“A night off?!? All you do is hang out with your friends, drink and tell a few jokes. It sounds exhausting.”
“Well, I’m sorry for choosing the best job in the world.”
Stand-up comedy truly is the best job in the world. After I quit accounting, a lot of people were convinced this would be a fleeting experiment and I’d be knee-deep in debits and credits very soon. They’d say, “So how are your little skits going?” It was the use of the word “little” that I took most offence to because I felt they weren’t referring to the size of the skits but the importance of them or their relevance to this world.
After I was two years out of accounting, I bumped into a colleague from Ferrier Hodgson who was now working at the Australian Taxation Office, which is fine if that’s what he wants to do. But he said to me with a pained quizzical look on his face, “You still doing that joke stuff?” My career choice was being judged by someone who was working at the ATO.
“Are you still doing it?” I was asked on one too many occasions! And by “it” do you mean the job where I work 20 minutes a day, smoke and drink on the job, hang out with my mates and travel the world? Then yes, you bet your f---ing arse I’m still doing it!
Stand-up comedy is an incredibly honest and pure art form. There is no safety net, there is no one or nothing to protect you, you are laid bare before the audience with only your material, your wit and your guile to protect you. When it works, not just when they laugh but when they cry with laughter, when they roar and when they yell for more, there is nothing better. The feeling of satisfaction is so complete, so fulfilling that you never want to leave the stage. Richard Pryor once said that he hated the thought of getting off stage because then the buzz would start to die.
I feel 10 feet tall when I think back to a group of soldiers roaring in the Afghan desert or a full house at the Bear Pit in Edinburgh cheering for more or 400 people howling with laughter at PJ O’Brien’s in Adelaide. The list goes on . . . seriously it goes on but I’ll stop here. I’ll give all the details in a later book called Slightly Up Myself.
PJ O’Brien’s was a gig that I’m super proud of and it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in comedy. It was helped by the fact that I ran it with my best comedy mate Justin Hamilton.
Hammo started in a comedy duo called the Bunta Boys only a few months after my first gig. We certainly knew and liked each other then but really bonded after I returned from London. It was a road trip to Mildura and we were sat next to each other in the back seat of the car. There was a lull in conversation as we made our way into the outskirts of Adelaide and over a railway line.
Without thinking and acting on some sort of superstitious instinct, I lifted both feet off the car floor as we drove over the railway line. The idea is to make some sort of wish and I have no idea where I got this from or why, at the age of 29, I was still doing it.
In a freakish piece of symmetry, Hammo unconsciously also lifted his feet as we cruised over the rail line.
“Did you just . . .?”
We laughed and kept it to ourselves because it was embarrassing but it was the beginning of something special.
In 1998, I did my first ever Melbourne Comedy Festival with Hammo in a show we called Sugar & Spite – I was Sugar, he was Spite. The show was fine, which didn’t matter too much because almost no one came to see it. The whole experience was strange for us because in addition to the poor crowds we felt on the outer as comedians. We were the opposite of the flavour of the month, we were the Cherry Cola of that festival.
I spent a lot of 1999 overseas but when I returned we decided to take control of our comedy fate and run a few gigs. This is something that almost every young comic will do at some point. If you want stage time then you put on a gig.
We took over comedy at the much-loved Adelaide venue the Rhino Room and this venue became a cornerstone of the Adelaide comedy scene. Eventually, Craig Egan took it over from us and it remained one of the most sought after gigs in the country, especially at Fringe time in Adelaide.
Lehmo, laughing it up with Justin Hamilton at Adelaide’s Rhino Room.
Our other gig was PJ O’Briens – a giant wooden Irish pub with numerous obstructions to people trying to view the stage. There were a hundred reasons why comedy should not have worked at this venue but we gave ourselves a good old-fashioned Aussie pep talk – “She’ll be right.”
The manager approached Hammo about running the gig. Hammo informed the manager he was moving to Melbourne to further his career but referred him to me. I spoke with the manager then convinced Hammo to put off his plans to move.
I really thought we could make this work despite the fact it was a Tuesday night in Adelaide. Hammo bumped into Wil Anderson at an Eddie Izzard show and mentioned that we’d committed to this new gig and could Wil give it a plug on Triple J. Wil said that not only would he plug it but if we’d pay for his flights and accommodation then he’d do the gig for free.
Our first show was in May 2000, we had Wil and he’d plugged it on Triple J and we managed to get a mention in The Advertiser, too. We figured we needed a hundred people to prove that it was worthwhile for the pub.
