Wednesday, 11 February 2015

What I learned from a religious text

Recently I went to see the most mainstream, middle-of-the-road, middlebrow, middle class of things - a West End musical, and it had more to say about the state of the world, and it did so in a funnier, more charming and energetic way, than the vast majority of 'stand-up comedy' (including my own cack handed efforts).

Not only that, but it dealt unflinchingly with the abject horror of life in a poor Ugandan village - from AIDS to warlords to female genital mutilation - in as profane and scatological ways as you could imagine.

Also, it has really catchy songs.

The show (as you've probably guessed by now) is The Book of Mormon. A musical written by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, of South Park and Team America fame, and Robert Lopez - one of the brains behind the puppet based musical Avenue Q.

I am coming late to this party, the show has run in London for nearly 3 years and is selling out a 1000+ theatre 8 times a week, for an average ticket price of £100 - and there's been hardly any Daily Mail-esque furore. In fact it has been embraced by the musical theatre community, winning awards, rave reviews and plaudits from everyone.


And this for a musical that features a song that explicitly tells God to fuck off. Repeatedly. In different languages and orifices.

So - how are they 'getting away with it'?

Particularly at a time when there is much hand wringing about comedians saying contentious things in their shows - whether it's material about rape, or stuff that no-one is entirely sure is racist or not.

The show is consistently funny and smart all the way through - but there's also an emotional centre, a vibrant, almost youthful, energy, and an honesty to it.

When told that the South Park guys have written a musical based around Mormonism, I don't think it would be unreasonable to imagine that there'd be an element of 'HAHA RELIGION LOL', or the snarky 'oh, those poor believers' often deployed by atheist comedians. (full disclosure: I'm an atheist).

But Book of Mormon isn't that. Yes, it talks about the origins of Mormonism in a tongue-in-cheek way, and points out the inherent racism in that faith (as the song I Believe states - until 1978, apparently when 'God changed his mind about black people') but it doesn't feel like Mormons are being attacked - in the end, it's more about the stories we tell each other in order to try and make the world a better place - and as such, the official response from Mormons has been 'measured' (If you google the response, that's the word that keeps coming up!)

Contrast this to when Jerry Springer: The Opera came up against organised picketing and a sustained media outrage machine, when a right-wing homophobic group posing as Christians took umbrage at one line where an imagined Jesus says he was 'a bit gay'.

The show also touches on white guilt and the saviour complex westerners have when it comes to Africa, but neither does it paint the Ugandan villagers as 'noble savages' or Mr Myagi-style 'wise ethnics'.  It plays with the stereotypes and prejudices without re-enforcing them.

So what's all this got to do with stand-up?

A lot of new comedians worry about whether the joke they've written is likely to offend, and you can tie yourself up in knots trying to second guess what's going to set an audience off - when in reality, you have no idea. As Frank Skinner used to say, one of his parents was electrocuted changing a light bulb and the other run over following a chicken across the road.

However, there are some certain hot-button topics (rape, race, religion etc) where it becomes more likely. So should you do the joke?

I think deep down, comedians know whether the joke fits in with their individual morality or whether they're doing it because it gets a 'response'. I would argue, that if it's the former - do it, if it's the latter, then that's not enough.  Or work out how to make it fit the former.

Of course some times, the joke is the contentious nature of the material - see Springtime for Hitler from The Producers or Everyone Has Aids from Team Amercan. But there's more to that than just going 'HAHA RAPE LOL'.

If you have a routine on a hot button topic,that's not getting the laughs - then you're not doing it right. You haven't made the joke funny enough, or more likely the subtext pertinent enough for people to 'get over' whatever the superficial subject matter is.

The Book of Mormon (the musical, not the actual religious text) teaches us that with enough intelligence, honesty and charm - you can make jokes (or showstopping Broadway numbers) about absolutely anything.

Monday, 10 February 2014

What I do

Sometimes, I get the feeling that some comedians think that they have magic powers.

