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Joz Norris

  • Tape 38: Directing Comedy

Directing Comedy

I’ve been waiting to properly announce this until I’ve had actual tangible links to share about it, but with the launch of VAULT Festival this week I now have that, so I’m delighted to announce that this year, for the first time, I’m directing two comedy shows by really brilliant writer-performers. The first is Cerys Bradley’s Sportspersonwhich you can see in a work-in-progress form at the Pleasance in January following this link here. The second is Ben Alborough’s Absolute Monopolywhich you can see in a work-in-progress at VAULT Festival in February following this link here.

I’ve talked a lot before about how much it transformed my own shows to start collaborating with other people more, and it’s been exciting to start exploring that relationship from the other side, and to hopefully bring to other people’s work the level of support and insight and curiosity that Ben Target and Alex Hardy have brought to mine to help me elevate it. I’ve also recently started working more formally with Ben and Alex themselves on my own new show, Blinkso have been sitting on both sides of this relationship in the last couple of weeksIt’s a process that’s prompted me to think about what the nature of directing actually is in relation to comedy, in my experience, and I thought I’d share a bit of that here this week.

When I first started working with Ben and Alex on my show Joz Norris Is Dead. Long Live Mr Fruit Saladthere was no formal agreement in place about what exactly we were doing together. Eventually, Alex’s role as a director and Ben’s role as a creative companion emerged and crystallised, but the first thing we did was cement a relationship around this show and explore it in different ways. I think this is 100% the right sequence of events for directing comedy – figure out the relationship first, then decide what the specific requirements of any collaborative role might be.

Here’s Alex helping me with my show You Build The Thing You Think You Are during my residency at Battersea Arts Centre in January 2020.

Listening, Not Leading

Because of this, I actually think “director” is a really misleading word for the function of what we call a director on a comedy show. It’s a word we use because nobody has successfully proposed an alternative yet (I hereby propose “brog,” as in “I really loved your show, can I ask who brogged it?” or “I’m really excited to be working with the great Joz Norris as the brogger of my new show”), but “director” is a word that has a huge number of existing associations and presumptions due to its familiarity from the worlds of film and theatre. The director of a film or theatre show is ultimately creatively responsible for the end product, and their principle role is to make decisions. Terry Gilliam once remarked that a film director actually does no work on a film set other than to say “Yes” or “No” to everybody else’s work. The film is a huge, collaborative, many-headed monster representing the hard work of dozens of different people working in different departments, and all the director does is look at the work those people are doing and tells them if it’s right or not. This means that, in some ways, the director is the least “involved” person on set, doing very little of the actual practical work that goes into the film. But what they do is act as a filtering process for the work of everyone around them, so that the end result is entirely a product of their vision, of the decisions they made and the things they said yes or no to.

I think this is the opposite of what a comedy director (brogger) does, and that’s why I think it’s a misleading term. The person who is creatively responsible for a comedy show is the comedian, and they themselves are the filtering process. The director’s role is to watch, listen, observe, then reflect. To ask questions, to suggest things, to steer the comedian’s thinking, to make them think about things they haven’t thought about, or see things they haven’t seen. What the comedian then does is make decisions about that feedback – choose which bits to accept, which bits to reject, which bits to change in order to accommodate the new avenues of thinking opened up by the director’s questioning.

My fundamental belief about comedy directing is that the perfect, finished version of the show, the version that does everything the comedian wants it to do, already exists somewhere in their head from the second they start conceiving it. But, like all the things that exist buried deep in our heads, it’s impossible to manifest in the real world exactly as we see it without hard work and the help of others. The director’s role is to excavate the thing that lurks in the comic’s mind, that they can see but nobody else can, to keep chipping away at it through careful questioning or new lines of thinking or new approaches, until the thing is more clearly visible from the outside. This is why the collaborative relationship around a show is much more important than the arbitrary allocation of “roles” – first the director and the comic need to work out how their ways of thinking intersect, what kind of questions to ask, what sort of spaces to leave, and so on.

So far, this is the work I’ve been trying to do with Ben and Cerys’s shows – to listen, ask, think and leave space, and work out exactly where in those spaces I sit, and start trying to glimpse the shape of the thing they already have in their heads. As time goes by, I’m sure that that thing will only become bigger and brighter and clearer and more impressive, and I’m already very excited about both shows. Do book a ticket and come along to them if you can, and with any luck they’ll emerge as really exciting, original, brilliant pieces of work in the months to come! Very excited to be working with two very bright and curious and funny minds.

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – VAULT Festival 2022 has just launched! Loads of cool comedy shows there between January and March. “Have you got a show there, Joz?” Yes, of course, here it is. These shows at VAULT are the official premiere of my new show Blink, and also the culmination of the work I’ve been funded to do by Arts Council England, so I’m really excited by it and would love as many of you as possible to come and see it!

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – At ACMS on Monday I made Ben Target dress up as Warren Ellis while I dressed up as Nick Cave and we read out bad poetry. Ben trying to play a ukulele with a coathanger like it was a violin is one of my favourite things I’ve seen recently.

Book Of The Week – Still only halfway through East Of EdenIt’s long, man. Really good though. Here’s a nice quote – “If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen. And I hereby make a rule – a great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last.”

Album Of The Week – Raise The Roof by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss. This is a belated followup to Plant and Krauss’s 2007 collaboration Raising Sand, and reunites them with producer T-Bone Burnett, who does really good Americana, basically. It’s good. Not as good as Raising Sand, but just generally really nice.

Film Of The Week – Shiva Baby. This is a feature-length adaptation of Emma Seligman’s 2018 short about a directionless Jewish teenager who accidentally bumps into her sugar daddy at a shiva and tries to deflect awkwardness while fielding endless family questions about what she’s going to do with her life. It’s incredibly funny and tense and awkward and gripping and I loved it.

That’s all for this week! As ever, if you wanted to send this newsletter to a friend, or encourage people to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Take care of yourselves, and see you next time,

Joz xx

PS Here’s a rare photo of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis in an intimate performance in Haggerston.

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