Hello, and welcome to the third instalment of the Fruit Salad Therapy Tapes, a living notebook/sketchpad project from critically tolerated comedian and fool Joz Norris. You’re receiving it because you signed up via my website, but if you decide it’s no longer a project you want to remain up-to-date with, you can unsubscribe any time – good luck in all your endeavours! And if you’re still here, read on for this week’s thoughts.
The Way We Work
Huge thanks so far to those who have replied to the Tapes and engaged with the ideas in them, your feedback has been really helpful and thought-provoking, and if more of you are up for the idea of getting involved in the project, I wonder if I could start this week’s Tapes with a question for as many of you as are willing to answer it. My question is this:
What is the relationship between the work you do for a living, and the moments in your life that most often jump out from their surroundings and strike you as being meaningful? How often do they overlap?
Personally, the most meaningful moments in my life are very rarely anything to do with the work I do to earn a living (as opposed to the “work” I do “for fun”). I think there’s an increasing awareness that for a very long time we’ve been organising our own fulfilment and happiness around the work that we do rather than the other way round. I read this article this week about how attitudes to work have changed since the Covid pandemic struck, and the ways in which people have been re-engaging with the communities around them and with their own day-to-day emotional needs rather than prioritising the requirements of the “work” that they do.
In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari talks about the global shift from humanism towards what he calls “dataism” – he says that in the 20th century humanism refocused the centre of meaning away from God and into the individual, so that things became meaningful only when we ourselves experienced them as such. In the 21st century the centre of meaning was shifted again so that it existed only in the sharing of data – things became meaningful not in the moment of us experiencing them, but in the moment of sharing that experience with the world, and receiving the validation of being seen to have experienced something meaningful. I feel like social media has made us all into a perpetual, hall-of-mirrors version of that relative who insists on showing a slideshow of their holiday photos. We’re all endlessly in the process of going “I went to this place and saw this thing and it meant something to me, and I need you to understand what that felt like.” The trace we leave behind of ourselves has become more significant than the experiencing of our lives in and of themselves. I’m finding that this idea is getting intimately bound up in my head with the idea of constant growth that the way we work encourages us to prioritise – the idea that our value and our worth is caught up not in the things that we personally find meaningful, but in the extent to which we’re able to monetise our endeavours and receive external praise for having done so.
Here’s a stock photo of some happy, productive office workers celebrating their business success to break up what would otherwise be an intimidatingly large block of text.
What Am I Worth?
I like to kid myself that I have a creative career that centres on me trying to explore ideas in unusual and silly and interesting ways, but it’s a sort of lie I tell myself to make myself feel better. I make most of my living doing commercial work of some sort or another (here’s me eating a Creme Egg) and the bigger projects in which I try to explore an unusual idea creatively only sporadically result in my making any money. Occasionally, when you find yourself trying to invest time and energy into a creative project which nobody has asked you to make, you find yourself wondering “Would this idea somehow mean more if I were being paid for it?”
None of these are new thoughts. In 1970, Richard Buckminster Fuller wrote:
“We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living…the true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”
I think this sort of thinking has, up until recently, been misinterpreted as a call-to-arms for laziness and an entitled refusal to contribute to society. But the impact of Covid has, I think, started to shift our attitude to work, so that increasingly people find themselves wondering “What if the work we did were organised around our own natural curiosity and generosity, instead of around the need for growth and external validation?” I’m exploring all these ideas because I’m trying to find the common threads in the stories I’m writing at the moment, which might end up being a film or a book or a radio show or something, and a lot of them seem to be loosely about work and worth and value, I think, about the knots we tie ourselves in to convince ourselves we’re worth something. None of it’s funny yet, but I’ve never started with that. Making something funny is, in my experience, something that happens in the doing of it, and in the early stages of getting an idea together it’s far more important to make sure it’s something you find interesting. I’d love to hear any of your answers to the question above to help me start to formulate more ideas around this, and to hear which bits of all this chime with other people!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Liam Williams’ sitcom about Youtube, Pls Like, is simply one of the best comedies of the last few years. It’s got a cast of absolute comedy royalty, and its ingenious premise means it gets to play with all the stupidity and nonsense that makes Youtube a funny place in the first place, while also getting to do a deep dive into the utter vacuousness of the internet in general. I love it, and Series 3 has just come out, so give it a watch!
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – This video of Mr Belgraves the bat being too scared to eat a banana.
Album Of The Week – The Future Bites by Steven Wilson. Steven Wilson fans are absolutely kicking off about his new album because it doesn’t sound much like a prog rock album, it sounds more like a dancey electronic pop album and at one point Elton John pops up to recite a list of things it’s possible to buy. I think prog rock is the greatest genre in the history of music, but I also think fans aren’t entitled to being given the same thing over and over, and artists are entitled to explore whatever ideas they’re finding interesting. This isn’t my favourite Steven Wilson album, but I like it and I say good on him for trying something new, and all the Porcupine Tree fanboys can get over themselves a little bit.
Film Of The Week – Little Shop Of Horrors. I can’t believe I’ve never seen this before. It’s absolutely fantastic. I can’t imagine that many people reading this haven’t seen it already, as I’m well aware it’s a classic, but if anyone’s like me and has for some reason never got round to it, get on it. I texted Adam Larter, head honcho at Weirdos Comedy, as soon as I’d finished it saying “Would I be right in thinking this is your favourite film?” so anyone who’s enjoyed the Weirdos shows over the years but hasn’t seen this will be in for a treat. Steve Martin’s dentist is insanely good.
Book Of The Week – Maus by Art Spiegelman. This one’s been on my list for ages and I finally got round to it. Spiegelman recounts the story of his father’s survival of the Holocaust, but draws all the Jews as mice, all the Germans as cats, all the Americans as dogs, and so on. It’s simultaneously an incredible telling of the story, and an incredible reflection on the impossibility of trying to artistically depict that period of history if you didn’t live through it.
This Week’s Story
Another picture break before this week’s story, so feel free to go about your day if you don’t have time for it! And if you’re still here, here’s a story about a depth I had to lower myself to in pursuit of making money, just like I promised.
Thanks so much again to all who’ve been sending feedback about the Tapes! If you’re enjoying them, please share them with a friend or encourage people to subscribe, it’s proving a real pleasure to grow this with you all. Hope you all have a lovely week,
Joz xx Here’s a parakeet I met:
The last time I performed live was in Glasgow in March, about two weeks before we went into lockdown. The reality of Covid hadn’t really sunk in yet, so even though the show was taking place just as we were being told to try and minimise our contact with other people, I thought I would travel up and put on this one last show before committing to shutting myself inside for the foreseeable. I spoke to a couple of people the day before who told me it was a stupid idea, particularly the bit about sitting on a coach for nine hours breathing recycled air (it ended up being more like twelve because it broke down for a while). But the promoter said that all but two of the other shows they were putting on in Glasgow had had to be scrapped because of the comics pulling out, and I didn’t want to do that to them, so I travelled up. I performed the show to about eight people, and the next day I burst into tears walking down a street in Glasgow as I realised that the thing I loved didn’t exist any more, and that I wouldn’t be doing it again for a very long time, and that my life was about to change significantly, as was everybody’s.
I didn’t try to go back to live performance during the summer when outdoor gigs and drive-in gigs and socially distanced gigs started happening, because I just couldn’t find the impulse in myself. The part of my brain that knew how to entertain a live audience had died a slow, lingering death and I didn’t see any point in trying to jump-start it again, probably causing a lot of stress and anxiety, for the sake of a handful of outdoor gigs, only for it to inevitably slink off and die again as the autumn crept in. So I just kept my head down and wrote stuff and did some acting and made little films and radio shows, and tried to forget all about live comedy. By and large, that also meant keeping well away from livestreaming or online stand-up. Standing on a stage in front of a room full of strangers, with bright lights separating you from everyone else in the room and talking into a microphone about your own unique experience of the world in exchange for money and applause is, at the best of times, a psychopathic thing to do with your life, but at least you’re providing a sort of social, communal service to other people in giving them a shared experience of a fun night out together. Trying to replicate the experience when you’re just a person in a bedroom shouting your thoughts into your webcam, with no clue as to whether any of your jokes are landing or whether they’ve been disrupted by somebody’s dodgy Wi-Fi connection, sounded to me like a horrible dystopian update of the Narcissus myth. So I largely kept out of it, harbouring a gut feeling that it just wasn’t going to be something I would enjoy.
I abandoned my reservations a handful of times, usually because good friends of mine were putting on online shows and I didn’t want to turn down the opportunity of being silly and creative with them. And once, just once, I abandoned my reservations for money, and it was quite possibly my lowest moment of 2020, the year my career fell apart, I lost my home and my step-dad nearly died. I got an email from my agent asking if I’d like to do a corporate Zoom gig for which the client had specifically requested me. I confess, I think I let flattery get the better of me.
