Rejection! Disappointment! Failure! And Moving Past Them…
As I wrote here back at the start of January, I’ve decided that 2023 is, for me, the Change year. I’d like it to be a year where I attempt to shake up old working patterns which I feel have served their function for now, move away from old mediums and models I feel exhausted by (live comedy shows, the Edinburgh Fringe) and towards new mediums and models I feel excited and refreshed by (scripted comedy, radio, film, TV, theatre shows). Now it’s February I thought I’d do a little stock-take to see how that’s going and was surprised, and slightly amused, to realise that so far 2023 has delivered two successes in the world of live comedy – the world I am attempting to move away from – and two rejections/setbacks in the world of TV and radio – the world I am attempting to move towards.
Those two successes were the surprisingly lovely feedback and great turnout to the first online performance of my new show, Joz Norris Is Your Private Dancer (A Dancer For Money) and two sold-out final performances of Blink at the always-lovely VAULT Festival. The first setback was the BBC rejecting a short film adaptation of the characters and story of Blink that I’d developed and pitched with Monkey Kingdom – the BBC were fans of the show, they said, but were already developing something about a magician. “Can’t say fairer than that!” I thought, and probably said out loud after receiving the email. This rejection I took easily enough, as the good folks I was developing it with quickly set about making plans to pitch it to other channels instead, so it felt like a nice bit of quick feedback that enabled us to make forward plans. So far, so good. The second setback was the news that Julia McKenzie, the new commissioner at BBC Radio 4, had decided not to go ahead with a second series of mine and Miranda Holms’s sitcom, The Dream Factory. This rejection hit me a little harder, so I thought I’d write a bit about rejection and disappointment this week, and how I’ve learned to navigate them.
I’m incredibly proud of The Dream Factory. I think it’s imaginative, odd, silly, heartfelt, warm and funny, and has a little bit to say about friendship, and about life, and what goes on in people’s heads. I think the cast did a phenomenal job with the characters. I think it’s a really great piece of work made by an amazing team. I also know that it came out of several years of working closely not just with Steve Doherty, my amazing radio producer, but also with Sioned Wiliam, who was the comedy commissioner for Radio 4 during the time that I was finding my way in. Sioned was hugely supportive and encouraging in helping me to eventually develop projects with Steve that led to my making three separate programmes for the BBC – not just The Dream Factory, but also my offbeat stand-up special A Small Talk On Small Talk and the chat show Useless Millennials with Roxy Dunn, all of which I’m very proud of. When Sioned eventually left and moved onto new projects and Julia came on board, there was always going to be an issue of personal taste to navigate. Although I’ve heard plenty about how brilliant Julia is, I don’t know her myself, so whether or not we’d get to make any more episodes of our show and tell more stories in that world would ultimately come down to whether or not it was her kind of thing. Perhaps naively, I told myself there was plenty about The Dream Factory that made it an easy sell even if it wasn’t her thing – the premise was big and imaginative and inventive while also being broad and clear and relatable, like the premise for a Pixar movie. The cast was objectively fantastic. It got some nice feedback in the papers. And so on, and so on. But of course, if someone listens to it and it’s not their thing, there’s really no decision to be made other than to say “Thanks for this, but what other ideas do you have?”
I typed “Disappointment” into Google Images and this was one of the top results and I think it’s very funny.
My initial response was to feel pretty gutted – that specific project had felt, in my head, like the fulfilling of a dream I’d had since I was about 12 years old, that one day I would love to write and star in my own sitcom. Did the fact that the channel who bought it from me didn’t want any more of it mean that I had somehow “failed?” Considering they had only bought two episodes off me in the first place, did that now mean I would never actually get to make a full, proper series with more of an arc to it? But I quickly recognised how silly I was being. I was becoming guilty of the thing I find most difficult about the creative industries, which is the people who apply “magical thinking” to it rather than simply viewing it as a network of people just doing their jobs. Making progress in the creative industries doesn’t mean you’re somehow gifted, or special, or better than everyone else trying to do it. It just means you did your job well. Suffering a setback in the creative industries doesn’t mean you’ve failed, or will never get the chance again, or are being denied your shot by “the gatekeepers.” It just means this project didn’t work out, and it’s time to move onto the next one and do the best job you can on that one, and hope that the circumstances work out differently next time. (This magical thinking thing is a big subject I think about a lot, so I’ll write more about it next time).
