Eddie Izzard, Airing Cupboards and the nature of writing

Eddie Izzard once advised me that I should not have an airing cupboard. He had come round to my flat to play Escape from Colditz. He won. He told me an airing cupboard was a level of luxury too great and no creativity could come from warm or even dry towels. It was damp towels and uncomfortable knee hinges that led to him creating the “cats drilling for oil” routine.
He didn’t tell me to open a blog post with a name drop, but he might have done.
I no longer have an airing cupboard, I don’t know if it has helped.
One piece of advice I have never followed is “why don’t you actually write a show as opposed to dicking about on stage hoping to find one”…until now.
Carl Cooper, the non malfunctioning HAL of the comedy circuit since 1990, a former brilliant ice cream salesman turned brilliant radio producer suggested I actually wrote a show for Edinburgh this year. Ever contrary, I have tried to write two instead.
I have never really written stand up. I have always had lots of notebooks, postcards and till receipts with non-sequiturs and half words on them, and then they turn into something or other, and the most effective something or others stick.
I have written screenplays, pilots and routines for other comedians, but when it has come to my spitty little exclamations, I have shied away from it.
Maybe I think it could cause a “loss of authenticity” or maybe I’m just lazy.
Over the last couple of days, I have written an 8000 word script for one show (and there is more to add) and I have another script to write for the second show.
It is interesting to see a different sort of joke appear when staring soberly at a blank page rather than in the heightened state of lunacy and paranoia that happens on stage.
The intense staring of others is very different to the solipsistic staring of writing alone.
I had almost escaped from the clutches of Carl’s demand, but with two weeks to go and no more previews or stage time, I decided I would have to create some sort of monologue. I will now pace around the garden, reciting like my swearing and clumsy analysis of the world was The Revenger’s Tragedy.
I wonder if Michael Legge could kneel in my prompt box on the first night?
I have been surprised how many comedians write scripts.
I remember standing at the side of the stage and seeing the open notebook of a comic.
It seemed that he started the day with a pun, then tried to ring that subject dry by writing out every thought in his head until he found the joke he wanted. When you are writing on a specific subject, it can be useful to put whatever the first joke that comes to mind down on the paper or screen. It gives you something to fight against, the fear that the grotesque clichéd tangle is the best you can come up with acts as a spur.
I remember admiring Tim Vine’s tenacity when we did a few gigs together so long ago that we had hair. Every morning, he would wake up and think and rethink a pun involving some bare knees, a desert crossing and a tandem. He never did find the joke he was looking for, but by god, he tried.
George Carlin wrote meticulously and then toured methodically to perfect his HBO specials. Greg Proops told me of a night where George Carlin, halfway through his set, pulled out a piece of paper and said, “I haven’t memorised this bit yet, hope you don’t mind me doing it.”
Then, despite the lack of illusion of spontaneity and the fact he was reading it from a bit of paper, he delivered it so perfectly that it made no difference whatsoever.
Yet, despite his genius and years in the comedy business, Carlin still knew he needed to get tour constantly to ensure he had found the right words and the right delivery.
At least by putting it on the page I know what my shows are about, one is about art, the other is about delusions, narrow boats, dog erections, the universe as simulation, Kurt Vonnegut, entropy and ghosts.
I am intrigued to see how writing a show for the first time in a writerly way changes things, hopefully the damp towels helped.

My two shows are here and here.

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Too Taboo…or just too Difficult – things you maybe shouldn’t joke about

Are there some topics you shouldn’t joke about or that you shouldn’t want to joke about? is suicide one of them?

