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Hermann’s killed comedy

As USyd's comedy scene peters out, who has the last laugh

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In 2009, Susie Youssef was performing at Hermann’s Bar at the USU’s weekly comedy room, Project 52.

Awarded Best Comedy Room by Time Out Sydney in 2011, Project 52 (known as ‘P52’) went on to launch the careers of some of Sydney’s top stand-up comedians.

Nine years and multiple solo shows later, Youssef was back at the same venue and had to start her set with five minutes of trying to get students up the back to stop talking.

Youssef was the headliner for this year’s OWeek comedy night, put on by USU-funded comedy collective, Small Trumpet. The show was the collective’s first big-name night after Hermann’s Bar received a refurbishment funded by Chinese beer brand Tsingtao last year.

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At Sydney University, we have a habit of assuming campus institutions are very old. Comedy at Hermann’s is not. In fact, Hermann’s, as a venue, is not either.

Originally named Wentworth Bar, the space we now know as Hermann’s first opened at the end of 1988, when the USU extended the Wentworth Building towards Butlin Avenue.

It was a venue largely disliked by students. While Manning Bar had the stage set up to host gigs, band comps and theatresports, Hermann’s was really just a place on the wrong side of campus selling beer to engineers and commerce students.

In Honi’s 2005 OWeek guide, Wentworth Bar was described as Manning’s “perpetual second-fiddle, and it knows it”.

In 2006, the USU turned Wentworth Bar into Hermann’s Bar, the state it existed in until last year. “Wentworth Bar was very tired and sad so we spent about $25,000 turning it into a cocktail lounge with a small stage,” Alistair Cowie, the USU’s director of sales, marketing and infrastructure, tells Honi.

He adds that the venue was named for colourful former University chancellor Sir Hermann Black “just because”. A picture of Black, who died in 1990, hung in the bar until the Tsingtao-funded refurbishment.

In its early days, Hermann’s was woefully unpopular. In 2007, a “Manning vs Hermann’s” face off was published in the 28 March edition of Honi. Its only defence of Hermann’s was as a source of free finger food, a status it earned because its lack of popularity among students had made it a common place for the USU to hold corporate events.

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It wasn’t until 2009 that comedy came to the venue with P52, the result of a deal struck between the USU and campus comedy group The Delusionists, who had been using USU funding to perform at the Melbourne Comedy Festival for the previous two years.

The group—The Checkout’s Alex Lee, Dragon Friends’ Simon Grenier, Youssef, and Free to a Good Home podcast hosts Ben Jenkins and Michael Hing—would continue to receive their funding if they started a comedy room at Hermann’s and organised 52 shows a year. The weekly shows peddled through three different billings: Hermann’s Heroes (standup), Make Way for Ducklings (sketch), and Story Club (a storytelling show which is still performed today at Giant Dwarf). Improv was added later.

According to Hing, Hermann’s at the time was host to a variety of eccentric happenings.

“JazzSoc would play there from 5-7pm. Engineering students did medieval reenactments on the lawns outside. There would be drum and bass gigs ‘til the early morning. There were rubber ball fetish parties and queer parties.”

One time, Hing recalls needing to clean a wall because he found the words “fuck off and die, breeders” written in what he believes was human blood.

For current campus comedians, P52 is remembered as a golden age of Sydney University comedy. However, Jenkins tells Honi their room “has been mythologised in a way, and [its] shortcomings sort of overlooked”.

“The room has always been terrible for comedy,” Hing adds. “It only became a vibe because everyone was there for the show.”

The P52 organisers used to arrive 90 minutes before their shows to rearrange speakers and set up chairs. Hing describes their first year as “really rough”. Audience numbers were not dissimilar to those seen at Hermann’s comedy nights today.

“Thirty [people] was really good,” Jenkins says. (For the nerds out there, in 2009, the University enrolment was slightly smaller, at 47,000 students compared to 53,000 in 2016.)

P52’s comedy was experimental, and often messy: performers threw buckets of squid at the audience during a Game of Thrones sketch, Hing pelted eggs at Tom Walker (who won Best Newcomer at the 2016 Melbourne Comedy Festival) for 12 minutes during a sketch aptly titled “Tom Walker Human Egg Beater Sketch”, and one time the troupe fitted their fists with raw chickens for “chicken boxing”.

“It was a scummy venue no one cared about,” Hing says. “That’s probably why we could get away with what we did.”

The joke was that, thanks to the deal they had cut with the USU, P52 were contractually obligated to be there. Over their four years, they only cancelled two shows. Because, while the performance was silly, P52 did operate as a serious comedy room: the group charged entry, and locked the doors so punters wouldn’t wander in.

