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Comic Joz Norris is vague on counties & studied Russian as English Literature

Joz Norris (left) met John Ryan at the Soho Theatre

Joz Norris (left) chatted to John Ryan at the Soho Theatre Bar

Yesterday, because of a recent blog-jam, I posted the second part of a chat I had with comedian John Ryan two weeks ago. We talked at the Soho Theatre in London and, straight after him, I chatted with comic Joz Norris.

In fact, they overlapped and John Ryan did part of my work for me.

“How long have you been doing comedy?” John Ryan asked Joz.

“I’ve only been doing it for about three years,” Joz told him. “Mainly things like Pull The Other One and Weirdos and ACMS and Lost Cabaret – the more alt nights – I think ‘alternative’ is a weird word.

“I started off doing stand-up as myself but got bored with what I was saying cos I think I was copying other people I’d seen. So then, last year, I did characters just to try to force myself to do something I liked. And, since then, I’ve gone back to being me now I know what I want to perform. It’s more like actual stand-up this year, but trying to do it in a way that is more interesting for me at least.”

“Do you have a day job?” John Ryan asked.

“I work in a bakery,” Joz told him. “I’m a barista in a little artisan bakery. It’s just down the road from where I live and you get free bread. You get a lot of free coffee and you can just chat to people. I play games with the babies, because it’s mostly mums that come in. If babies work out there is a pattern, they start to really enjoy it. One baby dropped its spoon, I picked it up and gave it back to him and that was half an hour of fun: he just kept dropping it and I got £1 from the mum for entertaining the baby.”

After John Ryan left, I asked Joz, perhaps less interestingly: “Where were you born?”

Joz Norris grew up in a small English village

Joz perhaps grew up in a small English village called Petworth

“I grew up in Petworth,” he replied. “It’s a tiny village in… is it Sussex?”

“You don’t know which county you were brought up in?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” he said. “People always say Where are you from? and I don’t really feel tied to anywhere. But there is this little village of Petworth which is now all antique shops. Very sad. It used to be a proper little village. A Postman Pat type village. It had things like a butcher and a librarian. Now everything is an antique shop.”

“Is it near somewhere more interesting?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said Joz. Then he thought. “Oh! Bigner. Bigner Park. I think there was something like a Roman dig there. That’s not antiques, though. That’s archaeological.”

“Why do all these antique buyers want to come to Petworth?” I asked.

“I have no idea.”

“You went to university?”

“UEA in Norwich.”

“What did you study?”

“English Literature. I didn’t know what to do. Well, I knew I wanted to write, so I thought: Oh – I’ll study English. That’s writing.

“So you studied Chaucer?” I asked.

“Never did Chaucer,” said Joz. “Studied Bulgakov. I did a lot on Bulgakov.”

Mikhail Bulgakov - not known for his English literature output

Mikhail Bulgakov – not known for his English

“Is he known for his English literature?” I asked.

“You’re right,” said Joz. “It was a bit of a left field choice. But I got to the third year in the course and you could do a dissertation on anything you wanted. I had read Bulgakov when I was 15 because I got into anything with creatures in it.”

“And,” I asked, “the UEA people never spotted Bulgakov did not write in English?”

Well,” replied Joz, “I said Can I do this? and they said they only had one expert on Russian in the entire teaching staff and she was on maternity leave. So they got me someone who knew a bit about German literature because they thought that was the closest to Russian and she shepherded me through it. But most of it, I was just teaching her stuff – Oh, this is another thing about Russia – Oh, cool, great. I didn’t know that – Mostly I could just write what I wanted. It was brilliant.”

“You can read Russian?” I asked.

“No,” said Joz. “I read it all in translation.”

“I did two years of Russian at school,” I said. “I’m shit at languages. I got confused between similar sounding words for a young girl, a country cottage and porridge.”

“Though,” said Joz, “there’s not many situations where they’re all gonna be used in the same context.”

