How I learned to stop worrying and love the ‘block

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It’s been a while since I blogged here, but some exciting things have been happening. There have been some problems too; the kind which are probably familiar to many. A few months ago writer/producer Ravonski wrote this really interesting post about the difficulties of having too much creative freedom. This is something I’ve struggled with in the past couple of months, and especially since finishing my stand-up course. For the first quarter of the year I had a target; a very real motivation. Once that ended, things became more difficult.

I’ve written here about the comedy which I saw in New York later that month, and that should have acted as an inspiration. Right? Well, that’s not how it turned out. And I was pretty frustrated for a while because I was getting nowhere – there were a few loose ideas, but where to start? What did I even want to achieve? There can be few worse feelings than being passionate about creating something but feeling completely unable to do that, either because the ideas aren’t coming, or you don’t know where to start, or because you’ve suffered some huge drain on motivation.

Getting my ‘Fix

Luckily, although the stand-up course has long finished, the results of it haven’t. I’m now involved with a show called The Comedy Fix on Rhubarb Radio, which I co-present with Gary Dring and Jonny Greatrex who also completed the course. Being part of this has been a huge motivational boost for me as it’s given me a creative outlet and means that I have a regular (fortnightly) show that I need to write material for. I’ve been doing items for the past three shows and while none of that material is stuff that I’m really proud of, it’s a good arena for trying certain things out, and some of the jokes might work well if transferred into other formats. I’m still interested in doing more stand-up, for example, and some of this material might translate, although I’d like to do something based around a concept if I go back to the stage. Most of the stand-ups I enjoy tend to do stuff which is interesting structurally or thematically, and has intelligent ideas behind it. Although even then, jokes are still important! There are a couple of concepts I have in mind but, particularly with one of them, I’m still figuring out the logistics of how that could work. I’m also wondering how the lessons I learned and feedback I received from the stand-up course can be implemented here – this is ideas-based comedy, cerebral or at the very least quite meta in some places, whereas it was the more physical elements of my set at the course showcase which got some of the biggest laughs.

On top of the stand-up I still want to work on some ideas I have, especially a monologue I’ve been thinking of for a while now and I’d also like to do something visual – either a zine or graphic novella, perhaps with a collaborator whose skills lie in illustration (N.B. mine most certainly do not). But the radio show satisfies some of my creative/comedic tendencies, although I’m not the most natural person in the studio. My writing habits are still pretty scattergun too; I tend to have bursts of ideas rather than writing every day – sometimes I can go for days without writing anything which makes me laugh, and then have a sudden impetus. Maybe it’s because I work best when deadlines are looming, as I often put things off until the pressure is really on. I don’t like this way of working, I’d rather be more organised and be more ahead of myself, but I’ve been learning to try to accept that way of working and harness it, rather than being frustrated by it. I don’t think it’s the ideal way, but neither is trying to force it.

Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate

The main thing for me – and I’m prepared for this to sound really self-indulgent and pretentious – is trying to create something which has some sort of artistic value, rather than just writing stuff for the sake of it. I don’t feel that any of the stuff I’ve done yet has been particularly ‘worthy’, but I have a lot of ideas for things we could do with the show. Several of these are things which would work well collaboratively, and I think this stems from my belief that although the three of us have very different styles and tastes when it comes to comedy, we could do something a lot more ambitious with the show if we work together more often. I enjoy working on my own bits for the show, but feel we could do something between us that experiments with the form, structure and style of the show, and incorporates a lot more ideas. This will be more difficult to achieve because it would involve a lot more communication between each other and regular time pre-recording items for the show, which might not be feasible because everyone is very busy with their jobs and social lives, plus Gary and Jonny are both doing stand-up gigs too.

I’d like to see us push ourselves and also the audience, because I don’t think we should be restricted by assumptions of what the audience wants or expects, or will find funny. I think radio is a great breeding ground for ideas and generally trying stuff out to see what works, although without much feedback it’s very difficult to know which bits are enjoyed the most by listeners, or even how many people are listening in. The same goes for podcasts. I also think that working on stuff together would help to give the show more of an identity, but we’d still have the freedom to mix things up a bit and experiment. What’s the point in doing something if you’re not going to aim high?

But for now, I’m just glad to have found an outlet and a way of working. Plus I’m also learning to put less pressure on myself if the material just isn’t coming. I do owe a huge amount to Ashley Robinson who usually has to listen to my moans about things like this, so she has been enormously supportive and helpful in getting me to be more relaxed about it and to let things flow more naturally, however frustrating my natural tendencies might be. I’m keen to pursue a few ideas to really have a go at comedy writing, both on my own projects but also with any collaborators. So if anyone reading this would like to work on something together, let me know! I’d love to hear from you.


