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.

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Reflections on a job done good

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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.

World Book Day 2011: A life in books

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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.

Childhood

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?

A cheery (festive) wave from stranded youngsters

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Well, that didn’t go very well did it. Despite best intentions this blog has been left to fester once more. However! I have just signed up to the MAC’s stand-up comedy course, which starts in January. It’s compered by the rather fine James Cook and should be fun – I first heard about it from Jon Bounds, who has blogged about his experience of the course.

When I found out there was another course coming up I decided to book a place… even though it’s something I thought I’d never do. As someone who loves and writes about comedy, I go to a lot of stand-up shows and review them but have never had a go myself. So I guess now it’s time to step outside of my comfort zone and take up position somewhere on the other side of the fence. Or should that be trench?

This is a bit of an experiment, which I aim to blog about during the twelve weeks of the course. I have no pretensions to be a stand-up comedian but 1) this is more of a confidence building exercise (although it could all end in tears – both mine and the audience’s) and 2) the idea is that it will force me to write more.

My interests lie more in moving into writing comic prose/fiction and scripts, so hopefully this course will help feed into other forms of writing, away from journalism.

Anyway, hopefully this blog will be updated with how I’m getting on and might prove useful for gathering together ideas, or just logging how well/badly things are going.

Util then, Merry Christmas and all the best for 2011. And wish me luck!