Saturday, December 31, 2005

I Am Relieved When Things Go Wrong

I am relieved when things go wrong.

I am relieved when things go wrong because it is no longer my responsibility. It is out of my control. What can I do?

Look, the problem is out there in the world. I point at the problem. It is stopping me from doing what I wanted to do. Now I must stay in. Now I can relax. Now there is no stress. Now there is no pressure. I am in my house. Because the world is stopping me from doing what I wanted to do.

read more(Sometimes I find a small problem and I make it into a big problem. I find a healing scab and I pick at it and turn it into a gaping wound.)

Look at my injury! The outside world did this to me. The outside world is constantly stopping me from doing what I wanted to do. Now I must stay in to allow myself to heal. Now I can relax. Now there is no stress. Now there is no worry. Now there is no shame. I am in my house.

(Sometimes I start an argument that I know will lead to a fight.)

Look! I have been attacked. I must deal with this. It has unfortunately made me miss an appointment. But what can I do? Look. I will point at the problem. I was attacked by this man. Of course I must stay in to recover. It is perfectly reasonable for me to do this. Anyone can see that. Who would argue otherwise?

I am spending more and more time in my house. Invitations to leave the house are becoming less and less frequent. This is a good thing.  I am safe in my house. Life is simpler and smoother. I am in my house.

I am in my house.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Psychology of Comedians Off Stage

If you like, you could drape a Diane Fossey metaphor over all of this, and see it as a report from some gorilla tribe that I've spent ten years observing, emulating their body language and learning their customs. Now, I've returned to polite society with my report.

The fact that I'm also a gorilla screws up the metaphor a little, but bear with me.

read moreI've already made many of these points in supposedly comedic form (see Health and Safety Warnings for Comedians) but thought it worth tackling in a longer form. And with less jokes.

I'll start with a caveat: many comedians are perfectly nice reasonable people off stage, capable of conducting a normal conversation. There, that's that out of the way. Now let's talk about the other lot.

The problem is the job: consider, a comedian walks on stage to applause. He hasn't even done anything yet. He says things. People laugh and applaud and cheer. He comes off stage to more applause and suddenly strangers want to buy him drinks and sleep with him.

This pattern repeats several times a week.

What do you think that does to the comedian's character? His ego? His sense of self? Without balancing factors, it's an almost perfect recipe for a monster.

Other issues; when you hold a mike standing in a spot-light, reality shifts. The rules are different. Taboos disappear. Want to accuse someone of paedophilia? Fine. Promiscuity? Impotence? Go right ahead. Better yet, take someone's bag from a table and go through it. Steal someone's drink. It's all allowed while you're holding the mike and getting laughs.

If someone talks to you, you are allowed to insult them, shut them up and talk over them. You have the mike, you have the power.

Then you come off stage, and suddenly civilised rules reassert themselves. You can't insult people randomly. You're expected to listen to what they have to say. You're expected to shut up while they talk. They expect you to share the power.

Some comics find this very hard. They've got a taste for being in control. They want to carry on using the rules from the stage. They sometimes forget altogether that there are any other ways to behave.

I have been in dressing rooms with several comics all trying to talk over one another, all still craving the spotlight and none of them listening to any voice but their own.

I have tried to converse with comedians who view every comment from me as a feed line to their punchline or put-down. I've had conversations with comedians who try to make every one of their responses funny. I've endured comedians who tell constant streams of jokes off stage.

This job can fuck you up royally.

There is an argument to be made that many of these character traits were already in place well before the comedian in question stepped onto a stage. The very act of wanting to be a stand up comedian is said to point to psychological imbalances in various areas.

I agree with this to a point, but would suggest that if you begin doing stand up in a real psychological mess, success in this field sure isn't going to cure you.

"What's the worst thing you can do if someone is desperate for attention?"

"Give it to them."

Health and Safety Warnings for Comedians

1) Ask other people about themselves. Then listen to the answer.

