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Jerome Chandrahasen on the business of comedy

You’d be surprised how much being a successful comedian comes down to admin. Spinoff Comedy co-editor Sam Brooks sat down with Wellington’s Jerome Chandrahasen to chat about the intricacies of running comedy shows and why people love trivia.

Sam Brooks: So, the most basic question: how did you get into comedy?

Jerome Chandrahasen: I started back at university, did debating at high school, went to college with James Nokise.

I joined the debating club at university and then James went off and tee’d up with … that was when Ben Hurley was running the Wellington Comedy Club and he was doing improv or something like that and James just said ‘Hey you should give this a go’. I did one set at San Fran / Indigo and that was it. Got hooked. Got stuck. The first one went really well. The second one went terribly.

How so?

I can’t remember but I just remember just the darkness. I just remember the void of the room because San Fran, it’s a big room.

But then the third one went great and that was all I needed, just that third hit and I was off, couldn’t leave.

Wellington was a very small scene back in the day. Everyone was just sort of making it up. Y’know there was no 7 Days, there was no sort of big name acts really in Wellington. Sometimes Dai Henwood would come down but it was just a bunch of people running gigs in a pub and I just sort of tagged along. So it was great.

So how has the scene down here changed?

Wellington’s changed a lot. It went through lots of ups and downs. The Wellington Comedy Club would sort of collapse every now and then when somebody would leave. The first time, Ben Hurley left then they started from scratch again. Then Cori (Gonzalez-Macquer) was running it and then he left and it started from scratch again. Then Ziggy (Ziya) was running it and then that stopped.

How does that happen?

I think because it was a really small community you just needed a few comics to go away and then you were sort of crippled again.

Derek started running Raw Meat Monday at Fringe Bar which was just up the road from San Fran at the time. Then he and Mary Lane, who’s a producer, they had this idea of setting up an arts charity to support Wellington comedy and then they asked if I’d like to be involved. I said, ‘sure I’ll help out’ and then I ended up just running it.

So that was when we got the Humorous Arts Trust which is the charity that runs a lot of the stand up comedy in Wellington. We started with Raw Meat Monday then we ran the Raw Comedy Quest and just slowly grew the scene back up from there.

One of the most important things we did in the early days was invest in administration. Like our biggest expense in the first twelve months was we hired a lawyer to set us up as a charity, register with the Charities Commission, register with IRD, we hired an administrator to take care of invoicing…

So that sort of stuff which is really dull and it’s not anything people get excited about, is one of the reasons that we’ve sustained for so long. Whenever you talk about developing comedians everybody says, ‘Oh you need lots of stage time’ but then they go on and run gigs that only last for three months.

Right.

If you want to build a community you’ve got to run gigs week after week after week, month after month and that’s where you get your community from. Then when it starts to succeed, that’s when you draw other people in.

You’ve got to have that initial period where it’s really crap and you’ve got to get over that period. The other thing I did was put up ticket prices. So it used to be like $5 to go to a Monday night and it was free for performers.

Then I put it up to $10 and performers pay $5. That might seem like a trivial amount, like ‘who cares, what’s another $5?’ but that meant our MC fee went from $50 up to $125 and now all of a sudden you’ve got people like… tomorrow night, the MC is coming down for the Raw Comedy Quest and she can afford to drive from Levin, y’know, childcare, come and do the gig, get paid and go back, and she’s not out of pocket.

Absolutely.

So by doing that you increase the range of people who can afford to participate in what we’re running. So you increase the range of people on stage which means you increase the type of audience because, you probably already know this, people like to see themselves on stage, right?

They do!

They like to see their views and their thoughts and someone from their background talking about stuff that they can relate to. So if I can set up a system where people are getting paid a little bit more and I’ve got a broader range of performers, that’s helped grow our audience.

Once again, you have to go through those months where people are going ‘I’m not gonna pay ten bucks for an open mic! Stuff that!’ but eventually they slowly start to come around. So putting those ticket prices up, switching to invoicing, so you only get paid if you send us an invoice.

Which is good.

And we pay you by bank deposit. So instead of it being ‘sweet, here’s some twenty dollar bills that I’m just gonna go buy another drink at the bar’, it goes into the same account that pays their rent, it goes into the same account that buys their groceries. It’s a really subtle thing but it’s a small mind-shift. You start to see stand up comedy as being like a…

A job?

A little bit like a job. I think that maybe people put a little bit more effort into it now that they view it that way rather than just a bunch of people getting drunk in a pub.

Yeah.

So that was one of the other small reasons I think we’ve managed to keep going as long as we have. Other things we did were for open mic, this seems really trivial but it has made a difference, previously at the Wellington Comedy Club,  if you wanted a spot you would wait and then Ben Hurley would send you a text.

Oh my god.

And you’d be like ‘Oh thanks, I got a gig, thanks very much’ but you had to wait for someone to offer you a spot. So what we did, instead of contacting people we said, ‘Look, If you want a spot, you get in touch with us.’

You send us an email and we’ll reply back to you within 24 hours and we’ll put you in the next available slot.’ And what happens is that the people who do gigs now are the people who are actively looking for the stage time.

Gotcha.

So if you sit in a green room and you’re surrounded by other people who’ve got there because they were actively looking for it, it’s a really upbeat, positive environment to be in.

If you’re a new person, you’re doing it for the first time, you walk into a green room and you’ve got someone going ‘d’you remember two years ago when we had Dai Henwood? That was great’ you can’t be involved in that conversation, right? That’s already happened.

But if you’re in a green room and they’re like ‘hey, we’ve got a comedy festival show coming up, you should come to our show’ that’s something that you as a newcomer can be involved with, can participate with – you’ve got stuff to look forward to.

Totally.

I feel like the whole Wellington community has sort of become like that. They’re always looking forward to what’s going to happen in the future, what can we get involved with. They’re actively out there, actively looking for opportunities, looking to create new work, looking to tag team up with other people and that’s a big part of the shift.

So now if I were to leave Wellington it doesn’t matter. There would be like a half dozen other people who would be like ‘Great, what can we create now’ rather than sitting back passively waiting for that text.

That sounds horrifying.

Then because we invested in all the administration in the early days, when we went to apply for funding, we put an application in and the City Council is like ‘oh, these guys have been going for like five years, they’ve got all these annual reports, everything’s up to date, they’re paying all these taxes; if we give our money to these people we know it’s going to be used well.’

So for Raw Comedy Quest at the moment there’s like $3000 worth of posters out on the streets – we’ve been able to get stuff like that because we spent that money on the admin at the start.

That’s so cool.

It just increases the professionalism of the gig, right? You always get these Facebook threads on the Comedy Guild page about how to run a gig but a lot of people don’t bother spending the time and energy to put everything together. We all know what a good gig looks like but now we’ve got the resources that we can do that, we can make it happen.

That’s so cool.

Jerome Chandrahasen

So, turning to the less admin side of things, what is your comedy fest show about this year?

Well it’s called Five Fun Facts About Falcons so there will definitely be five facts about falcons in it. So my show last year was called Five Fun Facts About Finland and I was like, y’know, alliteration, people like alliteration. It’s also nice to give yourself a constraint.

Definitely.

So I know that definitely I have to meet that goal of having those facts in there and then I can build up stuff around it. The show about Finland was just purely a coincidence. I was MCing a gig and someone in the crowd was from Finland and I was like ‘Oh Finland. Just off the top of my head I happen to know a couple of facts.’

How did you know facts about Finland, of all the countries of the world?

It’s really silly. I was killing time in a library, I was in New Plymouth, I was doing some customer service work… Anyway, I was killing time and they had a little book exhibit about snipers so I just picked up a book, read through and found out that the world’s deadliest sniper was a Finnish guy.

Yes!

Do you know that?! Simo-

Yes! Simo Häyhä!

I was like ‘oh that’s kind of funny.’

Finland in the Second World War, yeah?

Yeah, Second World War, against the Russians. 505 confirmed kills.

Yeah, he killed hundreds of people, like how do you…?