A couple of years ago, I was talking to an ex-headteacher in a hotel bar after a gig. There were a few us around the table, as well as a stranger on a business trip who was lonely so joined in the drinking and olive eating. As I lent in to pick up my beer, the ex-headteacher grabbed my arm and said, “you comedians need to do more routines about suicide.”
In a matter of fact manner, she told me that her daughter had killed herself and she believed that it would help if talk of suicide did not seem such a taboo. As George Carlin probably said (I remember him saying it, but can find no trace of it), “stand up is a low art, but it’s a potent art.”
As I haven’t created much new stand up for a couple of years, I decided I should try to honour the ex-headteacher’s request. It is not easy.
How do I approach this subject tactfully, stupidly, insightfully and/or pointlessly?
Should I try to perform stand up about this at all?
George Carlin was there before me in 2005 show. Straight after his routine on cornholing, he asks, “do you realise that right this second, right now, somewhere around the world, some guy is getting ready to kill himself…do you ever stop to think about this stuff? I do. It’s fun. It’s interesting and it’s true.” He then spends five minutes approaching the subject with the dark, facetious nihilism that marked out his later HBO specials.
It’s an approach that won’t suit me. I don’t have the gravitas.
Where do I start?
Do I talk about the first time that I thought about suicide when I was nine years old, brought on by a fear of rabies from endlessly repeated, paranoia fuelling public information films and an episode of Terry Nation’s Survivors?
Do I talk about the story I was told about why suicide was made a sin by the church?
Apparently, it was nothing to do with Judas Iscariot and everything to do with life being so pustule and plague ridden and bloody awful that the priests worried their serfs would just kill themselves as a shortcut to heaven rather than go through the relentless rickets and burial of young loved ones.
Do I talk about poor Lupe Velez whose tragic suicide was retold by Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon. According to Anger, feeling her career was ebbing, she decided to drink her favourite wine, eat her favourite chilli con carné and then take some pills and lie on her ornate bed, her chihuahuas resting at her feet. She would be found like a serene god. Sadly, the combination of pills, wine and carné led to an upset stomach. She went to vomit, then slid in her vomit, cracked he head and was found splayed, dead and in disarray. I have since (today) found out this story is a myth. Obviously, the bleak laughs of this guillotine humour sells more books.
One friend who was depressed and had suicidal thoughts for weeks was persuaded against taking action when a friend said, “but you’d look so silly.”

One of the most peculiar and haunting sounds I have heard was the scream of a mother as her teenage child through themselves in front of a train. I was on the train at the time so was not aware of the cause of this alien noise. Remarkably, the child’s leap was perfectly timed for him to land under the train and survive unscathed. Hopefully this drive that led to him leaping is no longer with him now.
People on platforms say it is a selfish act, others tell me that it is a loss of self that leads to killing yourself. Some people are unable to imagine their worth or those who preferred a world with them rather than without.
I have been careful to speak to therapists who have dealt with suicidal people.
One told me darkly, “a suicide note is a positive thing, that person has started to talk, unfortunately, they have started too late.”
Another advised me, “I tend to feel you can be as dark as you need to be as long as everyone can hear you’re coming from the right place” and reminded me to avoid mawkishness and sentimentality.
I read Al Alvarez’s The Savage God, a study of suicide. He was a friend of Sylvia Plath and writes of how they would talk of suicide. Both tried to kill themselves, Alvarez survived his attempt.
It worries me that this might mean talking about it is not as useful as I hoped.
I tried something at a preview last night, it might just have been silly, silly and true. Maybe silly is enough to open up communication.
I might fail.
I might be told it is not worth the attempt.
I never thought it would be easy, but I think I’d prefer to try and write about this rather than cornholing.

Here is CALM, a charity that specifically aims to aid young men, The Samaritans and MIND in case you want to find out more on these issues or wish to contact someone.

Some sort of routine about this may or may not end up in this Edinburgh show at Stand 2. I am interested to know what you think.

A while back, on a day where I was heavily delayed on a train due to a suicide, I wrote this

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Some Sort of Word Experiment or failure

I am thinking of what to do in my two Edinburgh shows. I may well put in some slightly more scripted word pieces as opposed to the usual ramble, though the usual ramble will be present as well.

This is some words about those gifts you buy on holiday for family members and then, one holiday, there is no need to buy them anymore.

Drunk Wasp Shopfront

The Fudge in the window
was spur for a memory.
Cut Cubes behind glass
Wasps dipping & licking.
No need to go in now
I can leave the shop be.

Last time we bought some,
They slumped in that paper bag
to the left of your chair
lumping back                                                                                                                                        to single candy mass in the sunlight.
Never Forgetful over sweet treats
You barely touched them now,
Still there when you were gone.

No purchase needed
I’ll browse a while anyway
Maybe a quarter of clotted cream
Shame to leave empty-handed

What window will be the memory spur of me
If all the bookshops are gone.
Oxfam? Iced buns?
Or maybe just a skip.                                                                                                                              “splintered shelves, a snapped CD,                                                                                                 bubble wrap & a picture frame                                                                                                            that rings a bell.”

It’s not really finished, I am still working out how to do this.

