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Joz Norris


Tape 46: Explaining What Things Mean

  • Tape 46: Explaining What Things Mean

Explaining What Things Mean

Last week I said I’d follow up my R&D diaries with one or two Tapes exploring some bigger ideas that emerged from the process, so, as promised, this week’s is about an emergent theme of showing, telling and explaining what things mean.

Explaining what things mean is a horrible trope in art, and in comedy shows in particular, that needs to die. Anyone who makes a habit of watching Fringe comedy knows the trope – 40 minutes in there’s a lighting change, or maybe some music, or just a dramatic pause, or something else to signify a tonal change, and the comedian gets reflective and mournful and sighs and says something like “I guess what I’m really trying to say here is…” or whatever, and explains the themes of the show in very clear terms, then does a rousing finale. Sometimes it’s necessary – nobody would claim that Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette didn’t need the moment towards the end where she consciously stopped trying to be funny and told us directly what she needed to say. That was a visceral, important, hugely affecting moment, and the weight of what Gadsby was saying required it. Often it simply isn’t necessary, though.

This is not me saying that I don’t want the comedy I watch to mean something, or to be about something. Shows that are just funny or entertaining purely for the sake of being funny and entertaining are great, but every single show that has really stayed with me over the years had something immense at the heart of it. The key is that most of the time, the audience doesn’t need to have it explained to them. It’s enough for them to be shown the outline of the thing, and then be left to close their own hands around it, like a secret. Those who don’t connect the dots can leave just having enjoyed a show that was funny and entertaining. Those who look beyond that and successfully join things up leave with that incredible feeling that they deciphered the show, that somehow they made sense of it, that it was for them. It’s the most incredible feeling, as an audience member. John Kearns is a master at this, although to this day the show that did the most incredible job of making me walk away with a secret in my heart was Geoff Sobelle’s The Object Lesson, the show that single-handedly rewrote what I wanted to do with my creative work, and how I wanted to go about making it.

Me and Ben Target, working hard.

In 2019 I made the Mr Fruit Salad show (still my magnum opus to this day, sadly, really must get on with doing a new opus with half-decent magnum potential). Ben Target, my good friend and creative companion on that show and my new one, said from the outside looking in, it seemed to be the first thing I made not because I wanted to make it, but because I needed to. There were things I was trying to heal in myself through that show, and forgive myself for. I’ve written before about a preview that the brilliant Stu Goldsmith came to see, and how afterwards he told me I could get away with explaining a lot less in the show. At that point I was still including a lot of autobiographical detail, about why I was pretending to be a cartoon character called Mr Fruit Salad, about what happened to me that led me to only feel funny when hiding behind a fake beard, and so on. Stu pointed out that a lot of this was buried in the show already, and I could remove a lot of the details and people would still be able to understand. I did remove a lot of that autobiographical skeletal framework from the final show, but in the end, the final version did still have a moment towards the end where I effectively explained what I was doing. I said less specific stuff about myself and my experience, but I did explicitly place the show in the context of the things I was trying to say with it, which effectively boiled down to “Try to be kind, even when it’s hard.”

I’ve spoken to people in the years since then who really liked that moment, and others who said it was unnecessary, that it just explained things they had already figured out for themselves. Ultimately, I believe it needed to be in there for myself – I made that show out of a need to be heard and understood, and it was important to me that people knew what I was doing with it, that I wasn’t just putting a beard on and being silly, that I was now trying to use my work not just to be entertaining but to explore something. With this new show, one of the most important decisions we made in the R&D was that the ideas it was exploring, which for me go quite deep and get quite complex, should be outlined but never filled in, never explained. Lee Griffiths at Soho said he had a lovely penny-drop moment watching Fruit Salad where he realised it wasn’t a character show, and that that moment was significant enough that any subsequent explanation was unnecessary. Our aim with Blink is to ensure it has a similar moment, where enough ideas have been sketched out or outlined that the audience can see the penny drop and realise the show is not what it’s pretending to be, and then to let them take that away like a secret just for them without explaining to them exactly what it was doing.

For me, this has now become the most important mission statement for Blinkand the main thing I’d like to measure its success by. If I can make a show that is purely funny and entertaining and imaginative and strange on the surface, but provides enough clues for certain members of the audience to come away thinking “I understand why that person made that show, and I heard what he wanted me to hear, and it was just for me,” then I’ll be very happy indeed. That’s the feeling I’ve carried away in my pocket after every favourite thing I’ve ever seen, and if I can make something that creates an even remotely similar feeling for people, I’ll have done my job for this year, I think.

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – John-Luke Roberts’ excellent immersive-comedy-LP-turned-live-show It Is Better has been rescheduled for performances at Soho Theatre on the 18th and 19th February, and he quit his Twitter and asked me to look after it for him, so he needs all the help he can get when it comes to promo. Also, he’s really funny and it’s a genuinely brilliant show, so you should go.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I went for dinner with friends for Lunar New Year (happy Year of the Tiger!) and misunderstood a flight-of-fancy Miranda was going on and thought she was telling a true story, and managed to look so stupid it made my friend Katy snort beer all over a newspaper. “And that made me laugh, but, er…my nostrils were clear.”

Book Of The Week – Bluets by Maggie Nelson. Following on from The Argonauts last week (really good), I’m now reading another book of Nelson’s about falling in love with the colour blue, and the role the colour played in her recovery from a breakup and a friend’s accident. It’s wonderful.

Album Of The Week – Anais Mitchell by Anais Mitchell. Since her 2010 album Hadestown, a musical retelling of Orpheus & Eurydice set in Dustbowl-era America, Mitchell has spent most of her time adapting it into a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. This new self-titled album is her first foray into solo original material in a decade, and it’s quite frankly astonishing. I love it. “Little Big Girl” is maybe the best song about the passage of time I’ve ever heard, I can’t listen to it without crying.

Film Of The Week – Deerskin. Been meaning to watch this for about a year thanks to its gloriously simple, absurd premise – a guy buys a jacket and loves it so much he decides he wants it to be the only jacket in the world, and sets out to impound all other jackets. The first half is one of the funniest, most understatedly weird comedies I’ve seen in ages, then it takes a brilliantly mad, horrible turn. Highly highly recommended.

That’s all for this week! Let me know your thoughts! Also, as ever, if you wanted to share this Tape with a friend, or encourage others to subscribe to the newsletter, I’d hugely appreciate it! Thanks so much for reading, and take care of yourselves til next week,

Joz xx

PS Here’s another rehearsal photo. I’ll probably just keep using these for a while to brighten the newsletter up, Miranda took loads of great shots. I love this one:

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