My Stand-up & gigs
The Coding Craftsman
An Open Letter To HSBC
Pay What Now?
Hearing the music
When to quit
I am not as other men
Tonight I was funny
Attack of the Drones
Notes on your set
Why Pissing off a Fellow Comedian was Fun
Once upon a time, this might have been the sound of freedom. Atom Heart Mother by Pink Floyd is not one of my favourite albums of all time, but it's one I like to listen to occasionally. I don't like listening to it on my computer desktop version of iTunes, since that rather neat link "Play Album", as shown in the picture, might be better marked as "try to play album, and then wait for about 20 seconds as your computer ignores you, and then wonder if it's actually playing since the Pink Floyd albums often start almost imperceptibly quietly".
It's times like this I wish that mp3 players provided the sort of hiss and crackle that vinyl used to provide so at least you knew if this piece of shit software from Apple (the most smug organisation in the world) was doing anything. Note: just because Apple happens to make some of the most desirable technology doesn't stop them from being dicks. Google aren't dicks.
On an unrelated point, why do I have to press play on my iPod twice when it's been sleeping for a bit? Pointless. Just fuckin' play!
Anyway, the album in question was once the sound of freedom to me. June 23rd, 2002. I was driving home for the first time at the start of a new life. The me that was driving home had probably written my first ever song (not very good) but hadn't been a proper comedian, hadn't even thought of writing a musical, was fairly lost, but was extremely optimistic about all the things that were now possible. The album, which had been delivered as part of a job lot of fun things, was being played for the first time and became associated with the joint optimism and fear for the future I felt on the road from Darlington railway station (for that's where I'd parked) back to Newcastle where I lived.
My blog of the time
doesn't reveal very much about what was going on. I didn't write much back then. Oh how that's changed.
Ten years is a long time to look back over. Some differences in my life between then and now.
- I have moved to the other end of the country, living in Gloucestershire, rather than Tyne and Wear
- I still have many of the same friends, though I seem them at different times
- I became a comedian, which has largely defined my life for the last 10 years
- The forlorn end-of-a-relationship guy from 10 years ago has now become the happily married man - I've known my wife for just under 4 years
- The small pile of DVDs became many shelves full, which then became a hard drive
- The big shelf-full of CDs went crazy and then got reduced to an iPod
- I'm on my 3rd privately-owned laptop and I have a tablet PC
- I share my home with two cats
- I play instruments a lot more than I ever did
- I've been involved in writing a book, and have also been published in national magazines and even the Mail on Sunday
- All the weight I was losing 10 years ago came back, in different places
Oh, the list would keep going on. It's healthy for one's world to change.
It's also easy to forget how lucky I am. I have a certain amount of freedom in my life and I don't need a bit of music to remind me of it. I'm glad to be optimistic, even if I'm a bit old and grumpy too from time to time.
Very apologetic email
I just received this
Hi, I'm very sorry that I didn't contact you for so much time.
Look at my nude profile photos, and I imagine both of us would meet sometimes now
That's very apologetic. Most people would just make up for lost time by writing an extra long letter. I guess this person must feel very guilty for not being in touch for so long... even though I've never heard of them. Never having heard of someone - that is a long time. Fair enough, whip 'em out.
What is funny anyway?
Why would a comedian be asking a question like this? Don't we know what is funny? Well, kinda.
The art of comedy is not just about the laughter, and things that make one person laugh don't necessarily count as comic material. Conversely, things which when written down seem pretty unfunny can be absolutely hilarious when delivered in the right way in the right context. So, no: "What is funny?" is a massive question.
The business of comedy is nothing to do with being funny. It's a battle of the egos, or a massage of the egos, or a rewarding of the kindnesses of whoever is in this business that we might call show if it were actually really showbusiness. Stand-up comedy is not even glitzy showbusiness. If I had a red carpet to walk on, it would probably be in a pub and would probably be sticking from the pints and the sick and the pint of sick which have been drenched into it over the years.
I'm sounding negative, and I'm not meaning to be. For me, doing what I do, there's more to comedy than being funny, but being funny is the real heart of it. In the above photo, I'm there, smiling away because I've either just told a joke, or am about to tell a joke, and that sort of thing makes me happy. When you've found the right material, and know from experience that it's going to work, or have just come up with something on the spot that you know will be immediately hilarious, that's when comedy is about knowing what funny is and celebrating it.
