Tag Archives: depression

Depression is a funny thing…

(Photograph by Kat Love via UnSplash)

I’ve been through – before the pandemic – in fact, last century – I’ve been through that odd phase of not leaving the house and leaving my curtains closed all day.

I also went through a phase of not opening mail for a week or so. This was strangely like the English comedian Malcolm Hardee – a man never visibly depressed. He once told me that he would randomly throw some mail away, unopened, not knowing who had sent it nor how important it was. 

At least I opened mine eventually.

Now I open my mail as soon as it arrives and I keep my curtains open during the day.

I don’t open my windows, of course.

I was partly brought up at a very impressionable age in a council flat on a hill in Aberdeen, Scotland.

If you opened the window fully there, you would have frozen to death.

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Comic Laura Lexx – a comedian/writer who could be on the cusp of success…

The last time comic writer and performer Laura Lexx was in this blog was back in July 2015 when she was about to stage her first solo Edinburgh Fringe show.

Laura Lexx, when last espied in this blog in 2015…

This week, she will be starting the run of her fourth solo Fringe show Knee Jerk at the Gilded Balloon venue.

I think her career turned an important corner with her appearance on BBC TV’s Live at the Apollo show last Christmas. So I asked her about it.


“London is probably the place I gig least” (Photograph by Karla Gowlett)

JOHN: Success is strange in comedy…

LAURA: Yes, it’s weird. You look at someone and think: Well, they seem to be doing very well, yet no-one’s ever heard of them. But they’re doing a 110-date UK tour, so people HAVE heard of them, yet TV isn’t… it isn’t doing… Well we still have TV held up as ‘the thing’ and actually maybe it isn’t ‘the thing’ any more.

JOHN: People say the live comedy ‘circuit’ is dying.

LAURA: Shut up! No it isn’t! I gig six nights a week quite happily all round the country – there are loads of gigs everywhere; there just aren’t the big chains of gigs (like Jongleurs) any more. You have to know lots of individuals and get on with it. London is probably the place I gig least.

JOHN: Really? Why?

LAURA: It pays absolute dogshit. Apart from the Comedy Store, I don’t think I know a single other London club that pays more than £200 a night.

JOHN: Whereas, if you play, say, up North…?

LAURA: Yeah… £250, £240, £220.

JOHN: With accommodation?

LAURA: Sometimes, yeah.

JOHN: Transport?

LAURA: Not usually.

JOHN: Your Live at the Apollo appearance must have got you loads of online hits and a higher profile.

LAURA: Kinda. It did. But I got way more general public interest and followers from doing Ouch on BBC Sounds because of my set on mental health.

JOHN: Why?

LAURA: I think because all the stuff I did on mental health and more niche topics at the Apollo recording got edited-out of the final cut. You do 20 minutes and they edit it down to around 8. What was left was a funny but mainstream thing which didn’t have much shareable viability online.

Whereas the stuff I did on Ouch about not having children and climate change and eco-anxiety did have shareability online and I picked up thousands of followers from that.

JOHN: So a niche subject actually got you greater hits than a mainstream TV show.

LAURA: Yeah. I guess cos there’s less of it and you’re maybe saying something people haven’t heard before.

JOHN: And, of course, on the Apollo show, all the niche stuff was quite reasonably edited out. It’s a mainstream show and…

Live at the Apollo – the Christmas Special show, 2018, with (L-R) Gary Delaney, Sarah Millican, Laura Lexx and Ahir Shah

LAURA: Why reasonably, though? It was just as funny as the other stuff. It just happened to be on the night Ahir Shah also had a joke about anti-depressants and you couldn’t really have two comedians on (LAUGHS) the Christmas Special going on about anti-depressants. Which is OK. That’s up to the producers. It was not like they were censoring talk on mental health. We just both happened to cover it.

JOHN: It’s a very mainstream programme.

LAURA: But depression is mainstream. Lots of people have depression, so why not talk about it?

JOHN: It’s a bit depressing.

LAURA: Not if you’re doing it in comedy.

JOHN: I think you are maybe at a turning point in your career.

