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Joz Norris

  • Tape 6: Nobody Is Watching

Hello! How are you? Welcome back to the Fruit Salad Therapy Tapes, a weekly interactive notebook project from Nick Cave/Michael Gove lookalike and “comedian” Joz Norris. You’re receiving it because you signed up via my website, but if you want to unsubscribe, you’re free to do so any time – may the road rise up to meet you, and may the wind be ever at your back. And if you’re still here, read on for this week’s Tape!

Nobody Is Watching. Nobody Ever Was.

Thanks for all your replies this week about the Fringe! I said I might cobble them together into some sort of collage about what the Fringe meant to people this week, but my brain’s gone somewhere else today, so perhaps I’ll save that as a theme to come back to next week. In the meantime, I want to talk about this Twitter poll I ran last week in a moment of boredom. My girlfriend Miranda often makes fun of me and my friend Emily for the fact that we obsessively “catalogue” our own lives, breaking them down into different “stages”, ranking different years, talking about which “season arc” of our lives was the most exciting, when the most shocking twists happened, and so on. It wasn’t until this teasing that I realised the tendency to self-analyse to such an obsessive degree isn’t as universal as I thought, and I was curious to find out how many other people do it. I guess this week’s question is:

Do you do anything like this? If you do, what form of story do you turn your life into to make sense of it? A TV show? A film? A book? A prog-rock concept album?

Only 155 people responded to the poll, so it’s hardly a particularly conclusive sample, but I was surprised that the majority of people voting didn’t seem to recognise that sort of behaviour. While necessarily choosing the medium of long-form narrative TV and breaking down your life into “series arcs” might be overly specific and might well change from person to person – some people thinking of their lives as a movie, or a novel, or whatever – I had always assumed that the tendency to look at your life as a story was a pretty common thing to do. Stories have always been things we apply to life in order to extract meaning from it – there’s plenty of evidence that impersonal and hard-to-grasp data becomes more easy to parse when presented as part of a narrative, while which political party is ahead in national polling has always come down to who’s been better at communicating a simple story that the electorate can easily wrap their head around (“Things can only get better,” “Get Brexit done,” etc). Storytelling is the pattern we impose onto random chance or meaningless information to help us make sense of it, and I had always assumed that doing the same thing to your own life was a pretty common method of self-reflection.

Of course, I’m a writer-performer and writer-performers all have, on some level, a peculiar built-in assumption that the “story” of our life is in some way inherently worth sharing, of interest to other people. But the best comedy and art doesn’t simply absorb the audience into the world of the performer by “telling their story,” it communicates something that the audience can in some way interpret as being about themselves, it expresses a feeling that the audience have also felt and can recognise as unique to them. The most transformative moments as an audience member are the moments when something happens onstage and you think “That bit spoke to me, and only me.” Literally everybody in the room might be thinking the exact same thing at the exact same time, but as long as everybody can feel as though something happened onstage that spoke uniquely to their lived experience, then you’ve made something pretty special.

This train of thought has been bubbling to the surface recently because Miranda and I have been gradually watching all of Charlie Kaufmann’s films, as I mentioned in a previous newsletter. I’m really fascinated by Kaufmann’s writing, and he’s also very preoccupied with the particular breed of narcissistic self-reflection that comes from deciding to be a writer. The principal characters of both Synecdoche, New York and Adaptation both try to turn their lives into stories because they believe that by processing the banality of their existence as a story other people can bear witness to, they can find some beauty in it. In Adaptation, the principal character is Kaufmann himself, who narcissistically writes himself into his screenplay as a pathetic loser who doesn’t know how to write his latest screenplay. In this incredible scene, a screenwriting lecturer berates Kaufmann for not being able to find drama in the raw material of life and for trying to waste an audience’s time as a result, as though the banality of his life is in some way the audience’s responsibility to help him resolve:

"Adaptation." (2002) -- Screenplay Seminar Scene

I think Kaufmann’s ability to turn his own search for meaning in his meaningless existence into drama by analysing its lack of drama is really enviable (at least in his early work – the less said about I’m Thinking Of Ending Things the better). Ultimately, the protagonists of both films learn the same lesson – in Synecdoche, New York, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character is told that “There is no-one watching you, and there never was.” In Adaptation, Kaufmann is told “You are what you love, not what loves you,” and he finally learns to stop measuring his own self-worth by what he believes other people are thinking of him, but instead to find value in the things he channels his energy into.

Back To The Fringe Again

This does all, funnily enough, tie back into the Fringe. I think the Fringe plays a huge part in the inbuilt belief most comedians have that the world is looking at them. Every year we put ourselves onstage and tell the story of what we thought about that year, in a way that helps us to process and make sense of what we’ve experienced, and in a way that hopefully creates joy and laughter and intrigue for other people who can recognise their own experiences in the things we say. This year, as I suggested last week, I’m trying to come to look at my life not as a story but simply as something I’m experiencing. Last year the Edinburgh Fringe was cancelled, but I’d already made a show, so I just used lockdown to adapt that show into a film, and that meant I got to process the “narrative” of my year into something other people could see and, I hope, find meaning in. This year, nobody knows if the Fringe will happen or not (for what it’s worth, I think it absolutely shouldn’t, and very much don’t think I’ll be taking part in it if it does). As a result, I find myself not knowing what the “narrative” of my year will be.

This weekend the thought hit me with sudden clarity – “I think I’m just going to try and have a nice time.” These moments of clarity descend every now and again. I remember a few years ago at the Fringe I bumped into John-Luke Roberts on Day 4 and asked him how it was going and he said “You know what, I’ve actually just decided to have a really nice time this year. And to not worry so much about all the difficult stuff.” I saw him again near the end of the month and asked him if he’d managed to maintain that mindset and he said “Oh God no. But for a good while I did. And whenever it got tough, I just reminded myself and it made things a bit better.” I think I’m going to try to remind myself of the same things for as long as I’m able to keep that mindset, and to try and learn the lesson that turning your life into a story that makes sense to other people looking in is considerably less important than finding meaning in the days themselves. I’m sure I’ll still find some sort of solid creative outlet this year (perhaps it’ll be the Big Project I hinted at last week which, if it does happen, will be quite a big, long undertaking), but I’m going to try and stop worrying about what that will be. I’m also well aware of the irony of trying to process these epiphanies in a weekly newsletter, but hey ho.

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Last week the BBC announced their Festival Of Funny, a massive celebration of UK comedy new and old to help lift people’s spirits in the wake of fucking Covid. There are TV specials dedicated to comedy icons like Tommy Cooper and Victoria Wood, but maybe most exciting are the original pilots and radio specials from up-and-coming comics which are being showcased by the Festival. I’m particularly excited about the Delightful Sausage’s upcoming Radio 2 pilot.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Somehow I’d never seen it before, but this video of Dominic Monaghan and Elijah Wood being stupid during a press junket for The Return Of The King popped up on Twitter this week and really made my week.

Album Of The Week – A Scarcity Of Miracles by Jakzsyk, Fripp & Collins. I’ve got into a lot of trouble for listening to this this week, because Miranda says King Crimson are “pretentious” and “unlistenable.” I like prog, so I’m never going to agree with that, but I have eventually adapted to listen to Crimson on headphones instead of out loud. Anyway, this was a sort of secret King Crimson album released in 2011 which I never listened to because it was released under a different name. But it’s got Crimson mainstay Robert Fripp, plus old hands like Mel Collins and Tony Levin, so it’s more or less a legit KC album. It’s also decidedly on the more gentle/ambient/pretty end of their output, so even if you hate 10-minute three-way drum battles and polyrhythmic Chapman stick breakdowns, you might quite like it.

Film Of The Week – Adaptation, obvs, but I already banged on about it above, so I won’t be a bore and repeat myself. It’s good, though.

Book Of The Week – Love Factually: The Science Of Who, How And Why We Love by Laura Mucha. Laura Mucha spent several years travelling all over the world and interviewing strangers about their experience of romantic love, and has put together this really lovely, thought-provoking collage of different voices exploring how they feel about one of those subjects everybody feels slightly mystified by.

This Week’s Story

I’m afraid I’m doing another week with no short story in it, and hope you all understand! I started writing those short stories at the start of the year because I didn’t have much to work on at the time, and trying to write out some stuff in prose instead of working on a scripted thing felt like a nice change of focus for a bit. I’ve now got a bunch of other projects I need to pay attention to, so the short stories will probably become a “When I have the time to write up a new one” side-project rather than a regular fixture of this newsletter. I think there will be one next week!

Thanks as ever for reading – what did you make of this week’s issue? Let me know, and if you enjoyed it please feel free to share it with friends or encourage people to subscribe.

Here’s a picture of an Easter Egg I found in the park. Have a great week everyone,

Joz xx

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A weekly creative newsletter. The Tapes function as an interactive notebook/sketchpad exploring comedy, art, creativity, making stuff, etc.. More Info.