Category Archives: Mental health

Juliette Burton: the writer-performer who can make psychosis hilarious

Juliette Burton with Nick Clegg in background

A Juliette Burton selfie + Nick Clegg in the centre background

Comedy performer Juliette Burton was recently invited to Whitehall to meet Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg at an event giving out awards to ‘Mental Health Heroes’.

“Were you up for an award?” I asked.

“No,” she told me. “I was invited as a ‘celebrity ambassador’ for the mental health charities MIND and Time To Change. At the event, I met this guy called Harry who worked for the Department of Health who knew all about me. He knew I do voice-over work and shows and I was rather confused but also kind-of liked it. The explanation was that apparently I was one of only seven people there the staff had access to biographies of.”

“Did you meet Nick Clegg?”

“No. But I did slurp my wine very, very loudly during his speech, which I felt was opposition enough.”

Juliette has just moved down to London from Edinburgh, where she lived for three years.

“All of the industry is centred in London,” she explained, “so it’s a lot more practical living down here, but I do miss Edinburgh desperately.”

“Until recently,” I told her, “I’d always had relatives in Edinburgh. It is the place I’ve always felt most at home and the irony is I’ve never had a home there. I always reckoned, if I won the Lottery, it would be a house in Edinburgh and a flat in London.”

“I loved living in Edinburgh,” said Juliette.

Juliette Burton: Edinburgh-London, King’s Cross

Juliette Burton talked to me at King’s Cross…

“But now,” I prompted, “in April, you’re starting a new monthly comedy show in Shoreditch.”

“Yes. Juliette Burton’s Happy Hour.”

“And how long,” I asked, “does Juliette Burton’s Happy Hour last?”

“About two hours.”

“So that’s interesting,” I said.

“Well, yes,” agreed Juliette. “Happy Hour is longer than an hour and it’s hosted by someone with clinical depression.”

“Are you going back to the Edinburgh in August with a new Fringe show?”

“Not this year. I’m doing last year’s show Look at Me for eight days and I think I’ll also be doing some performances with Abnormally Funny People and some other things with other people.

“I’ve been working on Look At Me with Kevin Shepherd, who’s directing it. I’m doing it at Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival on 22nd February and at the Brighton Fringe on 28th of May.”

“Ah,” I said, “that’s your broadcast journalist background showing. Getting the plug in… So why do you need a director now for Look At Me? Is it slightly different from the version that played the Edinburgh Fringe last year?”

“Yes. I’m being a bit more free with my ad-libbing.”

“How?” I asked, “given it has to run the same length.”

Juliette Burton - Look at Me

Juliette Burton says Look at Me ad-libbing more

“I’m cutting out some things and allowing myself to be a bit more ‘me’ – so a bit less ‘performer’ and a bit more ‘me’.”

“Why?”

“Because Kevin tells me I’m naturally funny, which I never thought I was – and I’m still a bit skeptical about that. He tells me I can relax a little more and not hide behind a script. “

“But why no new Fringe show this year?” I asked.

“Because the three new shows I am working on are all rather complicated and will take longer to put together. I’m going to try to get one, if not two, of them at a preview stage by autumn this year.”

“You had a plan of seven shows, didn’t you?” I asked. “And, so far, you’ve done the first two – When I Grow Up and Look At Me. What are these next three?”

“There’s The Butterfly Effect, which is about how much impact somebody can have on the world and about how, if we want to see change in the world, we need to be the change we want to see in the world. Something like that. The Dalai Lama and all that.”

“He’d be a good audience for a comedy show,” I suggested. “He giggles a lot.”

“And then there’s Daddy’s Girl,” Juliette continued, which is one I really want to do.”

Daddy’s Girl Juliette retains some secrets

Daddy’s Girl Juliette still retains at least one secret off-stage

“And which I know we can’t talk about,” I said.

“Yes,” said Juliette. “It’s about something I can’t yet divulge everything about. It’s something that is extremely close to my heart and I’m really keen to do it. But there are lots of other exciting things happening at the moment. I think Dreamcatcher is the most likely show to be ready first, though a lot might change in the coming weeks. It’s a very exciting year.”

“Why are you doing THREE new shows anyway?” I asked.

“Because I have lots of ideas and I can’t stop myself.”

“But it’s a lot of psychological pressure,” I suggested.

“I love that kind of pressure,” said Juliette. “I love creative pressure. Dreamcatcher is about our relationship with reality – and it’s funny. It’s how to make psychosis hilarious. I want to take time to make sure it’s fun and that I don’t try to cram too much into an hour. I need to make it the most accessible and light show I can while keeping real meaning. There ARE ways to make psychosis funny and you were the one who inspired me to do it.”

“I made you psychotic?” I asked.

Juliette Burton’s first So It Goes blog

Juliette: So It Goes

“When you did your first blog chat with me, I was so scared about telling everybody about my psychosis because I thought they would all judge me. But the reaction they had was so warm and welcoming that I thought: Well, maybe I could be a bit braver with this. And then a bit braver and a bit braver.

“Then, at the end of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Paul Levy from Fringe Review asked me if I thought I was unravelling more and more in each show. I thought that was very astute of him and it has stayed with me for the last few months because there are so many people out there doing all these amazing shows that do not involve them psychologically challenging themselves.

“Recently, someone said to me: Are you sure you want to be exposing yourself so much psychologically on stage? And I have been thinking about that and I think I want to really connect with people in a meaningful way and the truest stories are the most exciting. So why not just tell the truth? But make it funny in the process.”

“When Paul Levy said were you unravelling,” I asked, “did he mean Are you going loopy? or did he mean Are you revealing – unravelling – more secrets – more of yourself – in each successive show?

“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” said Juliette. “I might choose to hear it that way next time I hear it in my head. I thought he just meant Are you unravelling mentally?”

“Did you tell him Yes or No?” I asked.

“I think I said Yes. If we’re all going to go through life and it’s all going to be a little bit painful, then why not connect with other people about what you’re going through, so that you’re not alone?”

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Kevin James Moore: Stand-up comedy, books, drugs, creativity, mental health.

Kevin JamesMoore on Skype two days ago

Kevin James Moore talked to me via Skype two days ago

Occasionally, people suggest blogs to me – like today’s.

A couple of weeks ago, Kevin James Moore contacted me from Greenwich, near New York. He used to be a stand-up comic. Then he gave it up due to drug and mental problems. Recently, he has started the comedy again. And he has written a novel.

Comedy, books, drugs, mental health. How could I resist? So we had a Skype chat on Monday.

“I’m on my third stage name,” he told me. “I started off as ‘Alien Brain’. It was a really secretive thing. I never got into comedy to become famous. I was a 20-year-old college student and I was writing jokes and I didn’t know what to do with them and it was a way to get those thoughts out of my mind.

“When I got more confidence, I performed as Kevin Moore and, when I re-started stand-up comedy last year, I had already published the book under my full name, so now I perform as Kevin James Moore.

Kevin James Moore - Go-Go Girl cover

Great Gatsby and Big Sleep meet Nadja

“Your novel,” I said, “is The Go-Go Girl.”

“Yes, it’s basically about heroin,” he told me, “but I made it a type of crime/adventure novel. It’s about a guy who goes to help an ex-girlfriend who’s a go-go dancer in a club in Rome and she’s stolen a bunch of money and a bunch of heroin and they go on the run across Europe to a few cities.”

“It’s your first novel,” I said. “So it’s bound to be autobiographical?”

“The emotions are real in the book,” explained Kevin, “but the plot I made up. To me, it’s a mix of The Great Gatsby, The Big Sleep and Nadja (by the French surrealist André Breton). I think of it as a kind of surrealist crime novel. I wrote it when I was in rehab and mental hospitals. It was the only outlet I had other than staring out a window.”

“And,” I asked, “your second book is Blue Snow?

Kevin James Moore - Blue Snow cover

A book for kids with learning disabilities

“Well,” said Kevin, “that’s for kids with reading problems and learning disabilities. I did it for a contest. I don’t count that as a novel.”

“But you are writing a second book?”

“Yes. It’s basically about the mental illness, being bi-polar. Again, the emotions and the thoughts will be real, but the plot will be constructed and fiction.”

“When you quit comedy,” I asked, “what did you do?”

“I was in and out of hospitals and was really determined on having a ‘normal’ life. I was going to get a regular job and get on with what you’re supposed to do: wife, kids, job. I was a substitute teacher – you guys call them supply teachers. And I worked at the UN for about a year as a reporter. It’s been like a 4-year process to recover from my low-point and now, every time I get more comfortable, I feel more of an urge to be creative. I really didn’t let myself be creative when I was trying to get better.”