Being Sensible has never been so much fun

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It all started in 1994. Tearing back the birthday wrapping I unveiled a copy of Sensible Soccer for my Acorn. I’d been dropping hints (well, I say ‘hints’; in truth I don’t think they were that subtle) for months, after seeing it ranked at #4 in a magazine supplement listing the Top 100 Acorn games of all time. Never thought that would be a sentence I’d type. It was a game I’d heard lots about on other platforms but I didn’t own a console (besides my trusty Sega Master System) now it was finally available on my computer!

By the time I got it, it was more or less out of date already; both in the data (it was a special edition based on the 1992 European Championships, and with team data for the European club competitions in the 1992/93 season) and also the technology – Sensible World of Soccer was going to take the world by storm with teams from…well, all around the world, and management options too.

I’ve never been a gamer, as you can probably tell by my choice of console. But something about the game grabbed me instantly. Years later, and I bought one of these which is a fantastically retro device with Sensible Soccer, Cannon Fodder (which I also had for the Acorn; it got fiendishly difficult very quickly, not helped by all of the green backdrops which played havoc with my colourblindness – it’s no fun if you can’t see your troops either because they’re too well camouflaged) and Megalomania (which I’ve never played).

I’ve been having a bit of a nostalgic phase recently, partly because I’ve been thinking about an idea for a monologue which is all about memories (the good and the bad kind, not just rose-tinted backward glances). A combination of that and the impending Champions League final have compelled me to dig this back out. I think what I find most enjoyable about it is it’s simplicity and immediacy.

I never really liked the FIFA games and even though my friends’ copies of the Pro Evo series are good competitive fun and about as realistic as you’re going to get on a computer screen, as far as I’m concerned it’s never matched the heart of Sensible Soccer. I couldn’t tell you anything that I’ve achieved in either of those games, yet I can vividly remember my first ever goal on Sensi, a curling effort from Roberto Donadoni for plucky Italy in a 2-1 defeat to the mighty Bulgaria. I remember subjecting Quickshot Python joysticks to all kinds of violent abuse in the pursuit of glory (and even more so when defeat beckoned). And most of all I remember saying, “Oh, just one more game,” and then before you know it you’ve played an entire 38-game European Super League season in one sitting.

I’ve been thinking about games recently, especially with all of the press for L.A. Noire – and specifically thinking about storytelling and humour in games. I’ve (sporadically) played games which are funny and tell tales, and that got me thinking about the concept of writing scripts for games. While I try to work out several ideas currently only in my head, that’s one of the ones which I’d love to pursue but wouldn’t know where to start. But that’s a thought for another day. For now, I’m content with making Des Walker dive across the penalty box for a headed clearance, or making Marco Van Basten pummel the ball into the back of the net on the turn. That’s pretty much as good as it gets.

But for the gamers among you…what narrative-driven games would you recommend trying out? Preferably games available for PC (including any classic games which might be available at sites like Home of the Underdogs), but you never know, I could be tempted to invest in a proper console. Really.

Fantasy Sitcom: Who’s in yours?

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Last night I was listening to The Comedy Fix, a comedy-based (fortnightly) show on Rhubarb Radio. It’s presented by Gary Dring and Jonny Greatrex, both fellow graduates from the stand-up comedy course I did at the MAC, and who opened and closed the live showcase respectively. I haven’t had any involvement with the show yet but will hopefully be contributing new material to it in future weeks.

Before listening to yesterday’s show I had an idea for a feature to include on the show. I can’t even remember what inspired the idea now, but here it is: Fantasy Sitcoms. I remember listening to The Evening Session with Steve Lamacq back in the days when Radio 1 wasn’t terrible (Mark & Lard, Lamacq and of course John Peel were required listening as far as my teenage ears were concerned – sadly I don’t have first-hand memories of the station’s comedy high-point, when the likes of Danny Baker, Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci, Lee & Herring and Simon Munnery graced the airwaves in R1 colours, although thanks to the internet and the foresight of people who not only listened to but also recorded those shows at the time, I’ve heard them since). A feature Lamacq regularly used to do was Fantasy Festival, with listeners’ dream festival bills, or even Fantasy Supergroup, where people at home would devise their ideal band line-ups.

Fantasy Sitcom follows the same basic principle. If you’ve ever wondered what Fawlty Towers would be like if Basil had been married to Thelma from Whatever Happened To the Likely Lads?, or if Del Boy and Racquel had ended up raising one of the kids from Malcolm In the Middle, that’s the kind of thing we’re looking for. Or perhaps Bill Cosby took a part-time job at Dunder Mifflin after his pension was wiped out by the credit crunch. Also, maybe there’s an iconic sitcom location where you’d like to see another show set. For example, what if Rob Corddry’s Adultswim show Children’s Hospital was set in the wards where they filmed, say, Only When I Laugh? You get the picture.