LAURA: Well, most of the general public have no idea who I am, so I can turn up at a comedy club at a weekend and be ‘surprisingly’ good. But now people in the industry know who I am, so I can do the things I want to do more easily and get booked in the gigs I want to be booked on. And pitching ideas is much easier now… And I think I’ve learned to be cleverer with that.

JOHN: How does one get to be a successful pitcher?

LAURA: Well, I haven’t had any success yet but I think what I’ve learned is to go to the Edinburgh Fringe already having written the stuff that people are going to want off the back of my show.

“Feminism, innit, John. It’s huge” (Photograph by Karla Gowlett)

Every time you do an Edinburgh Fringe show in August, you sit down in meetings in September and they say: “Oh, we liked that theme. We would like an outline for a thing on that theme”… and, by the time you have written that outline, they have changed jobs and gone somewhere else.

JOHN: Whereas, this year…?

LAURA: I have a big set-piece about netball and I have already written a show about netball.

JOHN: Why netball?

LAURA: Feminism, innit, John… It’s huge at the moment.

JOHN: Is it?

LAURA: Yes. The Netball World Cup.

JOHN: How do you make a netball show funny?

LAURA: Anything can be funny. You just need a vehicle to add funny characters to. So why not a netball team?

JOHN: So you have that eternal ambition of comics: to eventually write a sitcom?

LAURA: I’ve already done it. I’ve written one; I’m starting my second one; and I’m pitching a couple of… I have one entertainment magazine show project that I think might be on the verge of being optioned. And another idea I’m really only at the research end of, which is… (DETAILS CENSORED IN CASE SOMEONE STEALS THE IDEA!). I also have an idea for a podcast…

JOHN: There’s no money in them…

LAURA: No, but they’re really good for exposure and then you sell off the back of it. Podcasts are a massive way to boost your popularity. My idea is… (IDEA CENSORED AGAIN, TO PROTECT IT!)

JOHN: There’s a lot of politics around at the moment: Brexit and all. You told me your new Fringe show Knee Jerk is a bit political.

Knee Jerk – Laura road-tested her new comedy show before its Fringe run at the Gilded Balloon

LAURA: I’m not trying to be political like the ins-and-outs of politicians; I’m trying to be political in terms of people’s behaviour to each other, which is what I’m interested in. The general premise of the show is I want to deal with climate change and I feel climate change should be our priority as a species and as a nation and it feels like we are at what is hopefully more a death rattle than a resurgence of a lot of divisive stuff between the general public.

JOHN: Doesn’t everyone agree climate change is a bad thing?

LAURA: But who’s dealing with it properly? If a human army was invading, we would have a million measures in place. Here, we’re vaguely going: “Oh, we’ve asked this company to maybe try and do this by 2028… if they can…” And then we fail on all the targets.

JOHN: You are odd in that you’re a good stand-up AND a good MC. They are often different mindsets.

LAURA: Well, I think they’re two different jobs and I quite like them both.

JOHN: There is that cliché of a punter saying to an MC after the gig has finished: “You should try doing stand-up comedy yourself.”

LAURA: Oh God! That happened all the time! That’s why I stopped MCing as much as I was. For a while, I was MCing for maybe 80% of my gigs. I just maybe got a bit frustrated by not being able to do my act. I had all these new bits of material I wanted to get out of the box and play with and, as an MC, I couldn’t really. So I pared it back a bit and now I’m a lot happier and I think I’m a better MC for not doing it all the time.

I like gigging and writing stuff. I’m a club comic that has smashed Edinburgh too. (LAUGHS) So give me my own television show, already!… I might have a sandwich now. Do you want a sandwich?

…Laura’s new 2019 Edinburgh Fringe show…

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Ricky Gervais – “I haven’t really watched comedy for two years”

“Live long enough to punish the world…”

A couple of nights ago, I went to a preview of the first two episodes of After Life, Ricky Gervais’ new series for Netflix – available from next Friday (March 8th). He created, wrote, directed, executive produced and stars in it,

I have never really followed his career with that much interest – mea culpa – so I was taken aback by just how a good a writer – and director – he is.

