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Why Robert White went on Britain’s Got Talent and what comedy has taught him

Robert White won the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010 (beating Bo Burnham and Dr Brown). He claims to be – and I think no-one is going to dispute this – the only gay, dyslexic, quarter-Welsh, Aspergic, web-toed comedian working on the UK comedy circuit.


JOHN: So why did you do Britain’s Got Talent?

Robert White, aspiring primary school teacher

ROBERT: Because I had given up comedy.

In August last year, the Edinburgh Fringe financially destroyed me so much that I decided I was going to go full-time into teaching music in primary schools.

JOHN: I genuinely thought it was a wonderful Fringe show.

ROBERT: Well, doing an opera like that was artistically spectacular but the only thing it did for my career is that, now, if I die in poverty, at least I’ve got a chance of being recognised 200 years after I’m dead as a composer.

JOHN: Why primary school children? Because they are not as stroppy as teenagers?

ROBERT: Yes. There is an element of discipline. But, being dyslexic yet very creative, I’m very good at taking things and translating them in a very innovative and creative way. Obviously, I have done a degree and highly academic work, but, rather than engaging with HUGE amounts of written material and expressing it in an academic, written way, I would much prefer engaging with limited written material and expressing it in a creative way

In secondary schools, there is a lot of This Date… That Date. I can and have done all of that but, because of the nature of me, I would not choose to do so much of it; there is just so much more writing and so much more reading. With primary school, you are taking things like scale or high and low and the basic elements of music and conveying them in various different interesting creative ways.

I looked into it and, because I had not used it for so long, the PGCE (teaching qualification) I had from 20 years ago was no longer valid. So I would have to re-train. When I decided to go into teaching full-time, it was literally a week after the training course had stopped. There is a thing, though, whereby you can teach primary school music if you have a degree and some teaching experience: which I have.

So I thought: If I do some primary school teaching, that will give me some income. And, if I do the gigs I have, that will give me some other income. And the primary school teaching I do will give me enough experience so that, at the end of the year, instead of having to re-train, I can get a position in a private school where you don’t actually need to have the teaching qualifications.

So that was going to be my career path. A year of finishing-off comedy and building-up teaching then, at the end of it, I would be teaching full-time.

The reason for Britain’s Got Talent was I thought: Well, I’ve done 12 or 13 years of comedy. I may as well cash in what I’ve done and at least that way I can prove to my mum that I’ve done the most I can.

“At least that way I can prove to my mum that I’ve done the most I can.”

I told my mum: “Look, I just don’t want to struggle any more.” I don’t mind whether comedy works or teaching works or if I move home and just start a job in a shop and work my way up to be a supervisor. I just don’t want to struggle any more.

The last 20 years, it has felt as if I’ve been trying to pay off the same £1,000 overdraft and never succeeding…

JOHN: You’ve been doing comedy for a while now…

ROBERT: I have Asperger’s Syndrome and comedy through the last 13 years has been like CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

I have been putting myself in difficult situations, night after night after night, and it has helped so much. Comedy has not just brought me a comedy career, it has actually helped my Asperger’s enough that I can now do a normal job. It has got me to a point now where I can teach.

Comedy has taught me about people and Asperger’s and the way I think. Every year, I’ve become more free. Even walking on stage, I now don’t think I have to do A-B-C-D in a certain order. I’m more relaxed.

JOHN: Whereas before…?

ROBERT: Because I have Asperger’s, I find it very difficult to connect with people in the real world and all of my social processes are thought-through processes. Now, with what I’ve learnt from years of doing comedy, some have become more intuitive. But they are not naturally intuitive.

You don’t have Asperger’s so, to you, reading facial expressions is intuitive. To me, it is not. Literally thinking-through and analysing: What is this other person thinking? How do I act in this situation? Which becomes very very very very tiring.

The thing that comedy has done for me is it taught me about social skills and gave me an understanding of people. If you think of the audience as a macro-person, then that translates into how one person acts to the individual micro-person. It has helped me understand about people.

But conversely what that has meant is that, sort of like horse whispering, I’ve got an almost unusually natural understanding of audiences that other people wouldn’t have – because I analyse them in a certain way. If there’s any way my autistic mind does work well in the overly-analytical way, it’s basically an understanding of the audience and what’s going on.

I’m the only person I know who, before he goes on, fills up his hand and his whole arm not with jokes but with social cues. That’s because, when I first started – and now – I needed to reinforce myself with certain things. I still do that.

JOHN: Writing on your arm such things as…?

ROBERT: Be nice. No rudes. Time equals money. There is an understanding that there is a right sort of groan and a wrong sort of groan. That has now come to inform me on a level other people don’t have. Which is why standing on stage now and being able to say whatever I want is an amazingly freeing thing. 

The judges’ reaction to Robert White on Britain’s Got Talent

When it got to Britain’s Got Talent and the audition, I looked at my act…

If you take away the crudeness and swearing – there is so much still left. I had not considered that before. There is quirkiness, jokes, puns, silliness, music. I have got many more strings to my bow than I originally considered.

JOHN: You are playing 20-minute spots at the Comedy Store now.

ROBERT: I did the Gong Show at the Comedy Store about two years ago and it was a really rough gig. There was this woman shouting me at the front and I had to go off-piste and really properly play the gig. So, in an absolute, utter bear-pit gig, I won the night.  Eleven years earlier, I did the Gong Show, walked onto the stage; same response; but I ripped my tee-shirt and started crying.

That is what comedy has done for me.

The whole process of doing comedy and then Edinburgh making me give up comedy led to Britain’s Got Talent and rising like a phoenix from the ashes.

But we don’t know what tomorrow holds.

All I want is to not struggle.

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Edinburgh and Vancouver – where people are strippers AND comedians

Vancouver’s Folk Festival before the Great Hula Hoop Robbery

Vancouver’s placid Folk Festival before the Great Hula Hoop Robbery of 2013

I am driving up from London to Edinburgh today.

Being at the Edinburgh Fringe for what amounts to four weeks can be like living inside a rather noisy and crowded bubble. But, if you think it’s noisy and crowded in Edinburgh, think what it’s like in Vancouver.

Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent e-mailed me before I set off for Edinburgh at 6.00am this morning.

“Last night,” she told me, “only 200,000 people showed up for the annual fireworks show in Vancouver…. 400,000 had been expected and the Vancouver Police Department had issued a radio advisory that vast numbers of people were going to be performing public urination. I saw no evidence of that at all and the streets smelled normal this morning.

“Vancouver is awash with festivals at this time of year – There’s the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, the International Buddhist Film Festival, the Powell Street Festival (of Japanese Culture), a Brazilian Festival, at least two Latin American Festivals, a Caribbean Festival and Gay Pride Week.

“For the last, a rainbow version of the Canadian Flag is flown merrily on flagpoles all over downtown, all the major Canadian banks have rainbow-coloured feather boas and ribbons fluttering everywhere and a zebra crossing on Davie Street has evolved into a rainbow crossing.”

Anna has been working at one of the festivals – the Folk Festival.

“I was a receptionist in the massage tent,” she told me, “booking massages for the artists. I recognised one of them from his name tag – one of Canada’s top violinists whom I had known thirty years ago, when I was a striptease artist in Toronto.

“I greeted him with the words: Holy shit…It’s Ben Mink! and he was so surprised to see me he immediately telephoned a recluse we both knew in Ontario so I could say Hi

Complementary cucumbers were the order of the day

Complementary cucumbers were on display

“Later during the festival I had a conversation with Marie Lynn Hammond, who cleverly realised that I was ‘Nurse Annie’ – one of the characters I performed as, in striptease AND comedy.”

Yes, Anna was both a striptease artist AND a comedian – so it was not/is not just Malcolm Hardee, Martin Soan and Bob Slayer who combine the two vocations.

Anna continued: “Marie Lynn Hammond’s bass player Dennis Nichol asked me: You are Nurse Annie?? Can I have your autograph?

“I thought he was joking, but he insisted. I was flabbergasted. Nobody has asked for my autograph for the last thirty years – except for building managers wanting it on my rent cheque.

“We had a conversation about the good old days before cassette tapes were invented and strippers had to dance to live music. It turned out that he had once played at the Zanzibar Circus Tavern on Yonge Street in Toronto, which is the first place I danced professionally.

“The only sad thing that happened during the festival was a public announcement that there had been a theft of hula hoops and juggling balls…. WOULD THE THIEF PLEASE RETURN THE HULA HOOPS AND JUGGLING BALLS the plaintive announcement said.

