All entries for March 2010
March 29, 2010
Well, even though the previous articles on the alpha course are no longer the most popular thing on this blog (being surpassed by the Frank Turner piece and…err… the Total Wipeout review – seriously folks?) I found this CD while I was having a sort out today.
It’s a recording of a debate I did live on Premier Christian Radio around three years ago now. On the anti-Alpha side was me, a guy that had once been on an alpha course. On the pro-Alpha side was the communications director from one of the biggest churches in London. On the phone lines were inevitably a bunch of Christians. All said, I think I did alright. And now I’ve finally got around to putting up the recording, you can decide for yourselves!
March 26, 2010
I’ve had this question crop up a lot lately. Both from people in real life, people online, and indirectly through the sizeable number of people who want to make a career out of it as part of Mark Watson’s Ten Year Self-Improvement Challenge . Now Mark already did a great blog that gives some great advice on having the right mind-set to approaching the whole thing, but it doesn’t tackle the very basics: how the hell do you go from a regular person to someone that “does stand-up”.
I should set out my stall to start with. I first did stand-up about four years ago. I’ve done it on and off ever since. I enjoy it, but have no ambition to make a career out of it. I’m not particularly good, but nor am I toe-curlingly bad. Outside of performing, I’ve been peripherally involved in the industry through reviewing and promoting for about eight years now. Some of my advice other people will agree with. Some they won’t. Let’s go.
So, you’ve never done a gig in your life but you want to get in to stand-up? Where do you start. Well first, you need to work out where you are currently. The obvious response is “nowhere”, but even among those that have never performed, people are prepared to different levels. Some people have routines and material already worked up in their heads, they just need a bit of a push to actually go and perform it. Others have vague ideas of things that are funny but haven’t really developed it in to a routine. While there are some that want to be stand-ups, see themselves as ‘funny people’ but don’t have any particular ideas to speak of. Work out how far along you are already.
Warning If you fit into the latter group, sometimes it can be tempting to just try and get some stage time and go on with no plan other than to talk to the crowd. After all, you can make your friends laugh in the pub, so you can do the same with a room of strangers right? Wrong. Audience interaction is not like joking with friends in a pub, and even the masters of the form like Ross Noble use a lot of pre-prepared and re-usable stuff when doing so. You are far from a master.
So what’s the goal? What you need is five minutes of material. For some people that seems insurmountable – if a joke is thirty seconds then it’s ten good jokes – but it’s amazing how quickly a routine can build up. For others they already have twenty minutes of material worked out and find five minutes somewhat constricting. The truth is that in that twenty minutes you’ll be extremely lucky to have five minutes good stuff in there. Either way, what you need is a five minute set – if it’s longer, cut the chaff, get it down to five minutes of what you think are the very best routines.
Learn from others
Now if you’re struggling, hell even if you’re not, the most important and useful thing you can do is GO AND WATCH LIVE COMEDY. It sounds obvious, but take in as much as you can. And I’m not talking about seeing Frankie Boyle at the O2. Hell, in this case I’m not even talking about seeing Daniel Kitson at your local theatre. Instead, check out the local comedy clubs. You’ll get to see four or five acts, mostly doing 10-20 minute sets. It’ll give you a much better idea of what you’re aspiring to. If you can find an open mic night, or a new act / new material night, even better. By watching people closer to your ‘level’ you’ll get a better idea for how it’s all put together and what you’re aiming for. Watching Dara O’Briain’s latest DVD is a great way to spend your time, but it’s a show that’s been performed literally hundreds of times, and polished to the point where the joins just don’t show. It’s so effortlessly natural that you won’t learn much.
Getting to the funny
Now explaining how to sit down and actually write or develop material is almost impossible. Different people do it in different ways. Some can actually literally do just that: sit down and write stuff that might be funny. For others, we have to wait until we notice an interesting or potentially amusing idea and try and develop it. The actual process of how that works is different for everyone, but I will offer one pointer: punchlines.
There are different styles of comedy, but unless you’re doing something entirely off-the-wall (and are therefore, prepared to not get many laughs), your routines will need punchlines. Now, the punchline ideally pulls together all the elements of the set up in to the biggest laugh of the routine. Ideally. But not all jokes work like that and not all styles work like that. The punchline serves another purpose though. It indicates to the audience that that bit is over, instructs them to laugh, and allows you to move on to the next bit. It paces the set, and keeps the rhythm going. Now, when you get good you can have all sorts of fun messing with the audience’s expectations and subverting that, but for now, punchlines = good. They don’t have to be brilliant, they don’t have to be the point of the routine, they don’t have to get the biggest laugh, but it’s unwise to ignore them entirely. Even if the point of the routine is just to put across an amusing concept or use a funny turn of phrase, having a punchline, even a predictable one, grounds the routine in something familiar for the audience, making it easier to get them on side. It shows that you understand their expectations and respect them. Yes, I know, you’re a comedy maverick, you don’t play by the rules, you confound audiences and are entirely unique. But if you want to get laughs, trust me on this one.
