Tag Archives: creativity

People are hypnotised by complexity and they confuse novelty with creativity

Dave Trott

Dave Trott gave his lecture today at the LSE

Stealing ideas is not always necessarily wrong.

Well, not stealing exactly. More like borrowing.

While giving credit where credit is due.

Well, that’s what I tell myself.

Which is my lead-in to quoting part of the fascinating lecture I attended today at the London School of Economics.

The lecture was titled One Plus One Equals Three: A Masterclass in Creative Thinking and was given by advertising man Dave Trott, who co-founded three major ad agencies – Gold Greenlees Trott, Bainsfair Sharkey Trott and Walsh Trott Chick Smith.

He was part of the creative team behind the ads Allo Tosh, Got a Toshiba?… Holsten Pils refreshes the parts other beers can not reach… Ariston and on and on… and the Cadbury Flake ads.

I can do no better that quote his introduction to the lecture.


What I’m going to talk about is specifically creativity in advertising, but it’s creativity which works wherever you find it. Edward de Bono, the man who invented lateral thinking, said: There are a lot of people calling themselves creative who are actually mere stylists.

Real creativity isn’t what you call creativity. Real creativity isn’t in art galleries. Real creativity isn’t in design museums or copywriters or what they call creative departments. Real creativity is a function of how you do your job in a surprising manner. Real creativity looks really obvious after you see it, but you couldn’t see it coming beforehand; you couldn’t get there logically.

As Edward De Bono said: Most people can’t tell the difference between style and creativity…

What’s happened to British creativity is it’s become hypnotised by complexity. Everybody’s confusing novelty with creativity.

If it’s new – if it’s a new app, if it’s a new piece of technology, a new piece of kit, a new way of doing animation – it must be creative. 

Well, no, usually it isn’t. That’s shopping, That’s fashion. That’s not creativity.

Creativity is looking at something everybody else has looked at and seeing something nobody else has seen. I saw it described as:

A talent can hit a target that everybody else can see. Genius can hit a target no-one else can see.


413FmdXiWtL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_Dave Trott was giving the lecture to publicise his new book One Plus One Equals Three: A Masterclass in Creative Thinking.

I do not know Dave Trott.

I have not read his book.

But, on the basis of his lecture today, I suspect it is exceptional.

He also writes a blog.

There’s a lot of that about.

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Filed under Ad industry, Creativity

More advice to performers and other creative people and some plagiarism

SlaughterhouseFive-still

I stole the title of this blog: SO IT GOES.

Someone sent me a Facebook message this morning asking: “Is the origin of So It Goes down to Kurt Vonnegut? Or is it a reference to something wider?”

I told him it is solely down to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and my inherent nihilism.

He told me: “I read Slaughterhouse-Five recently and it just looked like something plugging your blog.”

According to Wikipedia – so it must be true – the refrain So it goes appears 106 times in Slaughterhouse-Five.

In yesterday’s blog, I stole another idea.

I wrote: Realise that no-one KNOWS anything.

This is actually a variation on William Goldman’s refrain “Nobody knows anything” – a refrain which Wikipedia correctly says “is repeated throughout” Goldman’s iconic book Adventures in the Screen Trade.

I often rattled on about it in much earlier previous blogs. It is often mis-emphasised as meaning everyone is ignorant – Nobody knows ANYTHING. But, in fact, it means Nobody KNOWS anything for sure in the creative process.

However experienced, intelligent and brilliant someone is, nobody knows for sure what will be a commercial – or even an ultimately critical – success.

When Michael Cimino was making his movie Heaven’s Gate, everyone assumed it would be a box-office success. It had all the ingredients for mega-success. But it was a disaster. It pretty much financially destroyed United Artists.

According to Wikipedia – so it must be true – it cost $44 million to make and got back $3.5 million at the box office.

When Kevin Costner was making Dances With Wolves ten years later, it was nicknamed Kevin’s Gate in Hollywood, because it was clearly a vanity project with no hope of commercial success – it was, for godsake, mostly in the Native American Lakota language.

