd. That’s why you do have to pay attention to the time. Any comic, or any person that runs a venue will tell you sticking to time, next to making people laugh is the most important thing.

S: So you develop a sense of tempo. Can you also put that into your performance?

[[At this point a Female stops by to say hello]]

Tired

M (to Female): Turns out if you’d gone on tonight, you’d have done better than me.

S: Yeah, so anyway, there’s always a weird vibe in Snatch.

M (to me): After the second break, that’s when it starts to lose its shape. It doesn’t help being sandwiched between two of the best comics. Especially when one does voices  and the other does magic. They have actual skills other than just, like, talking. “Oh, so you just…talk?”

S: By the way, I don’t like you talking to other people when I’m interviewing you. It wastes battery power. So, what’s your story? Where’d you grow up?

M: I was born in Hamilton, spent eight nine years in the Waikato on a dairy farm, spent some time in Amsterdam (my father retired there). I was supposed to take a one-year OE and it turned into four-and-a-half. just roaming the globe. I lived on a sheep and beef farm outside Wanganui from when I was 10 until I went to boarding school. I’m a product of the private boarding school system. Why do you think I made a reference Orwell? “I don’t smoke because I have an education.”

Q: Asshole. So when did you know you wanted to go into comedy?

M: It was something I’d always wanted to do. My parents are Brit-comedy freaks.  Monty Python. I grew up on the Two Ronnies, Red Dwarf, Greenwing. And I think I’d always wanted to but I never really knew how to get into it. It’s not somethign that you can talk to your career guidance counselor, especially in the scholl I went to. Go into law or medicine. We had classes in Latin. You only  need to learn that if you’re preparing people to be lawyers or doctors.

Female: Or priests.

M: Yeah, we try to keep that to a minimum.

S: Matt. You’re wasting battery power again. So in terms of comedians you like, who do you like?

M: I would say my favorite comedian is still Brendhan Lovegrove.

S: Really?

M: I truly, honestly think that. Especially in front of a hopping and bopping kind of crowd.

S:  He seems to thrive on that. Maybe a bit too much.

M: He thrives on it. Matybe a bit too long. But when it comes to unruly crowds like that, there might be a few comics in the world that are as good, but none that are better. Not anywhere. I also love Dylan Moran’s low key delivery style. Dave Allen is just amazing. Just sitting there, got a fag, got a scotch.

S: Is that what you’re going for in your style?

[[Female leaves]]

M (to departing Female): You’re allowed to get involved in the conversation. We gave you the vote.

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S: Matt. Please…my batteries. Your style?

M: I don’t know because it’s still in the formative years, as it were.  It changes from gig to gig. At the moment, both the gigs I did I was low key. But I was sick the last few days, and I got fucked up last night.

S: That sounds like an excuse.

M: No. it is generally low key. MC’ing is different. MC’ing is an act. For some people, it’s their standard “being friendly and inviting”. To me, MC’ing is acting, and standup is truth, as it were, not to sound too wanky. But it is something. I know a lot of comedians say it takes two or three years, maybe a couple hundred gigs, I’ve been doingit for 17 months and done 150-odd gigs. So I feel I have plenty of time to grow. But I think it’s gooing to stay I like it chilled, low-key, conversational, rest the hand on the mic stand. That sort of thing.

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