The correct response was just to take stock of the feedback, do the research into what sort of programmes Julia was looking for in her latest commissioning brief, and to start the fun work of brainstorming new ideas more in line with her taste that myself and Miranda and Steve could all feel excited about making. One week on, both these processes – analysing Julia’s specific feedback, and analysing her commissioning briefs – have already led to some observations and decisions about what we should be pitching, but I won’t go into those here – I’m not going to give everything about my process away for free in this newsletter 😉
As for the “two successes, two setbacks” metric – what was I to make of that? Was the universe somehow telling me that I was better off sticking to what I knew I was good at; that trying to break into new territory was likely to just end up in disappointment? It was an idea that occurred to me, but again, I was guilty of magical thinking instead of just chalking up the lessons from the setbacks and continuing to do the work. The live scene is more or less the only place where artists can have total control over their work – it’s relatively easy to book a venue and put on a show, and therefore relatively easy to chalk up autonomous successes. It’s harder to secure the funding and the commissions to make good work in film, radio and TV, so of course the setbacks and rejections are going to be part and parcel of it, and the successes harder and slower to come by. I’m choosing to take that “two successes, two setbacks” metric as a reminder that this “Change year” might be difficult – there will be things that don’t go the way I want them to, people who don’t quite share the same tastes as me who ask me to go back and come up with something else we can both get excited about. There will be times when it feels easier to just fall back on what feels comfortable and familiar.
But, even if The Dream Factory ends up being a project that only exists as two half-hours on the radio (and don’t worry, I’m currently exploring various options to try and find alternative futures for it, because Miranda and I have plenty more stories we want to tell in that world if we can find people who want them), then it will always serve as a symbol to me of how good it feels to eventually craft those dream projects with such wonderful collaborators. I first started talking to Steve and Sioned about making comedy for the radio five years before The Dream Factory aired, and perhaps it could be the same amount of time again from my “Change Year” to the point where it starts to deliver the results I hope it might, but I know the journey is an exciting one and it’s one you feel truly proud of when you get to the end of it. The crucial thing is just to always let the work be one thing and your self-esteem be a completely different thing, and not to equate them with one another. And to do the work, and be proud. I’m excited about the journey ahead!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – The British Comedy Guide Awards pretty much all went to my favourite shows, so that’s nice. Big congrats to all the winners!
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – The “Ethical Bug” character in Puss In Boots: The Last Wish. If you’ve not seen it, go see it. I love the Ethical Bug with all my heart.
Book Of The Week – I’m currently reading Ask The Dust by John Fante, which is a brilliant character study of a deluded writer who is completely clueless as to what a pathetic specimen he is. There’s an incredible scene in which he sends, then tries to unsend, a telegram. Wonderful book.
Album Of The Week – Blood Like Lemonade by Morcheeba. Just why not, y’know? Why not listen to Morcheeba’s 2011 comeback album that marked Skye Edwards’ return to the band after the poorly-received Dive Deep? Yeah, people don’t really talk about Morcheeba any more, and when you even so much as mention them people look at you weirdly as if to say “Why are you bringing up Morcheeba?” but I actually think they’re quite good.
Film Of The Week – A Bigger Splash. Odd film, this. It’s a fantastic screenplay and is anchored by two incredible performances by Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton, but there are some very odd filmmaking choices in it – weird framing, weird editing, odd zooms and very strange camerawork. Can’t figure out if they’re weird directorial choices, or are the work of the editor, but they slightly get in the way of a generally brilliant film.
That’s all for this week – let me know your thoughts! And as ever, if you did want to send this newsletter to a friend or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it. Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,
PS Here’s Bonny Light Horseman at Union Chapel this week. They were bloody great.