Howdy, pardner! This week’s introductory paragraph has a cowboy theme! Welcome back to this dawg-gone saloon (newsletter) called the Fruit Salad Therapy Tapes, a weekly rootin’-tootin’ hoedown (interactive notebook project) from lousy varmint (comedian) Joz Norris. If yer lookin’ to sling yer hook, you can always get the heck outta dodge (unsubscribe) any time. But if yer still up for a rustlin’ (still subscribed to the newsletter), let’s go git us some rattlesnakes! (not sure what this means, to be honest)
Stories Bigger Than Yourself
You’d think that twelve weeks would be long enough to figure out what this newsletter is actually about, but hey, we’re living in strange times, so it continues to find new things to focus on week by week, and based on your responses so far it seems to continue to find new pockets of resonance for people, so I’m going to keep on letting it be a bit of a moveable feast. I mention this because so far it’s sort of flip-flopped between being a newsletter about comedy, about art, about music, about philosophy, about mental health, etc etc, and this week it’s going to be about writing.
As always, I really love reading your responses and thoughts to each week’s prompts. This week’s question, which I’d love to hear your thoughts on if you’d be happy to share them with me, is more specifically geared towards the people on this mailing list who are writers themselves, but of course I’d love to hear from anybody who this question strikes a chord with to hear how it resonates with your own thoughts and feelings! The question is:
When you write, how important is it to you that YOU are in some way present in your writing? Do you try to foreground yourself in your writing, or disguise yourself, or remove yourself entirely?
I’m a writer-performer, and when I first started trying to write narrative scripts about five years ago, after maybe four years of making solo live comedy shows, it was a foregone conclusion to me that I needed to be front and centre within what I was writing, or a character that was a thinly-disguised surrogate for my own thoughts, opinions, quirks, flaws and lived experience. I was writing scripts that I wanted to perform, and I saw these scripts as potential vehicles for myself, so for a long time the requirements of story were secondary to the thought “What sort of funny situation can I put myself in?” I wrote scripts where the principal thing that drove the comedy and the story was my own personality. I think a lot of the truly great comedy we see on TV and hear on radio tends to be something of a “star vehicle” for a particularly brilliant writer-performer – think of Alan Partridge or Nighty Night, or Fleabag more recently. They all involve eminently brilliant storytelling, but often what hits you most blatantly about them is how perfectly they showcase the comedic sensibilities of their writer-performers, so I don’t think it’s unusual for someone just beginning to dip their toes into comedy scriptwriting, particularly someone who’s still processing all the ambition and the hunger that comes with being new to comedy, to assume that the way to write a great comedy script is to come up with something similar they can write about themselves. To ask “What is unique about my personality and experience of the world, and how can I reverse-engineer that to come up with a premise for a script?”
Of course, what isn’t immediately apparent to you when you grow up watching these shows and forming your own understanding of how comedy writing works, is that by and large the people who end up making scripted comedy that serves as a star vehicle for themselves, will tend to fall into one of three categories:
Nobody wants to be Number 1. Very few people get to be Number 2. The more I wrote over the years, the more I realised that I needed to get to grips with writing stories that were bigger than myself – that didn’t just boil down to “What sort of silly situation can I put myself into that will give me space to give a funny performance?” and instead came down to “What story do I need to tell that hasn’t been told before?” I spent a few years developing scripts with producers that tended to get one of two kinds of feedback from people – the first one, the nice one, was “This character is really fun, we like him a lot, but there’s not much else here.” The other was “I don’t really understand what’s funny about this character.” To which these poor, beleaguered producers had to say “Oh, it might not come across perfectly on the page, but Joz is a really great performer, we know he’s going to make it really funny in the performance.” To which the obvious answer is “Who cares? If we can’t see anything on the page that tells us why this story needs to be told, then what does it matter if the person performing it is funny or not?” Nobody ever actually sent feedback this harsh, but it was the realisation I gradually came to over three years of trying to pitch scripts that were essentially “Joz Norris but he’s a time-travelling detective,” “Joz Norris but he’s living in an anarchist commune,” “Joz Norris but he’s a magician for bored babies,” and so on. Eventually I set myself the challenge of trying to write a script where I didn’t think “What sort of character do I want to play, and what situation can I put that character into?” but instead started with the question “What story premise feels really exciting and original and new to me, and might make people actually see something in it that hasn’t been done before?”