This is understandable. After all, with just their own of ideas, words and movements they are able to make hundreds of strangers make involuntary noises.  Most comedians have developed this skill without any kind of formal training. There is no 'certificate'.  The usual way to develop this 'power' is that someone has a desire to try stand-up comedy, they try it, they like it, they stick with it.  The learning is all 'on the job' and individual.

This feeds into the widely held (and, in my opinion, false) belief that the ability to perform stand-up comedy is something which you are born with. If you are religious, then you could attribute it to a gift from the all powerful creator, if you are not, then perhaps it's some kind of evolved trait for which only the lucky chosen few have the mutated gene (science is yet to locate such a gene).

This is hooey. Stand-up is such a contrived 'craft', that although some people are born (or are brought up to have) more confidence, more charisma and/or an ability to see the world differently from others - stand-ups aren't born.  If this was so, then every comedian would be as good as they'd ever be at their first gig. This is demonstrably not the case.  Some people have a head start, and everyone progresses at different rates, but the ability to perform stand-up effectively is a learnt trait.  

If something can be learnt, then it stands to reason that it can be taught.

I, for the want of a better word, 'teach' stand-up to participants of courses and workshops, in addition to my work as a stand-up comedian. We who fulfill this role (for which there is demand) are occasionally sneered upon by other stand-up comedians, who view us as snake-oil salesmen, conning a paying customer into believing that there's some magical elixir that can turn them into white hot balls of pure entertainment.

We don't, and there isn't.

I can't speak for every stand-up course that exists, I can only defend my own based on facts, I'm sure some are better than others - but as all courses tend to get lumped together when being criticised, this argument is my defense of courses as a whole - with examples from my own experience.

I am completely upfront with all my course participants about what the course can do for them (show them how to think creatively, give them confidence etc) and what it can't (make them funny).  The people who sign up for stand-up courses usually already have a sense of humour, and anyone with a sense of humour and a willingness to put the work in can turn this trait into a stand-up act.

I am honest about my standing within the comedy world. I think my comedy anoraking and interest in the mechanics is a more important qualification than any gigs I may or may not have done.  I have never closed the Comedy Store, but then I'm not teaching people to close the Comedy Store. I'm showing them how to put together their first 5 minutes, and then how to get up and actually do it. I believe I am qualified to do that.

A comedian who I admire posted a sarcastic comment on social media recently about how 'all the best comedians teach courses'. As much as this comedian makes me laugh, I am stunned that it has not occurred to them that perhaps performing stand-up as an individual and teaching may be different, if not mutually exclusive, talents.

Jose Mourinho, Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger were all mediocre-at-best footballers; Pele, Bobby Moore and Diego Maradonna were mediocre-at-best managers. (Obviously, Franz Beckebauer ruins this analogy.)

I find showing 'the secrets' of stand-up to others to be an incredibly fulfilling experience. In 3 and a half years, I'm yet to hear a complaint from any course participant, and I've been overwhelmed by the kind compliments course alumni pay me.

Most of the people who do the courses I run, aren't particularly interested in becoming stand-ups themselves, rather they want to learn new skills that they can use in their real lives.

A few former course attendees are doing ok, gong show wins here and there, some getting a bit of paid work, but to me the 'success' stories are the woman who got a promotion, because she used some of the skills she'd learnt on the course when she gave a presentation in the interview, or the guy who took his new found confidence and went off to New York to study with the Upright Citizen's Brigade.

The truth is more nuanced than 'comedy courses = bad'.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Up 6 at 15 it's 'What's the deal with airline food?'

In a Green Room conversation, the fact that The Independent had printed a 'Top 100 jokes of the Fringe' article last year.

How ridiculous.

Or - how brilliant. The newspaper wins because they get to fill a page with funny and clever stuff that they didn't write or have to pay for, and the acts win because they get to put it on their CV and impress literally everybody they ever meet.

This got me thinking, if I can trot out the 20-year-old cliche for a moment, and I can, that comedy is the new rock'n'roll - why not have a weekly chart run down of the best jokes/bits/routine on, I don't know, Radio 4 extra or Comedy Central hosted by (and here I was going to suggest some retro DJ, but in light of Operation Yewtree I'll leave it up to you to fill in the blank).