The screenings were at BAFTA and there were loud, genuine laughs aplenty: sometimes because of tiny little subtleties in the scripts. A terrifically well-made six-part series. The premise is:

“Tony (Ricky Gervais) had a perfect life. But after his wife Lisa dies, Tony changes. After contemplating taking his own life, he decides instead to live long enough to punish the world by saying and doing whatever he likes from now on. He thinks it’s like a Super Power — not caring about himself or anyone else — but it turns out to be tricky when everyone is trying to save the nice guy they used to know.”

The ending of Episode 2 was very very dark indeed and I can’t see a terrestrial broadcaster having the confidence – well, the bollocks – to commission it. Whether it is better described as a dark sitcom or a drama with comic elements is a matter of opinion. The cast is full of comedians and comedy actors – Kerry Godliman, Penelope Wilton, Roisin Conaty, Paul Kaye, Joe Wilkinson etc etc and a dog

In a Q&A after the screening, Ricky Gervais talked about the series, including why he chose that cast:


“It’s easier to tell someone to be dramatic than to teach someone to be funny”

It’s easier to tell someone to be dramatic than to teach someone to be funny. If you’ve got people who haven’t got a funny bone and you are trying to make them funny, forget it.

But, if you’ve got a comedians and you tell them, “Just do that,” they get it.

It’s not really just a sitcom; it’s a drama. 

I haven’t really watched comedy for two years. I’ve watched ‘Scandi Noir’ – The Bridge, The Killing, Before We Die, Black Lake, Greyzone. They’re amazing. The pacing’s different. Uncompromised. It’s for grown-ups.

That’s where HBO made their mark. When HBO came out, people said: “Why would I pay for stuff?” – “Well, because you can’t get The Sopranos.” on ABC. You won’t get The Wire anywhere.

Now Netflix have done that even better. They drop it all at once.

Everyone who’s interviewed me, I say they have to watch all six episodes. It’s better to watch them all at once or two or three a night. It does matter. (Each episode) does start where it left off. There is a story. It’s like a novelisation: one long story. If you don’t watch one, you’ll be a bit confused. You can’t watch them out-of-order or miss one, because everything comes back. So it’s perfect for binge watching and Netflix are the perfect broadcaster. They tick every box slightly better than anyone else.

To get final edit (in the past), I’ve had to compromise a bit. So it was BBC2 instead of BBC1 or Channel 4 instead of ITV or HBO instead of NBC.

Then Netflix come along and there are no restrictions – less than anyone – the sky’s the limit – 140 million subscribers – and they’re very generous. They even have the ‘C word’ in the trailer. That’s never been done.

I think when you get older, you just want to be more honest.

It’s about someone struggling. He doesn’t want to feel anything. He’s trying to make himself a psychopath so it doesn’t feel so terrible every day. He used to be a nice guy. He had the perfect life and that was taken from him.

Imagine if a man lost everything and he had nothing left to lose. Ooh! That’s interesting! He can do anything he wants. We are constrained, restrained every day about consequences. But, if there wasn’t any… or you didn’t care that the worst consequence was being dead… you’ve got nothing to fear. 

So that’s the journey for him though, obviously, it’s not going to be as simple as that.

The worst thing is your partner dying. He had a perfect life, didn’t care about anything else. That goes and you’ve got nothing… in his mind.

That’s why he’s saying awful things. In the split second where you think: Shall I say something? – Oh, I’d better not… He doesn’t have the ‘better not’ now. He thinks: Why the fuck not?

He’s experimenting. You know how a toddler pushes the boundaries? He’s a bit spoiled. And he’s not well. He’s in the second phase of grief. He’s depressed and he’s angry and he’s just trying to lash out to make himself feel better for a split second. He’s an owl in a trap.

The overall message is Life is amazing and you are definitely going to die so things have got to be really bad for you to blow that little gift. Is it worth living another ten years? It just might be. And I think that. That is me. I’m an atheist. We didn’t exist for 13½ billion years; then we get 80 or 90 years, if we’re lucky, of this amazing experience. And we’ll never exist again. So you don’t want to go too early but, when the really bad days outweigh the good, then I’m all for it – let’s knock it on the head.

