“If you wanna run cool, you got to run
on heavy heavy fuel…”DIRE STRAITS
Well this is shit.
I am sick. (hello btw). I am sick as the proverbial dog throwing up on the proverbial parrot.
Well I’m exaggerating, clearly. I wouldn’t be here typing this if I was completely arsed. But I have felt better. Much better.
Came on around Saturday night. A night I was alone and hoping to be either working hard on stand-up material or writing pub quizzes. Sadly I was overcome with a feverish shivering sweaty achey nastiness which sent me scuttling, hotty botty clutched to the chest, to a horrid night’s restless sleep.
This screwed up my Sunday completely, so I had to cancel lunch with lovely Alex who I haven’t seen since Covid19 reared its nasty little head. She has moved to Bath and I have, as is traditional, been a crappy friend. Tried to catch her a few weeks ago, sadly on the ill-fated day my beloved Clark the Ginger Cat was murdered by a passing car. So that was a right off.
Then we rescheduled for Sunday last at which point God struck me down with the flu stick.
So apologetic texts and then back to bed to worry.
What, me worry? As Alfred E Neumann used to say. Yes. Because sitting on my plate on Sunday was:
Write 3 mins of material under the title of “My Life Story.” And learn it by heart. Then pull together the best part of a solid “5 minutes” of my stand-up act. And learn that by heart. Oh and write 2.5hrs worth of pub quiz.
All by bedtime. With a horrid cold that made me want to stay in bed and weep.
Not a good day.
You’ll notice I’ve been very slack on the updates of this l’il writing project too, as I am now very behind on what’s been going on.
Okay. Hello again. Am feeling better now. It’s Saturday afternoon. It’s just creeping up on 4pm. I am sat on a high stool in the lounge at our standing-desk. I have a cup of steaming PG Tips at the elbow. Claire is in the spare-room having a session with her supervisor from college, offering support and whatnot about the world of seeing psychosynthesis patients.
She has a new therapist now, who seems tremendous. So that’s a joy.
I haven’t seen my therapist (Steve) for years now. Perhaps I’ll talk about him one day.
But I’m off the point. It’s Saturday afternoon and I’ve got lots to catch up on. I need to do a quick shop at some point as we’re out of sugar and we’ve virtually no milk for tea and no nibbly snacks for nibbley snacking. Which must be rectified.
Have just spend the best part of an hour undergoing home audio hypnotherapy, with which I am experimenting half-heartedly. I love the IDEA of hypnotherapy. And I have firm understanding, based on little I have read of Derren Brown and the like, that it is possible to implant change in attitude, belief and behaviour through expert hypnosis.
Now I expect to do this properly, its hours at Harley St clinics and ticking clocks and beardy tweed or clattery jewellery from whispery well-meaners and thousands of pounds. Whereas a cheap (not free) online download of s selection of audio files and reading material might only be as good as the Mp3 it’s digitally scanned on.
But nothing to lose really. I’ll talk more about it later. As I keep saying.
But to business!
I have now completed three of the six Stand-Up evening classes and three quiz nights over the last 3 weeks. And blimey what a three weeks it’s been.
Let’s dig in.
Week 2 was another grand one. I mentioned before we’d been given homework. “What we love to hate?” (see BLOG Sunday Bloody Sunday above). In the end I’m ashamed (?) to say I reached back into the archives and plucked my “ordering tea in restaurants” bit out of the old black folder.
This “bit” has stood me in good stead frankly. I also used it as the introduction to the lead character in chapter one of my second novel GAGGED: A Thriller With Jokes.
It’s never KILLED, to be fair. And it relies very much on the word “chicken” getting as big of a laugh as Neil Simon says it should…
Vaudeville words can be found in Neil Simon’s 1972 play The Sunshine Boys, in which an aging comedian gives a lesson to his nephew on comedy, saying that words with k sounds are funny:
“Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know what words are funny and which words are not funny. Alka Seltzer is funny. You say ‘Alka Seltzer’ you get a laugh … Words with ‘k’ in them are funny. Casey Stengel, that’s a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomato is not funny. Cookie is funny. Cucumber is funny. Car keys. Cleveland … Cleveland is funny. Maryland is not funny. Then, there’s chicken. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. Cab is funny. Cockroach is funny – not if you get ’em, only if you say ’em”
Anyway. Week 2.
