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I straightened my Union Jack tie and looked straight down the lens. Was I really going to do this? Today? Well, there was only one way to find out…
Did you hear the one about the Woolwich murder? Probably not, comedy’s been a little quiet on the subject for the last week. Even Twitter, where paedophilia, death, and genocide can provide punchlines mere moments after they’ve happened* seemed muted.
Usually, a tragedy is the time at which Twitter divides (roughly equally in my timeline) between those making puns about it, and those saying “Hey! A man / woman / Thatcher just died here people! Show a little respect!” Last week, half of those people suddenly seemed to discover that discretion was the something part of whatsit, and decided to stay quiet.
When a Dutch show included a cheap reference to the murder in a sketch about Eurovision, the hyperventilation of the British press (who, lest we forget, are staunch defenders of freedom of speech) became a constant, high-pitched whine capable of shattering snail shells. All of the coverage mis-characterised the sketch as ‘mocking the murder of Lee Rigby’. All of the headlines named Lee Rigby, who wasn’t referred to in the sketch at all, as the butt of the sketch. It’s pretty clear from watching it that they weren’t mocking Rigby at all, they were using his murderers as a stereotype for all of Britain, the same way they were using German stereotypes for the Germans.
But any joke which contains reference to the Woolwich murder is – in the eyes of the British press – a joke that mocks Lee Rigby.
In character as Sir Ian Bowler, a corrupt MP, on the Thursday morning I tweeted a not-hugely-amusing joke about MPs resenting being recalled to Parliament every time they went away on holiday. I was surprised by the fact that someone was hurt by it. I’d actually made someone cry with a joke. And not in a speaking-truth-to-power way, in a you’re-probably-an-inconsiderate-dick way.
So I decided to ask social media whether or not I should do an Ian Bowler video that day. There was a lot I wanted to say about the responses of politicians to the incident, and the ways in which they were spinning it to suit their own agenda. I was cross that the half-truths (which are equally half-untruths) of a whole swathe of people from Theresa May to the EDL weren’t being challenged in the media’s narrative. I was angry. And when I’m angry I tend to put on a blue suit and bellow into a camera.
Like during the riots.
But I’d been brought down to earth by that tweet. Should I say something that I knew would upset a lot of people? Should I say it that day?
The responses were interesting. The advice from most comedians was to leave it well alone. Most people who like watching the videos wanted one. Family members (mine) politely suggested that holding off might not be a bad idea, at least until they had had time to board up the windows.
One comment, however, completely took the wind out of my sails.
I think Sir Ian should be thinking about the victim’s family, not his own career.
I’ll deal with the issue of respect in a minute, but the accusation of careerism was particularly painful. I don’t know what sort of career the commenter assumes talking into a video camera in a shed comprises (My wife could tell him. “Not much of one.”) but it was a point I couldn’t answer.
As someone whose career is his jokes, and often his jokes in response to the news, I can’t help but be something of a vulture, picking at the carrion of current affairs. It’s what I do, it’s the way I communicate. Some people write columns in newspapers, some people write plays, some people go and nod at each other on news programmes. I write jokes. They are the way I work out what I’m thinking.
When it comes to respect, of course, I don’t think it’s the satirist’s job to offer respect. Quite the reverse, when the whole country is united in feeling something, it’s the satirist’s job to point out the ways in which we are blinding ourselves to the truth. Or to what they see as the truth.
Even if it’s wrong, especially if it’s uncomfortable, there should be someone taking an unpopular position.
Someone should always challenge the prevailing media narrative, especially when a consensus is reached as quickly and completely as it was last week.
If a satirist has a duty it is not to show respect, not to defer to the social norms which are being used to silence and ensure conformity of word and thought.
There was a survey recently, which scientifically proved (did not scientifically prove) that there was such a thing as ‘too soon‘. Distance in time allows us to see the violation of social norms as ‘benign’. However, in a country where we are all more than happy to work ourselves into a group-think lather at the drop of a people’s princess, one must wonder whether our humour should be ‘benign’.
Gawker recently lamented the fact that ‘too soon’ had apparently disappeared from the world with social media. The response to the Boston bombing showed, they thought, that Twitter had killed the concept of ‘too soon’. What they might have seen in the Woolwich case is the way in which Twitter is used to police ‘too soon’.
There have, of course, been jokes. Sickipedia has 5 pages of jokes about the Woolwich murder. Most of them gleefully taking the opportunity to be openly racist.
