The Worst Advice
Tomorrow I’m recording an episode of a podcast for which I’ve been prompted to think about what the best and worst advice I’ve ever received is (perhaps I’ll post the episode here once it’s finished and gone out). I’ve been thinking about this for the last day or so and, while I’ve had plenty of bits of good advice I’ve been able to reflect on and consider talking about, I’ve found incidents of bad advice hard to pinpoint. I’ve always been a great believer in everything happening for a reason, and failure being the most significant learning experience you can have, so I find it hard to point to specific moments in my life and say “I should not have listened to that advice.” Don’t get me wrong, there are countless moments of stupid behaviour I can point to where I think “I should not have done that,” but it’s very rare that I try something that’s been suggested to me and later feel totally hoodwinked and betrayed by the advice itself – generally, I think that the times when we attempt things and get them wrong and learn as a result of our mistakes are some of the most significant creative foundations we might build ourselves from. So in the end, what I landed on was a piece of advice I received in 2014 and didn’t take, which was very rare for me at the time – I was a real “Try anything once and don’t turn opportunities down” person, so it was unusual for me to block an idea.
In around 2014, when I was trying to work out what I was doing comedy-wise and what sort of career I was trying to build, I had a meeting with a social media consultancy who gave me a quote for some sort of package which would have overhauled my “personal brand.” I forget exactly what this involved – I remember it included them designing me a logo, and reworking my website, and just generally creating a coherent, unified identity and social media brand across multiple platforms. Essentially, it would’ve involved crystallising my personality as a comic so that I was no longer a strange guy experimenting with ideas and flailing around and not really being sure what he had to offer the comedy world, and turned me into a simple, clear, comprehensible package deal – “This is who I am as a comic, this is my viewpoint, this is what I can bring to your show/project/whatever.” I eventually turned them down because I couldn’t really afford what they were asking, and probably in doing so passed up the opportunity to coalesce my nascent comedy stumblings into some sort of early success – perhaps it would’ve put me on the path to becoming one of those young comedians you saw on panel shows and things, who knows? Looking back, I don’t necessarily think that the advice and proposals they put forward were objectively bad – I’m sure they represented a strategy that works and has worked and continues to work for lots of people, and achieves specific results. But I do know that it would have been disastrous advice for me. Because if I had crystallised the sort of comedian I was in 2014, I would have doomed myself.
Crystallising Too Soon
I’ll be very honest here – I was not a very good comedian in 2014. Admittedly, very few people come across as unalloyed geniuses right out of the gate – everybody takes time to find their voice. But for the first few years of my trying to find my feet in comedy, I was essentially just another awkward, shy, middle-class guy in his 20s who talked about being bad at dating and how being a grown-up was hard, and traded off youthful cheerfulness over any originality of viewpoint. The photo above says a lot about how I was trying to present myself back then. I knew deep down that this wasn’t the sort of comedy I really wanted to be making, and there were always flashes of something more strange trying to get out in my early shows, and the stuff I did with groups like Weirdos Comedy allowed me to vent the stranger stuff I really wanted to give voice to. But it’s very possible that if I had branded myself at the time, I would have had to crystallise myself in my persona of “Slightly kooky awkward young guy,” and cut myself off from the opportunity to develop and grow. Today, looking back, I have a really strong sense that the show I made in 2019 was only the first thing I made that was actually genuinely good, and everything before was my experimenting, and trying, and falling down, and getting back up. Perhaps this is being unkind to my earlier stuff, because I certainly remember my being proud of a lot of it at the time, especially my 2016 show, but I do have the feeling that my sense of really understanding what sort of work I wanted to make, what I was interested in, what I was good at, what I was bad at, what my creative values were, only really settled in the last couple of years. If I had said to myself, and to the world, way back in 2014, something along the lines of “This is who I am comedically and creatively, this is how I see the world and what I have to offer,” then everything I would’ve done since then would’ve been trapped in the prism of that persona.
I think I’ve mentioned it in a previous newsletter, but Austin Kleon’s maxim that we are verbs, not nouns is one that often recurs in my head when I think about this stuff. We always like to think that what we want is to be the thing – we want to be a comedian, or an artist, or a filmmaker, or a writer, or a popular person, or a funny person, or whatever. We let our desire to be seen and categorised as this thing get in the way of the actual project, which is to do the thing – to make comedy, to make art, to make films, to write, to invest in our friendships, to do funny things. I think a lot of social media branding of the type that was proposed to me back in 2014, and the urge to create coherent identities for ourselves that can be seen and marketed by others, is a particular symptom of this basic misunderstanding.
I’m sure that on this podcast tomorrow I will ramble on this subject as inconclusively as I am here – there’s no real conclusion to draw, or answer to reach. It’s impossible to look back on a life and pinpoint which moments of it should or should not have happened, unless you’re fundamentally unhappy with where you ended up, which I’m very much not. As long as that’s the case, every bit of advice you took, whether it ended up a failure or not, led you to where you are and has to be seen as part of that process. So the best I can do is point to a specific moment when an alternative path was presented to me that I chose not to go down, and to breathe a sigh of relief and think to myself “Thank goodness for that.”
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Those silly billies at Weirdos Comedy are back with a new show for Hallowe’en at the Museum of Comedy called Murder At The True Crime Convention. Not sure what it’s about yet or what I’ll be doing in it because I don’t think Adam Larter has written it yet, but it’ll be good fun.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I started rewatching The Armando Iannucci Shows this week for the first time in years and oh boy, it’s just one of the funniest TV shows ever made. A real shame Iannucci turned his back on performing, in a way, because he’s a very funny comic himself. There’s a sketch about fireman strippers that really got me howling.
Book Of The Week – I just finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, which I’ve been meaning to get round to for years. It’s great. Vast, strange, sad, harrowing magical realism stuff. Previously the only Murakami I’d read was Norwegian Wood and I wasn’t blown away, but this is great.
Album Of The Week – Joe’s Garage by Frank Zappa. First up, for anybody who now goes and googles this, let me just flag – the album artwork for this is unforgivably, disgustingly bad. Zappa was generally an incredibly funny guy and an incredibly talented musician who far too frequently resorted to crass gross-out humour or just flat-out offensive bullshit, and this album cover is one of the worst things he’s done. But if you can bring yourself to actually listen to it, this has some of his best guitar solos on it and is very funny and dumb and imaginative and silly, and finishes up with a song called “Watermelon In Easter Hay” which is actually surprisingly moving.
Film Of The Week – Not seen any films in ages! I blame Love Island. Hopefully it’ll finish soon and I can get back to actually watching slightly more meaningful stuff.
That’s all for this week! As ever, if you’re enjoying the Therapy Tapes and would like to share them with a friend, or encourage people to subscribe, it’s hugely appreciated! Have a great week, and take care of yourselves,
PS This week I received my pack of Aislinn Prior’s incredible Comedy Playing Cards and they’re fantastic. Here’s me with the 5 of clubs, who seems like a really cool guy: