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Joz Norris

  • Tape 7: Edinburgh Fringe 2021

Oh hi there, and welcome back to the Fruit Salad Therapy Tapes, a weekly interactive sketchpad project from avid tree-climber and professional fool Joz Norris. You’re receiving this because you signed up via my website, but if at any point you decide this project is no longer for you, you’re welcome to unsubscribe any time. Please help yourself to a lollipop on the way out! And if you’re still here, read on for this week’s Tape…

Edinburgh Fringe 2021

2 weeks ago I suggested that I might try to collate together all your answers about when you all first went to the Edinburgh Fringe, either as a participant or an attendee, and cobble them together into a newsletter that was some sort of “tribute” to what the Fringe meant to us all. I guess this will, in essence, be that newsletter, but with a slight shift of focus, because this week’s question, again one geared towards the majority of people on this mailing list who are avid Fringe-goers or people to whom it means a lot, is:

Should the Edinburgh Fringe go ahead this year? If so, then in what form?

I’m in the early research stages of a big project about the Fringe, and have spent this week interviewing comedians and artists who perform there about how they got involved with it and what it came to mean to them in their years of being involved with it. I’ve also been asking them about whether they think it should go ahead this year, and whether they’d be part of it if it did. What I’ve been struck by is that not one person I’ve spoken to has said “I really want to be part of the Fringe, and I hope it happens this year.” But nor has anybody gone as far as saying “There absolutely shouldn’t be a Fringe, and I won’t be part of it if there is.” Everybody has sat somewhere in the region of “I feel like it can’t happen, or shouldn’t happen, but if it does go ahead I’m going to feel like I’m missing out if I’m not part of it.” Their reasons for thinking that have ranged from just missing out on the feeling of community and the thrill of being able to perform live again on the one hand or, more frequently, fears of missing out on career opportunities after a year of stalled progression. It’s made me wonder – to what extent do us comedians go to the Fringe because we feel like we should, rather than because there’s something we really need to say or do up there that we can’t do anywhere else? Which of those two reasons really has the stronger hold over us?

Of course, there’s just way too much uncertainty involved in the Covid situation for comics to actually be working with absolute clarity on a Fringe show, with that urgency of feeling “I simply have to take this show to the Fringe this year, there’s nowhere else that I can tell this story!” I know of a fair few people who are tentatively working on new ideas via work-in-progress Zoom shows, and those people perhaps have half-an-eye on the idea of a Fringe happening this year so that they have a ready-made outlet for those ideas, but are also carefully hedging their bets in the more-than-likely event that it ends up being called off. But I also wonder – are comedians right to fear that if they decided not to be part of the Fringe this year, that they would miss out on valuable career progression? Are we still working in an industry where the twenty-or-so comedians who “succeed” at one arts festival become the ones who generally court the most industry attention the rest of the year, or has the past year taught us comedians to find new outlets and new forms to organise our creativity around, as well as teaching “the industry” to look in less expected places for exciting new ideas?

Comedians like Alasdair Beckett-King have been proving how much you can achieve with home-made short-form digital content, while Escape The North, a weird interactive comedy gameshow created by Foxdog Studios with help from Sean Morley and a whole team of others, has set a high benchmark for being able to recreate that sense of an underground community where anything could happen that we perhaps once thought you could only find at the Fringe. Maybe we’re reaching the point where that sense of FOMO, of thinking “If I don’t go then I’m going to miss out on all the career opportunities and exposure I need to progress in comedy,” might no longer apply to the Fringe, and where we can channel our creativity into other avenues instead of letting our lives be dictated by a festival that happens for one month of the year. Maybe we’re approaching a moment where the reasons people take shows to the Edinburgh Fringe tips massively in favour of “Because there is something I need to creatively explore in this show that I can only do at the Fringe” and away from “Because the comedy industry makes me feel like I have to.” I certainly hope so, anyway.

What Shape Would It Take?