“Why?”

“I dunno. I just didn’t see how the creativity would pay off. I felt it was intertwined with my problems – the bi-polar and the drug problems. I did art therapy when I was in the hospital, but not outside.

“I used to think I had to keep everything separate, like writing and comedy couldn’t mix. Now I try to not dismiss thoughts. A lot of the ideas I have won’t translate to stand-up comedy, but they will translate to small sketches. The stuff on my Funny Or Die pages are things which don’t really fit as stand-up jokes. I used to dismiss a lot of ideas before. Now I don’t stop the idea coming through.

Kevin James Moore's Funny Or Die page

Kevin’s Funny Or Die page

“I guess to be creative you have to have some edge to you whereas, when I was getting better, I was really focussed on being polite and patient and positive and I think that doesn’t translate at all to being a stand-up comic. You CAN go on stage and be positive and polite, but you also need to have that edge to say Fuck off! You have to have that little bit of darkness in you and I think I was afraid to let that back in. Now I kinda have and it feels good.”

“Why did you go back to doing comedy?” I asked.

“My best friend was still in comedy and doing a lot, but she moved to L.A. Then she came back to produce a show in New York early last year and asked me to be on it. And it was like a brand new experience for me that I’d never had before on stage. It felt like I was doing it for a totally different reason.

“My first stretch of comedy – which was for about seven or eight years – was almost selfish. I was doing it for me. But this time, every time I go on stage, I perform for the audience to get laughs. It doesn’t matter how many people are in the audience: I do my best instead of phoning it in.”

“Do you do anything before you go on stage?” I asked.

“Yeah,” laughed Kevin, “I smoke about half a pack of cigarettes.”

“Nicotine?” I asked.

Kevin James Moore - face painted

Kevin bought some paints last year and started with his face

“Yeah. It’s about the only time I smoke any more. It’s not anxiety. For some reason, whenever I’ve gone on stage I’ve always felt comfortable there, even though I was always a shy person – kinda anti-social but somehow, up there… People used to ask me: How come you can look so uncomfortable at a party with eight people, yet you can go up on stage in front of a crowd of 100 or 200 people?

“And your answer was?”

“It’s a totally different experience. At a party, you don’t know what people are thinking about you. On stage, you know right away if they don’t like you: they don’t laugh. I think it’s the honesty of being judged on stage whereas, in a social situation, people are being polite so you never know what they think.

“On stage, you can kinda change their opinion of you but, in a party, you don’t know if there is a problem so, if there is, you can’t correct it… I think… I dunno… I’d have to work this stuff through with a psychologist.”

“You have one?”

“I have an appointment in a couple of hours with my psychiatrist.”

One of Kevin James Moore’s paintings

One of Kevin James Moore’s recent paintings

“A psychiatrist or a psychologist?” I asked.

“The psychiatrist gives you the medicine,” said Kevin. “The psychologist just talks to you.”

“Which one are you seeing?” I asked.

“The psychiatrist, to get the medicine… The worst thing about having a mental illness is you never want to admit to yourself your brain doesn’t work and it’s tough because there’s no tangible, visible evidence of anything, so you deny it a lot.”

“Well,” I said, “it’s not that your brain doesn’t work. It just works in  different way, which is not necessarily a bad thing.”

“Yes,” said Kevin, “but the way they diagnose it is as an illness and every time I’ve gone to the hospital, I’m in there for the same reason everyone else has – because they’ve stopped taking their medication.”

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Comedian Lewis Schaffer gets serious about madness, his mother and himself

Lewis Schaffer briefly went all Jewish in the show last night

Lewis Schaffer briefly went all Jewish in a Leicester Square  show last night

“Honestly!” I said to Lewis Schaffer’s official stalker Blanche Cameron at the end of last night’s show, “It’s so frustrating! The things I can’t blog about!”

Lewis Schaffer’s apparently limitless ongoing weekly shows at the Leicester Square Theatre (sometimes on a Thursday, sometimes on a Sunday) are always, each in their own, unique events but – Ye Gods! – last night was quite a show. People say Lewis Schaffer lacks self-confidence but, to do what he did last night, takes extreme self-confidence.

Now you can be as frustrated as I am. I can’t write about it. You won’t know what happened.

Lewis Schaffer thinks I should write about it. I think it would intrude too far on at least two other people’s private lives. Remember that when you read the rest of this blog.

Suffice to say, it involved a very amiably drunken member of the audience, three – count ‘em – three people showing draw-dropping insights into their very, very personal lives and the line “Stop talking it’s my turn to speak!” not spoken by Lewis Schaffer.

Lewis Schaffer talked to me in Starbucks last night

Lewis Schaffer reads his publicity last night

Before the show, I had talked to Lewis Schaffer. It was supposed to be about his upcoming tour. Then he decided NOT to talk about it because he was not sure he should publicise it. Then he wanted to. Then not. Welcome to Lewis Schaffer’s world.

“The reason my shows work,” Lewis Schaffer told me, “is that, in today’s day and age, audiences have very little in common. They don’t watch the same TV programmes; they don’t work together; they don’t share the same political or religious ideology. Usually, they have nothing in common.

“With me, my personality is so strong that, by the end of an hour, the audience has a shared friend. It’s like being at the funeral of someone they loved. The difference is the friend is Lewis Schaffer and he’s dying in front of them. People are rarely bored after my shows. They may want to commit suicide, but they’re rarely bored.”

“What did your father do for a living in New York?” I asked.

“He was a truant officer. He used to find kids who were playing hookey and bring them back to school. But he wasn’t a truant officer for very long. He became a lawyer – a patent and trademark attorney.”

“Lots of money it that,” I suggested.

“For everybody else,” Lewis Schaffer bemoaned, “but not my father. It was one of the highest-paying legal professions but my father barely scraped by. He became the patent attorney for intellectual property which came from communist Czechoslovakia and wanted to be trademarked in America. He originally worked for AMF, the people who made bowling alleys – one of the first conglomerates. I should have been a lawyer.

“I think my father wanted to be in the entertainment business and never was. I think maybe that’s why he went to Law: because maybe he thought he could be some type of performer in that. But patent law is zero performance.

“He told me he had had an offer to go to California and be in the Pasadena Playhouse, which was one of these great workshops for comedians after the Second World War and he didn’t go.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. I think he was a scared man. I think I lived his dream by leaving my ex-wife. That was my father’s dream: to divorce my mother.”

“But he didn’t?” I asked.

“Eventually he did, when he was 70 years old.”

“Seems rather pointless,” I observed.

“Well,” explained Lewis Schaffer, “not when she’s driving you crazy. She was like off-the-wall. Instead of calming down, she got crazier and crazier and I think my father lost the energy to cope with it.”

“Should I mention your mother going into mental homes in my blog?” I asked. “I’ve always avoided it.”

“She’s dead,” said Lewis Schaffer. “Back in the day, they institutionalised everybody and this was a very fancy place. Charles Schulz, the Peanuts guy, was there. It was an expensive place in the country: The Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut. Very prestigious.”

“So,” I said, “it wasn’t Arkham Asylum.”

“Oh no,” said Lewis Schaffer. “My mother had a big health insurance, because my father was working for this conglomerate as an in-house patent attorney. My mother was always under a lot of stress. She was a perfectionist. She had a mental illness. I would just call it an extreme personality. I don’t believe in mental illness. I think this Stephen Fry business is just shit.”

“Being bi-polar?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Lewis Schaffer. “My mother was described as bi-polar.”

“What year was this?” I asked. “Bi-polar is one of those new terminologies, isn’t it?”

“They called my mother manic-depressive,” said Lewis Schaffer. “By calling it bi-polar, I think they’re trying to make it sound more scientific.”

“Has ‘manic-depressive’ become non-PC without me noticing?” I asked.

“Everything becomes non-PC,” said Lewis Schaffer. “Manic is like wired. And depressive is depression. But they still use the word depression. They haven’t called that uni-polar. Now it’s considered a disease. I think by calling something a mental illness, it’s trying to take away someone’s responsibility for their horrible behaviour by saying it’s a disease or some chemical imbalance. But the truth is, if you show me a mental person – a person who’s acting it out in a bad way – I’ll show you someone who’s been treated really badly. Something horrible happened to my mother to make her act that way.”

“Something happened,” I asked, “rather than she had that personality anyway?”

“Yeah. Something happened when she was a kid.”

“Surely,” I said, “people are a combination of nature and nurture?”

“No,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I think it’s always because something horrible happened.”

“You think it’s all nurture not nature?” I asked.

