Business is Boring is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt. Today Simon talks to Scott Blanks about helping shape New Zealand comedy over the last 20 years.
20 years ago a bunch of young comedians, and their manager, who’d spent years making comedy nights happen across Auckland, thought it was time for a dedicated venue. On Queen St, near the Town Hall, they found a venue that was a lot perfect and a bit yuck – the Classic, infamous as an adult cinema. Over 20 years of building the business and the state of comedy in New Zealand, one founder, Scott Blanks, went from organising comedy nights through to being the owner, mentor, fosterer and friend to comedians young and old, new and established. He turned his background – first in accounting and then cinema marketing – into a role often called the Godfather of Stand-up, creating careers and also recognition for the craft. And not just with the live shows, but through telly too. Before there was 7 Days there was Pulp Comedy. Scott was part of that. And before that, Funny Business. Yep, Scott too. And how it’s all grown.
His club puts on 350 plus gigs a year for tens of thousands through the door, with space on stage for those just staring right through to some of the biggest names in world comedy. To chat the first 20 years, the explosion in comedy he helped spark and what’s next, Scott Blanks of the Classic Comedy Club joins us now.
What are the business lessons you’ve learned out of this? From starting, building the scene, going into liquidation, then having to rebuild?
A very grassroots business thing is the art of communication and connecting with your audience. Comedians, of course, have to do that very quickly, as does anyone when they’ve got an idea. You’ve got to pitch an idea to people who aren’t on board with your idea. And an audience is not necessarily on board with a comedian in the first instance. So a comedian has to step out on stage and introduce themselves. You’ve got seconds to do that. A good salesperson will also tell you that when you’re dealing with a new customer you have seconds to get it right or wrong. A person will make up maybe 90% of their decision about a person in the first ten seconds of meeting them. And I often say to the comedians, “when you step out on stage, the moment you emerge in front of the audience – you haven’t even opened your mouth – you are on show and the audience is thinking and that perception of you is growing straight away. So you’ve got to say the right things, you’ve got to do the right things.” Comedians often don’t think, and I think that applies in business too. I’ve always believed you need to start off as you mean to carry on.
We’ve been approached so many times by companies like GrabOne and all the discount voucher companies that have come and gone over the years. They’ve approached us and said “what are your slow nights? Where are your gaps? We could fill your off nights. We could fill the nights you’re not open.” And I’ve said straight away I want no perception in the marketplace that my venue or that stand up comedy is a discount entertainment. You’re not gonna get 50% my brand or my comedy. New Zealand is not about discount, we do quality. If we wanted to we’d hire a ten thousand seat auditorium and discount 50% of the seats and fill it cheaply but of course pay. But that’s not what we’re about.
I believe that’s very important. I’m not a trained brand man at all but I’m precious about my brand and I love it. I’m certainly not going to run it down in that way. I think it’s very important that companies – particularly those companies that are run with passion by the person that maybe thought of the idea and started it – not to be fooled into thinking that bigger is better. People say “oh look, you sold out. Get a bigger venue!” You know, sometimes it’s better to be turning people away. It creates a perception of quality. And also it makes you more valuable when people can’t buy a seat as opposed to everyone being able to buy a seat. So I like the idea of being a boutique quality, it fits the New Zealand market I think. There are some very big players in the business world, in the entertainment world, very big comedians filling [Spark Arena]. None of that ever affects my business anymore. Once upon a time people would say “oh god, Billy Connolly’s playing, you’ll be quiet tonight.” We actually might’ve been quiet but not anymore. When those people come here they just create more demand for what The Classic offers.
So it’s important in business to hold onto your dream and don’t think that bigger is better. Remember that first impressions really count, when people are coming in and seeing your business for the first time. Our staff are very much on board. We realised that our staff are the first people that the audience meets, not the comedians, so the staff have to be on board with our mission as well.