As an adjunct to this: try and work out where the laughs come in your routine. Look at what you’ve written, and work out where you think the audience are going to laugh. In a five minute routine, if you have 30 seconds without a laugh then you’re pushing it and the next laugh best be a big one. If you get to a minute without expecting a laugh then you should maybe rethink your material. Despite all this you will find the audience will laugh in unexpected places and fail to laugh in others, but then you take that and adjust for future performances accordingly.
Note that again, I’m no expert. And yes, much of the best comedy breaks these rules. These are not rules for being a good stand-up in general. These are rules for getting some laughs from your first five-minute open spot. Once you’ve got a good number of gigs under your belt and feel more confident, you can throw them out if you like.
Getting a gig
This is always tricky: you need to find someone willing to give you five minutes on stage when you have no experience. Fortunately there are a lot of very nice promoters out there, you could do worse than check the forums at www.chortle.co.uk in the industry noticeboard section, and ask about open mic or new act nights in your area. There’s bound to be someone that can help you out. If you live in the West Midlands / Warwickshire area or don’t mind traveling down to Leamington Spa on a Monday night, that person could be me. There’s a link to e-mail me at the top of the blog.
It’s tempting to enter one of many stand-up competitions just for the stage time early on. It’s not a bad idea, but I wouldn’t suggest it for your first gig, the added pressure of being judged directly isn’t something you really need.
Likewise, under no circumstances fall for any sort of pay-to-play scheme, even if it’s just “bring along so many paying friends to get on.” Not only do these shows damage the industry at large but you also end up performing to a bunch of people that don’t give a fuck and just want to see their friend.
If you’re a student, you can try and find some sort of performance society that might be able to give you a slot at an event. These are generally quite friendly and can be a nice place to up your confidence, though often you’re on with all sorts of other performers and again, you’re playing to people that are mostly friends of other performers.
There’s basically two aspects to comedy: writing and performing. Now at some gigs the performing is more important. If you’re playing to a room of loud, obnoxious stag-parties then confidence is everything. They smell any weakness and will eat you alive. Fortunately, most open mic or new act nights will generally have a fairly comedy-savy audience that come along regularly and are willing to listen. They’ll forgive a somewhat ropey performance if the material is good. However, they’re less likely to laugh at bad material just because it’s delivered confidently.
My suggestion for a first gig, is to just focus on remembering your set. Walk on, take the mic out of the stand, move the stand away, do your jokes, put it back, walk off. If you can manage that, the rest doesn’t matter so much. Yes, try to make eye contact with the audience, keep your head up, speak clearly, don’t rush through your set. But even if you screw all that up you’ll be alright if the jokes are good (as long as they can hear you!).
One thing that crops up a lot is how well you should prepare. There’s nothing wrong in stand-up these days in knowing exactly what you’re going to say, word-for-word, and just saying it. The whole ‘pretending it’s all off-the-cuff’ style mostly went out years ago. If you feel more confident doing that, then do it. If you’d rather just have a strong idea of what you want to say, but not the exact words, then that’s okay too. By this point it should be obvious that if you can’t speak a version of your set out loud to an empty room then you’re not prepared enough. One caveat: if you don’t learn your set word-for-word, it’s essential that you identify the key phrases in the set. Generally these are the punchlines, but also any clever wordplay or smart constructions. You have to get these right, and you have to know these word-for-word, as messing them up can ruin the entire routine. Practice them.
Drinking: don’t go on stage drunk. You will forget your words or screw something up. That said, if you’re nervous and drink calms your nerves, there’s no harm in having one drink to steady yourself – we’re not driving heavy machinery here. If it helps boost your confidence then go for it, just don’t get carried away.
Once on stage, stick to the script. Write some keywords on your hand to remind you what order things go in. If you’re not getting laughs, don’t panic. Don’t start editing, or skipping ahead to something that you think might be ‘funnier’. You only have five minutes anyway, just stick to your routine, don’t lose faith in it. You’ll confuse yourself, or end up skipping something that would have got a laugh anyway. If you forget something, it’s okay to pause for a few seconds, try and get it back. If it’s really gone then own it: “and I’ve totally forgot what I was going to say, so about [next routine]” – it’ll break any tension and you’ll probably get a laugh from being so blatant about it.
A wiser man that me once told me that a wiser man than him once told him that “if the worse thing that happens to you on any given day, is that room full of strangers don’t laugh at you, then it’s been a good day”.
Even if it all falls apart, even if you don’t get one single, solitary laugh – well, go back to the drawing board and try again next week. And it was probably a crap audience anyway. Some people spent five minutes not laughing. Who cares? But chances are it’ll go fine. You’ll get laughs. Maybe not in the places you thought and maybe not even as many as you hoped. But the second you get that first laugh you’ll realise how awesome it is and why we do it. “Better than sex” is an overused phrase these days. But it is. You’re bringing a bit of pleasure in to the life of a load of people all at once. It’s basically like making 50 people all come at once, but less messy. So enjoy it. If you want to do this professionally you’re going to spend years traveling around the country performing in tiny pub basements for no money, so if you don’t enjoy there’s really very little point!
Hope that helps someone anyway. Weird way to follow up that last blog but there you go!
