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Joz Norris


Tape 145: You Just Make The Same Thing, Over And Over

  • Tape 145: You Just Make The Same Thing, Over And Over

An old housemate of mine used to get really annoyed with me whenever I uttered the words “Make a thing.” Every time I said “I’m making a new thing,” she would sigh and tell me I was being obnoxious again. She would remind me that my co-opting of the use “make,” with all its connotations of craftsmanship and skill, didn’t really wash with her because she lived on the other side of a wall to me and could hear exactly what I spent my time doing, and it was mostly practicing a dance in Y-fronts, or putting on a wig and singing in a silly voice. “Why “thing” as well?” she’d ask. “Is your confidence in your own creative output so low that you can’t even say what it is? Why not say “I’m making a film, or I’m making a show?” Or just be honest and say “I’m going to charge people to watch me take my clothes off while I do something annoying,” because that’s probably what it’s going to end up being.” I would hum and haw and explain that it’s not as simple as that when you’re a creative soul, and that often when you set out on the creative path you don’t know what the final form of the thing you’re making is, you just have to surrender to the process. She would then throw up in the sink and remind me that I owed her money for council tax.

She remains one of my closest and dearest friends, but she absolutely does not subscribe to this newsletter because she despises my work. Nonetheless, I will start this week’s newsletter with an apology to her in case she sees this, because this week I’m gonna be talking about making a thing – sorry, JPK.

When I was in Machynlleth a few weeks ago, I chatted to the wonderful comedian Steffan Alun (give him a follow if you don’t know his work, he’s one of the best!), who had recently listened to my episode of Stuart Goldsmith’s ComComPod and wanted to talk about something I had said on it. I’ve not gone back and relistened to the episode because I can’t bear being confronted by my past self. I’m always deeply embarrassed by him – literally every mistake I’ve ever made was made by that guy. In the present, I am either not making a mistake, which is great, or I’m in the middle of making one, in which case I’m too preoccupied with the mistake to be able to feel embarrassed about it, so all my embarrassment is reserved for this other guy who lives in the past.

But the gist of it, Steffan told me, was that I claimed that when you’re a comedian, or a theatre-maker, or anyone whose job is essentially to keep making authored, mostly solo-driven creative work, what you actually end up doing is making the same thing (sorry) over and over again, refining your message each time. One year you might be making a show about family, another year you might be making a show about learning to solve a Rubik’s cube, but every artist basically has one thing to say, and they’re saying it over and over through different lenses. Everybody contains this one thing that only they contain, and every creative endeavour is an attempt to shine a different light on it.

While chatting to Steffan, I was trying to work out if I still thought this – the episode was recorded five years ago, after all, and life was very different then (I was going through a phase of wearing turtlenecks, I was really into the Waterboys, you know how it is). I eventually decided that yes, incrementally, each thing you make (sorry) is the same as the last thing you made (sorry)You’ll evolve your thinking a little bit, try a new approach, maybe explore a completely different theme, but essentially what you’ll be doing is making an updated version of what you last made.

But I now think that, like all change, the product of all this incremental change is that it will eventually turn you into someone who makes things (sorry) that are completely different. Blink, my 2022 show, was my seventh show, and when I look at it alongside my first show, I can see very little connective tissue between them, other than that I’m in both of them. This is at least partly because, looking objectively as the person I am now, I can see that my first show was really terrible, and I try quite hard to make things that are good these days. It didn’t help that I had to perform that show in the corner of a pub that continued functioning as a pub around me, but I’m not so sure that character creations like Mr Gumbo (a superhero who sounded like Terry Wogan) or Barry Biscuits (a floating head who smoked a pipe, and I wish there was more to him than that, but that was literally all he did) would have gone down as timeless additions to the comedy canon in any venue, in any city, on any planet. (God, I’d genuinely forgotten all about Barry Biscuits until I sat down to write this. He would literally appear onstage, his body hidden behind a towel because he was supposed to be just a head, and he would put his pipe in his mouth and suck on it a bit, and then he would leave. Jesus fucking Christ. Thank God this show was free).

Mr Gumbo, papped during a break from flyering for my absolutely dogshit show. This character makes me actively angry now – what was it?? What was I going for?? What was the point of him??? Why a bucket hat, other than because I owned one and couldn’t be bothered to buy anything new for this show???? The arrogance of thinking this was good. Awful shoes, as well.