This is a good guard against self-obsession. Try to remember one or two things about the people you're with, other than their face and position relative to you on the bill.

This is also good advice to follow with friends and family members, and may help to keep them as friends and family members.

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2) Stop talking about comedy.

No really. Shut up. That ashtray looks kinda heavy and I'm on a short fuse buddy.

3) Remember the world is not a stage

For example, on stage it's okay to ridicule the hecklers, but when people talk back to you off stage that's called "conversation" and is allowed. Don't feel compelled to interrupt and insult them. If they shut up and leave that doesn't mean you've won, especially if you're married to them.

4) Just because something is free, doesn't mean you have to have it

This covers free drinks, free food and free love from groupies. Accept everything that's offered you and you'll end up a fat alcoholic on first name terms with the STD clinic. Sorry for anyone I've offended with that one - ie) half the circuit.

5) Try to sleep with someone but don't tell them you're a comedian.

Not that easy, is it?

6) You are not a God walking amongst mortal men

Now I know that a few hundred people clapping and cheering you may make you feel pretty good, but face it: they don't even remember your name half the time. Face it. You're "The short one." or "That Irish guy". You did a good job of work, that's all. Your hotel room will look the same as when you left it, and won't suddenly be made of gold.

If you follow all these basic safety tips, you'll remain a stable rounded human being, assuming that's how you started off. Which, let's be honest, is unlikely, given that the desire to gain approval from a room full of strangers usually indicates massive insecurity and emotional neediness stemming from some childhood trauma.

How to be a Stand-Up

Tip No.1: Be Funny

This is not as easy as it sounds. These two words, although Zen-like in their simplicity, are incredibly hard to achieve, much like the sound of one hand clapping. (Incidentally, in the world of comedy, the sound of one hand clapping generally means that you're dying on your arse.)

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Tip No. 2: Have a Bad Childhood

This is a vital requirement for all creative types. Your parents can help you a great deal with this one. They may need a little encouragement, but once you've explained what it's for, I'm sure they'll go out of their way to make your formative years a living hell.

With a bit of luck this will lead to massive insecurity, culminating in a desire to win the approval of a room full of strangers. Either that, or a thirst for vengeance on the world, explaining why so many failed comedians become serial killers or wheel clampers.

Tip No. 3: Talk About What You Know

Of course, this implies that you know something in the first place, which is a definite boon, so go and learn about some things. Stop reading this until you have...

Learnt about some things? Good. Now talk about them and make them funny.

Tip No. 4: Get Used To The Spotlight

There are many ways to do this without actually getting on stage. Late night joyriding followed by helicopter pursuit is a cheap and effective way of imitating that onstage vibe.

Or you could just buy a torch.

Tip No. 5: Know Your Audience

It helps if the things you're talking about are things that the audience can relate to in some way. For example, a middle class audience in a commuter town will respond much better to your whimsical anecdote about shopping bags ripping than your screaming tirade about the crazy layout of B wing and which of the screws are on the take.

Tip No. 6: Remember You're The Daddy

Once behind the mike, the comedian, even if female, takes the role of the Alpha Male in the room, and should stamp out any rivals, e.g.) hecklers. Pheromones are an important weapon in your arsenal, and it never hurts to mark your territory before a gig by peeing in all the corners.

My Favourite Comedians

If you put a gun to my head and forced me to name my favourite comedians I'd probably wet myself and call the police.

read moreI think you'd get better results taking me out for a nice meal and casually dropping it into conversation over coffee afterwards, at which point I'd consider for a while, blowing smoke rings with my cigar, before producing the laminated list from my breast pocket that all comedians must carry by law. Mine has three names on it: Woody Allen, Bill Hicks and Spike Milligan.

So, in no particular order:

Woody Allen

But isn't he just an artsy film director who got off with his step-daughter? Weeelll, yes and no. In the sixties, his stand-up act rocked and his written comedy prose from the time is constructed like a swiss watch. His moose routine is a master class in following a comical premise to it's illogical conclusion and he's still quoted as a influence by many current acts.

