As any readers familiar with the inner workings of the comedy industry will know, the comedy year tends to run on an academic calendar, with September being the end of the yearly cycle and the start of the next one, thanks to the significance of the Edinburgh Fringe within comedy. This September, I’ve felt oddly like I’m at the end of not just an annual cycle, but of a 10-year one as well, and I’ve been trying to be very honest with myself about what my priorities are going forwards. I started trying to pursue a career in comedy in 2011 by doing open mic nights around London. Ten years on (2020 and ‘21 only count as one year, obvs), I feel like I need to look at what I’ve achieved in those years of exploring, experimenting and building, and work out what lessons to keep hold of, what to change, and where to put my energy and focus. I’d like the next ten years to be about consolidating what I’ve learned and the skills I’ve developed, and moving into avenues of work I’ve never really given myself permission to pursue with my whole heart.
A few weeks ago, when we recorded The Dream Factory for Radio 4, I was so delighted and surprised by how in my element I felt. A lot of the anxiety I have often felt, and still feel, around live performance, melted away. I was just delighted to be throwing around ideas with talented people in a room, safe in the knowledge that what worked would make it into the finished product, and what didn’t would be trimmed away. When performing live shows, even ones I’m incredibly proud of that I have objective reason to believe are good, there are parts of my brain that never stop feeling nervy, desperately hoping that the next thing that comes out of my mouth will go down ok with the audience. Of course, that unpredictable energy is part of what makes live comedy such a thrill, and I do love performing live, but I never feel like I thrive in that environment in the same way that other effortless stand-ups who I hugely admire seem to. I always walk away from it thinking “I got away with it,” even if the audience has just given a standing ovation. Deep down, I think I find it hard to convince myself that I really belong there.
Before Covid, I was about to start trying to push myself more towards making screen or audio work – be that podcasts, radio, TV, film, online, whatever – because I was already aware of this tendency in myself, and wanted to move in a direction where I could perhaps feel safer, more secure, while still being able to have fun writing and performing and making stuff. Then, of course, the pandemic happened, and all my efforts to move in that direction more or less stalled, other than the radio work I started making (where, again, I felt more in my element than I did onstage). When live comedy recovered, I had gone so long without it, and felt so directionless in terms of where to move next creatively, that making a new live show was the thing I wanted to do above everything else, because it was the thing I knew how to do. I needed to rebuild my own confidence and sense of agency over my life by working in a form I was familiar with. I consciously tried to make sure that that didn’t become an excuse for just falling back on old habits, and made the effort to work in very new ways, and push myself harder than I had before, and elevate the quality of what I was making, and I’m enormously proud of everything we achieved with Blink. But now, as I put that show on the shelf for the time being, I find myself revisiting the thing I was starting to tell myself back in 2020, before everything stopped – what I really want to do is to flip my creative approach on its head. For the last ten years, making live shows has been the thing I do that absorbs all my attention, and the thing I have depended on creatively and financially, while writing or acting in scripted stuff has been something I try to work on when I have the time, or done for fun every now and again. I’d like to swap those round, ideally. The question of how I do that is one that involves internalising a lesson I have gradually been learning for several years now, and one that I hope I can pass on to any readers struggling with how to make similar changes in their work, creative or otherwise.
Doing some “acting.”
The idea that one day I wanted “to do some stuff on TV or radio, or in films” hovered in the back of my mind for years while I was making live shows. Live comedy was what I had chosen to do, and a thing I loved doing, and a thing I was becoming good at, but it was never my intention to end up being a professional live/touring comic, or to be a theatremaker, or anything like that. I wanted, ultimately, to write and act in scripted comedy like the stuff I adored growing up. Live comedy was a thing I was doing in order to master my craft, and build an audience, and create some awareness of the kinds of worlds I worked in, in the hope that one day it would lead me to working in scripted stuff. The problem was, I seemed to spend all that time thinking that that kind of work would just arrive by itself, in response to the live work I was making. That perhaps if I established enough of a reputation for myself as a good Fringe act, then “the industry” would come knocking and ask me what sorts of TV shows I wanted to make or get cast in. As far as I know, something along those lines might still happen for a small handful of acts that absolutely smash the Fringe each year, but if you’re not one of that very select group, you have to ask yourself – what, specifically, do I actually want to do? And am I just waiting for it to happen to me, or am I creating it for myself?