This project culminated last year with a sitcom/comedy-drama script I completed called False World, which had sprung from a quite simple philosophical/conspiracy theory idea I’d had (I’m not going to describe it, not because I think it’s a golden ticket which I’m going to jealously hoard so it can make my fortune, but just because it doesn’t make any sense to give away details of a script I’m actively developing right now). This transcript of an episode of John August’s Script Notes podcast, in which Craig Mazin talks about Finding Nemo and how it exemplifies the principles of writing for theme, was invaluable for it. Rather than heading into this script thinking “And how do I factor into this? What’s my character going to be? How do I make that character reflect my personality, and my own hilarious way of looking at things?” I headed into it thinking “What is the theme of this story? What sort of character is the only possible character that needs to learn the lesson of that theme?” So it became a case of surgically removing myself from my writing, and letting everything serve the story instead. The way I saw the world found its way into the writing in other ways, and the story and characters became vessels through which I could reflect my own thoughts and feelings, but it was no longer a case of putting myself front and centre and saying “This show is about Joz Norris and what he thinks about stuff.”
I’ve been pitching this script around over the last few months and it’s the first script I’ve ever written that has received unanimous praise from producers, and I’ve been really blown away by the doors it’s opened so far. It’s an ambitious idea, so it’s not going to be something that gets made for a long, long time. And if it ever does, because I wrote from a place of story first rather than starting with my own personality, it might not even be something I’d perform in. But what felt really exciting to me was realising from the feedback it got that I’d finally written something objectively compelling and competent and that connected to other readers based purely on what was on the page, not on the promise that my own personality would galvanise it and make it into more than the sum of its parts. I had written a story bigger than myself. I don’t know what the next step will be – it’s paved the way for other potential projects, and maybe one day the day will come when I’ll actually get the opportunity to make that script into a reality. But for the time being, I’m very humbled and happy to have learned the vital lesson that your writing can’t principally be about serving yourself. It has to be more generous than that.
On a side note, this episode of the Tape Notes podcast with Adam Buxton is worth a listen and includes a moment where Buxton also talks about this – about how the moments in making art where you really start to make something special are the moments where you’re able to completely dissolve all traces of yourself from it, so that you look back on what you made and can’t remember the decisions that led to it being made and can only think “How did I do that?” A great listen.
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Aislinn Prior has spent the last few months hand-drawing an incredible deck of playing cards of the comedians whose work she has most enjoyed during lockdown. It’s a phenomenal achievement, and you can now support her Kickstarter to buy a deck yourself! I’m in there ‘n’ all, if you needed an extra incentive.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – The conversation, discussion and research that resulted in this thread in which I tried to remember what happened in Aquila. I remember that show so fondly, and honestly, delving into it and finding out that the only thing the main characters ever did with their ancient Roman spaceship was turn it on and off again, and the rest of the show was about them going to visit their cousin, has really cracked me up.
Book Of The Week – Playing To The Gallery by Grayson Perry. I’ve really enjoyed Grayson Perry’s Art Club recently and have read a couple of his books before, but this one’s particularly great. You get the sense that Perry never really intended to become a genuinely lauded figure in the art world and it just sort of happened by accident as a result of him following his nose, so in this book he explains and breaks down how the art world works for people, like him, who never really had much of an academic understanding of it in the first place. Great book.
Album Of The Week – I’m basically skipping this section this week because I’m still working through the 90s in that 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die book and spent this week listening to Blur because I’ve never listened to their albums before. And Blur are fine and all that, but I cannot in all seriousness include a bit in my newsletter where I say “You guys should listen to Blur” because the only logical response is “What the hell are you talking about?”
Film Of The Week – Seaspiracy, obvs. It’s a bit on the basic side and isn’t going to win any awards for being a great art film or anything. It’s your classic “Hey guys, have you ever noticed that the fishing industry is quite destructive?” entry-level introductory documentary to an environmental crisis. BUT it’s massively getting its message out there, and that’s important, and it does have some genuinely shocking revelations in it, and as soon as I finished it I thought “I’m never eating fish again, just as soon as we’ve finished the fish fingers we’ve already got in the freezer.” So, y’know, it’s serious stuff.
That’s all for this week! As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts, and every share really does help build the community, so if you’re enjoying the Therapy Tapes and would like to share them with a friend, or encourage people to subscribe, then that’s hugely appreciated!
Thanks again for reading and have a great week,
My family dog Spud is a bit poorly at the moment and is off to the vet today, so here’s a picture of him to send him good vibes.