Jokes could enter the chart and rise or fall depending on how they've been doing in the clubs. Good topical material (which I'm lead to believe does exist) would enter the charts high and then drop out quickly, even punchy short jokes probably wouldn't stick around that long, so if Gary Delaney wants to fill up this chart (as he probably would) he'd have to keep his quality material turnaround at the ridiculously high level that he's used to.

What would have longevity would be the bits that don't get old with repeated viewings and it was unanimously agreed that Gavin Webster's panda routine would have a Love Is All Around-esque grip on the top spot.

This video doesn't do it justice but you get the general idea.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Road Comic's Playlist Part I

Songs that seem to be about the experience of being a road comic in the UK - even if they're not really.

This is merely Part I so is not intended to be in anyway definitive.  More will occur to me I'm sure.

Hopefully they'll occur to other comics too and they'll get in touch for inclusion in the inevitable Part II.

1. Steely Dan - Deacon Blues

As used over the end credits of the excellent documentary movie Comedian, this slice of fried gold pulls the great confidence trick true of all good stand-up.  It seems effortless, but only because of the attention to detail, craftsmanship, commitment and hard work that's gone into it.

Lyrically, "my back to the wall a victim of laughing chance, this is for me the essence of true romance" is a bit of a give away.  But also "and die behind the wheel", surely I can't be the only road comic to envisage a fatal accident on the way back from Lincoln on a Tuesday for £80?

2. Sixto Rodriguez - A Most Disgusting Song

Yeah, audiences, we're totally on to you.

Any song that starts "I've played every kind of gig there is to play now" is a shoo-in for this list, but his spot-on physical and psychological break down of the audience goes from poetic affection to utter digust.

A couple of the lines...

"every night it's the same old thing, Getting high, getting drunk, getting horny"

"They're all here....who mislay their dreams and later claim that they were robbed"

Is he singing about the crowd or the fools in the cap and bells upon the stage?

3. Half Man Half Biscuit - Bad Review

I can't thank Andy Robinson enough for introducing me to this revenge-fantasy-rant.

"Who the hell does Jeff Dreadnought think he is? Was he even there? (I ask myself) Does he even care? (don’t kid yourself)"

Change Jeff Dreadnought to Steve Bennett and you've got a phrase that's probably said in every green room at every gig on every night.

There've been many a night where I've driven back from a confused audience singing this at the top of my lungs.  Did I say many?  I mean - a rare few.  Obviously.

4. Simon & Garfunkel - Keep The Customer Satisfied

A well-respected, established and hilarious act once told me that he reckoned if he started being 'shit', he'd have six months grace from the circuit before he stopped getting work.  Personally, I can't see that happening as the act is really very good - but I do think of him every time S+G bellow

"I'm one step ahead of the shoe shine"

Yup, I'm six months away from teacher training.

If you have any suggestions.... comment away, but give reasons.  It'd be great to get a whole double album of these songs.

Monday, 11 March 2013

More Expensive Than Therapy

This is the story of how I tried out something new and different last night. I've broken it down into chunks so you can skip to the bits you want.


Early 2000, having gigged in a half-arsed way at and post University, and having had a depressing 3 month stint living in London not getting any gigs, I found myself living with my parents, temping at a utility firm and having no gigs in the diary.

Then in about February, a few things happened.  My girlfriend and I decided to start living together in 'fashionable' Moseley. I read Tony Hawks' up-lifting tale of travelling Round Ireland With A Fridge (spoiler alert: the moral is if you think positively, good things will happen to you. That's demonstrably not the case, but it will appear as if it works.).

And, crucially, my girlfriend and I went to see Man On The Moon. The biopic of Andy Kauffman, starring Jim Carrey.

So I decided that I had to try and focus, and see if I could become a Professional Comedian.

Three years later I had enough comedy work to jack-in my day job, and in the decade since I've alternated between being a Pro Road Comic and a commercial radio presenter (a job I got through doing stand-up).  I am now a comic again.


Things that have been knocking about my head in the past couple of months:

1. Stuart Goldsmith's excellent Comedian's Comedian Podcast, particularly the Terry Alderton interview Honest, insightful and revelatory.