The left has also found its outlet: the EDL. From the EDF gags to the ‘Never Submit to Aslan’ photoshops, the EDL are the one thing the country is letting itself laugh at. The anarchist blogger who pleads with his audience not to laugh at the EDL may well be right that the problem they pose is serious and imminent. However, in a culture where the central tenets of the narrative are not open for mockery, we latch onto the next closest thing. Sorry, EDL.
In their responses to the Aurora shootings both Dane Cook and Chris Rock had different experiences. Cook used the tragedy to make a tired joke about how bad the film was; Rock used it to raise issues of gun control and joke about them.
One used the moment to joke about the issues, his anger, and what he felt was important, and was rightly praised for so doing. The other used it to trot out some hack material, and caught the rage of the Internet.
There is no such thing as too soon. There is, however, such a thing as too stupid.
I’m a great believer in the fact that not all self-censorship is wrong. Taking the impact of what we say into account when we say something is not a betrayal of free speech. Taking responsibility for our words and the effect they have on others isn’t always a bad idea.
However, we shouldn’t frame all of our discussions as if they are likely to be beamed directly into the faces of grieving relatives, even though, with the Internet, they can. And we really shouldn’t let concerns about what people will think our motives are govern whether or not we speak out.
Ian Bowler will be back tomorrow. Some of the things I wanted to say still need saying. Other seem tired now, or trite, or just like I couldn’t pull them off as my rage has matured. Look forward to that. Some slightly stale material that feels like it would have been more relevant last week.
Because I didn’t do it. I switched the camera off, took off the tie, turned on the News, and felt awful. Awful that I was conspiring in silence, awful that I hadn’t had the courage of my convictions, awful that I hadn’t said something deeply offensive to right-thinking individuals. Just awful.
* For those unaware of Twitter, it’s a system used to ensure that Frankie Boyle gets pretty much blanket coverage by The Daily Mail.
- Sick Dutch TV sketch mocks Lee Rigby murder (thesun.co.uk)
- Attacks on Muslims soar in wake of Woolwich murder (ramyabdeljabbar.wordpress.com)
I’m a disaster at keeping this blog up to date. Partly, of course, because I don’t know what it is. Some days, it’s a place for blistering think-pieces on political hot-topics. Other days, it’s a receptacle for Bowler videos. And on other, shameful days, it’s a self-promotional wankbag.
This is one of those days.
If you didn’t come to The Bowler Debates last week (and you may have missed them because I never mentioned them on my own blog for fear of seeming too pushy), then all is not lost. A reviewer came, and made notes, and wrote those notes up afterwards into this lovely review. Thank you, Kat Pope.
The structure of this new show is simple but works perfectly… While it’s difficult to tell how much of the show is scripted and how much off the cuff, it doesn’t really matter as this is genuinely funny stuff… Tapley is always nicely in control of his character and material, but can’t quite hide a smile when he knows he’s nailed it, which is a good 80% of the time – not a bad comedy hit rate at all… It’s a shocker, but then you’ll just have to go to see this marvellous hour of comedy to find out exactly what did happen between the two old chums.
Yeah. 80%. Boom!
Also, on Sunday The Revolution Will Be Televised – on which I wrote – won a BAFTA. No, I have no idea whether or not this means I can call myself a “BAFTA-winning writer” but, until I am absolutely and explicitly told not to, I intend to heavily imply it in all conversations.
So, that was my week. How was yours?
Given the great result in the #Twitterjoketrial this morning, and in a continuing effort to republish my articles which have disappeared from the Spectator Arts Blog, here’s what I had to say about the whole thing in November 2010…
I am a crazed demon. That’s right, you heard: a crazed demon. A journalist on a national newspaper says so.
And how do I manifest how crazed and demoniac I am? Do I roam the streets gobbling up children, waving my withered, sulphurous genitals, and committing small but necessary acts of petty vandalism? No. Do I reside inside the head of a young girl forcing her to utter profanities and spew forth a violently-green combination of bile and Cheestrings? No. Do I believe that hospitalised, pregnant women should be shackled in case they feel like running off? No
(Incidentally, Anne Widdecombe has proven the truth of Oscar Wilde’s quip that dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire. In her case: sleeping…)
No, I believe that we should treat jokes as, you know, jokes. Unfunny, distasteful, worthless they may be, but jokes they remain.
And, so, according to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, I am a ‘crazed demon’.
This afternoon, we will learn if Paul Chambers, he of the #twitterjoketrial, is going to attempt to have his conviction overturned in the High Court, or whether he has decided to draw a line under the whole affair. Whilst part of me hopes that he decides to do everything he can to overturn his conviction, to correct in court some of the damage done both to him and to the concept of free speech in this country, I shall understand if he chooses to cut his losses.
