Thank you for signing up to the Fruit Salad Therapy Tapes! I’m Joz Norris, I’m a writer, comic, actor and professional idiot and this newsletter is going to be a learning project for me, and hopefully an entertaining and interesting journey for you guys too, and my hope is for it to become a sort of live notebook/sketchpad as it evolves, that shares insights about what my brain has been up to week by week, and gives you all the opportunity to join in with it too. You’re receiving this because you signed up via my website, but if at any point you feel like this project isn’t for you and want to unsubscribe, you can do so here. Thank you for your support, and good luck out there! And if you’re still with me, let me explain some of what this project will be!
(Brief caveat – this first newsletter is longer than I envisage it being in general, as I explain why I’m doing it and what I hope to achieve with it. Most weeks it will be shorter!)
No Idea Left Behind
In 2018 I had an idea for a podcast called The Mr Fruit Salad Therapy Tapes, because at some point everybody has to have an idea for a podcast. It was centred around Mr Fruit Salad, a comedy character I was making a show about at the time, and was principally going to be an experiment in form. It was partly inspired by the disintegrating, refracting ambient music of the Caretaker and William Basinski and Alvin Lucier, and partly by Mark Z. Danielewski’s House Of Leaves, and partly by Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. It was going to be about a private detective and part-time unboxing podcaster (played by Andy Barr) who found a series of tape recordings of therapy sessions undertaken by Mr Fruit Salad, who demonstably did not exist despite the fact that his therapist (Alison Thea-Skot) did, and it would chart the detective’s descent into obsession and madness as he delved into the therapy tapes trying to work out what was real and what wasn’t. Certain sketches would loop and repeat and phase in and out of sync and disintegrate as it went on. You’ll be surprised to learn that it was unworkable and that I was basically just throwing around words like “disintegration” and “refraction” and “experiment in form” without really knowing how to achieve them in any technical capacity nor, crucially, how to make any of this remotely entertaining for the listener. I abandoned the project, despite having done a whole photoshoot with Alison and Andy, and recorded half of a pilot episode. I always regretted it, because even as I typed that out just now, I thought it sounded absolutely brilliant, even though I still have no idea what it even is.
This newsletter is a message to myself that no idea ever really gets left behind – every abandoned thought, every project that never really turned into anything, is part of the process of thinking about things and trying things out and giving things a go, and getting things wrong, and falling down, and failing, and trying again. And that is the creative process, really. The occasional, isolated moments when the creative process leads to some sort of external validation and sense of pride are a terrible betrayal of what creativity really is, which is to say that it is usually fruitless and embarrassing, and the moments where it’s proving most fruitless and embarrassing are always the moments when I’m having the most fun, but people don’t really get to see them because us comics kid ourselves that we’re always trying to wind up with some sort of marketable end product. Michael Brunstrom, a fantastic comedian whose work you can find out more about here, once told me the most wonderful analogy for what he thought comedy was. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but it was roughly this:
He said that comedy is someone standing on top of a very tall ladder, reaching for a star, and leaning too far as they try to grab it, and falling off the ladder, and desperately grabbing at something else as they plummet, and then turning to the audience and grinning as though they’d grabbed the star.
So, I suppose this newsletter is my way of taking that process out in public a little bit, in front of a select audience of people who have opted in to be part of the process. The last year has seen plenty of comics turning to the internet as a place to pursue that sort of process, and most of the current models of doing that – streaming, short-form online content, etc – just leave me cold and feeling flabby and frustrated, so I’m cautiously dipping my toe into the idea of using a newsletter instead. I’m going to use it as a scrapbook, and I’d love it if it evolved into something vaguely responsive and interactive as well, though I’ve no idea in what way yet. If you’re reading this and have thoughts on ways it could evolve or things it would be interesting to see more of, please feel free to reply and share your thoughts with me! It would be lovely if this became a two-way exchange of thoughts and ideas, rather than just another person monologuing into the abyss of the internet.