For the rest of the time there are long drives, late nights, packing equipment in and out of vehicles, doing paperwork, organising times, dates, routes, people, issuing press releases that feel like they're ignored, applying for gigs and feeling ignored, sending out offers for gigs and then dealing with complex queries in return. It's not funny and it's a distraction from those 20-60 minutes (depending on the show type) or even 5-10 minutes when you're able to just face an audience and find funny with them.
Over the last 14 hours, I've rekindled my fanship of Tim Minchin a bit, thanks to listening to some of his less self-absorbed material, and I think I've reminded myself of a funny that I already wanted to aspire to.
And that's the last thing about being a comedian. You see jokes differently. Sure there are those that make you laugh - thank you Tim Vine for a lovely car ride's worth of your recording to enjoy - but then there are the jokes that you dissect and either wish you could write, or wish someone else hadn't (for one reason or another). None of which is directly related to the important act of being funny.
Still, the one enables the other.
So many words. Countless* posts on this blog and so many words blabbered from my mouth.
* Not countless, since I've just put the count in the title of this post, but a lot.
Despite being a man of words, some things seem to defy description. The pile of clothes and belongings lying on the floor of the subway this morning is one such thing. Occasionally you find piles of clothes lying about the place. I'm never quite sure why. An obvious answer is that some rough sleeper has abandoned their possessions for some reason. Another answer might be a drunk person dropping their stuff and not caring. Either way, there's probably a story behind the random piles of stuff you find discarded. It's kind of tragic, and kind of insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
Why this particular pile is where it is, and how it came to be is a mystery I don't even want to solve. It's like the mystery of why Bracknell council seem intent on totally closing rather important roads, or the mystery of why I had about 4 horrible traffic jams to defeat on the run into work this morning, or why I totally managed to stuff up yet another attempt to make myself some coffee for the journey into Bracknell today, on a day when I really really needed some coffee. In fact, I haven't even had any coffee since, only some iced tea, which I don't even really like. Mysterious.
To deepen the pile of crap on the floor mystery, try to find out why one of the discarded items is a whoopee cushion. It's possible, and I don't want you snickering at this image, that a rough sleeper was using this cushion to rest their head on to sleep in the subway. I think it would be quite sad and not amusing in anyway, to be sleeping on a whoopee cushion that was gently puffing out comic guff noises as your head bobbed up and down in the night, as the cushion deflated and became more of a mat.
I don't have the answers.
Most days I don't even have the questions.
So, How Did It Go?
Here's the view from the show writing.
Nothing turns out the way you expect or plan it to. The picture on the left here is not to be taken as a representative of my writing skills. It's more the example of what you write in order to make room for writing something better.
My show for the last couple of years has had an Elton John element to it. As I'm doing the musical-comedian-at-the-piano thing in my shows, distinct from my musical comedian with a guitar thing in my stand-up (and there's more piano than ever this year), it makes sense to look to Elton John for inspiration.
I had an idea that I might do something where Elton sings about the water cycle. I had the lyric "It's a cycle of water" in my head, because the idea of Elton singing those words amuses me. I wrote out some lyrics, worked out a "Circle of Life" parody, of sorts, and thought I'd be able to bring some suitable material together for it.
I was wrong. It's not funny enough. Or at least, my angle wasn't getting me anywhere.
Similarly, I thought I could write something about Tina Turner and explain how Simply The Best isn't simply or even complicatedly the best song out there. This proved to be quite wrong in a few ways. As you would see from the right hand side, I even sat down and produced a written musical score for my first, AWFUL, draft of this song, a song which thought it was funny to poke fun at Tina herself.
It may seem surprising to say that I'd deliberately decided that the one thing I wasn't going to do with Elton John was poke fun at anything that he's easily poked fun for. Sure, he's gay, outlandish, recently adopted a child, etc etc etc, but these aren't the sorts of things I think he can reasonably be criticised for. He's not acted in an unfair way with any of these things, and I respect him as an artist. If I'm to poke fun, it should either be something he'd find funny himself, or something so surreal that he's reduced to a cipher, and not an object of bigotry.
With Tina Turner, I'd made the mistake of writing a song which poked fun at the way she looked, and I'd written a routine debunking the entire lyric of a song that nobody really cared about. I did several rewrites of my own original song, which was originally called "Simply a Shame" - a Simply The Best parody (original words and tune, but in that family). It didn't work for audiences and I didn't find it altogether funny myself.
So then I tried dropping the misanthropy and made a silly song. I'll probably put this song on my album. It's called "I'm Your Pirate Dancer". It's not quite "stage funny" but it's again the sort of thing that I think Tina might appreciate, and that's a nicer way to do comedy.