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Don’t take hallucinogenic drugs on the beach until wolf population diminishes.

I have received another missive from this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent, Anna Smith. She lives on a boat on a river in Vancouver. This is what she says:

A psychiatrist from Imperial College in London named Dr Nutt was on the CBC radio today, extolling the therapeutic benefits of LSD, psilocybin, Ayahuasca and ketamine (not all at once though) to treat depression and to combat suicidal thoughts.

I agree with him that it’s tragic that doctors are not allowed to prescribe these drugs (except for experimental use) when they could be used to prevent suicide.

They were outlawed because they were the only drugs to have a political effect (like making people not feel like engaging in war).

There are some contraindications against hallucinogens – for example in young people and in people predisposed to schizophrenia.

On Vancouver Island, some beaches had to be closed because wolves were attacking dogs.

On a different beach there were guns fired in a dispute over clam licences.

I don’t recommend taking drugs on the beach until the wolf population diminishes and the shootouts die down.

In fact it’s never a good idea to take drugs on a beach. Better to take them on stage in a busy strip club or somewhere near a hospital.

One of my neighbours, the sturgeon fisherman, became concerned because he noticed I was filling up bleach bottles with water from a hose. He thought I was going to drink it. He wanted to give me some plastic jugs of store-bought water and I had a job to convince him that I prefer the water from the hose. My hose is attached to a spigot that is attached to a pipe that is attached to the water main that delivers fresh water from the nearby glaciers on Mount Seymour. It’s probably the best water in the world other than drinking straight from a stream.

Hoses are an important subject of discussion out here.

I don’t mind that.

One of my best friends was called The Hose Guy.

Last night I discovered a Mongolian man singing at the bus stop. After I asked him if he was singing Mongolian songs (as he seemed to be doing) he asked, in surprise, in halting English, whether I was going to Mongolia.

I said: “No. I’m going to Montreal.”

I asked him if there were lots of redheads in Mongolia and he said no. They have lots of grass and lots of sheep. He put his hands on his head to mimic a sheep’s ears because it was hard for me to understand his accent.

Here is a hip hop Smoke Dance which I thought you might like to see.

 

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Filed under Canada, Drugs, Mental health

Comic critic Kate Copstick on a wibbly

Kate Copstick remembers an incident...

Kate Copstick remembers when she got on her bike…

Today is the last in Mental Health Awareness Week.

Coincidentally, this week’s Grouchy Club Podcast includes my co-host Kate Copstick talking about depression:

COPSTICK
Your brain or your mind just becomes detached from everything else and you can’t make it work any more. I was a bit like that for a while. I had a couple of wibbly times when I was in my teens and my twenties and my thirties – I’ve been wibbly quite a lot. It’s the kind of thing that, when it gets bad, you would sit there and, if somebody came and just punched you in the face, you would just sit there and let them punch you in the face and, inside your head, you’d be going: “He’s going to punch me in the face”.

In The Bell Jar, I think Sylvia Plath’s description is pretty fucking good.

Anyway, this night after that – and there were a couple of other incidents – I don’t know… I had a bit of a moment and I wanted to sort of feel something. So I got on my bike .

JOHN
A motor bike?

COPSTICK
No. Push bike. Dressed in black, of course. No surprise there.

JOHN
Of course.

COPSTICK
And I cycled down to Shepherd’s Bush Green and Shepherd’s Bush roundabout.

JOHN
That’s the big roundabout with almost a motorway spur going up to Westway.

COPSTICK
Correct. And I cycled round it the wrong way, into the headlights of cars.

JOHN
And this is a serious roundabout. It’s almost a motorway spur.

COPSTICK
I had no lights or anything on my bike and they all swerved and everything. It was about one o’clock in the morning. The cars were going a bit faster and I think I just wanted to see if I could be frightened or panicky or that something would click and I’d go Oh, good grief! I’ve come out of it now and it’s all marvellous!