I know that I’d like each week’s newsletter to include a new story, as I’ve been writing up a lot of autobiographical stories and journal entries recently, somewhere between stand-up and short story writing, for no clear purpose. They might eventually turn into a film or a radio show or something else, but for now I’ll start to share them here and gauge people’s responses to them. And I’d like to include recommendations and thoughts on the stuff I’ve been listening to and reading and watching, so that these emails can become a scrapbook of fragments I’ve found entertaining and interesting that other people might get something from as well. So, here’s my first run-down of bits and pieces:
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – The wonderful Helen Duff has just launched Come As You Are, a new podcast about female orgasms, and talks to the one and only Desiree Burch in the pilot episode. Helen and Desiree are both fantastic, and this podcast has all the makings of something that I think will come to mean a great deal to people, so get in on it early.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I watched the Wreck-It Ralph movies last week (a lot of fun – I would like to make a series of refracted (there’s that word again) sequels to Ralph Breaks The Internet in which the scene where they walk through an exhibition of all the intellectual properties Disney has purchased just gets longer and longer until it contains all of art and culture and the film itself becomes infinite) and started going down a John C. Reilly rabbit-hole and revisited Dr. Steve Brule, who I’ve not watched in years. This sketch, in which John C. Reilly blows a trumpet so hard he shits himself, has made me cry laughing all week. I’ll be honest, from a modern enlightened perspective there’s now definitely something unacceptable about Reilly’s performance, but hey, it’s a video of a guy blowing a trumpet so hard he shits himself. I can’t stop watching it.
Album Of The Week – Oedipus Schmoedipus by Barry Adamson. Adamson was the bassist in Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds for a while, then went solo and made soundtracks for non-existent film noirs he imagined. This one’s fantastically musically diverse, and includes a sort of acid-jazz fusion song that Jarvis Cocker croons over the top of, a ridiculously over-the-top parody of John Barry’s Bond themes called “The Big Bamboozle,” and a really lovely ballad which Cave himself pops up to sing on. It’s great stuff.
Film Of The Week – Death Becomes Her. This was the film Robert Zemeckis made right before Forrest Gump, and I’m absolutely gobsmacked. I’d always thought Zemeckis was one of those solid, unremarkable directors, but this film is a truly bonkers horror-comedy. Meryl Streep discovers the secret of immortality and Bruce Willis and Goldie Hawn plot against her, and then it all gets properly, ridiculously horrible. Willis does the funniest double-take I’ve ever seen at one point.
Book Of The Week – Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones. My girlfriend Miranda has been pleading with me to read this for ages, as we’ve been watching the Ghibli films, and it was her favourite book as a kid. It’s really excellent, and much more intricately plotted and brightly characterised than the Ghibli film (I like the Ghibli film, but it misses a lot out). Apparently Diana Wynn Jones is one of the great unsung heroes of 80s fantasy, and Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman often talked about her as a big influence on their writing. She’s great.
This Week’s Story
I’ll put a picture break before this week’s story, because I don’t want this newsletter to become dauntingly long, and if people want to check out here, they’re more than welcome! And if people have the time to read on and enjoy this week’s story, then here’s an anecdote about the job where I decided to stop trying to be good at everything, and to get better at accepting the things I was actually meant to be doing.
If you’ve enjoyed the newsletter, please share it with your friends, or encourage others to subscribe, or let me know your thoughts on where you think it could go! Thanks again for joining me for it,
In 2015 I was booked to be the warm-up man for the studio recording of ITV’s relaunch of Celebrity Squares, hosted by Warwick Davis. This was a bad mistake. The producers had seen me doing warm-up for a rough run-through of a new panel show format being filmed in the run-down, decrepit basement of Hornsey Town Hall and performed by various up-and-coming comics. The format was still being figured out and was all rather rough and ready, as was the recording itself. In that context, my rather shambolic, self-deprecating, nonsensical approach to comedy – just allowing myself to be silly in the presence of an audience – looked deliberate and skilful, and put the audience in a really good mood and resulted in a really great recording. The ITV producers were impressed and thought my shtick would translate well to doing warm-up for a prime-time, shiny-floor panel show with loads of celebrities. They were wrong.