I'm trying to grow as a writer and performer, as I head headlong to my 10th anniversary of being a stand-up. There are some important lessons to learn along the way. Having an easy swipe at cheap targets is simply not good enough.
None of this is directly related to my recent experience at the Brighton Fringe with yet another pair of previews of this show.
How can I best describe the shows? Briefly would probably work.
Only 3 "paying" audience members plus my show assistant. I say they were paying, in that they gave me their time - I deliberately prevented them from parting with money as I felt it wasn't reasonable under the circumstances, it could only be a workshop. I skipped the opening song as it was too big for an audience of 3. I ran through the material and they laughed in most of the right places. I also skipped a new quirky bit as we were short of time, and I didn't know how I'd play it.
I then zoomed across town to do a guest spot at a venue when I got venue jealousy and door-take jealousy. In short, there was an audience, there was a generous collection, the atmosphere was joyous, and I felt like my venue wasn't doing me any favours.
Still, I didn't really mind. I had a nice time with the audience and felt like my hotel would probably be open when I arrived, which would be an improvement on last week.
I'll only say that I could have made this more likely to be successful if I'd only turned left, rather than right. I ended up on a fool's errand looking for a print shop, failed, ended up chatting up a preacher man for an hour or so, and only found a place to get my flyers printed right before it was time to go to the venue to prepare for the show. Likewise, chatting to some punters stopped me from effectively exit flyering the show before mine.
However, I had an audience that was in double figures, and I did all of the show. Some bits felt like me doing some pointless talking, so I cut them. Some bits worked. Some bits didn't. One bit surprised me by working nicely... it was a useful experiment.
In short, Brighton was meant to be an experiment where I could try the material out and see if fail. I've forgotten all the failures I had with the last show two years ago, and how they helped improve the material. Now I'm being forced to remember.
My description of failure is not the same as the general feedback I've had from the audience who enjoyed themselves. I'm just aiming higher. Which is the right way.
It's those comedians who aim low who gain nothing.
Doing the Brighton Fringe effectively seems like a pretty tall order. I can see how it's supposed to be done, but I'm not sure it's possible if you're in a venue on the outside of things on a hot sunny weekend when people don't give a toss about you.
I'm glad I've had these four shows in Brighton. It's been costly, but the script is better and the fear of failing in public has made me raise my game nice and early.
I think there may be a problem with your attitude. You share very little about what you're doing and you seem content with the standard of your work, when there is plenty of room for improvement. By which I mean I'm completely unsatisfied with everything you're doing.
Two incidents today have been the icing on the cake.
Incident one: "Which smart arse did... X?" you proudly asked everyone. Well, that smart-arse was me, and what I was doing was perfectly normal. The fact you didn't understand it was surpassed by your lack of humility in criticising it.
Incident two: I asked you what you meant by something that I could see was both inconsistent, and incorrectly expressed. You sent me a link to a website explaining the very thing YOU had misunderstood.
I now need to keep my temper and be positive towards you. If I can't train you, then it's partly my fault. If I give up on you, it's totally my fault. If you continue to be an arse about all of this, then it's yours.
The next few days will be fun.
Oh No, It's All Going A Bit Wrong
I am frequently amazed at the power of simple things to prove difficult or to go wrong. This morning was a case in point. I whacked on the coffee machine while I hurried around the place getting ready to leave. I started to rush as I hate my coffee to be stewed, I raced down to the machine, ready to fill my travel mug for the long ride in the car and then I discovered that coffee doesn't brew well if you don't put any in the machine
. That's right, I'd made some homeopathic coffee, hot bloody water.
In fact, my homeopathic coffee wasn't truly homeopathic as it probably contained several molecules of coffee, unlike homeopathy, which simply contains the concept of coffee ritualised by some people who don't understand the physical world, or more probably refuse to understand it as it would require them to accept that their magic medicine is a load of nonsense, which would in turn make them feel like they don't have something to contribute to their patients and that they've been wasting everyone's time.
Nobody wants to waste their time, which is why the road closure that led to my car park this morning annoyed me. I had to cleverly contrive an alternative route, only to discover that the entire area was cordoned off by the police. Not quite as much of a waste of time as homeopathy, but just as pointless.
This is the start to my week. I wonder how it's going to turn out.
First Nightmare Syndrome
My first night of discograffiti - my new show, now playing in Brighton - was something of a baptism of fire for me. Don't get me wrong. I have done first nights before and I had a reasonably decent set of expectations on audience number and response (some might even say retaliation) to my material. However, it was the unexpected things which made my first night into the ultimate challenge to keep my hair on.