“Yes. I don’t think people are born crazy. When you see people misbehaving, I don’t think that’s ever, ever, ever nature. I think it’s always because something bas happened to them. Or the other side is it could be macro not micro – society has declared what they are doing as unacceptable. Maybe they’re acting in a normal way in an abnormal society.”

“Maybe,” I suggested, “if you’re a totally sane person you can’t be really creative, because creativity is about originality and originality is the opposite of thinking like other people do.”

“The case can be made,” said Lewis Schaffer, “that all excellence comes from passion and all passion comes from insanity. Last night I was thinking what my psychological problem is… I think by the time I was conscious of being a person, my parents had sort-of given up on me. My mother was mental and really wasn’t paying that much attention to me and I wanted to entertain her, so I grew up through life thinking: I have to entertain my mother and get her attention.”

“You were trying to entertain her when you were 14?” I asked.

“And younger,” said Lewis Schaffer. “Now I feel I am responsible for making people happy. Not just entertaining them but making them happy. It’s like I’m responsible for my mother’s happiness. Maybe because I was blamed. When we moved from Brooklyn to Great Neck, Long Island, she went all wonky. Probably a lot had to do with moving away from her home into this very pleasant, prosperous suburban environment and she felt lonely.”

“How old were you when you moved?”

“Almost three. Jerry Seinfeld is like me: a family of Brooklyn Jews who moved to the suburbs, then moved back into Manhattan to make our way. I was born in New York, moved out to a nice suburb and then moved back into Manhattan. I lived in Manhattan for 18 years.

“The reason I am the way I am is I had resentment towards my mother that I had to entertain her and give her happiness. So, with my comedy, I’m standing there trying to make other people happy but, at the same time, I’m thinking: Why the fuck do I have to make them happy?  Most comedians are happy to make other people happy. I am somewhat happy but also feel bitterness and resentment that psychologically I need to be in this role. On stage, I’m thinking about the audience: Why the fuck do you deserve to be made happy? I’m thinking: Why am I sacrificing what I want? Why don’t YOU make ME laugh? Why am I having a bad time doing this?

“I look at the audience when I’m performing and I think: I can’t make you happy all the time. You’re going to have to make yourself fucking happy.

“You should be happy,” I suggested, “that you’re saving lots of money by doing self-therapy.”

“It’s not self-therapy,” said Lewis Schaffer. “It’s self-analysis.”

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Ariane Sherine on why she gave up comedy and turned to Beautiful Filth

Ariane Sherine yesterday

Ariane Sherine was at Soho Theatre yesterday

Yesterday, the Guardian ran an online piece by Ariane Sherine, one of their regular writers. It was headlined:

I’D BEEN UNEMPLOYED FOR A YEAR… SO I FORMED A BAND, OF COURSE

and the subtitle was:

What’s a 34-year-old single mum on benefits meant to do when all else fails? Pursue the most unrealistic career path imaginable!

So, of course, yesterday I had a chat with Ariane.

“I did nine months on the comedy circuit in 2002/2003,” she told me.

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s just the most amazing thing to make a crowd of people laugh,” she told me. “I always think comedy is the truest art form because people can’t fake laughter. Anybody can clap after a performance out of politeness, but people don’t tend to laugh out of politeness. Not real, proper belly laughs. It feels wonderful and it feels like a validation of your own personality. If you think something’s funny and other people think it’s funny too, then they identify with you and it’s amazing, it’s wonderful and I loved it.”

“It’s like being hugged on stage?” I asked.

“I don’t know about a hug. It’s certainly warm.”

“But you stopped,” I said.

Arine Sheine was worried by a website

Ariane Sherine: worried by website

“I stopped comedy because I was so scared Steve Bennett might give me a terrible review on his Chortle website. I gave it up because I was scriptwriting and thought I don’t want producers to Google me, find this hypothetical Chortle review and think: Oh, she’s not funny.

“I still wanted that validation through my writing. I started writing for sitcoms. I wrote for Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and My Family and material for Countdown. But you don’t really get credit for that: it’s never really your own because, on sitcoms, you have script editors who may ask you to do eight re-writes based on their notes and, by the end of it, it’s not your script any more. I have no particular wish to go back into scriptwriting, but I do really miss comedy.”

“So why not go back to it again?”

“Because the circuit is a harsh, cruel place,” Ariane laughed.

“So you’ve been sitting around doing nothing…” I said.

Beautiful Filth by The Lovely Electric - do not try this at home

Beautiful Filth by The Lovely Electric – smutty, maybe nutty

“I’m looking after my three-year-old daughter half the time,” replied Ariane, “and, the rest of the time, I’m always working on projects. I’ve been working on this album since January.

“Ah yes!” I said. “It’s you and a friend, you call yourself The Lovely Electric and the album is called Beautiful Filth. Out today.”

“And it’s available on iTunes and from Spotify,” said Ariane. “I wanted to do comedy songs because I missed doing stand-up.”

Tracks on her Beautiful Filth album include:

Don’t Have Sex With a Goat
Thank You For Not Smelling of Fish
I Think His Penis Died

The opening lyrics to the track Cum Face are:

You are so beautiful
I’d watch you at the IMAX
I love the way you look
Except for when you climax
You flare your nostrils out
And, for what it’s worth
You scrunch your cheeks up
Like a hamster giving birth

I don’t want to see your cum face
I don’t want to watch you come
I don’t want to see your cum face
So let’s do it up the bum
I don’t want to see your cum face
I’d rather watch my mum
I don’t want to see your cum face
So let’s do it up the bum

There is a video for the song Hitler Moustache on YouTube.

“My politics are very left-leaning,” Ariane told me, “and I think a lot of people I like might not like the album, because it’s very smutty.”

“So,” I said, “you decided to record a pop album whose lyrics are untransmittable on radio. Why? That’s no way to make money.”

“Well, you never know,” said Ariane. “Tim Minchin is pretty successful. But it is true Beautiful Filth is an album about sex. We don’t have any clean songs on it.”

“But why,” I asked,” write an album about sex in such a way that it can’t be widely disseminated?”

“Because it’s funny and the humour I enjoy is really rude. Think of Monty Python – The Penis Song. (There is a version on YouTube.)

Charlie Brooker reacts to Ariane’s Hitler Moustache

Charlie Brooker reacts to the Hitler Moustache

“How come Charlie Brooker is in your Hitler Moustache music video?” I asked.

“I met him when I was working in telly,” explained Ariane, “He’s the loveliest bloke. He has just helped me so much. He gave me my start in journalism because the Guardian asked him: Do you know any good comedy writers who could add a bit of levity to the comment pages? and he suggested me. So he’s basically responsible for my whole journalistic career. Then he gave me a quote for my last book, he gave me a quote for this album, he wrote for The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, which was a book I edited, got me a job on Big Brother – writing the website stuff.”

“So why do you want to be a singer-songwriter now?”

“Because it’s fun and because I did a music degree. It culminated in work experience at the NME.”

“And you started writing at the NME?”

“Yes. Then I was runner-up in the BBC New Sitcom Writers Award. I started writing for Children’s BBC and other places. I’ve always been a writer in one form or another. But then I had a nervous breakdown in 2010.”

Ariane wrote about her feelings

The Guardian piece

“That,” I said, “was well before your daughter – who is now three – was born.”

“Yeah. I wrote a Guardian piece about it. Basically a load of really horrible things happened. I had had a very violent, disturbed childhood, so I got depressed in my teens – started cutting myself and became anorexic – and was put on a load of anti-depressants that didn’t help.

“I was pregnant when I was 24 and my boyfriend turned violent and hit me in the face and caused my ear to bleed and then he suffocated me and it was horrible. So that happened and then I kind of picked myself up from that after about a year but was still very depressed. I was 24.”

“You’re 34 now.”

Ariane at Atheist Bus Campaign launch with Richard Dawkins (Photograph by Zoe Margolis)

Ariane at Atheist Bus Campaign launch with Richard Dawkins (Photograph by Zoe Margolis)

“Yes. I was 24 and carried on writing for telly and then the Atheist Bus Campaign came out of a piece I had written for the Guardian. I got lots of threats when I did that. Random strangers. Religious people who didn’t like the campaign. I really, genuinely felt a bit… and I couldn’t work for… I didn’t feel able to do anything in public for over three years. My Guardian pieces stopped in August 2010 and it was only in December 2013 that I started writing again. It was a big chunk of time to lose, but…”

“What made you start again?” I asked.

“I was put on some anti-depressants that were Tricyclics, so they were different from the SSRIs that I was taking before.”

“SSRIs?” I asked.

“Things like Prozac and Seroxat. But now I’m on this amazing one. It’s amazing and it has just made life worth living again.”