There are also writers to think about too. What if Hancock’s Half-Hour had been written by Barry Took and Marty Feldman, or if Porridge had been penned by Simon Nye? How about if Galton & Simpson scribed inner monologues for Mark and Jez in Peep Show, or Red Dwarf writer Rob Grant introduced aliens to Keeping Up Appearances?

It’s meant as a playful thing, and a topic for discussion to get people interacting with the show. Obviously different writers, characters and situations are products of their own time and place, so might not be directly comparable or interchangeable. Anarchy might ensue, and some combinations might simply be too off-the-wall. But that doesn’t stop people comparing Messi with Maradona, Matt Smith with the actors who have played previous incarnations of the Doctor, or Alex Kidd In Miracle World with L.A. Noire. Well, maybe not the last one. Anyway, hopefully this is a fun idea which will get people talking.

It doesn’t necessarily just have to be sitcoms; you can broaden the field to sketches, films or other formats too if you like (maybe you’ve always thought a Reeves & Mortimer character deserved their own sitcom, or a film character should’ve had their own spin-off). What we want are your Fantasy Sitcom suggestions for the following: the title of the show/film/sketch etc, the situation it’s set in, the names of the characters or actors who would appear in it, the names of the writers involved, and the location where it’s set.

Anyway, if you’ve got some suggestions for Fantasy Sitcom line-ups, leave a comment here or on the show’s Facebook page. You can also send suggestions via Twitter, directly to me or to the show, using the hashtag #fantasysitcom. Let’s see what you’ve got!

A bite of the Big Apple

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A couple of weeks ago I got back from a very eventful week-long holiday in New York. I’m sure more seasoned bloggers would have written more quickly and more often about a trip like that, but I’ve never intended this blog to be like a personal diary. However, I haven’t posted here since my stand-up debut so it seemed a good idea to put together some thoughts about it here.

This was actually my first solo holiday and, at the ripe old age of 28, the first time I’d ever been outside of Europe. Anybody who knows me well – or is friends with me on Facebook – will know that this holiday marked the start of an exciting new adventure personally, but it was also a great cultural trip.

Even the flights were pretty stimulating: on my journey to New York I spent most of the flight reading the latest issue of The Word magazine from cover to cover as well as reading the first Dirk Gently book by Douglas Adams (still undecided whether it’s easier to picture Harry Enfield or Stephen Mangan as the titular ‘holistic detective’), while the flight home was peppered with episodes of American TV comedies including 30 Rock, The Office (from what I’ve seen it’s warmer and funnier than the Gervais/Merchant version), Parks & Recreation (which I’d heard lots about but never seen before; on this basis I will be catching up with it as a priority) and The Big Bang Theory, which I’ve never been a huge fan of but the relentless stream of sharp gags made sure I didn’t get too bored. I find it impossible to sleep on planes, even on the overnight flight home, so at least I was entertained.

I stayed at a B&B in Brooklyn (the wonderful Bibi’s Garden – I had a great stay, and Bibi and Harry were lovely hosts) and headed straight there after landing at Newark, so I didn’t get much chance to explore before my first comedy gig of the week, which was ‘Hot Tub’ at a gallery/live events space and bar called Littlefield, hosted by Kristen Schaal (Mel from Flight of the Conchords) and Kurt Braunholer (the pair are a brilliantly matched comic duo, and made the amusingly lo-fi Penelope Princess of Pets for Channel 4’s Comedy Lab a couple of years ago). I hate those bores who say that women aren’t funny – they couldn’t be more wrong – but was massively disappointed by both Carolyn Castiglia and Hallie Haglund. Sketch troupe Serious Lunch have a lot of potential though, and Chris Gethard’s stand-up slot was great, especially the routine where he puts his love for the New York Knicks above every other human relationship he’s had. The highlights were, unsurprisingly, Schaal and Braunholer – on stage as a duo they’re firmly on the same wavelength and perfect foils for each other. Individually, they tried out new material which is what made the night experimental but very rewarding – Braunholer’s monologue finding humour in pathos, and Schaal’s routine while ‘asleep’ wringing laughter and applause from an unlikely scenario. It’s a weekly show, so if you ever find yourself in Brooklyn on a Monday be sure not to miss out on it.

Tuesday was spent mostly at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I suppose that the wet weather and the fact that it was the holidays meant that it was always going to be busy. The Met is VAST; fairly contemptuous in its size. I spent all day there and saw a fraction of it, but the European art and 19th Century European sections stood out – especially paintings by Monet, Manet and Pissarro. You feel like you’ve walked miles, which is probably because you have. One painting, I forget which, featured the word ‘Kafkaesque’ in the description next to it; this reminded me of Guardian sports writer Rob Smyth‘s attempts to crowbar the word into as many OBO and minute-by-minute commentaries as possible, and made me giggle.