The story unfolded undramatically at first. Unlike last year, where I managed to arrive at the venue minus some rather important equipment, the physical side of setting up in the venue was a doddle. I arrived before the previous show was even starting, enabling me to store my stuff in the relative safety of the room in which the show would be happening. Then I went downstairs to compose my thoughts, read my script and generally prepare for the evening ahead.
I had no presales. This was not a surprise to me. I have serious doubts that The Brighton Fringe is worth doing unless you are Brigton based, or have a loyal Brighton following. That said, it is worth doing from the point of view of running in a new show, so game on.
I knew from last year that flyering within the venue woud be enough to recruit a small audience, so that is exactly what I did.
I am an equal opportunities flyer hander outer. I will offer you the chance to see my show no matter what your station in life. One especially vulnerable seeming couple took a flyer and I concluded that they were possibly too drunk and broke to bother coming upstairs, but that was fine.
Just before the show was due to start - it started late because the audience were being all Brighton about the concept of time - the bloke from this odd couple approached me and asked about my two for one ticket offer. I repeated the offer and he said he was coming.
While I had made the small audience sit at the front, I allowed this couple to go to the back of the room, reasoning that they would probable be safe and sound out of the way. I asked my show helper to charge them, but told her not to move them. I think she misunderstood as she did neither, and I wasn't that fussed about making a scene over it. Perhaps if we had made a fuss of charging and moving them they would have been more under the spell of the show than they proved to be.
Some of the show's material was both untested and under-rehearsed. While some might say you shouldn't inflict this on a paying audience, I would counter that the audience were in for half price and half the show was pretty tried and tested. Also, I am lovely and worth seeing... and this was put to the acid test.
Getting momentum in the first section was difficult as the drunk couple at the back kept chipping in. This wasn't the only factor as my recent rewrites would bear witness to. However, it really didn't help. I managed to stay pleasant, working the heckles into jokes and stopping the show when the bloke had a coughing fit, to see if everything was ok. What I got back was playful banter, but disruptive nonetheless and clearly out to steal focus. It wasn't helping the show and the paying audience were not enjoying the interruptions.
Halfway through the show I stopped and told the couple that enough was enough. I said that I had tried my best to be nice to them, but that they were disrupting the show. They were welcome to stay, despite not having paid, but only if they stopped this behaviour. They had to choose between staying and behaving themselves or leaving.
They had a little argument between themselves but eventually left. During this time I didn't perform or particularly pay attention. We just waited for them to leave.
As the door shut on them I improvised a quick four bar song on how awkward the whole things had been. It got a laugh, we moved on.
I had to skip a major banker within the script, partly for time, and partly because I knew it worked and was really there to test the other material. The show didn't really ever recover. It already needed work, and the early audience problems had pretty much fatally wounded it. On top of that there was music leaking into the microphone channel from somewhere else, just quietly, but removing any dignity I might have had left.
We packed away and had a post-show drink where I asked my show helper to look out for certain bits of material to see if they would get a laugh the next time.
So to bed.
I managed to keep my energy levels up, reasoning that this sort of experience was a one off and that there were some positives one could take from the situation. My hotel room was in Worthing, so I journeyed the 30 or so minutes there, listening to a rather fine podcast, the Answer Me This podcast. Very good.
My hotel was closed for the night.
I rang the bell. I rang the phone. I even spoke to some other residents, but there was no point in them letting me in, since I didn't know which room was mine.
I kept my temper.
Then I travelled around Worthing looking for hotels that were open and had rooms. That killed an hour. So I asked the last hotel where a nearby services might be found so I could try the hotel there. The Premier Inn in Littlehampton was the obvious candidate. I rang the booking line who told me "sorry, there is noone available to take your call and you can't leave a message". Twats.
I drove there on spec. Someone was around and booked me in... into their Bognor Regis branch.
Eventually, still with a calm voice and a smile on my face, I checked in at Bognor Regis. Nice room, good wifi, comfy bed. Result.
How I didn't have a massive sense of humour failure is anyone's guess. I suppose I'd already been pushed to the max and just kept on surviving. The show the next night would be, and was, a lot better.
A Quick Insight
No time for sleep. Too busy with music. Really enjoying the creative process, but it's very time consuming and the pressure is high as the show isn't going to wait for me to be ready.
My study is a mess of different instruments and equipment. I got tangled in wires last night.