So I comforted myself that, yes, we’re not prisoners of what we’ve done before, we can change and improve and end up making something we never would have imagined ourselves capable of making when we first set out to do this (I’m not claiming my more recent shows are masterpieces, I’m just proud that Barry Biscuits is no longer in them). Maybe from one year to the next we’re the same person, but when you give yourself the distance of a decade or more, all you can think is “Who was that guy? What was that show?”

I therefore set myself a bit of a challenge with my new show, You Wait. Time Passes. (available at all good Edinburgh Fringes near you, and also available at your local Pleasance Islington in October, get your copy today!) If it is indeed possible for us to make things that are completely unlike whatever we made before, then I wanted to make a show that was in some ways the opposite of Blink, which was big, over-the-top, complicated, technically ambitious – a bit of a monster. I wanted to make something that shrank things, and made me focus back in on myself – what if I just tried to make a show that was purely reliant on my own abilities as a writer and performer, and didn’t rush towards the ridiculous, or the audacious, or the difficult-to-achieve? What if I tried to make…essentially…a stand-up show, something I’ve more or less never done?

I was excited by the idea – I’ve always made shows starting with a big, strange image which I don’t quite know how to realise onstage – me tangled in a web, me teleporting across the stage, me growing out of a box. But this time, I was building a show around a simple structural idea, one which could be fully achieved with nothing other than one person standing onstage talking. For a while, I was really enjoying this change of pace, and even stopped feeling like an imposter at stand-up gigs. “Maybe I am a good stand-up,” I thought to myself, “and not just a weird guy who prats about onstage performing complicated metafictional shows about the erosion of self.”

But the more I’ve performed this new show, the more I’ve sensed my old habits creeping back in. The first ten minutes or so are basically just stand-up, then from about fifteen minutes in the show gradually falls into the grip of a fictional narrative, including a load of offstage backstory about how and why the show exists, that drives it towards its conclusion. This was always deliberate, but what I’ve sensed in performing it is that this metafictional stuff is by far the most fun and interesting bit of the show, and some of the more general stand-up stuff feels like a distraction. I’m keen now to dig into the narrative stuff much sooner and more extensively, and in that way I feel like this show doesn’t represent such a clean break from what I’ve tried to do before. It is, once again, a minor variation that picks up where the last one left off.

I’m excited to remain committed to the mission statement for this new show, though, even as its shape and form shifts back to something closer to what I’ve done before. I like the idea of sticking to the rule that, whatever narrative corners I might paint myself into as I dig more into this narrative stuff, I still have to extricate myself from them using simply myself and minimal tech. I don’t want to cram the thing with musical sequences, multiple characters, big setpieces, or anything like that. The show is about one person delaying the inevitable, and I want that to be done as much as possible by just playing with the tension of the audience watching one person struggle to commit to an idea. So even if the story does become more central and take more precedence, it remains a stand-up show in my heart – just one guy and a mic, telling it like it is, cracking jokes and gradually coming to terms with the futility of his own endeavours. Sounds like an absolute laugh riot, I can’t wait.

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – I dunno, not been paying much attention to comedy this week cos of the election. Go vote! Make sure you vote! Consign this vile, incompetent government to the dustbin!

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I saw Starlight Express last week and, though the brilliant Zoe Paskett has already written an excellent account of our trip over on her Substack, I might have to write it about it myself in order to process it. Needless to say, I think it made me laugh harder than anything else I’ve ever seen in my life.

Book Of The Week – I’ve just started Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera, who is an absolute favourite of mine, but for some reason I’ve not read this one yet. I’m only a handful of pages into it, but maybe I’ll let you know what I made of it next week!

Album Of The Week – Omnium Gatherum by King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard. I love these guys. I can’t believe it took me this long to get into them. This is an 80-minute psych-prog epic that opens with an 18 minute acid rock jam about a dripping tap. There’s a rap song about a sorceress. These guys are nuts and I really enjoy the lack of seriousness in their output. Too many prog bands take themselves way too seriously.

Film Of The Week – I really enjoyed Kinds Of Kindness, the new Yorgos Lanthimos film, but my favourite film I saw this week was Behind The Candelabra, which is about Liberace’s coercive relationship with Scott Thorson. Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are brilliant in it, and it’s one of those films you don’t get much any more that manages to be both ridiculously silly and very heartfelt and earnest at the same time. I miss that middle ground and I really enjoyed this.

That’s all for this week! As ever, let me know what you thought, 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, and all the best,

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.

PS We voted and I squinted into the sun as I dared to hope for a future without those awful, craven, inept specimens in charge of our country. I hope you voted with your heart too, whatever that means for you:

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