After the inspiring but tiring jaunt around the Met, I went to rest my feet at Alice’s Tea Cup, where the tea and carrot cake was delicious, before an evening at legendary stand-up club the Comic Strip. I ended up missing a couple of venues I wanted to visit, including Dangerfield’s, but the Comic Strip didn’t disappoint – eight acts and a compere, with over half of them being really enjoyable. It was a long night, though, as immediately after the show there were auditions for comics who dreamed of playing full sets at the club in future. I stayed for these and a couple of acts were really good, though some seemed to be trying far too hard; I did feel sorry for them because most people left before the audition part of the show.

The day after, I ventured to MoMA – luckily I had a CityPass which covered my entry and allowed me straight in, because the queue (presumably due to the fact that it was the holidays) was along the street and around the corner. MoMA felt a lot more compact than the Met, and maybe that’s why it seemed even busier – the ‘show’ paintings such as The Starry Night by Van Gogh and a selection of works by Picasso, in particular, had significant crowds of camera-laden tourists in front of them, meaning I had to wait to even get close. I really enjoyed the Music 3.0 exhibit which was primarily about New York hip hop culture from the late 1970s through to the early 1990s, featuring the likes of Run DMC, Eric B & Rakim, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys and A Tribe Called Quest, plus key influences and pioneers who informed the sounds of early hip hop, including Kraftwerk and the collaboration between David Byrne and Brian Eno. I also liked the kitchenware design exhibit, which was very kitsch.

After some delicious macaroni and cheese for dinner (courtesy of S’MAC), that evening I went to a show at the Peoples’ Improv Theatre – a lovely venue made all the more enjoyable by the fact that shows on Wednesdays (and Sundays) are free. The 10pm show, like the other shows that evenings, were part of ‘The Great Mix-Em-Up’, where all of the house teams were…er…mixed up to create new teams for that performance. I always find improv fascinating, though does help if it’s funny too, because the art of performing while thinking on your feet AND being funny is surely something that’s very hard to pull off; it’s an incredible skill.

I ended up seeing more improv comedy on Thursday, although that wasn’t how things were supposed to pan out. When I booked the trip in the first place it was timed specifically to see Mogwai, my favourite band, while I was in New York. Sadly they announced on the day before I flew out to the US that they were postponing the first few dates of their North American tour due to passport issues. At the start of the day I visited a few bookshops and bought some records at the wonderful Other Music store. After meeting my friend Ashley we went to check out the Colbert Report studio as we hoped to attend the taping later that day, only to find a note outside saying the show was on hiatus for Easter! We had a nice lunch in Central Park, and later a walk along the High Line, and despite not being able to see The Colbert Report we ended up watching several of the show’s writers at the brilliant UCB Theatre that night, for a monthly improv show called ‘Colbert Writers Seize the Mustard’. The perfect thing to do after this was pay a visit to Heartland Brewery to sample a few of their lovely beers, before leaving nicely refreshed.

After a very late start on Friday, we went to the Guggenheim – an iconic building which is probably better known than even the collections inside. This came immediatle after my first ever experience of tasting frozen yoghurt, which was great. I really enjoyed the Guggenheim but there was a lot to take in. It was also notable for some nice comments about my Doctor Who bag I’d been carrying around with me all week, not for the first time (also in the Met and in the street a couple of times). The International Centre of Photography, which we went to for free, was fascinating (we saw the exhibition of photos during the Spanish Civil War era) but by that point I was far too sleepy and we eventually headed back to the hotel for the comfort of pizza and watching 30 Rock on my laptop.

One of the first things on my list when planning my New York trip was a tour of Brooklyn Brewery but – partly because of another horrendously late start, and partly due to the really bad weather which also meant we didn’t get to the Brooklyn Flea – I had to sacrifice this in favour of going shopping for a present for my nephew. Important uncle duties and all that. We managed to pick out an awesome gift at Lulu’s Cuts in Brooklyn, a place which is actually a hairdressers but also sells lovely wooden toys. They have a baby store further down the street where I bought a glow-in-the-dark Einstein t-shirt for my friend Geoff’s baby son. It was soon time to say goodbye to Ashley after our three days together, after we got a takeaway lunch from Heartland Brewery and had a quick beer before I went to Port Authority to see her leave. It was weird to find myself back on my own again, but that night I went to a really enjoyable gig at Music Hall of Williamsburg where I saw The Fresh & Onlys (great), Young Prisms (very good) and Crocodiles (who were headlining but were overshadowed by the two previous bands, in my opinion at least). I’d wanted to explore some of the nearby bars in Brooklyn that I’d read about, but I was too tired and the irregular subways meant I decided to call it a night.