Also busy running a comedy competition. That's going well, though in some quarters it seems that it's a lot easier to take a small debating point and inflate it into a mass of jeers, rather than either be constructive or stay silent. Still, that's the internet for you. Nobody every made it big in comedy through being a smart arse on a comedy forum. In fact, you usually make it small from that sort of activity.
Last night I sawed through a hard drive while making a prop for a show.
Yesterday I went trawling looking for children's dressing up accessories for the same show.
The cats think I'm insane.
I have pretty much committed to the idea of writing for myself. Here's what I have to say on the subject in an article I wrote but which didn't get published.
I shouldn’t be writing this. I should be writing my show. I’m on in Brighton in
a few days and I’m allowing myself to be distracted from what I should be
focusing on most. I don’t just mean that writing this is the main distraction.
I find myself pondering questions like – “how will this look on stage?”
and “what would the audience reaction be for that?”. I know the rooms I’ll
be performing in, and I’m wondering “what might be funny if you’re sitting
at the back corner where it’s dark and there’s usually beer on the floor?”. In
short, I’m asking some interesting questions about delivering the material, but
they’re totally irrelevant when it comes down to finding the funny.
Although poor stage-craft can destroy your material, it can seldom make it
funnier. For my show to work, I’m going to have to find stuff that is interesting,
engaging and which delights me to share it with an audience.
A friend of mine does a comic podcast on Bolton Wanderers FC. He’s not a
stand-up comedian, but he’s a funny guy and has performed on stage before
(I’m pretty sure we did a Fringe show together in 2004). I’ve listened to his
podcast (www.themeninwhite.com) and thoroughly enjoyed it. This is nothing
to do with the subject. I couldn’t give a shit about BWFC. In fact, if pushed, I’m
not sure I could even give half a shit about them. However, the fact that these
podcasters are enthusiastic and witty on a subject they care about means that
I find their podcast to be highly enjoyable.
And that’s the goal. Write a great set that you care about. But on what? This is
the ultimate question. If there was a simple formula, then more people would
be more original.
The easy mistake is to write about things that you think will make an audience
laugh. It has to make you laugh first and foremost. It has to be something that
you can find funny even if the audience are not sure or even hate you. These
words are going to come out of your mouth night after night, so you should
really like them.
By the way, this means you can and probably should drop material that works
most of the time, but that you don’t really like anymore.
Generating material is hard. For wordplay or other jokes that twist normality,
look at existing written word pieces and find the phrases you can subvert.
There are even lists of idioms and sayings you can mine for one-liner
setups or punchlines. For emotive material, why not make a list of things
about yourself that are worth discussing outside of a comedy context, then
interpolate some jokes. You could make a list of things you love, hate, fear or
wish and work with that.
Finally, remember that stand-up is not a solely monologue-based artform. You
can work banter into your material, and you can even engage the audience
more by phrasing certain things as a question, even a rhetorical one, to make
them relate it more to themselves.
Two useful books for exercises to help you write comedy:
Sally Holloway - The Serious Guide to Joke-Writing
Logan Murray - Be A Great Stand-Up: Teach Yourself
This article contains excerpts from the Funny’s Funny Information Pack, which
will be released shortly and made available for free to all entrants to Funny’s
Funny Female Comedian of the Year 2012. www.funnysfunny.org.uk
I am not a number
Booking acts cannot be done by the numbers, but sometimes there are numbers too. I'll be staring at the pie chart adjacent for the next 2 months. It's part of how I am certain that we're doing a good job. It's also quite a handy tool that I really must develop further. I guess the automation of the drudgery work enables me to be more human where it counts.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
I saw this film in the cinema when it first came out and I rather liked it. I don't know if it was a particularly popular film, and I suspect that it wasn't. However, I don't mind. We bought it on DVD for about nothing and watched it last night. It was a lot of fun.
The best thing about this film is also the worst thing about it. It's very visually distinct, in a similar way to the modern day Dick Tracy film. It looks like a colourised black and white comic book come to life. It's also set in an odd world - a post-war era where technology has progressed in exotic ways.
You could imagine a boy in 1940's america reading these stories as the sci-fi of the era.
Sadly, the look of the film is achieved with some CGI which really takes you out of the action when it doesn't work... and it often just looks like the actors are superimposed over the CGI, which is a shame.
That said, as Gwyneth Paltrow films go, it's not one of the worst, and even the cheesy catchphrase of "Good Boy Dex" only grates slightly.
Then main take-home message of this film is that Angelina Jolie really does have a very pronounced fold in her bottom lip. My current theory on this is that she once (as I did) rested her soldering iron temporarily on there, in the manner of sucking a pen.
It's a theory!
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