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If there’s something Tom Jacobs has learned during his life-long foray into the realm of comedy, it’s that being a comedian ain’t just about being a funny man…
When I was a kid, during the school holidays my dad used to take me fishing to a place called Frying Pan.
Located forty minutes outside of Cooma, and an hour from the Snowy Mountains, Frying Pan was a working farm that doubled as a camp site on the edge of a shrinking lake. We used to be able to walk to the lake’s edge from our tent but as the droughts worsened, the lake’s edge moved further away and we found ourselves having to load the rods into dad’s car and drive down to fish. I was the only person that welcomed this environmental disaster as it meant that I could now sit in the car and listen to cassettes instead of having to stand on the shore waiting for a trout to come along.
Dad had a whole lot of cassettes in his car. Most were of John Lee Hooker and The Stones, but he also had some comedy stuff too. The Best of Peter Sellers was a favourite – a series of radio sketches that would have me in stitches. While dad was enjoying the outdoor manure-smelling air, I would be on the front seat of his station wagon, memorising every line from Sellers so I could perform the routines for my often confused friends when school started up again.
It was during one of these trips I discovered Woody Allen Live, a live recording of Allen doing stand-up in the sixties. His material was mostly about being Jewish, living in New York and being Jewish in New York. I was a thirteen-year-old kid from Sydney’s Northern Beaches. I didn’t have much of an understanding of what being Jewish meant. I knew New York, but I didn’t know what a bagel was. The only culture I knew as a kid growing up on the Northern Beaches was surf culture (of which I didn’t partake) and Nintendo (of which I absolutely partook). All Allen’s references were lost on me, but I was fascinated by what was coming through the speakers; Allen spoke like a jazz musician played. There was rhythm and timing. Even those moments where he’d clear his throat or coughed sounded like it was timed in a way that made the punch-line that followed funnier.
And the audience was laughing.
When I went back to school I started performing these Allen routines to my friends. I was an Australian kid from a middle-class family telling my mates how “my shrink was a strict Freudian. If you killed yourself, he’d make you pay for the sessions you missed”. My friends hadn’t a clue what I was on about. The only explanation they could come up with was that I had suffered from some horrible brain injury during the holidays. Thankfully I purchased Billy Connolly’s Live 1994 album. The bad language and filthy jokes on that recording went down a lot better with my friends who were sick of me talking about Rabbis and NYU.
I spent my pocket money on more comedy albums, and after a short time, something strange happened; I stopped laughing. I hadn’t lost interest, it was the opposite. I wasn’t laughing because I was now studying. Studying how a joke worked – trying to figure out what a joke was and why it was funny. The best answer I could come up with to this question was that it’s two or more ideas that run side by side until finally meeting at the punch-line. The punch-line had to catch the audience by surprise, but then it had to be very logical as well. Logic was, I thought, the most important element of humour. Then, just when I thought I had the anatomy of a joke figured out, I’d hear a comic like Steve Martin, brilliantly ignoring all of that stuff on his Let’s Get Small album from the 70’s. Soon, the new question I obsessed over became “Where do their ideas come from?”
By the time I was in my late teens I was writing my own material. None of it was any good, but it was enough for me to get a meeting with radio/TV personality Doug Mulray. We met at a bar in Circular Quay and we spoke about all things comedy. I told him I wanted to write comedy.
“Why comedy? Do you suffer from depression?” he asked.
The question surprised me, but now it makes sense. People think that when a comedian turns up to a party that he or she is going to be the life and soul of the shindig, cracking one-liners all night. This is simply not true. In my experience, most comedians are very shy and reserved, and many suffer from depression. Just look at the tragic events this week surrounding Robin Williams, who recently succumbed to the illness.
Doug didn’t offer me a job, but he bought me a few drinks at the bar before we visited his office, conveniently located right around the corner, where he introduced me to a female comedian named Gabby. Gabby looked at some of the jokes I had typed up the night before and, ignoring all my spelling mistakes, gave me some advice – “just do it”.
As far as I knew, Gabby wasn’t a spokesperson for Nike, so when she said “just do it” I can only assume that what she meant was, “get on stage and do funny”.
“Oh, and expect to suck too,” she added before leaving the office. “Everyone dies on stage during their first gig.”
So at 19 years old, on a Tuesday night, I did my first gig at the Sydney Comedy Store and, as Gabby predicted, like some Jack the Ripper stand-up murder victim, I “sucked and died”.
My lack of confidence was so evident on stage that the audience was nervous for me. I performed a handful of times when I was 19, but I couldn’t shake this problem and started experiencing panic attacks before and after gigs, even when I was doing well, which only seemed to be 50 percent of the time. With that in mind, as well as wanting to pursue other creative avenues, I gave up comedy and didn’t return for another 10 years.
I had been living in Yorkeys Knob, a sugar-cane farming area outside of Cairns where I had been working on building sites and enjoying the fresh air that I had avoided in favour of dad’s car during those holidays. The combination of not having a car and terrible public transport meant my weekends were usually spent in solitude. When the Queensland weather got too hot, I went indoors where that place in front of my air-conditioner was like a religious shrine. Without a television, and little else to do on those hot days except combat pesky bouts of depression, I started listening to comedy again and I found that I wasn’t studying this time around – I was laughing instead.
Mitch Hedberg, Eddie Izzard and Demetri Martin became new favourites of mine. I’d quote these comics to the guys at work who’d laugh too. I was inspired to write material again, but for the joy of it this time. I submitted jokes to Good News Week, which led to me moving back to Sydney for an internship, during which my material was used on the show. To have a joke I’d written used in front of a studio audience, and hearing them laugh out loud was an enjoyable experience, and it was the trigger I needed to make me return to stand-up.
Creativity was keeping the depression at bay.
The most enjoyable part about performing this time round was listening to the other comedians who would go on stage after me. All the comedians of Sydney that I’ve been fortunate enough to perform with should have their own albums. There’s some serious talent in this city and I love being a laughing member of the audience.
I have since left stand-up for the second time, but it’s more of a break than anything else. I have every intention of returning again when the time feels right. I’m actually looking forward to it. In the meantime, I’ll listen to some of my favourite albums.
I’ve even revisited that old Woody Allen tape, and I divide my listening time between studying and enjoyment.
Unfortunately I never did come up with an answer to that question -“Where do ideas come from?” – however, recently I was watching a performance by British comic Jimmy Carr where an audience member asked him that very question. I was excited because not only was I about to get my answer, but it was also about to be answered by one of the pros.
I leaned in close to the TV, with my study-face on and listened intensely for the answer…
Jimmy Carr’s reply?
“I think it’s the cerebrum, but it could be the pre-frontal cortex.”
And the audience laughs…
Check back this time next week when Tom offers you a peek into his “dirty 30’s” and the black dog that came nipping at his heels…