“I thought,” Anna told me, “that perhaps the spirit of Malcolm Hardee was roaming the forests and mountains.”

But no.

With luck, though, it will be roaming the venues, streets and pubs of Edinburgh over the next four weeks.

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How to win an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award

Like Malcolm, a unique one-off

The increasingly prestigious target of stunts

Honestly.

You just have to say the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards are increasingly prestigious at the Edinburgh Fringe and they start to be.

One of the three annual awards is the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award for best publicity stunt promoting an Edinburgh Fringe show.

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about Richard Herring’s clever publicity scam and Cunning Stunt Award contender in which he announced he had decided not spend lots of money on lamp post ads during the Fringe and instead spend lots of money giving away a free copy of his DVD entitled 10 to members of his audience.

Cunning Lewis Schaffer

Lewis Schaffer tries to hijack Richard Herring

Two days ago, Lewis Schaffer announced he will be spending the entire promotional budget for his Fringe show Lewis Schaffer is Better Than You on giving every paying member of his audience a free copy of… Richard Herring’s DVD.

Lewis Schaffer’s show is part of Bob Slayer’s Pay What You Want variation on the Free Festival.

Lewis Schaffer said: “I thought, this year, why not spend my entire £75 budget on something that people might actually want? People love Richard Herring. At first, I thought I would give them a DVD of my own shows, but my shows are unfilmable and people don’t like me as much as Richard.”

Lewis Schaffer cannily added that the offer lasts only as long as his unspecified stocks last and only, he said, “if I can strike a deal with Richard Herring to get them cheap and, if not, I’ll give a copy of a similar DVD or other gift with a value of greater than £1 to all paying customers at each show.”

I am not sure if ripping off someone else’s stunt disqualifies Lewis Schaffer from consideration for the Cunning Stunt Award or actually makes him even more considerable than Richard.

Piratical comedian Malcolm Hardee (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Malcolm Hardee would not have approved of any real rules (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

As there are no actual rules for the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards, this is something we will have to decide nearer the date, possibly on a whim. Having any actual pre-determined rules would have been anathema to Malcolm.

A couple of days ago, I also got an email from the Fringe Office saying:

We’ve been getting a lot of enquiries about the Fringe awards for this year, so I wanted to add a line to the award summaries on our website to clarify how acts can enter their shows for the awards. Please could you let me know how acts can enter for the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award or are they nominated or just selected by the judges? And then I’ll add that to the details on the website.

The only answer I could think of giving was:

God preserve us from people actually applying for the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards. We have enough problems! Acts are selected by the judges via osmosis, gossip, buzz and word-of-mouth.

Juliette Burton video shoot

Juliette Burton completed her pop video shooting yesterday

Juliette Burton, I guess, is another Cunning Stunt contender. Yesterday, I went to see her shoot the final scene for a pop video promoting her Edinburgh show When I Grow Up. It is only part of a whole raft of linked promotional ideas she has lined up. This might bode well as, last year, Stuart Goldsmith won the Cunning Stunt Award for multiple linked promotional ideas.

Juliette also got me to come along to a meeting she was having with her choreographer Omari Carter near the MI6 building. She told me she had once worked nearby, but this was less impressive than one comedian I know who was actually interviewed for a job at MI6.

I arrived too late to stop Bob Slayer drinking

Alas I arrived at cricket too late to stop Bob Slayer drinking

After that, I drove down to see the Comedians’ Cricket Match at Staplefield in Sussex, where Bob Slayer had apparently tried to swing the game by being one of three batsmen simultaneously playing.

And in a blatant, slightly drunk, attempt to curry favour before the Fringe, he tried to ingratiate himself by telling me:

“Your blog is very effective at getting publicity.”

He is publishing Phil Kay’s autobiography The Wholly Viable, financing it via an appeal on Kickstarter.

I blogged about it at the end of last month and, as of yesterday, the Kickstarter appeal for £3,333 had raised £4,727 – that’s over 141% of the target, with 2o days still to go.

“Your blog sent a few interesting backers to Phil’s Kickstarter,” Bob told me. “Russell Howard and Alan Davies are the latest backers, who also include Glenn Wool, Isy Suttie, Arthur Smith, Miss Behave, Chris Evans – who may or may not be the ginger one – Davey Byrne, who may or may not be the frontman of Talking Heads and John Steel – who may or may not be the original drummer for The Animals.”