Of course, the Fringe Society has insisted that some form of Fringe will take place this year, either live or digital or a mixture of both, but I can’t help but have reservations about that. Practically, allowing a purely live Fringe to happen in the way it usually does seems riddled with potentially disastrous setbacks. I can’t imagine that any of the costs associated with putting on a Fringe show would suddenly be reduced, so it would involve asking artists to be liable for up to £10,000 worth of costs, in a year when their incomes have been absolutely decimated, but without any of the assurances that come from a festival with an on-the-ground audience of over 3 million. Do we know that there will be a large audience for the Fringe this year? I can’t help but imagine that there will still be restrictions on international travel by August, so at the very least the international audience is likely to be sharply reduced. Those who do decide they want to be part of the Fringe might well have less money to splurge on dozens of show tickets this year, what with the hit everyone’s finances have taken, so there’s just no guarantee that those performers spending thousands on mounting a return to the Fringe are actually going to have access to the same size of audiences as they usually would to help them recoup their costs, not to mention the additional impact of any social distancing measures that might still need to be in place for audiences. Finally, if any one person in your audience on any day across the month-long run turns out to have tested positive for Covid and you get an instruction to self-isolate for 10 days, then that’s over a third of your run immediately cancelled.

The only type of Fringe I can imagine working would be one where a handful of large venues – the Pleasance Grand, for example – are allowed to put on a limited programme of live shows to play to distanced audiences, and everybody else who registers streams their show online. But this just feels like a total betrayal of the open-access principles the Fringe was built on. The whole point of the Fringe is that anybody can book a venue, whether it’s the back of a van or a little room above a pub or a proper theatre or whatever. Presumably if only a handful of big live shows are allowed to go ahead, they’d need to be dominated by big names to create that audience familiarity to guarantee a success. Who makes the programming decisions about which shows these would be? The venues? The Fringe Society itself? However it goes, rewarding a handful of big names with live shows and relegating everybody else to an online slot would seem like a crystallisation of the hierarchy that already influences a lot of what goes on at the Fringe, but that is usually a bit more invisible.

As much as an online show could theoretically be seen by any number of people around the world, I can’t really believe that a small, undiscovered show could break out and find an audience in the same way as it could at a live Fringe. So much of how those sleeper hits work is the opportunity to strike up a real relationship with someone on the street, or in the audience of another show, and to sell your show to them with real passion and conviction, so that when they see it they pass the word on to others with the same sort of frenzied “I stumbled across this amazing thing!” energy. I can’t help but feel like an online Fringe would preserve a lot of what is unfair and rigid and mechanical about the Fringe while stamping out a lot of its spontaneity and creativity and community. Mind you, perhaps things like Escape The North put the lie to that, and prove that those underground hits can still happen. I know a few people who actually have their fingers quietly crossed for the Fringe coming back in full this year, because after a year of our livelihoods and usual creative outlets being decimated, it would be lovely to have something on the horizon to really look forward to that reminds us of the old ways of doing things. And I can’t blame them for that, I’m also frequently daydreaming about when I’ll be able to get back to doing the things I love. I’d love to hear all your thoughts about this too! What do you think about any potential Edinburgh Fringe in 2021?

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – In recognition of the fact that he’s unable to perform at Melbourne Comedy Festival this year, Mark Watson is putting on a bunch of online shows for the festival, including a third Watsonathon, the 24-hour marathon streaming shows he’s been periodically curating and hosting during the various lockdowns. Expect dozens of idiots doing overly-ambitious challenges and stupid stunts to keep themselves awake for long enough. You can book tickets for the Watsonathon, and for Mark’s other Melbourne shows, here.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I have no more idea than Steve does who he is, but this supercut of one guy repeatedly electrocuting himself is so good. This week’s “funniest thing” was a toss-up between that guy and the Tiny Chef, who I’ve just discovered on Instagram. I’ve decided to include them both.

Album Of The Week – Carnage by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis. This is brand-new – Cave has ditched the Bad Seeds and recorded a new album accompanied only by Ellis’s upsettingly beautiful electronic loops. It’s a move I think provoked out of necessity by the pandemic, but also a continuation of the direction he’s been moving in since 2013’s Push The Sky Away, with each subsequent album giving the band less and less to do and shining an ever harsher, more minimalist spotlight on Cave’s own processing of trauma and grief. This has hit me in the heart harder than anything he’s done except possibly Skeleton Tree. I can’t hear him sing “There’s a madness in her and a madness in me, and together it forms a kind of sanity, oh baby don’t leave me” without bursting into tears.

