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Friday, July 26

So, How Did it Go? - a.k.a. Did I Enjoy That?

This year I'm not going to the Edinburgh Fringe. I can't say I'm happy about that in itself. There are good reasons why I can't commit to it, the main one of which is that my family life has changed and we have a baby daughter to look after, which isn't compatible with fringe-going, or at least, not compatible enough. I AM happy about having a baby. It's a little conflict. No Fringe- boo. Being a daddy - big yay.

I'm digressing.

With the idea that I'd challenge myself to produce something comedic this year, I registered with the Henley Fringe to do Ashley Frieze's Greatest Hats Album, a show whose premise was simply that I'd do my greatest bits from 10 years+ as a comedian. A simple concept. The other idea was that I'd get some of the satisfaction of writing a show, without the pressure to run in new material, and I'd also get the pleasure of doing an hour long performance, twice, to a nice Fringe audience - Henley has always been reasonably attended for me, and last year's preview of Discograffiti was especially enjoyable.

That was the theory.

I should add that I'd used the Henley shows as an unofficial leaving do from my old day-job employer, and felt a few people might show up from there to boost numbers. I felt it was going to be a highlight of the month.

To answer some of my initial question, I'd have to say it didn't go anywhere near the way I anticipated. So many things were not as I imagined, and you could say that they took away from my aims. You could say that, I'm not going to offer any conclusions at this point.

  • I never actually got the time to write the show - I had about 3 ideas in my head for how it would work, and then procrastinated horribly.
  • Changing jobs between organising the show and doing it meant the dynamic of my life had also changed.
  • My goal to do a purely guitar-based standy-uppy show crumbled when I realised I could take the piano, and that I wanted it as a crutch, making the show immediately more like the last 3 years' solo shows, the sort of thing I was thinking I might move away from.
  • The venue wasn't equipped, so I had to take my own stuff along - this actually wasn't an issue, but made me feel like I wasn't being recognised by the organisers for what I do.
  • The publicity that was made by the organisers somewhat failed to say what the show was about.
  • There were 2 pre-sales on day 1 and 10 pre-sales on day 2.
  • On day one, the numbers were boosted by three friends of the venue owner, who were asked to turn their evening into a spontaneous ladies' night out to avoid the place being totally empty. These ladies had an average age of about 60.
  • One both days, the pre-sales were all from people I knew, except for two people on day 2, one of whom claimed to be a reviewer.
Somewhere there's a young comedian, who's just bust into TV laughing his head off at the fact that he didn't have to do these two gigs. Not like this.

So what did I make of performing my stuff to a bunch of ex-work-colleagues, and rent-a-crowd people? What did it feel like?

You can stop reading at the next sentence if you wish. It was pretty okay, actually.

To expand on this, I have to compare it with last year's full-show experience. Discograffiti was quite a difficult show to put together. I wanted to use more new material in it than I did, though I wrote quite a bit for it, and only kept older material which both suited it and which was really strong. I had a lot of awkward or awful previews with the show, which seemed not quite to come together before Edinburgh, though it got closer and closer to a show before I left to go there. I was so pushed for time and perhaps so uncommitted to the content of the show that I didn't learn it at all before going to the Fringe, taking a crib sheet on my tablet on stage with me. All in all, I ended the Fringe thinking it had been a bit of a disappointment, and I didn't listen back to the recording.

I forgot what I'd been doing between shows. I had been rewriting and editing the show. By the end of the Fringe I had a pretty slick 55 minutes which kept the laughs coming when it meant to. Of course, I'm judging this on the last two performances, which were extra special because the audience came in numbers with an end-of-term spirit. So everything appeared to work, which was great. When I eventually listened to the show back, I was proud of it. In February this year - 5 or so months later!

The point is, I didn't appreciate it when I had it.

The Henley experience this year is something I did appreciate as I went along. In terms of career, general writing, finance, and personal growth, I can't say I took anything away from the last couple of shows. In terms of everything else, it was lovely.

To understand why it was lovely, you have to understand the atmosphere. Pictured is the "stage" set up for my show. It's the back of a small but perfectly formed coffee shop in Henley called Hot Gossip. It's well worth a visit. Everything there is pleasant and personable.

