Creativity vs Dependability

Sometimes life’s confusing.

The world wants you to be as reliable as an assembly line worker, but with the flair of an artist.

Best I can offer today – Ernest Hemingway*:

“Write drunk, edit sober.”

*(Shhh. Let’s just enjoy the quote before we start worrying that Hemingway never actually said this.

There seems to be a debate about where the exact line came from. I’m not seeing a solid conclusion.

Maybe the moral is: “Write drunk, edit drunk, do your tags sober.”)


The Other Way To Get A Laugh

Yesterday, I mentioned my old improv teacher told us there were only two ways to get a laugh. The first one was covered yesterday.

The second way to get a laugh (I was told) is reincorporation.

That could be as simple as a comedian harking back to a thing she introduced earlier in her routine. The second time she brings it up, the context has changed and this change makes us see the original thing in a new light, inducing laughter.

It doesn’t have to be a thing brought up in the routine. It could be a thing already in the consciousness of the audience.

If I parody a famous singer, as well as dropping the status of the famous person (satisfying, as mentioned yesterday) it’s also a type of reincorporation. You’ve heard it before, now I’m using it in a different way.

I’d say observational comedy falls into the reincorporation category. The comedian is making you see a thing that you’ve seen a million times before, but making you realise you hadn’t truly seen it until you saw it the way the comedian saw it.

I guess some musical comedy is a type of observational comedy. “Have you noticed (x) sounds like (y)?”

Maybe if you’re having trouble with a joke, it could be that you’re not lowering the status of someone or something (your target might not be one your audience can build hostility towards), or you’re not reincorporating, because you’re making an observation about a thing that’s not in your audience’s consciousness at the moment that it needs to be.

If you’ve been doing stand-up, this might be stuff you’ve already worked out, but hopefully I’m saying it in a way you may not have heard before.

Reincorporation without the laughs!

PS If anyone has anything to add to this, I would love to hear from you.


Jeremy Clarkson – Why The Laughs?

There only two ways to get a laugh, my old improv teacher said to us.

One is status drop*.

Imagine the scene. Jeeves (a valet) and Wooster (his boss) are in a room. Jeeves acts deferentially (verbally and non-verbally), tidying up after Wooster, hanging on his every word.

Wooster acts regally. Fluid, deliberate movements. He doesn’t even make eye-contact with Jeeves, to signal how in control of his own space he is, as he holds forth on some Society enemy.

Jeeves (respectfully, in an effort to please) breaks into Wooster’s monologue and offers some valuable information about Wooster’s enemy, and hints there is more.

Wooster now changes his physical behaviour. His movements and speech patterns are less fluid, he makes eye contact, maybe deigns to touch Jeeves on the arm. His confidence is gone. Wooster has something he wants.

I was taught this is called “status”. We were taught to think of the two players in the scene as being on a see-saw. One’s up, the other’s down.

When the arrangement is reversed, and the see-saw tips, there’s a laugh to be had. The high-status person has dropped and the low-status person is elevated.

Famous people are high-status. If they make themselves humble or contribute in way people like, it’s harder to drop their status.

If they bang on about “eco-mentalists”, or suggest we should shoot striking public-sector workers in front of their families, or put nuclear waste on the Rainbow Warrior, some people are going to enjoy a laugh at their expense.

This might be why people are enjoying the occasional Jeremy Clarkson joke today.

*I’ll talk about the other one tomorrow


Change For The Change-Resistant

I was on a train once and it went past a piece of graffiti.

It said, “Routine is the enemy of creativity.”

I thought, “That sounds great and true. I must endeavour to take it on board.”

Then I got off the train and went and did my stand-up routine.

I’m just not having a wall tell me what to do.

But seriously… If you’re feeling stuck in a rut, it’s all very well people (and walls) advising you to make a change, but the rut always comes at a time when you’re feeling least energetic and adventurous.

The low-energy quick fix for me is to change the inputs. Maybe listen to some music or spoken word you haven’t heard in ages, reconnect with who you were when you first loved it.

I prefer audio, because it puts pictures in your head. Just that little bit of work from your mind can get things going. There are some great podcasts out there, ask someone who knows you for a recommendation.

Other than that, take the pressure off, be nice to yourself and ride it out. Sorry to state the obvious, but you can’t plan spontaneity.

Lastly, if you’ve made a commitment to publish every day, the rut is just something you ride over.


Joke Stealing: The Upside

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

…So wrote Upton Sinclair. What a great line. It’s witty and insightful. Steal it. Use it. Everybody does. That’s why it’s so famous.

I used to sell clothes to people who had shops for a friend of mine. I sold T-shirts and fleeces with designs on them, drawn by my friend, who was a talented and funny artist.

Her designs got ripped off a few times by greetings card companies, but there was one design that was just un-stealable.

It was so her style, you’d have to rip the whole thing off, which would mean becoming her. Which was impossible.

I’ve noticed if I want to tell a Johnny Vegas joke, or a Dom Irrera joke, or a Mike Wilmot joke, or a Rich Hall* joke to someone, I pretty much have to mimic the comedian in question.

It’s like an anti-piracy device built in to the material. You have to add the persona (and thereby crediting the creator).

I don’t quite know what it all means, but if you make a thing that’s as utterly nickable and costless to steal as a great joke, you may as well get something out of it. Like Upton Sinclair. You might read some of his other stuff now.

Couple of thoughts:

1) Is there any way you can inject a bit more you into your more spreadable stuff?

2) And which of your lines only work when you’re behind it? Maybe that’s a signpost to your next joke**.

People used to tell me there was a guy on the circuit doing one of my jokes (good luck with that!). He’s probably in another line of work now.

I reckon if the joke was so steal-able, my mission should be to make the next thing I come up with more unique to me. It’s about the only thing I can control.

Don’t get me wrong, I would definitely try and sue if I thought I could get some dosh out of it, and I’m sure there’d be lawyer out there willing to take my money to try, even if it was futile.

It’s difficult to get a person to see the futility of a thing when their income depends on them not seeing it.

*There he is again! Sorry, regular readers!

**This is just my home-spun rubbish. Remember the Golden Rule – don’t listen to anyone!


How Do We Do It? Volume! Jokes Are A Numbers Game

It took 100 million hours to build Wikipedia*. Phew. But that’s a drop in the ocean compared to the 200 billion hours people spend watching TV annually.

This is according to Clay Shirky in Cognitive Surplus. He says since the 1940s, in our free time, we’ve been steadily moving from a consuming posture to a creating (and sharing) one.

I was at a comedian’s conference (I know!) once, and a promoter described a new act whose work ethic he liked (me too!). This new comedian had a day job. On the ride to and and from work (I’m guessing 30 minutes each way), this person made it their mission to write ten jokes. That’s do-able. Five on the way in, five on the way out.

Fifty jokes a week, two hundred jokes a month. An hour a day. Your leisure time is still your own when you walk through the door.

In the old days, you could write all you want, but you’d still have to wait for a gig somewhere to see what flew. Now there’s Twitter and a whole bunch of other stuff I don’t know about (I’m assuming!).

Two hundred jokes a month. Tweet your best, what, twenty? Fifty? Do the lot! It’s your life. You can interact with an audience and learn something.

Baby steps. See what works. Five jokes on the way in, five on the way out.

Also, a great thing about the internet: If you do something a bit rubbish, no-one looks. No-one’s got the time. There’s 200 billion hours of telly to catch up on!

*That’s what it took to build Wikipedia to its 2009 extent.


The Problem With Jokes

There’s a fundamental problem with jokes.

Think of music. There’s no “getting” a song. No nice, that’s that, move on. You can hear a song that moves you thousands of times before you need to give it a rest.

When you love a piece of music, the affair goes on and on until one of you changes. The song’s permanent, so the relationship only changes when you change. Even then, you’re probably still wed for life.

That old Adam And The Ants song doesn’t move you in the same way as when you were eight, but it’s a touchstone. You’ve got history. It’s a family member that knows you better than your own family.

Think of jokes. A vital element of a joke is surprise (see here about that). Once you’ve heard the punchline, that vital element is gone. You can still enjoy introducing someone else to that feeling you got when you first heard the joke, but for you, the thrill is gone. As a thing that’s supposed to do a thing, it’s stopped doing that thing.

