Brendhan Lovegrove

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]]


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.


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.

A long build up to a conversation with Anthony Wilson

I’ve been carrying a digital voice recorder in my pocket.

In case you were wondering what that was.


The way I see it, a creative genius should always have a DVR on hand to capture the gossamer threads of brilliance from their muse.

Of course I do it because you never know when an opportunity will arise to blackmail a friend or loved one.

Hey, don’t judge. I’m unemployed and I say good business is where you find it.

Besides, I’d be wasting my time waiting to hear from my muse. Last I heard, she’d moved to Jersey, got married, knocked up, and sells commercial real estate for a living.

So, fuck that bitch. She made her choice. Now she has to live with it.

Because here I am, living it up, pursuing my two month old dream of becoming a professional stand up comedian and comedy writer, carrying a digital recorder around everywhere I go.

Even if I don’t really know how to use it. Today it took me hours to find the recording of a conversation I had with comedian Anthony Wilson a few weeks back.

Wilson and I met one Thursday in July at the Thirsty Dog, where he was MC-ing the open mic. The atmosphere there was not like what I’d grown accustomed to from Wednesday nights at Snatch.

Thirsty Dog is a bigger space than Snatch, with patrons sitting around a dozen or more circular tables. From where my friend Ben and I sat, it felt as if any performer had a wide gulf to bridge between him or herself and the audience. So Wilson had his work cut out for him, especially wrangling the attention of an audience that was, on that night, largely the talent. This was a lot like the open mic nights I did with my friend Jay in New York City ten years ago. It would be me, Jay and nine other guys waiting our turn, which I realize sounds like the premise to a gay porn movie. But I assure you, there was very little of that going on, as far as I can recall. Basically a lot of us would get drunk before going up. Open mic was less standup, more “hey, check out that fucked-up alcoholic dude pissing his pants in the alley”.


Wilson didn’t have that problem. It was more how do you keep things going apace for an audience of other comedians. That, to me, is kind of a tough room. Wilson managed to pull it off.

At least from what I remember. That’s another reason I carry my DVR: I have the RAM of an x386 machine, running DOS 5.0. But I have a body for sin, so it all evens out.

So Wilson and I had agreed to sit down for a chat after the show, which I recorded (to remember accurately) for my incipient Conversations with Comedians series.

But because I’ve been carrying this DVR in my pocket everywhere, I have accidentally filled it up with hundreds of accidental recordings from my everyday life.

So I’ve spent the last few days sifting through hours and hours of shit, in order to find my interview with Anthony Wilson.

Most of the recordings were a few minutes long, capturing what life would be like if I shrunk you down to the size of a Boba Fett Action figure and stuffed you in my trouser pocket, warm and snuggily against my person.

Some recordings are just the sound of rustling and ambient street noise. Sometimes it’s my friend Craig saying, “Don’t touch me there, it hurts,” but without any hint of context. Or irony. I have one 15 minute recording of me at the cafe trying to decide what to eat, only ending up by saying, “Oh, forget it, I’ll just go to Subway” and it was the right decision in the end.

Finally, though, I did come across the recording of my conversation with Anthony Wilson:

Eskow: That room is tough.

Wilson: It’s an uphill battle. It’s got one of those vibes like an awkward family reunion. And mom’s like, “oh, Anthony does comedy. Get  up there and tell the family some jokes.”

E: Are there other venues like that?

W: I suppose it’s a special vibe. It’s intimate. We’re all kind of spread out, so you have to battle for your laughs. But when you get there, you get there. It’s rewarding.

E: Why?

W: I don’t know. You can go out tell some dick jokes and everybody loves a good schlong joke. Then things like this they don’t want to hear more jokes, so you want to get more involved with the audience and make it a special visit . If they want to hear any open mic comedy, they can go any other place around Auckland.


E: Do you have a standby joke?

W: Standby joke? I have jokes that I know work in case things aren’t going too well. But a go-to joke, just my routine stuff. I’ve got a lot of stuff about….some rough gags, a bit rough around the edges, a bit risky. I’ve got a “rapy” joke. It’s a bit rough, but it’s like self-effacing, at the end of the day.

E: “Rapy” joke?

W: Yeah, it’s like I don’t think I’d be very good at sex. I’m a glass half-full sort of man. Because of premature ejaculation, right? So, If sex was a race I’d win it. I could do it during the ads. But the main premature ejaculation rape joke is: it’s not rape if you finish before she says no. The reason I say it’s a bit risky is a woman came up to me and said, “That gag deals with the hard subject matter of rape, and I don’t think you should do it, and you would never do something like that, right?” And I said, “Yeah, well, you would have to be fucked to do something as terrrible and horrible like that to another human being.” And she said, “No, that’s not what I meant. I just mean you don’t have the upper body strength to pull off the task.” That’s my bit.

I don’t think there’s any taboo subject if you’re doing it in the right light. You’re not picking on the victims’ experience. You can get away with so much by directing it back at yourself, especiially when you look like this.

E: What’s your day job?

W: Apache. It’s  a sales company. I’m just knocking on doors. One of those guys. It pays the bills.

E: Any good jokes from knocking door to door?

W: I just try to have fun with it. People who don’t speak english, you know, I’ll throw in something vulgar. I tried that today with someone. He said “No english” and it was too good an accent I could tell he was lying. So I said, “Look your shoe’s untied.” And he looked down. And I said, “Fucker, I got you.” And I ened up signing him up after that.

E: Where did you grow up?

W: Nowehere too exciting. Just around East Auckland, moved to a country town, Helensville, in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere, a bit of hot pools and a few cows.

E: I’ve been through there a few times.

W: Yeah. It’s a nice place

E: yeah.

W: Yeah

E: Yeah

W: It just couldn’t hold my creative genius. Now I’m living closer to central Auckland (in Ponsonby)

E: So you feel like even moving from just Helensville to Auckland is a step up? I mean, I’m coming from New York, so it all seems the same to me.

W: Yeah, I mean, we have lovely small towns all around the place but I couldn’t have…you have that small town mentality. You go to high school there. You get some fucking nine-to-five job. Grab the first girl closest to you, knock her up and live there the rest of your life. So, in a way, it’s quite [[inaudible]] down a little bit.

E: How long have you wanted to be doing something in comedy?

W: I think I don’t have any other skills. I mean, if we’re being serious. From a young age, I really do remember wanting to make people laugh, even from four or five, slapstick stuff, beat myself up, people used to love that. What else am I going to do? I’m going to go out there, do what I love and even if that’s just in front of eight people in a run down tavern, good. I haven’t made it yet, but you have to do that shit.

E: What shows do you have coming up?

W: I’m talking with some people about doing a show near Helensville at these hot pools. So people sit in hot pools and we tell jokes. We’ve packed it out before. We’ve done about 10 or 12 of these shows there now and they always sell out. It’s at the Parakai Hot Springs. It’s called Comedy on the rocks. It’s totally different to anything you’ll see. It’s a relaxed, rural crowd, beers are three or four dollars. People travel from an hour off to come. It’s a real different atmosphere. We’ll have five or so comedians. Pros like Brendhan Lovegrove, Jeremy Elwood, James Keating, and Jarred Fell.

The conversation trailed off after that. To tell you the truth, I’m an awkward interviewer. Basically, the last two minutes was about my uneasiness over the rape material, even though I think that Wilson’s intent is to be self-deprecating. Personally, I think all comedians have one thing in common: they transgress normative or popular values, to a greater or lesser degree. So, I admire Wilson for stepping out on a limb, while being thoughtful of the tension it creates.

And I’m glad I finally found his recording on my DVR in the end. Otherwise I’d be making up a lot of shit about Anthony Wilson that nobody would like.