Tag Archives: COVID lockdown

John Ryan – “Most comedy is about the self-indulgent egos of the performers.”

Comedian John Ryan appeared in this blog a couple of times in 2014. The first time, he talked about scripting Teletubbies and getting awarded a Royal Society for Public Health Special Commendation for contributions to the field of Arts and Health Equalities.

In the second, he said: “People ask me why I’m not as big as Michael McIntyre and I say I’m just too normal.”

Recently, he contacted me about his new online radio show Reading The Signs. His pitch was: “It is on two sister stations: Men’s Radio Station and Women’s Radio Station. It is the world’s first and only comedy and mental health radio and social media show going out on YouTube, Twitter, FacebookLive and Soundcloud as well as over 40 stations worldwide as part of the deluxe radio network.”

So we talked via Skype…


ME: You’ve not taken a conventional comedy career path…

JOHN RYAN: Well, ten years ago I decided, rather than pursue that elusive dream of being on 8 Out of 10 Cats and Mock The Week, I thought I would use my academic background. So I got into ten years of community care work and pursued that avenue. And this is the next step.

ME: You do stuff for about five NHS regions around the country.

JOHN RYAN: Yes.

ME: But you are still a comedian.

JOHN RYAN: Essentially, yeah. Up until the Covid lockdown, I was still doing cabaret on cruise ships and doing all the clubs up and down the UK.

ME: So, if you had to put your primary ‘job’ on your passport, what would your profession be?

JOHN RYAN: (PAUSE) Memory maker. (A LONG LAUGH) I suppose I would put down Entertainer, really.

ME: Reading The Signs is…?

JOHN RYAN: Every week, I get a comedian on and we talk about comedy: how they got into it, why they did, gig experiences… but also how they stay resilient, especially through the last 18 months.

At the best of times, comics are ‘fragile’. So having no live work for the last 18 months meant having no constant validation from audiences, no ‘love’ and no money. It’s a combination cocktail for disaster and I’m interested in how they have survived. If THEY can do it, then the average Joe in the street can maybe learn stuff from them.

ME: It started online a couple of weeks ago…

John Ryan – well-being training and mental health training

JOHN RYAN: Every Monday at 7 o’clock.

There is a company called WJ who do all the road markings on the motorways and schools and places and they sponsor me. They have been using me for the last three or four years to go into their teams and do well-being training, mental health training and corporate comedy shows.

The idea of Reading The Signs was to show there’s more to comedy as a vehicle than just standing in front of an audience, trying to get on that comedy industry rat race. And it’s trying to show there’s more to comedians than people who go on stage and make you laugh. Last week my guest was Ria Lina.

Traditionally I’ve just done men’s health and men’s mental well-being. But this is more about the resilience of comics.

Just cos you don’t appear on 8 Out of 10 Cats don’t mean you can’t make a good living. I’ve travelled the world. It is possible to make a GOOD living from a comedy career even though nobody knows you. I live in (he mentions a very up-market area of London).

ME: So it is possible to monetise comedy without being on TV?

“When everyone was trying to get on the train…”

JOHN  RYAN: When everyone was trying to get on the train with the Off The Kerb and Avalon agencies, I targeted the NHS and BUPA and, when auditions and castings came up, I got onto the cruise ships and the military gigs and the corporate circuit. My thing was not about doing comedy as a vanity project. I was raised in Hackney and…

ME: Hackney is a bit Yuppie…

JOHN RYAN: I grew up there before people ate avocados for breakfast.

I’m from a very multi-cultural, working class background. I brought that work ethic into my comedy career. I would say: “You need a compere, I’ll do that… You need a headline act, I’ll do that… You need a musical act, I’ll do that…”

Most comedy is about the self-indulgent egos of the performers. But Reading The Signs is actually about getting below the surface and seeing what makes people do comedy. So, if there’s anyone out there suffering from depression or anxiety or mental un-wellness, they can see that most comics have got some kind of ‘block’ that stops them being able to interact ‘normally’ or in a ‘usual’ manner.

“I’m not preachy… I’m not a clinician…”

It’s not preachy. I’m not telling people to hug trees. I’m not a clinician. I’m not a consultant. I’m just a bloke who has managed to stay sane in this world. Here are some of the things that work for me – and here’s some of the things that work for my friends. And they are people who are not part of the mainstream society.

One of the things about mental health is that, when you suffer, you’re excluded from mainstream society.

ME: You got interested in mental health because of family things?

JOHN RYAN: Yes. My mother suffered from clinical depression all her life and, as a child, I used to sit with her on her dark days and just read loads of books which meant I developed an amazing thirst for knowledge.

Both my parents were barely literate, but I managed to get a Masters Degree plus two other degrees. And it was all because of what I picked up as a little child: the quest for knowledge; the drive to know Why is that like that?

ME: A Masters Degree in what?

JOHN RYAN: In Health and Social Policy.

ME: And the other two degrees?

JOHN RYAN: One in Social Science. The other in Trade Union & Labour Studies.

ME: What? Why?

“The quest for knowledge… to know Why is that like that?

JOHN RYAN: It was hobbies.

My first degree was because I wanted to get out of Hackney and change my friendship circle.

But the others I did as hobbies. I also have an NVQ in Gardening… I just like learning.

ME: Is your life going to dramatically change when the Covid lockdown finally ends?

JOHN RYAN: I have a reluctance to travel now. In the year up to lockdown, I did 64 flights.

ME: Any change to your on-stage style because of lockdown? Zoom gigs are very difficult for comedians – no feedback; no laughter.

JOHN RYAN: Well, I think comedy is like sex. It’s always better if there’s someone else doing it with you and they’re near you and enjoying it. But my comedy was never necessarily funny stories. It’s basically just sheer force of persona. So Zoom suited me. I’ve come to terms with Zoom.

ME: Have you lost part of the urge to step on a live stage?

JOHN RYAN: No. I did a live gig last week and loved it. The audience was very receptive and really willing. But I think we have to embrace the fact things have changed.

I’ve been talking to someone about doing a little theatre tour in the autumn and what we will do is sell tickets for a live audience but also stream it online.

ME: Any other projects?

JOHN RYAN: I’ve written a kids’ book – me and my mate have written it. It will be published next month. 

ME: The title?

JOHN RYAN: A Mission Most Fowl.

ME: I smell chickens.

JOHN RYAN: It’s basically four anthropomorphic creatures in a post-Apocalyptic future… Mankind has gone… There are some genetically-modified animals living in a cave where all Man’s technology was. Some baddie ducks want to capture the cave and take over the planet.

ME: For what age kids?

JOHN RYAN: 11 upwards. Publishing a book was on my tick list of things I wanted to do.

ME: Anything un-ticked?

JOHN RYAN: To be in a musical.

ME: That’s not impossible.

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Paul Vickers and The Leg: How to write a new music album in lockdown. Or not.

I was talking to musical one-off Paul Vickers (aka comedy one-off Mr Twonkey) a few weeks ago and we thought it might be interesting to do a blog about how, during the COVID lockdown, he had managed to write an entire album for his band Paul Vickers and The Leg.

Exactly a fortnight ago, I FaceTimed Paul and bandmate/co-songwriter Dan Mutch at Dan’s home.

They share a lockdown bubble in Edinburgh.

Yes, a fortnight ago.

COVID lockdown lethargy has hit me. 

This is how the conversation went…


Dan Mutch (left) and Paul in Edinburgh

JOHN: So, you have recorded an album…

PAUL: Well… not yet.

DAN: We’ve written it.

PAUL: We’ve demo’d it. But we now need the rest of the band to come in… I dunno… 

JOHN: So this whole idea of John, call me up and I’ll tell you how to record an album during Lockdown was all bollocks?

PAUL: Well, not complete bollocks. I thought we could talk about how creativity…

JOHN: You were just lonely. Admit it.

PAUL: I dunno. What shall we talk about? I feel like we should do something.

JOHN: Can you juggle?

PAUL: Not to any great standard.

JOHN: How are you going to get all six people in the band together to record this album? You’re having Zoom calls?

DAN: No. Just been the two of us working away on stuff, mainly.

PAUL: We haven’t seen the others for quite a while.

JOHN: You two can be creative by sitting around writing songs, but what are the other four members of the group doing?

PAUL: Pete Harvey’s up in Perth. He’s the cello player.

DAN: He has been making snowmen and he runs his own studio and does arrangements for string quartets. He had a livestream a few days ago of a piece he’d written.

PAUL: He did strings for Deacon Blue recently and he works for King Creosote quite a lot.

JOHN: The others?

DAN: Alun Thomas goes in to the gallery he works at and goes to the cellar and… is allowed to… erm…to do what he wants.

JOHN: (LAUGHS) Any more details on that?

PAUL: Well, he can play the drums.

JOHN: And the other two?

DAN: They’re both care workers.

JOHN: I did a couple of blogs in June last year with two of The Tiger Lillies. One of them was in Berlin and the other in Athens. They were able to record albums together online but, because of the variable time-lag online, the end result was out of sync, so they had to painstakingly re-edit everything after the recording.

But writing is OK? The two of you get together in your bubble or on your separate sofas?

PAUL: Yeah. But it’s what you write that’s the problem.