Film Of The Week – WitnessWe watched this because it was on iPlayer, and looked alright. It’s absolutely bizarre. Harrison Ford plays a cop who hides out in the Amish community to escape the attentions of his murderous corrupt boss. You imagine it’s going to be some sort of grounded crime drama, but then it plays out like a Mills & Boon novel, with Ford sweating in shirtsleeves sanding down some wood and gazing intensely at Kelly McGillis as he says “I’m pretty good at whacking,” only for her to simmer “Tomorrow I’ll let out your trousers” back at him. I assumed it was generally considered a very silly film, then googled it and found out it was nominated for Best Picture and got Ford his only Oscar nomination, and seems to be critically adored. Mad film.

Book Of The Week – Meet Me In The Bathroom: Rebirth And Rock & Roll In New York City 2001-2011 by Lizzy Goodman. I’ll put my hands up, I’ve never listened to the Strokes, or LCD Soundsystem, or Interpol, or Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Anyway, turns out they were all part of a “scene,” so I guess that’s why they passed me by, I was listening to a lot of ELO at the time. Goodman’s book weaves together the voices of everyone involved in that scene to make a massive collage of what it was like for those who lived it. I’m loving it and I don’t even like the Strokes, so imagine how good it’d be if you did.

This Week’s Story:

I’ll be honest, as you might have been able to tell from my having not done one for a few weeks, I’m going to phase out the short story and remove it as a regular feature, because I’ve got too much work to do to write one every week, and I’ve now exhausted all the old ones I already had written up. But, because I promised you one more, below the picture break here’s one final story I recently wrote up. It’s about an embarrassing audition I had to do once.

What did you make of this week’s issue? Let me know your thoughts, I always enjoy hearing them and they always help me to formulate new thoughts for next week! If you’re enjoying the Therapy Tapes and would like to recommend them to a friend, or encourage people to subscribe, I’d really appreciate it!

Hope you all have a lovely week, all the best,

Joz xx Here’s a picture of me discovering the secret silent meditation garden hidden in Regent’s Park, which I never knew about:

Love Island

Last year I was put up for a casting for Love Island, the disgusting ITV dating show which seems to be being quietly retired by the channel. Presumably they’re using Covid as an excuse to kill it off as an alternative to killing off all its stars one-by-one. Last year Love Island was sponsored by Just Eat, and in between ad breaks there was an ident in which a Just Eat delivery guy is hanging out with the other Love Island stars in the villa. He is identified solely by his Just Eat crash-helmet, which obscures his face, but other than that he’s just hanging out in Bermuda shorts by the pool with the guys. The role was silent, but called for lots of “really expressive, natural physical comedy” in his stances and gestures. The casting breakdown specifically called for someone who looked totally normal, and therefore out-of-place among the more toned, sculpted, Adonis-like figures that usually populate Love Island, and the humour of these idents would come from this utterly normal-looking guy hanging out with the tanned beauties as though it was completely natural. I’ve got a perfectly acceptable, but by no means exceptional body, and it ticks the box for looking utterly run-of-the-mill alongside a bevy of other more toned, aesthetically beautiful bodies, so I thought I would probably do ok on that front. And in terms of my physical comedy, I’m good at acting like a slightly gawky, out-of-place guy who’s trying to carry himself with a natural confidence that belies his gawkiness. It’s a manner I’ve carefully cultivated over several comedy shows, so I thought I was in with a decent chance at this. Even better, if I got the job I needn’t be embarrassed about having done something in association with such a horrible show, because nobody would even see my face and hear my voice (I’m not slagging off the show from a position of moral superiority – my housemates and I were absolutely hooked by it, and watched it religiously. It was only when watching archive footage of Caroline Flack crying while dancing on Strictly that we felt our hearts open and realised the show was cruel and had directly contributed to the deaths of three people, and decided to stop watching it).