2. US comic Andy Daley's character 'Jerry O'Hearn' - a stand up with no actual content. The video is of him performing at a comedian's convention, so as you'd expect he storms it.  I've shown this video to comics and non-comics and generally speaking, the comics like it - the non-comics look confused.

3. Andy Field, a newer act who I met once, but seems to post interesting things on Facebook so I'm yet to unfriend him, posted this video on his feed, of Andy Kaufman guesting on the David Letterman show.

4. El Purnell, Ecuador's Numero Uno comedian. He gigs all over the UK in Spanish, with a few English words/references.  I find it fascinating how little recognisable language he needs for an audience to 'get' it.

5. A sketch troupe that I used to be in has, in part, reformed under the new name 'The Lovely Men', and we've been doing shows and gigs in clubs working towards a two-week run in Edinburgh.

6. There's a part of my regular club set where I do a mime using the mic stand as a prop. To being with, the mime wasn't even part of the bit, but then it developed and it's now at the point where I continue to do the mime (by it's nature, it's quite repetitive) for as long as I think the audience will allow it.  Some nights that can be a minute or more.  This culminated at a gig at Severn Arts in Leeds, when during the mime I improvised an extra bit, which involved me turning my back on the audience - but continued to do the mime. In my head, this went well and I was quite pleased with myself.

A couple of days later, I had an alert on my 'Facebook Fan Page' which I don't really update or look at or pursue in any way because I am lazy and afraid, to see a wall post from G***** M***** (name redacted), someone I had never met, that read 'Just not funny'.  On clicking through to his profile, I saw that he lived in Leeds and had been at the Severn Arts gig. His profile picture was of him windsurfing.

I replied to his post with 'well aren't you a fucking cunt'.

Then I deleted that.  And his original message.  I'm a right Stalinist, me.

Then I posted on Twitter 'G***** M***** (redacted here, but not in the original tweet) from Leeds is shit at windsurfing'

Then I deleted that tweet.

Then I calmed down.

7. This video of comic visionary Paul Foot being booed.


Roughworks is a monthly Sunday Night gig at The Glee Club, Birmingham.  It's for established acts to try new material and new acts to try their established material. Since I was last asked to appear late last year, the time allotted per act has gone from 10 minutes to 5-7 minutes.

If, like me, you tend to write 'on-stage' and want to explore around an idea, this restricts how effective that technique can be and the new time constraint is probably best suited to people trying short jokes or quick high-concept set-pieces.

The door charge is £3, so the audience is usually a combination of the local comedy anoraks (that is in no way an insult, I am one myself) and young people who can't afford to pay the £15+ to go to the Glee on a Friday or Saturday, or who see this as a way to go to their first comedy night.



ME:                  What can I do in five minutes?  Count to a hundred?
OTHER ACT:  You should.
ME:                  Yeah, I should.



How could I count to 100 and still get laughs?  If I went on and just started counting - maybe after about 20 or so some people would laugh, but surely I'd lose them if I continued in a monotone, static way.  And where's the fun in that for me?

So, part 'inspired' by the Jerry O'Hearn video, I decided I would do all the actions and vocal intonations of a stand-up set, but only speak in sequential numbers.

At no point was I allowed to deviate from sequential numbers. No matter what happened. Even if EVERYONE stared at me for the whole duration, I had to maintain the character. You've got to commit to the bit, as I'm always telling anyone who'll listen.

If I got heckled, I'd have to respond in sequential numbers.

If everyone started booing, I'd start shouting sequential numbers over the top of them, a la Paul Foot.

A couple of set-pieces occurred to me that I thought would be funny. Because of the nature of Roughworks - many acts have notebooks or paper on-stage with them throughout the gig.  Half way through my routine, I would stumble to a halt. Put the microphone back in the stand, pull out a piece of paper and remind myself what the next sequential number would be.

At the end of the routine, I should try and sell a CD.  It is not uncommon for accomplished comedians to sell merchandise at the end of a good gig.  The joke here would be that the sales patter would entirely be in sequential numbers.