My Edinburgh shows are here and here. Then on tour www.robinince.com

 

 

 

 

 

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Deserving Rich, Greedy Poor & thoughts on why I voted

I voted early. I will wake up in Stockholm when the general election result comes through. I might seek asylum and send for my family.
The last few days of the election are usually a grotesque spectacle on the newsagent’s floor, as the press’s excessive spin and propaganda reveals why you can’t trust it any other time of year until you’ve done a few background checks on the information they splash about. Somehow, previously positive traits, tolerance, kindness, generosity, altruism, have been turned into delusions and facets to be ashamed of. These, we are told, are the aims of the foolish and molly coddled.
I can’t remember a time where the belief in the divine right of the wealthy has been so apparent.
The perks of the wealthy are richly deserved, aid to the poor, the ill and the old is a terrible burden.
It’s all your fault.
I am at the lower end of the wealthy.
I am all right.
I did it all myself.
With the added assistance of being from a comfortable middle class background and with the usefulness of being white and male.
I went to a public school.
The same one that the film director Lindsay Anderson went to. He returned to it to make If… , a powerful attack on the values and divisions Britain was built on.
The school allowed him to film there, and when they saw the result he was persona non grata for a couple of decades.


When I see Boris Johnson, I see the power of the public school narrative. Day in and day out, the pupils are told that they are the very best people in society. They are the leaders. They will know best. In an abject failing of critical thinking and scepticism, many come to believe that.
It is right that they should rule, they know their Latin and their wines.
We are told to build a better house, a higher wall, a wider loft conversion, but not to build a better culture and civilisation. That is too costly.
The right wing manifesto has been that we must sell our services to the corporations, the Omnicorps of today, and they’ll make it all better while charging more and creaming more off the top because they deserve it.
Does childhood poverty ever worry you as you are driven to your second home in Cornwall?
Why is it that this society can only be seen to function effectively if those at the top are paid so much more than used to be necessary in 1978?
A few years ago, I went to see a Dennis Potter double bill, Blade on the Feather and Traitor, at the BFI. It was introduced by his producer and friend, Kenith Trodd. Both plays dealt with men who had betrayed others, men of privilege who had consorted with Russia and caused the death of others. These were upper class men, men of privilege. Trodd said that Potter believed the upper class had no love of their country. It was to be found in the other classes, but what concerned many of the upper class, whether it was with Nazis or Communists, was how much would they get. As long as they were deserving in the eyes of the new regime, all was good.
This is what worries me about BREXIT. There is such talk of “control” and “sovereignty”, yet we sell our utilities across the world and we may well find ourselves increasingly bending our knees to even uglier regimes. Rather than gain our freedom, we may have made ourselves even more captive to others.
I do not believe any political party can fulfil our dreams. I do not believe any of them are populated by so many thinkers and activists of depth and understanding that we will build a Utopia, but I do believe there are some who are not as mean-spirited, as selfish and as intolerant as others. I believe some dare to imagine a better life for more people.
I voted Labour, though I would not have been ashamed to vote for the Green party or LibDems either.
After World War 2, there were a few decades of trying to improve society for the majority. The programme to dismantle this has now gone on for longer than the programme to build it, is it possible to slow this advance, to stop hating our neighbours, to understand others, to offer the embattled and broken the possibility of hope? Or have we reached the phase where kindness, tolerance and ambition for a better society for all will be buried beneath tribalism and narcissism?

For those at the top, I suppose the thought is either “I want more” or “I want more people to have the comforts I take for granted.” I should add this is all motivated by selfishness. I don’t want to feel miserable walking down the street and seeing increasing numbers of homeless people and reading about childhood poverty. I want to think, “this is a society trying to make it better for more people”,  with me, it’s all me me me really.

FOOTNOTE – some of the things I want when I vote.
A decrease in preventable deaths and an NHS where those who work in it do not feel beaten and unacknowledged.
Better treatment for the elderly.
A strong and fair education system.
Effective action to deal with climate change.
Effective action against childhood poverty.
The list is long, I’ll stop there.
(and I am prepared to pay more tax for this. I have a good life, why shouldn’t more people have that. And before the normal snide “well, you can opt to contribute more income tax you know” comes my way, if a party of higher taxation does not win, I will pay the excess income tax I would have paid to a charity.)

I am off to the Edinburgh Fringe and gadding about the UK and Australia this Autumn, click for details – Barnard Castle to Folkestone and much in between.

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Hello Wembley! Are you Ready For Maxwell’s Equation!