The first audition went well. I was told to strip down to my swimming shorts in the waiting room rather than in the audition room to save time in the actual casting, so there was a lot more flesh on show in that waiting room than is usual for commercial castings. By and large, most of the guys auditioning looked similar to me – plain, pasty, unremarkable bodies and gawky, funny faces (quite why agents seemed to have made a point of putting up clients with funny faces when they would be completely obscured is neither here nor there). There were a handful of more beautiful, chiselled, designer stubbled guys there too, but I assumed that, like the bikini-clad super-models that were also dotted around the room waiting to be called upstairs, these guys were auditioning to play the other characters, the actual Love Island contestants who would be interacting with the Just Eat guy, our hero. I went up there, put a crash-helmet on and stood dumbly next to some beautiful women in swimming costumes and the directors laughed at how out-of-place I looked, and said I was great, and thanks for coming in. I didn’t bother to find this hurtful because I agreed with them. When I got the email from my agent telling me I’d got a recall, I was happy but not overly surprised – it seemed that playing a weird ordinary-looking guy who looks out-of-place among jocks and supermodels was something I was a natural fit for, so I turned up at the recall feeling relaxed.

My relaxation was perhaps the initial cause for the first part of my downfall, which was that I had forgotten to bring my swimming shorts this time. I realised it with a numb sort of horror when asked to undress in the waiting room, and the more I thought about it the more convinced I became that the boxer shorts I was wearing that day were a pair I only wear when all my other underwear is in the wash, because the pair in question is several sizes too big for me and often falls down even under my trousers, gathering in a bunch halfway down my thighs. This often used to happen halfway through kids’ birthday parties back when I was a kids’ entertainer, because a lot of jumping around tended to be what set them plummeting. On more than one occasion I would realise while stood in front of a room full of toddlers that my underwear had fallen down under my trousers and have to deal with the intrusive thought “Thank God I’m not going to pull my trousers down during this kids’ party, because if I did I would go to prison,” as though pulling my trousers down in the middle of the party was ever something I would seriously consider if my underwear had been in its correct place.

I nervously stripped down to this enormous pair of underwear, and sat with my thighs tightly clasped together as I hugged my waistband around myself, and waited to be called in. It was now that I noticed that, unlike the initial casting, I now seemed to be the only person in the waiting room with an ordinary, unremarkable body and a funny, normal face. I got a little thrill of excitement – perhaps I was down to only one or two people for the role of the Just Eat guy, and the other guys here were all recalled to play the contestants. The casting director then came downstairs to quickly run the brief past me and the other semi-naked actors.

“So it’s gonna be exactly the same as the first casting,” he said, “but there’s been one tiny change to the brief, which is that we’re not playing it that this guy’s out-of-place any more. He’s completely part of the gang, he’s just like the others, he belongs there, the only thing that’s weird about him is that he’s got a crash-helmet on. We think the comedy will come across more if it’s just played totally straight, but with this silly crash-helmet.” I was gobsmacked. Are crash-helmets silly? Is there anything funny about a beautiful man wearing a crash-helmet? Does the sentence “The only thing that’s weird about him is that he’s wearing a crash-helmet?” make any sense? I had been thrown unexpectedly into a tailspin questioning the very nature of comedy, and now simply wasn’t the time for that sort of self-doubt. The more important issue quickly became apparent in my mind – I was a terrible fit for this new brief. Quite why they had decided to grant me a recall when I was a good fit for the initial brief, but not for this new brief they had decided on that did a complete 180 on what the joke actually was is beyond me. I can only assume that the decisions were made entirely separately, perhaps even by different people, and I had somehow slipped through the net before someone could say “Oh, well presumably not this guy any more, then?” I looked around at everyone around me, marvelling at how perfect their muscles and skin and the cuts of their beards were, and was then called to go upstairs with one of the women who was auditioning who, it emerged, were all models rather than actors. I trailled up the stairs after her desperately clutching an enormous pair of blue boxers around my waist. She turned to look at me at one point and frowned in puzzlement.