Paul Chambers has lost two jobs, and been fined £3,000 because he used figurative language to express himself to his friends the way millions of us do every day. The problem was, he did it on Twitter.
For those not familiar with the case, there is a great summary of the events that led up to today from blogger Jack Of Kent (who is now providing pro bono legal advice to Mr Chambers), here. In essence, Mr Chambers was convicted for having, on learning that Doncaster Airport was closed because of snow, sent a tweet that read:
“Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”
What should perhaps be most worrying to us, is the assertion of the security services that they cannot distinguish between a flippant remark made to friends, and a serious threat to an airport. The people we trust to deal with the threats of terrorism cannot distinguish between a threat of terrorism, and hyperbole.
Would we trust a dentist who finds it difficult to distinguish between evidence of tooth decay and the music of the Ramones? Would we feel safe in the hands of a surgeon who, just as we go under, says, “Looking at your X-rays you’ve either got a massive tumour or a Ford Capri lodged in your thorax. I’ll fill you with car polish, just to be on the safe side”? Our air traffic controllers hopefully don’t sit, staring at their monitors with a baffled look, going “What are all these crazy moving dots? Obviously some are planes, but what are the others? Poptarts? Angels? The original line-up of Simply Red? We just have no way of knowing!”
Do they really think that terrorists give ‘a week and a bit’s’ warning of their intention to blow up an airport? Does the list of demands usually come down to ‘getting your shit together’? Assuming, of course, that their shit hadn’t been got together, the airport would have been empty, still closed by bad weather; is it usual for terrorists to threaten empty buildings?
No. They don’t do any of those things, and the police and the CPS and the security services know it.
The key point is that, knowing that they would not be able to prosecute Mr Chambers under existing bomb threat or bomb hoax legislation, the CPS discovered s. 127 of the Communications Act 2003. Mr Chambers was not on trial for having issued a credible threat, but for having sent a ‘menacing’ message over a public network.
Had Mr Chambers said the same thing on stage at a comedy gig, he would have had no case to answer. Had he written in in a newspaper or blog (as Charlie Brooker excellently points out here) he would have had no case to answer. Had he said it to his friends in the pub he would have had no case to answer. Had he said it on Mock The Week, The Now Show, or Have I Got News For You he would have had no case to answer. Paul Chambers has a criminal record because he assumed that the rules of public discourse were the same on Twitter as they were in the rest of the country. He was wrong.
Twitter is a strange service. It feels more private than it is. Even though Mr Chambers only had around 60 followers at the time, all of whom were familiar with the ways in which he tweeted, his tweet was publicly visible if you searched for it. Whilst it was intended for the eyes of his friends, it was open to the scrutiny of the world. The District Judge the first time the case was heard suggested that the result would have been different if Mr Chambers had made his comment as an @-reply rather than as a comment on his general timeline.
In 2010, that’s the difference between being a menacing criminal, and someone joking with friends: @
Still, it’s just an isolated and unfortunate example, isn’t it? Except that, ten days ago, a Conservative councillor in Birmingham was arrested under s.127 of the Communications Act 2003 for tweeting:
“Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really.”
On the face of it, that’s a particularly unpleasant thing to say about a Muslim woman. However, he didn’t just tweet that. At the end of the tweet was the hashtag ‘#R5L’, indicating that this was a response to his listening to Radio Five Live. Ms Alibhai-Brown was on Radio Five Live at the time, arguing that (I understand, I have not heard the original segment) the fact that women were stoned to death in a country didn’t give us an imprimatur to invade. After all, she argued, the hands of The West are hardly morally spotless.
Mr Compton’s comment above, then, in context, becomes a spirited response from someone engaging her arguments, rather than a personal threat. The thrust is that Ms Alibhai-Brown can only be so dismissive of stoning women because she lives in a culture that doesn’t stone women. It’s common right-wing pablum – You’re only allowed your liberal lefty opinions because you live in a civilised country, civilised at least in part because there were people willing to bomb Dresden for that privilege – dressed up in a pithy way for the 140-character audience.
It’s not an incitement to stone to death a leading light of the commenterati. Not, that is, until you strip it of all context, of all meaning, and presume to be able to deduce intent from its literal meaning.
The British public prides itself on its sense of humour. The British establishment is apparently unable to spot a joke when it sees one, even when that joke comes with a helpful hashtag explaining what it is in reference to.