I knew I hadn’t done many tourist things during the past week, so I took a trip on the Staten Island Ferry to see the New York skyline and the Statue of Liberty. For the first time in the week it was really sunny which meant that the queue for Central Park Zoo was far too long, so instead I went to Neue Galerie – a beautiful gallery despite the the overzealous and frankly annoying (jobsworth) staff. From here I went to another show at UCB Theatre, the very popular ‘Asssscat 3000’ show where the special guest was Joe Randazzo, editor of The Onion, who told stories from his childhood which the UCB cast (I saw Chris Gethard for the second time in a week) turned into fantastic improvised sketches. I had a reservation for the late show at Comedy Cellar, another big NY comedy club which I really wanted to visit, but (and this is becoming a theme) was too knackered to wait around until 11pm for a show to start so headed back to my hotel. I didn’t miss any big names – unfortunately I’d already missed Todd Barry and Aziz Ansari at the early show while I was at UCB.

My final day in NYC was a fairly leisurely one, heading to Grand Central Terminal to get some photos of the ornate concourse, and I went for lunch at the station’s famed Oyster Bar (the monkfish and the cheesecake were delicious, washed down with a bottle of Magic Hat #9) before getting the train back to New Jersey and flying home. I didn’t get chance to do all of the tourist-y things like walking across the Brooklyn Bridge or going up the Empire State Building, and I didn’t get to see as much live music as I would’ve liked (there are lots of jazz clubs which sound great, for instance) or even as much comedy as I’d hoped (!), but I really enjoyed my stay.

I’m planning a trip to Philadelphia in October to see Ashley once she’s moved out there. Any tips for Philly? I hope to go to a hockey game (despite hating the Flyers), but any other recommendations for Philly would be appreciated!

You’re only as good as your last gig…

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Well, the course is now at an end so it seems like a good idea to think about how useful I’ve found it. At the start of the course I didn’t really know what to expect – I’d heard about it via Jon Bounds and signed up before I had chance to convince myself to back out. It felt quite a scary thing to attempt, but something which would hopefully bring a lot of personal achievement for me.

I’ve written here before that my ambitions for the course didn’t really lie in wanting to become a stand-up comedian – it was more about trying to improve my self-confidence, trying to encourage myself to write more regularly, trying to get some experience of performing and speaking in public, and to a certain extent having a go at something which I write about, since I review comedy gigs and thought maybe it was time I saw what it felt like on the other side of the fence.

I think the most useful parts of the course for me were the exercises and games we did in class, which really helped to lessen some of the inhibitions I feel when faced with having to speak or perform in front of people, especially when it involves doing something a bit silly. To do well on the course I think you need to have an open mind, and be prepared to work hard and practice regularly. But being willing to put yourself in silly situations and not let it faze you is definitely important.

The other thing which has been very important, for me personally, has been the support, feedback and real sense of camaraderie from the other people on the course. This has been vital, and I think everyone genuinely wanted each other to succeed. Everyone was also very kind, especially with their positive feedback and constructive comments. I should also point out that maybe my joke which was most well-received (the Coventry/Primark gag at the top of the set) was originally cut from my act but reinstated due to popular demand, so clearly they know what’s funny.

Also, James Cook has been a very approachable and helpful tutor, both in class and also via email when I’ve wanted his opinion on material I’ve been working on. Reading his feedback on my performance at Saturday’s showcase was pleasing and validated what I’d been trying to achieve (I’m taking the Andy Zaltzman comparison as a compliment because that’s exactly the kind of thing I was going for and I’m a fan). I’m also glad that I was able to put a physical element and some exaggerated actions into the set, as a direct result of how we’d explored in class that bigger performances get bigger reactions, because they’re funnier – if that final part of the set had come earlier, I think I would’ve tried to introduce more of that physicality, and that’s certainly something that could be built up if I decided to do this again. Here’s an alternate recording of my set, made by James.

I think I also had a more developed appreciation of the finer details of performing stand-up – the bit in my set where I fall to my knees was rigorously rehearsed and done in such a way so that I bent into the fall and used my wallet – concealed in my back pocket – to slow down the pace of impact when my knees came into contact with the stage. If a future as a stunt man isn’t quite on the cards, it nevertheless gave me an insight into the kind of attention to detail which professionals will show in every tiny element of their set, doing whatever they can to get laughs and figuring out the best way to be able to achieve that practically.

