I joined TikTok. I didn’t want to, but everybody kept telling me I wasn’t allowed to complain about not knowing where the next bit of work would come from, as I did in this Tape a couple of weeks ago, if I wasn’t putting my work out there on every possible platform where people can see it, so I swallowed the nasty medicine and signed up to the evil surveillance app. So far, I haven’t actually watched anything on TikTok or posted any original content on it, I’ve just used it as an alternative shop window in which to post a bunch of my old sketches, to get the measure of how it works and what people like on it. As it turns out, everyone was right, the sketches have gone down quite well and I’ve already got some paid work off the back of them. Mad. I see it as another place in which to continue practicing my general approach to the internet full stop, which is to try and use it as a place to create, not consume. As long as I’m using these platforms as places to host things I’ve made and reach new audiences, then they clearly have their value, but it’s when I start using them as places to mindlessly watch stuff that they start to sap my productivity and mood, so I’ll try to maintain that balance. Anyway, this isn’t another newsletter about social media or tech itself per se, it’s about creative ideas and doing what you want vs what other people want.
I had no idea if anyone would enjoy those old sketches when I signed up for TikTok, but I did know that if any of them was going to do well, it would be this one about the Fellowship of the Ring trying to make small talk while hiking:
I knew this partly because it already went viral the first time I uploaded it to Youtube last year, but also because it’s more or less the only sketch I’ve made whose viral potential is inbuilt – it plays off the audience’s familiarity with a very well-known pop-culture/genre fixture, and that’s the stuff social media audiences really crave. So I wasn’t surprised when it went viral again after I put it on TikTok. But it did make me reflect on the principle of repeating ideas. Over the few days where the sketch was taking off, my phone was suddenly inundated with people asking me to make it into a series. The same thing happened the first time round, and I did experiment with making a sort-of followup based on Star Wars, which did nowhere near as well, so I moved onto new ideas. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Star Wars followup does better when I eventually re-post it on TikTok, or if it was just inherently an inferior version of a good original idea that didn’t deserve as big an audience. Either way, the failure of that followup sketch first time round baked in something that I already knew, but had wanted to put to the test – I cannot bring myself to repeat an idea, no matter how obvious it might be that it would be a good idea to do so.
This obviously flies in the face of all logic when it comes to being a writer-performer trying to use the internet as one of the shop windows in which they showcase their work, because the internet thrives on repetition. Most successful online comics have created a format that they can essentially remould with variations every time they post a sketch, like Rosie Holt’s Tory MP interviews, Michael Spicer’s Room Next Door, Alasdair Beckett-King’s movie genre parodies, Ryan George’s Pitch Meetings, Matthew Highton’s Mr Blobby videos, and so on. I can see how a series of low-key, mundane hiking videos in which the characters from the Lord of the Rings do pointless small talk in various different configurations would fit well into that milieu, but every time another comment came in this week saying “We need more of this please!” my gut reaction was always exactly the same – “No way. I did that already.”
I say that not because I’m in any way disapproving of that type of work – all the comics I mentioned are ones I really love and admire, and I really enjoy their output. It’s just that repeating an idea flies in the face of everything I personally get out of making stuff. I think about the idea of going back into a wood and filming more banal commentary on different aspects of Lord of the Rings lore and think “But why would that sketch exist? What would it be doing?” I know that the answer to that question nips at the heart of one of my central dilemmas as someone who makes stuff – it would be entertaining. It would give a large audience of people who liked a thing some more of the thing they liked. I really cannot identify a single thing that would be wrong with that. I also cannot identify a single part of me that would want to do it.
I’m aware that on one level, this sort of puritanism for originality is selfish. It’s me prioritising my own enjoyment of something over the audience’s. But I think the thing you want in that equation is balance – the thing I want most for everything I make is for it to be as enjoyable and satisfying for its audience as it is for me (more or less). Obviously I have no interest in making stuff that I enjoy and think is brilliant, but that nobody else enjoys (though I’m sure I’ve made plenty of stuff like that in my time). But the idea of repeating an idea I’ve already explored purely because other people would enjoy it actively diminishes the satisfaction I can take from the idea, and to me, the notion of making something other people would enjoy that I wouldn’t is as pointless as making something I would enjoy that others wouldn’t. For me, every online sketch is an opportunity to quickly explore and dispense with an idea – to get it out of my system, see if it connects with other people, and move on. The ideas I want to keep going back to are the bigger ones – the further stories I want to tell with the characters of The Dream Factory, for instance – so I try to keep my attitudes to the two types of work separate. But am I missing a trick by not also treating the online space as a palette for returning to ideas and continuing to explore them to see if I can do more with them than I initially thought?
What do you guys think? Are any of you creatives who have found real creative fulfilment by discovering a repeatable format that continues to prove fun and enjoyable for you every time you revisit it? Or do you tend to have a more “Get that out and then move onto the next thing” approach to creativity, as I seem to? I’d love to hear about people’s various approaches and experiences!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Clown king John-Luke Roberts has made a comic documentary for BBC Radio 4 about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I’ve not listened to it yet, but John-Luke’s work is great, and I’m hoping this show will be a good way to never need to read the book, so well worth checking out!
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Ada Player as the Narrator in the Stepdads Nativity show on Monday making a Christingle for her Grandad.
Book Of The Week – Still reading The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshanna Zuboff. I’m 300 pages in and it’s just started talking about the stuff I was hoping it would talk about when I started reading it. I needed to wade through a lot of information about Google and extraction imperatives to get there, but now it’s talking about humanity and meaning and stuff. The juicy stuff.
Album Of The Week – Sleep Well Beast by the National. This is lovely. I’ve yet to listen to it in any context other than walking along a city street at night, which seems to be its natural environment, so who knows how well it plays in other settings, but in that setting it’s a doozy (do people call things doozies? Things that are good? Is that what “It’s a doozy” means? I dunno. It’s good, anyway)
Film Of The Week – Strange World. This is a fun new Disney film that’s a sort of Jules Verne-esque adventure but with 21st century climate anxiety thrown in. The climate change analogy is really slathered on, but do you know what? Good for them. These are stories that need telling. If you like kids’ animation films, I’d really recommend going out to support this, it’s being review-bombed by Christian parents who object to it featuring Disney’s first gay character and it looks set to lose a lot of money, and it’d be a real shame if Disney learned the wrong lessons from that. So give it your support!
That’s all for this week – let me know what you think on all the above! As ever, if you’ve enjoyed this newsletter, I’d love you to send it to a friend, or encourage others to subscribe! Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,
PS Here’s Regent’s Park looking all frosty yesterday: