Tag Archives: nihilism

How to build a career in comedy (and other industries)… maybe or maybe not

Part of Tabula Peutingeriana, a Roman road map

Someone once said to me that he thought most criminals were doomed to fail and jail because they had no plan.

He was a criminal himself.

Had been.

He had stopped.

“If you gamble and flounder around and you have no plan,” he said, “you’re a mug.”

I paraphrase the words. But the thoughts are his.

“Most criminals,” he told me, “don’t have an aim. They don’t have a specific number they want to reach. If you want to make a million quid or half a million, you can very possibly do that. It’s like gambling. If you are determined and you take enough risks, you may well do it. But, once you get there, you should stop.

“There’s the risk of getting caught, the risk of going to prison, the risk of losing the gamble. And the longer you go on, the more the odds are against you. Most criminals don’t put a number on what they want, so they can never reach it.

“If you have no aim – if you just keep doing the same thing over and over again and don’t have no exit strategy, you’re a mug. You are treading water and you will run out of luck. It will all come crashing down on your head.”

I think you probably stand a greater chance of making a million from crime than from gambling with the odds in Las Vegas but, that aside, he has a point.

Without an aim, you go off in all directions and get nowhere.

And, of course, once you have achieved your aim, you need to know what your next aim is.

What brought this to mind was someone at The Grouchy Club this week who asked for tips about getting on in the comedy business.

I think one thing is to have a very specific three-year or five-year aim. And, indeed, ten and twenty year aim. Have a specific aim. You do not want to start by thinking about what your first Edinburgh Fringe show is going to be next year. You want to think where you want to be in three or five years time. And then in ten. And then in twenty. Then work backwards and figure out a roadmap for getting there, starting with wherever you are now.

Today is ground zero.

Whatever happened in the past has been passed. You can’t change the past.

Today is ground zero.

You do not just take a first step without knowing exactly where you want to end up.

If you want to get from London to Aberdeen, you should not just go into the first railway station you find and get onto the first train that leaves and focus your entire mind on which chocolate bar you are going to buy for the journey. You should be thinking about how to get to Aberdeen; not taking a random step and focusing on the detail without knowing where you are going.

If you don’t know the longer-term aims of your short-term actions, you risk just floundering around from random pillar to random post.

You have to be able to take advantage of accident and happenstance and side-turnings along the way of course but, again, without knowing the ultimate destination you want to reach in three, five, ten and twenty years, you risk not going or getting anywhere.

It is like writing a comedy show. If you don’t know what your show is about, you will be adrift in a sea of good ideas, unable to decide which ones to choose, unable to fit them all into an ever-changing shape that doesn’t exist. You should – in my easily-ignored opinion – not start with 1,001 amorphous good ideas and then try to figure out how to fit them all into some unknown shape illustrating nothing. You should start with the shape, then work back to the details you need to complete the shape.

You may have lots of colourful, differently-shaped pieces which individually look interesting but, if they don’t fit together, you ain’t got a jigsaw. You need to know the picture on the jigsaw you are making, then find the pieces that will fit together to create it.

With a show, in your own mind, you should have an elevator pitch. Decide what you want to create the show about. Then describe it in 10 or 12 words. Then, when writing the show, use only anecdotes, gags and thoughts that illustrate or illuminate those 10 or 12 words. Throw out anything else.

If you have some startlingly original, stunningly funny story – the most brilliant story or thought in the entire history of the world – which does not fit into that 10 or 12 word description, DO NOT use it. It will distract the audience, screw-up the flow and fuck-up your show. You can use this item of sheer genius on another occasion. The number of waffly, amorphous, don’t-hold-together hours of meandering shows I have sat through at the Edinburgh Fringe doesn’t bear thinking about.