Curiously, Woody himself seems ashamed of his time at the coal front of stand up, distancing himself from his persona of the time, that of "deluded loser with the ladies". Ahem. Well, you did a good job there Woody.

Recommended: Woody Allen: The Nightclub Years. The Complete Prose.

Bill Hicks

The comedians' comedian that most of the public have never heard of, mainly because he died of cancer just as his star was rising. He was thirty two when he died in 1994 but he'd been gigging since he was fifteen. At his best he was like a fire and brimstone preacher from an alternative religion advocating personal freedom, thinking for yourself, questioning the government and killing manufactured boy bands. All sounds reasonable to me. He's got the best gulf war material ever and again very well constructed gags. I read recently that he stumbled across one of Woody Allen's prose books as a youth...

Recommended: Revelations, Rant in E Minor, Arizona Bay.

Spike Milligan

Ah Spike! So much of the British comedy scene since the fifties can be traced all the way back to him. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that if someone did a rock family tree type affair for comedy pretty much everything since then would lead back to the grey matter between this man's ears. Pretty much anyone with an ounce of surrealism about them, from Eddie Izzard to Vic and Bob doff their hats to Spike. The TV version of The Goon Show, Q, "inspired" Monty Python (ahem). Not bad for someone with manic depression, although there's an argument to be made that this was part of his genius. No link to Woody Allen or Bill Hicks that I am aware of, but I'd be happy to be proved wrong.

Recommended: The Goon Show, The War Memoirs.

Well, there you have it. Obviously I have many more favourites that I didn't even touch on, but then you did only buy me lunch. Get me drunk and I'll talk about Peter Cook, Chris Morris and Joe Pasquale.

An open letter to anyone who goes to the cinema:

Shut the fuck up. No really. Shut your big fat flapping mouth. Keep your licking hole closed. If there are big moving images in front of you, nothing is required of you but silence. That is how little is needed from you. You could be dead for the imput required. And if you keep talking in a cinema while I'm around, this may well happen.

read moreI've got a pet theory that there many of the world's so called random serial killings can be explained away by simply examining the victim's behaviour on his last visit to the cinema. "Yeah, apparently Sarge, this fellow here talked on his mobile all the way through "Batman Begins" - and then was found six hours later with his skull caved in and his mobile up his arse. It's a mystery."

Let me explain. I am a stand up comedian. A big part of my job involves telling strangers to shut up, often with a healthy dose of ridicule and scorn. This is not a talent I leave on the stage. I am free to use it in other areas of my life, a darkened cinema being a choice example.

The cinema is a good barometer for the general empathy rating of a nation. Just how well do we relate to our fellow man? Just how selfish are we? How much do we care? Well, judging by my recent visits, not a lot. This country seems to be rapidly becoming populated by self absorbed bores with no idea that anyone even exists but them and their moronic giggle buddies.

A friend of mine has an odd talent in this direction in that he can recall the exact nature of the distraction that occurred during every film he has ever seen. I test him occasionally. "Goodfellas." I enquire. He considers, before replying "Couple three rows back, two seats to the left arguing in whiny voices."

"Hellboy" - "Mobile going off four rows in front - the guy took the call and spent ten minutes chatting to a man called Roy."

"Minority Report" - "Two rows behind me - football team eating lobsters using nutcrackers and hammers."

And so on.

I have sat in the dark and I have fantasised about the perfect tool to defeat this menace. After some consideration I eventually concluded that it was a small gas powered tranquilliser dart pistol. I have fantasised at length about using such a device and eventually concluded that I would find firing knock out darts into the necks of noisy inconsiderate twats more entertaining than most of the films I've seen in the past year. And if I swapped my dart pistol for a claw hammer then there isn't hasn't been a film made that competes in the satisfaction stakes.

Either they start making better films or I'm going to start making my own entertainment.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Contact Me

My writing agent in the UK is Hugo Young at Independent (formerly ICM). He can be reached on 0207 6366565.