I got there on time of course, having cock all else to do on a Monday after work. Actually, now if I recall, Erich had asked us to come slightly later as one of the acts (Sarah, I think?) couldn’t make the 7pm start.
So it’ was about 7.35 on a warm Monday 13th Sept 2021 that we all came in and took our seats, sweaty hands gripping greasy one-pagers of material about “what we love to hate.”
Erich and I chatted a bit about how the quiz had gone. We talked lighting. He pointed out the ceiling had “swivelly spots” that I could manhandle to light the stage area better.
I have since done this and it means I can actually read the fucking questions. This is a help.
We jumped in talking about the human factor. About how the material is important, but you could get a robot (Siri/Alexa) to recite jokes. There MUST be more to the act. It’s about giving LIFE, PERSONALITY and CHARACTER to those jokes. Bringing who YOU are to the joke. The addition of the HUMAN factor is what makes it stand-up, and not just a recitation.
This is of course true. But as I am learning, all the personality and excitement and jazz hands and pizazz ain’t gonna make something funny if it ain’t already a bit funny.
I’ve seen – recently – comics banging out “observations” and “do you remembers…?!” with huge enthusiasm. But there’s no actual joke. As if remembering something or noticing something itself is inherently funny without the added “here’s what I have noticed beyond that, which is off beat or unexpected.”
In other words, you can’t just say “Betamax” and hope to get a laugh.
Erich talked interestingly about joke writing. Specifically about one Gary Delaney.
Now I’m a Gary Delaney fan. To be fair, had I stuck to my act as a teenager, his act is probably closest to what I would have ended up doing. I mean there’s not a huge amount of space between:
“My grief counsellor died. But he was so good at his job, I didn’t give a shit.” And
“I ordered a pizza to be delivered, but accidentally got the number wrong and phoned a gay make escort service. To be fair to them, they did send round a spicy Mexican and a large vegetarian. (beat) It was his 12 inch cheesy rim that put me off.”
Here’s some classics:
Story goes Delaney worked in bar in a comedy club. He wasn’t the lively “funny” performer type, but clearly had an ear for a pun and therefore was able to write material/jokes for other comics. However the jokes would often die and he would be blamed. Whereas he felt it was the comedian’s DELIVERY that was ruining the joke and took to delivering them himself. Basically, he wanted HIS ideas OUT THERE and realised only HE could do it the way it should be done.
I love the idea of being a joke writer. Having been a novelist for a few years, the life of the cuppa and the laptop and the “busy morning” at the desk resulting in long sleepy afternoons and wine at 6pm in front of the telly is a very appealing one.
In fact, now I’m doing this course, I have become – to no extent at all – a bit of a comedy writer because I now have to think of jokes and write them down. Every time a gag or pun or idea comes to mind, as I have mentioned below, I now thumb it into my phone. This has helped me get a sense of my productivity with this stuff. I’m probably doing one full joke or idea a day. Which is hardly Monkhousian. Or even Allenesque. But I am surprised how often I’m scrolling through the phone while on the loo thinking “blimey, that was a good batch.” What a horrible image. Especially if I’m facing the wrong way on the toilet…
I have essentially become this:
Hey. Had forgotten all about that Pizza delivery one.
For a few weeks I would post these gags online in the spirit of Gary Delaney. Was I hoping he would spot them and give me a writing job? Yes, of course I was. I am an idiot. But he’s remarkably affable and available online and interacts with his fans so I guess I was praying for a LOL or thumbs up. Jokes like this one:
“There was a Greek food salesman practising his sales pitch next to my chimney last night. I could hear the pitta patter on the roof.”
I could hear him delivering something like that.