March 19, 2010
Yes, it’s kind of odd to be reviewing a gig nearly five months after it happened. But then, this isn’t really a gig review. This will either be quite good or the most pretentious piece of twaddle I’ve yet written. It’s very much about music, so much so that it comes with its own Spotify playlist.
We’d broken up a few days before. Technically I’d ended it a few weeks ago, tired of having my heart trodden on over and over. But then she’d convinced me to give it another go. Then changed her mind yet again, and we weren’t talking. We could both be quite stubborn, but I had the Frank Turner tickets and needed to know if I still had a girlfriend to go with. So I called her. I didn’t.
I first encountered Frank Turner through Chris T-T’s championing of him. Normally people discover Chris T-T through Frank, but I tend to do things a little backwards. I first saw him live in the Leftfield tent at Glastonbury and was somewhat disappointed, not by him, but by the ‘fans’ I was stood next to who were more interested in bragging to each other about how big a hard-on they had for Frank and how many times they’d seen him live. Little backwards me just wanted to listen him sing. This is what happens when you’re interested in someone that’s popular with the cool kids. Going to see him on my own in Birmingham earlier in the year turned me around entirely. It was one of the greatest gigs I’d ever seen.
So to say I was looking forward to this show was an understatement. I was more than a little messed up, but it sure as hell wasn’t going to ruin this. One other thing you need to know: I’m very easily emotionally manipulated by music. I’ll get teary at the cheesiest Hollywood endings if the score is heart-breaking enough.
So along with an old school friend of mine who stepped in to take the spare ticket last minute, I headed to Wolverhampton. First support act, Beans on Toast, was brilliant. The second support act, Fake Problems, were mostly just loud. We were stood behind a gorgeous and stunningly cute blond girl. For the first time in a year or so, I could think that without feeling guilty.
“I used to act like none of this mattered, I used to say that I didn’t care, that we wouldn’t be doing this whatever, but then the truth is that I was just scared.”
There’s nearly always an imbalance in a relationship. One person cares more or less than the other. In the early days she cared about me more. I was unsure. She was the first to say “I love you”. Of course, she lied. I’m not one to drop those words lightly. Over time, I just fell for her more and more. She was the first I’d ever said them to. But by then we were already falling apart.
Frank burst on to the stage with that crazy energy that you so rarely see in live music these days. He gives his all in every show, it’s inspiring. There’s this story, it goes that on the last tour Frank had a very bad case of food poisoning. He played the gig, but had to run off five songs before the end where he promptly passed out backstage. His response the next day? To apologise profusely and promise to play a free make-up show in that town as soon as he could. Meanwhile Oasis pull half of their tour for no good reason and, rich as they are, don’t so much as offer to underwrite the fans’ lost booking fees. The fans love Frank, and he knows he’d be nothing without them, so he shows them an astounding level of commitment and respect. As we “ba-da-ba-ba-ba” along with the first song, it’s that energy that encourages you to shout it out as loud as you can – and the volume on the band is high enough that no-one minds.
The next song, Long Live the Queen, is one I find hard to listen to. It’s a story about losing someone to cancer. And it does what some of the most emotionally charged songs on these subjects do: includes just enough personal details that you’re left in no doubt that every word is from experience and not just imagination. I generally skip it on the album. Its message is wonderful and upbeat but it’s just so sad. But they’ve done something with it for the tour. It’s played a little faster and bit more rockier. It’s only subtle, but it changes a mostly sad song into an upbeat affirmation and celebration of life. It’s transformative. It turns the sad emotions in to something positive.
“I wish that she had either cared for me or let me be, but she chased me from my mind and from my home”
We had a wonderful few months before we even met. It was a relationship built out of two Ben Folds fans failing to meet each other at Glastonbury. From there it snowballed. Does it only start being a relationship when you meet each other, even if you talk for hours every day? From first kiss to first fight it was five months. Five glorious months of perfection. If I could go back and live in those five months forever I would. And I had shorthand classes back then.
The song asks the question “can music be a substitute for love?” The two have never quite gelled for me. Every girl I’ve ever dated has shared a love for, and a somewhat similar taste in, music. Yet when we go to gigs there’s always a remoteness to it. We’re there for the music, and not for each other. We have our own individual relationship with the music, it’s never a part of our bond. It doesn’t have to be that way. I’ll never forget a bizarre fifteen minutes spent in a rushed, sweaty embrace with a total stranger in the crowd of a James gig. You might think I’d remember the kiss, or the intimate dancing or the inappropriate touching, but what I remember most vividly is when we held each other at arms length and yelled the words to Johnny Yen at each other as the band played. The music was the connection.
After playing Substitute and one of my favourite songs ever, Try This At Home, Frank asked for someone to play the harmonica solo on Dan’s Song. He chose the aforementioned pretty blonde, Abi. At this point I should make it clear I never so much as spoke to her, but even just kidding myself that I could have succeeded in chatting her up helped changed my perspective. Hell, if not for another even more stunningly beautiful girl showing just the slightest interest in me while I was still with Hannah I would never have had the strength to try and end it in the first place. Oh yeah. The girl this is about is called Hannah. Anyone who reads this far will know me well enough that they know that already but we might as well preserve it for posterity.