I don’t think I’ve got into the habit of writing as regularly as I would’ve liked, simply because there were periods of intense creativity and bouts of doing nothing. I need to somehow find a balance so that I’m writing more often. However, I did get into the habit of carrying notebooks around with me and jotting down any kernels of ideas ready for further exploration, and there are quite a few jokes and ideas which have gone as yet unused or unexplored, simply because they didn’t really fit into that particular set. I think I’d be interested in performing stand-up again if I had some ideas and material which lent itself to stand-up rather than another format, but there are other writing projects which I want to try out first – a monologue, I’d like to have a go at writing comic fiction, scripts (across different types of media), possibly a play, and also some children’s fiction; not to mention trying to get Who’s Laughing Now revamped. And I think this course has taught me to think carefully about the best medium for your idea, and how you can make the idea fit that medium as well as how to tailor it to your audience.

The next stand-up comedy course at MAC runs from May through to July, again led by James Cook. For anyone who thinks they’d like to have a go, or just want to try something new, I’d recommend it because it’s been a really fulfilling and enjoyable experience for me. It’s hard work, but great fun too.

Reflections on a job done good


Twelve weeks ago I started a stand-up comedy course. The past three months have gone far quicker than I imagined they would – during that time there have been some highs, a few lows, and lots of agonising over whether what I was writing was actually funny. Last night I put it to the test.

If you’d like to stream or download my set, you can do so on Soundcloud. If you’d prefer to read on without knowing the end result, look away now…

As I sat on a bench in Cannon Hill Park a full 90 minutes before the gig was due to start, I could feel the nerves approaching. The material that I’d known inside out the past few days (during my several hours of practice – thank you very much, ‘working from home’) began to disappear from my brain. Slowly, whole chunks of my set became a mystery to me, as though they hadn’t even be written, let alone burned into my consciousness for the past week or more, and my mind wandered back to my practice in Monday’s class when I forgot my lines and froze completely on two occasions.

It was difficult to enjoy the first section of the show, as I sat at the back of the audience becoming ever more anxious. The interval before the second section of the show – I was due to go on stage second in this segment – was painful. I was pacing around the dressing room, looking at my notes and making a last-ditch attempt to try to recall all of those words which I’d spent so long working on, but which seemed to have deserted me in a flash. I’ve never felt as nervous about anything as I did while I stood at the top of the stairs, waiting for Tom to come off stage.The previous most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done was a speech at my sister’s wedding, but at least I had the benefit of notes then. And I didn’t have the added pressure of needing to be funny.

Then something strange happened. As I stood by the stage door, waiting for James Cook to introduce me, an unbelievable sense of calm took over. What happened in the following five minutes is something of a blur – the set went as smoothly as I could have hoped for, and as soon as I’d started I found that rhythm which I’d been nailing for several hours a day all week, but had been petrified wouldn’t materialise last night. It probably helped that I couldn’t really see anybody in the audience – even most of the front row was obscured, it was basically me in a room full of people I couldn’t see while I stood under a ridiculously bright spotlight. People who know me well will be aware that I do not like being the centre of attention, but it was in that moment that I realised how far I’d come during these twelve weeks. Or maybe I haven’t come that far after all, but it’s taken this to make me realise that actually I could do this performance and not freeze under pressure.

I think I’m probably too close to the material to be able to deconstruct my material and my set. I had a line planned in case people booed my Coventry reference, but nobody did, and since I had twelve friends in the audience that actually got a cheer! So I forgot to do my line about Coventry only being down the A45, or as it’s otherwise known, Birmingham’s cat flap.

I got a lot of comments from friends, people on the course, and the friends/partners of fellow performers, that my material was very intelligent – I’m not sure if it’s particularly cerebral, since it covers two very populist topics, but I wanted to do something vaguely artistic and think (or at least hope) I succeeded in doing this. The fact that it seemed to get some decent laughs made me feel good about it, though I wish I could do something along the lines of the banter-led style that some of the other performers did really naturally. I also wish I could do something which is both funny and personal to me, but that is something I have in mind for a future project – a monologue I’d like to start working on after a much-needed holiday.