Frankly, I think it’s more likely to be John Steed of The Avengers.

This is not normal - it is Phil Kay

Kay supported by Alan Davies, Russell Howard, Johnny Vegas

“Facebook has referred most backers to the Kickstarter page,” figure-fancying Bob told me, “with Twitter just behind it and there have been Tweets from Richard Herring, Johnny Vegas, Boothby Graffoe and Limmy.”

So there you have it, an increasingly prestigious blog effective at getting publicity which you should be proud to read, if only for the increasing bullshit factor.

But back to reality.

At the time of posting this on Monday morning, I am just about to leave for jury service at a court somewhere in England. My jury service was supposed to end last Friday, but has trundled on to today and possibly tomorrow.

There may be a future blog in this – not that I am one to be increasingly obsessive about seeing everything as a blog possibility.

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UK comedy legend Malcolm Hardee – Irresponsible, thoughtless or malicious?

(This was also published by the Huffington Post and on Indian news site WSN)

Piratical comedian Malcolm Hardee (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Charming comedian Malcolm Hardee got away with it (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Today is the eighth anniversary of the death by drowning of comedian Malcolm Hardee. His autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake begins:

I was born the first son of Frank and Joan Hardee in the Tuberculosis Ward of Lewisham Hospital in South East London. Immediately after my birth, I was taken from my mother and moved to an orphanage in a place aptly named Ware in Hertfordshire. We were not to meet again for nearly two years…

When I was one day old my dad bought me a train set. But I didn’t see it until I was almost two years old. It was a steam train and ran on methylated spirits held in a little container underneath the engine. It was bigger than your normal train set with a big circular track. What you did was set light to the methylated spirits and this started the piston. My dad set it up in the hall. When I first saw the train, he wouldn’t let me play with it. You know what fathers are like. He set it off and it went so fast centrifugal force took the train off the rails and the burning meths set light to the carpet. Nearly burnt the whole house down. A lot of people have said I came off the rails myself later on and my mother wonders if this incident may also account for my early interest in setting fire to things.

Yesterday, I was talking to my friend Louise about Malcolm.

“The way his mother told me,” Louise said, “I’m not sure he actually went into an orphanage. His mother told me his granny brought him up while she was in the TB hospital and, when she came out of hospital and was re-united with him, he was cold to her – his mother. That sounds kinda crucial. The mother figure left him and a small kid will transfer his affections to another person and a lot of mothers can be quite angry with a child who does that, even if they try not to show it. You’re talking about a toddler and that confusion between two people… when you’ve gone and attached yourself emotionally to one and they’re whisked off… It’s the very foundation subconsciously. I wonder if that was why he was damaged. You’re always telling me that a lot of the best comedians are damaged.

“With Malcolm, it could have been an anger at the world, you know, because of the mother that left, the one that came back and was maybe a bit annoyed he was attached to the grandmother. Whatever. There would be an anger in that little kid. Sitting back watching if a car catches fire or if someone trips over and falls.

“That anger develops into Oh – I’ll see how everyone’s going to react to THIS! Malcolm with his We’re going to steer the boat under this water… We’re going to set this car on fire.

“Or cinema,” I said. “He set fire to two cinemas and a Sunday School piano.”

“Desperate to shock other people,” said Louise. “A desperate need for attention. And that can turn into cruelty. You worked with Jonathan Ross early on and told me what a nice person he was. But then there’s the cruelty of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand phoning up Andrew Sachs just to say Brand had fucked his grand-daughter. That’s just plain cruelty. They were having a laugh but it’s not funny and, in a decade’s time, people will look back and think How could anyone ever have thought that was acceptable? These are grown men. Jonathan Ross has a daughter of his own. How can they not be thinking that’s disrespectful and downright vicious to the girl and to the grandfather? The girl and the grandfather are human beings, not just comedy props.”

A wreath at Malcolm Hardee's funeral in 2005

Some of the wreaths at Malcolm Hardee’s funeral in 2005

“But Malcolm wasn’t actually malicious,” I said to Louise, “Steve Bowditch said something at Malcolm’s funeral which I had never thought about. He said that he had never heard Malcolm talk maliciously about anyone behind their back. He didn’t do that bitchy comedian thing of slagging people off behind their backs. Malcolm wasn’t malicious. He was just irresponsible in a general way.”

