Hey Man, it’s only show business. Now light my cigar and take out the cat litter

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

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9 Responses to Hey Man, it’s only show business. Now light my cigar and take out the cat litter

  1. Having written this for you…where’s my cut? The sheer hypocrisy…..

    On the flip side….should it matter to the punter? I must admit to finding a comedian I disliked being funny in a different format…then being perturbed when I found out said new format had a gaggle of writers. Why? The jokes were still funny and I derived pleasure from the program…..there was no logical reason for this to irk me. Yet it did….why?

    *legal disclaimer* Sarcasm/Humour….I am illiterate and have never written for Mr Ince nor anybody else. Thanks for typing this Mum.

  2. Mark Cotton says:

    Robin, I think this post is absolutely valid. You are correct, in the past major comics mostly had writers but I couldn’t agree more when you say about modern more personal comedy and it’s authenticity. I think that is seriously important. I know I would find it really hard to still enjoy a favourite comic if found out they had written the material.

    I have no problem with someone “trying out” new material with friends or fellow comics, taking advice & notes. I hadn’t realised how much pre-show work a lot of comedians will put into it really until listening to The Comedians Comedian Podcast. You summed it up perfectly when saying “you know how much my writer hates …”. It becomes fake, where is the sweat, the head scratching, the doubt & the shear joy that must come from writing a perfectly honed “bit” … not from a wallet, I know that.

    BTW, it’s still not much different for freelance musicians now Robin. I give up the number of freelance projects that suddenly turn out to be a “great opportunity to promote yourself” … or, sorry this is for free. Nope, it’s only free for the person who doesn’t want to pay, it cost the creator of any creative piece another tiny slither of their artistic soul.


  3. Adam Pain says:

    I briefly ventured an opinion via twitter – the 140 character limit isn’t the best forum, is it? I’m glad to see you flesh out your ideas here, Robin – and think you’ve struck upon one of the most interesting cultural oddities. I suspect that there’s something very British at play.

    I think British people respond best to people they feel are inspired, not meticulously prepared. There’s a cynicism present in the British psyche, that distrusts things when they appear constructed or over rehearsed. We like something a little ramshackle, and buy into the working class hero / natural born genius myth very readily. As a result, the idea that cold rooms full of clever people making very rational, cerebral decisions feels contrary to the romanticised notion of the travelling troubadour or funny man. We have a weird concept of authenticity -and a curious inverse appreciation of education background and the cerebral. ‘Clever’ people are simultaneously revered and resented in the UK – an experience most bright kids go through throughout their school careers. I’ve met many people who confess to ‘dumbing down’ at school, to avoid being labelled too ‘try hard’ or ‘geeky’.

    America is much more comfortable with the idea of acknowledging the entire process, I think – with credited writers becoming stars in their own right, on the merit of calculated wit delivered by others. Larry David is a good example, I think.

    As always, a compelling and articulate piece of writing.

  4. James says:

    1) If writers are being under-paid and forbidden from disclosing who they have worked for then that needs to be rectified.

    2) Hard-core comedy fans can intuitively tell when a stand-up is, and is not, speaking from personal experience. (Often, the turn will say “I swear, this is absolutely true” when they’re not.) ‘Live at the Apollo’ is not aimed at hard-core comedy fans. The acts booked are safe hands, pro performers. Why? Because there are big differences between television and Monday night at Old Rope – the biggest being the respective audiences. To entertain the Friday night BBC1 audience the humour needs to have wide appeal. Nobody watching at home gives two hoots who wrote actually the jokes. (“What? Ant and Dec don’t write Saturday night takeaway? Frauds!”) The audience at Old Rope will more likely be comprised of comedy fans, and thus will more likely be appreciative of the more experimental, ‘difficult’ stuff, and more interested in getting to know the person behind the jokes.

    3) What do I mean by ‘comedy fans’? The same I’d mean if I were to say ‘music fans’ or ‘football fans’. If someone were to tell me that, when it comes to music, they like all sorts, really – at the mo they reckon that new Rita Ora one’s pretty good, but their my fave ever has to be Best of Kisstory 2011….Now, who am I to knock their preferences? That said, I wouldn’t describe that person as a ‘music fan’ – not unless they surprised everyone by scoring more than 30 on Ken Bruce’s Popmaster, anyway. Similarly, anyone who answers the question “Which football team do you support?” with the answer “Man U, Barcelona, and Brazil” can’t be considered a bona fide ‘football fan’ in my book. “Chesterfield, man and boy”, for instance, I will accept.