“Goldilocks,” I suggested.

“Mmm…” said Joz.

Joz and I had a cop of tea in Soho Theatre

Joz and I enjoyed a large cup of tea at the Soho Theatre Bar

“So,” I said, “having caused confusion in the UEA English Literature Department, you thought you would carry on in comedy?”

“I did acting and writing all through my teens,” explained Joz, “and thought I would be a serious writer. Then I met John Kearns when we were at UEA and he and another guy (John Brittain, last heard of in this blog co-writing Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho) ran a local comedy club and when I wrote a sitcom for the local student radio station they said: Come and do a spot at the club.”

“So now you’ve been performing comedy for three years.”

“Yes, three years in London, after university.”

“If you went from being yourself on stage to doing characters and then back to yourself, it implies you’re still trying to find yourself on stage.”

“I think when you start out, you think Who do I like? I’ll do sort-of what they do. I grew up watching sitcoms a lot: Alan Partridge and Marion and Geoff and Peep Show. Lots of comic actors. For a while I was trying to do things I’d see people I’d admired do, then realised I was doing that and found it a bit boring and thought doing a character that was not me would be a route to doing whatever I wanted.”

“Last year,” I said, “you did a character show at the Free Festival in Edinburgh called Joz Norris Has Gone Missing…” (There is a promo on YouTube.)

“And I’m going up this year doing a pay show, which is a daunting thing – at the Underbelly.”

“Where did you get the money?”

“It’s not me. Live Nation – who usually do music – I think they promote Aerosmith at the moment – are branching out into comedy. I was kind of wary of it. There’s a weird leap you have to make in your head between getting people in off the street to see free comedy and suddenly saying Pay me £8 or £10 of your money just to come in.”

“And the show is called?”

Joz (centre) rehearses his Awkward Prophet show

Joz (dress) rehearses Awkward Prophet

Awkward Prophet. (There is a promo on YouTube.) It’s mainly about relationships and girls and love. Obviously, that has been done a lot, but I’m doing it more from this attitude of being a weird, slightly alien asexual man-child thing who doesn’t get anything.

“I’ve always been disastrous in relationships by not understanding how they’re supposed to work so i thought If I can actually find a way to talk about it which I think is still optimistic and feels like I’m saying something I want to say, then…”

“… then you might pull?” I suggested.

“Yes, I might start being successful. And also it feels like I’ve found a way of talking about myself on stage that is more naturally me and maybe different-ish for the audience.”

That was the conversation Joz and I had at the Soho Theatre a fortnight ago.

Last night, I asked him if there were any updates.

“I went to Tesco today,” he told me, “to buy a packet of McCoy crisps as a snack during the interval of a gig… When I got back to the venue, the MC put them on a plate and passed them round the audience. It was very disappointing.”

“Any new work?” I asked.

“I’ve been cast as the villain in a TV sitcom pilot called Film School written by Matt Silver which is filming a teaser later in June and it marks a break from the ‘naive idiot’ parts I usually play. This time I get to scowl and look threatening and shout abuse at the protagonists, which is a dream come true.

“Also, I’ve been cast as Bertie in a kids’ magic and puppetry show called Bertie & Boo about a brother and sister who learned magic from their grandparents and now they can make scarves change colour and the like. I think I got the part because of my colourful jacket, as I can’t actually do any magic… but they’ve told me we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

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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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Comic John Ryan’s ‘childhood prank’

John Ryan chatted to me over tea in the Soho Theare Bar

John Ryan chatted to me over tea in the Soho Theatre Bar

In 2010, comedian John Ryan was an NHS Regional Health and Social Care award winner in the Mental Health and Well Being category. In the same year, he got a Royal Society for Public Health Special Commendation for contributions to the field of Arts and Health Equalities. And, in 2011, he was a Best Short Documentary Award winner at the Scottish Mental Health and Arts Film Festival for a film he made about a women’s prison.