“There was,” I said, “an act I knew called the Amazing Mr Smith who was given Seroxat. Last year, he took it for two nights and then killed himself by jumping off a cliff.”

“Sometimes they can make you a lot worse before they make you better,” said Ariane. “When you read the leaflet and you read This medication might induce suicidal thoughts you think Well why am I taking it?”

“But you’re OK now?” I asked.

“Well, I’m on three different medications now: anti-psychotic ones, anti-convulsant and anti-depressant.”

“Anti-psychotic is different from anti-depressant,” I said.

“It’s a horrible thing,” said Ariane. “I was convinced people were trying to kill me. I was convinced the government and MI5 were out to kill me.”

“As you were working for the Guardian,” I said, “maybe they were.”

“I remember the caretaker in my block of flats,” said Ariane, “was scrubbing the walls outside and I was convinced he was doing it to spy on me. When you get to that state that you’re convinced everybody’s out to get you, you can’t walk down the road because you’re scared and I desperately needed help and I got put on these anti-psychotics, but they alone didn’t make everything better.

“Then I got pregnant and I couldn’t be put on anything else. So I spent my pregnancy planning my suicide.”

“How were you going to kill yourself?”

“Helium.”

“You were going to laugh yourself to death?” I asked.

“I’m glad I can laugh about it now,” said Ariane.

“I’m interested in comedians,” I said, “because they’re all mad as hatters.”

“Well,” said Ariane, “for years I was so terrified of letting people know I was struggling with mental illness but, as soon as I did, there were all these journalists and comedians who told me: I’ve had the same thing. It was amazing,

“I think these pills I’m on have actually given me courage I would not have had ordinarily. So I don’t see it as brave to come out as mentally ill – it’s just these pills I’m on. There’s no way I would ever have been able to do it without the pills.”

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Filed under Comedy, Mental health, Music, Psychology, Television, Writing

Why I am interested in comedians

Today’s issue of Metro

Today’s issue of the daily Metro newspaper

Today’s Metro newspaper contains a feature on The Giants of Comedy to which I was asked to contribute a piece on “the weirder acts to look out for”. Metro describes me as an “alternative comedy champion”.

In this blog, I try to tell short stories with a rounded ending about interesting people doing interesting (mostly creative) things. Very often they are comedians. Very rarely do I write about myself although regular readers might be able to make up a patchwork impressionistic picture of my life.

You might wonder why am I interested in weird comedy acts.

Or you might not.

I have mentioned in past, dimly remembered blogs that I tried to commit suicide when I was newly 18 and that I was briefly in a mental hospital.

So why do I enjoy watching comedy?

Throughout my life, most of my income came from the promotion departments of TV companies. I was employed to write words and edit trailers which would persuade people to watch TV programmes – trying to manipulate their perception so that the ratings would be higher.

I am interested in the use of words and the manipulation of perception. So I am interested in how sentences and performances can be structured to make audiences laugh and the different reasons why people laugh – or, indeed, cry – timing, surprise, unexpected twists, incongruity, recognition, whatever.

Occasionally but rarely, in random spurts, I have kept diaries.

Dave Lee Travis (Photograph by Brian Milnes)

Dave Lee Travis (Photograph by Brian Milnes)

This morning, because of the Dave Lee Travis court verdict yesterday, I looked up my diary for around the suicide attempt/mental home time. The reason – possibly pompous – was connected to two quotes which came to my mind:

1) “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” (L.P.Hartley)

2) “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” (Lots of French people)

These are some edited extracts from my diary. The first is when I was in hospital after my failed suicide attempt. I tried to kill myself with tablets on a Friday.

“My parents visited me every day in hospital. On the Sunday, they brought me fruit. And, to cut it, one highly-polished, silver-shining, sharply serrated-edged knife. And, after they had gone, I looked at that knife and looked and looked and picked it up and looked. I ran my finger along the serrated edge and looked and ran the edge along my wrist and looked. And felt the point against my finger and against my wrist. And I only just managed to give it to a nurse.

“Which is why, when I got out of hospital, I panicked and my insides were like kitchen crockery in a house above a tube-train tunnel. And it was very difficult to keep a straight face. I could not think straight and my mental reactions were so slow. That horrified me. It was like being in Death Valley with the noonday sun three times closer than it should be.”

At that time, if you tried to commit suicide – especially aged 18 – I think there was a tendency to suggest you might want to go into a mental home.

And I did want to rest, to be away from people, because I was so nervy and because I was afraid of what I might do if I did not go in.

When I went in, a doctor ‘interviewed’ me and suggested I could talk to his students when he gave a lecture later in the week. But I just wanted to be alone.

They gave me ‘happy pills’ and sleeping pills that first night and I went from deep depression to a sky-high high before I went to sleep. But I did not want to be high.

Claybury Mental Asylum in Essex (Photo: English Heritage)

Claybury Mental Asylum in Essex (Photo: English Heritage)

In the mental hospital, I wrote this:

“The Mad Hatter pops in: a James Joyce with a blue Embassy cigarette coupon stuck in his greased hair. The lights go on at a quarter to four and then go off again. No-one has entered the room. The mad room.

My Little Lady by The Tremeloes plays at quarter volume on the wartime radio. When I came in last night, it was violins and classical music on the radio, like a TV play about old people dying, dead in seaside boarding houses in the off-season.

“My right side throbs. It is Visiting Hour. Or something. People talk in whispers. It is late afternoon and the afternoon has gone to greyness.

“This morning, an enormous pigeon threw itself against the windowpane of the door, saw where it was and fled away. Before I arrived here, the clear-skinned 23-year-old boy threw the red vinyl table through the window and was caught by a nurse. The friendly, backward boy gets violent occasionally. He throws teacups and saucers, matchboxes and plastic orange juice bottles.

“When he talks to me, he keeps wanting me to be the active, adventurous type. He keeps saying how active he was and how he liked exploring, finding ruins and exploring remote bogs. He and his family – his three sisters and one brother – were nomads around Europe in the last, hard decade.

“He tells me his mother is such an incredible mixture. His girlfriend Evie is from Chelmsford. He tells me he met her in Occupational Therapy. But now she has gone to OT in Exeter. She used to visit him.

“He sings the song Me My Friend as Be My Friend. With gusto. He says he misses Evie. He tells other people I am his friend and keeps telling me to tell him if he talks too much. He sits there in his wheelchair with his eyes of water. Sparkling. Nothing else. Just water.”

There is a clip on YouTube of Family singing Me My Friend.

“The male nurse in the ward tells me he has a strong right hand. He says he ‘does it’ twice a day or twice a week. Depending on how he feels. He asks have I ever let anyone else do it. He goes on and on. He tells all the patients this and talks about going to out-buildings with them.”

I discharged myself from the mental home after a day but nothing that happened there seemed strange.

Several years later, I went back to Claybury Asylum to interview a doctor for a piece I was writing. As I sat waiting in the corridor, the only way you could tell patients from staff as they passed by was the speed at which they walked: the patients walked slower, because they were sedated and had no purpose.

Today’s Metro reports DJ DLT faces prison

Today’s Metro reports DJ DLT faces prison

Yesterday, DJ Dave Lee Travis was found guilty of groping the breasts of a woman – then a TV researcher, now a ‘TV personality’ – for around 15 seconds in 1995. On TV last night, a Sunday Times reporter (who never brought charges and was not involved in the court case) said he groped her too. It seemed a very 1960s or 1970s thing to do. But it happened in 1995.

The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

So why do I like comedy?

Because I am laughing at life, not with life.

I like dark humour. I am fascinated that ‘unacceptable’ and non-funny subjects like rape, murder, death, drug addiction and madness and all the rest can be made to be funny. And I like surrealism : the twisting/manipulation of reality into meaninglessness. For example, in this morning’s Metro, I mentioned that The Human Loire says he is the only French river playing the UK comedy circuit and that his act includes enunciating passages in Middle English from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales while pouring milk onto Corn Flakes inside his trousers. It also includes using a hammer to nail grapes onto a large cut-out of Justin Bieber’s face while gargling Sophocles’ Ode To Man using Listerene antiseptic mouthwash.

When he does this, the surrealism makes me laugh.

When other people TRY to be surreal by doing equally meaningless things, I do not laugh.

Why?

I do not know but I would like to know.

So I watch comedy.

At the recent Edinburgh Fringe, there was one show where I laughed out loud (a rare thing) throughout. It was Johnny Sorrow performing as part of the Bob Blackman Appreciation Society. A couple sitting to my left sat mostly stone-faced throughout.

