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Joz Norris

  • Tape 71: The Dream Factory Part 2

The Dream Factory: Part 2

So, where was I? In last week’s Tape I started taking the wraps off The Dream Factory, the sitcom project I’ve been making with Miranda Holms (co-writer) and Steve Doherty (producer) for BBC Radio 4 over the last year-and-a-half and haven’t yet said that much about in this newsletter as I wanted to wait until its existence was a bit more of a concrete thing. Last week I talked about where the idea came from and how the writing process came together into two episodes that felt really exciting and original, so the next step was bringing those scripts to life. When it came to assembling a cast, this project represented the fulfilling of something of a lifelong dream – making and acting in my own sitcom – so I wanted to find a way of balancing out the twin impulses of wanting to put together an impressive, starry cast of people whose work I admired from a distance, and assembling a cast of close friends I loved working with. I didn’t want to either make a show with a cast consisting exclusively of people I’d worked with before as that might have felt a bit like a waste of a big opportunity to work with people I’d never had the chance to work with, but I also didn’t want to build a cast of big names I’d never met that felt a bit awkward and less like a team. What we ended up putting together was a perfect combination of comics and actors whose work I adored but who I hadn’t really worked with closely before – Stevie MartinDesiree Burch and Kiell Smith-Bynoe – with actors and comics I’d worked with plenty and who I always love working with – Roisin O’MahonyChiara Goldsmith and Ben Target. The common factors across all six was how talented they all are, and how much fun they are to collaborate with.

Stevie plays my character’s co-worker and best friend Anna and Desiree plays my boss Paula, while Kiell, Roisin, Chiara and Ben played various supporting roles between them, from other co-workers in the Dream Factory offices to bizarre characters appearing within the dreams themselves. Prior to the first read-through I had started to get a bit nervous about the scripts – were they funny enough, were they punchy enough, and so on. All of those nerves completely disappeared as soon as I heard that cast bring them to life for the first time. I think before you hear actors read a script, there’s a tendency to need to crowbar the thing full of more gags and silly moments than it perhaps needs, because of the fear that what you’ve got on the page isn’t enough. The read-through reminded me that there’s a fine balance to be found between effort and restraint, that great actors can take dialogue and find the perfect way to make it feel alive and funny, whether there’s a clearly signposted gag in it or not. Leaving some space within a script for actors to inject their own personality rather than stifling that with too many gags or forced laughs is a bit of an art form, and it was a real delight to hear that script come alive. From Stevie’s razor-sharp deadpanning to Desiree’s exasperated bombast to the frankly bewildering array of mad voices that Kiell, Roisin, Chiara and Ben conjured up, I felt genuinely very proud of hearing the words Miranda and I had written, guided by Steve, turning into a fully realised world in front of (beside?) our ears.

Desiree Burch bringing Paula to life

Writing Lessons – Sitcom Protagonists

The biggest, and most personally shocking, writing lesson that came out of the recording days, was to do with the morality of sitcom protagonists, particularly those that are based on yourself as a writer-performer. When writing The Dream Factory, I had taken the now fairly ubiquitous approach of modelling the central character very clearly on myself, and using my own name for them (see Grandma’s House; Ladhood; Feel Good; Flight Of The Conchords; Damned Andrew; Phil Ellis Is Trying; Out Of My Mind, etc etc ad infinitum). Sitcom characters are, of course, defined by their lack of growth or ability to change, so that they are doomed to always repeat the same basic mistakes, founded on their central flaws or character defects. I approached writing “Joz,” then, by identifying which flawed qualities I was most aware of in myself, and most consciously tried to work constructively on in my day-to-day life so that they didn’t define my behaviour. The fictional Joz would have to be a version of me that didn’t work on those qualities, that didn’t even have any awareness of them, so they came to define him. He therefore came to be accident-prone, clumsy, oblivious to others, highly self-involved, flippant, and committed to trying to treat everything with a carefree, affectedly jovial disinterest that made it impossible for him to meaningfully engage with anything that mattered to anybody other than him. This is a version of myself I’m aware could exist, if I had never gone into therapy to examine all of these things, among others, or could exist again if I ever stopped working on myself. He’s me in my late 20s, essentially, frozen there perpetually.