Interestingly, rather than just have a solo bit in the middle of the set, the band are coming and going in between songs so we get some plain acoustic Frank, and some full on rock-god Frank. Sometimes you’re surrounded by friends, and sometimes you’re just on your own.
“Oh yes I started out so happy, now I’m hungover and down. It was about then that I realised I was halfway through the best years of my life”
There’s something odd about having someone just a year older than you sing songs about getting old. Maybe that’s why I relate to the music so much, and why I’ve utterly failed to get those who normally share my musical tastes in to Frank’s stuff. Five years ago I’d have been content to be so upset that I’d take a year off life, stop dating, stop socialising, stay in and watch TV. At 26 I don’t feel like I have the luxury of that time anymore. It’s odd to realise that you just don’t have the time be mopey about things.
“Life is too short to live without poetry, if you’ve got soul darling now come on and show it me / Life is too long just to sing the one song, so we’ll burn like a beacon, and then we’ll be gone”
I’m far from perfect. I have issues. Mostly I lack confidence. Which means my life is often either people who already know me being shocked that I do stand-up, or people that see me do stand-up being confused as to why I’m so quiet if they talk to me after a gig. It’s something I try and improve on and I’ve come a damn long way, but it was never enough for her. That’s a realisation that hits you like a truck. There are people in this world that accept me as I am, regardless of anything else. Probably the people that are still reading this. To realize that the person you love isn’t one of them is something of a sucker punch. She was flawed too: pushy, moody and Christian. But I loved her despite all that. And I wouldn’t have changed her even if I could – it’s all part of who she was.
“I keep nearly missing you around corners and in passing trains… and if I’d known, that you weren’t so far away…”
It takes a certain talent to turn an old hardcore punk song into a beautiful, touching, ballad. Frank manages it. It’s quite odd to go back and listen to the old Million Dead version of Smiling At Strangers On Trains now.
We did the sitting on trains thing a lot. She was in Durham, I was in Leamington. Two weeks before we broke up she moved in down the road, just the other side of the park around the corner from me. She just happened to get a place at Warwick Uni, and I just got lucky enough that a really great job cropped up in Coventry and I got the position. It was perfect. Except she’s still five minutes walk away as I’m writing this. Either I’m right and there’s no god that’s still interested in us, or she’s right except that God is just a cruel bastard.
“You’re just not paying attention, you’re sitting in your kitchen and you’re bitching about rejection. We’re cheating the world out of a fairytale of a conclusion. And that’s not really fair on us all”
I do wonder where things might have gone had we actually persisted with things beyond a few weeks of living near each other. There’s bound to be an adjustment period, long-distance relationships are an entirely different thing. But it was dead by then. I think I first realised we were doomed when she travelled down to move some of her stuff in to her new house. I was already in my flat. But she didn’t even want to spare five minutes to say hello. Writing that now, it’s entirely obvious to anyone reading it that she’d stopped giving a damn and had slipped entirely in to being a heartless bitch by then. I can’t for the life of me remember how she later convinced me that she wasn’t. To give her another chance.
“When my wondering meanderings have finally reached their end, yes whatever else may be, I will not forget my friends”
I was kind of disappointed that we just got a solo-version of St Christopher Is Coming Home rather than the big end-of-show sing-along on the previous tour but it remains a favourite nevertheless.
The thing about a break-up is some people will surprise you. There’s those friends that are always there, the ones you’ve been through hell with so many times, that will always pick up the phone and check you’re okay. But then there are others. Ones you didn’t really expect to care that much. Ones that take the time to look after you even though you’ve never really done anything for them. That’s the sort of generosity of spirit that I aspire to. If you’re still reading, thanks Beth.
“Let’s refuse to live and learn, let’s make all our mistakes again”
There’s two interpretations as to how the break-up happened. Either I broke up with her, then she convinced me to get back together with her a week later so she could end things on her terms. Or I broke up with her, then slept with her one last time before mostly ignoring her. The real answer is probably somewhere between the two. After that one night she sent me a really sweet message the next day, and I brushed her off. That’s the only “what if?” I have in this whole thing. It was tiny, and probably it’d resulted in dragging things out by just another week if we’re honest. But it was the only time I didn’t give her my best. That I gave up rather than fight for her. I’m kind of okay with that being my only regret.
Love, Ire and Song remains one of my favourite tracks. It’s the one that really defined Frank for me. Early on it’s easy to pigeon-hole him as a lefty with a severe Peter Pan complex. But both his politics and his outlook on life are a lot more complex than that. Chris T-T once called him “my favourite right-wing bastard”, and I’d argue his songs are more about growing up without accepting the inevitabilities of adult-hood when we don’t want them or aren’t ready for them, rather than just wanting to carry on partying ever night in to your 30s.
“Life is about love, lost minutes and lost evenings, about fire in our bellies and about furtive little feelings, and the aching amplitudes that set our needles all a-flickering, they help us with remembering that the only thing that’s left to do is live”
That may be my favourite lyric ever. It’s so intricate and clever, it makes it obvious that you’re dealing with a writer that’s far and beyond the majority of artists out there today. And shouted out in a chorus of hundreds of people it’s just so damn life-affirming. In that moment I realised I just had to get on with things. That there was so much more out there and it was better to experience it than mope around.