Next we all spoke about what stand up “means” to us. Went around the room. Many thoughts. I said it was a form of therapy, a way of getting attention, a way of proving myself against the high-bar set by my heroes. A desire to share that moment. Talked about how I would obsessively learn bits of stand-up the way others learned songs. That way I could recite them at school for laffs. Or just keep myself amusing muttering them to myself on walks and shopping trips.
2 routines I learned word for word, beat for beat and pause for pause by simply repeating and repeating and talking along with my brother’s cassettes were Ben Elton’s “double seat” bit and Michael Palin’s “Biggles Goes To See Bruce Springsteen.”
Both of these I could do – in full, at the drop of a hat. And pretty much did, much to the irritation of passing school friends and family.
Its worth stopping off here I think for a moment. As it was Ben Elton’s comedy final rant at the end of every episode of Saturday (later Friday) Live that I think cemented the idea of comic-as-hero. I would only have been (checks Wikipedia…) twelve years old when the much trailered Pilot episode came on.
Fronted, I think that first time, by Lenny Henry. It was very – as my friend Paul would say – Channel 4. But the speed, ferocity, accuracy and energy in which Ben Elton took over Saturday nights for 30 nights between ’86 and ’88 was – Ronnie Barker monologues aside – the first inkling that this was something actual people could actually do.
Anyway, need to pop out and do that shop…
Back again. Mmm, ribs and corn and broccoli for supper. Muffins and sausages for breakfast.
We then talked about stand up as a CONVERSATION. Invite a dialogue, a chat, a discussion, tell your story just as you would if you were telling friends. But to remember, it is not a discussion. OUR ideas are RIGHT.
Heckles apparently, are just interruptions, part of any conversation. Nothing to be scared of.
We are all interrupted when we are telling our stories. No need to handle a heckle any differently.
Which brought us to heckles.
Heckles, as I said earlier, were my downfall when I first tried stand-up. That last night of stand-up at Downstairs At The Kings Head, when I strode unprepared onto the small stage area in front of a packed house, all eager to enjoy Edinburgh Award winner Rich Hall.
If memory serves, and I click things into place, tis was around the summer time I was mooning about after Rachel Bean (my big art college crush). Which meant (get my deerstalker on…)
It would have been around the time I skipped my friend Paul’s party to see The Cure at Wembley with Rachel. So that would mean his 18th or 21st. His 21st would have been Jan 1994.
I was definitely on the comedy scene” in 1994 as my appearance in the short lived COMEDY magazine listings tells me:
Hall would have been up and coming in the UK. It was the year he published “Self Help For The Bleak” but 6 years before he triumphed at Edinburgh with Otis Lee Crenshaw.
So I’m going to put it at late 1994.I would have been 22 years old. And I got heckled by a chap with long hair, sitting to my right, one row back. Examples of heckles that still haunt me:
ME: I’m actually from the planet Krypton…
HECKLER: Planet Crapton…
ME: Superman and I were the only two lonely survivors after our world exploded and was destroyed. (beat). A bit like Bros when Craig left.
HECKLER: That’s topical…
So he continued to dig away, I could pick up his muttered mockings, it threw me off, I tried to deal with him, was unrehearsed, audience didn’t go with it…and I left the stage to muted polite “county cricket club” clapping.
According to Erich, the heckle “put down” is the one “shared pot” of material it seems okay to borrow from. Genuinely, unless it’s particularly famous, any comic can use any of the standard lines to get themselves out of trouble.
EG. I’m trying to work here. I don’t come to where you work and knock the bin off your shoulder…
“Is that your real face or are you still celebrating Halloween?”
“Look, it’s all right to donate your brain to science but shouldn’t you have waited till you died?
“If you are going to heckle, try to wait for a gap when I’m not talking so people can hear what you are saying.”
