Introducing ‘Inside The Comedian’. A very infrequent series of long-reads about comedy from the mind of a person who should really know better. About writing comedy, performing comedy, and being an insignificant pawn in the comedy industry. In this first installment, failure & feedback. Getting knocked down and getting back up again. Subway sandwiches.
Let’s talk about failure. Two stories.
Story number one. One night I was locked up in my room, trying to quietly sob myself to sleep with custard cream crumbs all around my mouth. You see, I had just gotten my GCSE mock exam results. It was bad, a D in biology to be exact. Now, to normal reasonable people that wouldn’t be a big deal. But coming from a family of academics this was about as fun as stepping on a lego brick made entirely of needles which themselves are made of smaller lego bricks, or watching the critically acclaimed 2012 drama ‘Foodfight’. My self-esteem was crushed that day. “This would have never happened to Mark” I thought.
Mark was the teacher’s pet, the star pupil. Mrs Brown, our biology teacher, loved him. Every time my we would do a midterm test or an assignment we would always get back the dreaded the red marks of feedback, indicating in clear terms the extent of your failure. Most of us in the class, me included, loathed the fact that we would spend hours revising material on HDLs or mitochondria, only for it to be for nothing. Mrs Brown would be there, lecturing us about how we got the ventricles the wrong way round. We were still at the age where school was getting in the way of having fun, and our dumb 15 year old selves didn’t realize that you couldn’t just leave with an A-Level in being a great person and walk into a lucrative football career. So being told to work harder and be the best we can be from somebody who from teachers who had clearly not done well enough in their own lives rung incredibly hollow. I just turned up to school because I had to, so in reality a bad biology grade shouldn’t have meant anything, but a cocktail of a pushy academically gifted family and a built in perfectionist streak is not a fun one to swallow. So here we were, with another disappointing grade.
So of course I jumped straight to comfort eating. Food is the natural salve that heals all psychological wounds. Chocolate, biscuits, mead. Throughout history comfort eating has provided us a comfort blanket to hide from our problems. And to be honest, the thought of having wasted my time studying stamen only for me to end up in another pit of disappointment just made me crave a 6 inch turkey breast sub. Obviously, I couldn’t just walk a couple of miles along the A38 to the nearest Subway restaurant. I was 15, and 15 year olds don’t just go around loitering in restaurants in the middle of the night. So I tried to make one myself. I got some bread, some lettuce & tomato, and some turkey breast and gave it a go. It was horrible, it was an abomination against sandwiches. I was not in the emotional state to make something palatable, nor did I have the motor skills to. I was 15, and 15 year olds are no good with knives. So I threw it all in the trash, grabbed myself a pack of custard creams, and scoffed my face until I was physically sick. Failure, real failure, is hard to stomach.
Let’s take a step back. I’ve just written three paragraphs of me halfheartedly retelling a story that has enough vagueness to suggest that the whole thing was some made up hogwash to serve both as a preamble and a lead-in to the pursuit of a larger point. Is there a point? Yes. A good one? Well, that’s subjective. But the subjectivity of the stuff i’m typing probably won’t stop you from questioning it. Was there any need for a preamble at all? Is the point worth making an article about? Am I waffling instead of being concise? There’s also plenty of objective things in my writing that you could point out too. Is my spelling and grammar technically sound? You’d probably then collate all these thoughts and use them to form an opinion on the article as a whole. It’s not exactly difficult. The thing is, in the real world it’s actually pretty hard to get feedback on anything you make or do, from job performance or slam poetry. And the lack of meaningful feedback can actually be harmful to you in the long run. You might get fired from your job or perform terrible slam poetry in front of your friends and colleagues. It may seem like pseudo-intellectual guff on first reading, but it’s true. This especially true, and especially damning in the world of comedy, the slipperiest of all the art-forms.
When you say to somebody that you do comedy, either as a hobby or professionally, you’re likely going to get the same set of questions every time. What makes a joke funny? How do you get rid of nerves on stage? How do you write a stand up set? What’s a comedy? How do you do the comedy? It’s almost like people treat comedy the same way they treat magic, like there’s some sort of secret formula a comic uses to become good. The fact that you’ve stood up on stage with a mic is such an achievement to some people that occasionally you even get called brave for doing it. “There’s no way I would ever do that” you often hear. “I don’t know how I would handle it”
Now, i’m only 20 years old at the time of writing this, but I come from a generation of narcissistic know it alls who carry an air of faux-wisdom in the place of actual knowledge via attained experience. So in my mind if I internally think I’m a 20 year comedy vet, then it is so. As a grizzled veteran of the often unstable comedy industry, I know first hand that one of the best traits a comic (or any creative individual for that matter) needs is the ability to both give and receive good feedback. How we give and receive feedback proves integral to how we develop as people. This isn’t new or revelatory information. As individuals we’re incapable of forming objective non-biased images of ourselves. And so we need to turn to the views of others. It’s why surrounding yourself with a diverse range of voices in your social circle is important.
