The Grudging Routine

Phillip Schofield apparently had an affair with a runner on the show, whom he’d been in touch with for about 6 years… in touch with… the runner was 18…

This can only lead to one routine, given all the facts in play:

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A Weekend’s Gigging

Friday night I whipped up to Newcastle under Lyme to one of my favourite comedy rooms. The gig was fun and I did the usual bits and bobs. I don’t recall much novelty within the set, though I should perhaps scan the video for anything I did off the cuff which might make a short/reel, since that’s the life I now lead. I mine my gig recordings for bits and bobs I can drop on the internet over the following week.

Anyway, after the gig I was packing up and a song played. I had a game of “what’s the joke for this song?” and it was quite an obvious one. However, I then challenged myself to package that joke up well enough to make it worth a try. At the next gig in that venue, I gave it a shot:

I put quite a bit of thought into exactly how I’d play this joke out.

The wording wanted to be dirty, but not filthy. I wanted the “she” in the song to have agency. I wanted the audience to think they’d reached the punchline before they had. I also needed to muck around with the verse/chorus structure so that I didn’t have to write more words than I needed to, but wanted the casual listener to think “Yeah – that’s the way the song normally goes”.

The pleasure of pairs of weekend gigs is you get to say something or think something at gig one, then try it out or develop it more in gig 2. The first outing of the above looks good to me. Rough edges, but you can’t see what I’m thinking… which is mainly “Don’t fuck this up”.

A Note on Videoing and Publishing Shorts

I’m going to claim that constantly reviewing my own ad-libs or extra bits in order to get short-form content has made me a better comic.

I’m learning what I think works by casting my editorial eye over it. I learn the bits of performance that look good from the outside. We all study other comics for ideas, but I’m also studying myself for evolutionary steps in my comic journey that are worth reinforcing.

I’m also better building up a bank of playful things to drop in if necessary.

It works for me.

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Effort to Result Ratio

One day I’ll look back on the time I wrote a 9 part harmony of a series of evenings to create a 1min 20second song that maybe nobody will ever give a toss about but me…

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What’s Worse than Heckling?

We comedians are gladiators. Hence the comedy gladiators backdrop for last night’s gig being somewhat appropriate:

And then when you put that through an AI tool to turn it into stained glass window, I am, apparently a knight!

Oh what a knight!

If you actually look at the missions of old knights, they were maybe nowhere near as holy as the knights themselves believed. In the same way, I’ve no illusions about my mission for last night.

As the old saying (that we made up) goes:

Opening is opening

A large audience in a room where the PA system wasn’t dominating them, with some misbehaving people at the back (they were later thrown out), and an audience that needed showing who’s boss. The mission was to do that. Big bombastic Ashley was called to be on the case.

Let me be honest.

Sometimes comedy is being rude to one set of strangers while some other strangers laugh at it.

I’m in no way proud of much of what I said, despite the evidence to the contrary, by which I mean the fact that I put the edited highlights on YouTube:

Yes, the stained glass, rendered by was created to be the thumbnail of a YouTube vid.

There were three moments in the bit you can see on the video where I am kind of pleased that my thought processes were just far enough ahead, and my apparent timing doesn’t give away how hard I was having to think.

  • Firstly when I adapted the line “Were you hypnotised in a previous show” to “Were you given concussion in a previous show” – I do an outward chuckle, as I’m musing over the joke that’s forming and trying to phrase it in my head, then out the line pops
  • Secondly, when the fellow does the rather nasty “What do you do?” heckle, which is a well known trap to a comedian – asking them what they do is a good way of suggesting you don’t think that “I’m a comedian” is the answer. I pulled out a line from memory about the laughter being confusing, and then decided to sidestep the question a little… because I was trying not to be so gladiatorial, even though I’d just called him a cunt…
  • Then when he said I’d not managed to offend him, my brain went “Then you need to try harder to offend him” and I said that, and then had to answer the question “What’s a bigger insult than calling him a cunt?” which I think I managed…

To be clear. I am not saying that going around insulting strangers is an artform… only that if you’re going to do it, then you ought to really commit and do it well.

