(This was also published in the Huffington Post)
Throughout my life, whenever I have met people at parties and suchlike, they have always eventually asked that terribly British question: “What do you do?”
I am buggered if I have ever been able to give a sensible answer.
Most of my money has come from producing/directing/writing on-screen TV promos. But no-one knows what the hell they are.
“Oh, does someone do that?” people ask in disbelief if they do start to understand.
I fare better with “I worked on Tiswas, Game For a Laugh, Surprise Surprise and Jonathan Ross and various other things,” but then there are all the times when I was writing film reviews – except they were mostly features and interviews. And comedy reviews. Briefly. And writing other people’s autobiographies (which is understandably confusing). And let’s not even get into the area of what I might or might not do with comedians or the phrase that brings fear into the eyes of my accountant: Killer Bitch.
But the tables have now been turned.
I have now met Leila Johnston and Sara Williams at Made By Many a couple of times. They run an event called Storywarp which was held at Made By Many but will now be held elsewhere and they both worked for Made By Many except Sara has moved on.
“So what does Made By Many do?” a friend asked the other day.
“I have no idea,” I said. “It’s a sort-of agency that does things or thinks up things connected to social networking and the internet or something. I have no idea. I suspect they don’t know either, but they seem to be quite good at whatever it is they do.”
“And what does this Leila woman do?” I was asked in a foolish follow-up question.
“I have no idea,” I said. “She seems to write for things like Wired magazine as well as work for Made By Many and she seems to be a powerhouse of creative something-or-other but I’m not quite sure what.”
“I see,” my friend said. “Perhaps you should ask her.”
So I did.
“I write and produce all kinds of stuff,” Leila told me. “and I’ve always been into comedy. If not trying to write it, then trying to see how other people do it. I’ve met a lot of comedy people over the years and they’re a strange bunch.”
So at least Leila is a good judge of character.
“I went up to the Edinburgh Fringe with my family in 1994 and it blew my mind,” she told me. “Comedy heroes everywhere! The writer/performer Ben Moor, whom my brother and I knew from some of our favourite radio and TV shows, was up there with a very strange, rather good one-man show called A Supercollider for the Family. Ben’s show had some great gags being projected on a screen behind him… In the Kingdom of the Deaf, the one-eared man is king. But his crown is askew...
“A decade later, like half of London, I became actual friends with Ben and I couldn’t resist quoting some of those jokes back to him. That must have been a bit strange for him, now I think about it. But he has got an even better memory for these details than me, which partly explains how he once got five gold runs on Blockbusters on ITV. We’ve since worked together on Radio 4 pilots and Star Trek TNG parties, and I still make a point of remembering all his jokes.”
Star Trek TNG parties???
It is no wonder I do not know what Leila does. What on earth are Star Trek TNG parties? I feel I have slipped through a temporal wormhole into a parallel universe.
Go back a bit, Leila. Go back a bit. I am old and, as comedienne Janey Godley would say, my skin no longer fits me.
“In 2003,” Leila tries to explain, “I was in my final year at York University, while doing bits of writing work for a communications company. People were beginning to see stand-up comedy would never be the new rock ‘n roll, but it was holding its own as the new drum ‘n’ bass. So the company decided to put on a comedy festival for the area.
“They appointed me their PR officer, which involved a bit of filling in spreadsheets and a lot of going to comedy gigs and propping up the VIP bar. I met Rhod Gilbert on the terrace. No-one knew who he was then, but everyone in the bar was magnetically pulled to his table, because his act had been the stand-out hit of our festival.
“If you’ve seen his manic domestic-appliance-themed act in recent years, you wouldn’t recognise him then. He was downbeat and immobile in the middle of the stage, spinning surreal stories about his Welsh family though, even then, it was all excellent.
“Norman Lovett was compering one of the Fringe shows, and did a strange improvised routine involving balancing his spectacles on different parts of his body. I remember, in the bar that evening, being introduced to him as a Red Dwarf fan. He was very sweet and told us that, these days, he’s mistaken for Victor Meldrew almost as often as he is recognised for his own characters. I haven’t seen him since, but he was so nice that I remember his jokes.
“I flyered for Richard Herring’s Edinburgh Fringe show through the monsoons of 2004. I was homeless at the time and living in a tent on a campsite just outside Edinburgh. Richard took a small amount of pity on me, made me a cup of tea, and allowed me to stay over on the sofa in his flat for one night. Chris Addison was there that night, too. It might have been his breakthrough year, but at that point he was just an energetic lad going round the room telling everyone their face was the shape of either a plate or a dragon. I might be mis-remembering, but I don’t think I am.
“This is showbusiness! I thought. This is glamour! I went back to my tent-home and it had been flooded.
“I think I have met everyone I want to, so the world might as well finish.
“I am now preoccupied with ways the world could end in 2012, to the extent that I am hosting a series of events called The Event in February, in a basement in London where I think we will be safe. There will be talks, performance, science, a geiger counter, gas masks, and readings. Bunker space is limited.”
Oh… she may also go up to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012 or 2013.
If the world does not end.
Which all sounds great.
But what DOES Leila actually DO?
“Well,” she says, “all that Edinburgh Fringe stuff makes it sound like I’m just a crazed celebrity anecdote generating machine. I usually describe myself as a digital copywriter, because that tends to end the line of questioning. But I feel strongly that writing is just a by-product of trying to find out about things and being addicted to audiences, so it’s not enough to say ‘I’m a writer’. In addition to the day job, I constantly write things for publications, performance and broadcast.”
That really doesn’t help me.
I still have no idea what you could say Leila Johnston does.
But, then, I still have absolutely no idea what ‘thing’ I do either.
If anyone can tell me or even give me a few hints, I would appreciate it.