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You can learn some creative techniques but you cannot learn to be talented

At the weekend, crime writers P.D.James and Ruth Rendell were chatting to each other at the Soho Theatre in London. Someone (clearly not me) asked if they had any advice for a young person who wanted to write.

P.D.James wisely replied that it depends whether you want to be published more than you want to write.

It is possible to be published without being a good writer.

But, if you want to write, then you have to write and there is no real advice except possibly to read lots of well-written books – because reading badly-written books will only lead you on to writing badly-written books.

Personally, I have a feeling that taking writing courses may also lead people on to bad writing because they might start to think there are rules.

It is a bit like the view of the late comedian Malcolm Hardee, who had little time for jugglers because he saw juggling as a skill not a talent. If the average person practised eight hours per day, five days per week for two years, they could probably become a good juggler because it is a skill you can learn. But being a stand-up comic is a talent. If you are not funny, no amount of practice will ever make you truly, truly talented.

You can learn some stand-up comedy techniques from experience, but you cannot learn to be talented.

Same thing with creative writing.

There is no shame in that.

I am crap at science and foreign languages. But I can write a bit.

On the other hand, never say never.

RKO Pictures’ screen test report on Fred Astaire read: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.”

There are limits, though.

P.D.James and Ruth Rendell both said they were particularly drawn to crime fiction and have written little else.

A friend recently suggested I could make a lot of money by writing romantic fiction but I said I did not really think I could write it because my heart was not in the genre. I partly said this because someone I used to work with at Granada TV actually tried to write Mills & Boon type novels and gave up.

She told me she eventually realised that you can only write that type of fiction if you believe in it heart-and-soul and enjoy it yourself. A friend of hers did enjoy the genre and he did successfully write for Mills & Boon. She did not enjoy the genre wholeheartedly so was, in effect, writing pastiche not the real thing, which she did not want to do.

She wanted to write well in a particular genre, but that was not her genre, so she felt she could not write as well in that genre as she felt she could in others.

I once had a conversation with an editor at Random House over a book which was never written. He said something to the effect of:

“I don’t know what your style is, John. I read I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake and I read Handstands in the Dark and I don’t know what your own style is.”

I told him: “Well, I hope I don’t have a style. I just write in whatever style seems most appropriate.”

In the case of I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, it was Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography and it was written from tape recordings of chats with Malcolm, so I just had to make the words on the page seem as if they came from Malcolm’s mouth. You can’t just write down exactly what people say: people don’t talk in coherent sentences. So I had to reconstruct what he said in a way that made it seem like what he had said. Of course, they were the words he had said on the tapes, but re-arranged for print so that, over-all, it read like what he would have said. They were his rhythms and words re-arranged for print.

“In the case of Handstands in the Dark, that was Janey Godley’s autobiography and she wrote it herself. At the beginning, I cajoled and encouraged her and suggested how she should perhaps go about it but, by the end I was just doing simple sub-editing – occasional commas and paragraph manipulation. I never wrote the words or sentences myself.”

When I was at college, at the end of the course (or it might have been at the end of Year One, I can’t remember), we had to deliver a significant creative project of some kind. I chose to write a novel and it was shit. But it got it out of my system. I felt that, if I wrote another two shit novels, the fourth one would be quite good.

When I was a teenager, I had wanted to be a writer and had admired (I still do) George Orwell as a communicator of thoughts. He is not a novelist, but he is a great writer – Nineteen Eighty-Four has some very dodgy characterisation and writing (the heroine is badly-drawn and the love scenes are crap). But the ideas are wonderful. It is a below-par novel but a great book. And Orwell’s non-fiction Homage to Catalonia, about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War is a masterpiece.

George Orwell is a magnificent factual writer, though not a good novelist. But he is such a good writer, he transcends that – Nineteen Eighty-Four is a wonderful novel, even if he is not a good novelist.

It seemed to me that George Orwell had achieved his ability to write so well simply by writing a lot at the BBC and elsewhere. (For a period, he literally worked in Room 101 at BBC Broadcasting House.)

So, after college, I consciously looked for somewhere I would have to write a lot, quickly, under pressure, reasoning that I might be able to write anything about anything reasonably fluently.

And that was why I initially became a Promotion Scriptwriter, writing scripts for TV announcers and trailers every day and often under extreme time deadlines.

That did result – I think – who am I to truly know? – in my being able to write pretty much anything in any style under pressure. And, because I also interviewed people for magazines, I knew the difference between writing for the human voice in vision and out of vision; and writing for different types of print.

If you are writing for TV trailers and you have to make Benny Hill, a documentary on Auschwitz and an episode of Coronation Street seem like a sensible single evening’s entertainment entity, you have to know how to tape over the cracks to join things together.