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All The Things You Are

As I get older, I reflect more about what it takes to be me. I have a lot of different personas and pursuits.

Yesterday I was sharing a table in a Caffe Nero with a nice lady from HR. Both of us were WiFi refugees, working out of necessity in the coffee shop. She was there because her home power supply wasn’t going to be available. I was there because my wife’s car was stuck in the garage all day and I had no transport.

The bouncy and daft me that non-threateningly asked to share a table with a stranger, and made occasional cheery comments about our shared predicament, was quite different to the more “hardass” version of me that was on the other end of various Teams meetings over the course the day. Meetings punctuated by an occasional suggestion that if I were at home, I might get under the desk and wimper a bit.

We all play roles in life, and some of those roles are contradictory.

I may choose to wang together a silly comedy video around a song joke, only to then get into a serious day about project steering, having to juggle the attention of the team and any surprising side-swipes from other quarters, only to then go into another mode to achieve another part of my life.

What am I? Are all these personas facets of the same individual, or do I need to be distinct and contradictory versions of myself to achieve it all?

Who knows?

Today I have been:

  • Comedian Ashley – maybe the only true Ashley (except obviously not)
  • Small business bookkeeper
  • Parent
  • Software Leader
  • Delivery driver for my wife’s upholstery company
  • Furniture stripper
  • Dutiful husband
  • Technical editor

Each of these really is a different creature… though many of them like listening to podcasts.

We all share the same clothes.

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Shirty Shorts

It can take more effort than it looks like to create a YouTube short. When they get views it’s fun. When they don’t, it’s mystifying.

The above was a few minutes’ work while I was multitasking on other stuff. It was a non-trivial few minutes, mind. A few vocal takes, a fair bit of “stock” footage sifting and editing, subtitling… it takes time.

At the time of writing, only a handful of views, which is a shame, because I think it’s a funny joke and I approximately delivered it ok.

The next one took much less time to film, and only required a bit of editing… though I filmed a lot of takes and had to choose the best. The first take was the best. What’s the point!?

Similarly ignored by the viewing public, on YouTube at least.

You can’t win them all.

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One Take, Tons of Editing

One of the things we musical comedians tend to do is work backwards from any song we hear to find the joke about it.

I deliberately got myself into TikTok to ensure I had a line into my brain from younger popular culture. I thought this would help with writing material for younger audiences, as well as help me relate better to my kids. I, of course, have no time to spend with my kids because I’ve wasted all my spare time on TikTok, but that’s another problem.

A highly recognisable song like Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” poses a harder than average challenge. You need to have a reason to be subverting the lyrics – a bigger joke than the subject matter. I think I’d idly mused over whether there was a “Watermelon Sugar” joke, and never taken the idea of it seriously.

In the green room on Friday night, chatting with another act, the subject came up. I gave it some genuine thought. How could it be done?

The suggestion I came up with was a shopping list. “Watermelon” and “Sugar” would be two items on it. The rest is the comedy sketch premise, the other items on the list, and hopefully a punchline.

You could probably stop at just “Watermelon” and “Sugar”, but it would be less good.

When I took up this question yesterday afternoon, to see whether it would grow into something bigger, I ended up repeating various tricks of the trade I used when I did The David Bowie Physics Quiz

Here are a few moments from the process:

  • Look up the discography of the artist
  • Find their most obviously well known songs (or recent, in the case of Harry Styles)
  • Look at the lyrics for things that fit the sketch
  • Download the music videos
  • Record the linking material – usually I’d do a couple of takes, but the Harry Styles one was just one
  • Split the linking material up into the movements
  • Try to find the singer actually singing the word of the joke in their music video
  • If they don’t sing it to camera, find a live recording of them singing the song – dub the live recording with the studio soundtrack – it usually fits well
  • Discover that some words just can’t be snipped and rewrite bits
  • Get the story working, even though the timing’s probably off
  • Tweak it to within an inch of its life, using L cuts and J cuts to make it flow

Then release it to the three people who’ll watch it, and move on.