When Johnny imitated the sadly mostly-forgotten comedy act Bernie Clifton prancing around in an ostrich costume I laughed out loud. When he said Don’t talk to me!… Don’t talk to me! I laughed out loud.

Why?

I do not know. I just found it overwhelmingly funny.

The other factor in being interested in comedy, of course, is that people who perform it well – who have true originality and who are not just copying what they have seen on TV as part of a business plan – are mostly, in some way, damaged.

Damaged people are interesting people.

But then, when you get to know them, most people are damaged.

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Filed under Comedy, Mental health, Mental illness, Suicide

“You do not agree with THOU SHALT NOT KILL because it is old fashioned?”

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This ice cream cone is not relevant to this blog

Yesterday’s blog was about a radio show I took part in for London Hott Radio, which is based in a cafe in Streatham.

Some people have asked me for more details about a reference I made to a sculptor.

An audio recording of that edition of  The Anti-Duhring Battalion Radio Show has now been posted on YouTube (it is 1 hour 42 minutes long).

Below is an extract from the recording.

The show was hosted by performer the Anti-Duhring Battalion. I was a guest on the show with stand-up comedy act President Obonjo Obonjo and musician Mark Meller. Also on the show – via a phone-in line – was a ‘real’ person called Matt. He was not and is not a performer.

This extract starts with the Anti-Duhring Battalion talking to President Obonjo Obonjo…

Anti-Duhring Battalion – One of the reasons we have you on the show is you are one of those people who sticks by his word – you’re a Christian – but you do not agree with the Thou Shall Not Kill commandment because, as we discussed last week and as Pastor Femi agreed, it is old-fashioned and out-dated.

Matt – I’d like to say I agree with that as well. That was not a very good judgment on God’s part.

Anti-Duhring Battalion – Thou shalt not kill? Of course, because you’re an artist, Matt. You make sculptures, don’t you?

Matt – Well, everything I do is based on killing, so…

Anti-Duhring Battalion – Can you just explain a little bit of that? It obviously sounds a little bit odd, doesn’t it? Let me just say…

President Obonjo Obonjo – I’m not laughing. I actually agree with him. I want him in my Cabinet.

Anti-Duhring Battalion – That’s interesting because, since Matt’s been taking Largactil, he’s become much more coherent in his ideas. Matt, are you still doing your live sculptures? – Well, they’re no longer live, are they, when you’ve finished putting them together…?

Matt – I don’t have access to (Pause) the materials I require at the moment. I’m hoping that I will break free of these restraints.

Anti-Duhring Battalion – Good. But you’re saying you’re no longer able to get hold of the same amount of rodents and things like that for your sculptures at the moment, where you are.

John Fleming – What do you sculpt?

Anti-Duhring Battalion – I think it’s more of a sewing-together, isn’t it?

President Obonjo Obonjo – Can you sculpt a pie?

Anti-Duhring Battalion – Could you sculpt a pie out of those animals do you think, Matt?… (Pause) Do you think you could?

Matt – I could sculpt anything.

Anti-Duhring Battalion – You were going to send us one of your sculptures through the post, I remember. Is that right? And they wouldn’t let you send it.

Matt – I sent it.

Anti-Duhring Battalion – You sent it?

Matt – It must have been…

Mark Meller – Eaten on the way?

Matt – Caught in the post.

Anti-Duhring Battalion – Well, we didn’t see it, but I’m sure it was a very, very interesting sculpture. The thing is a lot of the world is not ready for your work and that’s a sad thing, Matt. I’m sure we will be.

John Fleming – What was it a sculpture of?

Anti-Duhring Battalion – What was it, Matt?… (Pause) Just describe it to us.

Matt – There was… It’s… It’s not…

Anti-Duhring Battalion – Take your time.

Matt – …It’s not what was involved that’s important. It’s… It’s what it stands for.

Anti-Duhring Battalion – Take your time… take your time… Just explain a little bit what it was, Matt.

Matt – Sorry?

Anti-Duhring Battalion – Just explain what it was… Just say what it was… It’s OK… It’s OK.

Matt – It was a goat attached to a virgin…

Anti-Duhring Battalion – Yeah… Go ahead… It was animals… Was it animals, Matt?

Matt – …and an IKEA sign…

Anti-Duhring Battalion – OK.

Matt – …tattooed across the fur.

Anti-Duhring Battalion – Across the fur… and… OK… And you sent that to us, Matt?

Matt – Sorry?

Anti-Duhring Battalion – You sent it through the post?

Matt – I did.

Anti-Duhring Battalion – We didn’t receive it, Matt.

President Obonjo Obonjo – You can’t trust postmen.

Anti-Duhring Battalion – It was around about this time that you did become incarcerated, so I don’t know if that was kinda related, but go ahead…

Matt – When I get free, I’ll make you another one.

Anti-Duhring Battalion – Great… That sounds great.

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Where do comedians get their ideas from? And are they all mad or do their lives thrust madness upon them?

Towards the end of the recent Edinburgh Fringe, Scots comedian Billy Watson did a handful of unbilled gigs in an out-of-the-way pub.

This is what he explained at the very start of his hour-long show.


Billy Watson at last month’s Edinburgh Fringe

Billy Watson at last month’s Edinburgh Fringe

I was married to a Turkish lady and she, basically, had a series of mental breakdowns over the course of twelve years – because she was married to me, basically. Trying to make that shit funny isn’t easy. How do I turn that into a comedy show? It was a challenge.

I gave her acid.

The relationship wasn’t working too well and I gave her some LSD and then, three days later, she just went completely… I came home from work at 7 o’clock in the morning and she was completely out to lunch.

She started speaking in tongues. She’s going Argwahburgh! Speaking in tongues. So I think: What’s the fuck’s going on here? and I go to the policeman and says: Help me! Help me! The policeman told me to piss off.

Policemen are supposed to help society. He just ignored me.

After two days of this crazy woman – completely out to lunch – I got her to the doctor’s and the doctor was saying: Right, we’d better get an ambulance here – and she jumped out of the doctor’s window. Fortunately, it was on the first floor. But I grabbed her and she was that strong she dragged me out the window too, pulling my trousers down to my ankles.

I fall on the other side of this window. She starts to run. I start chasing after her and the doctor starts chasing. It was like a scene from Benny Hill. He grabs her; I pull her down to the ground. The medical staff turn up and they get this syringe of something, inject it in her leg and it makes her totally zonked. I was trying to get the name of it from the bottles. I thought: I could do with some of that myself.

They put her in a mental ward in Falkirk. She got sectioned for two weeks. That was the first one. Then, every eight months, something would trigger it off and I’d have police at the door.

Basically, we had all these break-ups, right? Because being married to me isn’t easy, right? And we had temporary break-ups. One time she went to Turkey and I thought that was the relationship finished, but she came back and said: I really love ya. God knows why. She wanted us to have a baby to try to save the marriage.

I should have known having a child with a psychotic patient was not the wisest idea.

So, when the baby started to grow inside her, I had to say I thought it would be a good idea to go and be a hotel entertainer in Majorca. I left her and went to Majorca to train as a dancer in Grease – I was 34. For six weeks, I performed in Grease. I was John Travolta at one point. It was awesome.

But she came out there after six weeks. She packed up the house to rent it out to have the baby in Spain but, after a week, she had another mental breakdown.

So I didn’t go in to work that night because I had something to deal with – I got her to hospital.

This is funny, isn’t it? This mental shit was good.

Billy at The Grouchy Club last month

Billy Watson at The Grouchy Club last month

I got her to hospital and then, the next day, when I went in for work, the woman – the boss of the hotel – says: Why didn’t you come in to work last night?

Well, my wife had a mental breakdown. I had something to deal with.

The boss, she says to me: Oh, I think you are finished.

I got a major red eye; tears were pouring down my face. My bottom lip was trembling: My wife’s in hospital.

She said: I’ve got a hotel to run here.

I said: Well thanks for your boundless compassion.

She’s just sacked me. I’ve got red eye. Then she says to me: By the way, for the rest of today, can you take the Killer Darts? This game. The fucking Killer Darts.

I said: Aye. I’ll take the Killer Darts. Here, you hold the fucking board. We’ll start with the eyes closing. Whoever throws the killer dart wins.

Basically, I didn’t go to work for the next six months. I had to hang around Majorca while my wife had the baby there. Then, six weeks after having the child, she had another breakdown, right? I grabbed the baby off her. There’s this guy at the door saying: What’s going on there? I say: Phone an ambulance! Phone an ambulance!

This ambulance comes, takes her to hospital again and I’m left with a six-week old baby in Spain and I know nothing about babies. I’ve got to try and look after that child for a week while she was in mental hospital.