My writing agent in the US is Robert Newman at WME. He can be reached on 310-246-3196.

I am also on Twitter

Sunday, December 04, 2005

On Plagiarism #1

"I booked a plumber the other day. He rang me up about half an hour later and said 'I can't find your address.'

I said 'I'm not surprised. I made it up. And the next time you cut someone up on the motorway, remember your phone number's on the back of your fucking van!'"

read moreI made up the above joke about a year ago, and was happily performing it for months as part of my routine, when another comedian pointed out that a similar thing occurs in an episode of the sitcom "One Foot in the Grave".

I was mortified and have not performed the joke since.

I'm still proud of it, but the chance that someone would see the joke and think that I'd taken it from the show horrified me, so I dropped it immediately.

Comedians' attitudes to ownership of material varies wildly depending on who you talk to. The so-called working men's club circuit of the north have a long standing tradition of sharing material. They tend to view all jokes as existing in one big pot that anyone can draw from. This attitude clashes wildly with the rest of the circuit, who for the most part write their own material and guard it fiercely.

And occasionally, you get someone on the circuit who has no history of the working men's club circuit, knows full well that stealing material is wrong, but just doesn't care and happily performs a set crammed to the gills with other people's hard work.

Most of the time, the circuit is self censoring: promoters recognise the material from other acts and stop booking the offender. Word gets around. Gigs dry up.

But some promoters, some big promoters, are either not comedy savvy enough to recognise the source of the material, or just don't care. I have been on the bill with comics at big clubs who happily slip Bill Hicks' material into their set.

My rule of thumb in these situations is this: if I recognise one of your jokes as being word for word from another comedian, everything else in your set is suddenly suspect. Which was another good reason for dropping the "One Foot in the Grave" material. I didn't want anyone thinking the same thing of me.

Why would a good comedian, who could write a good solid twenty minutes of quality material steal someone else's jokes? The answer is, they wouldn't. They steal because they can't write a good twenty.

There are universally recognised exceptions and grey areas; heckle responses are one such area. They are a variety of stock phrases and insults used to quell a heckler. They are part of the comedy furniture across the circuit, as ubiquitous as the mike in the stand. It is understood that they are fair game for anyone to use.

I won't bother listing them here. Go to a comedy night and heckle for a sample.

Some comics view it as hack to use a stock heckle response. The comics holding this view are usually adept at audience banter and interaction. I am not and never was. I use the stock heckle responses and hope that St Peter will not bar me from comedy heaven when my time comes.

The Day The Dead Came For The President

He was golfing when he heard the dead were rising. Of course, he didn't know then that they rose for him, but he was whisked away, anyway. By helicopter he was taken to a lift, which took him down to a bunker, deep down in the dark, which probably wasn't wise, but then wisdom wasn’t really his thing.

read moreHe received reports from his generals and advisors, suggesting strategies and writing statements urging calm, words he spoke into the dead fish eye of a camera lens, his own blank eyes staring right back.

The dead were rising but there was no cause for alarm. No cause at all. For they don’t attack, they don’t answer back. They’re just walking, walking, walking, so just stay in your home.

Rumours that one in four is a soldier have not been confirmed. Combat green and khaki, the dried brown of old blood simply adds to the camouflage. Just stay in your home.

The dead were walking, walking, walking. Then someone thought to think about the direction they were taking.

The dead were coming for the president.

He tried a parley, written and honed by the twelve finest psychologists in the land, delivered by a hostage negotiator, disguised as a general with a bullhorn, gold pips glinting in the sun. Four short words that earned twelve hours overtime and a new holiday home: “What do you want?”

And the answer came back, through a thousand throats filled with dust:

“An End.”

He tried to hold them back with electric fences and barbed wire, machine gun nests and nerve gas. Minor delays, nothing more. Thick steel doors, beaten like drums, ripped like paper. The secret service threw down their lives defending their charge, lay dead for a second, then got up and became part of the problem.