I wasn’t over it, but I could deal.
Still, with one more song in the set there was time for a little more introspection.
“I could have lived and died an Egyptian prince, I could have played safe, but in the end the journeys brought joys that outweigh the pain”
It may seem a little like I’m bitter. And I know it’s somewhat pathetic I’m still in love with her five months on, while she’s in a new relationship. But as the lights changed and the mood slowed, it was in this song I realised something else: I didn’t regret a moment of it. An awkward moment in a Durham Travelodge turning in to a kiss. A picnic outside Kenilworth Castle. A stolen moment, alone on a balcony in the heat of a 21st birthday party. I wouldn’t trade even one of these to ease the pain. Because that’s the point. It was all worth it.
“If you’re all about the destination, then take a fucking flight, we’re going nowhere slowly but we’re seeing all the sights. And we’re definitely going to hell, but we’ll have all the best stories to tell”
I may not have sung along with this quite so loudly had my Christian girlfriend still been with me. But it is who I am. She was changing me. Possibly not for the better. This is who I am. I still want to be that person.
Ballad Of Me And My Friends sees the band slowly creep on stage as the song segues in to Reasons Not To Be An Idiot as we all sing along a song about getting up, getting down and getting outside. It’s just a song about how doing stuff is better than not doing stuff. It may seem trite. It probably is. But nevertheless it feels right.
“And I won’t sit down, and I won’t shut up, and most of all I will not grow up”
The gig ends with a euphoric sing-along as the support acts return to the stage and play along on Photosynthesis. The crowd are singing at the top of their voices, united as one by the music. Everything else slips away as the world becomes about nothing beyond the music, and then it’s over.
I’m still not over her. I can tell because I still think about her every day, and my reaction to finding out that she had a new boyfriend was to hope it crashed and burned spectacularly rather than being happy for her. I don’t think she really gets that that’s why we can’t be friends. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t want her back either. I could have been happy with her at one point. I’d have lived a content life growing old with that girl. But it wasn’t to be and that time has now passed. Without this gig I’d have probably spent a few more months moping after her, probably trying to get her back, and to be fair, quite possibly succeeding. Until it all went wrong again. Instead I started putting together a regular comedy gig and getting in touch with old friends I’d drifted apart from. Everything is coming together now and I’ve met some awesome people over the past few months.
Hannah never saw Frank play, but in my mind the two are intrinsically linked. That night with Frank with Wolverhampton was my post-break-up fling that got me over the worst of it. I’ll be seeing Frank again on Sunday night, which is why I finally write this now, as leaving it any later would be pointless. I doubt I’ll ever see Hannah again – by the time I feel I can deal with that she’ll be back in the north trying to find gainful employment as a teacher.
I don’t think she ever realised, until we talked a few weeks ago, just how much I cared. That all those times I told her I loved her I actually meant it. Maybe she’ll regret it all if she never finds someone else that feels that way about her despite her flaws. Maybe she won’t. I’m moving on though. Slowly but surely. If you read all 3000 words of this, thanks. I hope this meant something or said something to you because for all I know it’s just the height of self-indulgence. But as a writer it seems crazy not to somehow document the most significant thing in the past few years of my life.
Especially since I’m already mythologising and lying about it for stand-up material. “What did you get out this 11-month relationship Dean?” “One really good joke and one that’s fairly good”. I’ll settle for that.
March 16, 2010
I have a full review of Chris’ new album being published elsewhere in the very near future, and since a large amount of the show was Chris playing that album in full, and also because it’s 1.35am and I have to be in work tomorrow, this isn’t really a proper review, more just a collection of thoughts.
It took 45 minutes to find the new Academy venue in Birmingham. I got close once, gave up then turned around. It was just around the corner. I threw away my last shred of manliness and became a dedicated metrosexual by stopping and asking for directions. Seems to be a nice place though and the room is lovely. Then again, the inside of a skip is lovely compared to the Academy so… Also not sure how good the sound is. It sort of sucked. Don’t know if that’s because the main sound guy had to leave due to an emergency, because the speakers are naff (they did seem to hiss a lot) or because the room has bad acoustics.
Support act was Before I Explode, weird crazy electro that seemed quite good, though couldn’t make out the lyrics. The girl seemed to talk between songs in a Brummie accent, but sing in mockney. Still, all was forgiven as she was stunning – looked kind of like Lily Allen if she’d looked after herself, ate properly and laid off the coke.
Chris’ set was awesome, apparently there were some tuning problems, my hearing didn’t even notice that, although the (electric) piano was annoyingly fuzzy. Guess you can’t really expect the Academy to have a spare baby-grand lying around though. Sound problems aside, the new album sounds brilliant stripped down to just guitar or piano. I think I actually prefer the guitar-based version of Love Is Not Rescue to the organ-led one on the album. I also think it might be awesome done on straight piano.
Apparently the critics don’t like Elephant In The Room. Wish I’d have talked about it in my review now as I really do. I kind of think the point of it (and I may be well of the mark) is that the chorus refrain, “we can still win”, is sung without any heart, passion or belief. It’s sung in a way that says “we can’t”. Which I really like. But maybe I’m missing the point.