They were recording three episodes on the day they called me in, and they let me sit and watch the first episode being recorded so I could watch their regular warm-up man do the job and pick up some hints and tips. This was the guy who usually did warm-up for The X Factor, and had been doing it for the best part of ten years. I’d never heard of him, or run into him in five years of gigging, but he was a consummate professional and had obviously spent all that time becoming an absolutely peerless warm-up comic on the TV circuit, just as I had spent that time becoming a decent absurdist idiot comedian at the Fringe. He was absolutely fantastic, and had the audience in the palm of his hand. Everything he said was always exactly the right thing said in exactly the right way at exactly the right time, and always had them roaring with laughter. When I chatted to him afterwards he said “You’ll have an amazing time. It’s literally the easiest job in the entire world. You just talk to them. That’s all they want you to do. Just talk to them, and have a nice time with them. You’ll be fantastic.” The easy confidence he had in my ability, whether sincere or otherwise, was another bad mistake and I bet he’s kicking himself now for ever having backed such a rubbish horse.
When it came my turn to warm-up the new audience for the recording of the second episode, the floor manager shouted out “Give it up for your warm-up man, Joz Norris,” and I marched out onto the studio floor, but before they had been able to start applauding me, I slipped up on the polished floor and fell over. I thought this was absolutely hilarious – I had quite literally shown up my inability to cope with doing shiny-floor TV, and this seemed indescribably funny to me. I clambered to my feet and immediately burst out laughing, assuming that such a hilarious pratfall would surely have immediately got the audience on-side as well. To my horror, it slowly sank in that these 200 people were staring at me in total silence. Despite having just seen me slip up and fall over onto my bum. My bum!
“Come on, you’ve got to crack a smile when a guy falls over!” I said cheerfully. Only after I said it did I realise how desperate this sounded. The first thing I had said to the audience was a feeble plea for them to laugh. This was not good. I tried to remind myself of what the excellent guy from The X Factor had said to me – “Just talk to them.” And then I ran into the central quandary which was to be my undoing – what do the sort of people who voluntarily go to watch a daytime recording of Celebrity Squares like to talk about? I didn’t really know anybody who watched that sort of TV, and didn’t watch it myself, and certainly don’t know anyone who would choose to go and watch it being recorded, and suddenly, in the wake of that realisation, the prospect of “just talking” to these people seemed ill-advisedly over-confident. About what???
I picked out the face of a woman near me of about sixty who was staring impassively at me and decided to start with her.
“Hello, madam,” I said, “how are you doing? Have you had a nice day so far?” So far, so good. All the makings of an all-time classic bread-and-butter conversation between good friends.
“No I haven’t,” she said, face utterly impassive. “I’ve been to visit my mum.” Somehow I felt like if the X Factor guy had just chosen someone at random in the audience and asked them how they were doing, he would’ve received a less combative response than this. He just seemed like a guy who could get the best out of people, but this woman seemed profoundly bored, and slightly irritated by me.
“Oh dear,” I said, “Why’s that so bad? Do you not get on?” I can imagine a world in which this is a vaguely funny thing to say. It was, sadly, not the world I was physically occupying on that day.
“She’s in hospital, she’s dying,” said the woman, still displaying absolutely no emotion. It was as though she was daring me to keep probing. There was absolutely no sense that this was a subject she didn’t want to talk about and that I should back away from, nor that she was desperate to talk to me about her very sad day, we were simply stuck in a holding pattern where I asked her questions and she answered them, like the earliest of computers. Input, output. Ask me no questions, I tell you no lies. That kind of thing.
“Oh,” I said, slightly nonplussed at how this was going. “How old is she?”
“84,”she said, not missing a beat. I stopped for a bit, trying to think of what should come next. Just talk to them, he’d said. What would be a natural thing to say next?
“Well that’s pretty good,” I said. I should point out that not a single person has laughed yet. “What do you do?” I asked, hoping to get onto safer ground.
“I don’t do anything, I’m disabled,” said the woman. My mind went totally blank.