I’m glad that I did at least have a go – admittedly in quite a small-scale way – of introducing some physical elements to the set, including various hand gestures as a way of acting out the impassioned ‘speech’, and the stretching bit (which I came up with on Thursday while trying to think of a contingency plan in case I completely dried up on the night. The other was to have a drink from a bottle of water and say that if I was doing that completely authentically, I would’ve sprayed myself in the face with it and then started spitting across the stage. But…you know…health and safety). It might be quite telling that one of the biggest laughs during my set was at the sight of a 6-foot, 15-stone bearded man collapsing to his knees in the midst of an on-stage breakdown (for comedic purposes, honest), which was another attempt to bring something physical into what I understood was quite a wordy set, and simply because 1) exaggerating things is very funny (one of the things the course has helped me with is being a little less reserved about looking silly in front of people, especially if you’re doing something that gets a laugh), and 2) few things are funnier than someone falling over, even if it’s done in a very controlled way and followed by copious ranting. The people who sat in the audience will probably never know how much practice went into trying to fall in the ‘right’ way, so as not to completely destroy my kneecaps in the process…

I’m realistic enough to know that my delivery isn’t as confident, comfortable or natural as I would like, and there were a couple of little slips but nothing big. I also know that I was probably shuffling from foot to foot a little bit, and I think I spent much of my set looking up towards the back of the audience, where I knew all of my friends were sat, rather than trying to look straight to the front. But it was my first performance (no idea if there will be another), so I’ll try not to be too critical of myself. I was disappointed not to be able to do my Silvio Berlusconi bit (this was cut a couple of weeks ago due to time, and also because it didn’t really fit in with the other stuff I ended up talking about). And it surprised me a little to think that my set appeared in almost chronological order – the stuff at the start was written earliest, through to the ending which came last. This certainly wasn’t by design, but it amused me anyway. More importantly, though, I was just glad to be able to come off stage with my head (thankfully) held high and to know that other people enjoyed it. I guess what was even more important, though – contrary to what I was thinking in the dressing room earlier – was that I’d enjoyed the experience too.

I’ll post some more thoughts about the course as a whole after tomorrow night’s final class, but I wanted to share the experience of having performed my material in front of a seemingly appreciative audience. Many thanks to the people who came along to give support – Tracy & Paul Buckley (who recorded the show for me on his iPhone), Caz & Steve Mayne, Ross & Ellena Varney, Darren Hallett & Ruth McDonald, Joe Grassby & Andrea Breau, Matt Stalker and Dan Scaife. Also thanks to those who have given words of encouragement during the course, especially Ashley Robinson, Martha Greengrass, Tom Steward, Lara Page, Darren Durham, Siobhan Reilly, Nick Booth, Ellen Publicover, Kyly Wilson, Jackie & Stephen Buckley, Maries Dellagiovanna, Catherine O’Reilly, Alexandra Ley, Victoria Pearson, Clare Balcarres, Gavin Wray, David Allen, Jon Bounds, Laura Liddington and Gareth Gwynn, as well as other people I might have forgotten (sorry). And thanks to everyone on the course for their feedback and support, especially James Cook.

Blankety blank

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Well, the big night is coming around very soon. On Saturday it’s the stand-up comedy course showcase at the MAC, where I – along with 14 other people from the course – will be going on stage for the first time. It’s been a testing few months and, to be honest, I’ll be glad to get it over with.

I’m aware of around a dozen people coming to see me perform and it will be good to have their support, although I’m not sure how I feel about having so many people there. I did my last ‘proper’ practice at the class on Monday and fluffed my lines in two places, which made me freeze completely. That wasn’t a good feeling and I’m pretty scared of that happening on the night. Perhaps it’s good that it happened then, though, as I do at least have some sort of contingency plan to buy me some time if it all goes horribly wrong. It did make me feel pretty flat afterwards, although I was heartened by the fact that the end of my routine got a seemingly good response.

I really hope it goes well, because I don’t want to fail in front of people I know and also I want to prove to myself that – even though it’s unlikely to appear particularly slick or professional – I can do this. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m under no illusions about my stand-up capabilities – I’m not a natural, and I really don’t think it’s for me. I’m not going to rule out ever doing it again, depending on how it goes this weekend, but equally I will be happier writing than setting foot on stage.

I’d like to think, though, that what I’ve learned from the course has been of far more value to me than whether or not I could ever be a stand-up. It’s all about personal achievement now, and there’s just a few more steps to go.

Making a breakthrough

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This week’s session was a very challenging one – aside from watching clips of masterful performers like Rhod Gilbert and Eddie Izzard (incidentally, am I the only person who thinks that the marked decline of Izzard’s act seems to have coincided with his choice to go for a much more macho image when on stage? Like a transvestite version of Samson, the less make-up he wears the less funny he is. Who knew?), we did some exercises designed to get us thinking on our feet. There were several different games; the one I had to do involved talking about my record collection while being repeatedly interjected with questions from the audience, mostly about German war films and whether I’d prefer to have my carnal way with Pat Butcher or Dot Cotton from Eastenders (obviously it’s Dot, because I’m a sucker for a brunette).