“But,” said Louise, “almost as a matter of principle, he tried to con people on the money he’d agreed to pay them at his clubs. He didn’t pay people he’d agreed to pay and, to some people, that £50 or £100 he conned them out of might have been crucial. There was that thoughtlessness.”

“Well,” I said, “Aaaaa Bbbbb told me Malcolm tried to pay him less than he’d agreed on three consecutive appearances and thought Oh – It’s just Malcolm at his games again. But Aaaaa Bbbbb was screwed over money in much the same way by another promoter 20 years ago and he is still venomous about that promoter. He doesn’t forgive that promoter for that one occasion, but he does forgive and laugh about the three times with Malcolm because, somehow, he knows there was no malice with Malcolm. It was just some sort of game for him.”

“You told me,” said Louise, “that, when you were writing his autobiography, you’d arrange to meet up and sometimes he wouldn’t be there.”

“Well yes,” I said. “Because I knew he was flakey, I’d phone him late morning and check he would be there when we’d agreed to meet. Then sometimes two hours later, after getting stuck in bad traffic but arriving at the time and place we’d agreed to meet… he would have forgotten and gone off somewhere and I had to find him. Even then, he could sometimes only keep up his concentration for 15 minutes. Once, he was in another county.”

“Why did you not mind that?” asked Louise.

“I knew what he was like,” I said. “It was just Malcolm being irresponsible. He could get away with it. An indefinable charm. Schoolboyish irresponsibility.”

“But,” said Louise, “he did some terrible things.”

Wreaths on the hearse at Malcolm Hardee's funeral

Wreaths on Malcolm’s funeral hearse

“It’s not thinking about consequences,” I said. “If you’re evil, you are fully aware of the consequences, but you still do it. If you’re irresponsible, you don’t calculate the consequences. Malcolm was irresponsible. Although he was consciously irresponsible, which is unusual. He knew he had the charm to get away with it. He was actually quite considerate at heart and, if he’d thought about the consequences of some of the things he did, he wouldn’t have done them, but he simply didn’t think about the consequences. And he never analysed what he did. He just did.”

“There was something about Malcolm,” said Louise, “Something about his personality that was like his son Frank… Frank is a good, upstanding, caring citizen and there’s something about Malcolm that would have been that but for some little… something… Maybe the needy thing of the early separation from his mother. It’s like cooking. If you add or remove one tiny ingredient, it can ruin the taste.”

“And Malcolm did enjoy bad taste,” I said.

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UK-based US comic Lewis Schaffer has his trousers stolen in a seaside town

Lewis Schaffer on stage in London this week

Lewis Schaffer on stage this week, before losing his trousers

London-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer is performing eight weekly shows at the Leicester Square Theatre, starting soon. You heard it here first.

Last night, we exchanged text messages…

___

When is your first Leicester Square show?

3rd March

What time?

Sunday 6pm £10.

___

He then texted that he was in a well-known seaside town to play a gig. I will call it Boringtown. I texted back: Condolences. He texted back: Been here before. Seems nice.

Later last night, I was travelling in my car with my eternally-un-named friend (hereinafter referred-to as my EUF). I got another text from Lewis and this exchange ensued:

___

– I wrote that last text before my bag and useful black coat were stolen during the show. So now don’t have a good impression of Boringtown.

– In car. John is driving. EUF here. John says “Email me more about theft.” He hasn’t got a blog for tomorrow. It’s all Him Him Him isn’t it? – EUF says v. sorry to hear about coat. It’s cold. And bag. Hope no money was in it this time.

– I don’t want him to blog about that. I’m always losing things. Or having them taken from me. There’s a few Yiddish words for me. I’m the guy who spills the soup on you and I’m the one who gets the soup spilled on him. I had a feeling it wasn’t safe to leave it there.

It’s the jokes that I’ll miss. The paper bits with the funny things I said that I left in the bag. Who’s going to use them? I mean, if they can get laughs out of my joke scratchings then they’re funnier than I am.

– John says your txt msgs would make a good blog. I say you poor little Yiddish soupy sosage.

– Schmeil or schmozzel. I’ll have to look it up in Leo Rosten’s Joy of Yiddish. One of those words or both. I’m both. I wish I only spilled. My show at the Art Centre was good under difficult circumstances – there was an audience there (joke).

– John says your jokes are so specific to you that no-one else can tell them. He laughed out loud and said half your act is you saying the words ‘Lewis Schaffer’ – that is difficult to steal.

– It’s not that the jokes are good or that I would have used them. It is now I’ll imagine those lost jokes that I’ve forgotten are the funniest jokes I’ve thought up.

– John asks – You’re doing jokes now?

– I have jokes now. I don’t tell them in the right order or when I should, but I have jokes.

– John says Oh yes – The Holocaust ones.

– Now I have a bad view of Boringtown. Please don’t mention the town.

– John says you told him not to blog these texts.

– I lost my clothes. Luckily they didn’t think much of my leather jacket or I’d be going home dressed like a drunk stockbroker after a night out boozing.

– Are you still dressed in your stage gear? John asks have they taken your trousers? If so, comedy gold. EUF says are you on your journey home?

– They took my beloved Kenneth Cole stretchy trousers. I’m on the train. Please don’t say the name of the town. Me bad in not taking my belongings and putting them in a pile on stage with me.

– Sorry. Would hate to lose some fav clothes like that.

– And my beloved Kenneth Cole stretchy black jacket. And my beloved black and white checked shirt. By Kenneth Cole.

– John says have we agreed he can blog these texts minus Boringtown?

– And my beloved black casual shoes by Kenneth Cole, the American clothing designer.

– No more beloved clothes. I don’t know K Cole.

– Beloved Kenneth Cole.

– John says are you naked? If so, send pic immediately.

– They left my ratty suit carrier bag. Why am I such a plonker?

– I say you aren’t. John says you are. Have you still got phone charger? We are arriving at my flat now so there will be a pause.

– Luckily I hid that behind the portable heater in the dressing room. I am a plonker. I don’t think that’s a Yiddish word.

It’s John here again now. So can I blog, provided I don’t mention Boringtown?

– I’m not sure you posting my mishaps is helping me in the comedy business. I’m not sure still makes other comics happy to read of my failures. I’m not a threat to them. Yes, you can blog this, but only because I sense your desperation to keep this daily blogging going. I admire your commitment. I could only do 3 months, if that.

Do you want an IKEA double bed settee, lightweight base with mattress? Was EUF’s sister-in-law’s. Pix to follow. We just brought it back to Greenwich. IKEA beds longer than UK ones.

– Can use bed.

– Good.

– Actually, can’t. Sorry. No room.

– Pity.

– That’s 3 thefts in 5 months.

3 thefts in 5 months? You are being targeted by rogue members of the Elders of Zion… Maybe the Middle Aged of Zion.

– First the money in Edinburgh. Then my iPhone 4S in November. Now this. I should stress that the show was amazing. No-one walked out.

– My EUF says this means none of the audience stole your things. She trained as a sleuth by watching Monk on TV.

– I’ve had a run of good shows.

– Don’t worry. Things will get worse. I presume tonight was part of your Free Until Famous tour of Arts Centres?

– Yes. Packed. 150.

– Your Leicester Square Theatre gigs are eight Sundays in a row?

– Yes. Not announced yet. You can announce them in your blog. But they are paid dates. How can I justify it?

– The audience will justify it by arriving. When are you back in South London?

– I’m in New Cross now.

– Do you want food?

– Where? It is 1.30am. This is England.

– I have a car. We can find.

– Okay. Come. I can change.

– At your age, you cannot change. My EUF is starving. We will come round to your place.

– Okay. Hurry. Am fading fast. No. Don’t come. My door keys were in coat. Feeling flu-ish. Have to wake early to take son to football. His birthday. Sorry John. Ask for EUF’s forgiveness.

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Should all jokes have a ‘Sell By’ date?

Perhaps the simple cactus has a lesson for us all

Perhaps the simple cactus has a lesson for comics & for us all

In that strange dream-like world between sleep and waking this morning, I was thinking about comedians telling jokes.

This is never a good idea.

I thought that, like tomatoes and broccoli on supermarket shelves, perhaps there should be a Best By… date and a Sell By… date on all jokes.

After that, it would be illegal to expose the joke to the public.