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Don’t Tell Me, Tell the Internet

I’m shit at receiving praise. I don’t really know how to process it, and I tend to deflect it.

I have a couple of stock lines:

  • That’s very kind of you, thanks
  • Don’t tell me, tell social media/LinkedIn/Facebook/the internet

The first one is by far the easiest, and much better than the time I used to get things wrong. I’ve probably told the story before, but I can’t find it on here, so I’ll tell it again. I was in a rehearsal for a musical. I can’t remember which show – possibly My Fair Lady or Camelot in Durham. One of the ladies in the chorus leaned over and said I had a lovely singing voice.

“Oh, I’m sure I don’t” I replied.
“Really, you do,” she countered.
“I really don’t. Are you sure there’s not something wrong with your hearing.”

Yep. Ruined a perfectly lovely moment by accusing someone of having no faculties. Prick.

So I learned not to do that.

But I don’t like to hear praise. And it’s complicated. It’s partly complicated by the fact that, as a performer, I’m literally going out to get the positive reaction of the crowd. It’s a core motivating factor. It’s the raison d’etre of being a comedian – to make them react positively to what you’re doing.

So do I want to be brilliant, appreciated, and admired?

Well… er… I mean… obviously.

So what if someone gives that praise?

That’s a no from me… and it’s more complicated.

In my other line of work – the IT world – as a leader, I seek out to create delight. I want a happy team to feel they’re supported and I want the work we do to be appreciated and admired. I want to achieve the status of a good mentor, leader and member of the team. I deliberately set out to create the positivity and seek out the feedback to check it’s happening.

So what if I get a compliment? “Don’t tell me, tell LinkedIn,” I’ll retort from my playbook.

So why don’t I like compliments?

I want them to be true, but I have about three reservations about them:

  • I suffer imposter syndrome just like anyone, and while I pretty much ignore it most of the time, a compliment triggers it a little
  • I don’t think I gain much by dwelling on my success, while negative feedback can hurt, I’d rather continuously be striving to do better, rather than rest on my laurels – I don’t want to think I’ve reached the destination (I also know enough examples of better role models than I to know that I haven’t)
  • Finally, the compliments make the insults hurt all the more

It’s a longer way down from feeling praised to feeling criticised than to brush off the praise and keep on moving.

So, I’ll deliberately continue to deflect the praise. It works for me. If you like this post, please tell the internet.

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A New Flavour

I’ve been running in this bit of material, which is basically the only joke I wrote during lockdown with an aim of putting it on stage.

I trialed it a couple of times in early 2021, got a bit confused about whether I could pull it off, and then put it on ice. I forced myself to include it in a lovely new material gig, where the audience are so on side that you get the presence of mind to workshop your material into having further nuances.

Here’s that gig:

It’s a gag where the punchline is gravy.

However, having now incorporated it into the set and learned how it works, I’ve got more of an answer to why the Swansea audience sang along from the outside, and why this routine has proved to work with crowds where I felt the gig was generally tough.

Quick side note, when you have newer material, you often don’t want to use it when the crowd feels tough. You want to rely on older, more tried and tested material, in the belief that it must be better. However, there’s a perverse truth to the fact that sometimes the newer material is exactly what you need with an audience that’s been tough on some of the older stuff.

I recall a bad gig turning round once when I pulled out a routine I’d never done before.

But I digress.

So, what’s going on with this routine.

In the first verse, the punchline is guessable, but there’s a topper. The audience enjoys the punchline when they hear it, whether they guessed it or not. I think if they guessed it, they enjoy being right. But I know I’ve got the topper line. It’s a silly line and it asks a great question. In fact, at one gig, when I was at the punchline, which asks “Does that make it gravy?” someone shouted out “Yes”, just before I delivered the topper “Or is it a jus?” which delightfully punctured their confidence.