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Stand-up comic Cassie Workman was a frequent performer at P52 and looked back on the room with great fondness. “I loved performing [there]. It was dark, people came and paid money,” she says.

Alongside Youssef, Workman returned to Hermann’s for this year’s OWeek event. When we asked her about the new space, she told us she had to work a bit harder because “it was still light and people were very spaced out” (the gig was from 5-7pm).

Mentioning the room’s echo and how its concrete floors makes the noise bleed, Workman describes the new space as a “canteen in a factory, utilitarian and santised”.

“It’s not a great place for expression unless you are expressing postmodern existential dread.”

Of course, a number of factors contributed to the atmosphere of this year’s OWeek gig: the 5pm start time, or the lack of entry fee, which meant no one felt they lost anything when they walked out.

But you can’t ignore the impact of the refurbishment: once a large rectangular platform in the centre of the back wall, fitted with curtains and facing couches and stools, the stage is now a meagre semi-circle in the corner of a sparsely decorated concrete room.

Jon Lo, one of the group who organises the Small Trumpet comedy nights, cites the corner stage as the biggest challenge for performing comedy in the new space.

“From a feng shui perspective… the symbolism of the space is less directed towards performing arts,” he half-jokes.

Cassie Workman stresses the importance of a dark, intimate space. “A good venue has no natural light, controlled lighting with audiences sitting in close proximity in rowed or tiered seating,” she says. Currently there is a glass wall behind the stage and large glass windows in the front of the venue, so it is obvious when it is daytime.

Small Trumpet told Honi they had met to discuss how to navigate the new space, with some members even suggesting a relocation to SUDS’ Cellar Theatre or an off-campus venue.

But there is still a strong connection to the history of the space, and student organisers are trying to make it work. Reuben Ward, another member of the Small Trumpet group, has reached out to the USU about the sound issues and is sympathetic to their responses.

“They are committed to doing things and making things better. And to their credit they did put in a lighting rig after I spoke to them about that.”

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Honi contacted the USU for comment on whether any improvement to the venue’s sound facilities was planned for the final phase of the refurbishment,due to be completed this year. The USU replied that the project was intended to focus only on redeveloping the beer garden but, after hearing the feedback explored in this article, they promised to “make sure it’s captured” and, in the meantime, ask the licensee to “look into the sound”.

Because this is the thing: you cannot say that the USU is not a supporter of campus comedy.

Small Trumpet—not to mention the revue season and Theatresports—are well-funded programs. Small Trumpet have reign over the same USU-owned Darlington terrace workspace (dubbed Comedy House) that P52 were given a decade ago.

This year’s OWeek comedy event had roughly half the turnout of last year’s (at the old Hermann’s) for a comparably good lineup. At an event largely marketed to first years, it seems unlikely the low numbers were due to the bad space, which many of the attendees had no prior experience of.

Ward agrees. “It’s easy to be upset about the space but we as organisers have a lot of problems too.”

On a broader level, campus culture is harder to sustain now than when P52 was Sydney’s best comedy room. A 2016 Honi investigation tracked declining attendance at faculty revues over the same period.

Jenkins and Hing—who ran P52 while living in a sharehouse opposite Victoria Park paying meagre rent that will make you cry—suggested the Sydney housing market could be to blame. When P52 ran, students were able to afford to live near campus, and fewer needed to leave after class for a long commute home.

Of course, the Hermann’s refurbishment has its flaws. Lo describes it as a “commercialised parody of itself”.

When announcing the refurbishments last year, the USU described their vision for Hermann’s as “a place for students not rockstars”. It seems the USU may have forgotten that student comedians, although they’re not rockstars, also need a performance venue.

Why can’t you hear comedy at Hermann’s?

The new Hermann’s design according to an architect, a bartender, and a student comedian.

“The problem is the speakers, they’re angled. So, if you’re in the front row, the sound goes over you.”
Anonymous Hermann’s bartender

“It’s just shit.”
Jon Lo, Small Trumpet Organiser

“If the remaining surfaces, after removal of carpet and curtains, are mainly hard, then the room’s reverberation time may increase considerably. The effects of a longer reverberation time can be that speech becomes smeared in time (speech intelligibility is reduced) and the room becomes louder (because the sound does not get absorbed as quickly). Loudness of people talking is exacerbated by the ‘Lombard effect’ – as people speak more loudly to compete with other people’s voices. The spatial decay rate of speech is likely to be reduced in a room with significantly less sound absorption, which means that people’s voices carry further.”
Associate Professor Densil Cabrera, Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning