Captain’s log: This week’s introductory paragraph has a sci-fi theme! Greetings, Earthling [newsletter recipient] and welcome to the Arrowhead Star-Cruiser [Fruit Salad Therapy Tapes], a weekly intergalactic battleship [interactive newsletter/notebook project] from gunk-faced alien Zoblatron [comedian] Joz Norris. If you’ve decided it’s time to be vaporised [got bored of the newsletter], you’re more than welcome to eject yourself into the vacuum of space [unsubscribe] any time. And if you’re still on board the spaceship [subscribed to the newsletter] then let’s go zap some black holes or something [read on?]
This week’s question, if you’d like to share your thoughts on it with me, is:
What is the worst possible outcome? Is it acceptable? If it is, what does that enable you to do?
Tape 15 is inspired by this excellent thread by the wonderful comedy writer Sara Gibbs, in which she breaks down the key differences between the US and UK models for comedy writing careers, and outlines quite how bleak a picture it is at the moment for people looking to find their way into the UK comedy industry. She followed it up with this thread, in which she counters out the doom-and-gloom of her first with some more positive tips on how you can find your way as a comedy writer in the UK, based on her experience. Both threads are excellent, and should be required reading for people looking to get involved in comedy, but weirdly I didn’t actually find them all that depressing. I found that they sharpened my focus and resolve quite a bit.
I was also reminded of something Laurie Anderson said in her recent chat on Adam Buxton’s podcast. Anderson pointed out that when she started out as an artist in the 70s, the New York art scene consisted of roughly 100 people. Choosing to pursue an artistic career was an inherently unusual, radical thing to do that most people simply didn’t consider doing, so it was inevitable that within that scene meritocracy would prevail, that the very talented or very lucky ones would become superstars, and that pretty much everybody could find their way towards a sustainable career as an artist. Today, that’s simply not the case any more. There are thousands of people trying to make it as comedy writers, comedy performers, comedy producers, comedy directors, and on and on, in the UK alone, not to even mention what’s going on in other countries or in other artistic disciplines. You hear the same thing commented on in comedy a lot as well, that in the early 90s there were perhaps a few dozen comedians performing at the Edinburgh Fringe full stop, so of course they could be pretty much guaranteed to find an audience and build a career for themselves up there. These days, all of us have grown up watching success and acclaim being heaped upon the select few people who had chosen to do it in the time we were growing up. But the success of shows like X Factor and everything that came after it, and the proliferation of social media into our lives have combined to create an atmosphere where a successful creative career is no longer an exceptional, unusual, radical thing to pursue – it’s something many, many people feel pre-destined for, even entitled to.
The fact that there are now too many people trying to find their way into an industry that was built around considerably fewer people, and has not done very well at expanding, particularly when it comes to making itself more accessible for people who have not traditionally been well-served by it, is not good, or admirable, or fair. It is something that will hopefully change as people continue to work hard, to get more unrepresented voices heard, to cater more to unrepresented audiences, and so on and so on. It’s not a good thing that people trying to find their way into comedy are, for the time being, essentially doomed to a life of precarious freelancing. But it is, on the other hand, a good opportunity to foster a positive attitude to our own creativity. At some point in our careers as creative people, whether we’re writers, performers, directors, whatever we may be, we have to accept that we’re not doing this for reward. We’re not doing this for perceived glory or adulation. We need to be doing it because there’s nothing else we CAN do, or at the very least, nothing else we want to do. I don’t say this to glamorise failure or to try and endorse the precarious lifestyles that people in comedy are forced to accept as part and parcel of their life choices – as I said, it’s a situation that can and should change. But I say it because the best work happens when you remove the promise of reward from the thing you’re making. When you’re making something because you NEED it to exist, not because you WANT it to exist in order to impress other people. Thinking this way shifts the goalposts away from “How am I going to succeed in this career I’ve chosen?” towards “What can I do to continue being able to make the things I need to make?” This is what Ben Target calls “building a sustainable artistic practice,” something he recently ran an online course in for Angel Comedy – do keep an eye on him in case he runs one again, he’s one of the best people.