This year, the Irish Post reported that he was “chuffed to bits” to have his first research paper on mental health published in the Journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology.

But John Ryan is not often mentioned by trendy comedy reviewers. Why?

“I think I’m a bit too laddish for them,” he told me. “A bit too working class. And I tend to play Jongleurs and the bigger clubs. I’ve done the Soho Theatre three or four times, but I earn my living doing this. I’ve not got aspirations to do a sitcom or Live at The Apollo on TV. I basically provide meat & two veg.

“I was a trade union chairman for ten years – UNISON, the public sector. I worked in a collective environment. And I worked in housing. I had three small kids under the age of 5 and worked 12-hour shifts. Two weeks of days; a week of nights. But I also used to write kids’ stories.

John directed inserts for Teletubbies

John directed Tubbie Inserts

“Someone said: If you do stand-up, you’ll get a performing CV and you’ll be able to sell your kids’ stories. So I did my first gig and got my first writing contract three months later. That was on Teletubbies. And they gave me a job as an insert director. I bluffed my way in. Bluffed it, blagged it.

“When that finished, I carried on with my day job and the TV producers were trying to re-vamp another show of theirs called Brum about a little kid’s toy car. They offered me a six months contract writing on that – equivalent to a year’s salary where I was working. So I took that and took my pay-off from my day job – so I basically had 18-months salary and carried on doing stand-up.

“I was a Hackney Empire New Act of the Year finalist in 2000 with Russell Brand. Shappi Khorsandi came second. Paul Hickman won it. Russell Brand went on and done about 15 minutes of piss-poor Bill Hicks type act. Cole Parker got told off for getting stoned in the dressing room.

“In 2001 I did Leicester New Act of the Year. I was the runner-up. It was won by Miles Jupp. The other runner-up was Jimmy Carr. And John Bishop was not placed.

“A couple of years later, in 2003, I went to the Edinburgh Fringe with a show called John Ryan Isn’t Normal? My son had been in a school play. He was Joseph; a girl was Mary. He went to pick up the baby Jesus and, in a packed assembly hall, the girl says Give me the baby and my son says No, I’m giving him a cuddle. So the girl says Men don’t cuddle babies and by now the play has gone to pot. My boy says: Well, my dad’s a man and he cuddles me, and, in this full assembly hall, this little girl says, Well, your dad’s not normal.

John Ryan performs in a YouTube video

John performs a routine about the police in a YouTube video

“All the mums looked at me. It genuinely happened. So I wrote a whole hour show about it.

“I had an MA in Health & Social Policy. I had a degree in Social Administration. I had worked in Housing & Community Care. I had experience of working with vulnerable groups.

“When I did John Ryan Isn’t Normal? at the Edinburgh Fringe, a reviewer for Three Weeks magazine turned up pissed with his girlfriend, spent half the time snogging her and being an arse, so I told him to Fuck off out! and then wrote to Three Weeks saying: Look, don’t send idiots. I don’t think they like that.

“The following year, I did a show called Stupid Monkey, because I went to a party dressed as a monkey and got into an argument with a guy who was dressed as a carrot. We got into a physical fight and the ridiculousness of it – that me, a grown man with kids, was fighting a man dressed as a carrot – made me think Why aren’t we able to resolve our differences without fighting? So the show talked about Iraq, Israel, racism, homophobia and was called Stupid Monkey.”

“Had you got anything out of the John Ryan Isn’t Normal? show?I asked.

“Oh yes,” said John. “I picked up a little award from some independent magazine that then folded and Geoff Rowe from the Leicester Comedy Festival asked if I’d be interested in talking about health in non-conventional venues.

“I also got asked to write a column for the Irish Post, because I’m from the Irish community. In the Irish community, if you get in the Irish Post, you’re like a superstar. I thought it would be fun for my mum.

“So, from that first Edinburgh Fringe, I got myself a weekly column and got involved in doing health projects: Hurt Until It Laughs. Then I did a tour round working men’s clubs and prisons, young offenders’ institutions, gay/lesbian centres, Islamic centres, Afro-Caribbean centres.