Like, what a tally! So for some reason that just stuck in my mind. Then I did linguistics at university and it had come up that the Finnish language is pretty unique in Europe; it’s not really connected to many of the other European languages. Finnish, Hungarian and I think Estonian are like their own separate branch. So that’s another little fact that sort of stuck in my mind and so you start to accumulate. I was at a friend’s wedding and James Nokise’s partner…

Anya.

Yeah, Anya is Finnish.

That’s right, Anya is Finnish!

Anya’s Finnish as well! So when I was chatting to that audience member I was like ‘Oh I happen to know a lot of little things about Finland’ so then I got a book out of the library and was like ‘There must be more stuff about Finland’ and so went off on that track.

So with Falcons I was just like, ‘I need something else that starts with F. Falcons are pretty cool.’ I read a book called H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, about hawks, the death of her father and training hawks at the same time.

And I was like ‘That’s kind of fascinating.’ Then as I was sort of thinking about predatory birds, as you do…

As you do.

The first flat that I lived in with my wife we were down the road from Zealandia, the bird sanctuary. So for a brief period I was a voluntary guide there because I just needed something to kill the time. So you end up hanging about learning about a few more birds. Then I had a friend who used to be a meteorologist and changed career to become a zookeeper and she was a member of the New Zealand Predatory Birds Society.

That’s a thing?

It’s a thing. People who focus on predatory birds. I think on Facebook or something I posted about how we went to Owlcatraz in Shannon, you know where we’ve got the moreporks?

Yes.

And she posted back saying ‘Actually, a lot of members of the Predatory Birds Society don’t like how those owls are being treated.’

Hey, which is fair.

Yeah it’s pretty fair. So I’ve got these two little things about predatory birds in New Zealand. Then you know how sometimes something happens on Twitter and you get carried away with it? A friend of mine posted how, this was back a few years ago, how they thought that the morepork should be the New Zealand Bird of the Year. As a Twitter joke I just went ‘Yeah! Absolutely! Morepork 2010 4eva!’ Then started learning more about moreporks. They’re amazing birds, man!

Really?

100% silent flight.

They’re like the Willie Apiata of the forest, you can’t hear them coming and then they swoop down. Pow!

So Forest and Bird got in touch and I became the campaign manager for one of the years for the morepork so I’ve got another connection to predatory birds. Then I was thinking about it, I realised my mother’s maiden name is Faulkner from the French word falconer and so now I’m like ‘Oh I’ve got this other connection to falcons’.

And… this is getting really… I’m just trying to paint like… the ideas just come from everywhere and I’m trying to sort of tie them together. When we were in the UK we caught up with [former Wellington comedian] Jonny Potts. We went and stayed at his place in the Midlands. We went to a state house… The Duke of Devonshire, going to see his state house. The Duke of Devonshire’s name is the most stereotypical… He’s ‘The Duke of Devonshire, Lord Peregrine Cavendish’.

You’re kidding.

What an amazing name, right? Peregrine Cavendish.

That’s the most English name. Imagine having that name.

And the peregrine falcon? Fastest bird in the world.

Really?

Yeah. So now I’ve got another random fact.

I used to host a quiz night on a Tuesday and I just realised people love facts, people love trivia. I used to stand there on the mic, read the questions and see a room full of adults just waiting with baited breath. When they got something right, the joy on their faces, like these are people with serious jobs, these are lawyers and grown ups with children, but connecting a fact in their mind to a trivia question was like the best feeling for them.

So that’s why I’ve got these facts in the show, because people will hear a fact and they’ll be like ‘Yeah! I too knew that the peregrine falcon was the fastest bird’ and there’s a sense of joy there.

Last thing is, are you the guy in the ads?

Oh for Xero?

Yeah! How did that happen?

Look, I was just an extra but anyway they said ‘Does anyone here use Xero?’ because Xero were wanting Xero customers in their ads. Of course, because we set up the admin at the beginning of the Humorous Arts Trust, I said ‘We’ve been using Xero for like six years.’

Because they were great, they’re really simple and that’s what everybody uses. So I was like, ‘actually yeah, Humorous Arts Trust have been with Xero and I run that.’

Oh my god.

So that’s what ended up in the ads!

That is the best link back ever!

This is the perfect link back! This is how we started our conversation and now we close it!

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