The Daily Mail (and one week I really will go through a whole article without mentioning them) recently ran a story suggesting that gingerbread men were being advertised as ‘gingerbread persons’ in Lancashire schools (there’s a good rundown of the story at Five Chinese Crackers) because of ‘political correctness gone mad’. Of course, what had actually happened was that someone, playing on a sense of ‘PC-gone-mad’ wrote the menus with a joke in.
You can tell it’s a joke because they were advertised as ‘gingerbread persons’ and not ‘gingerbread people’. It’s (moderately) funny. Or a threat to our great British way of life. Whatever.
I suspect that we’re losing our sense of humour because the culture of the last ten years, has been deliberately humourless. We used to be able to distinguish figurative language from literal. No one really expected Denis Healey to go around grabbing rich people and squeezing them until the pips squeaked. Where would that have left the Queen, who, as a woman, doesn’t even have pips? No, the thought of Denis Healey grasping Her Royal Highness in a half nelson, wrestling her to the floor, and compressing her ribcage in the hopes of hearing things she didn’t have make a noise they wouldn’t make never occurred to anyone. Until just now.
This is the age of ‘You are either with us or with the terrorists.’ There is no room for nuance, and those who seek distinctions between what similar things actually mean, those who question whether Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party were actually comparable, those who look for subtleties are helping the enemy. We are at war with monstrous theocrats and that is all ye need to know.
Everything must be judged in the simplest possible terms. To admit doubt, to suggest that meaning varies based on context is a heresy. The world is divided into good people and evil people, and to see shades of grey is giving the evil people a free pass.
A lot of comments on the Paul Chambers case have stated variations on the fact that ‘in the current security climate’ you shouldn’t even risk making jokes, or speaking figuratively about terrorism. Which would make a little more sense if they were saying it on July 8th 2005. They’re not. And we should ask when ‘the current climate’ is likely to end. There has been a half a decade since the last successful terrorist attack on mainland Britain. When are we allowed to tell jokes about it again?
Between 1982 and 1996, there were nine bombs in mainland Britain, set off by variants on the IRA. Why must we feel more threatened now, why should we curtail our liberties more now than we ever did then?
Do these commenters actually believe that Messrs Chambers and Compton were actually threatening anyone? On the whole, no, but they believe that the state has a duty to punish ‘silly’ behaviour, just to show it is serious about keeping us safe. We like to see examples made of people who aren’t taking the whole thing seriously because we are afraid. We like the police to step in when someone says something that upsets us.
Christianity used to be offered specific protections under the blasphemy laws. To correct that egregious state of affairs, did New Labour get rid of the blasphemy laws? No. It introduced the Religious Hatred Act 2006, which put all other religions on the same legal footing. Now all religions, even Jedi, which is recognised as an ‘emerging religion’ following a concerted campaign in the 2001 census, are offered the same protection against people saying things they don’t like. If I foment hatred against the Jedi, I am committing a crime. Even if I am a Sith, and mandated to hunt the Jedi across the galaxy and exterminate them by my religious beliefs.
We have become a nation of Ayatollahs, howling for state reprisals every time someone says something we think we don’t like. We are just as happy to see the world in black and white. We are just as happy to rip things out of context, and present them (sometimes with extra things added, like they did to the Danish cartoons) as things that are insupportable.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has decided not to press charges against Mr Compton, but still opines that those of us who think that s.127 (designed originally to protect female telephone operators from menacing phone calls in the 1930s) and its application in the last few months have been an affront to civilised society are ‘crazed demons’.
Of course, if doesn’t matter that she isn’t pressing charges, as it is up to the CPS to decide whether or not there is a case to answer. It’s not reliant on her. Mr Compton may still face trial, but Ms Alibhai-Brown has at least had the good grace to wash her hands of it.
(This sort of not-quite-liberal liberalism was again on display with Ed Balls this week. He was cheered on by various left-wing bloggers as “accepting the importance of civil liberties” while still arguing that the state should be able to hold terror suspects for 14 days without charge. If he actually accepted the importance of civil liberties he should be suggesting that it should be 0 days.)
We are in a fight with a murderous ideology that wants to curtail our way of life and strip humanity of any joy and colour and subversion and humour. In fact, we are in a fight with two: Islamism and neoconservatism.
Benjamin Franklin said:
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
We’re doing something far worse. We’re giving up our sense of humour.
And some anger splurged onto Twitter. Fortunately for you, it’s all been collected up below. It’s a moment by moment account of the development of my loathing for Nick Clegg. Enjoy.