We tried to write an album about a cruise ship, because that’s what it felt like at the beginning of the first Lockdown. I abandoned the idea because, after the pandemic’s over, I don’t know if anybody is really gonna want to hear songs about lockdown and stuff like that.

JOHN: Well, I don’t know. The whole of the late-1940s, the 1950s and a lot of the 1960s was all films about the 1939-1945 War…

‘Paul Vickers and The Leg’ – all six band members together

PAUL: I suppose.

JOHN: But you’re screwed, aren’t you? You can’t even do virtual gigs, because you can’t get all six people together. So are both of you phenomenally frustrated? You can write things but you can’t perform them.

DAN: Doing gigs seems like a distant memory. But, if you have stuff to do, like writing songs… Well, you have more time to work on and develop them.

PAUL: And – what we’ve done – it’s a really thoughtful collection of songs. I think the album title will be Winter on Butterfly Lake. It’s not our usual kind of thing. There’s a lot of heartbreak and soft and romantic kind of songs.

DAN: It is a heartbreak album on Paul’s part.

PAUL: Yeah, there’s been some things happening in my personal life that sort of… changed things a bit. And we decided to move away from Susan Oblong songs…

JOHN: Which are…?

PAUL: Songs that are kind of angular, funky kind of songs with cut-up meanings or lots of metaphors. That had become our over-riding style, but then I thought I’m going to be a bit more honest and confessional and put my heart on the table a bit.

DAN: It’s much more personal.

PAUL: Yeah. And that’s changed the tone of the songs and they’re put together and produced in a slightly different way. It has resulted in a change of direction to some degree.

JOHN: My cheap psychology here… Is the fact that they’re more reflective also something to do with the fact you’re in isolation?

PAUL: It might be…

JOHN: Or it might not be.

PAUL: Or it might not be. But I’ve tried to be as honest as I can be.

JOHN: The words come first or the music comes first?

DAN: Both. It’s usually me playing an acoustic guitar and Paul having an idea and it sparks off, then we put it into GarageBand and keep working on it.

PAUL: I’ll have things I’ve been thinking about for a while which come to the surface and Dan will have certain bits he’s been playing around with that might fit and, once you get a melody for something like a first verse, it usually starts flowing quite quickly. 

If it goes well, you can’t get it down quick enough; you’re always ahead of the game.

But, if it doesn’t go well, there’s a lot more shuffling of papers, a lot more cups of coffee and moments of… erm… of quiet contemplation.

(LOUD LAUGHS)

Paul sits below and beside Dan’s inspirational black paper

JOHN: Well, what else shall we talk about? Why have you got a black sheet of A4 paper on the wall?

DAN: Ehhhhhh…. No particular reason… I like drawing and things like that. So I like putting blank bits of paper on the wall to think about what I might draw on them.

JOHN: And it’s black because…?

DAN: Somebody left some sheets of black paper round here.

JOHN: Do you actually need to get all six of you together? Surely in modern recording, people often record their individual bits separately and recordings are made in layers.

DAN: Sometimes we do that, but it’s not the same as actually playing with people. And, when we do the final recordings, then we probably want it to have gone through that kind of development with everyone playing it loads of times together because it changes things.

PAUL: Yea, the structure of things will change.

JOHN: So when might Winter on Butterfly Lake come out?

DAN: It would be good if we could get it done by the end of the year.

JOHN: And it’s solely dependant on the indeterminate lowering of the COVID threat…

PAUL: There’s gonna be a real blocked pipe syndrome, I think – All the things that people have been holding on to will be released – albums, films – How many times have they delayed the release of the new James Bond film?

JOHN: Yes, there will be oodles of $200 million films coming out next year which should have been released last year and this year. Maybe you should title your album Paul Vickers and The Leg: The Constipation Years.

PAUL: Well, when all these things come out of the blocked pipe at once, it’s gonna be messy. There will be a danger of getting lost in the sludge… Either the sludge will create a kind of social ecstasy with all these brilliant things all happening at once… or, more likely, most of it will just get completely ignored and people will move on to the next thing.

JOHN: If these Lockdowns continue for another year, what on earth are you going to do? You’ll be so creatively frustrated.

DAN: We’ll probably just carry on writing stuff for when the time comes…

Dan’s fireplace includes a lion in the bedroom

PAUL: You should see Dan’s fireplace. He had a dream where a lion came into his bedroom and…

DAN: That was it. That was it. A lion coming into a bedroom.

(LOUD LAUGHS)

PAUL: I’ll send you some pictures of Dan’s fireplace… There’s no deadline for posting this blog, because… well… nothing’s happening…

(LOUD LAUGHS)

…and I’ll send you a link to our Bandcamp page – and Dan and I will do you an acoustic lockdown fireside version of Slow Runs the Fox from Winter at Butterfly Lake.

 

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