I turned up with an estate car full of stuff and my high-falutin' demands, which mainly were "can I plug everything in and sort it all out for myself, please?" and I was treated like a member of the family. They couldn't do enough for me. I nearly left on both nights with a packed lunch. Just lovely.

The Henley Fringe woman on the ground as also very helpful and great company. Even if the show hadn't gone ahead, I'd have had a pleasant evening out.

Also, on day one, there was a member of the shop's staff sitting around doing not much (as there was not much to do). I discovered a "ring this bell for attention" bell on the counter and explained how, if I made a gag in conversation, especially a bad one, I could make it funny by just ringing the bell. So if someone said something like "With a salad I like dressing", I could say "Dressing, eh? That's my favourite sort of gown. [PING]". Yes, you had to be there. I want a bell for home! [PING]

Despite the low numbers, I decided to take to the stage and share my stuff with the audience to have fun. At no stage did I consider whether I was disappointed with the turn out. That wasn't my role. The only thing which gave me a few moments' anxiety was the suitability of the material for the audience. I knew they'd go with pretty much anything if they were comfortable, and I realised my scripted first page was simply the wrong tool for the job. So I changed it. I wasn't that married to the script. The script was really just a playlist of stuff I wanted to perform again.

I quickly came to the conclusion on both nights that I'd enjoy the overlap between the stuff on my list of things and the audience's tastes. I delivered two slightly different shows, switching in different material between the nights and the audience went with it, at least enough of them went for it for enough of the time.

Why wouldn't I enjoy it. I wrote these jokes to get laughs and I chose them because I enjoy them or at least enjoy the reaction they cause.

One of my ex-colleagues commented on one of my routines in my leaving card - it has an audience-participation element. I foolishly gave her her wish to be the person who writes the word that I have to sing. It didn't backfire.

On the first show with the more mature audience, I baulked at saying one of the rude-word punchlines in one of my songs. I replaced it with "I'm not going to sing that word". This was foolish, but my second brain, the one which edits my show and goads me into being silly, while my primary brain performs, told me that I had to quickly break the taboo I'd just declared, and that it would be funny to add, a line or two after my "I'm not going to say that" the line "by the way the word I wasn't going to say was...". I did this, which I think is quite funny, and then nearly gave myself the giggles.

Throughout both shows I had a chance to remember why my hard-won, experience-edited material is worth repeating, or at least, worth repeating to a dozen or so people in a small coffee shop. We all had a laugh and I really enjoyed it.

So that's how it went.

Gotta run, I think that's BBC3 on the phone. They want to know if I'm free. Do I look like John Inman? [PING]

Let's Look At Tom

I have no massive axe to grind with Tom O'Connor. He is one of those TV personalities I remember from my childhood and picture as a jumper-wearing cheerful avuncular figure fronting some gameshow or other. He comes from an era of stand-up comedy that I don't aspire to, or really belong to. I wouldn't have imagined that the work of Tom O'Connor would hit my radar.

My comedy world is pretty broad. Among the heroes is one Stewart Lee, whose show "41st Best Stand-up Comedian" I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe in its year of inception. I've since listened to the show a few times and read the full script, along with copious footnotes in Mr Lee's book. For some reason, despite the show mentioning Tom O'Connor many times, I was still not curious about Tom O'Connor. Why would I be?

I don't know why I should have become curious, but I guess repetition makes something take root in your head, and I think I decided that I should make my own mind up about a stand-up comedian, whose name and reputation were joked about in a show. It's a perfectly reasonable thing for me to decide to do. In fact, today I listened to Mitch Hedburg, who had been mentioned by a few people, and I was absolutely thrilled. Absorbing the works of other comedians is what a comedy person would be expected to do.

I bought Tom O'Connor's CD "A Look At Life". I listened to it in my car on Thursday evening, the evening I'd be doing the second of my shows at the Henley Fringe. I listened to it as an audience member, but also as a fellow practitioner.

Now, was my opinion in someway skewed by circumstance? After all, I was on the way to a gig in which I'd perform to a probably small audience. Surely I'd have the set up of my show and the pre-match nerves to worry about. I don't get pre-match nerves, and I was feeling quite relaxed. I also listened to the CD both before and after my show, forming the same opinions on each half, and I followed it up with some Tim Vine, which made me gloriously giddy with laughter.