The president sat alone, in a replica of his office, listening to the battle rage outside as they fought to defend him. Then worse than the noise, came the silence.

A sigh, a rustle, a dragging. The handle of the door slowly moved and the president stood to meet the dead. And even though the room was small, somehow it took them all, row upon row upon row.

The president puffed out his chest and stuck out his chin. He was the president after all. He tried to stare them out, but it is hard to outstare an empty socket.

“What do you want?” he asked.

A murmur through a million throats is a deafening thing. He stemmed the blood from his ears with a monogrammed handkerchief.

“We invoke a law older than man:

When the living are rendered powerless, when their law is laid waste, when they have been imprisoned and bribed and murdered and lied to, then the dead will rise.

For you cannot bargain with the dead, you have nothing we want. You cannot threaten the dead, you have nothing that scares us. You cannot hurt the dead, we feel no pain. You cannot bribe the dead, for money is paper and paper decays.

You cannot lie to the dead. For we know.”

But he tried anyway. He knew no other way.

He spoke of freedom and pride, of the strong protecting the weak. He told carefully written stories which explained away all crimes.

“An End.” they breathed.

He told them of the menace beyond our shores, that plans to eat our children and rape our women. Of the need for more weapons to keep them from our door.

“An End.” they breathed.

He offered them medals, medals for each and every one of them. He spoke of “acceptable losses” “collateral damage” and “friendly fire”, the lies like ashes his mouth.

“An End.” they breathed.

He bowed his head.

“An End.” he sighed.

Some swear they killed him then, slowly tore him limb from limb, his expression one of resigned relief, or that they advanced and crushed him beneath their cold dry feet.

Some say he joined the dead, then went on to deal with other leaders in other lands. That he did more good dead than he ever did alive.

Others insist that he survived, that his people found him the next day still sitting at his desk, surrounded by the dust of the dead, who knew that leaving a leader alive and terrified is the best way to bring swift change.

But all stories agree about his desk. Old and oak, with three lines clawed deep into the wood:

You can lie to the world,

You can lie to yourself,

But you cannot lie to the dead.

Kill Your Darlings

Or kill your babies, which I prefer, possibly because it sounds a lot more brutal. It's a quote variously attributed to William Faulkner, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway but I've trawled the net for a good ten minutes, and I can't find confirmation one way or t'other.

read moreIt was at this point that I realised that I was being drawn into that familiar net vortex where you lose hours looking up trivia when you should be doing something else.

So, back to the point. Kill your darlings. In creative terms: remove that thing you love from the work.

You may have sweated over it's creation and polished it to a fine sheen. It may be a wonderful thing. But when you view the piece as a whole, is it necessary? Or does it just sit there looking good, but having no bearing on the rest of the piece? Or worse, does it actively clash with other aspects of the work?

But it is so hard to let go of these things. You have invested such a lot of time and energy into their creation. How can you just cut them out and forget them? And more to the point, will you be able to replace them with something of equal quality? Will you ever be able to recreate that magic? The lightning bolt from the heavens that lead to this miracle may not strike again. You will be left with a blank space and no way to fill it.

Now I may simply be unlucky, but I have yet to have an idea arrive from the heavens fully formed in my brain and ready to be shown to the world. Most of the time, it's some half baked concept that I have to kick around and work on for quite a while before it's fit for public consumption. But I have gone through this process enough times now to know that I can repeat it at will until dementia takes me.

The problem comes when we start to view any act of artistic creation as some sort of magical alchemy with unfathomable rules. It isn't. There are all kinds of wonderful books out there that can teach you the rules about everything from writing jokes to garden design.

Of course, inspiration plays it's part, but from thereon in there is a repeatable process to channel that inspiration into a workable idea.

And by the way, if that original piece was unnecessary, or clashed with other parts of the work, then it was never really a darling at all, it was always just dead wood, with a dress on.

Cut it off and throw it away.