Note: I’m not proud, just observing how this silly bit of musical wordplay functions.

The second verse is cannon fodder. It’s not as good, it’s guessable, the topper is another good point, but it’s really just a corridor to the third verse.

In the third verse, I challenge the audience to work out the punchline. They should be able to. Maybe not all of them will. Obviously Swansea was well ahead of me. I end the song telling them to give themselves a round of applause. Since musical comedians are renowned for getting applause breaks that don’t count, I’m going to say now, that the self-applause-break is entirely a bit of crowd work to ensure the routine ends the way I want, and that form of applause counts even less than a real spontaneous applause break. I know. I’m not proud. However, it’s the flavour of this routine, which I’m really enjoying at the moment.

The extra bit of surprise comes from the way that singalong last verse can function. I’ve told the audience they will get the joke ahead of time and they should sing along at the precise point in the song where the punchline occurs. So I’ve set them up to do a bit of participation as the deliverers of the punchline, under my rules. No heckling needed, you have a place to show off.

What seems to happen is we get to the sing along bit and there’s a gleeful singalong from those who want to, followed by the laugh at the punchline. That laugh is probably coming from the other half of the audience having effectively been told the joke by their cohorts in the audience (plus me) as well as the people who’ve just sung their guess and been rewarded for being correct.

None of this is high art. It’s just silliness. But it’s a fun bit of two way with an audience and I’m looking forward to doing it again.

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Still a bit rough

Last Friday night in Lyme Regis I got through my set feeling a few stabs of fever, and not sure if I could get through my last song. The above video demonstrates that I did.

COVID’s ability to make you feel ill while also not too ill (let’s assume the vaccinations modify its effects somewhat) is remarkable, and it seems to have a long tail. Even a week later, some 17 days after coming down with the illness, I’m still croaky and a bit down.

But, last night’s gig was mainly a return to form for me. I certainly didn’t feel ill while on stage, and I went through my set with the ups and downs that we seem to summarise as:

Well, opening’s opening

I think we comedians carry a devil on our shoulder. A little mischievous voice that make bad suggestions for what to do next. On the whole listening to that voice is often a good way to make great comedy, whether it’s in the writing room, or whether it’s in the moment on stage. But that voice will lead you astray.

Having watched the entire show, and noted some odd effects in that room, I realised where I’d made a few minor missteps.

The issue came down to the layout of the room and how I didn’t accommodate it properly while on stage. You don’t often have time to think these things through, so this comes with the benefit of hindsight. I do have a directorial narrative running through my brain while performing, and it often prompts me to change my body language, or look in a certain place, or take certain pauses etc. It’s weird, but it works for me.

However, all that is instinctive, and clarity often comes after the fact.

The room was very long. The audience at the back were older and less quick to laugh. The front row were really up for it and very quick to laugh. They were lovely.

So some of the social cues were that this was a gig where things go quickly and you can make rubbish up and get away with it. I indulged my blethery side, and in a few places, especially when a motorcycle went past at a critical moment, that ad lib riffing really paid dividends… until it went off the boil and I quickly moved on.

However, the room as a whole was actually a lot slower and needed playing as if the front row were not so up for it. Paying too much attention to the front row, and being too blethery were my errors.

The reason for this is that there’s a natural speed of comedy in a room. It’s the time it takes for the laugh at the front to conduct through the rows to the back. There’s also a speed of understanding in a room. People at the back, especially if they’re more senior (which these people were), need longer to interpret what they’re hearing from a more distant PA system. If not given time to work out what’s going on, they may disengage.

So what have we learned:

  • Opening’s opening
  • Don’t play the easy front row
  • Listen to the devil on your shoulder unless they’re playing the easy front row
  • Point your nose at the right bit of the room
  • There’s a speed of comedy
  • There’s a speed of understanding

Often a room is better performed side-on. This reduces the distances between the performer and every audience member and makes things more intense.

All written with the benefit of hindsight.

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