It's about this point in the narrative that it's fairly clear that I didn't like what I heard on the CD, and that's true. That's not to say that I hated it or found it offensive. There's a certain brand of comedy which is so dreadful that I actually get angry. It usually involves young smug boys with silly clothes saying a bunch of ego-stroking crap, making half a witty line, or a half-witty line, and then saying something like "That's my only proper joke" or words to that effect. Tom O'Connor is not everything I hate. Far from it.

The funny thing is that I'd probably forgive Barry Cryer for a lot of the things I didn't especially admire about Tom O'Connor. I don't know why. Perhaps Barry Cryer isn't constantly stroking his audience and trying to make out like they're all bastions of the same world view. Perhaps when Cryer tells an old old old as the hills joke, you laugh because you know he was there when it was written and it's somehow coming out as a classic, rather than an old taudry bauble. Perhaps Barry Cryer is just a comedy god and it doesn't matter what he says, so long as he keeps getting up there and saying it.

To review the Tom O'Connor CD in detail would be more dull than listening to it, and that's saying something. I think it's of its time. The disc itself is from 1990. The world view sounds more like it's coming from the 1980s. Punks are commented on as though they're new. Chinese restaurants are treated with suspicion (though Chinese people are not mocked for being Chinese per se). The show complains about the trials of decimalisation of Britain's currency (early 70's). Tom complains about alternative comedy (80's) and even about telling jokes, preferring to tell stories of "folks like us".

Punctuated with songs, which I think must have been recorded in the studio and mixed into the CD, though they would have been performed live during the bit the audience are responded to, this was a bizarre mixed-bag of what its audience seemed to consider as entertainment. The strained singing of this affable Liverpudlian didn't sit well with me, and the gag rate was very low, and when the jokes came, they were old hat...

... but perhaps they were less old hat when this gig was recorded. My guess is that they weren't.

It's a shame. The stage craft and nature of Mr O'Connor are definitely worth learning from. The outlook and material are not.

At least I've formed this opinion from my own experience, rather than guesswork or the words of others. All in all a useful experience.

Sunday, July 14

Did you enjoy that?

I have just been reminded of one of my standard lines to another comedian after they have gotten off stage. You have to be careful as a fellow comedian and sometime stager of shows. Giving feedback can be a double edged sword. I think it is massively important to be critical and to wonder how things work, whether they really work, and how to make them better. I remember reading Frank Skinner's book and losing loads of respect for him as he clearly didn't have a clue how the world, or the art of stand-up, actually work. What Skinner has is good instincts and stage craft, but not by design.

Giving feedback can really help someone improve, and I think there are a few acts out there who would speak well of nuggets of feedback I have given them which they have been able to use to good effect. But nobody likes an opinionated wanker who tells them what they should have done differently, and I made way too many mistakes in my early days as a comedian giving opinions that were not asked for, welcome, or considered to be authoritative given my own apparent experience or level of skill. It doesn't matter whether you are right or wrong if you are giving feedback inappropriately.

Feedback to comedians is even more of an issue in general, though. Stand-up is ALL about the feedback. We speak, they laugh. That's your feedback loop. Simple. If a comedian gets the wrong sort of feedback, their ego implodes and the defensiveness begins. On top of that, all new comedians are, on the whole, not very good at it. They will get better, and there is no point in making them feel suicidal by telling how much they suck while they are still learning.

So if I have really loved an act, I will tell them. I will tell them why. I will gush and ooze and it will be a bit gratuitous, but they will probably not hate the feedback because they will, deep down, be getting what they asked for. If a fellow comedian does a good job, then I will say it was a good job. If someone I don't know sucks a bit, then I will avoid giving them false positive feedback - I don't want to reinforce their belief that that shit is good - but I will spare them from my actual opinion. I will, instead ask a question. It's usually "Did you enjoy that?". I choose that question because I firmly believe someone should enjoy a comedian's work, and if they didn't enjoy it themselves, even, then they will probably spend time working out why it wasn't enjoyable, and will fix it.

I enjoyed writing this.


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