Personally, the sustainability of my own career comes down to something which I’ve only recently learned is called “fear setting.” You can read about Tim Ferriss’s thoughts on fear setting here – essentially, it involves very clearly and accurately working out what the worst possible outcome of an intimidating situation might be – not an overly dramatic, catastrophised, fire-and-brimstone imaginary hellscape, but an accurate representation of what would actually happen if everything went disastrously. It then involves clearly visualising this worst-case-scenario, and sitting in it, and trying to work out if it’s acceptable. If you can accept that outcome, then you have absolutely nothing to fear from the situation, and any result you get from it, no matter how small, becomes meaningful.
I’d not heard of the name, but it’s a principle I’ve been using to guide my own creativity for years. In 2008 at the Edinburgh Fringe John Kearns told me that I could be a good comedian, if I really wanted to do it. I told him I did want to do it and he said “Well you have to want to. You can’t be doing this for any other reason. You’ve got to do it with your entire soul, in a way that means if it all went to shit and you had nothing to show for it, you still wouldn’t change a thing.” That got burned into my psyche so irreversibly so early on, that from then I’ve made it a regular part of my process to look squarely at my own fear of everything going to shit and having nothing to show for it. To ask myself “Am I currently able to make the things I want to make?” If the answer is yes, then to get on and make them. If the answer is no, then to make whatever changes I need to make in order to be able to make them, whether that involves quitting jobs, moving to a different city, etc etc. When those changes feel difficult, I try to look at the next year and ask myself “If this year of making things goes disastrously, what will my life look like? Will it be broken beyond repair? Or will it be possible for me to pick it up and reassess and make the changes I need to make and try again? Or, if it really comes to it, to change my mind and my plans?” So far, I’ve been fortunate enough to have never encountered a year where making the changes I need to make in order to keep creating stuff would have resulted in breaking my life beyond repair. As long as that’s the case, I have nothing to fear from continuing to try.
Fear setting isn’t about “expecting the worst,” it’s about discovering the spirit which actually informs your impulse to make stuff. When you can visualise an undesirable outcome that removes all the potential for external reward, and you can accept that outcome and still identify the impulse that is pushing you to pursue this thing, it brings you into closer contact with the thing that you’re actually trying to manifest, not the things you’re trying to get out of manifesting it. These are long and rambling and freewheeling thoughts to have spun out from a Twitter thread about comedy writing, so I’ll finish by deferring to David Bowie, who puts it better than I can, as we would expect from him:
“Always remember that the reason you initially started working was that there was something inside yourself that you felt if you could manifest in some way you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society.”
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – It seems to have been a bit of a quiet week for comedy, unless a lot of stuff’s just passed me by, so I’ll plump for the new series of This Time With Alan Partridge. Alas I cannot tell a lie, I don’t feel like This Time is vintage Partridge, but he’s still the greatest comedy character of all time and even when he’s not firing on all cylinders it’s always fun to see what they’re doing with him.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Well it was this bewildering Conservative election campaign video from their candidate in Blackburn. Mind you, as I type this up the results of that election have started to come in and they’re depressing enough that it’s harder to find it funny now. This guy actually won. Good on him, I guess. I hope those swings get sorted.
Book Of The Week – Modern Nature by Derek Jarman. This is a two-year diary Jarman kept while tending his garden in Dungeness in the wake of his HIV diagnosis. He veers between anger at his own mortality and the reaction of the rest of the world to his illness, and serenity as he immerses himself in his plants and in the peace of his new surroundings. It’s absolutely wonderful.
Album Of The Week – Beyond Skin by Nitin Sawhney. Sort of Bonobo-esque downtempo electronica with the odd bit of Qawwali singing or the occasional nod to Indian classical music thrown in. Really good.
Film Of The Week – The Mitchells vs The Machines. A masterpiece. I have always been a big Pixar guy. I thought Soul was one of the best films I’ve ever seen. But even I have to concede that, between this and Klaus and Into The Spider-Verse and a few others, the days of Pixar being the only studio making genuinely brilliant animated films that adults can enjoy as much as kids are well and truly over. This made me laugh like a drain, and then cry my eyes out.
That’s all for this week! As ever, do let me know your thoughts, I always love reading through your responses. And if you’re enjoying the Fruit Salad Therapy Tapes and want to share them with a friend or encourage people to subscribe, you’ll have my eternal gratitude! Have a lovely week everyone,
PS Here’s the Kentish Town camel for your enjoyment and delight: