How To Have Great Ideas

A (probably) famous writer was once interviewed.

INTERVIEWER: Where do you get all your great ideas from?

FAMOUS WRITER: Same place as all my bad ideas.

Awesome. The fact that I can’t remember who to credit goes to this second pair of questions:

Who are you and why should we care?

The first question is irrelevant if the second one has an answer.


How To Talk About Things You Care About

It’s not always easy to talk or write about what you believe in (especially if you really care!), but this might help.

George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist (please keep reading, it gets better!). When I first heard the title of his book, Don’t Think Of An Elephant, I’ll confess, I thought of an elephant.

The idea is that when we’re talking to each other, we’re putting (sort-of) pictures in each other’s heads.

He calls the pictures “frames”. You have a frame for an elephant. You just saw your elephant picture, I just saw mine. They might be different.

Now say, for example, when you hear the words “capitalist”, or “socialist”, or “Christian”, or “atheist”, other pictures and emotions (frames) will pop into your head. Probably quite powerful ones.

They’ll vary from person to person. None are more correct than others. They just exist. They’ve been under construction since you were a baby, so you’re probably stuck with them.

About half of Americans believe that “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is in their Constitution. Who could argue with that? Did Jesus say that?

It’s actually from the Communist Manifesto! I guess lots of people like the statement, but they don’t like the frame that pops into their head when they hear the word “communist”.

If you care about your idea being heard (political or not), it might be food for thought.

Here’s five minutes of George Lakoff talking about frames, if you have time. It’s really interesting!

If you want to think about something else…



Mess It Up!

A couple of days ago, I saw a busker beat-boxing and playing harmonica at the same time. It’s probably quite hard to do.

Not many of us have tried beat-boxing and playing harmonica at the same time, so the fact that he was doing it really well wasn’t good. He was making it look run-of-the-mill.

Just my way around it, but when I parody someone, I’m not necessarily going for pinpoint accuracy. Sometimes it’s better to mess it up and make it look tricky.

I could deliver the music bits of my act a lot more smoothly, but I’ve noticed that if you start getting too music-y, people’s brains start doing whatever it is they do when they hear music.

A bit like a straight stand-up who delivers their lines too pat, you run the risk of re-framing what you’re doing. The audience might start feeling like they’re at the theatre or parliament, instead of the club they walked into.

They say Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. Nobody cared. I can relate to that. Maybe comedians (and beat-boxing harmonica-ists) are the Ginger Rogers of entertainment.

Maybe it’s good to trip on your dress now and then to show the work that went into it.

(I know Ginger Rogers was the Ginger Rogers of entertainment, but hopefully you catch my drift!)


The Best And Rudest Advice Ever

Sometimes when you’re at work, there’s a tension between what you want and what others want.

For instance, I do musical comedy.

Early on, (not so much now), I’d get advised to stop with the guitar and the singing. Some folks don’t like it. In fact, I’ve found everybody hates musical comedy. Except audiences.

I’ll push on with it. I like it. Also, I’m hiding.

I’ll hide if I want. Who cares who any of us really are? Hey, Einstein! Stop hiding behind all that maths and stuff. Tell us about the real you.

This is why I love watching performers like Terry Alderton, Harry Hill, Tommy Cooper, John Hegley… (you finish the list).

“Hey Harry, hey Terry, hey Tommy, hey John – why not consider dropping all that “persona” stuff? The mad skills, the magic tricks, the dazzling and unique poetry… You’re actually quite funny without it.” Sound reasonable?

Like I’ve said before, listen to all the generous advice, but for God’s sake, try not to act on all of it. Take some chances. We don’t need another conformist. Every hit is a surprise hit.

There’s something to be said for being strong where you’re strong, as opposed to where others wish you were strong.

My favourite line about this comes from a performer and promoter who is way successful in both roles. I won’t say who, in case he/she’d prefer not to associate themselves with it.

It’s the best and rudest bit of advice you’ll ever hear. I’ve censored it for a family audience.

“You’ve got to ****1 with the ****2 you’ve got.”



1= make love

2= sexual organ)


Scared And Loving It! (Non-)Combating Stage Fright

I used to get stage fright before some gigs. Then I stopped drinking. Now I get stage fright before all gigs. And love it.

I used to look at the more experienced people I was working with while I was feeling stage fright and presume they weren’t feeling it. They were professional. I was unprofessional.

It took me years to work out that for me, feeling (almost unbearably) nervous is what it feels like to be inside my body while I’m caring intensely about what’s about to happen. It’s actually professional.

I know it sounds like mumbo-jumbo, but now I treat that feeling like friend. Alright, a business acquaintance. Giving me a pep-talk. It hasn’t gone away, but I’ve come to associate it with good things.

I think what happens is this. Early on (whether it’s stand-up, job interviews, public speaking, life in general…) you get nervous, you have a hard, learning experience (not because of the nerves, because you’re new!) and as this repeats over time, you come to associate that edgy feeling with bad experiences.

Unfortunately, if you’re growing, learning experiences never go away. I find any time I think I’ve got it nailed, that’s when I’m about to have a learning experience. It hurts in the moment, but I’m all the better for them. Maybe the trick is to associate the feeling with learning and not failure. Fake it till you make it. I won’t tell.

Some people actually use these dreaded feelings as a compass to direct them to their next project. If everyone else is afraid of doing something, but you can be with the fear (not make it go away) and do it, that’s valuable.

So let’s man and woman up, and get scared. That feeling is exactly what you should be feeling, because you’re doing something that matters.


The Only Advice Worth Anything

If you’re starting out in comedy, or having a crisis of confidence, there’s a lot of advice out there. The only 100% objectively useful piece of advice is this:


I’ll just flesh this out a bit.

If you’ve been doing the same thing on stage for five years and it’s the first five minutes you wrote and it’s not connecting with people, you should probably vary what you do. I don’t think anybody persisted their way to success by sticking with the first five minutes they ever wrote.

But! If you vary what you do too much, you won’t get a handle on what works and doesn’t work (for you). Remember, other variables are changing from gig to gig (the audience, their level of sobriety, the type of performance space, the community the event is in, the lighting, the height of the ceiling, your position in the running order, the tone set by the MC and the preceding acts…). It will be your journey to develop intuition about what the feedback from each gig means given these variables, and the ones you’re adding in by changing your act.

Also, I’d set a time-limited goal if I were you. Mine was, “If I’m not making a living at this after five years, I’ll try something else”. Five years was just a guess, based on more traditional models of personal development (three years of college, two years of practice).

The UK circuit has changed since I began, but it seemed to me that people who were making a living were able to perform a rock-solid twenty-minute set in a variety of settings. Having this time-constrained goal helped me get focussed, but I must stress that the world has changed; the goal I set myself might not be the right way to go about thinking about your work anymore.

Your goal might not have anything to do with money (in fact, there’s a solid case for keeping money out of it), but it probably should involve a thing changing by a certain date, and real consequences if it doesn’t happen. My first target was set when Jeff Green said to me, “Stop trying material out on me! Just book a gig and tell some people that it’s booked, so you’ll look like an idiot if you back out – then you’ll have to come up with the material.” He said this was the same advice that started his career.

Finally, every piece of advice anyone gives (including mine) can be disregarded. Listen to it all, but if you try to take it all on board (“topic (x) is hack”, “you should wear a suit”,”you should talk more about your passion for rollerskating, nobody’s doing that…”) you will do nothing.

The only piece of advice that you must take on board is the one I wrote at the top in capital letters.

Good luck!