We get the rest of album, well nine tenths of it anyway, some of which works really well live, whereas other tracks sort of struggle without the full arrangements on the album. Can’t wait to hear some of these songs done with the Hoodrats (hopefully later in the year).
Then we get M1 Song and Hedgehog Song which are always fun, before it goes a bit shouty and political with Huntsman Comes A’Marchin, Cull (“this is for any billionaire emos”) and Preaching to the Converted. For the first time ever I got to see Chris get through all three of these without breaking a guitar string.
Then we get some requests. I was going to shout for A-Z because it’s awesome on piano but a) I was quite intrigued to see what other people wanted to hear, as last time I saw Chris in Birmingham there were nine people there, and eight were there to see Thomas White and b) the fuzzy piano noise was annoying me a bit. So we got to hear Sellotape and see Chris’ happy realisation that slating Glee fits perfectly in to the song, next to the moans about Dawson’s Creek and Hollyoaks. I’ll defend the first and last series of The OC to the death though – it may have been US wish-fulfillment melodrama, but it was by far the best written and best acted melodrama on TV.
Ankles on the piano was also a treat, and we finished with Giraffes No.1. Except when Chris tried to walk out to the merch stand and end the gig, we didn’t let him. An important lesson is learned: if you tell the audience that you’re not going to bother with walking off, waiting for applause, and walking back on again, you only get out of doing a “fake” encore. If you were going to get a proper encore because the crowd truly want one then you’ll have to do it anyway.
More requests and we get Old Men and A Plague On Both Your Houses to close: “Plague is really good and that but it’s a really dark and long track to end on… oh sod it we’ll do it anyway”.
All in all an awesome gig, marred by some technical problems. Although I’m not sure the technical problems that annoyed me were the ones anyone else noticed.
March 12, 2010
I spent today mostly watching Tim Vine and bemoaning how the rise of the cheap, easy to use, contact lens has decimated the previously wonderfully prevalent “cute girl with glasses” look.
Try as I might I can’t spin the latter out in to a blog entry, so Tim Vine then.
He’s an odd one. The only person that really matches him in style and substance is Harry Hill: it’s that mixture of smart one-liners crossed with utter insanity that means they can both fill venues like the 1500 seater theatre at Warwick Arts Centre. Yet pretty much no-one else is doing it. Every other comic doing one-liners tends to be either dark and understated (Jimmy Carr, Gary Delaney) or sardonic and understated (Milton Jones). A quick look on YouTube pretty much explains the act and tells you if you’ll like him, so I’m going to get straight in to the deconstructionist comedy geekery.
It’s a regular comedy dilemma. If you’re a stand-up that work almost entirely with one-liners you’ll generally do well on the club circuit (assuming you can write). But how do you take that and turn it in to something that works for an entire hour or more – which is almost a necessity these days if comics want to get ‘noticed’ at the Edinburgh Fringe. Vine’s answer is to sandwich the jokes with songs. Taken on their own the songs are fairly bad. If you pull them apart they’re about on par with a musical comic who’s just starting out. Rarely more than one gag per song, some don’t even have punchline, others are just weird for the sake of it. But to do that misses the point. They exist to provide a respite from the rapid-fire joke-joke-joke of the rest of the show. It’s okay to have just one joke in a two minute song, or try and get a laugh from just how silly it is, since in the previous two minutes he did 15 one-liners.
That’s the genius of Vine’s act really. It’s paced so the jokes are always coming, but never to the point where you feel fatigued, or slip in to a rhythm and stop paying attention. He’s squared the comedy circle…
March 10, 2010
Working from home today I got three telephone marketing calls. That’s shocking, as the number is registered with the TPS so I shouldn’t be getting any. This is an open letter to those concerned.
We used to have fun. There were a number of ways to deal with you. Letting the answerphone pick it up and using the code to make you think I’m disconnected. Use a script to purposefully confuse you or try to counter-sell. Act out a rape in the background and see if you have the human decency to even ask “Is everything okay?” rather than carrying on with the script. Pretend to be a top secret MI5 line. All fun and games. But I don’t have the time for this shit anymore.
It’s unlikely I’ll be interested in what you’re selling, and even if I am, I’ll be doing a lot more research, and certainly won’t be committing there and then over the phone. That’s why I signed up to the TPS. But on the off-chance I am interested, here’s a few tips:
1) Answer the call. I’ll say “Hello”. You then have five seconds to respond. If there’s no-one there I’m hanging up. If you’re calling me, have someone ready to take the damn call. I mean, surely that’s obvious. It’s like an ice cream van driving down the street playing the tune then stopping, and when all the kids get there saying “sorry, no ice cream”.
Oh, and I’ll only say “Hello” once. If your computer system is wating on two “Hello”s to confirm that I’m a human, you can get fucked. “Hello”, five seconds, hang up.
2) If you get the answerphone, leave a message. Honestly, I’m more likely to listen to your spiel for two minutes if I can do it while doing something else at my own convenience while the answerphone plays it. Rather than when I’m tethered to the phone and was in the middle of doing something. If your computer system automatically hangs up on answerphones, then your management is retarded.