And what happened was it was a white van man who screeched to a halt in front of me: “What the fuck? Wah! Wah! Wah!

FULL 29-MINUTE GROUCHY CLUB PODCAST IS ONLINE HERE

Shepherd’s Bush roundabout from Google Maps

Shepherd’s Bush roundabout from Google Maps

 

 

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Comic Lewis Schaffer on his time under a psychiatrist in Marilyn Monroe’s clinic

I talked to Lewis Schaffer at five Guys yesterday

I talked to Lewis Schaffer at Five Guys in London yesterday (Photograph by Rose Ives)

Yesterday, comedy critic Kate Copstick was ill in bed with vomiting and dizziness.

Possibly too much detail.

But the result was that she was unavailable for the weekly Grouchy Club Podcast. So I talked to UK-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer, a regular in these blogs.

This is a 4-minute extract from the 27-minute podcast which you can hear in full at Podomatic or iTunes.


John
At what point did you suddenly decide I’m not going to be an advertising person, I’m going to be a stand-up comedian? And why?

Lewis Schaffer
Why? Because it was the early 1990s and I was trying to get a job selling advertising space and no-one wanted me, because they were sensible. They could see the desperation; they could see the insanity. And I was flat broke. I was going to a psychiatrist in New York at the Payne Whitney Clinic, part of New York Hospital.

(NOTE: The US poet Robert Lowell wrote about his hospitalization at the Payne Whitney Clinic, Marilyn Monroe was hospitalized there in early 1961 and Mary McCarthy based her book The Group, on her in-patient experience there.)

I was paying $10 a session – I was going to a discount psychiatrist (he was a trainee) and I couldn’t even afford it. I was paying it on credit cards. I had like twenty or thirty credit cards that I was maxing out.

The psychiatrist said to me: Lewis, you’re depressed and, if you want, I can get you $800-a-month. You just have to go and I will sign the form for you to say you’re depressed. I said: Of course I’m depressed. I’m not working, I have no girlfriend, I have $100,000 in credit card debt and I’m going to be evicted from my flat. Of course I’m depressed!

If that had happened today, I would have said: I wish I had an airplane to fly into the side of a mountain. But I said to him: No. At that moment, I could have been labelled as a depressive.

John
Why were you going to the psychiatrist – apart from the fact you’re an American and all Americans do – if you did not want $800-a-month for being depressive?

Lewis Schaffer
I just wanted someone to talk to.

John
Thus your career talking to audiences…

Lewis Schaffer
Yeah. Well, I wasn’t doing comedy at the time, so I would go and talk to him and I would try to make him laugh. Or I would try to see the inconsistency of his advice – whatever he said – and I would try to drive him crazy. I reached a point where he was so fed up with me that… There was a really pretty girl who was working as a receptionist there. Girl/woman. She was a woman. And I would hit on (i.e. flirt with) her and she made a formal complaint against me because I was flirting with her.

When you are in a psychiatrist’s office and you’re not famous and it’s a discount psychiatrist’s office, women do not like to be flirted-with. Now I can flirt with anybody because – Oh! Lewis Schaffer, the great performer! – but, at that time… That was the lowest I had ever been, when a woman who was a receptionist – There’s nothing wrong with being a receptionist but – this woman made a complaint and the psychiatrist said to me that I should stop that. He got quite angry with me and I thought this was really inappropriate because I’m here for psychiatric help and I’m obviously mental, so he shouldn’t criticise me for acting mental. I’m mental – He treated me like I was a normal person!

I was so low.

I had a friend of mine who I’d met a few years before in real estate school, who was very successful. And he would goad me every single day because I was home during the daytime and he was home trading. I was his friend. He would talk to me every day and he would say to me: What do you wanna do? and he did more good than the psychiatrist, cos he found out that I always wanted to be a stand-up comic but I was afraid that, if I did stand-up comedy and I wasn’t successful, then the one thing I thought I was good at I would not be good at.

