Hi there, and welcome back to the Fruit Salad Therapy Tapes, a weekly interactive notebook project from celebrated nuisance and disgraced court magician Joz Norris. You’re receiving this because you signed up via my website, but if you’ve decided that ENOUGH IS ENOUGH then you can unsubscribe here – please don’t tell the others what we spoke of in here. And if you’re still with me, read on for this week’s Tape!
I’ve Got Rhythm. I’ve Got Music.
Last week I was sent a piece of music by the composer James Oldham. James and I have corresponded a few times over the last year because he’s currently writing a PhD about comic timing in music (not as in, choosing to employ comic timing in the way you perform a certain piece of music to an audience, but music which has funny ideas embedded into the composition itself), a subject about which there is apparently virtually no academic research, and because he thinks I’m one of the only comedians who makes work that explicitly explores that subject. The piece of music was a new composition of James’s which, he felt, followed similar structures, rhythms and patterns as my show Joz Norris Is Dead. Long Live Mr Fruit Salad. I won’t lie, parts of this piece of music were quite irritating, in the way that really interesting creative work often is. It was formed of several looped, repeating phrases which would almost get somewhere and then abruptly start again, before turning into something slower and more collapsing in its second half. It was a sometimes frustrating, always interesting, and genuinely funny piece of music to listen to and I did feel like there were ideas within it that I had tried to explore in that show, frustrated expectations and irritating repetitiousness and all. (If you never saw the show in question and want to know more about it, there is a secret recording you can access, and you can find out more about how to purchase it here).
It made me think I might write about rhythm in comedy this week. As such, this week’s question which I’d love to hear your thoughts on, is:
Do you ever listen to music and find it funny? Do you ever watch comedy and find it affects you in the same way music does?
The majority of the best comedy shows and routines I’ve ever made have been at least partially set to music, because it’s a huge part of how my brain works when imagining things. The reason, I think, is because I find music inherently funny, in a way I don’t really understand. I’ll be listening to something and suddenly realise that the rhythm of what I’m listening to has synced up perfectly with the rhythm of my thoughts or feelings at the time, and what I end up writing or imagining or conjuring will end up emotionally and tonally synced exactly to that piece of music, to the extent that I don’t feel there’s anything funny or original or interesting about the idea unless it’s performed along to the piece of music that spawned it. The Mr Fruit Salad show was the first time I made this process explicit, with every single setpiece being an attempt to explore the rhythm of a particular piece of music and come up with an idea, a sketch, a character, a voice, a routine, a train of thought, or whatever else, that matched the rhythm of the music playing at the time. It had the appearance of a very anarchic, chaotic, semi-improvised show, but the musical skits in particular were performed more or less word-for-word the same every single day. They were synced precisely to the music.
I still laugh every time I listen to the song “21st Century Schizoid Man” by the 70s prog band King Crimson – the section at about 4:40 of that video is still, I think, the funniest musical sequence ever recorded. I don’t think it’s supposed to be funny, but its comic timing is perfect. When I saw them live, saxophonist Mel Collins played the classic swing track “Take The A Train” by Duke Ellington over the top of that section, and I was the only person at the gig who burst out laughing. I think King Crimson, in general, are way too pretentious to actually know that what they’re doing is funny, but the way they juxtapose clashing rhythms together, both live and on their records, seems to me to follow the rules of comic timing. I couldn’t explain to you why I feel that, other than to say that I feel music in the same place that I feel comedy.
The Rhythm Of Comedy
I had always assumed that this was just a vaguely synesthetic thing very specifically tied to my own subjective experience of the artforms of music and comedy, and that it wouldn’t ever be anything I managed to process or explain with any sort of logic or organising system. I still sort of think that, but then last week the writer Jon Brittain said something to me which started to shift my understanding of rhythm in comedy a little more. I was interviewing Jon about his journey from stand-up into comedy writing, and, talking about a shift in his stand-up persona towards something slower and more downbeat, he said:
I thought if I could make the gig work at the speed that my brain works then I don’t need to be constantly panicking, I can control that. Whereas before, my brain doesn’t work that fast, so I’d get stuck and stop.