This was a really useful exercise, and it’s the kind of thing you’d possibly have to do in a real situation – especially if being confronted by a heckler. I recognise that I’m not particularly quick at thinking on my feet in general, and certainly not being funny at such short notice – although those ad libs and asides/unprepared audience interactions can be especially funny because of the way they are genuinely plucked from the ether with very little time or consideration. I think the audience appreciates that and responds accordingly, because they can see the workings happen live on stage in real-time, which isn’t the case with a set of prepared jokes and observations (as I’m currently out of work I’ve been making the most of watching repeats of Whose Line Is It Anyway? on Dave, which is very good for watching such talented comics in an improvisational arena). It was good practice at using the microphone too, as I still don’t have much experience of this yet.

My last blog post was written during a crisis of confidence – since then I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough. I’ve found an ending I’m happy with, and a way of performing it that makes me feel a bit better about the (somewhat dubious) artistic merits of the set. I think I’m going for a style which is very different from most of the other people on the course, and this sudden burst of inspiration has come from thinking about what I like most about some of my favourite acts, and about the ways they perform certain aspects of their material.

I guess the real verdict will be on the night, which is less than two weeks away now. But now things do at least seem to be heading in the right direction.

That joke isn’t fun any more

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Stand-up comedy isn’t for me. There, I said it. I think it’s probably healthy that I can admit this. We’ve had eight weeks of the course now and it’s pretty clear that this isn’t a path for me. It’s still a good exercise for me to do – my aims for the course were mostly personal and I can still achieve those. I don’t really have much choice; I know of six people who have booked tickets to see me at the showcase on April 2nd, so there’s no backing out now. That’s probably a good thing, because otherwise I might not have gone through with it.

I’m getting increasingly anxious about the gig, which is fast approaching. It’s probably not helped by the fact that I’m starting to get bored of, and perhaps even starting to dislike, what I’m doing. I’ve become stuck in a situation where I’m writing in a format (i.e. for stand-up) that I’m not particularly comfortable or happy with, and I’m finding myself being led away from where I wanted to be, instead being locked in a pursuit of the approval of others. I’m not even sure I find what I’m writing *funny* any more. I’m also not happy with the quality, and finding it hard to get motivated to work on something for which my interest is steadily on the wane.

I have other ideas. There’s an idea for a monologue I really want to write and maybe turn into a piece of audio – something deeply personal; a new and more interesting challenge. Something comic, despite being about death, loss, memories etc. This has been on my mind a lot recently – these themes are like my closest cousins – and I think I might even be starting to resent the fact that the stand-up course is holding me back from having a go at this for another month at least.

Is it natural to have this self-doubt and reluctance to finish anything off? I often find myself wanting to start new (and therefore more exciting) things than finishing off what I’ve already started, especially if the current project seems far too much like hard work rather than being fun. I think the course has done me a lot of good – the games and exercises in particular have been of great value to someone like me who is very shy; they’re helping me to combat that nervousness and sometimes I even reach a point where I’m no longer so afraid of looking silly in front of people (one of the many wonderful things about being an uncle has been playing with my nephew and thereby eroding some of these inhibitions about looking silly, both in public and in my own house). If anything, I now value this part of the course more than the bits about writing techniques etc. Also, I think the course has taught me to be more ambitious and to try to be true to myself and what I want to do, which is perhaps why I dislike how I feel now; as though I’m being forced into a corner against my will, due to the expectations/conventions of what a traditional stand-up set should be.

This all sounds very negative and introspective. Maybe it’s a result of the anxiety and pressure I feel about the rapidly-approaching Big Night. Despite this, I’m glad I’ve done the course (it’s a good course and I think James Cook is a very good tutor), and if nothing else it has hopefully helped me overcome some of my personal fears, as well as at least showing me what it is that I *don’t* want to do, or what I’m definitely *not* best at. Now I just need to find out what the thing I’m best at might be..

Rocking the microphone

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This week it was the first time we used a microphone in the comedy class. It was exciting but also pretty nerve-wracking at the same time – and it really hammered home how soon the showcase is now (it’s only four weeks away!). I think I did ok with using the mic but was very self-conscious about my body position and movement – the feedback I got from the tutor was that I had my hand in my back pocket (an uncomfortable sign), and “ummed” quite a lot.

These are things that will hopefully be smoothed out when I’ve had more practice at holding the microphone and using it. Although I do think that this gives me another thing to worry about – I’m going to have to stay focused on remembering and delivering my routine properly, so don’t want to have to be constantly thinking about what my other hand is doing or how I’m standing. Does standing completely still look wrong? Is walking around the stage asking for opportunities to fall over? Hmm.

I’ve also been working on some new stuff which I’ve emailed to James for feedback. Will be interested to hear what he has to say about it. I’ve expanded the politics/sport stuff and cut some of the gags out – some of them worked but don’t really fit in any more, and some didn’t work so are no great loss. Trying to be ruthless! Still more editing and honing work to be done though.

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