So I think I can write in pretty much any style and make the result seem fairly fluent.

But romantic fiction is just beyond my limit. I would not do it well.

And I want to write well… not just be published.

Write it as art and sell it as baked beans.

Absolutely.

But write it as art and it might last.

Unlike blogs, maybe.

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Stand-up comedians: are they funny people?

(This article previously appeared in Mensa Magazine)

FUNNY PEOPLE

by John Fleming

You are a stand-up comedian. You get up alone on stage. A spotlight shines on you. If you now perform the greatest show of your life, your future is downhill. If you get badly rejected by the audience, their objective reaction reinforces your own insecurities. You’re in a Lose-Lose situation. Who can be attracted to that? A masochist. That’s what I thought. So I asked Jewish comedian Ivor Dembina who has run many successful comedy clubs over 20 years, has seen comedy talent of all types fail and succeed and who, in his show Sadojudaism, jokes at length about his penchant for sadomasochism.

“Well, stand-up can be painful,” he initially agrees, “but the point about masochism is that it’s a state where pain is pleasurable and I’ve never heard a comic describe the frustrations and humiliations of public failure as something to be enjoyed.”

So why does he do it?

“I’m aware of a a core desire within me to please others which I can trace back to early childhood, being rewarded by my parents with smiles and approval whenever I made them laugh.  In adulthood I’ve acquired a desire to control situations and an irrepressible need to prove I’m right. Stand-up comedy is the best outlet I’ve found for both characteristics.”

Comedian Ricky Grover comes from London’s East End:

“Whether they admit it or not,” Ricky suggests, “most comedians live their life in depression, even feeling suicidal. They feel like they’re shit, feel like they’re not going to be able to do it again. If you don’t laugh you’d cry. That’s your options.

“There was a lot of violence going on in my childhood and sadness and depression and one of the ways to escape from all that was humour. I would make ‘em laugh and sometimes I’d make my stepfather laugh to deflect a confrontational situation. A lot of humour where I came from was quite dark. I wanted to be like my stepfather – an armed robber – because that was the only person I had to look up to. I had him or my little skinny grandad who was really quite verbally spiteful to me. I thought, well, if it’s between the little skinny grandad or the ex-boxer/armed robber, I’ll be the ex-boxer/armed robber and I suppose that’s why I went into… boxing.”

Scottish comedienne Janey Godley was raped by her uncle between the ages of 5 and 13; at 19 she married into a gangster family; at 21 her mother was murdered; for 14 years she ran a pub in Glasgow’s tough East End; and, in a 22-month period, 17 of her friends died from heroin.

“I do sometimes think everything I say’s shite,” she admits, “and I do sometimes think nobody’s ever gonna laugh at it and I get worried.”

So why get up on stage and face total personal rejection?

“Because it’s challenging,” she explains. “Because, with me, every show’s different. I don’t really tell jokes; I tell anecdotes that are unusual in that I talk about child abuse and murder and gangsters and social issues. I get up and do something different every time and it’s a really exciting challenge because I think: I wonder how that’ll work? And, when it really works it makes me really happy. When it completely dies, I think, I’m going to do that another twenty times, cos that was strange. Most of the stuff I do is reality with bits of surrealism. I tell a big true story with funny bits and talking animals in it and sometimes glittery tortoises. It might not affect their lives, but the audience WILL remember it because it’s different.”

So what is the X Factor?

“In my case, delusions about my own self-importance,” says Ivor firmly. “That’s why I decided to become a comic.”

“You’re split between two extremes,” says Ricky. “Really low self-esteem and a massive ego. They’re the two things you need to do stand-up and they come hand-in-hand. Deep down inside, there’s a little voice inside that tells you you’re shit but you want to prove you’re not. Stand-up comedy is the nearest you’ll ever get to being a boxer, because you’re on your own and you’re worried about the one same thing and that is making yourself look a cunt in front of everyone.”

Ivor believes: “Successful comedians tend to be characterised by a slightly ‘don’t care’ attitude. They can be philosophical about failure and speedily get over things like bad gigs and hostile reviews and move on to the next performance without dwelling on setbacks.”

“I have the confidence to get up on stage,” Janey tells me, “because after the life I’ve led – all the madness and the pub and the gangsters and the abuse – there is nothing frightens me any more. So, if I ever stood in a room with 600 people and talked for 15 minutes and nobody laughed, then it’s no worse than having a gun held at your head and I’ve already had that, so it doesn’t really scare me.”