“Your mum fell into some cheese sandwiches, and she got covered in cheese. Absolutely covered in it. She stank of cheese. And hundreds and hundreds of mice came from miles around, drawn to her by the smell of cheese. She was covered in mice. Overcome by them. But she was glad of the company, because YOU NEVER CALL”
My problem with heckle put downs is how often they change the comic’s character. If the comic is a persona, the heckle put down has to sustain and match that persona. You can’t suddenly come “out of character” and get all bitchy and snappy and aggressive.
I still don’t know what my character is, so I don’t really have an idea of what I will do should that arise. But not be afraid of it and wade in with discourse, hoping my “status” and “speed” gets me out of there as the winner. I do it enough day to day, I guess.
The only heckle put down I like works for a shouty female.
“You’re a treat aren’t you. One day you’ll make some man a lovely ex-wife.”
I suppose it works with ex-husband too. Just doesn’t sound as good.
Anyhoo, next up was an exercise.
We all had to stand up, introduce ourselves, tell something about a time at school, end show, thank and leave.
Everyone did their bit. And there were some good stories. I blanked on “hilarious mishaps” so went full sentimental and told the story about how Mr Gormally let me off doing French for a year so I could concentrate on art. Nice story.
Erich gave me some good feedback about my structure, how I had set up my “artsy” character at the top of the tale so the payoff worked.
But then it came to our first real “bit.”
We all had to stand up and do our “love to hate.”
So we took turns. Sarah talked about her hatred of flies. I forget what the rest of them did.
I did notice however that, while they were doing their bits, they by and large weren’t doing “jokes.”
And I mean feedline/punchline jokes. The set-up, pause, pay-off jokes that I rely on. Their stories are more “story-y.” Whereas mine definitely have that rhythm. That dumpty-dumpty dum….dumpity dumpty dummmmm.” The one Stewart Lee says all Radio 4 comedians have.
Mentioned Stewart Lee to Erich at one point. He professed a liking for him, aside from his need to spend as much of his act as he does knocking other comics. Like it isn’t difficult enough of a job without the infighting. Where is the support? There are better and more deserving targets.
Not sure how I feel about this. I mean ISIS are one thing. But Mitch Benn’s comedy songs on The Now Show are another.
(I am now reminding myself of Morrissey talking waspishly about Band Aid in 1985)
“In the first instance the record itself was absolutely tuneless. One can have great concern for the people of Ethiopia, but it’s another thing to inflict daily torture on the people of England.”
So. I got up and did it.
Opened with a bit of Jeff Goldblum, referencing Sarah’s hatred of “flies,” in a “did you mean the movie? That was my best work…” sort of way. Small chuckles.
Then boom, straight into the “I don’t go to restaurants myself. Because I’m a tea drinker.”
And it went…okay. I mean okay. Not great.
It is an old bit. The novelty of “types of coffee” was hackneyed in 2000. Even now, “comedy about Starbucks” gets over 11m hits on Google. Like this:
But the routine is meant to build and build as I get more and more into the list of ingredients…
Napkins, silverware, teabag, pot, string, milk, spoon. Laughs are meant to build here.
Then I end it with, “here’s some instructions in Swedish and a fuckin’ Allen key.”
That’s where the laugh is. And it NEVER gets as big a laugh as I want.
In fact, thinking back, I’ve always thought it was a better “bit” than it was.
But heigh-ho. I pounded it out with confidence as best I could.
Not a keeper.
Right, cup of tea. Evening’s getting in. Bit chilly out now. Claire is watching The Making Of The Holiday on her phone. It’s her favourite movie of the moment at the moment. It’s on hard rotation, probably for another day or two.
Not sure what we’re watching tonight. I’m up for some Marvel or DC action.
We are missing some canon:
I have yet to see that new 10 Rings one (although that’s theatrical release only until Nov).
And we haven’t seen Venom yet. But that’s technically not MCU.
DC wise, we are very behind. Neither of us have seen Shazam or The Suicide Squad or Birds Of Prey. Maybe one of them tonight.
But then…and this is what I was hinting at before, we had to get up and do our “act.”
I didn’t have an act. I had nothing. I had my file full of jokes and ideas. But no act, as such.