In the days before social media there was no real way to get a feel for how your gig was going to go so we were absolutely shitting ourselves. We took Wil out for dinner before the show and before mains were served I ducked down to the pub to check on the set-up and make sure we were ready for night one.
The gig was promoted as having a 9pm start. I walked in just after 7.30, said “hi” to the dude on the door then walked into the pub. I scanned the room and could not believe what I saw – not one single person in the pub aside from staff. “F---! OK, it’s OK. It’s fine. We’ve got 90 minutes to showtime.”
Back at dinner I assured everyone, without making any eye contact, that we were looking real good. At 8.30 we walked to the venue and I was having the worst internal monologue – “What have I done?”; “I made Hammo put off his move to Melbourne”; “This is embarrassing in front of Wil”; “Why did I do this on a Tuesday night?”; “F--- comedy.”
The cover of Lehmann’s upcoming book “This Shirt Won’t Iron Itself”.
Why this former Adelaide accountant is having the last laugh. The cover of today’s SA Weekend Magazine.
We turned the corner from Rundle St to East Tce to see the biggest queue that PJ’s had ever had and it was a Tuesday night. Roughly 500 people were squeezed into the venue that night and another 200 were turned away.
Wil smashed it, there was a buzz around town, the pub was rapt and comedy at PJ’s was born. Once a month we brought in a big name – Greg Fleet, Dave Hughes, Pete Helliar, Sue-Ann Post, Adam Hills – and we filled the other weeks with ourselves and what was a great collection of local Adelaide comics.
One of the most memorable nights came when Adam Hills gave the first performance of his Go You Big Red Fire Engine show. The room was full again and he absolutely knocked it out of the park. Post-show, as we did most weeks, we snuck up to Q Bar on Rundle St for a few “knock offs”.
Hammo, Hillsy and myself were standing at one end of the very long bar drinking, laughing and generally catching up. The night drifted out to about 2am when Hammo tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Is that curtain on fire?”
Just behind us was a long curtain that sectioned off a VIP area and the corner of the curtain was indeed on fire.
“I’ll get a fire extinguisher.” My inebriated state combined with the unthreatening look of the fire meant that I was taking a fairly relaxed approach to recruiting a fire extinguisher to our end of the bar.
By the time I asked the bar staff for a fire extinguisher I turned around to see the whole curtain up in flames and staff yelling at people to get out. There were probably only 10 to 15 people on the premises and we all headed for the stairs as flames were now sweeping right across the venue, at which time I decided to call triple 0.
“Fire, ambulance or police?”
“Hold, please.” (I hold.)
“Which city are you in?”
“Putting you through.” (I hold.)
“You’ve got a fire, mate.”
“Where are you?”
“Where is that?”
“What number is that?”
Now I have no idea if my next comment was helpful or not but it was the best I could do in the circumstances.
“What number? It’s not that hard to miss, mate, it’s the one that’s on fire.”
“OK, see you soon.”
We did see them soon but sadly it was too late for Q Bar – it was absolutely torched and only reopened years later but as Sugar.
Hammo, Hillsy and myself went back to my place and ate pizza whilst contemplating the high drama of the evening and where we might drink next Tuesday night after the show.
Fire at Q Bar nightclub in Rundle St in 2001l
Thursday morning a story appeared in The Advertiser covering the fire and the loss of one of Adelaide’s favourite nightspots. I was still working as an accountant at the time and my boss called me into his office.
“Terrible news about Q Bar,” he started.
“Yeah I know.”
Then he started reading from the paper: “Partygoer Anthony Lehmann, who was in the bar at the time of the fire, said, ‘It just went up in a matter of seconds and everyone got the hell out of there.’”
In an effort to show how quickly I could think on my feet I stared blankly and said nothing.
My boss continued, “The fire was at 2.30am. What the hell were you doing at a nightclub at 2.30 on a Wednesday morning?”
He was making a very reasonable point and this provided further explanation as to his lack of resistance when I did eventually quit the numbers game.
I loved running these gigs with Hammo but after handing the reins to Craig I was happy to just focus on telling jokes and not booking the night.
In addition to the good gigs I’ve also had some stinkers, like some real stinkers, shockers, epic fails, flops, disasters and deaths. These, of course, are the more interesting stories and the ones that comedians in particular want to hear about.
The worst was Falls Festival 2008.
There’s one thing you have to understand about festivals – the timetable is king! After young festival-goers buy their tickets they sit around with the timetable and their friends and a highlighter pen and excitedly map out how best to spend three days of debauchery.
“From 2.15 to 2.45 we’ll watch Tegan and Sara at the blue stage then we can watch TZD on the blue stage from 3 to 3.30 then if we rush to the yellow stage we can catch the last half of the Dodos who finish at 3.45.”
