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Thursday, April 21

Publishments

A couple of things.

Firstly, I've been unimpressed by the behaviour of the Funny Women competition, who have decided to run a pay to play scheme. While you can see it from their point of view if you try hard enough, there's no good reason for comedians to have their goodwill and career aspirations exploited in this way.

We have set up an alternative competition - Funny Females as a way of avoiding acts feeling that Funny Women is the ONLY way forward.

Secondly, my article in Micro Mart will be published in the edition out tomorrow. It's on online Skepticism and generally keeping misinformation out of your head.

Enjoy.

Friday, April 15

Why Live Performance Beats So Many Other Artforms

The highest paying "gig" I ever got was for a national newspaper. I'll rephrase that a bit. By gig, in this case, I mean one-off job where I did something and then got paid. Actually, they paid me twice, once for writing the piece, and a second time for their own choice to publish it. It's good money, but it's a rare privilege.

After that article, I got a handful of emails and one or two people I ran into mentioned reading it. As experiences go, though, it was a bit empty. It was like throwing your efforts into a vacuum. Even the editor of the supplement it went into was unable to give me any feedback on the article. Why? Because that's not how it works when you put your creative work out in that sort of format.

Live performance is different. From one minute to the next you can see how the audience are reacting. If they like it, they'll spontaneously show it. It's a lot more ephemeral. You won't be able to go back to the performance a few weeks later and re-read it (as you could with an article or book), but the instant pleasure of a job well done is the reward for the ephemeral nature of the form.

As live performing is a one-take situation, you end up thinking at a more intense level. You are on the spot for the duration of your performance. There's only so much you can do to prepare to be spontaneous and in control. Some comedians go through various rituals to prepare themselves. I've heard of acts using their favourite lipstick, or chanting a mantra to themselves. I've seen someone do a 10 minute warm up.

My own technique is a non technique. I do a few unqualified vocal exercises, which are basically a bit like the system check you get when you turn on a PC - is this bit still connected? Do I have that bit? How big is this? Ok... we're away. I also put a few ideas into my back pocket for things which I've noticed about the room, which I may wish to talk about if the mood takes me.

You hit the stage and then that's it. It's over in a few minutes, and only the moments you created in that performance count... and only for a few minutes after you've performed them. That's it.

However, I wouldn't trade it for anything else - in creativity and feedback terms, at least - the pressure and the feedback are like manure to my allotment of creativity. I'll be fine, so long as I don't stink the place out!

Friday, April 8

There was a time...

Just found some of the usual sniping that seems to dog threads on Chortle about comedians. In this case, the comment Ashley has been consistently shit for a number of years, his only good feature is the massive amount of room for improvement was written about me on this thread.

There was a time when I thought these things mattered. Luckily, I don't judge my success by the opinions on the forum. I can judge my friends on the basis of who chooses to stand up for me. It's appreciated when people step in. These days, people are very positive about me. It used to be slightly different:

Troll: Ashley is so very shit.
Helpful friend: NO!... he's... not... that... bad...

So, thanks to all who've stuck up for me. And thanks for the trolls whose creative insults seem now to make me chuckle. I must have grown a thicker skin. Like a custard/rice-pudding hybrid.

One afterthought: most new acts go through a phase of not being all that good. The question is whether they learn what stuff doesn't really work, and improve. I've seen a lot of new/non-pro acts recently. I hope they learn some of the things I've learned. Those that don't will either give up, or drive themselves to ruin.

Wednesday, April 6

What's Important?

We assume that we're consistent individuals, since we always see the world from our own perspective. Many people are probably self-aware enough to notice how inconsistent they probably can be.

I'll look back at last night a moment, and then contemplate what I would be most excited about today. The answer is slightly surprising.

Last night's gig was a bit of a challenge. I saw some amazing performances, and saw some top acts holding their own and being extremely creative in front of an audience who weren't giving away freebies, and were happy to implode, just to see what the comedian would do. Some of the acts were looking quite nervous as the gig unfolded. I was much less flappable, Saturday night's gig having inured me (at least temporarily) to the whole "weird gig worry". I even challenged myself to try out some new material, something I'd have been seriously advised not to do under the circumstances.