Tom Stade and Rich Hall got around this problem with two routines. And I think it’s because they’re like music. In case you haven’t got time to click, I’ll outline them.

One of them is Tom Stade’s “Meat Van” routine. Tom talks about being in Bilston (it’s already funny) and a man shows up to sell meat from the back of a van. The salesman has a style half-way between carnival barker and Martin Luther King, Jr.

If this routine was a song, the verses would be the meat van guy introducing each cut of meat (verse one: “I got a rump roast…”, verse two: “I got eighteen pork chops…”).

The choruses would be: “Do you know what I’m going to do with this [insert name of cut of meat]..? I’m gonna put it on the scale!”

In songs, after the second chorus, people get used to the pattern. Time for a guitar solo. The guitar solo in this routine is when Tom says: “I got a bag full of faggots”. He moves away from the main theme tune to riff on the bag of faggots. It’s a blistering guitar solo.

Rich Hall’s Tom Cruise Bit is equally beautiful. He describes the formula for making a Tom Cruise film (“He’s a cocktail maker. Pretty good cocktail maker, too. Then he has a crisis of confidence. Can’t make cocktails anymore. Then he meets a good-looking woman, talks him into being a better cocktail maker. End of film!”).

Then he says the whole thing again, but substitutes “cocktail maker” for “race car driver”, then he does it with “jet pilot” – On and on, each time funnier than the last, as the predictability of Tom Cruise films is roasted.

This one’s more like a ballad. We’re thinking: “Where’s he going to go in the next verse?” Rich finally pulls out a surprise ending to make it work as a joke joke.

My guess is, because these routines are such beautiful creations, Rich and Tom didn’t set out to solve the problem of how to make a replayable joke. They just showed up to work, beavered away, and one day were proud parents.

Maybe it’s because these jokes are like music, I’ve actually enjoyed listening to them just now with the same intensity as I did when I first heard them.

It’s just a pet theory of mine, I don’t know what it means, but I thought I’d share it with you.

Ps. If you’re having a crisis of confidence, just check out the thumbs down on these YouTube clips. They’re both about as good as art can possibly get, but there’s still someone out there not smiling. Trying to please everyone is just not a worthwhile mission.


Red Face Day And Joke Writing

Happy Red Face Day! It’s a day I set aside to celebrate being exactly one month early for Red Nose Day. I hope more of you will join me next year.

I look forward to all the comedy on telly later (in a month’s time), but until then, here’s a tip for the jokers out there…

I came across a book once that had one piece of advice that stuck. It’s this acronym:


If a joke isn’t working or could be better, does it have these elements?

TARGET. All jokes need a target. Could be person, or an idea, or anything.

HOSTILITY. Is it a target people can get behind, and build up hostility toward?

REALITY. Is the joke based in reality? Of course you can still be surreal…

EXAGGERATION. Exaggerate/heighten (even go surreal) the reality in your joke as much as you can without breaking it, so you can heighten the…

EMOTION. If the target is something or someone the audience can build up hostility toward, go for it! Make your Greedy Banker a maniacally laughing, top hat-wearing baby-eater…

SURPRISE. If they can see the punchline coming, it just won’t work.

Bear in mind, as I said earlier, there is only one piece of advice worth anything in this game, so feel free to disregard/improve the above.

Also, this is not a formula for synthesising jokes from the ground up, it’s just an idea to throw at stuff you’ve already created to see if you can improve it.

Form is there to guide, formula is just too proscriptive and probably unhelpful wherever it rears its ugly head.

And finally, they say the secret to comedy is timing. A month early is probably not right.

*(I want to credit Mervyn Helzer for this, but can’t find him anywhere on the internet.)


Andy Counting Murray

I’m trying to read more on this counting Andy Murray swearing story, but all the coverage is littered with references to counting tennis. WTF did his counting girlfriend say?

I mean, if it’s not autocorrect censoring my counting blog posts, it’s the counting BBC pussy-footing around, referring to Andy Murray as “British number one”, when they really want to say wee.

It’s hypocritical, pretending you’re all down on swearing, but really using it as clickbait. I hate hypocrisy in other people.

I think Adam Bloom did the best joke about swearing, let me know your faves, you aunts.

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