Zoinks! This week’s intro paragraph has a spooky ghost theme! Welcome, kids, to this haunted house-on-the-hill (newsletter) called Spooky Bone Manor (the Fruit Salad Therapy Tapes), a weekly spooktacular hauntfest (interactive notebook project) from crusty old janitor-in-a-rubber-mask-of-a-spooky-goblin (comedian) Joz Norris. If you’re knees are knocking (you’ve had enough of this newsletter) then you can make a leg for it (unsubscribe) any time. But if you’re still in the gang (subscribed), then let’s hunt some ectoplasm! (read the newsletter)
Post-Script To Tape 12
I really loved reading your responses to last week’s Tape. In particular, a couple of writers got in touch who said they were interested to read my thoughts on trying to remove myself from my writing because they were actually in the middle of the opposite journey, of trying to inject more of their own thoughts and feelings and experiences into their writing instead of always writing about external things. This was really interesting to think about – I would never want this newsletter to be an attempt for me to impose on other creative people how they “should” be working or thinking, or what direction they should be moving in, but I enjoyed thinking about those twin journeys and wondering if there’s an optimum point to arrive at in the middle for really great comic writing. Maybe really great comic writing needs to have some sense of authorship in there, some sense of the voice and mind behind it, but that identity needs to come through in a way that doesn’t just serve the writer’s ego by going “Hi, this is me, and you’re gonna love what I’ve got to say.” And of course every writer is going to start their journey in a different place – some will start from a point of ego and thinking all their writing has to place themselves at the centre (ahem), and will need to work backwards, and others will start from the opposite place, of trying to resist putting any of themselves in their writing and gradually move forwards as they find ways to let their writing reflect their own thoughts and ideas. Perhaps we’ll all meet in the middle one day and make our best works! It’s fun getting there in the meantime, though.
While I’m talking about the idea of not letting this newsletter be an attempt to tell other people what they “should” be doing, all this brings me quite neatly onto this week’s thoughts. This week’s question, which as ever I’d love to hear your thoughts on if you’re happy to share them with me, is this:
In what circumstances do you feel like you know what you’re talking about? Are there ANY circumstances that make you feel like that? Is it a feeling you enjoy?
I actually found last week’s newsletter quite tricky to write, because I think it’s the first time I’ve allowed this newsletter to be a place where I was imparting some sort of advice of my own. I certainly don’t think the thoughts I explored last week were in any way prescriptive, but it’s the first time I had essentially said “Here’s something I’ve learned from my years of pursuing comic writing, and perhaps that lesson will be useful for you.” Generally I try to let this newsletter be a place to explore ideas inconclusively, and to hear what sort of thoughts they spark in you guys, because that’s how I prefer to go about the business of creating stuff. I like to explore, and then try, and then fail, and then learn, much more than I like to impart, or advise, or instruct. And then last week something happened which really crystallised a lot of this in my head.
I had a short guest spot on Mark Watson’s third Watsonathon, his 24-hour marathon livestream shows which combine silly games and collaborative challenges and art endurance tests and chat and stand-up and the like. I popped down to the Bill Murray to take Mark through his paces with a livestreamed version of blind man’s buff as a homage to I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, which Adam Larter was reconstructing out of cardboard over the 24 hours. As soon as I sat down to chat to Mark and to Tim Key and introduce the game, I was struck by the extent to which I had completely forgotten how to just be funny in a given moment. I’ve done virtually no live performance over the last year, and have felt more and more distant from it, and couldn’t for the life of me remember what sort of viewpoint or persona I used to adopt in order to seize hold of a moment and do something funny with it. Mark and Tim jumped onto my game and were absolutely fantastic and turned it into a really fun bit of collaborative, chaotic nonsense, and I was very pleased that I managed to inject a memorable bit of fun into the show, but I was also struck by how reliant I was on the two of them taking my idea and seizing it, and how powerless I felt to present it in a funny way myself.
All this has got me thinking a lot about certainty and uncertainty – of course, Mark and Tim have done a lot more live stuff over the last year than I have, so are comparatively less out-of-practice, not to mention the fact that they’ve both been doing comedy for decades and are two of the best comedians in the country, whereas I am very much still just a guy bumbling along and figuring stuff out. But that’s the centre of what I wanted to talk about this week – I think live comedy thrives on a certainty of viewpoint. A really great comedian knows their persona, knows their outlook on life, knows the comedic stance they need to adopt, inside-out, so that they can jump on anything that happens in a room and explore it through the prism of that mindset and turn it into a funny shared experience. I don’t know if I ever really managed to find that certainty in myself when I was performing live – as I’ve said before in this newsletter, my most successful show masqueraded as an anarchic, spontaneous show but was actually precisely scripted and choreographed to a series of pieces of music. And I certainly think that certainty of viewpoint has dwindled over the last year or so, to the extent that even if I did successfully recall what my comic voice was circa 2019 and started trying to engage with it in a live environment again, I would find that it no longer reflected how I currently feel. I would sort of have to find it again from scratch. I don’t say any of this from a self-pitying stance of “Oh, poor me, I’ve forgotten how to be funny,” because I think what I’ve always been good at is creating specific environments in which I do know how to be funny – writing specific characters, or specific stories or shows or scripts in which I know the boundaries and how to play with them, and I can make something funny happen. That’s why I’ve maintained a focus on making long-form narrative stuff over the last year instead of trying to perform live. But I don’t know if I ever arrived at a point of knowing “This is who I am, and as long as I am this person, I’m always going to know what this person thinks and feels about something in any given moment.” In fact, I think I’ve spent several years trying to accept, and even engender, a spirit of uncertainty in my life – to accept the fact that my knowledge, my awareness, my understanding of my life and the lives of those around me is partial, and always will be.