All the other comics got up and did their bits.
Sarah talked about being a mother and an elderly millennial. Mike did nice bits about an old hippy life and living in Brighton. Jack talked about his weight and his shape. Iman did some stuff about being a “people pleaser.”
Sadly, as I say, I had prepared nothing. It had taken me all week just to relearn the list of ingredients for a cup of tea.
So I got up and winged it.
With no planning, I went straight into my “welcome compare” bit.
I scrabbled around for some jokes. And from my notes grabbed a line about 50 Shades Of Grey. And how dividing up laundry can make you seem racist.
It was taped for analysis.
Here it is.
It took me about 2 days to get up the courage to watch this. I have seen something of myself “live” so to speak. There is a about an hour of me on YouTube doing a book tour. So I am familiar enough with my stupid face and my ticks and grimaces and my sarky London accent. But this is the – as far as I know – only footage of me doing “funny.”
What to say about it.
Well first observations are:
I’m taller than I thought
My double chin isn’t as balloon or voluminous as it appears in the shaving mirror every morning.
A teddy-boy velvet-trimmed jacket and a nice pair of Levis and boots isn’t a bad look.
I have very very grey hair – almost white – and it is difficult not to stare.
The material? Well the “intro” stuff I sell with plenty of gusto.
It then goes quiet as I try and think of a joke. The 50 Shades Of Grey gag works MUCH better than I ever thought. And there is clearly some mileage in “racist laundry,” but it’ll need digging out.
Score: 5/10. Plus five for energy, minus five for lack of prep.
Erich was kind enough (well, I say kind enough, we are paying him…) to send feedback along with the clip. His thoughts:
“From the first moment, you grab the mic you can start talking. I know this time you didn’t feel like you had a plan but there is no reason to delay. We are ready to hear from you from the moment you get up there.”
“If you’ve got such a wide range of ideas and material to talk about I think starting with how you look is good.”
“At the beginning you’re getting drinks and settling down, but that’s not what happening in the room. Always be honest and reflect what’s happening.”
“Just plant it, “Hello, Kingston nice to be here – I know you’re wondering why….” You know your list of how you ‘look’ is going to get a laugh of recognition so just go for it.”
“The more things you can get off of your presentation of yourself the better, the Proclaimers, the estate agent, Michael Gove night out in Aberdeen, time traveller from 1955 (whatever, I’m sure you can think of a few – the more the merrier)”
“The second cheer and mcing, is great to be able do and will serve you well when you MC, but don’t need to do in a set.”
“After that – you can go straight to the first 50 Shades joke, and there is more to get out of that perhaps? Is she looking to get disciplined for stealing the book (like Mr Gray does or discipline you) or what else can you get out of the ideas of the themes of the book / stealing / spicing up sex life / not spicing up sex life, etc.”
“The racist laundry bit is great concept and the ideas are there – just take some time to map them out. Can play with saying the word ‘coloured’. Why you are worried about getting cancelled, so that means all your pants are now pink…”
“Overall – if you want to build this first five on how you appear on stage and wife and laundry that would get you to a good five.”
So some solid stuff there. Good to work on.
After our “bits” and some feedback we talked joke writing. That is, how to “find the funny.”
The best thing I ever saw about how comedy works was a TV Series I VHS-ed wayyy back when called, I think, Funny Business.
It covered all aspects of the world of “funny,” in 1 hour episodes. The ones I remember were:
Rowan Atkinson doing his lecture on “physical comedy.”
Feeding The Monster: a doc about sitcoms revolving around the creation of 1 episode of Roseanne
A doc about stand-up (which I re-watched over and over)
And something on film comedy, presented if I recall, by the Zucker Abrahams gang (Airplane! Etc)
They’re here if you fancy them
Erich went through all the techniques we can use to try and “find the funny” in a subject. These includes
Exaggeration: You can’t go too far. If you go big, go bigger. Do detailed, go MORE detailed.