This woman who rented me the apartment got some of her friends and came to see me and I just cried and said Why did I bring my schizophrenic wife to have a baby in Spain?

(At this point, a member of the audience interrupted Billy and asked: “Did you know she was schizophrenic when you dropped her some Acid?”)

No, but…

(“Well, it was the acid,” said the man in the audience.)

That… You would… Maybe, you see…

(“The kind of causation ends with you,” said the man in the audience.)

That’s why I probably stuck with the marriage for fourteen years, to be honest with you. I felt guilty.

Billy Watson at The Grouchy Club last month

Billy Watson at The Grouchy Club last month

But, after that, right, listen to this… She has had the baby. She has had a caesarean. And now I’m looking after the child. Then, after that, she was having a check-up for the caesarean. The pediatrician – or whatever the doctor’s called that deals with that part – he tests her and discovers she has cancer.

She’s got lymphoma, so we had to go back to Turkey, where she had an operation to take out the cancer, but she wanted to go back to Scotland to see what the doctors there said.

So we took her and her mother – who doesn’t speak English – back to Scotland and she got chemotherapy and all her hair fell out and I was working in a call centre and that was pretty bad.

So we decided to go back to Turkey and after about a year there I got a job as an estate agent and, after two weeks of me working, she had another mental breakdown.

At one point, she decided to jump out a fourth floor window. She was going mental, right? Basically, her dad wouldn’t take her to hospital for three nights. One night she had this purse on round her shoulder and she wouldn’t take it off: a very small purse. But then the next day, when the medical people eventually came… Remember, every time she sees the medical people, she runs away… I realise – Fuck! The window of the kitchen is open! She runs past me, heading straight towards the window. I grabbed the strap of the purse she had refused to take off… I grabbed that, pulled it, pulled her to the ground… another injection in the leg.

Afterwards I thought maybe I could have done something differently because, if she had jumped, about 50 of my problems would have disappeared just like that. Though probably it would have created 100 new ones.

The thing was we got her to hospital that day and this big, new, huge hospital said they didn’t have a bed for her. The ambulance people just dropped her off, then the psychologist people wouldn’t take her in and wouldn’t even explain to me what the situation was because she didn’t speak perfect English. Turkish people are a bit embarrassed if they’re not perfect.

The doctor said to me: Ask your father-in-law.

I said: He doesn’t speak English.

Anyway, they refused to take her and made us go to this other hospital out in the sticks.

Billy Watson (left) & Mr Townkey (right) (Photograph by Kate Copstick, courtesy of Billy Watson)

Billy Watson (left) with me and Mr Townkey (right) (Photograph by Kate Copstick, courtesy of Billy Watson)

We get there. I think: Great. I’ve done my job. She’s saved. She’s gonna be locked up.

I get a call two days later. She had escaped from the hospital, jumped into this big thing, broke her back and busted her leg all up, right? She still walks with a limp.

After that, I said: I don’t think this relationship’s doing either of us any good. Moreso you. So that’s why I ended up getting divorced. It wasn’t going too well.

Is this comedy gold??


Two days after this gig in Edinburgh, Billy Watson returned to Turkey where, as I understand it, he intends to stay.

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Filed under Comedy, Marriage, Mental health, Mental illness, Scotland, Spain, Turkey

A sane comedian with serious projects

First John Ryan blog

The first John blog

Mea culpa. Almost two weeks ago in this blog, I posted the first part of a chat I had with comedian John Ryan. Those who read it may remember he scripted Teletubbies and hit a schoolboy with a brick.

In 2005, John wrote a show called Those Young Minds in which he was able to look at things like Why did my behaviour change?

Now read on somewhat belatedly due to my Blog-jam…

“From doing Those Young Minds,” John told me, “I then got asked to write something similar about suicide and depression called Cracking Up.”

“Because?” I asked.

John performs Hurt Until It Laughs

John’s award-winning show Hurt Until It Laughs

“Because my show Hurt Until It Laughs got a Leicester Comedy Festival award, then it was featured on Radio 4, got picked up by BBC Online and came to the attention of the NHS Surrey Primary Care Trust. They wanted something similar done to raise awareness of suicide and depression. I thought: That’s a big old heavy subject for an hour. How many gags can I get out of that?”

“But there’s a long tradition,” I said, “of people doing comedy shows about very serious subjects. Janey Godley did one about child rape. Mike Gunn did one about heroin addiction.”

“But that actually happened to them,” said John. “I don’t have any experience of suicide and depression. It’s very hard for me. I’ve had girlfriends, not had a drug problem… People ask me why I’m not as big as Michael McIntyre and I say I’m just too normal.”

“In comedians’ terms,” I said, “you are truly a mess of normality.”

“Yeah.”

“…apart from fighting carrots,” I added. (Look, sorry, you have to have read the previous blog.) “In a way,” I suggested, “it’s very unusual for a comedian NOT to have had experience of depression.”

“When I was a kid,” John told me, “we were never allowed to be bored. If you had nothing to do, you had to go and wash dishes for the nuns and, trust me, you didn’t want to do that.”

“Well, you certainly keep busy on projects now,” I said.

John Ryan at the Soho Theatre Bar a fortnight ago

John Ryan at the Soho Theatre Bar

“But people get the wrong idea,” said John, “A month ago, someone from BBC Five Live rang me up and told me: There’s been a government paper brought out on depression and anxiety and we’ve heard you do a lot of this work. Can I ask you what your own problem is?

“I said: I struggle with fucking idiots like you. I’ve not had any mental health problems… yet. It’s bit crass to say to someone: Hello. What kind of nut are you? Cos we need you to go on air.

“People do get the wrong idea… I was doing a gig at the Frog & Bucket in Manchester – it was pretty raucous – and I’d just started this anecdote about my mum and got a big laugh and this woman in the audience went Mmmm…

“I said: You alright?

“She said: Are YOU alright?

“I said: I think I am. What do you think?

“She says: I think you’ve probably got some issues.

What are you? I said. A psychiatrist?

Yeah, she said.

Oh, I said. How about I lie down and you give me a session?

Alright then, she said.

“So I lay on the stage – this was on a Saturday night – and basically did my routine from the floor with her asking me questions and the audience loved it. She said I had unresolved issues with my mum and I was obviously using comedy as a way of dealing with my traumas and my pain.

“I told her: Listen, this is the first chance I’ve had to have a lie-down.

“You do seem abnormally sane for a comedian,” I said.

“Most comics never had friends,” John suggested. “They were always on the edge of a group looking in, whereas I was usually in the middle of the group they were looking at, doing something stupid.”

John Ryan was Cracking Up with some help

John Ryan: Cracking Up with some help

“So how,” I asked, “did you do your Cracking Up project to raise awareness of suicide and depression if you had no personal experience of it?”

“I got Gareth Berliner to help me on it and he was terrific. I always look at a project as an essay. My thing was: If you’ve got a mental health issue, how do you know you have one? What are the symptoms? What is the path to recovery? What’s the resolution?

“I think an hour show needs rhythm and pathos. I’m not a laugh-a-minute kinda guy. I’ll tell you a sad story with a funny bit at the end to lighten it up.

Cracking Up sold out four nights at the Soho Theatre and, from that, we started up a little production company called Lift The Lid and did a project on smoking cessation for people with mental health problems: because, if you are a mental health service user – or, as I prefer to call them, ‘a person’ – you tend to smoke more than people who don’t have mental health issues.

“That project was called Beyond The Smoking Room. We then got approached by the Home Office to do a project on mental health and diversity in prison: Bringing The Outside In.”

“What’s the diversity bit in that?” I asked.

“Minorities are disproportionately represented in prisons,” explained John. “I am in no way Islamophobic, right? But, believe me, if you went into prison, you would struggle not to be coerced into adopting Islam as a protection. The rise of radicalisation within British prisons is an unspoken secret.”

The show was made into a documentary and won a prize at the Scottish Mental Health and Arts Film Festival in 2011.

There is a Vimeo video online:

“Through my gigs for Combined Services Entertainment – who entertain British troops around the world,” said John, “I found there was a grant available from the Wellcome Trust for people prepared to look at raising awareness of bio-medical issues. So we did a project called Home Front, about de-stigmatising mental health within the armed services. And a research paper about that has just been published.”

“You just seem to go from project to project,” I said.

“At the moment, I’ve been asked to do a project on homophobia. The reality is suicide is the main cause of death for young men aged 18-30. But, with gay men in that age group, they’re three times more likely to commit suicide. The effects of homophobia are felt in the gay community, but there’s no point educating the gay community, because it’s actually an issue for the straight community. I’m not homosexual so, to do that, I will find a gay comic to work with.”