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Clinically depressed comedian starts monthly two-hour Happy Hour club

Juliette does not feel blue - she feels yellow

Juliette does not feel blue – she feels yellow

“The branding of the venue is yellow. The posters are yellow. So today, when I knew I was meeting you,” Juliette Burton told me yesterday, ‘I put on a yellow top. Maybe I over-think things a little bit.”

When I talked to Juliette back in February, she told me she was starting a new monthly comedy club in April – the first Tuesday of every month. Well, it is now April and the club starts this Tuesday.

She told me back in February that it is called Juliette Burton’s Happy Hour despite the fact each show will run for about two hours and is hosted by someone with clinical depression.

“It is,” she told me yesterday, “false advertising all the way.”

“How much does it cost to get in?” I asked.

“It’s pay-as-you-feel,” said Juliette, “and we hope people will feel generous. It’s a guaranteed uplifting night.”

Indeed, the posters proclaim:

HAPPINESS GUARANTEED OR YOUR MONEY BACK

Pleasant juliette at the Pleasance, London, yesterday

Juliette preparing a two-hour Hour yesterday

‘You are not really a stand-up comedian,” I said to Juliette. “You’re a performer of hour-long, highly-researched, documentary comedy shows with lots of facts. Why are you doing these shows?”

“Because,” she told me, I will be compering and I can try out material for my future docu-comedy shows. But also it will let me do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time – muck about on stage and be more myself. With my docu-comedy, there’s so much research packed in that I have to be really tight on the time and there’s very little chance for me to improvise anything.

“I’m going to be trying out some new material I’m quite nervous about at the Happy Hour. I’m going to be most open about my darkest mental health problems. But it will be upliftingly dark stuff.”

“And you are having guests?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Juliette. “This Tuesday, there’s comedy mind-reader Doug Segal, Eleanor Conway is bringing all the breasts – she has lovely bosoms – and then there is James Hamilton who will provide darkness. I want the audience to leave feeling uplifted, so he is going to come along and do some comedy which will make them feel sad. He’s usually part of sketch group Casual Violence but he’s testing solo stuff out on Tuesday.’

“Is he being sad?” I asked. “Or is he being just plain weird, which is what Casual Violence is.”

“Casual Violence,” said Juliette, “is very weird and twisted and dark and wonderful and so full of pathos. When I see their shows, I always end up crying in at least one sketch. So it will be interesting to see what James does on his own.

“And we also have Matt Francis who does ‘proper’ stand-up comedy. Very bright and uplifting. He was recommended to me by Patrick Monahan.”

“Did Patrick Monahan hug you?” I asked.

“Of course he did,” said Juliette. “He is Patrick Monahan.”

“One day,” I said, “I may meet someone he has not hugged. But it could take a long time. Anyway, this new club night is at a new venue.”

The first Happy Hour guests, clockwise from top left) Doug Segal, Eleanor Conway, Matt Francis, James Hamilton

The first Happy Hour guests (clockwise from the top left) Doug Segal, Eleanor Conway, Matt Francis, James Hamilton

“Yes, The Canvas in Shoreditch. It’s London’s first Happy Cafe, which is nothing to do with drugs. They have a programme of events that actively encourage happiness, including things like free massages, which they had the other day when I went for a rehearsal. Not dodgy massages. Proper massages. The Happy Cafe is run by the same woman who is charge of Body Gossip, the charity for body confidence and body image.

“They are the reason we are able to make it a free night. It’s pay-as-you-feel. If everyone pays £5, that will hopefully cover the costs to the venue – they have to have staff in – and then we will split any profit between the charity and hopefully the costs of the acts.”

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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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My view of life was inspired by the film Lawrence of Arabia and by Rameses II

Yesterday, I posted my blog very late.

Today, I am posting it fairly early, to get it out of the way.

I have still not transcribed the troublesome blog chat. Well, in truth, I have two-and-a-half yet-to-be-transcribed long chats for potential blogs. This one is simpler.

Someone asked me a while back if I had a visual simile for life. They must have been on drink, drugs or recently joined some obscure cult. No-one asks that sort of question. But this person did.

I may have mentioned this visual simile in a blog before. If so, I have forgotten. My memory is notoriously shit.