Story number two. I was on stage at a revue show one time. One of the first gigs i’ve ever did. A simple bog standard 10 minute spot. We used to hold shows at a place called South Seas. It was a small pub near the student village and the main stage area was a set of two steps, with two dimly lit purple-blue lights barely illuminating you and a set of curtains stage left and stage right, behind them was the concrete of the car park. Every possible illusion you had of the art of performing in front of a crowd was broken here.
My set had already gone off to a terrible start. During my opening spiel I said a line that caused a verbal response from an audience member. It wasn’t anything near a heckle and shouldn’t have concerned me at all. But instead I, being as always a perpetual combination of a hubristic git & a naive dumbass, completely fluffed up. Spilling out a couple of gibberish words as an instinctive response and then halfheartedly trying to pivot back to my set. The worst was yet to come.
A few minutes later, I was half way into a gag I was certain was going to kill. I don’t know the exact specifics of the bit, but it mainly concerned big organisations like twitter and facebook harvesting large amounts of personal data for nefarious purposes. The punchline to this whole thing was that I would proudly declare that I, a free thinking individual, was impervious to these so called targeted ads. Then I would start shilling for Subway, take a sandwich out of my pocket, take a bite, and then casually discard it then move on with my set
I didn’t discard it, I fucking tossed it. And it flew, and I mean flew, right off the stage onto the concrete below.
You know what the worst thing about failure is? No matter how small the mistake, no matter how little time it took for you to fuck up, it seems to last forever. Even now I can see that poor uneaten sub, flying stage right in excruciatingly slow motion. The lettuce spread all over the ground. My stupid stunned face frozen in place with the pink and blue lights bearing down on my face like I was in some sort of lynchian fever dream.
When you’re young, you’re often full of creative energy and enthusiasm. “I’m doing this new thing that I’d never thought I would do” “I haven’t sold out or overdosed on pills yet! This comedy thing is coming out roses!’. This is simultaneously good and completely terrible. It’s great because contrary to the opinions of squares like me, having fun and just enjoying something you’re doing or watching is most of the time a good thing. On the other hand, saying that you’re an amateur comic out loud will most likely make your friends immediately cut ties with you upon the dreaded thought of hauling themselves to a half empty open mic every 3rd Wednesday of the month. More importantly, a blinkered attitude to comedy creates the tendency of slipping into your comfort zone and never leaving it. It’s understandable, comfort zones are comfortable, hence the name. However, the fact is no matter how good you are you will never have a 100% hit rate with this stuff, so when people who are inevitably hit a roadblock, from either a bad sketch or a bad stand-up set, it hits hard. People feel that lack of success means abject failure in comedy, and I empathise. Being in front of a dead crowd is a terrible thing no matter how you view it, but in the end that’s short term thinking. Comedy is basically fumbling around in the dark until you feel something. Having a good gig followed by a shitty one is most likely what your comedy career is going to be like in the early run, this is not only fine and normal, but the only way.
Comedy, more so than other creative medium, is seen as having less artistic merit. After all, it’s just a joke right? We should probably stop overthinking things and just have fun? Two things. Firstly, it really depends on how you perceive comedy and what you want to do in it. You can take whatever you want out of of something like comedy. It’s not inherently one particular thing. Secondly, oh my good gracious this series of articles will really not be for you, sorry. Sooner or later i’m going to be doing 3000 word essays on the ethics of poop jokes. This is how I spend my free time. Don’t tell me what to do with my life.
Now it’s always fun to learn lessons from comedy from years past. Recently I was binge watching a classic old game show. You’re In The Picture. You’ve heard of it right? The classic old show where celebrities put their own heads into various famous scenes and people had to guess what they were. Classic show. One problem with it though.
There’s only one episode.
This show was cancelled after a single episode.
In 1961 a bunch of CBS executives (now known for greenlighting ‘the big bong theory’ & ‘sad dads’ or whatever the fuck) decided to create a new game show vehicle for Jackie Gleason, a pretty predominant and talented variety performer. It seemed foolproof. It bombed. It crashed and burned. In fact it didn’t even do that, crashing implies some sort of forward momentum or movement. This shit just spontaneously combusted. Imagine if during the subway incident that instead of me bombing half way through my set I just went on stage, slipped, and then ran off. It was that bad. It may be the biggest bomb in TV history. Don’t take my word for it, that last sentence was a direct quote from Gleason himself. You see, I’ve been sort of telling a half truth. While the show was cancelled after 1 episode, it aired two episodes. That’s because instead of hosting another show second time round, Jackie Gleason, a typical hollywood fatcat type who spent his time shilling cigarettes and going golfing, sat in front of his audience and apologised.
