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.

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

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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.

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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