3) Tell me what you’re selling. Once you’ve picked up you have 20 seconds to grab me before I hang up and do something else. If you want to spend that time engaged in small talk, asking how I am or pitching to me in a roundabout way that’s up to you. You won’t sell though. “Hi, I’m from company X, we’re selling product Y and the benefits to you are Z” is the right way to do it. “Hi there Mr Love, I’m Chantelle and I’m calling today to see if you’d be interested in benefit Z” is pointless. I need to know X and Y first to know if I care or not. Yes, the later approach will keep people on the phone for longer. Some telemarketing companies use this as a metric for success and progress. These companies have executives that are mentally ill. The average call length goes up because polite people have to wait two minutes to find out what you’re selling before they can tell you that they’re not interested. It doesn’t boost sales, and long term sales will fall as you’re making less calls. Again: this should be obvious.
4) Point 3) applies with 20x the force if you’re a FUCKING COMPUTER. Seriously, a pre-recorded voice that tries to be nice is pointless. Also, if you’re a computer, send me a fucking e-mail instead. What, it’ll just go right in to my junk mail? Well yes, but in five years’ time we’ll all be on VoIP and every single telephone will have junk call filters built in too. Maybe you should think about moving careers.
5) Calling while I’m masturbating is the equivalent of barging in on someone having sex. As such you should be aware of the following facts: a) the best thing to do is leave quickly and b) don’t expect me to stop.
March 07, 2010
I’m trying to blog more often these days even if they’re not so long, just to get something down. Was hoping to do my big mega-post about Frank Turner and my break-up today, but that was somewhat derailed by ending up speaking to said ex for about five hours on MSN messenger. SPOILER: she has a new boyfriend.
So with that awful link out of the way, on to the topic at hand. I’ve always disliked spoilers: knowing what will happen in a TV show or film takes a lot of the fun out of it for me. There’s something about a real surprise that is always awesome. I remember way back when most people didn’t download TV, I’d seen the Buffy episode Seeing Red – it’s the one where Tara gets shot and killed. What was interesting was that I went to a Buffy convention a few days later, and they had the episode and were projecting it to a room full of a few hundred Buffy fans, none of whom knew what happened except for us and a few others. Everyone cheered when Tara appeared in the titles, and the palpable shock in the room when she was killed was electric. It was odd, knowing what was coming and seeing other people react.
Anyway, the second part to this is the game Portal. It’s a brilliant short game that involves puzzles based around shooting out two portals from a portal gun. Enter one, you leave from the other. The true genius in the game comes from Newton. Conservation of momentum. So if I jump off a ledge in to a portal on the floor below, I’ll fall in to that portal and then get flung out of the other one at speed. It’s a game I’d been looking forward to for a long time, and I played it within a few days of release, and found it utterly lovely.
These days, you can’t move for Portal references on the internet. “The cake is a lie” became a geek catch-phrase, and the thing Portal is most known for is that it ends with a Johnathan Coulton song, Still Alive. It’s an awesome song that reflects the events of the game, but I’ll wager that most people who play Portal these days will have heard the song before, seen it on YouTube, even played it in Rock Band, before playing Portal. I’m contributing to that by talking about it here, but it’s been three years now.
The point is, I didn’t know that song was at the end. I didn’t know it ended on a song. And the surprise inherent in that was wonderful. It seems the majority of people I talk to ended up only playing Portal because of the internet buzz around it (and because most picked it up almost for ‘free’ with the Orange Box). That buzz gave away this wonderful moment, that when discovered on its own made it almost the perfect game. Even though knowing the song doesn’t impact the game at all, it’s entirely after the fact, over the credits.
March 05, 2010
So Mark Watson is doing a thing over on his blog in the spirit of the old 24-hour shows. The idea is to set a goal to accomplish within the next ten years. I decided it’d be fun to play and it led me to thinking what, exactly, I should choose.
There are the obvious ones. The things I want to achieve in life. To find someone nice to share it with. To build up my freelance work so I can support myself just through writing. To become more confident. But these are all things that I am either already working towards, or have solid plans to work towards. They’re aims that already exist that I need to accomplish regardless in order to be generally happy. So choosing any of those feels like a bit of a cop out.
Then there are the trivial ideas which might lead to some interesting stories. Change my look and style every year. Go on 120 dates. Kiss at least one beautiful girl every year. Visit 12 different countries. They’re all decent ideas but seem ultimately hollow. Would I really be any better off afterwards?
There’s two ideas that nearly made the cut that I’m going to have a go at anyway. They basically tackle my cultural deficiencies. I watch a lot of (good) TV. I see a lot of comedy. I listen to a decent amount of music. I play far too many video games. I read a bit, though narrowly, but I don’t enjoy at all battling through a tough book for the sake of it, and when I read for pleasure, I read really slowly. That leaves two of the major cultural forms by my count: film and theatre. I only ever seem to go to the cinema when I’m in a relationship. Since I’m more than often not, films tend to pass me by. Nevertheless, it’s not like I don’t know how to get them off the internet (legally through Netflix, of course) but whenever I sit down to watch something I end up catching up on my backlog of TV shows instead.
