It seems that amongst Sydneysiders, live comedy is something of a hidden vice. It’s a grim scenario, but thankfully it might be changing. Over the last year or so, the final Friday of every month has seen the Gaelic Club in Surry Hills play host to the Green Lights Comedy Night, a relaxed and supportive showcase for local comics with wide-ranging experience.
Sitting in our regular corner a month or so back, my associates and I witnessed several strong sets featuring, amongst others, the sly, droll observations of Ray Badran and the manic stumbling of the ever-brilliant Clinton Haines.
That’s quite the rave review; where is the savage misanthrope of yesteryear?
I suspect this is Green Lights’ doing. You feel it as soon as you enter the room – somehow, for some reason, everyone in the room wants to enjoy themselves. That’s not as common as you might think. Be it the venue, the time or a shitty audience; a joke cannot live in a vacuum. Just as the tamest milquetoast can bust guts under the lights of a television stage, the sharpest and most distinctive of comics can falter and die in a hostile room. But this (generally) does not happen at Green Lights – by some strange voodoo, even the hardest bitten enter with a desire to laugh.
It’s a special thing, but I shan’t lie – not every comic is a winner. A large part of the night’s appeal is in its presentation of a wide range of up-and-comers, and this brings with it some inconsistency. Yet even when facing an overly practiced delivery or excessive use of “seriously guys”, my cringe was overridden by a deep desire to find some aspect to appreciate. This was never too difficult, and the brief sets ensure you need only grab another beer and wait a second before something more your speed comes along.
The night began with a gripping series of high-powered strategy conferences between myself, and co-founders Alexei Toliopoulos and Nikko Malyon. Drawing inspiration from a party game where one performs an impression they have never done before, the idea for the night is, as Toliopoulos recalls, “[No] matter how shitty it is … you’ve got the green light”. This easy-going approach was a stark contrast to the duo’s perception of the local scene. “There weren’t … many open mics [when] we started,” Toliopoulos explained, nor were they exactly welcoming. Venturing to one such room post-high school was “scary, really intense; it cost money … so if you wanted to bring friends, they had to pay”.
It is understandable then when Malyon says they always wanted the show to be more a “creative outlet” than commercial enterprise, in spite of growing from what was envisioned as ‘the same ten comics and the same ten audience members’ to a rotating roster of local notables with a growing monthly audience. The increased popularity was something of a pleasant surprise. Toliopoulos notes that despite virtually no promotion for the year’s first show, “the word of mouth carrying over from the last year … was just huge”. In addition to the self-sustaining audience, there is the added kudos of growing name recognition as an alternative room.
Relations with the club itself remain strong, no doubt attributable to the night having managed to go from financial drain to modest income-earner – no small feat in Sydney. Given the relative scarcity of venues and audiences, Toliopoulos feels that making a go of it through stand-up alone is “not viable; they’re not making any money”. The toughness of the Sydney scene acts as something of a proving ground, adding that comics often come down from Brisbane or WA to Sydney because it’s a tougher gig and then go to Melbourne, where the crowds are perhaps more amenable.
If Sydney is harsh, then Green Lights is an outlier. The combination of an enthusiastic crowd and a resolutely DIY aesthetic provides a unique arena for showcasing the new, the old and the strange in a medium that is all too often hidden from the gaze of the average Sydneysider.