Interview: Elize Strydom
Knock Knock… Who’s there? Tom…. Tom who?
Tom Ballard, the triple j Breakfast co-host and comedian extraordinaire. He’s only 20 but he’s already performed at comedy festivals in Edinburgh and Montreal. He was the youngest person ever to win the prestigious Best Newcomer award at the 2009 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. He’ll be in Brisbane soon for a run of solo shows called Cogito Ergo Some Funny (as part of the Brisbane Comedy Festival).
That’s not funny. Yeah, you’re right. But Mr Ballard is!
Life Music Media (LMM): Afternoon Tom! Have I woken you up? I’d say your sleeping patterns have changed a lot since starting in triple j Breakfast?
Tom Ballard (TB): Yes, I used to sleep until 12 and eat good food. Now I get up at 4am and eat a lot of sandwiches and come home at about 1.30pm and then have a nap and try to continue to clean my apartment. That’s my rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
LMM: Has radio taken over your life? You’ve obviously still got a bit of room for comedy.
TB: Yeah, I’ve got to figure out that balance. It’s been an intense couple of weeks so far. This week, I had a gig on Monday night which threw me off schedule so I’ve been trying to catch up on sleep. Hopefully I can figure out the napping thing so I can work both ends of the day.
LMM: When it comes to getting material together for a routine how does it work? Do you set the theme and stick to that?
TB: It’s a gradual collection process. I write down any ideas I have, usually on my phone, and then when I have time I’ll get them out and have a crack at writing them. I tend to write them out word for word and then play around with them a little bit and then I’ll usually go on stage at an open mic gig or at a nice venue where I know people are kinda nice and give ‘em a run. I like it being very obvious that it’s all new material. I like saying, “Look, I’m sorry if this is shit but this is just the stuff that I have.” I don’t like trying to act as if I’m nailing it.
LMM: You said you write down your material word for word – do you then learn it like a script?
TB: Kind of! Some of my jokes are based on an important word or a phrase. Like the end of the punch line is important so it’s not like I have a general idea and I riff on that, I have a specific word or punch line so I have to learn those bits. But once you’ve done a joke so many times the script comes out naturally. Not that I’m not committing to every comedy routine – I’m never on auto pilot!
LMM: So you’ll take a joke further if it’s obviously entertaining the audience?
TB: Yeah, some punch lines that are now a solid part of my routine started out as made up ideas on the night or if I start chatting to the audience and something comes out of that then that may well work that into future routines.
LMM: At your upcoming shows at the Brisbane Comedy Festival you’ll be on stage for an hour. That’s so long! Have you done many endurance gigs?
TB: I did a show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival last year that was an hour and I did an early version of this show at the Melbourne Fringe Festival in September. An hour terrified me when I first had to do it but now it’s kinda nice. Spots are quite ruthless in that people have to get on side at all times and if you do a joke that doesn’t really work it’s a bit of a failure. With an hour you really build up a sort of friendship with the audience and they’ve come specifically to see you so it can be a nice relationship.
LMM: How do you keep your energy up? Do you have a few drinks on stage?
TB: Some comedians…they must be smashed on stage and it’s pretty impressive. In Melbourne – I can’t do it in Brisbane, unfortunately – I started the show with a dance routine and because I’m very unfit I was always very puffed by the end of it so for the first go I was totally out of breath so I need a lot of energy drinks on stage. I don’t like drinking beer because I tend to start tripping over my words.
LMM: So is stand up and comedy and being funny something you can learn? Or is it just something you have or don’t have?
TB: I’m very suspicious of comedy courses and comedy books. I think the best that those kind of things could do is make you very much like other comedians. If you want to be an original comedian with your own voice I think it comes from gigging a lot and just figuring out what you want to do.
LMM: Do you catch a lot of shows? Or do you not see shows at the risk of copying other comedians.
TB: I don’t find I follow that. I really love watching comedy and every time I watch it, it makes me more inspired to do it. A lot of people don’t like watching comedy before their show but I always kinda loved it, like, watching someone then going to do my show and watching another two shows. I really love seeing what everyone else is doing.
LMM: When you were young did people tell you that you were funny and that you should head in that direction?
TB: I did acting for a long time, I really wanted to be an actor – I always wanted attention, I guess. Some people thought maybe I was funny, yeah. I did this high school competition called Class Clowns, that was my first taste.
LMM: Do you find that people who know you’re a comedian meet you and ask you to say something funny?
TB: Yeah! I think people are sometimes surprised. I don’t think they think I’m particularly funny when I’m just hanging around. I’m not a pisser. You know how people refer to others as a pisser? “Man, that guy is a pisser!” I don’t think I’m that guy. I think I have to work very hard to write stuff that is amusing.
LMM: What’s happening for you this year?
TB: Obviously radio is the major thing which I’m really excited about, it’ll be a lot of fun. I’m doing the Brisbane Comedy Festival, I’ll be in Melbourne for the full run and that’s about all I have planned, comedy wise. I’d really love to do a bit more TV. I really loved Good News Week last year and it would be really, really sweet to do Spicks and Specks. But my real goal is to help people tolerate us (Tom plus his co-host Alex Dyson) on breakfast radio.
Tom Ballard will perform at VISY Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse, New Farm on Friady March 5th to Sunday March 7th.
BIO: Tom Ballard – Comedian/Broadcaster