“Boxers ain’t worried about getting hurt,” explains Ricky, “because, when your adrenaline’s flowing there is no real pain. In fact the pain’s quite enjoyable. I used to like soaking up the pain in the ring and smashing it back into them. My favourite comedy gigs are when I’m watching comedian after comedian go under and get heckled and I think, Right, I’m going to conquer this. And I sort of go into battle and then I can turn a gig round and make something happen.”

“I’ve had gigs which were going too well,” says Janey, “and I’ve intentionally ‘lost’ the audience just so I can work hard to get them back again.”

“Yeah, sometimes,” says Ricky, “There can be a really happy great big roar on every word you say and the gig’s almost too easy and you think, I’m going to throw something in here and make this a little bit hard, and I’ll come out and say something that may be offensive to some people and the whole room will go quiet and then you can play with that quietness and see where you go with it and that can be an interesting gig. So it’s a battle going in your head all the time.”

The late great club owner Malcolm Hardee once told me he was unimpressed by jugglers because, if anyone practised for several hours every day over several years, anyone could become good. “Juggling is a skill you can learn,” he insisted. “Stand-up comedy is a talent. However hard you work, you can’t become a great stand-up without underlying talent.”

So is comedy a skill or a talent? Can you learn it?

“All that’s required,” believes Ivor, “is a bit of talent, a modicum of common sense, a thick skin and an ability to learn from your mistakes. Stand-up isn’t nearly as difficult as people imagine. I started by running small comedy clubs and witnessed the efforts of many others whom I thought I could be better than. It was as simple as that.”

“It’s not just one thing,” Janey believes. “Thirty things are important on stage. There’s talent, confidence, timing, connecting with the audience, empathy, humour, the human touch. People have said the most bizarre things to me on stage. A woman once stood up and told me she’d been raped a couple of weeks ago and this was the first night she’d laughed since then. That’s not talent or technique; that’s being able to connect with another human being in a room full of people. But I do it for me, not really for them, because there’s nothing better than standing on stage. I don’t do it because of ego or because of lack of confidence. I do it for the experience of doing it because I love the applause.”

“I suppose,” admits Ricky, “that you’re looking for someone to say This bloke is a comedy genius. But, if someone does say that, there’s this little voice inside your head which disagrees: No you’re not, you’re shit. Then, if someone writes a review and says you’re shit, you think: No I’m not, I’m a comedy genius.”

Rejection is the thing that binds comedians together,” says Ivor, “because they’ve all experienced it at some time or other. What separates those of us who eventually become stand-ups from those who give up is that we are prepared to risk rejection time and time again.”

“You know what I think it is?” says Ricky “What all us comedians have in common? What we want? It’s not about being famous. It’s not about having fortunes. I think it’s just about having a bit of recognition. The thing that drives us all mad is not getting recognition for what we do.”

But, once you have proved you can do it once or ten times or fifty times, why keep doing it? Why constantly risk rejection?

“If you have the best sex of your life,” suggests Janey, “It doesn’t stop you doing it again. You’ll keep on doing it and keep on doing it.”

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As the climax to a show it is one of the best things I have ever seen on stage, because you can’t expect it.

Juggler Mat Ricardo worries me.

Last night, I went to his 60-minute show Three Balls and a Good Suit because I had seen him perform maybe 15-20 minutes at Pull The Other One in Nunhead just over a week ago and he had said – correctly – that what he would do at the end of his act was physically impossible. It was. And it is. But he did it.

Far be it from me to lapse into cliché, but I could not believe my eyes in Nunhead.

I had never seen anyone else do what he did and I have seen quite a few acts. Mat tells me that, as far as he knows, he is the only person in the world doing it, because he himself figured out how it could be done.

He did it again last night and it is still astonishing. As the climax to a show it is one of the best things I have ever seen on stage, because you don’t expect it. You can’t expect it – it is theoretically impossible.

And the build-up is impeccable because Mat – a sometime street performer – has some great audience-manipulation patter. There is an earlier dagger-juggling section in the show which is a joy to watch just from a structural point of view. Forget the juggling – the verbal patter, the build-up and the control over what the audience thinks it is seeing are a joy in themselves. It is a tribute to his experience.

But he worries me because I try to be aware of good acts and, until just over a week ago, I had never heard of Mat Ricardo. And he is more than just good.

It seems Mat has mostly worked abroad and on cruise ships though originally in street theatre, so I have some excuse, but not much. The full title of his show is Three Balls and a Good Suit: Tales From the Life of a Jaded Novelty Act. I missed it at the Edinburgh Fringe last year and should be ashamed of myself – although it was only on for the first two weeks and, in my opinion, you have to play all four weeks (especially the last two) for three consecutive years to get noticed. But still I am ashamed of myself-ish. I have a high threshold of shame. Fringe Guru not surprisingly gave the show a 5-star review – and that was without the extraordinary new final climax which is so gobsmacking.