We all know that the Queen poos (unlike Prince Philip, who vents clouds of highly-acidic faecal gas from a fleshy nozzle just beneath his chin, before blinking his inner eyelids and retreating to the warmth of the Royal Egg Chamber), but few of us have really considered the implications of this.
There must be days when Her Majesty, Monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and her Islands clenches her little fists, grabs hold of the seat and really bears down to dislodge a particularly awkward chunk of digested swan. (This is in stark contrast to Barack Obama, whose turds slip out of him like otters returning to the wild.) At times like these, as her tiny heels drum against the floor, a fine sweat breaks out on her aged forehead, and she prays to a higher power (higher pooer?) to just get the damned thing out, she must hope that if this is it, if she dies here, that they take her corpse and arrange it so it looks like she was doing something less embarrassing when the time came. Something like feeding her corgis, opening a hospital, or cutting the brake lines on a Mercedes-Benz W140.
There are probably worse ways to go than carking it in the middle of a poo, but I’m struggling to think of any now. Here are nine more who expired in the water closets. Flush-in-the-pans.
9. Elvis Presley – Although one of the most famous to die in their bathrooms, Elvis wasn’t found on his toilet. He was several feet away from the toilet, where he had apparently crawled in an attempt to get help, interrupted whilst using the toilet. He was obese, and suffered from glaucoma, high blood pressure, liver damage, had a history of abusing prescription drugs, and an enlarged colon. One of his coroners said he had ‘the arteries of an eighty-year old‘. Although there is some dispute over whether it was the massive drug intake, the weight, or the actual ‘straining at stool’ (as his biographer puts it) that caused his heart attack, the moral remains the same: you can’t have too much fibre in your diets, kids.
8. Evelyn Waugh – the ‘bright young thing’ of the 1920s, and later Catholic propagandist came home from church one Sunday, went to the loo, and never came out again. He ascended to the Heavenly Throne whilst mounted on his.
7. Catherine the Great – Catherine the Great is perhaps the only person in history about whom it can be said the best version of the story of their death is the one where they die, grunting on the toilet. Because in the other popular version of the Catherine the Great’s death she was crushed to death by a horse during the act of coitus.
6. Uesugi Kenshin – Kenshin was one of the most powerful Japanese warlords of the sixteenth century with a prodigious capacity for booze. Although most people agree that he died on the toilet, there’s a lot of dispute over whether it was his prodigious drinking, or a cesspit-dwelling ninja that finally got him. I like to imagine a combination of the two. A booze-addled bum-ninja.
5. Christopher Shale – Not hugely famous in and of himself, Shale is notable for two things: being David Cameron’s constituency aide, and dying in a toilet at the Glastonbury Festival. In one move he managed to replace the popular image of Tories as being tangerine-chomping auto-erotic asphyxiators, start rumours about shadowy conspiracies and leaked documents, and get everyone to agree that people over 50 should not attend music festivals.
4. Edmund Ironsides – Stabbed in the anus by a Viking hiding in his toilet. There is literally nothing about that last sentence I don’t like.
3. Don Simpson – A heart attack waiting to happen, Top Gun Producer, S&M enthusiast and allegedly prodigious drug user Don Simpson died on the toilet, whilst reading a biography of Oliver Stone. Death must have come as a blessed relief.
2. King George II – Fat, palsied German George II was blind in one eye and hard of hearing by 1760, when he had a cup of hot chocolate and went to the loo. A few moments later a crash was heard, and the king was pronounced dead from ‘overexertions on the privy’.
1. Lenny Bruce – Lenny Bruce didn’t just die on a toilet, he died doing heroin on a toilet. Imagine being so in love with heroin that you don’t even want to finish taking a dump before getting high. “You know, I could wait, like, three minutes and then do this on the sofa. Nah, what’s the worst that can- urk!”
So, what has this litany of poo-related perishing taught us? What have we learned from these salutary tales? One thing. Toilets can kill you.
Never, ever go to the toilet. That is all.
First, read this…
Let’s call it Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution. I wrote it in January 2011, and, I think we can all agree, it’s a fine example of the ‘mediocre sketch with vaguely interesting premise’ genre.
Now watch this:
You see? You see? And that, my friends, was put up on the Internet back in 2009.
Conclusive evidence, if any were needed, that the writing staff of That Mitchell And Webb Look are compulsive thieves who have developed time travel. The only feasibly explanation for this is that they roam the timestreams like multidimensional magpies, purloining comedic gems wherever they go.
Or, alternatively, it was a pretty obvious idea. And one that shows exactly why a lot of new writers spend far too long worrying about people stealing their ideas.
When two people have the same idea, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone stole it. And, in this case, it’s not just the idea, the execution is fairly similar: the setup is the same, both have a gag about crystals, and the patient ends up dead. Mine doesn’t have the second-scene coda which gives some nice context, but they’re similar enough that I felt an irrational pang of anger when I saw the Mitchell & Webb clip.
But I knew that was all it was, an irrational response. It took about four seconds for me to realise and fully accept that writers sometimes have the same ideas, especially comedy writers addressing the same topic.
I often think when I see the efforts people go to to send themselves scripts by registered post, register things with the Library of Congress, and only conditionally let producers see some of what they have written after they’ve signed an NDA, that this energy could have been better used, well, writing.
No one wants to steal your scripts.
No one reputable wants to steal your scripts. For the amount of hassle and legal trouble that will be caused if they do, it’s cheaper just to buy your script. That way, you’ll also be likely to offer them your next script. If someone thinks your writing is good, they will want to make it, and they will want to make other things you write (or at least be offered them, which is unlikely if you are embroiled in a legal dispute over ownership of a previous script).
Many people won’t read unsolicited scripts now because they worry about being accused of plagiarism in the future. Rather than protecting themselves, new writers are reducing the number of people who are willing to read what they’ve written.
Are there unscrupulous people focused on short-term gain in the movie and TV businesses? Almost certainly. Moreso in films, where anyone with a mobile phone and a table at a decent restaurant can call themselves a producer. But these people are very few and far between, and they are usually too busy ‘setting up deals’ to actually make a film in which they rip off someone’s idea. There are easier ways of getting someone to work for nothing than theft. Usually you can just ask them: “Will you work for nothing, giving up all rights to your work?”
However, most people are hard-working, creative, and desperate to turn good scripts into good programmes or movies. Without exception, the people I have worked with have had one goal: making the best things they can make with the resources they have.
Your ideas are not all that important.
Ideas are ten a penny. Everyone has an idea for a film. Everyone can have ideas. You don’t need a writer to come up with ideas.
You need a writer to write a film.
The idea has very little relevance to how good a film is going to be. Just look at all the straight-to-DVD ripoffs that come out every time there is a huge hit at the cinema. The ones with a business model that depends on the confusion of the buying public. “Avatard? Didn’t that get pretty good reviews?”
Look at Deep Impact and Armageddon; Volcano and Dante’s Peak; Antz and A Bug’s Life. (What? I watched a lot of films in the 90s. What?) The fact that the premise is similar doesn’t make these films equally successful, either commercially or as films.
It’s all in the execution.
And sometimes even that comes out quite similarly. See above.
Time spent worrying about who is stealing your work is time you’re not spending working. If, contrary to all logic, there is someone out there desperate to steal the work of new writers and to pass it off as their own, paying money to ‘register’ your script won’t stop them doing it (In the UK, you hold the copyright on something you have written as soon as it is written. You do not need to register it).
In order to succeed you need to leave your house, meet people, and, most importantly, let them read your work. To paraphrase Cory Doctorow, obscurity is a greater threat than being ripped off. You can’t protect yourself against everything. Especially not time-travelling thieves in the pay of two of Britain’s best-loved contemporary sketch performers. More’s the pity…
This is an occasional series, the Comedy Book Reviews, in which I’ll look at various books and tell you how useful I think they are to the budding comedy writer, or writer-performer.
Opening this book is like stepping back into the late 1980s. From the drop shadows on the geometric shapes that litter the pages, serving as – I can only guess – graphic design, to the choice of comics used as examples, to the description of the industry, this book is clearly 20 years out of date. Which is unsurprising, as it was first published in 1989.
Well, it is. Although the industry it describes isn’t a huge amount like the one that will face a comic in the UK, it’s fun to wallow in the world Bill Hicks described as his ‘flying saucer’ tour, one where there are actually clubs called things like ‘The Laugh-Inn’, and where Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling and Roseanne Barr are still working comics rather than bloated, corporate comedy brands. The industry may have changed, however, but the job hasn’t.
There’s a reason that this book is still in print (and pretty readily available) more than two decades after it was published. It gives a really good grounding in how to write and perform a particular kind of standup act. Admittedly, it’s standup of the confessional kind, the autobiographical kind, and the observational kind, but all of those styles are still relevant and popular today.