“Sorry, I forgot my swimming shorts,” I said. We went in and I somehow managed to put on a crash helmet with one hand while using the other to hold my pants up and preserve my dignity, and then I was told to sit down – a blessed relief, as it at least freed up my arms to do some more funny gestures without having to worry about exposing myself on camera. The casting director explained that me and this woman would imagine we were making out in a hot tub, something I have never done with anybody. This poor woman sat on my knee and then, presumably already quite embarrassed to be sitting on the knee of a physically quite unremarkable and socially very awkward man wearing pants that are much too big for him, grabbed my head and started passionately making out with the crash helmet, which I must confess looked utterly bizarre from my vantage point. Her lips pressed against the visor and I was immediately reminded of the scene in Independence Day when the aliens press a dead scientist up against the glass and squeeze his vocal cords in order to communicate with the humans. I’m not saying that her lips squashed up against a flat surface made her look like a dead scientist being squeezed by an alien tentacle, I’m just saying that that’s where my brain went and I think it may well have inhibited my performance because I was thinking more about aliens than about being a cool dude making out with someone in a hot tub. After several prolonged seconds of this, the casting director asked us to stop.

“That’s fantastic, thank you,” he said, looking at her. He then turned his attention to me. “You sort of look like you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing. Remember, you’re just one of the guys. You’ve got this beautiful girl here, you want her, she wants you, so just let yourself behave the way you would in that situation.” This was infuriating. I had never been in this situation before. I knew my Stanislavsky, and knew that it was very difficult for an actor to give a convincing performance if they’re not able to deploy an analogous situation in their emotional memory to the one they’re portraying. At the start of the year in question I had read a book about asexuality because I was increasingly convinced I might sit somewhere on the asexual spectrum. I had backed out of every potential sexual encounter of the last nine years, because my brain really struggled with the concept, and I had not had sex since I was twenty-one. This seemed like an unnecessary amount of detail to provide, however, and would likely only embarrass the poor woman further, so I decided to keep quiet about it. Mostly I was preoccupied with how unfair it was to have ended up in such a humiliating scenario as a direct result of being a good fit for what they were initially looking for. The fact that I came across awkward and uncomfortable trying to kiss a beautiful woman in a swimming costume should have made me a shoo-in for what the client first thought they wanted. How unfair that the client should realise they hadn’t properly thought about what they wanted, and decide on something else they would prefer, and for me to bear the brunt of that decision in my ritual embarrassment, me who would have been such a valuable, loyal employee if they had only stuck to their initial brief! Where’s the humanity?

“What are you doing with your arm? Where are you going to put your arm?” asked the casting director. It was only then that I noticed that my arms had, indeed, simply been hanging limply by my sides for the entire time that this woman had been kissing my helmet. I may be an overtly non-sexual creature, but I am no fool or ignoramus – I knew roughly what I was supposed to do with my hands, so rather than voice my feelings of how unfair the situation was considering my sexual history, I placed my arm around the woman’s waist. She sighed frustratedly, and pushed my hand lower. I decided to go with it rather than seem prudish, and looked over to the casting director. Surely this was enough. What more do people in these sorts of situations do? The director seemed unconvinced, and I realised that my right arm was still trailing at my side, so I started trying to think about what it could get up to. Reaching over and placing it on her leg or somewhere like that would, I was worried, start to look overly knotted and complicated onscreen, so I just perched my right hand jauntily on my own hip, like I was auditioning to play Dick Whittington, and then looked back to the casting director for approval. His face didn’t change, but his opinion did seem to solidify. “Ok, let’s go for another one,” he said.

I’d love to tell you that there were numerous such takes and retakes, each one more embarrassing and hilarious than the last. Sadly, this story more or less reaches its end here, as I believe two takes were more than enough for the casting director to make up his mind. We spent another ten seconds or so with me posing a little like Peter Pan inexplicably sharing a hot-tub with a swimsuit model, with her continuing to kiss the living daylights out of a crash-helmet, and eventually the guy asked us to stop and thanked us for coming in. I didn’t even make eye contact with either of them as I gathered my voluminous pants around myself and scampered downstairs in order to get dressed. I just decided to try and think about it as little as possible from now on. I did watch that series of Love Island, and shuddered every time the ident came on between ad breaks. I was so horrified to see it that I never looked close enough to see if the woman I auditioned with got the part. I hope she did. She earned it.

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