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.


  1. Really good mate, very interesting way to do it.
    I have a bit at the minute that has a reference in it that not everyone in the room would be aware of but it gets big laughs anyway.
    When I was talking to another comic about it, we agreed that the laugh came because when I do it it LOOKS like a punchline.
    You should maybe think about it as an Edinburgh show, have a few comics on who have to pick up the numbers from the comic who just left the stage, can imagine Stewart Lee doing it one way, Phil Nichol another.
    Just a thought like.

  2. Shit Jason, that's a really good idea. Comedians Counting. An experiment in seeing what people will show up to watch.

    1. Isn't that what Edinburgh is anyway?
      They did a short show a few years back which was comedians reading from the phone book for ten minutes, but if you had say, ten acts doing it, apeing their own styles, it could be fun.

  3. Johnny Wreck was awesome. As an act I loved trying to guess what you were talking about under the numbers. It was eye opening as a lesson in the rhythm and beat of a set and it's delivery. The expectation of a punchline even with numbers.

    Having seen Man in the Moon recently it did remind me of Kaufman and the freedom that act's like him allowed themselves. Less fear of failure and a keenness for a comedic adventure into the unknown.

    Glad you gave it a go. Totally made me want to give it a go somewhere. Can Johnny claim numbers for himself as his material? lol.

    Hope you'll bring him back next month with more numbers, or random letters or words.... It would be interesting to see Johnny Progress. Please enter him in a competition.

  4. i have a gig that would love it:

    1. I think Johnny Wreck would like to do that gig.

  5. James
    Just read this - really good. If you're lookiing to add a little bit more to it - maybe go a bit alternative then here's a list you could read out... It's the catalogue numbers of all the Beatle releases in order - it might just fit a setup punch framework... Or it could be bollocks..
    NH 66833
    R 4949
    R 4983
    R 5015
    R 5055
    R 5084
    LYN 492
    NH 52906
    NH 52275
    R 5114
    NH 52317
    R 5160
    R 5200
    DP 562
    LYN 757
    R 5265
    R 5305
    R 5389
    LYN 948
    R 5452
    R 5493
    LYN 1145
    R 5570
    R 5620
    R 5655
    LYN 1360
    R 5675
    R 5722
    LYN 1743/4
    R 5777
    R 5786
    R 5814
    APPLES 1002
    LYN 1970/1
    R 5833
    BS 24
    R 6013
    SPSR 401
    R 6016
    NB 1
    R 6022
    R 6055
    RP 4949
    AFS 1
    BSC 1
    RP 4983
    RP 5015
    RP 5055
    RP 5084
    RP 5114
    RP 5160
    RP 5200
    RP 5265
    RP 5305
    RP 5389
    RP 5452
    RP 5493
    RP 5570
    RP 5620
    RP 5655
    BAKPAK 1004
    RP 5675
    RP 5722
    RP 5722
    RP 5786
    RP 5814
    CD BSC 1
    RP 5833
    CD BSCP 1
    R 6406
    R 6422
    R 6425