I am not an arena comic, but for the last 22 days I have been an arena sidekick.
I’ve been a Sid Little to Brian Cox’s Eddie Large. Except it has been Brian looking plaintively at me, as I run around and do stupid voices, with an air of “stop interrupting, I just want to do me cosmology.”
It feels odd that it doesn’t feel odder to see a lecture on astronomy in a 9000 seater.
It is rare to observe silence from so many as they watch Brian with his excessively powerful laser pointer guiding the multitude through his favourite nebulae. It is a laser with Freudian Jedi ramifications.
Nine years ago, when I first put on a science jamboree show at Hammersmith Apollo, some by-standers were sceptical, which is obviously a good start for a science show. In a handy piece of synchronicity, this was just before the dawn of Brian Cox morphing into the sexy face of particle physics. Fortunately, due to the radio producer Alexandra Feachem, we fell into a double act of wisdom and excitability. I focus on the latter. Know your limitations and make the most of them.
We were both wary of moving up from theatre to arena, but by the end of the first show, in a former livestock market in Peterborough, it seemed utterly normal. To attempt to encapsulate the Universe, surely an arena is the least you need.
The screen was remarkable, technology that was the star of the show, but which required an academic ease of an astronomical ringmaster.
Each night, to the dying strains of REM’s Man on the Moon if the show was running to time, we would walk up a steel incline towards the enormous bank of monitors that would be responsible for projecting photons that made up rainbows, bluebells, star systems and Maxwell’s Equation into the audience’s eyes. Brian would be well-tailored, I’d be wearing a nearly new cardigan. On most night’s, I’d be dressed as the scatter-brain scientist and he’d be dressed as the Moorcockian playboy.
The lights would lower. A series of images and quotes would appear on the screen while the music of Brian Eno, obviously, played. Each night, I had got into the habit of turning to him when least expected and repeating the Spinal Tap line, “have a good show, yeah.”
Then it began. As if by magic, though as we know, there are equations to declare there is no such thing, he would be centre stage and the whooping would begin, with the occasional cry of “Brian!” from an audience member in case he’d forgotten.
And it would begin, not with Tonight I’m Going to Rock You, but with a wistfully delivered line of “Welcome to an evening of cosmology and astronomy”.
What surprised us both was that the arena audience’s were even more silent than the theatre audiences of the previous tour. The nearest to a fracas was on the Friday night in Glasgow where a fight started to break out during Brian’s explanation of the eukaryotic cell. It was quelled.
Each night, we had around 500 questions tweeted to us.
The most popular questions were:
Are we living in a simulation? (if we are, it doesn’t matter).
What is the other side of a black hole? (there isn’t really another side)
Aren’t you hot in that woollen jacket and waistcoat? (it’s not really a jacket and waistcoat, it’s just a sort of zip in liner that creates that illusion)
As well as plenty about Planet X, Tabby’s Star and Missions to Mars.
The youngest questioner was seven, the eldest eighty nine.
Being of a self-loathing disposition, I feared that moving up to such scale could lead to social media abuse and people angry that I had disturbed their view of eye and mind candy.
As it was, the response was delightful. I have not sought out reactions, so I am merely talking about what I have seen. Three negative criticisms came my way, one from an energetic anti-semite and two from people who just didn’t really think the night turned out to be their thing.
I heard some rumblings from the outside that this was turning religion into science, so which prophet does that make Michael McIntyre? It was encouraging that after each show we received many follow up questions and queries of where to go next to find out more. Quite a few people left the building feeling insignificant, but positively insignificant.
And now my arena days are over, as I return to my usual rooms to do my solo shows, but hopefully this was not the end, or at least it was “The End of Brian Cox Live, but Brian Cox will return in The Particle Physicist Who Love Mu.”

I am at the Edinburgh Fringe with two shows in August and also doing a hotch potch of our dates around the UK.
I will be touring with Brian across Australia (and with our first New Zealand date) in November. Latest Book Shambles is with the great science communicator, Dr Karl.

And thank you to Amy, Giles, Adam, Ash and everyone who made our UK tour brilliant.

 

 

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Iain Lee – Big Issue Piece

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I wrote this piece for The Big Issue a few months back. It isn’t up in the archive, so here it is.