“Why did they approach you?” I asked.

“Because I have a track record,” said John. “I don’t say no to any gigs and, if someone approaches me with a project, I’ll do it.”

“With all these projects,” I said, “you have an endless supply of ready-made shows. So why don’t you play the Edinburgh Fringe every year?”

“Because,” replied John, “if I have £10,000 to spend, I’ll do my house up, not throw it away in Edinburgh. I have kids and a mortgage. If I’m sponsored, as I have been in the past, yeah I’ll do the Fringe. But I don’t get off on the buzz of performing and being part of the showbiz razzmatazz. I never got into it in the first place for fame or success. I got into it to sell my writing and to write a book and plays and stuff.”

“Have you had a kids’ book published yet?”

“Not my own, but I’ve collaborated on one which was basically written in an Islamic Sixth Form College in Leicester. And I’ve got a book I’m currently playing ping-pong with an agent with.”

“You sound like your life is running smoothly,” I said. “You are that unusual thing: a comedian with no worries. What does your wife do now?”

“She has health issues. She’s been battling cancer for seven years. She had 60% of her liver removed, had a radical hysterectomy, had some of her larynx removed. She’s currently got an ovarian tumour. She does some patient educating at hospitals. She talks to doctors about how they break news to patients.”

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How German Polly Trope went from Britain into a US mental home and wrote her autobio-novel “Cured Meat”

Yesterday, I talked to writer Polly Trope in Berlin via Skype about her book Cured Meat – Memoirs of a Psychiatric Runaway. It is dedicated:

To those I left behind

She crowdfunded the book. The pitch is still on YouTube.

“Is it a novel or an autobiography?” I asked.

“I always find it amazing that some people actually manage to make up stuff,” she told me. “The things that are interesting in the book are the things that happened rather than the person. But some of them didn’t happen. What I really wanted to do with my book was to characterise lots of people I’ve met. I wanted to write about many many people, not just myself. And, even when I was writing about myself, I was trying to write about how things happened rather than myself. I was interested in capturing what happened like it was some sort of movie: an outside description of things. Some people say an autobiography has to be about the person writing it, but it’s also about lots of other people. Obviously some things are not completely accurate. I’ve tried to pick out things I heard about or happened which I thought were worth writing about.”

“Why didn’t you want to publish a straight autobiography?” I asked.

“The book is based on The Odyssey.”

“The book is based on The Odyssey.”

“People only want to read the autobiographies of celebrities,” said Polly. “I am not famous.”

“How did you decide on the nom de plume Polly Trope?” I asked.

“Brainstorming names. Greek mythological characters whose names could be turned into English. Polytropos was an adjective Homer applied to Odysseus. So Polly Trope.”

Polytropos actually means “having many forms” i.e. having different personalities – or “twisting and turning” i.e. versatile and capable of manoeuvring through a stormy sea.

“The whole book is based on The Odyssey a little bit,” explained Polly, “because that’s what I did for my degree – Ancient Greek & Latin Literature at King’s College, London. I went to London when I was 18.”

“And then you went on to get a PhD in Classics?” I asked.

“I started one,” said Polly. “I didn’t finish it. I went to America to do it.”

“And I know you checked into a mental hospital just two months after arriving,” I said. “Did something happen?”

“No,” said Polly. “I was already a bit depressed when I went there and I expected it would be really exciting to go to America and I would be magically happier when I got there.”

The woman called Polly Trope in her Groucho Marx disguise (Photograph by Joe Palermo)

The woman called Polly Trope in her Groucho Marx disguise (Photograph by Joe Palermo)

“Was this New York?”

“Connecticut.”

“So was it just depression?” I asked.

“Pretty much. I just felt really out of place; I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know anyone there. I tried the therapist and that was a really bad idea because then I went to the mental hospital and then it just really got very difficult.”

“Did they drug you up?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” said Polly. “It just blew everything out of proportion. It became almost unthinkable to stop.”

“I was in a mental hospital when I was 18,” I said. “The first thing they do, of course, is just give you drugs.”

“All the time,” said Polly. “All the time. All the time.”

On YouTube, there is a song Numb Enough written by Polly (with a video shot by her). Her lyrics include the lines:

And are you numb enough, and is your life on hold,
And did you feel the shock when it all fell apart?

“You were in and out of mental hospital for three years,” I said.

“Yes,” said Polly. “I constantly told my psychiatrist I wanted to stop taking the drugs and he would always say: Well, if you can’t understand how much you need them, then I must put you into the hospital so you know how to take your drugs. That’s a simplified version of what happened, but it was me trying to stop taking tablets and the guy telling me: You must.”

“You were still doing your academic stuff through all this?” I asked.

“I was trying to,” said Polly. “I had to go on leave of absence after a couple of years. Eventually I left for six months, then another six months and, at that point, I didn’t want to see psychiatrists any more and, after that, I just went back to Europe.”

Polly Trope: "It started with the psychiatric drugs and then I moved into non-psychiatric drugs.”

Polly Trope: “It started with psychiatric drugs and then I moved into non-psychiatric drugs.”

“When you became addicted to drugs,” I asked, “was that medicinal drugs or heroin or…?”

“Both,” said Polly. “One after the other. It started with the psychiatric drugs and then I moved into non-psychiatric drugs.

“I was prescribed sleeping tablets and benzedrines and those are also sometimes used as recreational drugs and I had those on prescription and then it just kind of moved from there into prescription painkillers and then to completely illegal opium stuff and heroin and… Yeah… And then, at the same time, I moved from America back to London and… Yeah… That was the transition. We’re talking about 2009 here.”

“And then,” I said, “as far as I understand it, you met a guy in a London casino one night. He was involved with brothels; he took you to one, asked you if you wanted to work there and you said Yes.”

“I had really big money problems,” said Polly.

“Did you do it out of desperation or interest or…”

“Both,” said Polly. “Interest not so much. I was never particularly against prostitution. I don’t think I was especially interested in trying it. But it wasn’t something I was particularly scared of or that I thought could be the worst thing that could happen to someone.”

“Were you still supporting a drug habit at that point?”

“Not quite. But it was very fragile. I had only been clean for about a couple of weeks or so. Everything was quite new. I was feeling quite good, but I was also broke. In a house. I had many many problems. It was difficult.”

“So you were sort-of on an up,” I said. “But this would have taken you down?”

“Yeah. Yes. Yes. That’s right.”

“How long did you do the prostitution for?”

Polly Trope

Polly in London: “Then I thought it would be good if…” (Photograph by Joe Palermo)

“April to December of one year. At first, he took all my money. After about three weeks. I kicked him out of the way. He was terrible. I’d been ripped off. I needed the money even more. Many of the women I met didn’t want to do it in the first place then, later, they got organised and stayed in the job because they were already there and it is quite a lot of money. It was a bit like that with me as well, although I didn’t feel I wanted to stay there longer than necessary. I was not trying to make lots of money. I just wanted to fix a few financial problems.”

“I was once told by an ex-criminal,” I said, “that most robbers have no financial target they want to reach, therefore they don’t know at what point they have reached a place they can stop doing it. So it ends badly. Maybe prostitution is like that?”

“And also,” said Polly, “people get used to more money and they increase their standards. I just had a bit of debt which I wanted to pay off.”

“So is that why you came out of it?” I asked. “You paid the debt and that was it?”

“It was only about £3,000,” said Polly. “But that was the beginning. Then I thought it would be good if I could save up for a deposit and some rent and, once you start paying rent, you have to do it every month, so… Then I thought I’m gonna start looking for a job immediately and, as soon as I find a new job I will take it... And that dragged on forever.”

“What sort of job were you looking for?” I asked.

“Stuff to do with writing and books. Things like editorial work or proofreading or translation. I didn’t realise it was not the right thing to look for. I had a degree but not much work experience. Nobody wanted to employ me. I eventually got a job through the Job Centre. I worked in a call centre for about a year and then I came back to Berlin.”

“In your dreams, when you were 14,” I asked, “did you want to be a writer?”

“Yeah,” said Polly. “I think I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t think it was a real job; I thought it was something you did on the side and still had to earn money some other way.”

“Sadly, you might be right,” I said. “And now you are…?”

Polly Trope reads her book Cured Meat

Polly: short stories which turned into a novel

“I’m writing little projects,” said Polly. “But I’m not sure yet. Probably something similar. Short stories which turn into a novel if you read them one after the other.”

“Basically,” I said, “your book is a series of chapters which are self-contained short stories but, when you read them one after another, they become a novel.”

