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.

World Book Day 2011: A life in books


So far I’ve only really used this blog – still in its infancy, bless it – to talk about the stand-up comedy course I’m doing at the MAC in Birmingham with James Cook. But I do have plans to use this blog to share bits of writing and random thoughts. Something that got my attention today, though, is that it’s World Book Day.

I suppose I often feel a bit guilty about my relationship with books. I was an avid reader as a child, but somewhere along the line something went a bit wrong. I’ve always been the kind of person who will get obsessive about certain things – as I entered my teenage years, comedy and then music became the things that I spent most of my time thinking about and digesting. I still read a lot at that time but instead of reading stories I moved towards reading newspapers, magazines, biographies and autobiographies. I don’t think I even thought about it in this way at the time, but I obviously had a thirst for information over narratives, or at least narrative fiction.

Maybe it’s because of this that I feel about books much the same way I feel about films – I haven’t read or seen anywhere near the number of titles as I would like to or feel I ought to, and even though I have my blind spots and knowledge gaps in music, they’re much less pronounced than those in books (both fiction and non-fiction) and cinema. In recent years, this is something that I’ve tried to rectify and it’s a slow process although I’m not sure I’ll ever catch up.

As it’s World Book Day I thought it would be fun to tell you about some of the books which have meant a lot to me in my life. I have less to say about some than others, mainly because it’s difficult to sum up why I feel an attachment to them. But I thought it’d be interesting to try.


To be honest I don’t really remember much about the books I read as a child. Ok, there are the obvious things like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and authors like Roald DahlFantastic Mr Fox and George’s Marvellous Medicine were my favourites as a boy. (I know of a few Dahl fans who refused to see the Wes Anderson film version of Fantastic Mr Fox, but I loved it)

My nephew will be getting treated to me reading Mr Dahl’s wonderful words when he’s a bit older – I’ll always cherish the wild imagination and infinite possibility of his creations as they exist on the page, although his skill of creating real people in surreal situations mean that the characters seem far closer to us than merely being printed on paper. Other books I enjoyed as a child were the Just William series, Kidnapped, Oliver Twist, etc.

That was then, this is now

Those are some of the things which have stuck with me the most from my childhood. I think that some of the material I read at achool had a big impact on me too – Of Mice and Men remains one of my favourite novels, as does Great Expectations. Seamus Heaney‘s poem ‘Mid-Term Break’ struck a chord with me, perhaps because the imagery in it reminded me of what it felt like having lost a parent at a relatively young age. There’s an emotional resonance to it which has always stayed with me because of this.

Likewise, studying A Level History caused me to discover two of my favourite books of all-time. Animal Farm is a classic and I love how spartan a lot of Orwell‘s work is – he’s a very economical storyteller in the most positive sense; no wasted words. Similarly, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is Solzhenitsyn‘s tale of life in a gulag in Stalin’s Russia – very bleak but with a few shots of (incredibly) macabre humour. The sense of defiance, and such stoicism in the face of adversity, is oddly uplifting.

It’s probably not surprising that a lot of my favourite authors, stylistically, are those who use humour a lot, and use it well. I’m a fan of Douglas Adams, love what little I’ve read of Kurt Vonnegut and am a relatively recent convert to PG Wodehouse – I’ve accumulated a few of his books from charity shops in the past year, and recently purchased this collection of Jeeves stories which I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into. There are outright ‘comedy’ books on my shelves too – Stephen Colbert‘s I Am America (And So Can You!) embodies everything I love about the character and is filled with some of the best and funniest writing you’re likely to find in the (often oxymoronic) ‘humour’ genre. Inside the Magic Rectangle is a collection of Victor Lewis-Smith‘s TV reviews which will appeal to anyone who, like me, has found something to love in Charlie Brooker‘s acerbic deconstructions of television. There’s this football book from Danny Baker, one of my favourite broadcasters who I first encountered in the mid 1990s and have been listening to ever since, and his old sparring partner Danny Kelly. Not to mention books from the likes of Stewart Lee and Steve Martin, plus other comedians.

Fond favourites and recommendations

If anyone asked me about my favourite books, or the books that mean most to me, it’d probably take me a while to compile a proper list. The ten books below include a few common favourites, and some books you might not have have heard of or read before. I’ve enjoyed each of them, and they all have a special place for me for one reason or another.

Douglas AdamsThe Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy

Adams’ combination of humour and ideas, and his wonderful use of language, is basically how I would like to be able to write. I’m a fan of several other strands of his work – the Dirk Gently series (which was nicely adapted for Radio 4 with Harry Enfield as the titular detective), and his stint as script editor on Doctor Who (City of Death is one of my favourite DW serials, and I love the audio version of Shada with Paul McGann as the Doctor). I first became aware of H2G2 when I was doing my A Levels, we did a session on radio comedy and listened to the first episode. I was instantly hooked. I haven’t read (or seen) much in the way of ‘hard’ sci-fi but silly and ultimately well-written ideas like this really interest me, and most importantly make me laugh out loud.

Ian FlemingCasino Royale

I only read this about 2-3 years ago, but I’ve been a fan of Bond films all my life – although I won’t be disappointed if I don’t see Never Say Never Again…er…again (which is odd because it’s a retread of Thunderball, one of my absolute favourite Bond movies, but it is rubbish). I picked up the complete set of Bond novels for a bargain price not long before I started doing my MA dissertation, which was when I entered another reading hiatus (or at least, a hiatus from reading non-academic books). This is a fantastic story to introduce the character and kick off the series. I still have several of the set to read, so it’ll be interesting to see how they compare with the films. For a character that I’ve known for such a long time, to see Fleming shaping 007 is a very special experience.