I first saw Iain Lee in an Edinburgh comedy club, duetting with Mackenzie Crook on an easy listening version of the Only Fools and Horses theme tune. Not long afterwards, he won the role of host on Channel 4’s high profile comedy news series, The 11 O’Clock Show. While members of the supporting cast and writing team, including Ricky Gervais, Sasha Baron Cohen and Charlie Brooker, would go onto to international success, some may consider this to have been Lee’s peak, but only if you judge TV as the arbiter of success.
The spite and sneering dismissal of that show is far from Iain Lee’s voice now. (in the interest of transparency, I hold my hand up and admit to having been a writer on the show).
He was brilliantly quick-witted when most are barely able to correctly aim a toasty soldier into a boiled egg on Channel 4’s breakfast show, Rise, but since then, he has spent most of his time on talk radio. After being sacked from BBC Three Counties Radio, wrongly in my opinion, he now presents the late evening show on talkRADIO.
He is the master of offhand compassion. He doesn’t fawn or over emote, he is matter of fact in his dealings with the multitude that call his show. He demonstrates far more humanity on a daily basis than I’ve ever heard from the representative of Christian Concern who took umbrage with his accusations that she was bigoted and homophobic. This led to his sacking from BBC Three Counties.
Last week, he talked of the mental health problems he was currently battling with. There was no hand wringing and melodrama, yet he was talking about his suicidal thoughts. On the day of broadcast, his mind had gone “to the darkest places it could go”.
His interview with a Samaritans representative and a listener who found solace with them had a lightness that belied the subject matter, but never belittled the subject.
This may have been commercial radio, but it was public service broadcasting.
Iain Lee is the listener’s friend. You can hear the delight in their voices when they get to speak to him and the ease with which they feel they can discuss their life and interests.
Much of the show can also be delightfully stupid, with word games that drag on and on, and yet even the process of dragging, and the increasing pauses as the competitors vainly try to muster, answers, is enthralling.
He is able to jump back and forth from gloom to frippery with ease, reminding us that the narrative of life is filled with “clunky gear changes”
His listener’s remix of a caller saying, “they’ve cancelled Brexit”, was also one of the funniest things I heard this week.
John Cooper Clarke, sorry Dr John Cooper Clarke, has been experiencing a deserved renaissance in the last few years, and this continues with his Radio 4 show, Twisted Romance, a mix of Northern club jokes on marriage that attest to his apprenticeship at Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club, and his poems, both recent and vintage. Let’s hope he is never given national treasure status, he is something far more interesting than that.

I am back at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August and then a UK tour – details HERE

And buy The Big Issue, a great campaigning paper.

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Is Matter Growing In Me That Shouldn’t Be – The Hypochondria of Gum Wire

By the third day of earache and gum swelling, the tumour fantasies began.
Actually, it might have been the second…or even the first.
My pain memory plays a trick on me.
It says,”haven’t you had this pain for months? Hasn’t this been plaguing you since long before Wednesday? You’ve felt this ghost of a sickness making itself flesh for a long time now, haven’t you?”
I should keep a pain diary, chronicling any aches or newly noticed swellings.
I found a new hard lump by my wrist after attempting to drag a weighted rope up a Cotswold hill.
Was it new?
Was it tissue that had popped up out of shock that I was experiencing an exercise regime?
I’ll put that down under the 15th May entry.
Back to my throat.
I should feel around it, was anything not where it had seemed to be the last time I mapped it?
It seemed that swallowing had been uncomfortable for a long time now.
Did even soup make me blanch in February?
This time it was visions of jaw cancer.
I imagined myself dug out like Freud, with a jaw so stinking even the dogs would avoid him.
I thought about the terrible timing of it all. Just as my talking career was going so well, I’d be robbed of my ability to talk.
No Professor Brian Cox Australia tour for me.
I thought of the upset of my son who would no longer have a father’s voice to hear.
I would record a few phrases of love that I could play to him in the silence.
I wondered how possible it was no to record enough words that you could speak through technology with your own voice even when the cartilage, bone and skin had been removed.
The dentist looked into my mouth.
“Ah yes, ooh nasty, I can see what it is.”
With string grip and pliers, he trimmed the brace wire that had manouevered itself into my gum and gave me an antibiotic prescription just in case.
The pain subsided.
50% of what it was within the hour.
Sat on the train, my tongue ran over the tightening gum.
Still a little pain in the ear…
Maybe I had shifted that wire after the pain began.
Perhaps it was my perpetual tongue tampering with the pinkish jaw corner that had shifted the wire, but it had only been doing that because the pain was building already?
The prosthesis visions came into focus again…

(Schopenhauer wrote about how humans notice the pinch of a shoe, but not the wellness of the rest of the body. I am currently rejoicing in not feeling the pinch of wire into my gum and the wellness of the rest of my body, though my stomach feels strangely tight, as if I have eaten too much pre-gig pea soup and a chocolate pudding, which I have. Oh, and there is that wrist lump, hmmmm)

oh balls, the pain is back, so maybe it wasn’t the gum wire at all… ow

My Edinburgh Fringe shows are now on sale, one about art and one about science, politics and sanity. I’ll be touring a hybrid of them both around the UK from September.

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