It’s mapped with military-type precision and changes are not well received by the crazy “free-spirited” mob.
I was due on stage in the comedy/emerging artist tent at 3.15pm, but for some crazy reason the tent was running 45 minutes late. I was also on in between two bands, which is doable but not ideal. Comedy is best performed between other comedy in a comedy tent but that’s a whole other argument that I won’t let distract me for now.
When the act before me finished, the tent was filling and they were already annoyed for some reason. Even as the roadies were clearing the stage, empty beer cans were thrown in some sort of protest at nothing and no one, just the emptiness of what sat before them.
When MC Danny McGinlay took the mic to introduce me, the crowd was even less happy than they were a few minutes before despite the fact that the nothing in front of them had been replaced with something. Danny clearly wasn’t the something that they desired. It was 4pm and Danny informed the maddening mob that up shortly would be Lykke Li.
This news was very well received by the crowd and they greeted it accordingly with a huge cheer and chants of “Lykke Lykke”.
“But first . . .” Danny started. Sadly, the crowd was a few steps ahead of him and began booing and throwing cans before he could continue. Danny looked to the side of stage and eyeballed me, wanting an indication one way or the other as to whether I wanted to face this bullshit.
Anthony "Lehmo" Lehmann. Picture: Nicole Cleary
Despite the fact I often suffer deep anxiety about performing, I was, on this occasion, chock-full of confidence and, despite everything I’d witnessed, felt that a couple of zingers would turn this lot around and within three minutes they’d be eating out of my hand.
To say that I’ve never been more wrong is only challenged by the time I turned to a bunch of friends in 1994 and said, “There’s no way OJ did it.”
I gave Danny a nod and a thumbs-up and he completed his introduction: “. . . it’s time for some comedy . . .” more beer cans land on the stage “. . . please welcome one of Australia’s favourites Lehmoooooo.”
As Danny walked past me, he shook my hand and said, “Good luck.” In my head I honestly thought, “Watch this”.
They hated me with what I maintain was a deeply unreasonable passion. The stage was running late and this was messing with their highlighted programs and the only way they could get it back on time was to staunch a few acts off the stage as quickly as possible.
About four minutes into my spot, I had received very few laughs and been bombarded with empty beer cans. I had been told to “f--- off” countless times by countless people, some were booing (actually yelling the word “boo”), but strangely I had the full attention of the room. This was now a blood sport and the 3000 people in the tent weren’t going to miss it for anything.
Then, in amongst the empty beer cans, a full can came at me from about 20m back and slightly off to the side. I just caught it in the corner of my eye as it drifted through the air then “thud”, it hit me hard in the ribs.
I thought three things in the following order:
1) Ouch – it really hurt.
2) I know the queue for beer tickets is over an hour long. He must really hate me.
3) F--- you, c-nts. I’m not going anywhere.
I was booked to do a 15-minute spot so for the next 10 minutes I leant on my mic stand and told a combination of terrible joke jokes and long-winded boring stories. There was absolutely no way I was wasting my blood, sweat and tears on this pack of aggressive bullying f---wits, nor was I going to give in.
They hated every minute of it. The yells of “f--- off” became screams and the flow of empty beer cans flung at the stage became faster. They had become an angry mob. A chant of “Lehmo’s a wanker” started up – which I felt was karma for the time I joined in on a “Hadlee’s a wanker” chant once at Adelaide Oval.
At one point I looked down to see a girl who looked barely 18. She was wearing oversized sunglasses and was squashed up against the barrier. She looked a mix of utterly annoyed and absolutely perplexed and, with her arms out, yelled, “What are you doing?”
It was oddly satisfying to stand there and face off with the tent.
When my time was up, I said, “Hey, no hard feelings. It’s a festival, you’ve paid good money and you can do whatever you want. I genuinely hope you all have a great weekend. Except the guy who hit me with the full beer can, I hope you overdose and die.”
This received a huge laugh (the only discernible one from the whole set) and a cheer. Although I will concede that the cheer may have been for the fact that I was leaving.
The first person I saw when I came off the stage was hip-hop artist Snob Scrilla who shook my hand and said, “Dude, that was dope,” which I believe is a compliment.
Most comedians I’ve told love this story because it wasn’t them and when I finish they all say the same thing: “Hey, at least you got a new five-minute bit out of it.”
Tragedy plus time does indeed equal comedy. Live stand-up comedy. As a stand-up there really is a silver lining to every experience and it comes in the form of stage time and a brand new bit.●
This shirt won’t iron itself, by Anthony Lehman, published by Echo, $32.99
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