This year I was very flattered to receive a bunch of requests from other comics and artists to give them some advice on how to “make it” or to figure out how to make “things happen” for themselves (requests I was baffled to receive because I spend a lot of my time feeling like I don’t really know how to do any of that stuff for myself, let alone in a way I could pass on to others). Each time I tried to get them to pin down exactly what they wanted – what kind of work they wanted to be given the opportunity to be making – and asking these questions of other people at the same time as asking them of myself led to me noticing two things. Half the time, the artists I spoke to weren’t sure what they wanted. They wanted to elevate the level of perceived success around their creative work without knowing exactly what form they wanted that to take, and therefore not knowing where to send their own attention. When I spoke to people who were able to pin down a specific ambition – “I want to get a run at this theatre;” “I want to perform at this festival;” “I want to make a radio show,” etc – I would then ask “Have you written to that theatre booker/that festival booker/that radio commissioner/whoever can directly help you with this ambition to ask for the thing you want?” The answer was usually no. I’m reporting all this because these blocks those other artists were encountering are identical to ones I’ve encountered often when trying to wrestle with the difficulty of changing up the form of the work I want to make – what I’m trying to learn here for myself seems to be one of the central obstacles everybody encounters in any creative career. The question of knowing what you want, and the question of being focused enough on it to take the specific constructive steps that can help you achieve it seem to be two of the things that cause artists to lose their way more than anything else.
I had no idea how to make Blink until I spoke to Lee at Soho Theatre very specifically about it and learned about QLab and learned about Arts Council funding. I had no idea how to pitch radio shows until I spoke to Sioned at the BBC and learned about Proteus and was introduced to Steve Doherty, who now produces all my radio shows. The projects I’ve made that I am genuinely proud of were the results of my going to people and saying “This is exactly what I want to make. How do I go about making that?” rather than scrabbling around in the dark on my own, and waiting, and hoping, which is what I’ve sometimes been guilty of in other areas.
For years I told myself that all I wanted to do was to make work that other people respected and liked, and be able to do that while making half-decent money. In the most generic terms possible, I just wanted to be “making comedy” and for that comedy to “do well,” and I think I expected the rest of the world to step in and make the decisions about what either of those terms meant, rather than being in control of them myself. That’s what I’m working on changing now, I think. Just as you can be in control of your own measures for success when going into a Fringe run, you can be in control of the kind of creative avenues you want to go down, and what it is you’re seeking to get out of them. What it requires is for you to be specific and honest about what it is you want, and to share that specificity and honesty with the other people you work alongside, and to ask for their help, and to work proactively and positively on whatever is within your power to work on.
What do you guys reckon? Have you ever navigated, or are you navigating, a similar period of changing priorities where you’ve needed to make these sorts of big decisions? What sort of tools or processes have you used to help you invest the right energies into the right things? Always keen to hear how my ramblings resonate with you all, so let me know what you reckon!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – I’m sure I don’t need to tell many of my readers this, but John Kearns is currently on Taskmaster and he’s really funny on it. Make sure you’re watching. Channel 4 on Thursdays at 9pm. (Psst, this is top secret, but there might be one or two moments during the series that I helped out with a little bit – let me know if you think you can spot which moments they were!)
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – It’s a double whammy for John on Taskmaster this week, because watching him type out a bunch of signs in the Wingdings font, then be unable to obey any of the signs because he couldn’t remember what any of them said, is likely to be a series highlight for me.
Book Of The Week – Directing Actors by Judith Weston. Told you I was taking positive action for this whole “I want to write and act in more scripted projects” thing! This is one of the most acclaimed books about what actors and directors can bring to their collaborative relationships, and it’s giving me loads to think about in terms of how I can improve and fine-tune my screen acting if I want to do more of this work. Highly recommended to any other actors or directors looking to hone their craft!
Film Of The Week – Don’t Worry Darling. Ok, someone’s gonna have to explain to me why this is being slated. Is it purely because of the bad PR around Olivia Wilde and Florence Pugh having a fight on-set? Or is it something more misogynistic than that? I’ve not read that much about it but am baffled by how much it’s being review-bombed, because I thought it was brilliant. It’s not perfect, and there are elements of the story that could’ve been fine-tuned a bit more, but it’s saying some interesting things in inventive ways, and it’s incredibly well-made. I can’t remember the last time I got so swept up by a film, it’s really intense stuff. Harry Styles isn’t great, to be fair.
Album Of The Week – Rolling Golden Holy by Bonny Light Horseman. This has been the year in which Anais Mitchell morphed from a singer-songwriter I quite liked into one of my absolute favourite artists. Her solo album this year is still probably my album of the year, and now her band Bonny Light Horseman has released their second album and it’s brilliant. It’s more focused on original material compared to the traditional folk reinventions of their first one, but it’s still warm and cosy and glorious and I love it.
That’s all for this week! As ever, if you wanted to share this newsletter with a friend, or encourage other people to subscribe, it’s hugely appreciated. Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,
PS Here’s a lovely area near my mum’s house called the Warren where I visited this weekend. Someone tied bits of bark with nice words on them to the tree. I’m not telling you what the words are, you’ll have to visit yourself, it’s a secret.