So here is secondary idea number one: every month there will be a film night. I will watch a film, and crucuially it will be one suggested by someone else. Either on here, Twitter, Facebook, or 3D-Social-Megathon-5000 or whatever the social network of ten years’ time is called. I ask, you suggest, I pick one I haven’t seen, watch, and write about. 120 films total. Not many, but the idea is that it’ll get me seeking out other stuff by the same writers/directors of my own accord. And it should be nearly impossible to fail at.
Secondary idea number two: get in to theatre. Yeah, that one is a lot more nebulous. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a proper live theatre production ever, with the exception of the odd comedy play at the Fringe. I’m entirely clueless about the whole thing. Honestly, I couldn’t even say if I’d enjoy it or not. Which is disgusting really. There’s an entire art form I don’t even know if I like. I’ll need some help on this one too as I have no damn clue how or where to even start. Somewhere cheap, preferably! Any suggestions and offers of assistance would be greatly appreciated.
But idea number one is easy. Idea number two is kind of impossible to measure the success of. So my main choice is the first thing that came to mind when I read about this thing.
I’m going to learn piano.
See, I learning piano isn’t really that much fun. I know, I’ve tried a few times already. But I want to be able to play. Not brilliantly, just enough that I can bang out a few tunes for my own amusement. Unlike the other ideas, this one is about the goal, not the process. It’s something that won’t be much fun to do, but without the added motivation of TYSIC it’s one thing I know I’ll never find time to get around to.
So there we go, first step is getting the digital piano back from Cannock and tracking down my learning books…
March 04, 2010
So I’ve been running this comedy show in Leamington on a weekly basis for about a month now. For those that don’t know, it’s called Reckless Comedy and it runs most Monday nights in the basement of Robbins Well. It’s exhausting, challenging, and a lot of fun. But while I’ve run my fair share of comedy nights before, they all had a proper big budget of someone elses money. This is the first time I’ve run a show on my own with very limited funds. It’s been eye-opening.
I have no issue explaining to anyone how the financials of my club work: people pay two quid to get in, I pay the headliner £50 and everyone else is an open spot performing for free. If I get 25 people in, which makes the room look reasonably busy, I break even. Any extra goes to make up losses on the really quiet nights or pay for a better headliner at a future show.
But it’s in the open spots where the story is truly fascinating. It’s fairly well established that the comedy scene in New York was decimated by the introduction of “pay to play”, this ridiculous notion that new acts should be paying the venue for stage time. Sometimes it’s direct, sometimes it’s indirect (eg. you have to bring five friends who each pay an entrance fee and have to buy two drinks each). As you can imagine, once promoters start booking acts based on who can pay more, rather than who is funnier, things go downhill. It’s a mental system, and fortunately any attempts to introduce it over here in London have been met by a collective “fuck off” from the industry at large.
Nevertheless, for some reason the mindset seems to remain that promoters are somehow doing the open spots a favour by letting them perform. This is backwards, bullshitty, bollocks. I will say it right now to anyone that will listen: if you’re an open spot, performing at my show for no money, you’re the one doing me a favour. I’m grateful to you for making making my show even possible.
These wonderful people travel down, literally from across the country, to perform at a show, for no money, at their own expense. A lot of those just starting out won’t even be set up to reclaim their travel money from the taxman. They’re literally losing money to be there. I wish I could pay them all. Or at least cover their expenses. Or y’know, afford to buy them all a drink (when you’re running a weekly night with 5 or 6 open spots a time, even doing that costs a decent chunk of change in the long term). But the economics of the night I’m running don’t work that way, so I settle for providing a nice relaxed atmosphere for them to perform to an appreciative audience in. It’s all I can do. And giving them a nice gig is, frankly, the only thing that stops me feel like I’m taking advantage of them.
But what amazes me is despite the fact that they’re providing the entertainment, and that they’re losing their own money to do so, is that somehow they think that they should be grateful to me. That by giving them stage time I’m doing them a favour, rather than the other way around. Okay, so I run a fairly open booking policy – anyone can do five minutes, they just have to ask – and if it’s someone’s first ever gig then maybe I am helping them out. But I get e-mails from people that have been plugging away at it for years, still looking for stage time from whomever will deign to give it to them. People will apologise profusely if they have to cancel because they’ve been offered a paid gig elsewhere. People will even ask if it’s okay to leave early after they’ve done their set.
I have no comedic ambition. Running and MCing a nice little club like this and maybe fitting in the occasional extra gig is about my limit. Maybe I’d be interested in getting in to writing or critiquing work some day but for me stand-up is just something I do because it’s fun. I love running this night, and I love seeing all these up-and-coming comics and I know in five years’ time I’ll be able to point at someone on TV and tell people about when they gigged for me in a pub basement. But when people ask why I have no interest in taking the stand-up any further, it’s pretty much because of all of this. Years of chasing promoters and begging for gigs and being thankful to anyone that will give you stage time… as fun as the endgame might be when you’ve got an agent to do all that for you and you just have to turn up and be funny… I’d never get through it.
I’ll just stick to trying to make things a little easier for the ones that do brave it, even if I can offer nothing more than a room, a mic and an audience.