I also decided that as I approached 100, I'd try and get the audience to all shout it out, and then come straight back at them with 'hundred and one'.

I then began to realise that I'd have to have a 'set-list' in my head during the gig of the material the character thought he was doing.  It's almost as if the character thinks he's doing brilliant stand-up, and is completely unaware of the fact that he speaks in sequential numbers.

I based some of the actions and intonations in the routine upon things in my actual club-set, and some from generic stand-up routines.

The set list reads thus...

1. Hello
2. Comment on the room
3. Opening one-liner
4. Relationships (relate this bit to a couple in the audience)
5. Drug taking and being hungry
6. Alcohol, including vomiting and fingering someone
7. Forget what's next, check the script.
8. Build up to 100, and aftermath
9. My Jamaican mom beats me
10. Doing sex badly
11. Try to sell the CD
12. Thanks very much and good night.

In run-throughs I found I would get up to between 130 and 170. I decided that the routine would just finish at whatever number I ended up on, rather than trying to reach a specific number.

Because I'm now convinced that this routine is a 'character' piece, on the afternoon of the gig I decided that I wouldn't be using my real name.  I tried to think up a name that sounded like a generic comedian's name.  Rejected suggestions included Dave MacGuffin, Kevin Sherbert and Jon Ericson.  The latter because of the similarity to the word 'generic'.  In the end, I used that formula to come up with the character name 'Johnny Wreck'.

Then I recorded myself counting to one hundred - just straight through - and burned that audio file onto a CD.  I printed out a CD cover...

...took a case from an old, unwanted CD single and put the merchandise together.

Then I got dressed up in the most typical comedian outfit I could put together (all of the component parts being things I'd worn on stage at 'real' gigs).  Blue jeans, trainers, purple 'McIntyre' style shirt, black suit jacket.

Then I drove to The Glee....


The brilliant Steve Day is compering, and I prep him with an intro and outro.

Before I go on, he is to say

"I've not seen this next act, but I hear good things...."

and afterwards

"I didn't like it. Comedy by numbers."

Because he's a pro and a good sport - he does both of those things.

You can hear an audio recording of the gig here.  There were probably about 80-100 people in the audience.  I get to 149.

See if you can work out where on the set-list I am.  If I've done it properly, that should be easy.


Some people get it.  It takes until 34 for laughs to really kick in.  There are other big laughter points, but mostly you can hear individuals (mostly acts) laughing. After 115, the laughter thins out a bit.

I think a lot of people thought I'd stop counting eventually and do something else - they were wrong and possibly frustrated and annoyed with me.  There were a lot of confused faces in the crowd (as you'd expect) and the old cliche about only being able to see the people who don't like it was true - their faces were big and frowny in my field of vision.


My initial emotional response was one of disappointment.

Some people laughed.  A lot of people didn't get it.  The acts thought it was interesting.  This was EXACTLY the response I thought I'd get.  So why disappointment?

I've been doing stand-up for a LONG time, and in that time, my psyche has trained itself to judge all gigs in a certain way.  Basically, did everyone find everything I said funny?  If the answer to that is 'no', I beat myself up about it for a bit and try and improve.  The answer to that question is ALWAYS no - how can you possibly expect everyone to like everything you do?  But that has become such an over-bearing, ingrained, thought process, that I couldn't help feeling like I'd failed.

But I hadn't.  I'd succeeded. I'd done exactly what I'd set out to do - count in sequential numbers while trying to get as many laugh as I could.

Then I realised that the gig wasn't over.


I also realised that it had ceased to be a gig, and it was now a performance piece. I am nothing if not a pretentious wanker.

Because of my placement on the bill, 8th out of 9.  There was only one act to go before the show ended and people would be leaving.  I positioned myself at the end of the bar, near the exit and readied myself.

I would get the one copy of the CD out of my pocket and try to get rid of/sell it.

I hadn't really thought it through, but as it developed, I realised I should try and say no more than'CD?' and try and make eye contact with everyone as they left.

What happened next was simultaneously hilarious, humiliating, fascinating and thrilling.