He apologized for the show.
He didn’t settle for just saying sorry. Instead, he spend much of this second episode of the show eviscerating it, completely deconstructing the production process, and mulling over the nature of risk and the intangible chaos that bubbles within the entertainment industry. It’s fascinating. Beneath the smoke and the laid back crowd work is one of the most succinct descriptions of that deep seated, dreaded but inevitable feeling that lies inside the comedian, the bomb.
I’ve hung out with all sorts of comics. The comedy circuit, for all it’s perceptions of being a regressive overly masculine environment, has made steps in widening the variety of performers that feel comfortable performing in it, so i’ve heard a lot of different things been thrown around. But this sort of honesty, reflectiveness and humility is so rare. The fact that someone can go on TV and be so upfront about their mistakes to a live audience a mere week after it happened seems like a revelation.
In 2017, 46 years later, Channel 4 commissioned a show called Host The Week. A show where a celebrity guest, with the help of a group of improv performers, hosted a unscripted & quirky take on the news stories of the week. It lasted one episode.
There was no apology.
The only reason I even heard of the show was that I inadvertently saw it when researching the You’re in the Picture debacle. If the TV people, smart & pragmatic people who have years of experience and should be able to produce surefire hits, are botching things this much, then what hope do us mere mortals have?
So what’s the point here? People fail at stuff, whatever. We don’t really learn from mistakes, sure. But there are things we can take from all this. Be honest, be open minded, maintain an open dialogue. These are all things that a stuffy lecturer type would drill into your head in those mandatory group management classes you always hated, but just because it’s cringeworthy to hear doesn’t make it any less true. I’m pretty sure that some new-age hippie type has told someone to maintain a healthy diet once, and Jim Jones probably told his followers about the importance of exercise. Comedy types, both performers and fans, tend to mask genuine emotion with sarcasm and irony. We often feel the need to crack a joke when a conversation doesn’t need it. Maybe the way we sometimes hold back from looking at our stuff is just a symptom of lack of connection we feel when we perform the stuff in the first place. Maybe we all instinctively say “That was great” to every stand-up we’ve just seen because we hold back from saying anything else.
Look, it’s not really my place to be telling people what and what not to do in comedy, it’s not anyone’s place really. Comedy is fun. But not because you say things into a microphone for 10 minutes, that satisfaction barely lasts, no matter how big your audience is or how good your material is. Ultimately, if we hold popularity as the only metric of success we’re all just chasing an albatross. Crowds vary wildly, which means you either get emotional whiplash from going around the bad set/good set cycle, or you try to please every crowd ever, which is a fool’s errand. So maybe that isn’t it, maybe the fun is in the journey. In the learning. In the slow, wonderful, pointless process of self-actualization that only people dumb enough to seek out a career in the creative arts in 2017 would undertake. Maybe the fun is in willingly, gleefully, trying something new and absolutely fucking up, and most importantly, learning and making yourself better. That’s the only way, being childish enough to tinker with comedic premises with reckless abandon, and being mature enough to reflect, learn, and move forward. One step at a time.
Or not. I don’t really know.
I actually met Mark for the first time in years the other day, I was feeling hungry before a workshop one time and popped in to Subway to get a quick bite, and there he was, chief sandwich artist. I was pretty shocked to see him to be honest, I’d always known him as the perfect grade scoring student, cambridge bound. Then I thought about it for a bit and it all made sense. The thing about being perfect at such a young age is that you never feel the need to listen to anyone, or to take criticism from anyone. Or to be influenced by anyone. Your existence is living in a bubble. But no one is perfect forever, the world is a chaotic and unpredictable place, and a whole range of invisible and unknowable factors can fall into place and knock you off a cliff when you’re least expecting it. Bubbles pop. The people who truly stay at the top of their game are the ones who know failure, and the ones who know how to get back up again. Mark didn’t. I didn’t know what happened between me leaving school and this, but it must have hit the poor lad pretty hard.
After he finished making the sub, he asked me to check whether it looked good or not. I think that’s company policy. I looked at the finished product, the lettuce was scattered, the turkey breast looked gross, there was half an onion in there even though I didn’t ask for any. I looked back up at Mark, his eyes were trembling a little. The eyes of someone who didn’t want to make the sandwich again. The eyes of somebody who has been told his entire life ‘Yes’, to the point where even the slightest hint of a ‘No’ could make this guys life come crashing down.
“Everything okay with your sub?”
“Yup. It looks great.”
Please note, the views and opinions expressed in this article are only of the author, Phil, who is a moron and knows nothing about comedy. They do not represent the society as a whole. Phil occasionally roams around twitter under the handle @delitweet