It was a big critical and box office success. It cost $22 million to create and took $424.2 million at the box office.

The Blair Witch Project was made on a shoestring with inexperienced actors, producers, writers and directors and was shot shoddily. It was a vast financial success. It cost $22,500 to make and took $248.6 million at the box office.

Nobody KNOWS anything.

It’s a Wonderful Life – now usually high up any Best Movie Ever Made list when voted for by the public – was pretty-much director Frank Capra’s only critical and box office failure.

J.K.Rowling hawked the idea for her Harry Potter books round every big-time publisher in London and was turned down by them all. Quite rightly. No modern teenage boy (and certainly no teenage girl) is ever going to buy one book – let alone seven – about some nerdy suburban boy going to a witches and wizards school. And, if you think any adult would buy even one copy, you are out of your mind.

My point being: Nobody KNOWS anything.

My point being: Creating a work of art is not a science. The clue is in the name. It is an art.

My point being: Nobody can know for sure what will be a success critically or commercially – Not now. Not in the future.

Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime, because everyone thought his paintings were crap.

Of course, in his case, they were and are crap.

But that’s only my opinion.

Which, as you may have noticed, is my point.

Nobody KNOWS anything.

Because there are no rules. Only taste. Which is personal. And which can and does change from generation to generation.

My point being… exactly the same as it was in yesterday’s blog.

Do what you think is right.

And tell everyone else to fuck off.

If you take my advice, though, remember…

Nobody KNOWS anything.

That might include me.

It might include you.

You can’t be sure.

You just have to go with your gut instinct and keep calm and carry on.

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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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Filed under Art, Books, Comedy, Mental health, Mental illness, Writing

Comic Chris Dangerfield in Thailand has not taken heroin for twelve days

Chris Dangerfield photographed in Thailand last month

Chris Dangerfield shot in Thailand last month

Comedian Chris Dangerfield has made no secret of his heroin problem when I have chatted to him previously in this blog. He is currently in Thailand ‘getting clean’. I talked to him via Skype this morning.

“So,” I asked, “are you Mr Clean now?”

“Well,” he told me, “I’ve been off the smack for 12 days.”

“That’s good,” I said.

“It’s fucking horrific,” said Chris. “I used to do this for a laugh. Even the withdrawals used to be quite good fun. But I’m 42 in three weeks time and I just shit the bed and puked rivers of dayglo yellow puke till it was about an inch deep in the whole room and I didn’t have the strength to move and then it went under the door and ran down the stairs and then the bloke who runs this place came in and said: Yeah, this needs cleaning up.

“I’ve come over to this place three times now. They know what I’m going through and are kinda used to it. I’m over the worst but Jesus, man, I just worked out this time I didn’t sleep for nine days. That’s a long time to not sleep when your mind’s racing.

“I used to think I hated myself and that was the core of my problem, but it’s actually a bit worse than that. I think I’m indifferent to myself. Love is not opposed to hate. Love is opposed to indifference.

“If I hated myself, I’d have a real engagement in myself. I’d be engaged in myself as much as I would if I loved myself. But it ain’t that. I just don’t really give a shit. I quite like doing a few things, but this thing Life – I’m just not that into it. Sometimes I just prefer taking drugs to doing anything else.”

“But,” I said, “last time I talked to you when you were off smack, you told me how wonderful it was to be off, how clear everything was.”

“To be honest,” said Chris, “I’m not sure I was off then.”

“When you’re on,” I suggested, “you’re not thinking clearly.”

Chris talking to me on Skype this morning

Chris talking to me via Skype this morning

“It’s wonderful to be off when you’re on,” laughed Chris. “Every interview we’ve done over the last couple of years, pretty much, I don’t remember. I read it a few days later and I think Wow! That’s quite an interesting bloke. I like him.

“There you are,” I suggested. “When you talk about yourself, you’re an interesting bloke.”

“Exactly!” said Chris. “I had five years… No four years… I’m such a good liar to myself… It’s not a lie if you believe it, is it?… I had a few years clean and I done what I had to do and went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings and it was fucking dull, man. It was a hard time – What do you do? – Fuck women and eat cakes. In meetings, I find I just exaggerate my story to fit in with their version of my events.”