The joke-writing and material-generating techniques are still solid, and should enable anyone to craft a couple of minutes of decent gags about themselves, their situations, and the things they have noticed about the world. If that’s the style of comedy you’re interested in performing, then this is a good introduction.
Even if it isn’t, there are things to be gleaned in terms of structuring a set, setup and punch, and general rules about how to handle an audience and prepare for a gig. The section that deals with the more alternative forms of comedy: topical gags, character comedy, musical comedy or prop comedy is a little perfunctory, and this book is much more helpful for people who want to do straight standup.
This is a good basic primer I would recommend to all comics who are preparing an act to get up on a stage. The appendices and actual club and industry information are obviously of little use now, but the principles and ideas for material, how to generate and structure it, remain as true today as they were back when there was a Tory government, regular riots in London, IRA activity, and Libya was always in the news. Oh.
About three years ago I thought it would be funny to write a blog called Having A Poo With… In each entry I would parody the thoughts of a famous person as they went to the toilet. To do a poo.
It would show off my keen ear for language that was ripe for parody (it didn’t); it would be a regular and hilarious addition to people’s inboxes (it wasn’t); and be an excuse for a lot of jokes about bums (it was). The whole thing was prompted by an image of Will Self describing the “proleptic, anti-peristaltic turtle’s head” of a stool that was proving difficult to shift from his duodenum. This would show that Craig Brown…
Needless to say, I got bored after doing one entry. It sits there, alone in a corner of the Internet, unloved, leaking misery and loneliness into the ether. As it should be.
I was reminded of this when seeing another piece of advice to young writers in which they were sternly admonished to finish those things they started. That that was what separated the professionals from the rest of you. We finish what we start. We don’t leave abandoned half-drafts all over our hard drives. We don’t start without a plan, we know where we’re going, we finish what we start.
Balls. Unalloyed donkey-balls.
Whilst it is undoubtedly true that you can never get anything made (or published) unless you finish it, I think that there’s another risk just as great as starting something you never finish. And that’s never starting the thing at all.
Whereas in the past I would have happily ploughed in to a new idea whenever it occurred to me; now I have pinboards, charts mapping out act breaks, the will to muscle on through bits of writing that might not be working the way I’d hoped, and a huge pile of projects that I haven’t ever started because I’m not happy that I’ve got a complete grasp of them yet. Before writing was my job I would have played with these ideas, tried writing them. Now that seems irresponsible unless I know how they are going to turn out.
So they sit there.
And I look at them and think that if I’d taken that first moment when the idea seemed so brilliant and written everything that enthused me about it then, then I would have at least have a bit of them written. At least a bit I could look at, decide whether there was anything in it and carry on with. A bit that would have the fire in that initially excited me. Rather than a bunch of denatured plans for incomplete ideas.
Sometimes we have to play. Sometimes we have to just follow what excites us. Sometimes we have to fail.
We have to do the bit we think is excellent to realise that we don’t want to do the rest of it.
Which is why I’m glad i wrote the one entry on Having A Poo With… It’s a testament to doing something incompletely, but still having something that you like at the end of it. Its one entry is short, but still funny, and written. It’s there.
As opposed to all the well-worked through, not-quite ideas I have planned. So whilst it’s great advice to young writers to learn to finish the things you start, I wonder whether it might not be just as important to start things you have no idea how, or even if, you are ever going to finish.
That one entry? Having A Poo With… Charlie Brooker. Here it is:
Have you ever noticed how tawdry and awful doing a shit is? No, really. It is.
You sit there with your trousers around your rotten ankles, waiting for death, and straining so hard you look like Popeye wanking himself into a stupor, as he lies alone in bed imagining Olive Oyl being savagely bummed by Bluto. Who’s dressed as a clown.
Not only do you grunt and squeal like a piglet drowning in a bathtub full of razorblades and gin, but you’re actually squeezing actual human turds through your foetid ring-piece. You disgusting cock. Get some fucking dignity.
You’d almost feel sorry for yourself if you weren’t as despicable as the rest of the human sodding race. We should all have our heads replaced with bums, so that instead of going around having opinions, we could just spoot noxious clouds of toxic guff in each others’ bum-faces. Like cocks.
As if that weren’t bad enough, you’re then expected to wipe your own arse like some sort of idiot slave with nothing better to do than to smear actual shit around a piece of semi-absorbent paper. The shame of this makes you leak hot twat-tears into the uncaring toilet bowl.
The only thing that makes the process half bearable is the knowledge that the whole degrading process is at least confirmation that you’re still alive, and taking up precious space on this rubbish planet. For now.
