For those new to this blog, it is hastily written and never proof read. If I read it after I typed it, I’d probably delete it. You will find grotesque punctuation, feeble spelling, and misguided ideas. Now read on…
“Did the pomaded popstars of juke box days and their psychopathic impresario puppetmasters treat songwriters with the same disdain that it seems some modern stand ups do?”
This was the thought that passed through my mind both on the way up to Machfest and on the way back, one due to a conversation with a comedy critic, the other because of a chat with a comedy writer.
It seems that some of the big name comedians who seem to deliver personal opinion/autobiographical stand up are armed by coterie of sometimes poorly paid and forcibly anonymous writers.
Am I worrying about nothing? Does anyone care? Is it just the backbiting of bitter comics as they view those they once shared a toilet/dressing room/bucket cupboard with from the distance of a megadome.
These thoughts do not spring forth from some high jester priestly zeal that you are only a proper comedian if you perform things that have been written on A4 by your own right hand. If so, I wouldn’t be a fan of the likes of Frankie Howerd or Morecambe and Wise, even Dave Allen had a writer or two. I don’t think that predominantly speaking the words written by others makes “a mere actor” rather than a comedian. Frankie Howerd was no mere reciter. One thing that might make the relationship between a stand up and their writers trickier now is that much modern stand up comedy is presumed personal observation/experience or opinion. An audience may not laugh as much if your routine starts with, “you know what annoys my writer when he is using the bus” or “remember my idiosyncratic mother from last tour? Well, you won’t believe what one of my writers imagined her doing the other day”.
There is an argument about the “authenticity” of stand up, though how true can a narcissistic conversation with a human desperate to be loved to the point of financial security and a sitcom deal really be?
I read someone who was tetchy with those comedians who fake an ad lib, though some may consider the whole of stand up is just differing degrees of faked ad lib.
Now I no longer smoke or drink, so can’t drown or manipulate my self-conscious from its usual screeching paranoia and scrutinising, I think of my own way of doing a show. (In the last few years, my obsession with stand up over all other outlets even finds me doing sit ups pre-gig after I have brushed my teeth and gargled to ensure the ludicrous bellowing can remain at a Blessed decibel reading for at least the first two hours. The toothbrushing is in place so that the spittle that arcs over and onto the audience may at least be minty).
There is some make believe in the hurried, flustered delivery of a show, though its roots lie in reality. Each show starts with a stack of postcards that have been scribbled on journeys in the months before, some have a small paragraph on, many four to five words. They are a reminder of a thought I have had. Here are a few examples – “I can now eat beetroot on a train” “talking to yourself wisely vs in a group idiotically” “eggs, milk, holiday, death” (which, looking at that written down, may now become a show title)
The first few gigs are me frantically trying to make sense and entertainment about these things I have mulled over in my head while staring out of window at a half demolished brewery near Wolverhampton. This approach to writing has led to the frenetic delivery and rapid leaping through a confusion of ideas that makes up what I do now. I attempt to make no two shows the same, but as the tour wears on, many routines (by god, they actually become routines at some point) become embedded. They will be thrown out once I know I have lost my chutzpah. The chutzpah is lost when I am delivering words while thinking mediocre thoughts of biscuit choices yet to be made.
Most nights, however long the show, I will still find myself cursing that I missed out an idea I loved. Sometimes, I suddenly remember an idea that got accidentally discarded months before, and have the joy of delivering it again. And I think I mean it all. It may be an exaggerated reality, further fabricated by turning it into a form of minority showbusiness.
As for writing, it is just scraps that are talked out. Sometimes, I will sit with friends, as I did with Nick Doody before last year’s tour, and offer up ideas and see if he can help steer me out of the bloodied brick wall I might have found myself crashed into with an idea that flatlined. Many comedians love sitting around and discussing and honing each other’s gags. Go to Old Rope new material night on a Monday and you’ll see us excitedly clustered together after someone has tried something out, saying, “that bit is great, but have you thought of adding a cabbage and a hedgehog, and calling the dog Leopold?”
So what does it matter that some big name comedians have secret writers? And haven’t writers always been the needed detritus of the entertainment industry? Today, Danny Baker reminded me of the old gag, “that starlet was so dim, she slept with the writer.”
I don’t think it should be a secret if you have writers. Why should they be sworn to secrecy? And if they are, shouldn’t they be paid more a day of writing words that will be part of a vastly profitable tour than the revenue from half a row in the stalls. The writer I spoke to was paid less than I was for one day writing links for a panel show on digital over ten years ago.
Some comedians are wonderfully generous with people they work with, remembering that once they were all scurrying around at door split venues hoping they could pay their gas bill, others seem to forget that camaraderie and once presumed friends become gag butlers. Has this industry become a Mammonic monster, but without any changes to the pay and attitudes to many of the underlings within it? Indeed, despite vast profits, it seems in some corners the writers are viewed with even more disdain than before the great flood of 1979. Alternative comedy may have grown out of left wing theatre, but much of that was long left behind, and now some writers feel that steel trap of necessity and fear. They want to argue for more, but like many working today, must be slapped down with, “be lucky we let you in at all. Take your cheque and start typing.” (of course, the cheque often won’t arrive until long after the typing ended).
(Have been overly verbose, so not really dented the idea I thought I would write about. Part 2 to follow….possibly) I am off touring as usual – Canterbury, Swindon, Lowestoft, Chorley, Newcastle, Hull, Edinburgh, Glasgow and your town soon I imagine. Details HERE
My one and only London outing of the current show is next week. Tickets HERE