“But you’re actually very entrepreneurial,” I said. “Your lock-picking business is doing really well, isn’t it?”

“It’s making millions,” said Chris, “but that’s because I was doing a gram a day of Burmese No 4 and that shit don’t come cheap. The thing is, now I’m clean, I can’t be arsed to work. What do I want money for? It means nothing to me.

The table in Chris room in Thailand last month

The table in Chris’ room in Thailand photographed last month

“I’m being honest with you. The last two years, I turned over £4 million on my lock business – because I needed it. I was using a gram a day intravenously. That’s expensive gear. Now I’m not, I need money for rent and a bit of food, but what else do I want? I’ve got no other pleasures in life.”

“But,” I argued, “if you need fewer things, you need less money so you can work less and you can…”

“But there’s no reward!” interrupted Chris. “There’s no target. When I’m using, I wake up in the morning and I’m shaking and it’s like Man, you have to find £200 pronto! and then you’ve gotta find a score and then you go out and then you’re on the estates and you’re causing trouble, you’re running from the police, you’re having fights and I know that’s all bullshit but, without that, what have I got? I don’t know what I like doing.”

“You’re a creative person,” I said. “You write shows. Your aim is to make yourself a bigger name in…”

“How ugly is that?” Chris interrupted. “You just said to me: Put down the drugs and you can have ambition! – I’ll take the drugs over ambition all day long.”

“It’s not about ambition,” I said. “It’s about creativity, about creating something that other people can…”

“No it’s not!” said Chris. “It’s ego-driven nonsense! – I sit in my flat writing novels; that’s creativity. Standing up in front of people going Oooooh-oooooh! Aren’t I funny! – that’s just my ego going Feed me! Feed me! – I hate it.”

“So you can sit in your flat and write novels,” I said.

“Yeah, about me taking drugs,” said Chris.

“Which other people,” I said, “may read and which, for them, may be life-changing. When Janey Godley wrote her autobiography, she got literally hundreds of messages from people saying how it had changed their lives because they’d realised they weren’t alone and how they could survive just as she had.”

“And Janey’s a fantastic woman,” said Chris.

I’ve read Junkie, I’ve read Queer, I’ve read The Naked Lunch. None of it’s real! It’s bullshit.

Chris Dangerfield photographed in Thailand last month: “It’s all bullshit, John. I’ve read Junkie, I’ve read Queer, I’ve read The Naked Lunch. None of it is real! It’s bullshit.”

“There’s William Burroughs,” I said.

“It’s all bullshit, John!” said Chris. “I’ve read Junkie, I’ve read Queer, I’ve read The Naked Lunch. None of it is real! It’s bullshit.”

“Well,” I said, “yours won’t be.”

“Well I dunno if that’s a fair exchange,” said Chris. “I dunno whether swapping drugs for ambition… Ambition is an ugly thing…”

“Being on stage might be ambition,” I said. “But writing novels is not necessarily ambition. It can be art.”

“Yeah,” said Chris, “but there’s the bit about people reading it, which means publishing, which is ambitious.”

“Am I awful for posting a blog?” I asked.

“Yeah, but I’m not you, John,” argued Chris. “You got humility.”

“But you can’t” I said, “claim I’ve got humility AND publishing something is ego.”

“I’m not talking about you,” said Chris, “I’m talking about me.”

“So why am I writing the blog?” I asked. “And why is that a bad thing?”

“I’m talking about my world,” said Chris.

“Well,” I argued, “if you wrote a blog, would that be a bad thing?”

“I tried writing a blog. It was bad,” said Chris, wriggling. “It was about a football player.”

“That’s not a blog, that’s a novel,” I said.

There was a long silence. Then Chris laughed. Then he said:

“Anyway…”

“If you create something,” I said, “that’s not necessarily bad. If you want to be famous for creating something, that might possibly be bad. But the actual act of creating something isn’t bad. Creating a beautiful painting isn’t bad in itself.”