“Amazing!” I crowed, grinning. This was an automatic response to try and bring back an upbeat atmosphere, but I fear an inappropriate response to what the woman had said. I moved onto someone else in the audience and this general type of thing went on for about twenty minutes. Eventually, it was time for me to introduce the celebrities into the studio, so I welcomed in such personal heroes of mine as Jessica Stevenson, Vic & Bob and Tony Law, along with Jonathan Ross, Anna Matronic from Scissor Sisters, and so on.
“And that’s everyone!” I said when they were all out onstage, forgetting that I had not introduced Warwick Davis, the host of the show. The floor manager gestured furiously at me, pointing across the floor at Warwick, who gestured an exaggerated pantomime of outrage at me – a good sport. “Oh, and Warwick Davis!” I shouted jubilantly. Warwick Davis came out, grinning and waving at the audience to rapturous applause and, perfectly judging the timing, he waited until the applause had died down and then pointed at me and shouted “You’re sacked!” To the best of my recollection, this was the first time the audience laughed since I started talking. I took this in good humour, assuming it was a mean but well-intentioned and perfectly-judged joke by Warwick, and wandered over to the edge of the room, where one of the producers came over to me and whispered in my ear “We are actually going to get the other guy to do the third episode if that’s ok, but you’re welcome to stay and watch.”
I did stay and watch, out of morbid fascination more than anything else. The most memorable moment, for me, came when Jonathan Ross made a decent but not particularly earth-shattering gag which got absolutely nothing from the audience. He looked betrayed by them and stared at them wild-eyed before exclaiming “Are you all asleep?” I got a little thrill of excitement from this, as I realised that the reason Ross’s gag had fallen on deaf ears was probably because I had failed to warm up the audience in any way whatsoever. In my own small way, I had contributed to the recording, and that felt quite exciting. Years later, I was in a comedy show performed on ice by the group of comics known as the Weirdos, written by Adam Larter and starring Tony Law, whose idea it was. Tony went on Jonathan Ross’s radio show to promote the show, and they started by reminiscing about the last time they had seen each other, which was when they had recorded Celebrity Squares together. Listening along at home, I liked to imagine that Ross’s memory momentarily lapsed back to the time a terrible warm-up comedian caused one of his gags to fall flat. Later in the show, Ross asked Tony if there had been any injuries in rehearsals. “There’s this one guy who’s absolutely terrible, he keeps falling over and I’m really worried about him. His name’s Joz Norris.” I like to imagine that the part of Ross’s brain that had been hovering over the memory of Celebrity Squares landed on that name and thought “Wait, that’s the guy, isn’t it? Is there anything this guy can do, other than fall down?”
I left the ITV studios burning with humiliation after that. I was so angry with myself for letting myself do it. I had thought I could do something that would speak to a big, broad, mainstream audience and had been made to look absolutely ridiculous for having tried. Of all people, I texted Sofie Hagen about it. Sofie and I weren’t close friends at the time, but we had recently been at a party talking about the phrase “alternative comedy” and wondering why we have to label and categorise things so much. I texted her a potted summing-up of what had happened and whinged about something along the lines of “Why is it so hard to do something that other people can see and appreciate? I’ve never tried to do stuff that’s deliberately alienating or niche, but when I try to do it to mainstream audiences it makes me feel like an alien, and like I just can’t ever do anything other people will enjoy.” Sofie sent a text back that was one of the most important slaps in the face I’ve ever had.
“Stop trying to do things you’re not supposed to do,” she said. “You’re not a mainstream stand-up comedian. You’re an interesting artist and you make imaginative, unusual stuff that a smaller, more devoted audience of people are going to be excited by. But you don’t care about the Celebrity Squares audience, and you don’t care about impressing Warwick Davis. It’s not what you’re good at, or what you’re meant to do. So stop trying to do it and stop wasting your time with it, and stop wasting their time with it.” That text was a massive sea-change in my finally accepting the type of work I do and the type of thing I make. I never resented the existence of mainstream, prime-time panel-show comedy ever again. I started respecting it from the bottom of my heart, because I’d felt how hard it was, and how much it was never going to be the thing I was any good at.