    As a music fan, would you be disappointed to discover that David Bowie didn’t actually write most of his songs? Yes. Don’t say ‘bollocks’ – you would.

    As a comedy fan, would you be disappointed to discover Stewart Lee doesn’t write his own jokes? Yes.

    As a casual viewer of Friday night comedy on BBC1, would you be disappointed to learn Stewart Lee doesn’t write his own jokes?……..Who the fuck is Stewart Lee?

    4) Turns out that most comedians are also hard-core comedy fans, who can recite 20 year old routines and never-repeated radio shows by rote; whose favourite all-time comedians, perhaps, worked the circuit for a year before going back to their job at the garden centre; who could tell you Dave Allen’s birthday, etc. It’s the reason that most comedy debates happen between comedians. They, like all other fans, would love to see the best club acts given more exposure. But that’s not how TV works. Most television execs are risk averse.

    5) And so, comedy separates. Like music separates. Like football, to an extent, separates. Comedy for art, and comedy for profit.

    Rihanna will continue to sell out the O2 with the latest bunch of songs that she had no hand in writing. Do the audience care? No. Do the writers care that it’s her, and not them, on stage? Some, maybe, but then they’re in the wrong game.

    Meanwhile, down the road in Greenwich, a fantastic country and western duo are showcasing the songs they wrote. They will never get to play the O2. It’s only ‘music fans’ who will ever know of their existence. Is that unjust? Romantics will say yes. But it’s how show business works.

    6) Writers will write for the money – often uncredited – and performers will do their job by bringing that material to life.

  5. andywootton says:

    You’ve done that think again, where you write about an aspect of something I’m already thinking about. It’s getting quite disturbing.

    May I dive a tad deeper? Despite claims that Capitalism encourages innovative ideas, it does no such thing. Our society values charisma, style and presentation (look and feel) of ‘content’ (Copyright), product (Patents), Brand (Trademarks) and “good hard work”. It doesn’t give a stufff about ideas. They are held in common ownership for exploitation. This isn’t the “tragedy of the commons” but maybe it should be.

    If anyone has a solution, then: answers on a stamped, addressed post-card (all rights waived.) Trust me, we’re all in this together.

  6. andywootton says:

    You’ve done that thing again, where you write about an aspect of something I’m already thinking about. It’s getting quite disturbing.

    May I dive a tad deeper? Despite claims that Capitalism encourages innovative ideas, it does no such thing. Our society values charisma, style and presentation (look and feel) of ‘content’ (Copyright), product (Patents), Brand (Trademarks) and “good hard work”. It doesn’t give a stufff about ideas. They are held in common ownership for exploitation. This isn’t the “tragedy of the commons” but maybe it should be.

    If anyone has a solution, then: answers on a stamped, addressed post-card (all rights waived.) Trust me, we’re all in this together.

  7. andywootton says:

    I copied & cleared the ‘think’ version before I reposted, honestly!

  8. Mr Ince

    writers schmiters

    My wife and I took my our teenage children to the Lyme Regis show last week which although shamefully thin audience wise was a joy to attend.I was exhausted for you by the end.
    I had said to our kids you were ‘sort of a comedian & sort of a scientist ‘ which doesnt sound especially flattering, but had I described you as a ‘comedian off of the telly’ they would have immediately bracketed you in the same group as the Macintyres/Bishops/Nortons etc. and I would not have got them out of the house.They and we thoroughly enjoyed the shambolic (a compliment) unstructured (another compliment) chaos that is Robin Ince live.Our kids are still talking about the show a week later.
    A workmanlike well-honed performance by a stage professional delivering bought in punchlines and one liners could not hold a candle to the joie de vivre and sheer energy that you deliver. I have come out of comedy shows in the past feeling that I have merely had a script read out to me .You left out more ideas and threads that one night night than bigger richer names with really rubbish chat shows whose initials are MM will have in an entire career. Who needs writers

  9. Dean says:

    Tom Binns ComComPod has interesting cautionary tale about how being honest about Ivan Brackenbury’s show being co-written led to certain media misrepresentation.

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