Izzie Purcell’s original artwork of Mark and Tim playing my Bush Tucker Trial game at the Watsonathon
I think this is a big part of why I’ve resisted suggestions that I should teach comedy over the last few years. I’ve been reluctant to run a course or a workshop or anything else, not because I don’t think I have experience and knowledge and skills that might be of interest to others, but because the idea of saying “Let me tell you what works for me” feels completely at odds with my identity, which largely comes down to “I do not know what I’m doing, and that is all I know.” It’s the same reason I try to avoid putting much of my own opinions or life onto social media, because I don’t like the idea of trying to present a crystallised, complete, finished version of my “self” that’s visible to other people when no such version of myself exists in my head. I’m aware that in some ways this is a silly way to live a life – I can appreciate the value in those who have worked in a creative capacity over many years sharing their wisdom and experience with others, not necessarily because they think they’re an expert who can fix the lives of everyone around them, but simply because saying “Here are some techniques that worked for me and they might work for you too” is a generous and kind thing to do. But somehow, the only wisdom I can dredge up from my soul is the knowledge that this week I am wiser than I was last week, and less wise than I will be in a week’s time. Somehow this sort of outlook helps me sustain quite a happy, optimistic, peaceful life where each day that passes is generally a pleasure rather than a source of anxiety, so I feel no urgent need to reappraise that mindset, but I’d be curious to hear what you guys think. Do you feel like there comes a point in life where it’s important to take more ownership of your experiences and achievements, and practice more certainty in your identity, or do you think that fostering an acceptance of the fact that you will never have a complete understanding of yourself and your life is a good way to live?
For the record, in answer to my own question, I feel like I know what I’m talking about when I’m talking about 1970s prog rock. That’s the subject where I know I can talk with confidence, because I’ve put the hours into learning about it. I feel the same way about Tintin and Death In Paradise. I obviously try not to talk about any of them too often, because someone who’s really confident in their own Jethro Tull expertise and tries to demonstrate it all the time sounds like a real bore, but I wonder if there’s something in the fact that the areas where I feel confident enough to foster a sense of “expertise” in my own identity are ones which have nothing to do with creativity or with work, because then the concept of “expertise” can be something I enjoy privately rather than something I have to pressure myself to maintain in the eyes of other people. I wonder whether the day I start to feel like an “expert” in comedy is the day where it becomes my hobby instead of my job. For as long as comedy and writing and making is what I do for a living, I think I’ll stick to feeling like I will always have more to learn.
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Bridget Christie is the latest comic to have made a really interesting “stand-up” show for the radio which does without a live audience and builds a surreal soundscape instead. It’s called Mortal and it’s fantastic.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I promised Matt Highton not to tell anyone about the thing that made me laugh the most this week. But oh boy, it’s to do with him and it’s funny. If you know him, he’s got a hell of a funny story that he probably won’t tell you, but might.
Album Of The Week – I’m still slogging through the 90s. 90s music wasn’t very good, was it? I might just mix things up a bit and start listening to more 70s stuff again, because 70s stuff is just better. I just listened to Second Toughest In The Infants by Underworld, which has the advantage of being much more interesting than Blur or Belle and Sebastian, but the disadvantage of being pretty irritating. Hope I discover another actually good album soon.
Book Of The Week – Anxiety: Meditations On The Anxious Mind from the School of Life. Won’t lie, I’m finding the transition back to “normality” and out of lockdown quite anxiety-inducing, more so than lockdown itself, so this book really helped. There’s a lot of stuff about how unnatural it is for us to always be looking at human environments and comparing ourselves to others, and how important it is to just remove ourselves from human contexts for a while, and that’s been quite calming.
Film Of The Week – Palm Springs. Oh boy, this is great. I saw a lot of people in comedy going “Oh, it’s finally here!” because I think its release has been much-delayed, but I hadn’t heard about it. Turns out it’s well worth the hype. I’ll try not to spoil it, because it’s a good film to go into cold, but it’s an updated take on one of those all-time classic “What if?” scenarios from 80/90s film, and it’s incredibly well-written, incredibly well-acted, surprising, very very funny, really quite powerful in places, and sneaks some really big philosophical ideas under the radar of a high-concept rom-com. There’s a scene between Andy Samberg and J.K. Simmons that really tugged at my heart, and it’s got one of the best soundtracks of any film I’ve ever seen (Genesis! John Cale! Kate Bush! Hall & Oates!)
That’s all for this week! Please do let me know what you thought, I always love reading your replies, and if you’re enjoying this newsletter and this community, then I’d love it if you shared it with a friend or encouraged people to subscribe.
Have a great week everyone,
PS Thanks for all your good wishes about Spud last week! He’s doing much better, so here’s a picture of him looking happy