Because it was a good show even without the final stunt. Three Balls and a Good Suit also includes one of the best dissections of the street performer’s art I have ever heard and a wonderfully caustic attack on Britain’s Got Talent – it was no news to me but it might be to some that Britain’s Got Talent regularly approaches professional acts and invites them to the auditions (with no waiting in line). No guarantee that they will get chosen, but an assumption that part of their audition will get screened, potentially getting them 2 million hits and upwards on YouTube.

Personally, I have no problem with this but Mat does and I can understand why. Still, in my opinion, 2 million hits on YouTube and a live TV audience of 8 or 10 million is worth a punt. Anyway…

I was interested that Mat said he was partly inspired to become a juggler by old re-runs of W.C.Fields movies on TV – Fields was a great stage juggler before he became a great movie comedian.

And Mat can juggle five balls.

Although I could not do it myself because I am crap at manual co-ordination, I have never been impressed by anyone juggling three balls. As far as I understand it, at any given time, one ball is in or leaving/entering one hand. Another ball is leaving/entering the other hand. So those two balls can be mentally ignored because their trajectory is certain. You only have to concentrate on the one remaining ball in mid-air.

If, you juggle four balls, there are two balls in mid-air at any given time, so to juggle four balls is twice as difficult as juggling three balls.

And if you juggle five balls, there are three balls in mid-air. So juggling five balls is three times as difficult as juggling three balls. It is bloody, bloody, bloody difficult to do.

According to Mat, his idol Enrico Rastelli could juggle ten balls.

My mind can barely comprehend the complications. I find it almost incredible.

But then Mat himself has already done one thing that is impossible.

For 25 years, I have wanted to see a man or woman juggle cooked spaghetti for more than one minute.

Mat Ricardo gives me hope.

(SPAGHETTI-JUGGLING POSTSCRIPT: Steve Ochs tells me that US comic Lenny Schultz, who was in the cast of the revived Laugh In TV show in the early 1980s, “would get club audiences to yell, Go crazy, Lenny! while he did crazy shit. Among his nutty bits, performed after he was stripped down to a Speedo, was, that’s right; cooked spaghetti juggling!”… He couldn’t actually do it, though, so my search continues.)

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I have seen some unexpected acts in my life but I had never seen what I saw last night… I am still shocked.

This morning, I used the Listen Again button on the BBC’s website to hear Boothby Graffoe being interviewed on yesterday’s Radio 2 Arts Show with Claudia Winkleman (it’s 18 minutes in, but is only available online in the UK if you are reading this within seven days of me writing it).

He was on the Radio 2 show to plug his new music album Songs For Dogs, Funerals (the comma really is there – don’t ask) and his UK comedy tour, which starts next Tuesday.

I knew he was the only comedian named after the small Lincolnshire village of Boothby Graffoe but, until he mentioned it on the show, I hadn’t realised this meant he was also named after the second largest site in Europe for testing genetically-modified food. Now there’s a thing.

I listened to the Radio 2 show this morning because I bumped into Boothby last night when I went to Vivienne & Martin Soan’s always extraordinary monthly comedy club Pull The Other One in Nunhead, South London. You know a comedy gig is good when other comedians go to see it even when they’re not on the bill and Boothby just went along to see Pull The Other One before he went back home to Leicestershire.

If I were using glib phrases – which, of course, I wouldn’t dream of writing – I might say it turned into an evening of unexpected revelations.

After the show, I was chatting to Martin Soan and, despite the fact I’ve probably known him since around 1990, I never knew he wrote several sketches for Spitting Image at the height of their TV success.

It was no surprise, of course, that, during the actual Pull The Other One show itself, Bob Slayer enticed a woman from the audience onto the stage and ended carrying her off over his shoulder.

What was unexpected was the climax of Mat Ricardo’s act. He is billed as a juggler, but is more than that and he introduced the final highly-visual thing he did as “impossible”… as indeed it is, but he still did it.

After Mat’s act, there was an interval and one of the other acts – smiling broadly – just looked at me and said: “Jesus!”

Another said to me: “Jesus! I have never seen that done before.”

The Lord was being invoked quite a lot after what we saw. I was and remain so shocked by what he did that I am going to pay to go to see his full live show Three Balls and a Good Suit next week in the hope he does it again.

What he did involves a table and a tablecloth and – no – it is not at all what you think.

There is seldom anything new under the sun – but I have never heard of anyone else doing what I saw and I have certainly never seen it before.

I can’t believe I did see it.

And I have seen a lot of acts.

Jesus!

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