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Joz Norris


The Guardian: Review of You Build The Thing You Think You Are

 By Brian Logan in The Guardian Posted on Monday, July 20th, 2020
  • The Guardian: Review of You Build The Thing You Think You Are

Originally planned as an Edinburgh show, You Build the Thing You Think You Are is now a film – and a different proposition to live-streamed lockdown comedy

Joz Norris’s new experiment starts with a provocation. “To me,” says the comic, “a live-stream show can only ever feel like a rough approximation of what live comedy used to feel like. To me, there’s no room for Zoom.” Live-streamed comedy was quick into the breach when IRL gigs were cancelled – and we’re all invested in trying to make it as successful as possible. But: are they an adequate substitute for the experience they’ve replaced? To Norris, live-streaming “sacrifices a lot of the things I love about live comedy in favour of preserving interactivity”. You get something approximating to the live experience. But do you get much else?

Norris’s response is to turn to film-making. Before the festival was cancelled, he had a show ready for Edinburgh 2020, about his recent experience of moving house – and losing himself, he felt, while doing so. The show, so specific to this moment in his life, couldn’t wait until 2021. He didn’t want to can it altogether – but neither did live-streaming appeal. So Norris has turned You Build the Thing You Think You Are into a 50-minute film. It now has a seven-day run online, with each screening followed by a live Q&A.

You Build The Thing You Think You Are by Joz Norris
You Build The Thing You Think You Are by Joz Norris

It’s well worth a look. It doesn’t interact with its audience; Norris has fun, indeed, with its inability to do so. In his 2019 fringe offering, he appeared in disguise (outsize beard, sunglasses and sun hat) as nonsense alter ego Mr Fruit Salad. In You Build the Thing …, he does something similar, capering around behind the mask of a “troll/goblin”, winding up his non-existent crowd. Norris himself intervenes, wresting back control of the show/film, which devolves into something less anarchic and more confessional. What Norris misses in Zoom comedy, he says, is the “careful craft [and] loving construction” you find in the best fringe shows. That’s abundantly on display here, as the film flits between narrator Joz speaking directly to us, character Joz in the story, and the outpourings of their fertile imagination.

The story it tells is of a pivotal moment in Norris’s life, as he leaves the flatshare where he spent his 20s. OK, so that old Brixton flat didn’t add up to much. “This is not a room for a person,” his landlord’s wife says of his bedroom. “This is a room for old boots and broken things.” But it gave Norris a sense of himself that he loses entirely when obliged to relocate.

You can imagine the show it would have made onstage – something like Daniel Kitson’s 66A Church Road, perhaps, another hymn to a well-loved home. Spliced with that moment in Mat Ewins’ 2017 show when Ewins pulls back the curtain on all the silliness: the subtext of You Build the Thing … is Norris’s loss of confidence, as he enters his 30s, in his identity as a funny man. There’s no real apotheosis here; you wait in vain for Norris’s quiet crises to reach their resolution. What is conclusive, though, is the success of the material’s transfer to film. Shot almost entirely in Norris’s new house, it’s tightly edited, enjoyably meta, full of sly visual touches – and really does recreate the spirit of the creative live comedy Norris misses so much.

Those who love that brand of comedy equally may share Norris’s scepticism of laughter-by-live-stream – a scepticism that maps on to lockdown-era comedy an existing schism, between entertainers and artists, club comics and “creative” comics (for want of a better term). The former would prioritise the hurly-burly and spontaneity of liveness; the latter put craft and construction on a higher pedestal. For them, Norris’s You Build the Thing … will be as much of a treat as an earlier and even more rewarding standup-to-film transfer, Tim Key’s Megadate (or Wonderdate, in the BBC version). Vive la difference, I say, while feeling lucky that lockdown, if it’s dented comedians’ incomes, is doing nothing to dent their creativity.

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