Musings arguments and gig reports from your favourite Goth lesbian transsexual vegan recovering alcoholic and drug addict sceptic rationalist atheist comedian chameleon and caricature.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Do you want to be in my gang...

As a comedian you become used to certain things, that Liverpool will be a tough town to play, that a 5 hour drive to do a gig in front of a handful of people who couldn't care less if you live or die will become such a regular occurrence that it barely seems worth it to mention, and that someone more successful than you will come up with a joke that's almost identical to one of yours and a wider audience will see it and assume that it's theirs.

It happens, it's convergent thinking.  Jokes live out there in the ether like fruit hanging from a vine waiting for the right moment, the right time and place and for the right person's brain to see something that everyone else has missed and twist a joke is born.  Sometimes more than one person will see that thing in that way and then two people have the same joke.

I've been on both ends of this, and it's never fun.

Once I unwittingly did a joke that was word for word the same as another comedian's, and yesterday another comedian did a joke that was similar enough to one of mine for me not to be able to use it again.

On both occasions I've been the lesser known comedian, though only one of those occasions has it done any damage to my career...

That occasion was at The Comedy Store in London.  If you're a comedian of my age growing up in the UK The Comedy Store is this Holy Grail, it's like Wembley Stadium is to a football fan, it's like Mecca is to a Muslim, It's like the Deputy Prime Ministership is to Nick Clegg.

I'd been in the car on a long journey to do my open spot, my 10 minutes on a Friday night.  Don Ward, the owner of The Comedy Store had seen me at King Gong in at the Manchester Store, their gong show where I'd managed an awful 1 minute 22 seconds before being gonged off (a personal record at the time)  in spite of this Don saw something that he liked and said to call them for an 5 minute open spot at the London Store on a Thursday night.  WOW this was it, this could be the change of everything!

I booked my spot and went down to do the gig and it went well, it went better than well, it went amazingly, I got great feedback from Don and was invited to do a Friday night 10 minute try out.  If this went well it could lead to doing paid weekend work for them and the career in comedy that I coveted.

Now between that gig getting booked in and doing that gig a lot of bad luck happened, the night before I was supposed to go off and do that gig my car got stolen.  Well I say stolen, I parked it and when I came back it wasn't there, there was just a little pile of glass where my car used to be.  I phoned the police and they said they'd look for it.  It later transpired that someone had broken in to my car and stolen a bag out of the boot (a bag that contained a pair of shoes and my photo album of all my photos of me growing up).  Upon seeing that my car had been broken into the police looked inside, saw how messy it was (another universal truth of being a comedian, your car will get full, to the point that people can't sit in the back seats comfortably, with empty crisp packets and drinks bottles.) decided that it had been stolen, trashed and abandoned, so they impounded it and it cost me £150 to get it back.

That day I rushed around trying to get my car back, trying to get another car so I could drive to London, trying to get a lift of someone anything to make it to this gig on time.  In the end I had to phone and cancel.  They booked me in again a few weeks later.  I turned up and was told they'd made a mistake and had another comic doing the 10 spot who was also from Manchester, and could I come back the next week.  I said yes.

The next week I got held up in traffic and was a little bit late, I rushed in and through into the dressing room and got my make-up and my outfit on ready to go on stage, I was flustered and terrified as this was a very very big gig for me at the time.  I didn't listen to the act who was on stage doing his paid set.  He was a comedian called James Dowdswell, who you may have seen as Count Fuckula in Extras, a fantastic comic who I'd not gigged with for about 18 months.

Anyway he finished his set, he came off stage and went out the front to watch, I got introduced and walked out and started my set, nervous but able to perform OK, then three jokes in I did a gag I'd done for about the last year.

That's where it happened, rather than the laugh it would normally get, it got a boo.  I'd never been booed before, it was oddly relaxing.  Like that moment when you've had an accident and you've accepted your fate.  I didn't know why they were booing my joke about Kit-Kats I assumed they were a right on audience and didn't like the Nestle reference.  I carried on through it and got nothing, I died on my hoop.

I came off stage dejected, knowing that for a short while at least my dreams of being a professional comedian were dashed.  I still couldn't figure out why they'd booed me though.

It was at that point that James Dowdswell came back stage and said "Hard luck mate.  You know why they were booing you?"  I admitted that I didn't.  He said "That joke you did is the same as one of mine and I'd just done it towards the end of my set."  I didn't know that, when he told me it was word for word the same.  Since then I realised that I should probably cut my losses with The Comedy Store and give it another go further down the line.

Coincidence.  It happens.  You have to accept it and move on.

Yesterday an account appeared on Twitter claiming to be Gary Glitter, saying that he'd moved back to the UK and that he was going to be attempting a comeback and to launch his autobiography.  Talk of it quickly became the top trending topic, and many many jokes were made, one of them was by the comedian and writer Peter Serafinowicz, who asked if Gary Glitter would be releasing his book as a PDF file.

It's a good joke, some have called it "Genius"  several hundred people retweeted it, several hundred more posted it on facebook, I've no doubt many hundreds and thousands more have texted it to each other, this is how it happens.  This is how a joke goes viral, it's fun to watch sometimes.

It's less fun to watch when it's so close to a joke that you've been doing for 6 years, a joke that works every night, a joke that's kept a roof over your head and food on your table.

When that happens it's just annoying.

But it does happen, it's happened to me before, there's jokes that I wrote that have turned up in other stand-up's sets, in TV shows, in films in music videos.  it's part of what happens, it's water off a duck's back.  You get a bit annoyed, you move on.

This joke however was a special joke to me.  It was my first professional quality joke.

When you start off as a comedian, you're awful, at least most are, some already have enough charm and transferable skills to get beyond they paucity of their material and do well whilst they wait for the quality of the material to catch up.  Some people write brilliant material right off the bat and have to wait for their charm and stage craft to catch up with their writing.  For most of us we're in the middle, we can't write well but that's perfectly balanced by being charmless and with no stage craft.

I was one of the latter group of comedians and my first couple of years were spent writing material that wasn't particularly funny, but which I thought was either really clever or just plain offensive, falsely assuming that any reaction was a good reaction.  It's not, this is comedy, the reaction you want is to make the people who've paid money to see you laugh.  If you can make them think or shock them at the same time that's great if that's what you want to do, but it's by no means necessary, the only obligation on you as a comedian is to make them laugh.

It took a lot of learning, but I got there in the end.

As you get better you look at the comedians who are playing the bigger clubs at the weekends, the ones who make a living from this and you think "I want to be doing what they're doing"  at first you think it'll just take a fluke, a gig that goes particularly well and you'll be in.  Then as you go along you realise that you'll just have to work really hard, and that the only way to be able to play those clubs alongside those guys is to be as good as them.

About 6 years ago I went over to France to visit my parents.  When I was there my dad asked me to look at his computer for him, which I did, whilst we were there and I was sorting things out for him we were talking about what I was doing and he referred to a PDF file as a "Paedophile" I went "awww dad!" annoyed at his dad joke, that's what my dad does and that's what I do.  That idea stuck in my head for the rest of the holiday, and my brain twisted and turned it into a joke that was usable on stage.  When I got back I did it at a gig and it worked, I did it a few more times and it worked really well, I workshopped it with Gary Delaney, in my mind the best gag writer in the business, and we edited it down and added a tag on to the joke and thus this joke was born:

"As my dad's getting older he's getting shit with technology, I went to visit him recently he said "can you have a look at my computer for me?"  I said "sure what's wrong with it?" he said "I think it's infested with Paedophiles" I said "What the fuck are you talking about dad?" He said "I've read it in the paper, they're all over the internet, now I've got one in my computer."  I said "I'll have a look for you" so I'm sat there at his computer and there's nothing wrong with it at all. I said "There's nothing there!" he said "No there's one!" I said "No dad, that's a PDF file."  You're laughing, he was shitting himself.  Especially when it asked if he accepted cookies."

That was May 2006,  since then a few people have made jokes like that on the internet, it's fine, it'll happen, it's an obvious joke once you see it.

Yesterday Peter Serafinowicz saw it and made the joke himself and was the right person in the right place at the right time telling it so that it caught the warm wind of public approval and floated out into the world where a thousand people saw it and laughed.  Coincidence, not theft.  I know that it's just coincidence, he's not Keith Chegwin.

If it was any other joke in my set I'd be a bit pissed off, and it's okay for me to feel that, I do stand-up for a living, these jokes aren't just jokes to me, they're what keeps a roof over my head and what puts food on my plate, as long as it's not intentional theft I'm cool with it, it was just this joke though.

See as I mentioned when I started out I was terrible and I'd look up to the acts playing gigs at the weekends in the big clubs, people like Mick Ferry, Steve Hughes, Mitch Benn, Paul Sinha, Zoe Lyons, Jim Jefferies, Glenn Wool, Craig Campbell and the like.  I wanted to be able to be on the bill with those acts and not just doing the open spot, actually being paid to be on the bill with those guys, and to be on the bill with those guys you need to be able to hold your own.  You need to be able to get laughs like they get.  You need to be able to go on after they've been on and not die, because the audience doesn't care that you're new, that you're inexperienced, that this is your first gig at this club and you really want to impress the owner, they just want to know that you're as funny as the comedians that you're performing alongside.

That is all.  You need to be able to follow any of them.

So when I was starting out and I had dreams of doing this for a living and I was writing material and trying to get better, the first joke I ever wrote which I felt was good enough.  The first joke I thought was as good as anything in the set of any of the comics I wanted to be as good as, was the PDF Joke.

There's a reason it's been in my set for nearly 6 years, partly it's because for 3 years after that I never wrote a joke that was as good as that joke, but since then it's stayed in because I'm still immensely proud of that joke, I like the way it's developed over the years, I like that I've been able to mess around with it and have it as the start of 4 different much longer bits of material that I can go into, but mostly because it was the first joke I ever wrote where I felt good enough.

And so it's sad to have to say good bye to it, but what a way to say goodbye.

I am a comedian, I'll do what I always do when this happens, drop it, write something new and move on.


Andrew said...

This happened at XS a week or two ago. I forget the gag, but it was a really specific joke, but not topical, that I'd never heard before and suddenly two acts had done in one evening.

Nobody booed, though. I don't think it would occur to them there.

Anyone said...

It's rubbish that your joke is now dead to you but from my point of view as a punter, the same joke for 6 years is a real turn off.

If I really enjoyed your show so went back a year later for another go and heard the same gag I'd be disappointed.