Don’t assume: What might be an obvious observation for you may NOT have occurred to the audience
Be Definitive: ALWAYS/NEVER is a funnier approach to an attitude or situation than “once” or “one time…”
Incongruity: Two subjects that don’t match. Mesh them together. A table? A chair. But a table…a flamingo. Is incongruous and surprising.
Compare and Contrast: This is different to that / that is the opposite to this…
Wrong solution: Overreaction/under reaction to a situation.
Action /reaction: This happens. This occurs. This is a thing. And here’s how I feel about it.
Repetition/call-back: Referring to an earlier situation, character or line.
Demonstration: You can say what something is like. Then SHOW what it’s like.
None of this is breakthrough stuff of course. And it’s the bread & butter of finding the funny. I mean if we look at one of the greats (this’ll be fun) then we can see when Woody Allen used each of these techniques:
Say what you like about the Woodman (which seems these days to be an increasingly short list of things) back when he was playing The Bitter End it was a joy.
Here we go:
Exaggeration: I dangled my watch in front of him. He ate it.
Be Definitive: My parents didn’t love me…
Incongruity: I wanted a dog. We couldn’t afford a dog. So my parents bought me an ant.
Compare and Contrast: She’s one of the few white Muslims in New York…
Wrong solution: May parents snapped into action immediately…and rented out my room.
Action /reaction: My body cannot tolerate alcohol…
Repetition/call-back: And there’s a law in NY State. Tuesday Thursdays and… especially Saturdays.
Demonstration: I did a vodka ad once… “I’ll put Mr Allen on the phone…”
From then, we wrapped up talking about the transition. Not always necessary. Okay to pause and jump in. Izzard did this a lot. Just trail off from one thing and then “bees and wasps!”
Seinfeld likes a smoother story. Even if it’s just a one line.
“But I like being at home coz it makes me feel like a little kid again. And when you;’re a kid, you can eat and enormous amount of food…” and he’s off with his Hallowe’en bit.
Can get clunky. And needs to be unobtrusive.
But the point is, it doesn’t HAVE to do this.
For example, just pausing and saying “does anyone else feel racist when they are doing the laundry?” apparently is better than a wind up approach of “we’re trying to stay woke…say the right thing…but it’s tricky…”
Similarly we don’t have to weaken our status by asking for permission.
Lines like: “bear with me…” or “stick with this…” or “I promise this is going somewhere…” are not necessary. YOU are in charge.
Oh and finally, before our homework was assigned, Erich said this. “Take advantage of your appearance. If you have a “look”, use it. Refer to it. Don’t ignore it. It’s part of your presentation and if it’s odd or jarring, mention it. The audience will be thinking it.”
By which of course, he meant me. And my “style.” Apparently there is no one on the circuit like me at the moment. I don’t know if he meant the quiff or the vintage ties or the suits or whatever. But it would appear if I stand up in front of a crowd as I am, I’d better reference it if I don’t want it to take over the show. I mean, I don’t ever remember Lamarr making reference to his look back when he was big (mid 1990s) but Vic & Bob certainly did the audience’s work for them (“He’s a 1950s bin man!” etc)
Oh, last bit before I headed out, head spinning with ideas. I think I’m coming across a bit intense. I don’t mean to, obviously. But I get over excited about things. And I have a lousy poker face.
The one and only Stephen Fry once referred to me chaperoning him at a book event with the line “I remember a rather intense young man who had everything for me to sign…”
But I get so gee-ed up and keen on subjects that fascinate me, I do over-do it. Get all bouncy and quotey, trying to impress the teacher, trying to show I’m worthy. Not exactly name-dropping, but certainly not backwards in piping up about what something reminds me of, where I might have heard it, who said it first etc…
Erich advised I try and “let go” of it all. Not that I “forget it.” But p’raps that I don’t have to lug it around with me and present it all front and centre.
Food for thought. So I need to calm down.
For the next week anyway, I need to write another 3 minute bit. “The Story Of My Life.”
I had an idea for that.
Am enjoying the hell out of this all.
More soon. X