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Joz Norris

  • Tape 138: Notes From MachFest

I just got back from my third visit to Machynlleth Comedy Festival. I love MachFest. It reminds me of what the Fringe used to feel like. People watch each other’s work with curiosity and kindness and there’s none of the pressure or noise or creeping sense of comparison that has slowly made the Fringe into less of an arts festival and more of a trade fair (I say this as someone who still believes in the Fringe’s potential to be a force for good, I just think Mach is now the heart of the comedy industry as a community, and the Fringe has morphed into a different thing).

Even MachFest comes with its highs and lows, though – I really don’t recommend trying to run from the main courtyard to the sign on the hill overlooking the town in 3 minutes for literally no reason. You will briefly reap the rewards of your endeavours as people heap praise upon you and tell you what a remarkable feat it was, but as you smile and nod at them you’ll only become more and more aware of the fact that you feel like you’re about to die. Despite the slaps on the back and the people bearing you on their shoulders chanting your name, you won’t be able to help wondering how you’re going to perform your show in an hour’s time when there’s a pain in your chest that won’t go away and your vision seems to be shrinking into a narrow tunnel and you can’t stop frowning. Then you’ll think about the shame you’ll bring upon the good name of MachFest if you die right in the middle of it simply because you ran up a steep hill too fast for no reason. They’ll probably name a small venue after you, but it won’t be enough to overcome the embarrassment of being the worst thing to have ever befallen the nation’s best comedy festival. “MachFest is great, but it’s such a shame Joz Norris died from showing off that one year, it really wasn’t in the spirit of the festival.”

Three minutes. Just about visible – me, in front of the sign, having a heart attack

Anyway, I survived, but learn from my mistakes in future if you’re going to the festival, ok? I thought I’d write a little debrief from my visit, so having dug into undoubtedly my greatest contribution to the weekend this year (it was all anyone was talking about for a good ten minutes, honestly), I’ll move onto my show.

You Wait. Time Passes.

I’m absolutely loving this new show. I feel like it’s breathed so much life into my entire creative approach at the moment. I’ve not felt like this since early 2022, I reckon, and I think this show has the potential to be the best one I’ve made yet (although I always say that). Some of the feedback from Mach seemed to indicate that it already felt like a finished show, which is really encouraging considering it isn’t. In the past I’ve been content to launch shows when they’re good enough. This time, I already know that this year’s Edinburgh Fringe is just one step on the show’s developmental journey rather than being a deadline or a destination in itself, and I’m not planning on launching it until sometime in 2025. So I feel like what I have is a full year to work really hard on something that’s already very good, and in so doing hopefully elevate it to being the thing I’ll be proudest of yet.

Interestingly, after several gigs and previews where audiences have really enjoyed the looser, more conventional stand-up routines that open the show, I felt like my performance in Machynlleth opened fairly well but really picked up about ten minutes in, at the point that the show’s fictional premise and narrative takes over after a more laid-back first section. This has left me wondering whether the show even needs that opening section – it’s there largely to ease the audience into the weirder and knottier stuff, but it might be that it’s all stuff that belongs in shorter sets for gigs and doesn’t necessarily contribute anything essential to the wider show. Mind you, the audience in Mach are all big comedy nerds who are probably likely to go for the weirder stuff over the more familiar stuff, so perhaps I need a few more case studies of this before being able to judge it properly. I was also reminded that a couple of those opening bits were in the very different work-in-progress I did in Mach last year, so if I was playing to a repeat audience there might have been some concern in the room that they’d paid to see the same show again, which only fully dissipated after it became clear that the rest of the show was completely different.

But that final forty-five minutes or so felt like a dream, and I was proud of sharing something that felt to me like it was already fairly coherent and ridiculous and inventive. It’s by no means finished – I want to work hard at this one and make it into something really wonderful – but I think it’s in a really exciting place to work from.

This was my second visit to the sign, conducted at a much more sensible pace

I’ll also do a quick run-through of the other shows I saw this year:

The Paddock – Charlie Perkins’ showcase of the best weird and wonderful new things creeping out of the comedy scene usually mixes live acts with films and videos, but just focused on the live stuff for Mach. It felt like a great way to kick off the festival, seeing short bits from a whole bunch of legends. I particularly loved Rose Matafeo and Paul Williams’ dramatisation of Gwyneth Paltrow’s skiing trial; William Stone telling a baby to shut up; Emma Sidi’s portrayal of Sue Gray; and Josh Glanc’s delightfully goofy songs.

Jazz Emu: Knight Fever – If there’s going to be a more technically accomplished show at this year’s Fringe, I’ll be very surprised. Archie Henderson/Jazz Emu has a full live band, numerous music videos with ridiculously high production values, multiple characters dialling in and pushing the narrative (of Jazz Emu trying to write a song good enough to earn a knighthood) to ridiculous places. What’s incredible is that not one bit of all these complicated moving parts feels in the least bit compromised – Archie and his team have made something that delivers on all fronts; musically, comedically, aesthetically, all of it. You’d think that somewhere in the mix there’d be something that he and the gang can’t do, some talent they don’t possess, but it really seems to defy that logic. It’s something to behold.

Luke McQueen & Mark Silcox: Songs With My Father – I had a small cameo in this show as a pretentious actor drafted in to replace Mark after he fails to learn his lines (filling in for the amazing Ed Jones from the initial Soho run). I was just thrilled to be a small part of it because it meant I got to watch it again, as it’s one of my favourite shows ever. Luke and Mark are such an odd double act on paper, but they work so well together. The combination of Luke trying desperately to do absolutely everything to impress the audience while Mark just stands there not knowing what to do next is just magical. I love it so much.

Cerys Bradley: Queer Tales For Autistic Folk – I’ve been working with Cerys on this show over the last few months and this was its first outing with a live audience. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure show exploring folk tales, neurodiversity and storytelling, and so far we’ve been focusing on making sure the game mechanisms within the show are coherent and enjoyable to play. The audience really responded to that, and loved the interactive and playful nature of the show. I felt it was a real triumph, and am excited to move into the next stage of development with Cerys now we know it works with actual people playing it.

Barry Ferns: 54 Minutes Til The End – Barry is well-known as one of the best MCs in the country, having run shows at Angel Comedy for years. He always creates a fun, welcoming, inclusive atmosphere wherever he performs. This new show is his first ever attempt at making something more driven by a narrative, and I was amazed that this was the first time he’d ever performed it. The stories are really compelling and ridiculous and, while it hops between three core narratives, they all come together into something coherent and meaningful by the end. And of course, because it’s Barry, all these stories are shared with such charm and warmth and humour. I think it’s going to be a really special, wonderful show.

That was all I managed to make it to this year! I loved them all, and am a little sad I didn’t see more, but I also wanted to make sure I got the social balance right this time. I’ve not quite nailed it in the past as a result of stressing too much about shows or trains or whatever. This year I had so much fun just seeing wonderful comics and good friends and enjoying being in the countryside with them that I’m glad I wasn’t running to and from shows every hour of the day.

One final thought – I didn’t manage to see it as it clashed with my show, but a special shout-out to the amazing Roisin & Chiara, who by all accounts made a show that is a really special, powerful tribute to their relationship and the work they’ve made together. They might not be making a new one for a little while due to big life events (a wonderful baby and the like), and there’s no firm word on when this show will even be performed again. But they’ve long been one of my biggest inspirations as fellow weirdos who create strange things with all of their hearts, so if you’ve never seen them and it’s going to be a little while before we see more of them, then do sign up to their socials now so you can be in the loop when they eventually return. I’ll miss their collaborative work a great deal, but am excited to see what they both get up to themselves in the meantime.

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – I hate to say it, but my new show has just gone on sale on the Edinburgh Fringe website. I don’t really know how this has happened. My plan was to pop up for a few days and do an under-the-radar work-in-progress, so I could be part of the whole thing without stressing about it too much. Monkey Barrel are very kindly hosting me, but it turns out in order to sell tickets for a handful of one-offs I do still need to register with the Fringe. So, while I’ll only be there for a short while, I am officially back there for the tenth time. God help me. Please make it worth my while by booking a ticket nice and early so I don’t have a stress-related heart attack, thank you so much.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I can’t remember how it came about, but I had a great time chatting to Dan Cook in Mach about an imaginary TV show he’d been working on “based on characters from the mind of Prince George.” Dan has actually been working on a TV show not based on characters from the mind of Prince George, but we found the idea very funny.

Book Of The Week – Just started Pretending by Holly Bourne. I’m not far into it, but so far it seems to be about dating and how men’s terrible behaviour on dates acts as triggers for people’s trauma. It’s very good so far, but I get the sense it’ll be a depressing, enraging read.

Album Of The Week – Shapes That Are Different by Hugh Sheehan. I worked with Hugh on an R&D for a theatre project about gambling harm last week, on which he was serving as a composer and sound designer. It turned out we had a lot in common in terms of our musical taste, so I checked out his album and it’s wonderful. It blends traditional Irish folk music with electronic flourishes in a way that reminded me of Sam Amidon, and it also incorporates some of the cut-up-interview-fragments approach of Blood Orange’s Negro Swan. It’s also entirely its own thing – strange and beautiful and well worth checking out.

Film Of The Week – The Fall Guy. Ok, has anyone seen this? The internet seems awash with think-pieces wondering how it could possibly have flopped so hard, and nobody seems to be saying the obvious, which is that it’s a terrible film. I really hated it. I thought it was utterly dull and pointless and way too long. It seems to be made entirely for people who work in film to go “Wow, yeah, stuntmen are great, filmmaking is great,” and yes, the stunt community deserves more recognition. But you have to also offer up a story and an experience that means something to people who don’t work in film, which is the vast majority of the audience. I honestly thought it was absolute rubbish, despite being a big fan of many of the people involved, and I was so surprised. Did anyone else hate it? Can anyone else explain to me why I was apparently supposed to think it was great?

That’s all for this week! As ever, please do let me know your thoughts, and if you enjoy the newsletter enough to send it to a friend or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Take care of yourselves until next time,

Joz xx

PS I have no plans to actually charge for this newsletter or put it behind a paywall, but I do write it for free and the comedy and media industries are in a perilous state right now, especially for freelancers. If you value the Therapy Tapes and enjoy what they give to you, and want to support my work and enable me to keep writing and creating, you can make a one-off donation to my Ko-Fi account, and it’s very gratefully appreciated.

PPS I’ve just finished off a new edit of my acting showreel including a bunch of recent work. Are you a casting director or producer? Or someone making a project on the lookout for actors and collaborators? Drop me a line if I might be a good fit for anything you’re working on, I love acting and always want to do more of it!

PPPS I did some modelling for a life-drawing class in Mach and the class all did some amazing drawings, but I particularly loved this one, which had the fascinating idea of not drawing any outlines at all but simply breaking the shapes down into light and shade, with light being drawn in yellow and shade in blue. I think it’s really brilliant:

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