As such, figuring out what sort of impulses drove Joz’s decisions, and what sort of behaviour it led him to, came incredibly easily. I knew exactly what he would do in response to any given situation, and how he would try to fix any of the problems he would cause, because he was me. It was particularly horrifying, then, when it came to recording it to realise quite how awful a character he was. The rest of the cast were unanimous in physically reacting to specific lines even in read-through – shaking their heads, tutting, etc – and seeming completely appalled by the selfishness of his behaviour. Of course, we were under no illusions that the character behaved well in the scripts we had written – he was deliberately conceived as a chaotic idiot whose selfishness caused havoc for everyone around him even as he pretended to be a good friend or hard worker. But I suddenly felt very exposed and odd about the fact that I had given him my own name, and that he clearly represented a warped, black mirror version of myself rather than being anything I could claim as purely fictional.

Of course, ultimately that emotional journey I went on was a sign that, I hope, we had created a good sitcom protagonist. Someone who is likeable and compelling and funny even while making choices that are selfish, stupid, wrong-headed and doomed to failure, is the engine of all great sitcom – even better if those choices are founded in something real and recognisably human. Steve Kaplan codified comedy as “an ordinary person struggling against insurmountable odds without many of the required skills and tools with which to win yet never giving up hope” in his book The Hidden Tools Of Comedyand further clarifies that “Comedy tells us the truth about people. Drama lets us dream about who we can be. Comedy helps us live with who we are.” I think the Joz of The Dream Factory, for all of his faults, achieves that really well. It’s just very interesting to come to the realisation that you can write a character simply following your own natural impulses responding to the question “What would choose to do if I didn’t have to worry about what would happen next?” and find that the consequences of those choices is, of course, total chaos that hurts everybody around me. If nothing else, the process of recording it made me proud of the time and effort I put into not being that person over the last few years, and I’m happy I get to exorcise him through comedy instead. He’s an absolute bellend, it turns out.

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Ben and Miranda and I are launching a new creative forum/symposium/venture called Dinner Time! It’s a place for exploring process and coming up with new things. It’s part of a residency with VAULT Creative Arts and starts in October. Come and join us!

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – There’s a bit in a recent episode of Rick & Morty (Season 6 Episode 3 I think?) where Jerry puts in a jigsaw puzzle piece and gasps, and I’m not sure why, but it made me laugh harder than anything I’ve seen in a couple of weeks. Jerry is one of the funniest characters ever written.

Book Of The Week – Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood. I loved Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This earlier this year, so am going back to read her memoir about her frankly insane-sounding dad. I’m not far in yet, but it’s really great. There are David Sedaris vibes in its very honest, searingly funny family memoir elements.

Album Of The Week – Strange Weirdos by Loudon Wainwright III. Told you I was listening to a lot of this guy’s stuff at the moment. This was the soundtrack to the film Knocked Up, which is a shame, as you’d hear that and assume it was therefore a load of absolute shit (I’ve not seen Knocked Up, I’m going on reputation), but this is a really good singer-songwriter wonky folk album in the Tom Waits mould, and probably my second-favourite Loudon album after the great Attempted Mustache.

Film Of The Week – See How They Run. This new murder mystery from This Country director Tom George is a lot of fun. It’s admittedly quite traditional and familiar, and doesn’t stray one millimetre from the long-established beats of gentle whodunit farce, but Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan are great in it, and it’s a good time at the cinema. Plus it has a bunch of familiar comedy faces (Reece Shearsmith! Charlie Cooper! Sian Clifford! Tim Key! Kieran Hodgson sans dialogue!) so that’s fun.

That’s all for this week! What did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts, or tales from your own writing projects! As ever, if you did want to send this newsletter to a friend or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it. Catch you all next time, and take care of yourselves in the meantime,

Joz xx

PS Here’s Stevie and I doing some sort of wacky promo shot. Not sure what we were going for in terms of vibe. Looks funny though, I’ll definitely be tuning in!

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