“You’re right,” said Chris, “but what is different here is that YOU don’t involve yourself with performing.”

“Performance can be a bit egotistical,” I said, “but the writing of a play isn’t bad. There’s nothing wrong with ego provided it doesn’t hurt other people. If, by boosting your ego, you’re actually helping other people… Janey Godley performs and I know other people have been helped by watching her performances.”

Sex Tourist poster

Chris’ 2012 show at the Edinburgh Fringe

“In this year’s Edinburgh Fringe show,” said Chris, “I’ve tried to be a little bit more humble.”

“Has it still got the same title you told me last year?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Chris. “You can publish it now.”

“You say the title?” I asked.

Sex With Children,” said Chris.

“This possibly isn’t a life-affirming title,” I said.

“It’s not a play on words,” said Chris. “Make that clear. It’s about fucking kids.”

… CONTINUED HERE

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Filed under Comedy, Drugs

How to badly interview a good geek self-help guru, techno-nerd and ‘creatin’

Leila Johnston yesterday – often interrupted

Rule One of interviewing someone. Do not interrupt them with your own ideas.

In December 2011, I wrote a blog asking Leila Johnston what she actually does.

Yesterday, I met her in the main street in Borehamwood and asked her again. The answer seems to be Everything. She is certainly not boring yet, despite this, she is going to be talking at an up-coming Boring Conference about living in Greenock and having IBM posters on her bedroom wall when she was six years old.

Next month, she will be talking about Making Things Fast to BBC Radio staff at Broadcasting House in London… “I’m trying to cast myself as a sort of geek self-help guru,” she tells me. “It’s a kind of modern motivational talk.

“Also in November, I’ll be doing the same talk for a thing called The Monday Club run by someone from The Idler… and I’m hosting a panel of computer art pioneers from the 1960s at the Site Gallery in Sheffield… and I’m doing an investigation into people’s ghostly experiences for Den of Geek‘s Den of Eek night… and I’ve been asked to come up with a data art installation for a wall in an office at Broadcasting House… but, In December, I don’t plan on doing anything except maybe getting a dog for my new semi-rural lifestyle. And sending out lots of pitches, of course. And editing The Literary Platform. And working with a magician and illusionist.”

Leila’s reference to her “new semi-rural lifestyle” is because, just over six months ago, she went up to Sheffield for three months to work on The Happenstance Project which aims to insert people from the world of technology into arts organisations.

“There are three participating art galleries,” she told me yesterday, “and I was put in the one in Sheffield. It was a residency. Like an artist-in-residence.”

“A nerd-in-residence,” I suggested.

“Yeah,” Leila laughed. “There was a lot of debate about the word ‘technologist’…”

“Is that what you are?” I asked. “A technologist?”

“Well, that’s part of the way I cast myself, I suppose,” she answered.

“Really, though,” I said, “you’re half-and-half. You’re an arty writer and a nerdy geek.”

“There’s a phrase being used at the moment,” Leila told me. “A ‘creative technologist’. Which is quite a nice thing to be, because it implies you’re given a bit of freedom to invent stuff.”

“Some new word will be created,” I said. “A ‘Creatologist’ maybe, though that makes it sound like you don’t believe in Darwinian evolution.”

“A creatin, perhaps,” laughed Leila. “Maybe I’m a creatin. It’s only in the last year or two that people have accepted there are people like me who can help bring arts into a digital era, because a lot of arts organisations are still working in really archaic, inefficient ways. They don’t really know anything about the possibilities of technology. There’s a whole world of creative tools they don’t really understand.”

“Every art gallery could have the Mona Lisa on their walls,” I suggested.

Leila laughed. “You can’t get very close to the real thing anyway,” she said.

“You could have 3D printed, 18-squillion pixel versions on the walls of different galleries around the world,” I suggested.

“You could recreate the whole Louvre,” said Leila, not exactly convinced.

“Duplicate the Getty Art Collection in Los Angeles around the world,” I suggested.

“Make every art gallery into a sort-of super-villain’s lair,” laughed Leila.