I’m pretty certain that every fibre of my being knew I was the wrong booking for a corporate Zoom gig the second she mentioned it, but the idea that this client had asked for me specifically led me to second-guess my doubts, and to believe that the more idiosyncratic aspects of my approach to comedy which I would assume would make me a terrible choice were actually what they were looking for. The client, my agent explained, were a financial tech company whose boss was putting on weekly Zoom sessions for all his furloughed employees so they could be entertained by random drop-in comedians. The week before, he had hired Jess Fostekew, an excellent comedian, to drop into the call and entertain his staff for half an hour. Apparently it had gone brilliantly and Jess said it had just felt like chatting to a nice gang of friendly people. I can well imagine that Jess had found an approach that had enabled her to absolutely smash this gig and have fun with it while also giving the client exactly what he wanted, because she is excellent at her job. This week the client had asked my agent for a list of her acts so they could choose who to hire, and had decided they wanted to get somebody a bit more alternative and, having read the clients’ bios, had chosen to hire me. I fooled myself into thinking that this meant they had done extensive research into me and my work and taken the time to fully understand the tone and style of my comedy, and that this was exactly what they wanted, giving me carte blanche to do anything I wanted. I accepted the gig.
As the day of the gig got nearer, I scheduled in a call with the client to discuss what he wanted. He said that it would be great if I could do my Star Wars routine. This was a routine I’d written for a comedy night called “Dear Harry/Spock” which was a nerd-culture fan-fiction comedy night. The routine was specifically about Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker, and required in-depth knowledge of that film in order to get any of the jokes. The Dear Harry/Spock crowd had loved it, and there was a video of the performance on Youtube. I assumed he had watched this video and judged it to be appropriate for his staff.
“We’ve got quite a few people on the team who are going to really enjoy it,” he enthused. I decided therefore to include the Star Wars routine, which would fill up about ten minutes, leaving twenty to fill. The client asked if I could do some specific bits of interaction with his staff – “Make fun of Harry [name changed, obvs] for his haircut,” he said, “and make fun of Phil Booth [name changed, which is a shame, because his real name was much funnier] for his lack of one!” Leaping to conclusions in a move that was to be a major part of my downfall, I took this to mean that Phil Booth was bald. “I’m also laying on some refreshments for my staff,” he said. “Everyone’s going to receive a hamper in the post with some snacks and drinks in it.”
“Oh, that’s great to know,” I said. “Maybe I’ll do some planned bits of silliness around that where I’ve got a hamper too and I compare what we’ve all got in our hampers. What will they have in them?”
“They’ll have a bottle of Prosecco each and a packet of chocolate biscuits, things like that,” he said. After our phone-call, I went out and bought a bottle of Prosecco and a packet of chocolate biscuits so I could play a few silly games with them where we all went through our hampers. This, along with the back-and-forth of chatting to the individuals in the team, should easily fill another ten minutes, so I just had to work out how to fill that last ten.
I was having a bit of trouble trying to work out how to tie all these ideas together, and it was on the morning of the gig itself that my housemate Katy suggested to me the idea that could have been my salvation if I had done it right, but ended up being the key to my humiliation. My approach to comedy has always revolved around nonsense and cheerful idiocy – I’m not a stand-up who thrives off picking on the audience and making clever gags (a type of comedy I now realise is very popular at corporate gigs), I’ve always been an idiot who does something stupid onstage and then finds joy in the ridiculousness of it. My comedy has always been about giving things a go, getting things wrong, grinning stupidly as you fall off a cliff, that kind of thing. I was struggling to think of a way to translate the spirit of that approach to a corporate Zoom, where it could easily just look like, rather than celebrating the spirit of failure and idiocy, I was just an idiot who was failing. I didn’t know how to make it clear that the nonsense I was going to provide them with was deliberate. Over breakfast Katy suggested something which could have been excellent.
“Why don’t you pretend to be a kids’ entertainer who’s been booked by mistake?” she said. “Say you thought you were there to do a kids’ birthday party, and that’s why everything you’re doing doesn’t make sense in the context of a corporate Zoom.” I thought this was fantastic. I still think it’s fantastic. I don’t know whether I went about it in the wrong way, or if the people I was performing to were just completely the wrong audience, or if it was in fact always a terrible idea, but either way, I set about preparing a half-hour routine where I played a kids’ entertainer called Mr Boingo who didn’t realise he’d been booked to do a corporate stand-up gig to the furloughed staff of a fin-tech company. I worked in all the things the client had asked for, and a few other bits of nonsense. I was going to get them to pass me their hampers of Prosecco “through” their webcams, and then hold up my own versions, as though I had stolen their drinks, and encourage some silliness around that. I was then going to stick my head into the hamper and turn it into the cradle of a horrible baby character from an old show of mine, which I transformed into by way of a puppet body that hung from my chin with long, freakish spider-like arms for playing Peek-a-Boo. I was going to take a register at some point and ask if Phil Booth was on the call, then ask if Phil Booth’s hair was on the call, hopefully prompting big guffaws as I ribbed him for his baldness. Then I was going to become distraught wondering what had happened to Phil Booth’s hair and demand that everybody on the call search their bedrooms for it until we found out who had stolen the hair. Eventually I would hold up a wig I found under my desk and start crying as I became confused and upset at how Phil Booth’s hair had found its way into my house. I would eventually perform my Star Wars routine as the triumphant finale to a half-hour of jolly fun.