"Geoff Rowe also asked me if I knew anything about mental health"

“Geoff Rowe also asked me if I knew anything about mental health because there was a charity”

“And Geoff Rowe also asked me if I knew anything about mental health because there was a children’s charity called YoungMinds who were very keen to empower men to spend more time with their kids and to look at how kids behaved to see if there was any mental trouble there. So I wrote a show called Those Young Minds which allowed me to talk about my upbringing.

“My family were Scottish and Irish. I was a Cockney. My mum’s lot are from Coatbridge in Scotland. Her dad moved from Catholic Coatbridge to Longford in Ireland, where my mum was born. My dad’s family were all Travellers, from Longford. Middle of nowhere. Even Irish people don’t know where it is. Then my mum and dad moved to Hackney in London. So we went from the poorest part of Scotland to the poorest part of Ireland to Hackney. You can almost see a show writing itself, can’t you?

“I was always fighting and scrapping, cos that’s what we do.

“I came home from school one day, having been given the cane yet again and been told I was going to get expelled.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Pranks,” said John.

“What sort of pranks?” I asked.

“Well,” said John, “when I was eight, I hit a kid with a brick. He was called Paul Kennedy and we were the only two Irish families in the class.”

“He was a Protestant?” I asked.

“No, he was a Catholic, but he just thought he was better than me and we always used to fight. At school one day, he picked his nose, put it on me, we had a big argument, I threw a brick at him, knocked him out, blood came out of his nose and out of his ears.

“One of the girls in the class said: You’ve killed him! 

“I had never felt so great in my life. It was a really empowering feeling. In my head, I was thinking: I’ve got a list of people I’m going to take out now. 

“So I go to school the next day. He doesn’t come to school. None of the other kids will come near me in the playground – You killed Paul Kennedy! they tell me – and I went home and my sister said she was going to tell my mum and I was petrified.

“My mum came into my bedroom and said: I’m so ashamed. I’m really ashamed of what you done. 

“And I think: Hang on. I’m not getting slapped.

We are going to pray to Jesus, she tells me.

“I never liked the one on the cross. I always liked the little baby one. I was scared of the one on the cross. So I thought of little baby Jesus and we prayed.

“I go into school the next morning and Paul Kennedy isn’t there. Everyone tells me he is dead. I have killed him. I am still feeling alright.

“At playtime, he comes into class with a bandage on his head. This was a great, euphoric moment. I run up to give him a cuddle. He punches me in the face. I head-butt him. He goes back to hospital. I get suspended from school for the week.

“My mum says: What are we going to do with you? You’re going to go in to Daisy next door. 

Everyone in our block was either Irish or black. Except Daisy, who was this old white English woman. She didn’t have a TV. She made her own cheese in a handkerchief at the sink. She had long nails. She was really scary. She used to be a head teacher.

“So I went to her flat.

“First day. Go in. Go to the toilet. Sit down at the table. My sister had told me Daisy was going to kill me. But she gave me an apple and some milk. The wall was covered in books. She said: Pick a book, read it and not a peep out of you.

“I was petrified. I read the book. Then, after a couple of hours, I went home. This happened every day for a week.

“At the end of the week, Daisy came in to our kitchen. My mum asked: How’s he been? Daisy said: He’s been really quiet. He just reads. No trouble at all. Didn’t break anything. Didn’t steal anything. Not rude. 

“My mum told me: If you keep misbehaving, you’ll go back in there again.

“And I was really upset, because I wanted to go back in there.

“In the 2005 show I wrote – Those Young Minds – I was able to look at things like Why did my behaviour change in Daisy’s? Was it because I was getting attention? Was it because I was being given something to do? 

“I did that show in Edinburgh, but only for two days. I got a one-star review from Three Weeks.”

 … CONTINUED HERE

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