“It could be sponsored,” I suggested. “The walls of every Tesco could be like the Louvre… Capitalism at work.”

“Mmmm…” said Leila.

“When I walked round Moscow under Communism,” I said. “It was dull. Lots of posters and banners, but all the same. Art which might have been cutting-edge in 1917 but wasn’t now. Everything had stagnated. It was a literally decadent society. Not colourful. It was all red, white and grey. The buildings were grey; the street art was red-and-white. In medieval times, the Medicis sponsored the best creative artists and they took months or years to make pieces of art which were stuck on one wall in one building forever. Nowadays, in the West, advertising agencies pay the best visual artists and the most creative minds bundles of money to work for them. So, walking round the streets, when you’re waiting for a train in the tube, when you’re watching TV, you’re surrounded by constantly-changing, highly-creative advertising art. It’s like you’re living in a constantly changing art gallery. Capitalism at its best.”

This, you see, is a perfect example of how not to conduct an interview… to give your own opinions instead of finding out the other person’s.

“Mmmm…” said Leila. “Interesting.”

“Not really,” I admitted.

“Mmmm…” said Leila.

“I don’t think I realised you were managing editor of The Literary Platform,” I said, trying to get back on course.

“Well,” said Leila, “after Happenstance, which was a three-month thing, I decided to stay in Sheffield because I liked it so much and one thing I got involved in was The Literary Platform. It’s a website which showcases projects involving new technology and storytelling. If somebody’s made an amazing iPad app that is somehow interactive and you can tell a story… or there’s something about the future of reading and eBooks… things like that. It’s got a business side and a creative side, but my own posts are all about the creative side. I’m always looking for new projects to showcase and people to feature.”

“Such as?” I asked.

“There’s a guy I’ve just interviewed,” Leila told me, “who is going to (the late Poet Laureate) Ted Hughes’ house for a few days and he’s going to be filmed with a web cam and just write whatever anyone asks him to.”

“Cheques?” I suggested.

“Well,” Leila said, “like Write me some copy for my website… Write me a story about this… People can send in suggestions and he will have to write whatever anyone wants and it’s for charity. Good, but a bit weird. Closing himself off in this house on his own.”

“It’s like he’s trying to be the David Blaine of writing,” I suggested. “What did you study at university?”

“History of Art,” Leila told me. “And then English for my Masters.”

“So you’re writing letters as two Victorian ladies…” I prompted randomly.

“Yes, we’re doing it with SAEs,” Leila explained. “I’ve got two digital receipt printers which are connected to the internet – so they’re like fax machines – and me and my friend Tim, who I write loads of things with, are writing letters to each other as characters called Elspeth and Lottie. They are like Victorian ladies who happen to own these electronic printers and all they write about are their friends who are in long-running 20th century TV shows.”

“And you have written an interactive opera about the Minotaur,” I said, changing the subject. “Minotaur! – The Moosical.”

“It’s quite nerdy,” Leila said. “It’s a rock opera.”

“…as opposed to some fat Italian woman screeching?” I asked.

“Exactly,” agreed Leila. “It’s not an opera at all and some of the songs are quite Elvis/rock ‘n’ roll. But it’s geeky, it’s about hacking, radiation, a big maze, a heartbreaking love story between the Minotaur and Pandora who’s a woman afflicted with a curse of emitting toxic force fields so people can’t get close to her. Then there’s Theseus, who wants to marry Pandora. We’ve written quite a lot of songs and some music because we’re not musicians, but we might do it with puppets.”

“Where might this be put on?” I asked.

“If we can figure out a way of recording and playing the songs, then we might be able to do something at a geeky comedy night.”

“You should put it on at the Edinburgh Fringe,” I suggested, “and stream it on the internet, if you can figure out some way of charging 1p or 2p per view.”

“Have you seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall?” Leila asked.

“No,” I replied.

“It’s really funny,” said Leila. “The Jason Segal character’s dream is to put on a tragic puppet musical about Dracula using the ‘Count’ character from The Muppets.”