Omar Sharif appears, as if in a mirage in Lawrence of Arabia

Omar Sharif appears, as if in a mirage, in Lawrence of Arabia

There is a famous scene in David Lean’s movie of Lawrence of Arabia – the first appearance of Omar Sharif. My visual simile is different… but imagine you are alone and dehydrated in a desert. You have been there for day upon dry, searingly hot day. There is no water for hundreds of miles in all directions. You are going to die from lack of water.

Then, with the heat haze rising and distorting straight lines, you see a shimmer on the horizon, like a mirage. As the minutes go by, the shimmer becomes an abstract, moving shape. After more minutes, it becomes a shimmering, fluid single shape and, as it approaches closer, you can see it is the mirage of a man on a camel.

Except it is not a mirage.

As the shimmering image approaches, it starts to solidify into a real shape. It really is a man riding slowly towards you on a camel. And, as he comes closer, you can see he carries a water bottle on the side of his camel. In fact, there are several water bottles.

The man and the camel come closer until, eventually, they reach you.

And they pass you by. The man does not even look at you.

And then the man and the camel get smaller and smaller as they move away, until their sharp outline starts to disintegrate in the heat rising from the ground. The shimmering, fluid shape slowly breaks apart like black mercury blobs separating until they become abstract, moving, shimmering shapes and they merge into the horizon until they disappear completely and until nothing is left except the horizon itself, distorting in the heat haze.

That is my visual simile for life.

It is probably influenced not just by Lawrence of Arabia but by Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, much quoted by the pretentious:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

My much-used photograph of me standing on Blackford Hill (photograph by ME-U-NF)

A legless photograph of me atop Blackford Hill in Edinburgh (photograph by M-E-U-N-F)

I go up to the Edinburgh Fringe every August and, at least once in that month, I try to walk up the Blackford Hill in the south west of the city for a bit of tranquility and to see the view – the castle rock (the plug of a onetime Ice Age volcano) rising up to the left and Arthur’s Seat (another onetime volcano) rising up to the right. Behind them, especially at dusk, with the lights of the city starting to come on, you can see the Firth of Forth glittering beyond and I imagine what that view might be like centuries and millennia from now. Standing on an island, looking at the small island on the left with the castle on top of it and, to the right, the bigger island of Arthur’s Seat, separated by the expanse of water beneath which lie the streets of the old town of Edinburgh.

You can look on the face of Ozymandias at Abu Simbel

Look on the face of Ozymandias at Abu Simbel

Apparently Shelley wrote his poem Ozymandias in competition with his friend the stockbroker and political writer Horace Smith. For their poetry-writing competition, they chose to elaborate on a passage written by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, which described a massive Egyptian statue and quoted its inscription: “King of Kings Ozymandias am I. If any want to know how great I am and where I lie, let him outdo me in my work.”

Ozymandias is the Greek name for Rameses II

The real Ozymandias/Rameses, King of Kings

The real, dead,  Ozymandias, King of Kings aka Rameses II

Horace Smith’s poem is less well-known than Shelley’s Ozymandias – possibly because it is not as good or possibly because his was titled On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below. But it has an interestingly different ending. It reads:

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great Ozymandias,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder,—and some hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the wolf in chase,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

So there you have today’s blog.

A little bit of pretentiousness, some poetry and a few photos.

It is a bit short on laughs, but you can’t have everything.

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A sane comedian with serious projects

First John Ryan blog

The first John blog

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

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

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

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

“Because?” I asked.

John performs Hurt Until It Laughs

John’s award-winning show Hurt Until It Laughs

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

John Ryan at the Soho Theatre Bar a fortnight ago

John Ryan at the Soho Theatre Bar

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

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

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

“I said: You alright?

“She said: Are YOU alright?

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

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

What are you? I said. A psychiatrist?

Yeah, she said.

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

Alright then, she said.

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

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

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

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

John Ryan was Cracking Up with some help

John Ryan: Cracking Up with some help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a Vimeo video online:

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

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

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

“Why did they approach you?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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