The idea of making a gig work at the speed your brain works at felt like such a good description of what makes good comedy, for me. I’ve never made much of a secret of the fact that I find conventional, traditional stand-up comedy very difficult to laugh at, but actually that’s not really a fair description of how I feel about it. There are loads of relatively straight stand-ups (by which I mean, people whose comedy is principally built out of them standing at a mic and telling stories as opposed to big, costumed, nonsense setpieces) who I think are absolutely brilliant and who create the sort of gut-laughs that feel like they’ve been punched out of me – John Kearns, Jess Fostekew, Will Andrews, Desiree Burch, Maria Bamford, Stuart Laws, Helen Duff to name a few. But the thing I find really uninspiring in stand-up is when a performer is following the rhythm of stand-up instead of following the rhythm of their own thoughts and feelings.
You’ll be familiar with the rhythm of stand-up – keep an ear out the next time you’re watching a stand-up routine. Try your best to disassociate from meaning and from language, try to listen to the words without processing what the words mean, just listen to them as sounds. You will still know exactly where you’re supposed to laugh. That doesn’t just include the big punchlines – a stand-up set that really slavishly follows the rhythm of stand-up has smaller, incidental laughs that you can also place precisely within the rhythm without needing to understand the meaning of what’s being communicated. Whenever I hear a stand-up routine that adheres to this rhythm, I switch off. Stand-up, and comedy in general, becomes truly electrifying when the performer is following their own internal rhythm, when the laughs aren’t happening where they should be found by following any organising logic, but in unique pockets that only that performer’s mind could have found, perhaps in response to something in the room that couldn’t have been found under any other conditions. That’s when you’re seeing or hearing something very special, and it’s something a truly great stand-up can find just as easily as a truly great absurdist comedian. It’s just that stand-up, far more than good nonsense, has a pre-established set of rhythms and cadences that people try to imitate instead of listening to the noises inside their own head. I have no conclusive thoughts on all this as it’s a mystery I’ve been puzzling out for as long as I’ve been performing comedy, but that’s enough rambling on it for one week! I’d love to hear your thoughts, particularly on that synesthetic connection between music and comedy – is that something you’ve ever experienced as well?
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Harry Hill’s new series of silent black-and-white nonsense shorts, Lonely Island, hit the news this week because one episode, in which Harry played the Queen, was pulled from the schedules after the Harry and Meghan interview. A shame, because if the other episodes are anything to go by, I’m sure it wasn’t remotely scandalous or contentious, as they’re all very simple, silly slapstick shorts. In the three that are up on iPlayer he clowns around as a caveman, Napoleon and a monkey, and they’re great fun. Give them a watch!
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – This old Kenny Everett clip of Terry Wogan being farted through a wall by a giant bum.
Album Of The Week – Young Man In America by Anais Mitchell. Previously I only knew Mitchell’s magnum opus Hadestown, a grand musical retelling of the Orpheus & Eurydice myth co-starring Justin Vernon, Greg Brown and Ani DiFranco. It’s become Miranda’s favourite album, so I thought I’d try another of her albums, and it’s absolutely fantastic. Young Man In America doesn’t have the elaborate storytelling or big guest stars of Hadestown, but her songwriting is just absolutely peerless, and she’s more than capable of holding her own without all the bells-and-whistles.
Book Of The Week – I just started reading Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. In it, Kubla Khan tries to calm his sense of despair at having built a mighty empire that will inevitably crumble and fade, like all things do, by listening to Marco Polo offering short, fragmentary glimpses of all the cities he’s visited on his travels, all of which are actually just aspects of the same city. It’s absolutely beautiful so far.
Film Of The Week – We rewatched Demolition Man this week and oh my God, it’s even better than I remembered. I feel like there was a particular kind of muscle-headed blockbuster filmmaking in the 90s that doesn’t really exist any more, where everything is taken absurdly seriously to the extent that they actually play as very broad comedies. Everything’s much more grounded and gritty and dark these days, but those 90s action films seem to have a sense of silliness in them that says “We’re going to play this as po-faced as possible even though we know it’s completely stupid.” I feel like blockbuster films these days are as stupid, but seem less aware of it. Also, the specific worldbuilding of the dystopian/utopian/both future in Demolition Man is absolutely perfect.
I hope you enjoyed this week’s Therapy Tape! Please do let me know your thoughts, I really loved the richness of thought and imagination that came through last week.
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That’s all for this week! Take care and have a good one. Here’s a picture of the walled garden in Battersea Park. It’s nice out there.