So, what should I be most concerned and excited about today? Should it be the new material? Should it be the prospects that open up after a gig? Should it be what I saw or learned on stage?

Back when I was as inexperienced as the act who detonated himself and the whole night on Saturday, then the morning after a tough gig I'd be wondering what my future in comedy would hold, and how I could possibly make more of a comedian of myself. I'd be worried about the next booking.

I'm not fussed about the next booking; it's tonight and I think it will be a nice one. Even if it wasn't, worrying about bookings is just the background to my life now, and more of a job than an ego thing.

So what is getting me a bit giddy today is the prospect that my new vacuum cleaner hose will arrive soon. The loss of suction will soon be a thing of the past.

Ring the changes. We're inconsitent!

Tuesday, April 5

Some old gig reports

It turns out I have had gigs before that weren't so easy, or were memorable enough to write up:

Coventry - at the snooker club - a gig so bad that it even caused a road accident for one of the acts... sort of.

Then there's the recent Cardiff Gig which was challenging, but worst for the opening act.

Then there's the gig at which falling over was the funniest thing I did.

And a bit of blether about one of many joyous Cradley Heath gigs.

To be honest, this blog's full of my reviews of my life, but I can't be sure any of it is worth reading.

Sunday, April 3

Never in all my days

Two kooky gig reports in as many gigs. That's an unusual situation. Strap in - here's yesterday in a big fat nutshell.
Before The Gig
I spent the day working on some new material. I say that - I actually spent a lot of the day playing Angry Birds on my computer and wishing I could just get through the next level, so I could get back to writing the material I was meant to be writing. When I finally did get onto the material construction - a sound-editing job, coupled with the script for interacting with fragments of songs to create a dialogue, I had a very nice time and prepared the results for performing that night, even though the material would best fit my show The Seven Deadly Sings which I'm bringing back, with edits, in only a few weeks.

Full of the joys of spring, I picked up my fiancée from work and set about the voyage to London, via Membury - the official service station of gig evening food. We had a fairly eventless car journey, though I insisted on showing my long-suffering other half a mini preview of this new 3 minutes of material, which I whipped through while playing the sound cues, rather poorly, on the car stereo.

You have to understand that there are 4 categories of material (this is not true, there are limitless categories, but I'm claiming 4 for now). It a grid where on one axis you've got "makes the audience laugh" and "doesn't make the audience laugh", and on the other axis you've got "I wrote this with a straight face" and "I was laughing when I wrote this". Generally, so long as you're in the "audience laughs" half of the grid, it doesn't matter whether you were laughing when you wrote it, though it SHOULD matter and you SHOULD write stuff that makes you laugh, otherwise why should you expect an audience to find it funny, and how will you show it's funny if they're not quite getting it?

My biggest fear, when I previewed the material in the car, hoping to do it that night, was that I was in the worst square of the comedy grid, the one which was "made me laugh until the milk was running out of my nose, but doesn't make the audience even smile". I had been roaring with laughter during my writing. Luckily, she-who-shall-be-marrying-me was also amused - or at least faked it well.

At the Gig
I'm going to describe what happened. I'm not going to name names, but I am going to be honest about how I saw things. The reason I feel objective enough to do this will be clear by the end, and if you're reading this, and are one of the people I've described below, then I'm going to assume that you CAN handle my opinion, otherwise you wouldn't have sought to find out what I had to say at this point in the long narrative that this blog entry has become.

I'll try to be nice, as well as blunt.

We arrived at about 8.20 and from the look of things I would have expected the gig to be cancelled, as there was no audience to speak of, and only few people in the pub. I pretty much gave up the idea of there being a try out of the new material, reasoning that the gig would probably be pulled.

However, as I was about to ask the organiser when she was going to pull the plug on proceedings, a handful of audience (4) arrived and took their seats and I was told that the stag night from downstairs would also be coming up. I was also told that there were 9 acts (NINE! ACTS!?) on the bill, and that, owing to the fact that we were running late, as the audience had taken their time to assemble, we'd be doing the show in two sections.

Nine new acts in front of a bunch of drunken stags, doing a series of 5/7 minute sets... what could possibly go wrong?