John Niven – Kill Your Friends

One of the most recent novels I’ve read. I initially came across it thanks to my friend Rob Strong who lent me a copy, because it’s written by the man who signed Mogwai (my favourite band). It’s set at the height of Britpop, which funnily enough was around the time I was discovering music that didn’t just exist in my parents’ record collection. Niven’s use of language is barbed to say the least – it’s an incredibly funny book but very brutal too. I think my feeling towards it may be skewed because of the subject, though I haven’t read his follow-up which is about golf (it is on my shelf though). For a debut novel it’s extraordinarily accomplished.

Graham GreeneThe Third Man / The Fallen Idol

I came to this via the film version of The Third Man – possibly my favourite film of all time, and a great example of how good Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten are opposite each other on screen. If the book is different from the film, though no less climactic for it, then it’s very good value for the fact that it comes as a two-fer with The Fallen Idol, another example of Greene’s execution of tension and atmosphere. The Third Man‘s printed and screen incarnations are completely separate entities – I’d advise watching the film first – but Greene still captures that essence in novella form too, and it’s a terrific read.

Nick HornbyFever Pitch

I think I prefer High Fidelity but this book’s themes ring true with me. As a lapsed Coventry City fan, I’ve cared as much about a team as Hornby does in the book, but there’s an emotional core which – while very male, but not laddish – is universal. There’s the feeling of unity with his father, which is something that resonates deeply with me, as well as the sense of loss and shared emotions associated with the game. It isn’t just a book about football – I think it says a lot more than that, even if it’s set against that backdrop. It raises interesting points about the nature of family, friendship and relationships too, revealing far more feeling than you might expect from the average football fan.

Edward JoffeHancock’s Last Stand

I’d never heard of Tony Hancock before my dad died. One of the last times I saw him in hospital, he gave me a cassette which had been brought for me as a present (he’d loved Hancock as a boy). I came to love Hancock’s Half Hour for the writing and performances, but I suppose there has always been part of me which has been fascinated by Hancock because it was the last thing my dad shared with me, and so there was at least still a link between us. Hancock’s Last Stand is about his time in Australia (shortly before he committed suicide), and it makes for fairly grim reading, albeit an intriguing tale for a comedy nerd like me. I think it hits harder still because of the sentimental attachment I have to all things Hancock – one of my most treasured possessions is my limited edition complete (radio) Hancock’s Half Hour boxed set, which is my “item you’d save from a house fire”. Because of the boxed set, I got rid of all my cassettes long ago because I didn’t need them. All, that is, except that first tape.

The Sunday Times Chronicle of Twentieth Century Sport

Not too much to say about this one other than that it’s just a really inspiring book, reading through some of the feats and achievements throughout the past century. Despite being hugely interested in sport I don’t have too many sporting books on my shelves, although an equally inspiring book is Mario Lemieux‘s autobiography The Final Period – a hero of mine and a truly great sportsman who dominated his game, overcoming Hodgkin’s Disease and various other injuries and health problems to do so.

Arthur Conan DoyleThe Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock is back on the TV now, of course, but I remember being given this for a birthday or Christmas present when I was very young. My great uncle bought it for me – a Reader’s Digest edition; a hardback copy with leather binding. Similar, I suppose, to Fleming’s Bond in the sense that it’s a great dose of fun and adventure. It’s impossible for me to read this without picturing Basil Rathbone, mainly due to the fact that my mum introduced me to his films (in the same way, I can’t think of Miss Marple being played by anyone other than Margaret Rutherford).

John Shuttleworth500 Bus Stops: A Guide to Stardom and Other Top Tips

A bit of a wildcard entry, this, but deserving I reckon. It accompanied the BBC series of the same name, and is really a diary interspersed with song lyrics. The songs are so familiar you can hear them playing inside your head while you read the words. I’ve loved the John Shuttleworth character since I was an impressionable adolescent entranced by Radio 4 (yeah, I was really cool at that age), and I bought the cassette release of the first series of The Shuttleworths. I still have it in a box somewhere. Shuttleworth was a formative comedy influence for me so I’ll always have a fondness for the character and also this book.

The New Optimists

Full disclosure…I’ve blogged about The New Optimists and was part of the social media campaign promoting the book. I don’t know all that much about science, but this is a really interesting premise – around 80 scientists writing short essays to say what they’re optimistic about. It makes for great reading, and leafing through it it’s very easy to be hopeful about the future. The scientists’ enthusiasm and optimism shines through; it’s utterly compelling.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

A lot of these thoughts are off the top of my head, so it’s not as comprehensive as it could be and a few of my selections might change if I did this again another day. I’ve missed out a few books which I might enjoy more than these but they are all important to me in different ways. I hope that one or two of those recollections might make you consider reading one of the titles if you haven’t come across it before. (One of my big regrets is the number of unread books which sit on my shelves – maybe I should do another post about books I own but haven’t yet read, so people can tell me what to read first?)

I’d also love to hear about your favourites. What books do you have fond memories of? Which titles could you read over and over again? Are there any books which mean a lot to you, and why?