If I may, I'd like to break down the audience into three groups:

Group 1: Got what I was doing.

These people would look me in the eye, smile and say words to the affect of 'no thanks!'

Group 2: Didn't get what I was doing

WOULD NOT EVEN LOOK ME IN THE EYE.  They must have genuinely thought I was trying to sell a CD of my counting (which I kind of was, but in a different way to what they must have thought).

Interestingly, about half a dozen people muttered something about 'not having any money'.  I had never said the CD cost anything.  That assumption was on their part. I wonder how much they thought I would have charged for it?

Group 3: People I knew

Most of whom spoke to me, to begin with I replied as me, but then later I tried to keep in character.  A couple of them asked me how much the CD would cost, I jokingly said £100.  One guy offered me 27p. I said I'd hold out for more.

Eventually, I gave the CD to Jo Enright, who books Roughworks, as a thank you (or possibly a warning).  She was very complimentary about what I was trying to do.


'So James, what are you going to do with this now?'

I got that question a lot from the other acts.  The honest answer was 'I don't know', but I enjoyed saying 'the potential is literally infinite'.

A couple of acts had really good pointers on how to improve the act (just to clarify, the advice wasn't 'stop counting and do some fucking jokes!')

And I even toyed with the idea of trying to get on at Roughworks again next month, and start with 'hundred and fifty'.

I'm really quite proud of what I did last night. I normally hate self-promotion to the point that it's severely damaged my career. But this I liked. Hence this blog.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

The initial tension part one

Much of 'how stand-up works' is based on the theory that the comedian creates tension, and then punctures it to cause the audience to laugh. It's how most jokes work, and subsequently how most (but not all) comedy 'bits' work.

The more seemingly unfunny the 'set up', the bigger the tension - and, in theory at least, the bigger the release when the tension is destroyed. This goes hand in hand with the idea that stand-ups 'say the unsayable' - but audiences, bless 'em, don't always know that they're supposed to abide by a formula.

For example, sometimes an audience will be so taken by an 'unfunny' thing in the set-up, that they're too hung up to laugh when the punchline comes around, because they're still thinking about the unfunny thing. A lot of times it's certain hot-button words or topics like rape, child abuse or cancer.  All things being equal, and as long as your joke doesn't contravene your own moral code, then you should be able to joke about anything.  But the comedian has to be aware that if it's a contentious topic - the joke better be really good, and that you may have to argue with an audience member afterwards.

Anyway - assuming that an act is not necessarily going to bring out something shocking in their set, the biggest tension they'll face is the one created when their name is introduced. The audience won't have heard of them and so the underlying tension in the room is the audience subconsciously thinking 'I hope they're not awful'.  The act has then got a window of opportunity to destroy that tension - how long exactly is open to debate but, generally speaking, it's probably between about 30 seconds and a minute before the audience starts to worry that they were right, and that the act is no good.

Sometimes this leads comics to try and get to the mic as quick as possible and get the first joke out at double-quick speed, but this is self-defeating, it makes you look nervous and no-one wants to watch a nervous performer, and generally speaking, nervous performers make audiences nervous. It's very hard to genuinely laugh when you're nervous. Hence 'nervous laughter' being a totally separate entity (and one of my most hated noises).

If you are calm, and look like you know what you're doing, the audience will already start to relax - an act with one of the most reassuring on-stage presences in the world gave me this piece of advice;

"You're already doing something that they would never do, they already kind of respect you."

COMING SOON: There's going to be another part to this post where I ming on about opening lines.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Some mid week links...

Here's a couple of things that you may already have seen....

First of all Liam Mullone's glossary of terms for the Edinburgh Fringe.  A lot of comics have just had to leave the bubble and some will find the come down harder than others.  I may have to write a longer piece about the ridiculousness of the 'star review' system.

Second - after the Essex lion 'furore', here's Louis CK talking about lions (clip starts half way through a joke - sorry about that, but he does get to lions eventually.)

Third, and probably the one you'll take away with you, Patton Oswalt giving a 'keynote' speech at Just For Laughs about the state of, for want of a better term, 'the industry'.