Well, the sound could go wrong for a start. I'd not realised, when I was on the stage during the sound check, that the sound was lovely on the stage, but rubbish and underpowered in the rest of the room. For sound engineering buffs out there this is what happens when the small speakers (monitors) at the foot of the stage, facing the act's ears, ARE working, when all the other aren't. It didn't help.

The compere got some attention from the crowd and then brought on the first act. She'd been worrying that her material wouldn't suit the audience, and I did my best to cheer her up by doing my ET impression, which involves a pocket torch and the tip of my finger. I know - it sounds rubbish, and it was pretty much the first time I'd ever tried it. Still, it amused us, as we waited to see whether taking to the stage in front of a drunken bunch of stags, who weren't exactly proving to be the sort who sit and listen, would amount to certain death.

In the end, the act raised her game, bantered with the crowd, got some laughs and generally tried a style that was more suited to a hard-work room. Sadly, her gear change into off-beat material about ladybirds was less effective with the audience we had. This is, by the way, the point. You must always play the audience you have. This can mean adapting your material, or it can mean adapting your style. Ultimately, it's chemistry - will you have enough to work with with this audience? If not, then it's just the game. Jim Davidson would not go down well with a bunch of Guardian readers, and I'm pretty sure that Robin Ince, might avoid playing a bunch of Daily Sport readers. Each to their own.

Ultimately, it's not the audience's fault that they happen to be the audience in front of you... that said, they can choose to be supportive or not, and these stags were on the brink of making the wrong choice for most of the night.

Notwithstanding some of the difficulties, the first act chose her moment to end her set and I think she acquitted herself well. One down, 8 to go.

The second act - a rather arrogant early twenties lad - hit the spot with the stags, as his material seemed largely based on porn, violence towards women and masturbation - in every permutation he could think of. I look at my own material sometimes and wonder what it says about me. In the case of this swaggering youngster, I think his material says that he's got some issues he needs to work through. Like most young-twenties stand-ups, some of his issues seem to be about masturbation guilt. Other quips, suggesting a love of pedophilia and causing pain to others, are probably unlikely to go down well with the majority of intelligent, fun-loving audience members who go to comedy clubs because they like to be entertained.

Act of the night was the third stage-goer, who didn't seem to need adapt her material or style greatly, but simply commanded the room with her dark yet girlish one-liners, deftly told with a winning smile. She was very professional and handled herself well. I've gigged with her before and expected greatness - she was one to watch and I was pleased that she got the cream of the gig.

After three acts, most audiences grow restless, and this audience weren't going to get that rest for some time to come. We had a middle-aged lady who seemed fresh from a comedy course. I may be doing her a disservice, but it seemed like she used training to enter the stage, take the microphone out of the stand and place it exactly to one side. I think this is an important skill, and I'm glad that comedy courses teach it so well. Unfortunately, it appears they also teach a sort of mewling, talking self-effacingly about yourself in a self-conscious manner, using your alleged quirks for joke-fodder. This wasn't the audience to be trying this out with.

Bolder and more brash, the final act of the first section bribed the main stag with a Sambuca and then paraded his own series of pet hates in front of the audience. I disagreed with much of his politics and chose that moment to go and buy a big glass of wine. Perhaps I should have drunk it myself, as the second half was going to be the one when it all happened.

Halfway to paradise
In the interval we fixed the sound system. By fixed, I mean I messed about with it, until I worked out what was wrong and managed to make it feedback brilliantly, thus proving I'd got the main speakers on. This was all under control, and in the end we got it sounding pretty good. My fiancee admitted to me that she found it pleasing that I jumped in and did sound engineering as required; she's most definitely the right girl for me, and I'd marry her sooner if it wasn't for the fact that we've already set a date.

I didn't play with the sound to impress her. I'd be doing it anyway. Still it's good to know that she appreciates it, though, since I'll be tinkering with sound equipment for as long as I can.

In the second section, there were to be 4 acts, including myself. This was trimmed down to 3, as the organiser decided to forego her spot to enable the night to run more to time. This was a selfless act, though it also got her off the hook. This wasn't proving to be the easiest of audiences, mainly a result of alcohol, and the nice non-stags had all left the gig by the time the second section started. The lairiness of the stags, coupled with the outright misogyny of the second act (see, not everyone goes for the sobbing-into-the-pillow-while-being-raped girlfriend material) had seen half the normal audience off, and the interval proved a convenient exit door for the second half.