“Pretty much that,” said Polly. “I’ve always been really keen on this idea that you could even read it backwards or you could read it in any order. I was really keen on the book being like that. The plot is just the way things happened. Some readers find it reassuring to know one thing comes before another and another thing comes later and they can remember it all. But some readers just want to know what’s going on now.”

“Where are you going now?” I asked.

“I have to get X-rays,” said Polly. “I have a very bad knee which may be broken.”

On YouTube, there is a song Fucking Princess written by Polly (with a video shot and edited by her).

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Comedian Al Murray has a chat about his Pub Landlord character, TV satire and mentally sub-normal medieval fools

Guns ’n’ Moses were the new schlock ’n’ roll

Guns ’n’ Moses (from left) Mike Cosgrave, Al Murray, Dave Cohen and Jim Tavaré

In yesterday’s blog, Al Murray talked about his interest in history, Britishness and World Wars.

“You were also a drummer in the group Guns ’n’ Moses with Dave Cohen and Jim Tavaré,” I said when I met him last week. “But you’re not a frustrated drummer and a frustrated historian. You must be rolling in dosh. So you’re not thinking I should have taken a different career path?”

“No,” said Al. “I remember on a school report a very long time ago they called me a dilettante and I had to ask my dad what it meant. He said It means someone who dabbles in different things and doesn’t really specialise and I remember thinking That sounds brilliant! That sounds like a good job option.

“Polymath might sound better,” I suggested. “You’re in an ideal position now. I imagine you don’t desperately need to work.”

“Yes and no,” replied Al. “I really love doing the stand-up side. This is the 20th year I’ve been doing the Pub Landlord character. Each time I sit down to write a new show, which is what I’m doing right now, I always realise there’s a whole load of things I could do with it which I haven’t explored yet. The character is the same but, if you watch the shows, they’re all very different from each other, with different textures.”

“With Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part,” I said, “I thought maybe he was a role model for people who agreed with his bigoted views. I never believed he would change people’s views.”

“The problem is,” said Al, “if you go too far along that road, you start to argue against irony. The opposite of irony is everything being taken literally. If you’re going to be literal about everything, you’re gonna have to have figurative paintings; you can’t have Impressionism… The thing that’s happening in stand-up comedy at the moment is you’re supposed to be sincere. Why?”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because it’s prescriptive,” said Al, “and art suffers when you get prescriptive. On stage, I don’t talk about me – ever – because I’m not interested and I’m not interested in anyone else being interested. I’d rather talk about the world or ideas. If people really do agree with what the Pub Landlord says then they’re mental, so there’s nothing I can do about them. And isn’t it like a cosmic prank? If people think he’s real, that’s fucking hilarious. I think our job as comics is to be pranksters. We’re not supposed to agree. We’re supposed to cause confusion.”

ITV publicity shot for Multiple Personality Disorder

ITV publicity for Al Murray’s Multiple Personality  Disorder

“In 2009,” I said, “you did do an ITV show Multiple Personality Disorder in which you played lots of different characters and I genuinely thought the range of characters was wonderful and…”

“ITV didn’t think that!” laughed Al. “Dealing with TV people! The guy who had been championing me went elsewhere, so we ended up with someone new as commissioner. I loved making that programme. The fun was doing different things and seeing if they’d work. But, for stand-up, the Pub Landlord is… I’ve got him… When people say Why don’t you do something else? I say Alright, I’ll do that when Jack Dee does his ‘I’m Not Grumpy Any More’ show or Harry Hill does observational comedy or Michael McIntyre talks about American foreign policy.”

“So,” I said, “your two big interests are, let’s say, history and comedy. And they come together in this book you’re writing about fools.”

Will Sommers, fool to the Tudor monarchs

Will Sommers, a fool to the Tudors

“Well, I’m trying to write it,” said Al. “I’m trying to draw the stuff together and see if I can make it cohere. I found out about Henry VIII’s fool Will Sommers. He survived as a fool through Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and through to Elizabeth I. He survived all four reigns in court.

“The traditional reading of that period is it’s a roller coaster politically and religiously. So how did he survive? The answer is either he wasn’t saying anything dangerous at all OR that having him there saying awkward things at the right moment was SO important you could not get rid of him. The Tudor fools were the last of the classic old-fashioned fools.”

“You mean men with funny hats?” I asked.

“No,” said Al. “There’s fools and there’s jesters. Jesters are people pretending to be fools. Fools were – although it’s unpalatable for us – essentially people with behavioural and learning difficulties. In the medieval theology of the time, if that was your intellectual capacity, you were regarded as ‘innocent before God’ because you couldn’t understand theology. So you had a Get Out of Jail card. Literally.”

You’re an idiot, so we won’t burn you at the stake,” I said.

“Exactly,” agreed Al. “So you could say what you liked. Most of the fools were called ‘naturals’ and they fitted this mental category. Then, separately, you had jesters – ‘artificials’ – who were pretending to be like that and they’re the people who get in the shit because everyone knows they’re pretending – so, when they say the terrible thing that shouldn’t be said, the assumption is You knew what you were saying so you’re for the chop.

“A lot of what we think fools were comes at us through art and stage plays. So we think fools were like the fool in King Lear, but that’s Shakespeare’s dramatisation of what their function was. In fact, you had these people essentially gigging up and down the country and there was a circuit. If you were a man of status, you would have your own fool saying stupid things or juggling or farting. Farting was very big in the 12th century.”

Al Murray writing in Soho last week

Al Murray writing new ideas in Soho last week

“And there was a circuit?” I asked.

“And a career structure,” added Al. “This was an era when mentally ill people were not locked away. That didn’t happen until the 18th century. Before that, you had ‘village idiots’ and everyone knew who they were and what their problems were and they had a role. And they were innocent before God.

“In the Domesday Book, there’s a fool who was probably one of Edward The Confessor’s fools who has retired out to the Welsh Marches who has a big estate – so he’s really rich. But he’s been removed or exiled because he’s a previous king’s jester and we need a new one for the Normans.”

“Do you think fools were mentally sub-normal,” I asked, “or might they have been autistic, where there’s a mixture of high intelligence and social awkwardness?”

“That whole spectrum,” said Al. “Different people with different problems. I think we would now be incredibly uncomfortable about laughing at them. You only have to look at the response to Ricky Gervais’ TV show Derek where he’s pretending to be someone who would have had a role as a fool… The response to that is super-uncomfortable for a lot of people.

“Fools were very important, because they spoke the truth. There are examples of them giving the king bad news because no-one else dared. The fool had a licence to speak truth to the powerful.”

“Nowadays,” I said, “I suppose we have satirists.”

“Well,” said Al, “there’s this preposterous idea that people in the 1960s invented satire. They did it on TV and what was unusual about them was they were people who could have been in the Establishment taking the piss out of the Establishment. The Goon Show was a satire of Britain in the 1950s, but Spike Milligan was blue collar, so he doesn’t get that elevation as a great satirist because he’s not from the Establishment. He had not rejected something in becoming a satirist.”

“Is he a satirist or a surrealist?” I asked.

“Well,” said Al. “The Goon Show had the absurdities of National Service, was about rationing, was about Class. It’s all in there, but Spike Milligan dressed it up as something else. The 1960s satire boom, though, was… It’s a bit like me… My grandfather (Sir Ralph Murray) was a diplomat, my dad worked in management at British Rail, so he was a sort of civil servant and that’s where I was heading – or a lawyer or something. To do comedy was a bit of a departure.”

“You’ve got no showbiz background?”

The Navy Lark with (on left) Stephen Murray

The Navy Lark with (on left) Stephen Murray

“My great uncle Stephen Murray was an actor. I never knew him. He was in The Navy Lark on radio when his serious actor career mis-fired a little. But that was always like Your great uncle Stephen’s an actor… Phoah! That’s really weird!”

“I remember Stephen Murray always played authority figures,” I said.

“Which is what his brother was,” said Al. “His brother was an ambassador.”

(Al did not mention to me that he is a great-great-great-great-great-grandson of John Murray, 3rd Duke of Atholl nor that his great-great-great-grandfather was author William Makepeace Thackeray.)

“Most satire,” I suggested, “is sort of elitist, whereas what you’re doing with the Pub Landlord is populist. Are you sneaking in under the radar?”

“Maybe,” said Al. “Whenever there’s a round-up of what’s going on in satire, I always think: Why am I not on this list?

“Maybe,” I suggested, “because you are appealing to Joe Public in general and not exclusively to Guardian readers?”

“Maybe,” said Al. “It always makes me laugh. I think Oh, come on! At least give me a mention! Or at least print ‘some people say it is but it isn’t’ .

… CONTINUED HERE

 

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