“If you can get the bloke who did the giant puppet for War Horse,” I said, “you could do it at the National Theatre.”

“Somebody I know said he might be able to get it on Radio 3,” Leila said, “but my hit rate with producers is… They tend to get busy on other things or they leave their job…”

“Why are you thinking of radio?” I asked. “As a pilot for a TV show?”

“No,” said Leila, “just to get something made. In itself. Maybe it could lead to something else.”

“You work for a magician,” I said. “Do you want to talk about what you do for him?”

“No,” said Leila.

“Did I tell you I’ve been to North Korea?” I asked.

“Ah…” said Leila.

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Filed under Computers, Humor, Humour, Internet, Technology, Writing

Mad inventor John Ward, creator of comedy awards + friend of hungry birds

John Ward’s sonic attack bottle

On my way back down from Scotland to London, I stopped off in Lincolnshire to see mad inventor John Ward, who designed and made the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards for me. We went into his back garden and there were two long bamboo canes sticking out of the grass, with large, upside-down plastic bottles on them.

“What on earth are the bottles for?” I asked.

“Moles,” he said starkly. “We had three moles digging up our lawn earlier this week. If you put a stick or a cane with an empty plastic pop bottle in the grass where the mole’s dug, then the wind rattles the bottle. Moles are blind, but their hearing is phenomenally sensitive, so it buggers up their ears. We had three moles earlier this week. I put those two bottles up the other night and we haven’t seen them again.

“You can buy expensive, sophisticated sonic devices to deter moles, but an empty plastic Coca Cola bottle stuck upside down on a garden cane is cheaper and just the same.”

We were really in John’s back garden, though, to see his new bird table, a large metal structure with holes in it.

“What’s it made from?” I asked.

John Ward’s bird table has radar and a Dalek sink plunger

“It’s the interior of a central heating oil tank,” John told me. “We couldn’t put oil in it any more because it had cracks and splits. It was going to be dumped, but I was in my re-cycling mode, so I looked at it and thought it would make a bird table.

“We’ve had schoolkids come along and sketch it for their art class because – well – it’s something different, I suppose. Drawing farmhouses, rivers and trees must pale after a while. And we had a couple come through on a tandem: I say, the man said, do you mind if we come through and take a photograph of your bird table? Then the Daily Mail came along to take a picture of it and then there was Rory, the man from the Discovery Channel.

“The first version I built was smaller scale and when the wind hit it, over it went. So this one has large holes in and instead of acting as a wind break it becomes, in effect, a sieve. The wind zaps through the holes and stabilises it.”

John used to call himself a “junkist” – because he makes things from junk.

“When people talk about re-cycling,” he explains, “they usually think of something ornamental – something you re-paint and stick in an art exhibition. I like to think of more practical things.”

Bird table with cat-scaring holes and interior restaurant area

“Do the birds like your bird table?” I asked.

“Well,” he replied, “we’ve had 18 birds in it pecking away at same time and, when that happened, there were about 7 or 8 others on top waiting to get inside.”

“And your cat?” I asked. “What does your cat think of the bird table?”

“Can’t get up to it,” he said. “It has smooth legs.”

“The cat?”

“The bird table. Nothing to grip on to. Our cat leaps up in the air but can’t get in. And, normally, in a rural area like this, rats would go up and in and help themselves to the food too. But, with this thing, underneath, it’s perfectly smooth and flat, so they have nothing to grip on to.”

“Why doesn’t the cat just leap in the air and jump onto the platform?” I asked.

“The holes put it off,” John told me. “The cat jumps up, its paw stretches out, but the birds fly off or just sit and look, laughing at the cat. It’s like Sylvester and Tweety. And the cat’s getting a bit old plus it’s heavier than what it was. It jumps up and plops down with a frustrated, slightly angry look on its face. You’ve not seen my World War Two landing strip, have you?”

John Ward’s World War Two bird landing strip (with bath)

“Not that I remember,” I said, “and I would probably have remembered if I had.”

“I’ll get the key and show you,” he said. “It’s in the shed.”

“I like cats,” I said.