I joined the Zoom link the client had sent me about twenty minutes before the gig, planning to run the vague concept past him before I started so that he could play along with it. I sat in the waiting room for nineteen minutes wondering what was going on, until I received a call.
“Where are you?” said the client. “You’re supposed to start in one minute!” I explained that I had been in the waiting room for quite some time and it transpired that he had sent me the wrong Zoom link. While trying to find the right link, I quickly ran my concept past him.
“By the way,” I said, “I’m going to pretend to be a children’s entertainer who you’ve booked by mistake. Could you just play along with it and pretend that there’s been some sort of mix-up? Pretend to be a bit annoyed that you’ve booked the wrong guy,”
“But why would I be annoyed?” he said, unfunnily.
“It’ll be funny,” I said. “It’s just going to be a precursor to doing lots of silly nonsense stuff, like a sort of framework thing. But it’ll be funniest if you go along with it and pretend to be annoyed.”
“But I don’t understand why it would be funny for you to do something that would make me annoyed,” he said, going from unfunny all the way to threatening in one sentence.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, and with that, he dropped me unceremoniously into the call and I was faced with the faces of thirty furloughed fin-tech employees sitting by their pools and on their balconies and in their gardens staring into their webcams with unsmiling faces. This is the first instance at which the client saw that I was dressed as a hot-dog with a top hat on.
“Ok, where’s the birthday boy?” I shouted, gleefully, to silence. “I’m here for a birthday party, right? Where’s the birthday boy?” This hung in the air for a bit. “Oh no, I’ve been booked by mistake! This isn’t a kids’ birthday party, is it? I’m Mr Boingo!” By this stage, if it were a live gig, at least one person would’ve said hello back just to dispel the awkwardness. Getting this far in having had no live feedback whatsoever was very disconcerting. “Can you all say Hello, Mr Boingo?” I tried. One or two of them mumbled “Hello, Mr Boingo.”
“That wasn’t very good, I could barely here you!” I crowed. “Let’s try it again!” A few more people said “Hello, Mr Boingo,” slightly louder this time. “I’ve been booked by mistake!” I shouted, hoping to just make absolutely sure they’d understood the concept. At this point, I reached over to my camera, which stood just out-of-shot of my webcam on a tripod recording everything, and turned it off. I had thought this gig might be funny enough to be worth keeping a record of, but I realised about the same time as they said “Hello, Mr Boingo” for the second time that I wanted all evidence of this ever having happened to be destroyed forever.
“Have you all got your hampers?” I said, trying to move on and get into the meat of the fun and games I had prepared. Nobody replied. “Your hampers, with Prosecco and biscuits?”
“What hampers?” somebody said.
“I was told you’d have hampers, with Prosecco in, so you could all drink Prosecco?” I said, getting confused now. I could see the face of the client, which was looking increasingly stormy with everything I said. There was an awkward pause.
“I’m drinking vodka,” said one of the other people on the call, holding up his glass for me to see.
“Well I’ve got Prosecco,” I said, holding up the bottle. The reveal of the bottle of Prosecco was supposed to be a silly moment, as if I had pulled it through the webcam from one of them, but done like this it just seemed confusing. I decided to move on. “Nice haircut, Harry!” I said. This actually got a ripple of laughter – fair play to this client, he knew what would make his team laugh. It was time for me to close in for the kill and do my Phil Booth’s hair routine, and really prove to them that I had what it takes to make their corporate-mandated half-hour of Zoom entertainment a memorable one. “Where’s Phil Booth?” I asked, scanning the grid of faces for a bald man.
“Here I am,” said a man with shaggy, unkempt, shoulder-length hair. I froze with horror as I realised the mistake I had made.
“Oh, you’ve got long hair,” I said, stalling for time as I tried to think of a way out of this mess.
“Yeah, everybody keeps saying I need a haircut,” he said.
