Glenn Cousins has been performing comedy in Nelson for several years. Photo: Charles Anderson

Locals making locals laugh

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Nelson’s stand-up comedy scene has found its home at a Bridge St bar. On the second anniversary of the gig, Charles Anderson goes in search of local laughs.

It’s a recent Friday evening on Bridge St and there is an awkward shuffling out the back of Liquid Bar. It has just turned 8pm and the crowd is still light.

“We’ll just wait for a few more people to turn up,” says Dave Vandy, the founder of Backroom Comedy which is marking its 2nd birthday tonight. It’s been two years since a tight-nit group of local comedians have been coming here, once a month, to test their material on a live audience.

Dave Vandy started the regular comedy nights in Nelson several years ago. Photo: Charles Anderson
Dave Vandy started the regular comedy nights in Nelson several years ago. Photo: Charles Anderson

“It’s all new material so it could go badly,” says Dave. “Or it could go well, we don’t know.”

Dave is responsible for starting this event about five years ago. It has cycled through several venues, from Club Paradox just down the road, to Basement Bar in a nearby backpackers. But Liquid has been its home for a while now and allowed a group of 10-15 aspiring performers to develop their skills.

The first time Dave tested those was in 2005 at a bar in Wellington.

“The first time is actually, usually, quite good because you are so scared you put in heaps of practice. The second time you are cocky.”

That’s when things can fall apart. Audiences can be particularly brutal, but it is all about taking the hit, and coming back again – stronger.

The Backroom Comedy gig has allowed local comedians to refine their material. But Dave says, in Nelson, that can be tricky.

“The idea is that you should be able to do the same jokes over and over and refine them but, in Nelson, that’s really hard to do because there are not enough people. So, people know the jokes and it stops being funny pretty quickly.

“So, I think we are pretty good at creating new material.”

Glenn Cousins knows all about that. A set earlier this year got him through to the South Island finals of a national comedy competition. That is in two days’ time, so he is taking the chance to hone his material.

“With writing jokes, you do it for weeks and weeks in front of nobody and it gets less and less funny to you. But then you do it in front of a crowd and you get one laugh and you are like ‘oh my god, this just feels great’.”

Glenn says he loves comedy for that feeling – that instant feedback.

“I don’t envision ever being famous I do this because it’s something that I really enjoy.”

Glenn has a small torch that he picks up whenever the feeling jolts him. He will think of something vaguely amusing, maybe jot down some thoughts and then, over time, he will use that torch as a fake microphone, figuring out how to take that joke off the page and into a performance.

“Sometimes it goes nowhere and sometimes it explodes. When you have that it’s such a great feeling.”

MC for the evening is Sarah O’Connell. She tries to warm up the crowd.

“We have got a great line up tonight,” she says. “Half the room is this line up.”

It’s partially true. There is about 30 people dotted around the room.

The first performer up at Liquid insists that he is giving up comedy. Instead he riffs about becoming an ‘improviser’ that just happens to rehearse his jokes. Unfortunately, he has forgotten his notes and hasn’t rehearsed that well. He also performs one line of a song he has called ‘Corona’ to the tune of Elemenop’s ‘Verona’ on a ukulele. After his set he disappears and leaves the venue.

Dave Vandy is up next. He promptly picks up the ukulele and smashes it on the stage.

“Come on,” he says. “We all hated that.”

But from there, the set picks up. That Dave has been doing this for five years, shows. He too riffs on Covid-19 but has a more personal angle on it. His mother is in the audience.

She used to come to the shows and then just complain about how bad they all were. Dave told her that she can’t do that unless she does it herself.

So, she did.

Dave outlines that Nelson is probably in the wrong businesses in building retirement villages as all the old people will be dead soon. That includes his mother, Diane, at the age of 63.

“63 is a pretty good high score to step off.”

Diane chortles.

Soon Erin Parry is up. The Canadian-native’s bit is about wealthier Nelsonians’ preoccupation with how supposedly wealthy they are – owning a house in ‘Bro-ham’ St, owning a time share in Tekapo and knowing the name of the bartender at Cod and Lobster.

Erin shakes her head – where she is from, she knows people who own their own airplanes.

“I know people who own people.”

The room erupts. She has a great natural presence on stage and the crowd knows exactly what she is talking about.

She only started doing comedy after drunkenly telling a friend one New Year’s Eve that it was her ‘dream’. So, that friend ended up pushing her into it.

“How bad could it be,” she told me after the show about her first time performing. “And it wasn’t bad. It’s a nice place to come when things are bad in everyday life.”

Erin says it softens some of that bad stuff – that at least she can stand up on stage and make people laugh.

The final act of the night is Glenn, whose set blends his discomfort with having a tiny appendage to the malleability of tofu as a type of food. He is nervous, because he knows in two nights’ time this will be what he will perform in Christchurch. But he gets through the set and manages to pull it together by the end.

A few days later Glenn says that the South Island final went well.

“I didn’t win but I got a lot of laughs and people came up and told me how much they liked what I did. So, I feel pretty good about that.”

The next day he did an open mic night and the owner said Glenn should move down.

Dave says that he hopes the Backroom Comedy nights can grow into something more. Maybe they can attract a big national act every few months and maybe some of the local comedians could open for them.

“That would be pretty great.”

Until then the invitation is open to anyone who wants to try it out on the first Friday of every month. Just look them up on Facebook and help grow Nelson’s not so underground comedy scene.

After all, as Glenn says: “It’s ok to fail.”

The next show at Liquid is on June 12 at Liquid at 8pm.