“The cat’s not in the shed,” John said.

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Filed under Birds, Creativity, Eccentrics, Humor, Humour, Inventions, Lateral thinking

TV success or total creative satisfaction? The eternal choice facing comedians.

Creative excess or compromised, homogenised TV success?

My blog yesterday was about when performers should just give up because they are not going to ‘make it’.

Someone criticised me for apparently setting the choice up as: Appear on TV or fail.

That is not quite the situation, but it is, alas, very close to it.

It depends on your definition of ’success’.

To make money, to be really successful, you currently pretty-much have to do TV. (The internet may enter more into the equation at a later date.)

Of course, creative and aesthetic success is not the same as making lots of money. But, if you are the greatest artist/creator/performer in the world and no-one sees what you do, then there is little point in doing it – you are doing it for yourself. Making money is a sign of acceptance and appreciation by a large section of the population.

But, when I go to the Edinburgh Fringe, I tend not to see the already-famous, already highly-financially-successful acts because I prefer to find what I perceive as more ‘original’ acts. To get any form of mainstream success, I think you have to homogenise your act to some extent and lose some of the unpredictable originality.

I am not saying that is a good or a bad thing. I just happen to prefer to see less well-known acts. I am prepared to plough through 90% mud to find a diamond rather than watch perfection in plastic. And, to an extent, you learn more watching imperfect shows than perfect homogenised shows.

I was recently in North Korea, where the level of stage and event professionalism makes shows on Broadway, in Las Vegas and in London’s West End look like amateur night at the village hall. But – hey! – I could not face seeing those OTT North Korean mega-shows too often…

For the British comedian, struggling to eke out a living and get more than three people to come to his/her show, television is the Holy Grail. And it is simple mathematics.

If you do a shit TV series that is an appalling, disastrous failure and “gets no ratings”, that means it may be getting 300,000 viewers. That is no audience at all in TV terms. But, to be seen by that number of people in sold-out 100 or 150-seater venues would take forever and have less impact.

If you play the Edinburgh Fringe for 29 nights and sell out your 100-seater venue every night, that is a massive success in Fringe terms, but it is only 2,900 people over the course of a month compared to 300,000 people in one night on a failed TV show. And those 300,000 people are possibly seeing you in each of six episodes of the TV show and are more likely to pay to see you live and to buy your DVDs…

If you appear on a successful TV series, you may get 5 million viewers or top-of-the-range 9 million viewers in one night. If only 1% of them like you, that is 50,000 or 90,000 people as opposed to 2,900 in a smash-hit, month-long Edinburgh Fringe show. If only 50% of the TV show’s audience like you, it is 2.5 million or 4.5 million new fans aware of you, possibly in a single night. And, of course, in actual awareness terms, it is 5 million or 9 million who have suddenly seen you ‘selling’ your ‘product’.

The best thing Michael McIntyre ever did in career terms was go on Britain’s Got Talent as a judge. He was already well-known by live comedy fans and TV comedy fans, but Britain’s Got Talent has phenomenal ratings across the board.

TV creates wider awareness.

But getting a TV break, of course, is well-nigh impossible – especially if you are a truly original act.

You have to be able to replicate the act for the TV director or, at least, make a good stab at it. On a big show, the director is maybe going to see the act rehearse twice in the afternoon and then shoot the show in the evening. In the rehearsals, he needs to see where the pauses are, where the glances are.

So, if you have an only-average comedian who performs a set script, who can do the words and pauses exactly the same then – to a lot of TV directors and producers – that is preferable to a really, really original act which is totally unpredictable. And, if the only-average act’s material runs to the same duration within 5 seconds every time it is delivered, then Christmas, New Year, the director’s 18th birthday and the Royal Jubilee have all come together.

A not-utterly-brilliant, not-utterly-original but OK act that is dependable is ‘better’ for TV than an utterly original, unpredictable act that is not going to be the same every single time it’s done.

With TV shows, you are talking about large amounts of money, even on the cheap ones. And, if you are talking about a peaktime show on BBC1 or ITV1 – which is where the large audiences are – you are talking serious, serious money. You cannot waste it by risking it on people who are brilliant only 60% or even 75% of the time.