Books. I’ve been in love with books forever. I’ve got thousands of them stacked all over the house. Just the word ‘book’ looks like a comfy, cosy bed, into which one could sink with a good, long book. Books…
I’ve wanted to write books for as long as I can remember. Not only that, I have written them, from ‘The Adventures Of The T Family’ in 1985 (in which the family’s mother foils a robbery in a toy shop by beating a burglar with her handbag, and which, incidentally, passes the Bechdel test) to the series of ‘comic’ novels I wrote in my early 20s and that no one will ever see. Because they are awful enough to shatter the enamel on your teeth.
I’ve writen for newspapers, radio, the television, the internet, but not books. I even got one of my manuscripts bound so it could sit on a bookcase with my name on the spine like a book, but I’ve never ritten anything that’s actually in a proper book. Until now.
True, when I visualised stroking the glossy covers of my masterpieces, they rarely had light-blue, undead revenants on the cover, turning to advce on the reader with a terrible, merciless glint in their eyes. But that’s because I didn’t know that what I wrote was going to be in The Zombie Feed: Volume 1, a new anthology from Jason Sizemore.
And now I get to march in the grand parade of self-promotion for yet another reason. I now won’t just be hassling you to come to shows, or watch TV at a certain time in morning, or listen to podcasts, but to actually buy books.
Like the e-book version which you can get if you can’t wait for the book itself to be published. Yes, within seconds of reading this your e-reader of choice could be throbbing with 17 new short stories about zombies. One of which will be by me. And, if you get it from Amazon, it’s £2.14 for your Kindle (or Kindle-enabled device. Your kinda Kindle). That’s not even the price of a soft drink in most London hostelries.
And I’ll get royalties! Perhaps. I haven’t checked the contract for e-book sales. But I might. And that’s something.
So this year I can tick off Radio 4 and books. Pretty much all that’s left now is comics. And films. And grownup TV. And the West End. And a musical. And… oh poo.
This post was originally a guest post on The Zombie Feed, written to promote the anthology The Zombie Feed: Volume 1 in which my zombie story ‘Cold Comfort’ appears.
In the dead of night, when all that’s out the window are moon-weevils and shadow-bats, you can sometimes hear bodies being disinterred. There’s the scrape of metal against coffin-wood, the sigh of entombed air escaping from forgotten sarcophagi, and the tapping of fingers against keyboards.
All across the world, writers are sitting and wrenching new ideas, new stories out of their brains. Often they find themselves in the process of plundering the graves of long-dead authors, trying on their shrouds, playing new games with their characters, their themes, their stories. Part of coming up with new things is robbing the tombs of the dead, and cackling whilst you do so.
Bulgakov wrote his great magic-realist novel about the Devil’s visit to Moscow at the height of Stalin’s Great Terror. A respected member of the Moscow literary establishment (and one who received personal telephone calls from Stalin) Bulgakov wrote a number of drafts in secret; if its existence has become known, it would have meant internal exile if not death.
The book is both a fantastic romp, and a satirical piece, with Satan running rings around the petty bureaucrats and functionaries of Soviet Moscow. At the time I’d also just read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Orlando Figes’ brilliant assessment of how private life was eroded in Soviet Russia: The Whisperers.
Totalitarianism was preying on my mind, and the ways it intentionally dehumanises people. In order for a government to dominate its citizenry so completely it must ensure that they cannot trust each other. A culture of informing, corrupt bureaucracy, and a people in permanent need of basics like a warm coat, or an extra room, all of these served to make the real tragedy of Stalin’s Russia a population that could not trust itself.
Not friendship, not kinship, no tie was secure from the intrusion of the state. No one might not be turned against you. You couldn’t ever just relax and blow smoke. Not entirely comfortably.
So, zombies, then. They’ve been used a lot to satirise capitalism, mindless consumerism, the ease with which we are swayed by demagogues, and I thought I’d drop them into Soviet Russia, to see how they swam. To see how they did, you’ll have to read the story…
But it almost seemed too perfect. What kind of story is more about loneliness, isolation, the inability to trust those around you, than a zombie story?
My zombies aren’t the typical shambling infected, however, they are spun off from minor characters in Bulgakov’s book, specifically the severed head of a Soviet commissar that refuses to stop trying to order those about it around. Hopefully, it catches some of Bulgakov’s dark humour, throws a few new twists into zombie lore, and is an unsettling and, on occasions, revolting read…
To preorder your copy of The Zombie Feed: Volume 1, click here.