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Joz Norris

  • Tape 10: Online Comedy

Hello! How are you? Welcome back to the Fruit Salad Therapy Tapes, a weekly interactive notebook project from retired census collector and occasional comedian Joz Norris. “But I hate Joz Norris!” you might be thinking. If that’s the case, please feel free to unsubscribe any time – go with my blessings. And if you’re still with me, read on for this week’s Tape!

Another Post-Script To Tape 8

I know, Tape 8 was two weeks ago and I already did a post-script to it last week. But this week I don’t really have anything to add as a post-script to Tape 9, but I have stumbled across something that’s a perfect followup to what I was saying two weeks ago about rhythm in comedy. There’s a guy called Josh Harmon who plays the drums in sync with the rhythms of various stand-up clips (and comedy in general, actually, there’s a great one where he drums along to Fleabag) – here he is following the rhythm of John Mulaney. What an excellent project. I love it.

JOHN MULANEY // Rhythms of Comedy Ep. 3

Online Comedy

I’ll start with this week’s question, which I’d love to hear all your thoughts on if you’d be willing to share them with me. This week’s question is:

Has lockdown, and the online comedy boom, improved comedy or made it worse, or simply changed it without having an impact on its quality? Do you think it HAS changed it?

This week I want to talk about this Guardian article by the amazing Rachael Healy, who has put together some really thought-provoking and excellent pieces about the state of the comedy industry through the pandemic over the last year. This one is about the way the lockdown comedy boom has democratised access to the industry, and the ways in which its traditional “gatekeepers” (a silly phrase, but you all know what I mean by it, so I’m using it) have responded to it. First up, a caveat – my initial emotional response to this article was a sinking feeling in my stomach as I thought “Oh no, I’m going to get left behind,” and I feel like I need to address that feeling first to make sure I’m exploring this idea from a place of curiosity rather than a place of fear or, much worse, envy.

I’ve watched the explosion of online comedy with a kind of curious enthusiasm, because it’s always really exciting to see new things happening in comedy, and it’s resulted in a lot of really wonderful work. I adore the sketches that Alasdair Beckett-King and Stevie Martin and Matt Highton have been making, and I think the very strange interactive worlds that Sean Morley has been building on Twitch are really amazing, even if the Twitch community and format itself is something I can’t even begin to get my head around. Online comedy isn’t something I’ve been overly keen to get mixed up in myself, simply because I worked out quite quickly that it’s not an environment I excel in – internet comedy seems to me to largely thrive on intertextuality and referentiality, because the internet likes to eat itself, and that’s simply never been something I’ve been very good at. I’ve made a few online sketches over the last year, most of which have been of the “Here’s an idea that fell out of my nose” variety rather than being anything particularly accessible or commendable, but I kept my focus on long-form scriptwriting and making long-form comedy projects like my film and my radio show, because I knew that’s the area where I had the most ability, and it seemed silly to me to try to put all my energy into doing the thing I knew I wasn’t as good at in order to be part of a popular boom.

So of course the initial fear when you read an article like that is “Did I make a mistake? Should I have spent the last year building my skills in this new world and getting comfortable with how it works rather than just watching it all unfold from a distance and telling myself it wasn’t for me?” Rachael’s article does point out that comedians who have thrived in lockdown can easily adapt their work for certain broadcast formats like panel shows, but that longer-form comedy-making is still reliant on a number of very different skills which aren’t necessarily showcased by short-form online content – the skill of being able to tell a complex, involving story or to curate a specific emotional response in a viewer, both of which are the things that first made me fall in love with comedy. I chose to do what I do because Marion & Geoff made my heart burst when I was thirteen years old, and the type of comedy that achieves that response is structured and built very differently to the type that generally strikes a chord on the internet. The skills behind both certainly aren’t mutually exclusive in the slightest – I’ve worked with Matt Highton enough to know how good he is at telling imaginative, brilliantly-structured stories, and Sean Morley’s live shows are absolute masterclasses at creating, and directing, the emotional responses of his audiences. But, while it’s certainly possible for comics who have made great online work to also make great long-form work, I can’t help but feel concerned when I read that TV channels are looking to invest in talent that has already established a pre-made audience for themselves online rather than helping to build an audience for talent they believe in.

Shooting For Popularity

Obviously, I’m not particularly plugged into the inner workings of the TV comedy industry, so I don’t know to what extent that attitude actually represents the current mindset of commissioners, I’m just going off the suggestion in the article, and from other things I pick up here and there, about what direction things are heading in. I think TV commissioners that chase talent with large established online followings would be misunderstanding the fact that broadcast media and online media are very different things, and achieve different responses from their very different audiences. In Tape 7 I talked about how exciting the online comedy boom was when it came to opening up new options for people’s creativity. I suggested how exciting it was that perhaps the comedy industry might diversify and be less intensely focused on the Edinburgh Fringe, so that people stopped doing the Fringe because they felt like they should do it in order to be “seen,” and started doing it purely because they had made something that could only find an audience there, could only exist truly on its own terms at that festival. There are ideas that can only really exist as Fringe shows, and ideas that can only really exist as long-form scripted stories, and ideas that can only really exist as online sketches, and ideas that can only really exist as podcasts, and so on. The key to all of them is to follow the individual needs of the idea rather than to think about which route will achieve the most popularity.

In going after the eventual popularity of an idea and chasing the audiences of viral stars, I fear the TV industry is putting the cart before the horse. Both the BBC and Channel 4 have recently started making comedy content that mimics TikTok in order to capture the mass audience that platform commands, but that then begs the questions – what’s the difference between this and TikTok? Why would TikTok’s audience suddenly become big fans of a platform doing an impression of the thing they already get their entertainment from? And what happens to the audiences that can’t be served by those platforms if everybody starts pursuing the same audience, as though every idea has to be communicated to the same people? By starting with a pre-determined audience they’ve seen somebody build in a different form and then asking “What sort of thing can we make that will satisfy this audience?” the more traditional TV channels risk becoming an imitation of a completely different artform which they can never hope to be as popular as, and therefore losing the thing they can do differently, which is to tell carefully crafted stories that can’t be told online. The better route, surely, is always to serve the idea itself, to ask “What audience does this idea serve, and how can we make it serve them to the best of its ability, and what platform will best allow us to do that?” TV commissioners chasing online popularity for the sake of it makes as little sense to me as the idea of going to the Fringe in order to get famous ever did. Every idea is a door into a process that may or may not eventually result in a product that may or not be popular. Focusing on product over process has always been the undoing of any creative undertaking, and focusing on the audience of a product to determine the starting-point of the next process seems baffling to me.

I’m aware that I’m struggling to explore this idea from a point of total neutrality this week given what a vested interest I have in the current comedy landscape, which is why I’m so keen to hear your thoughts. I admire the ingenuity and inventiveness of online comedy and I think it’s exciting how it’s thrown the door open so that there are so many different avenues available to people who want to get involved in comedy these days. There’s no prescriptive path laid out for us any more, it’s possible for people to really survey the landscape and decide what kind of creative career they want for themselves and build it from scratch rather than doing the things they’re told they “should” do. But I do hope that the way the internet makes us preoccupied with having our thoughts and feelings seen and validated by other people doesn’t mean that the online comedy boom shifts our creative energies away from following an idea and towards chasing a particular audience or a particular outcome. What do you think? Are there things comedy used to do in a live setting that you’ve struggled to find replicated in online formats? Is that something you’re looking forward to feeling again when live comedy returns, or when it’s easier to film more expansive ideas than lockdown conditions allow, or is it something you’re worried might not come back? Do you think online comedy is the future and that other platforms and formats should be chasing its audience and emulating its approach? I’d love to hear what you all think!

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Taskmaster, obvs. Particularly loving Mike Wozniak and Lee Mack and Charlotte Ritchie’s contributions so far, but I’m a big fan of the entire line-up so fingers crossed for another great series.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Harry Hill’s hosting skits on Junior Bake OffI really like Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas’s vibe on the main show, but often think it’s a shame they don’t get more inventive and playful in their scripted comedy bits, but then I shrug and say to myself “Maybe it’s just difficult to be that comedically adventurous in the confines of a baking reality show,” but Harry Hill proves that to be absolute nonsense. His skits are basically exactly the same sort of prop-heavy, ludicrous nonsense he does in his live shows, they’re not in the least bit compromised for the kid contestants or the Bake Off audience, they’re just delightful and silly and brilliant and I love them.

Album Of The Week – The Moon & Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers by Valerie June. Just over a year ago I visited my friend Emily in Beeston for the last time before the pandemic really kicked off over here (I think we talked about how all this coronavirus stuff was a bit scary) and while I was there she played me some songs by Valerie June, and I absolutely loved them and got very into her during the first lockdown. She’s just released a new album and listening to it has made me quite emotional and nostalgic for my old life. I miss it.

Book Of The Week – The Practice: Shipping Creative Work by Seth Godin. I mean, no wonder I’m banging on about process over product this week, because I’ve been reading this and it’s a really great, digestible Bible for surrendering to the practice of making stuff without getting blocked by the various obstacles we put in our path to let ourselves off the hook.

Film Of The Week – Sorry To Bother You. This is mad. Properly weird. It’s a film by Boots Riley in which a black call-centre worker (Lakeith Stanfield) rises up through the ranks by talking to people in his “white voice” (dubbed by David Cross) and ends up ascending to an upper echelon of society where he gets to call the super-elite. It’s sort of enjoyably quirky throughout, and then something happens in the third act that just takes it into full-on bonkers territory. Really fun, and it’s got a bunch of really great ideas.

That’s all for this week! Let me know what you thought, and if you’re enjoying the Therapy Tapes then I’d love you to share them with a friend, or encourage people to subscribe. Have a great week! Here’s a picture of the Hampstead Pergola.

Joz xx

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