Some acts – maybe not the best acts – CAN deliver good dependable performances and acceptable material 100% or 98% of the time.

You can edit an act’s material in theory but, with some of the best, most original, most unpredictable acts, it is very difficult to edit out material and keep up the TV pace.

Televised performances tend to need a faster pace than stage performances because there is no ‘atmosphere’ as such. In a live show, you can feel the atmosphere in the air. The adrenaline in the air keeps you ‘high’. On TV, the ‘atmosphere’ that keeps you ‘high’ on interest and excitement is artificially created by the timing of the visual cuts and the mixing of the sound from various microphones.

I know one comedian who has been on TV a fair amount, but he is never likely to become a major star in his own show, or even headline a big show, because he does not know, even when he starts to perform, exactly what he will say. If you give him a script, he may diverge from it.

I can think of another act who has perhaps four or five hours of comedy material which they use all the time – with occasional new additions and lots of reactions to the audience – but the stage show is never the same twice.

And another act – sublimely brilliant – where there may be ‘headings’ in the person’s brain, but it is totally ad-libbed.

Those last two acts would make great TV presenters on pre-recorded shows – presenting their own documentaries, for example, where a strong personality would dominate – but neither tells brief punchlined gags. They are not stand-up comedians in TV terms.

A TV stand-up comedian is someone who can deliver two minutes to camera. Or someone who can be on a panel show delivering some pre-scripted lines and perhaps ad-libbing one or two short sentences in a sequence. Brief. Succinct. With a traditional punch-line every time. Guaranteed laugh-laugh-laugh material.

Being a personality-based comedian is great on some TV shows, but not for stand-up comedy shows. TV wants sound-bites. It wants sequences which can be edited to fit into a greater jigsaw.

Comedians who are brilliant at long-form storytelling have no real outlet on TV at the moment.

There is one comedian who always gets amazing reviews. Amazingly-stonking reviews. You could die happy if you got even one of those reviews. You could not write better reviews for yourself. And, I think, a lot of other acts do not understand why this person gets those reviews because they have only seen bits-and-pieces of this particular act.

At 5 minutes, the act is nothing special, because they’re not a gag-based act. They’re not Jimmy Carr or Milton Jones or Tim Vine (all of whom are superbly creatively successful in the gag-based comedy genre which TV requires).

At 20 minutes, the act is fine. But doesn’t stand out totally from other acts.

At 30 minutes in length, it’s better.

At 60 minutes or 90 minutes or 120 minutes it is amazing. Utterly brilliant.

But this is not an act which can be shoe-horned into Live at The Apollo.

It would work on a chat show or if the person were used as a presenter, because it is a personality-based act. But, because it is not a gag-based act and cannot be chopped in the editing process, it is not an act which can really be screened as part of a show with multiple comedians in it.

To get a useful TV break, by and large, comedians with true originality have to compromise. To a certain extent, they have to choose between lots and lots of money by appealing to a wide TV audience… or being able to do totally original stuff on stage (but not on TV) with quite a high risk of failure.

There is an act, famous on the circuit and among fans of alternative comedy but unknown by the woman standing in a bus queue in Leamington Spa.

This performer’s act used to contain maybe 5% of extraordinary, near-genius originality. But there was often 40% that did not work at all, 40% that was average and 15% that was quite good. I liked seeing the act. But that sort of act would never get on TV because it has 80% of nothing exceptional, 15% of sort-of-so-so-OK material and 5% of really good stuff.

That particular comic has evened the act out a bit more now: maybe 85% is good and 15% is average.; occasionally maybe 1% of near-genius peeps through. So he has much more likelihood of getting TV success. But I preferred watching the old act where you got 5% of amazing near-genius with 40% of stuff that didn’t work at all..

To be cynical, it is a choice between compromised financial comfort with the added bonus of ego satisfaction… and creative satisfaction over something which is likely to be widely unseen and unknown by audiences.

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Filed under Celebrity, Comedy, Television