But then I remembered a conversation I had with a man who sold flowers.

There was a Sell By… label stuck on each and every cactus in his shop.

“Do cacti actually go bad after a certain date?” I asked. “I thought they just went on year after year, surviving through drought and everything.”

“Yup,” said the flower shop owner.

From memory, he told me the European Parliament had passed a law that all cacti should have a two-year Sell By… date.

“After that,” he told me, “the law says I have to throw them away.”

“So what do you do with them if they pass their Sell By… date?” I asked the flower shop man.

“I peel off the Sell By… label on the cactus,” he told me, “and stick on a new one.”

That is not a joke. It actually happened. In European Parliamentary legislation, the dividing line between a joke and reality can be a spider’s web-thin one.

Maybe, though, some jokes should have a Best By... date and a Sell By… date.

On the other hand, some jokes are like cacti.

They can go on forever.

The connecting factor may be the involvement of little pricks.

In the world of cacti, pricks are essential.

In comedy, you cannot beat a good knob gag.

Having rationalised this, I turned over and happily went back to sleep.

Perhaps it was a mistake.

Not the turning over and going back to sleep.

The rationalising bit.

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Networking tips for shy extroverts, for comedians and for Michael Winner…

(This piece also appeared in the Huffington Post)

Always wear clothes appropriate for the job

Always wear clothes appropriate for the job

Last month, I mentioned in a blog that the famously self-confident film director Michael Winner has said on more than one occasion that, when he went to parties on his own, he was sometimes almost too shy to go into a room full of strangers.

This came to mind yesterday, when I went to a seminar (I guess that’s what it was) at Equity in London where members – mostly actors – were being told about and swapping tips on networking

Top tip seemed to me to be that, when presented with some networking opportunity you should always take it and never turn it down. Sounds obvious, but there is the Michael Winner factor of wanting to hide in a hole in the ground.

Almost all performers – actors, comedians, whatever – are extrovert show-offs who want a bit of attention and are Me-Me-Me…

But they also tend to be overly-endowed with insecurity and self-doubt.

Shall I go to that party/schmoozathon and sell myself to important people and further my career or shall I hide under the duvet in my bedroom?

Best advice is probably to think not What might I gain from going? but What opportunities might I miss by not going?

Networking is a bit like dogging. You will get nowhere by staying alone at home in your bedroom.

It was also suggested that selling yourself succinctly involves having a variety of pre-prepared ‘elevator pitches’.

Hollywood wisdom is that you should have an elevator pitch for your movie project in case you accidentally meet a studio chief in a lift in a building and he is only going up one floor. You have to encapsulate your 120-minute movie in one sentence…

  • Romeo & Juliet in the West Side of New York
  • Robin Hood in gangland Chicago
  • Love Story crossed with The Wild Bunch

Some pitches are more effective than others.

When networking yourself rather than your project, you have to encapsulate your entire professional life in two sentences but – as you are selling different versions of yourself to different prospective employers or financiers – you need perhaps five different versions of your pitch prepared for five different circumstances.

This is something I have always spectacularly failed to do.

When asked at a party, “What do you do?” I have a tendency to look blankly at the person and say, “I have no idea. Never have. Still don’t.”

Someone once told me: “John, your career appears to be unfocussed”. It was intended as a criticism.

I took it as a good thing – variety being the spice of life and all that.

Most bizarre insight of yesterday, though, came when the problem of working at home cropped up.

When I was a student, I lived in a house of bedsits in Hampstead. Surprisingly cheap. The landlord was an altruistic Christian and merely covering his costs.

One of the other rooms was rented by a woman who lived in a big house in the next street. She was a novelist. Every morning, she would walk out of her own front door, come round to our house, go into her bedsit, write until 5.00pm, then go back to her own home.

I used to think this was eccentric until I found difficulty working from home myself (despite the fact my third bedroom is kitted-out as an office) and found working in the local library – or in an Apple Store – was easier.

This was taken one step further yesterday when someone said that, when about to do work at home, she changed into ‘office clothes’ – she put on a dark business suit… When she had finished her work at home, she changed back into her casual homely clothes.

This sounds bonkers at first, but is logically eminently sensible.

Someone else said that her boyfriend did the same thing – except he just changed into a bow tie.

I think I may buy a bow tie.

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