“Yes, I see what’s happened here,” I said. My stalling for time had failed to help me come up with any alternative plans, so I decided to just stick with Plan A despite it no longer making any sense. “Can you all search your houses for Phil Booth’s hair?” I asked, desperately. Everybody stared back at me in total incomprehension. Eventually, after enduring this silence for a few moments, I held up a wig and started to pretend to cry. At this point the client, whose faith in his choice of booking must have been rapidly evaporating, interrupted me.
“Do your Star Wars routine,” he said. Now, it’s true that in customer relations the accepted tenet is that the customer is always right, but I rarely do corporates and like to kid myself that I’m an artist, not a content provider, so decided not to do as specifically instructed by the guy who was paying me. Instead, I stuck my head into a basket and came out with a small puppet body hanging from my chin, waving long, spider-like arms around and saying “Goo goo, ga ga” as I pretended to be a horrible little baby. It’s only now that I realise that to the other people on the call, it must have looked like this was my response to his instruction, and they must have spent some time wondering what this had to do with Star Wars. I used the baby puppet to play a game of peek-a-boo with the people on the call for a bit, until one of them went to get his ten-year-old daughter and put her onto the call and made her play peek-a-boo with me. At this point, I considered this something of a blessing as it meant I could fill a bit of time. I played peek-a-boo with this ten-year-old girl for several minutes longer than I should have before eventually moving on.
The middle of this gig is a blur. I think I fell back on some old stand-up routines which ate up a bit more time, but were unenthusiastically received. Eventually, I found myself really running on fumes and wondering what to do next when I noticed that one of the guys on the call had set his Zoom background to be a cartoon picture of a classroom.
“Why have you set that as your background?” I asked him, a tad confrontationally. The guy shrugged.
“I like classrooms,” he said.
“Oh yeah?” I said. “Why? Do you hang out in a lot of classrooms?” This just came out, and I didn’t really think about how it sounded, and it took me some time to realise it sounded a bit like I was hinting that he was a paedophile, which was the last thing I wanted to imply about anybody; a truly hurtful and insensitive suggestion to have made.
“What do you mean by that?” the guy said, defensively. I racked my brains trying to work out what I meant by that, trying to think of reasons why he might hang out in classrooms a lot that didn’t involve him being a paedophile. Finally, I had a Eureka! moment.
“Are you a teacher?” I asked, delighted.
“No, I work for this fin-tech company,” he said. My delight disappeared. I had forgotten I was doing a corporate gig and already knew what everybody’s job was.
“Oh yeah,” I said.
“Do your Star Wars routine,” said the client, absolutely fuming now, a face like thunder. Alright, alright, I thought. We weren’t far off the half-hour anyway, it was time for the finale.
“Who likes Star Wars?” I said. There was silence. A few people shrugged.
“It’s ok, I guess,” someone said.
“Oh. Not many big Star Wars fans?” I said.
“It’s alright,” said someone else.
“Who’s seen Episode IX?” I said. Silence. Nobody had seen Episode IX. “You said everybody would love this routine,” I said to the client, churlishly.
“I thought it was just about Star Wars, not about Episode IX,” he said, laying bare just how little research he’d done before booking somebody completely inappropriate, and in a way, revealing himself as the true idiot of the entire farce.
“I thought you had big Star Wars fans in your team?” I said, desperately trying to throw him under the bus.
“Well there’s one but he’s not made it onto the call,” said the client. I was running out of things to fall back on, and still had a couple of minutes to fill. Quickly, I latched onto the two faces that were still smiling and asked them to sing “Happy birthday” for me. They sang it in Dutch and I grabbed my clarinet, which I’d left just out of shot in case of emergencies, and played along with them, then hung up the call.
I immediately emailed my agent saying I was sorry but it had been absolutely terrible and that they would probably complain about how bad it was and that I was now feeling very sad. “Don’t worry,” she said in her reply, “they paid up-front.” What good clients they were!
As I left my room I ran into Katy on the stairs, who was beaming from ear-to-ear and started clapping and burst out laughing. She had been crouched outside my door the whole time and had heard the entire thing and had struggled to keep herself from bursting into horrified laughter. She then noticed that I was in floods of tears and stopped clapping and gave me a hug and said she was sorry it had been so bad. I felt silly for crying about something so ridiculous, but it made me feel so very far away from the thing I used to love doing.
“I spent ten years getting good at a particular way of doing things and making stuff,” I said between bouts of sobbing. “But it’s all gone now and I can’t do it any more. Now I’m just a stupid man being stupid in my room while the world falls apart and nobody laughs because it’s just not funny any more.”
And that’s why I don’t do an awful lot of online comedy these days.