So it was the stags and us. The "us", in question was pretty much the acts who were still waiting to go on, and perhaps one other. Most acts left as soon as they'd played, not wishing to stay around any longer than they had to. This is a shame as I think one should always stay to the end as you're bound to learn something. It's all very well knowing how YOU would play that audience, but perhaps you should see how the other acts do it. You may discover how it can be made easier... or harder. It's usually edifying in some way. Of course, if the gig's gone badly you may wish to disappear, and this is understandable. You may even have a distance to travel, and need to get on with it - fair enough. In general, though, you'll learn nothing from experiencing only your own set and the waiting to go on before it.

Anyway, all bets were off with this gig, since it was such an unusual situation.

On with the show
The first act of the second section picked up the pace of the staggish frenzy by suggesting the audience drink when he swore and encouraging the stag to down a pint. This caused amusement, though it didn't really help the mood of the gig. The thought of it becoming a bit more sombre and polite had to be dismissed entirely.

The next act was to be the last one before I went on. I told his girlfriend, as he took to the stage, that nothing in this room really counted for much - if he got a laugh, it was a win, as it was a tough room (but not representative of what an average audience would be like) and if he got nothing, then it didn't count. I could point out that he got a couple of laughs, which tailed off as he switched from stand-up to just monologuing his material to an increasingly inattentive room. That would sound overly critical. To be honest, it's pretty much exactly what happened, but is only to be expected for a newcomer to comedy, taking on an audience that's really not going to give them any room to learn the craft. It was a do or die gig, and the audience's chatter signalled that the time had come for this act to make a closing remark and leave the stage.

The act chose to take on the loudest-mouthed stag by shouting at him to "Shut the fuck up". This got his attention alright, and I watched the face of the act to see if he would use the moment to create a laugh, or make a friendly connection, or otherwise bring the gig into order. What I saw was an angry and frustrated individual getting himself into the start of an argument. The argument soon proceeded to cries of "I was just talking" and "I'm trying to work here" and "You're not funny" and "I'd be funny if you just listened" and "No, you're not funny" - the things that will never end well.

It was at this point that I got under the table. I slid from the sofa until I was lying with my legs under the table, pretty much trapped there. I then feigned the need for assistance to get up - making my fiancee wonder whether her capable sound engineer of a man was also a wounded deer in his spare time. I wasn't really trapped and I stood myself up and went to the corner of the room to await my call to the stage.

Remember - those acts who had left early had missed the opportunity to learn something. I was learning something. I was learning that I really had no clear battle plan for what I'd do when I hit the stage. I assumed I'd think of something. I'd prepared myself a bit for the gig, even switching my rugby top for a nice button-down shirt, though I did that mainly for my own comfort, rather than to look good for the stags.

Anyway, having gotten out from under the table, I then stood in the corner of the room and giggled quite uproariously to myself. "I've never been brought on to a fight before," I considered, as I watched the act leave the stage, the argument raging around him, and saw the MC try to reason with the crowd to bring them back into order. I could even imagine accidentally being seen as an aggressor, as I took to the stage, and having to fend off a stag, who seeing a big feller walking at him, might assume that this verbal battle needed to be taken to a more physical one.

The outgoing act left with his other half (I wonder if they had an argument that night, as she saw a rather hot-headed aggressive side to his personality), amid a bit of continued shouting from the stags, and I readied myself for the bit where the compere would say my name and I'd go on. I also half-imagined that he'd fail to make the crowd listen and just whisper something like "Now you're all warmed up, here's your fantastic headliner, Ashley Frieze" - a sort of parody of the way someone might bring an act on - then I'd have to walk through no applause to the stage and see whether I couldn't make my mark.

But this night hadn't finished all of its surprise-giving.

What Katy Did Next
Failing to regain control of the room, and misunderstanding the organiser's signals to "just get on with it" as "stop the show", the compere then told the audience that the show was over and said goodbye. That was it. I didn't perform.

As it happened, I rather had a good time that night. I shared some banter with most of the acts and, as I'm now able to offer the benefit of my 8 years experience to some newer acts, who seem to be interested in my thoughts on the subject, I think I was able to give some reasonable advice to some of them (which they asked for) and cheer them up a bit as they contemplated the artistic suicide that seemed to be that stage. As far as camaraderie goes, it will make a nice gig story, and I got on well with many of the people who performed that night.

Some of them may stop getting on with me after they recognise themselves in my review of what happened, but I hope not. I speak as I find, and everyone gives unique performances at each gig, and will change as they develop the craft. Nothing's set in stone.

What of the hiding under the table and the giggling to myself. Well, it's the final thing I learned that night. When I'm under pressure at a gig that's potentially going to hell in a handcart, I generally look for ways to entertain myself and the people around me. Silly ET impressions, sliding under a table, laughing off the insanity of trying to do comedy in a bar-fight - they're all tricks I employed to keep it funny for myself.

I've never had a gig cancelled on me while I was waiting to close the very show that had been running for a couple of hours. I've never seen an act/audience interaction go so horribly wrong as it did.

Though some parts of the night seemed to be obviously and inevitably doomed to failure, like watching a slow motion car crash that's already started, it was a load of fun and I can't wait to go back to learn some more.

Saturday, April 2

So many things were not quite to plan

Where do I begin with how today threatened to go wrong, but didn't? Well, apart from spoiling any sense of tension in the story by telling you that it all came out in the end, I'll start near the beginning.

I ran late this morning, which was a frustration and set my plans for an easier morning rather aback. Then I had to go to the estate agent's to discuss some stuff. I found the testosterone and youth-fuelled shiny suit wearers to be as irritating as I'd expected, but the overall experience was fine. I even managed to buy something in advance of tomorrow, which means I don't have to buy it tomorrow. So far, a win.

The afternoon proved that the thing I was going to try to fix was beyond easily fixable, and even though my strategy for applying improvement in a stepwise fashion will work, it was not going to be easy. Damn. I like it when a little ingenuity solves a big problem without the drudgery of doing hundreds of little changes.

I left early, because I only had half the details of tonight's gig in my head. I reckoned that I should be able to get there for 7 and then be nice and relaxed and read my book. This plan was immediately scuppered by an additional 30 minutes of near standing traffic en route. Then I arrived at the venue and went to scope it out and find the start time.

To say that nobody at the venue knew what was going and who was organising it would be unfair. They didn't have this information in the front of their minds, but I kept going from one person to another until, between them, they worked out who was doing what and when. Then I asked about the PA system - they have one - the lighting - they don't have it - and the microphone stand - no to that too. This wasn't looking good for a gig.

We got a microphone working while people rang around to see about a microphone stand. I then got onto the texts and formed about 4 options for how to get hold of a microphone stand if I needed to. Options included:

  • Someone I knew, who's in a band - he doesn't have his own stand
  • A friend of mine, who's brother is in a band and who MUST have a stand - he was out on tour
  • Another person I know in Southampton, whom I know does some home-recording - he didn't answer quickly

We got to option 4 and I rang up a venue called The Talking Heads. I know they have bunches of kit, and I asked them if they'd mind lending me a stand. I'm a terrible negotiator and offered them, up front, tons of ID, deposit and whatever it would take to make them say yes. I even tried to suggest that I wasn't a total stranger, having gigged there a few times, and knowing people they know. Despite my cack-handed method of asking, they said yes, reasoning that my suggested deposit of double the cost of a mic-stand was pretty much a win-win situation for them.

I headed out to get the stand and while I was gone the other acts arrived. I got ID checked by the nice lady, who took my mobile number and rang it just to prove my phone would respond. Neat.

Then back to the venue. The other acts tonight were Paul Ricketts and Vikki Stone. Normally I don't mention other people on this blog by name, but tonight was a night of camaraderie and bonding, and they deserve a positive mention.

Vikki plays piano in her set. We then hit the problem of the fact that the DJ could only give us one channel in total through the house PA. You need two for a piano and a mic; I wanted to use my guitar also. I had a lead long enough to get us to the stage, and Vikki piped up that she had a PA system in her car. Off we went to fetch this, and then it was used as a sort of mixer to get the sound into a form where it could enter the PA.

Paul was unhappy with the lighting; the whole - "there's no lighting" situation, so he went off with someone from the venue to see what sort of stuff might be lying around that we could use as lights. He came back down with a couple of dodgy, exposed-bulb, up-lighters. These were falling to pieces. Does anyone have gaffa tape? Vikki does - it's in her car, of course. The lights were up to chest height and the top bulbs didn't work, leaving illuminated knees. We fixed this by moving bulbs, and found power extensions enough to plug both lights in on stage at the front corners, giving us a focal point. I had an extension lead in my car, but we didn't need it.

Now everyone had rolled up their sleeves and set up the gig, we could actually go ahead and perform. As a joke, I suggested the run in music of "Let Me Entertain You". It's not that I like that song. It's not that I don't like it, either. It's just THE cliche for run-in music for a comedy club, and I thought it would be funny to use it. As I crouched beside the stage with the domestic dodgy lights on the corners, currently not plugged in, the music struck up. As the first electric guitar hit came in during the intro, I plugged the lights in and they came on, causing a laugh from the people who realised how both showbiz AND shit that effect was. I giggled to myself too, and then set about compering the gig.

We got through the gig. Paul was excellent. Vikki, whom I'd not seen before, was lovely to see. The audience were up and down, as is to be expected, but they were supportive and even moved into the best position they could move into, when I asked them to.

We got paid and left. We also congratulated each other on a job well done. It was our, biased, joint opinion that the three of us, with our collection of components and our attitude to problem solving, were the right sort of trio to take on a gig like that, where things weren't set up. We'd each spurred the other on into finding the right solution to the logistical problems, and then we complemented each other as a line-up.

That's nice to agree on.

I drove back to the Talking Heads, via a shop. I gave back the mic-stand, had my deposit returned, and gave the nice lady a box of chocolates as a thank you. It was amazing that she agreed, with no offer of payment, to save our bacon by loaning us the stand. It's nice to show your gratitude.

I drove home via a petrol station where I accidentally entered the HGV only area, tried to get across to the car bit, didn't see that there was an actual kerb between the two areas, which then crashed over, surprising myself. I did no damage to anything, except my credibility, and slinked off home.

Nothing actually ended up going wrong - it just seemed that way during the problems.

Friday, April 1

Hammer Job, Job Hammer

Note: this is a geeky coding post, so please stop reading unless you care about this sort of thing.

I remember my own mistakes of the past. I used to use one trick with object oriented programming (still reading?). I used to use inheritance. There were a lot of reasons for this, and I blame Microsoft - not in a "Windows is shit" kind of a way, but more because they made a lot of use of inheritance in examples and automatically generated code, so it became the common tool for any job.

When you have a hammer, everything's a nail, right?

Well, time's moved on for me, and I've learned of two other techniques:
  • HAS-A - sometimes you can use an instance of another object to DO what you want, rather than have everything become something else, just to use some behaviour
  • State vs type - it's not necessary to provide the answer to certain parameters by overriding the getters for that data, you can just store the data in the object which needs to be configured.

There are more techniques, of course... but these two are the ones which seem to be forgotten. If everything has to be a type, then you end up with types that basically provide static data via dynamic getters, which could be replaced by having the data stored in the object and used with static getters.

Mind you, there are reasons when you want to do things the opposite way around. If you're using patterns where there are tons of objects, and you want them to be virtually stateless, then the type can dictate the notional state, since a single type identifier can imply a lot of data.

Let's not even mention the Liskov substitution principle. Ok. Let's mention it. A is set to be of type B, if you can use A in any place where you can use a B. This defines inheritance, but kind of assumes that you haven't made A undo some of B's behaviour. So if B always does a thing, and A makes it not happen, then you've got something which defies the idea of additive inheritance. It's sometimes a necessary evil.

Right now, I've got some classes on my screen where there's a template, which has all manner of possible data items. Somehow, rather than implementing a single type where these items can be easily turned on and off, the implementing person has created a type for each possible permutation, which duplicate bits of each other. In this situation, there's a single type and just variants of how to configure it... multiple types don't help.

Ockham's razor, in Latin, reads - Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate, or Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. So today's job is having fewer duplications, entities, types and nails being hit by hideous hammers.

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