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Joz Norris


Tape 104: Filming Live Comedy Differently

  • Tape 104: Filming Live Comedy Differently

In last week’s Therapy Tape I briefly mentioned that in July I’ll be part of a day of comedy show recordings for Go Faster Stripe at Moth Club (tickets and more info here – isn’t it weird that what we call a “comedy show” becomes a “comedy special” as soon as it’s being filmed? The content’s exactly the same. Mad old business). This week I thought I’d talk a bit more about how we’re doing it, and why.

For a while now, I’ve personally felt like a lot of the existing models for how live comedy is filmed feel like they miss out on something ever so slightly. By and large, most shows are filmed by pointing a couple of cameras at the stage, and maybe one at the audience to capture their reactions, and you get an accurate rendition of what happened in that room on that occasion. That makes total sense, and I think for the vast majority of comedy shows, it works. Most live comedy takes the form of direct address, where someone stands in front of an audience and says things to them – stories, ideas, whatever. All you really need to do to capture the essence of that is to make sure the viewer at home knows what was said and how it was said, and they’ll be just as up to speed as the audience in the room was.

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However, for me, often when I watch recordings of live comedy shows I think “That was a nice representation of what it was like to be in a room I wasn’t in,” but I always get the sense that the show was for the people in the room, and that I’m watching a sort of facsimile of it, through a veil. Something of the meaning of it is lost. Again, for a lot of stand-up shows maybe that doesn’t matter too much – we just want to hear the person being funny, for God’s sake! Stop overthinking it!

But there is an entire genre of live comedy which I think relies on more than just the communication of what was said and how, and that’s the hazy, shifting world of performance that exists somewhere between comedy and theatre that I found myself accidentally making shows in the style of over the last couple of years. Comedians and artists like Ben TargetSean MorleyJohn-Luke RobertsElf LyonsSh!t TheatreFrankie ThompsonLucy Hopkins and many others are people I would put in the same category. This is work that doesn’t rely simply on a person standing in front of other people and saying certain words in a certain order. It’s much more concerned with atmosphere and tone, with the currents you can create in a room and the way you can manipulate them to create something that feels strange and slightly unquantifiable. Quite simply, if I were to watch a live recording of work by any of these artists where all that it did was point a camera at the stage and capture exactly what happened, I might really enjoy it but I would still have the strong feeling that what was felt and experienced in that room was nowhere close to what I could possibly feel and experience watching it on the other side of that veil.

You can tell this is theatre because I’ve got a top hat and a head mic and there’s some lights in the background.

Because of all these feelings, nearly every time I’ve come to try and record one of my previous shows professionally, I’ve fallen at the hurdle of trying to work out how to do it properly (with the exception of my 2017 show, which exists on Amazon Prime as a special thanks to an amazing job by NextUp who I think really did manage to capture the atmosphere of that performance). The only other recordings of live shows I have are very low-tech, shonky versions I recorded myself, which are fine for archive purposes, but don’t do a really good job of capturing what I loved about those shows. For four years now I’ve known I want to revisit my 2019 show Joz Norris Is Dead. Long Live Mr Fruit Saladand do it justice with a proper recording, and with Blink last year I knew I had another show that deserved a decent screen adaptation as a “special.” But I was stumped as to what was the right way to begin.

Thank goodness, then, for the amazing Chris Evans (not that one) of Go Faster Stripe, who was keen to work together on both shows, and every time I said “But I don’t want to film them in a simple, easy, intuitive way, I want to do it in a way that is more complicated and much more of a logistical headache, but I hope will result in a really interesting and valuable end product,” he didn’t say “Don’t push your luck,” he just said “Yep, let’s do it.” The people in this industry who value making things that little bit harder for themselves in order to create better results are rare and precious and worth holding onto when you meet them, so huge thanks to Chris for being so on board with my ideas like “Rabbit Cam.”

One of the other acts I’d spoken to previously about this disconnect – about wanting to record a live show for posterity but wanting to adapt it wholesale, effectively into a different medium, rather than just filming the live show as was, was the brilliant Sean Morley. As far as I’m aware, Sean never did end up filming the show we were talking about back then (the brilliant Soon I Will Be Dead And My Bones Will Be Free To Wreak Havoc On The Earth Once More), but I was very excited to hear from Chris that Sean would also be filming a show on the same day, a sort of Lynchian TV gameshow idea he was collaborating with Benjamin Alborough on, concerning Terry Wogan trying to escape from Hell. I’d also asked John-Luke Roberts if he would like to record his beautiful show A World Just Like Our Own, But… as part of the same day, because it was one of my favourite shows of last year and combined nonsense with conceptual storytelling beautifully.

And so we’ve got the makings of a quartet of brilliantly weird and odd shows that approach live comedy a little differently, incorporating elements of theatre, performance art, and so on, and we’re all considering unusual directorial approaches when it comes to translating the experience of watching that show to an audience at home (Sean and Ben are talking about doing something weird with GoPros on heads, I think). Essentially, I’d love it if the landscape of recorded versions of live comedy shows did more than just point a camera and capture the “live” experience, but also made more effort to think of it as akin to filmmaking – choosing specific shots, storyboarding certain sequences, establishing a colour palette and a visual language, and so on and so on. I’d love it if the audience at home watching a recording didn’t feel like they were watching an inferior version of something they wish they’d seen live, nor do I want the live audience at the recordings themselves to feel like they’re watching an inferior version of something that’ll be better when it’s edited and released online. I’d love both of them to feel like they’re watching something ever so slightly different and ever so slightly new, that’s taken the time and care to figure out how to tell this story in this medium, without the sense that it would’ve been better to experience it any other way.

It’s a bit of a tall order, I guess, and I’ve no idea how much of these grand plans I can deliver on. But I feel like Chris is the perfect person to help me realise it, and I have the perfect co-performer (the great Ben Target) and collaborators on these shows, and I’m excited to revisit old ideas and feel like I’m creating a new experience out of them. If you never saw those shows and want to see them live before they go, or if you did see them but want to revisit them one last time, or if you’re a fan of the other comics recording work on the same day, then I’d love to see you there! Please do spread the word about it as well if you can, we’d love to sell these shows out! Again, the ticket link is here.

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Speaking of Ben Target, his show Lorenzo, a simultaneously wise and cheeky reflection on mortality, has just gone on sale at the Edinburgh Fringe, and you can book tickets here. I’ve had the privilege of working a little bit on the show and offering a few notes on it, and it’s going to be a wonderful thing.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Probably something that happened during Eurovision, but my memory of it all is a bit hazy, I was quite drunk. Wasn’t Sam Ryder good, though?? So proud of that boy.

Book Of The Week – Only just finished Madeline Miller’s Circe, so I have literally just started Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, which was a lovely birthday present from John-Luke Roberts. I’m only about three words in, so can’t tell you anything about it.

Film Of The Week – Not seen any films this week! Soz.

Album Of The Week – Through Shaded Woods by Lunatic Soul. This is a sort of prog-folk-rock album from a couple of years ago that was recommended to me because it sounds a bit like Jethro Tull back when they were good. It’s great! Sounds like what a prog band from the Medieval times would play.

That’s all for this week! As ever, let me know what you thought, and if you enjoy the Therapy Tapes enough to want to send them on to a friend, or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it. Take care of yourselves until next time!

Joz xx

PS Here’s the London Zoo gibbons, who were looking good this morning.

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