If you cannot think of a 10 or 12 word description of the show you are obsessed by and keen to do, then you don’t have a show. You just want to be acclaimed for being yourself, not for creating something. DO NOT imagine you have a show. DO NOT throw your money away waffling at the Edinburgh Fringe. The funniest 3 or 6 minute story in the world, if irrelevant, will screw-up a show not make it better. Ten stories are not a show. Not ten random 6-minute unconnected shows with no flow. If it don’t flow, it ain’t a show. Ten stories all illustrating a single elevator pitch point ARE a show.

Of course – of course – of course – the irony is that I never had a plan in my career(s) or in my life. But that is because I am and always have been a nihilist. All of the above is just filling in time. It all ends when the Sun expands and explodes and takes everything with it – our long-forgotten skeletons or ashes or worm-excreta and everything else. It all becomes space dust floating in infinity.

So it goes.

When, at last, you are unable to close your eyes and all you hear is the sound of your own death rattle… all that matters is memories of love and/or genuine friendship.

But – hey! – if you are a performer, ego and acclaim are what really matter.

So have a plan for success. A very well-worked-out plan. Work out what you want in the long term, then work backwards to what you should be doing in the short and medium term to achieve that.

Have an elevator pitch of 10 or 12 words about what you want to achieve in life as well as what your show will be about. Don’t flounder. Follow the plan. Though allow for advantageous side roads.

Have a 10 or 12 word outline for your show.

Have a 10 or 12 word outline for your life.

And don’t blame me when it all goes arse-over-tits.

I know nothing.

I have never claimed I did.

I am just filling in time.

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Unmasked: the man who stood in Leicester Square with no message

Last week, I wrote a blog about a man who “stood in Leicester Square with a placard saying he had absolutely no message for the world

His name was Phil Klein.

It was not his first time in Leicester Square and here, indeed, is a YouTube clip which appears to have been shot in 2007, before he became a man who held a nihilistic placard:

In retrospect, I have to say, when I stopped and talked to him on a whim last week, he did look vaguely familiar, as did the name. But I thought that was because Phil Klein is not that uncommon a name and comedy maverick Phil ‘Pigeon Man’ Zimmerman is a British alternative comedian while Alan Klein was the American who managed The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

After my blog was posted, though, UK comedy cognoscente Ian Fox told me: “Phil Klein used to be a comic.”

When he was working as a comic, one description of his act (I think penned by Phil himself) was: “His humour incorporates themes on being Jewish, coming from Hampstead, George Dubya, how the Aussies love the English really. Though, if all else fails, he is liable to down a pint (or more) on stage.”

Ian Fox told me that “Phil performed in the Canon’s Gait venue at the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe. Every day when he finished his show – he never used a microphone, just shouted at the audience – he’d be quite sweaty and in the change-over period between shows I’d ask him how it went. He always answered the same way: I think I need to work on my material.”

That 2005 Fringe show was called A1A Phil Klein and the Fringe Programme description read: “An honest, warts-and-all exploration of being messed up and Jewish or a blatant attempt to be first in the programme? Take a seat for half an hour on the rollercoaster that is Phil’s life.”

He appears to have got no review for the show, but he was less lucky in 2006, when his show on the PBH Free Fringe was titled The Growing Pains of Amos Phineas Klein Age 33 And A Third and the Chortle comedy website’s one-star review said:

“When a comedy show is free, you have to expect an audience that isn’t 100 per cent focused on the show. But you don’t normally expect it of the comedian. Amos Phileas Klein spends almost the whole of the second half of his show playing with his phone. At first I thought he had some notes on the set stored on there that he was looking up: unprofessional but forgivable. But it soon becomes clear that this isn’t the case ­ it seems he is involved in a text conversation with someone, while delivering in an increasingly distracted fashion. It’s a truly shocking degree of contempt for his audience.”

Future Malcolm Hardee Awards judge Jay Richardson, writing in The Scotsman, suggested: ”It’s less a comedy gig than a hostage taking.”

After reading my blog last week, Brian Damage, who runs the Pear Shaped Comedy Clubs told me: “Last time Phil did Pear Shaped he borrowed £10 off me and fell asleep,” and, on the Pear Shaped website, Brian writes that Phil “was for many years our chief competitor. However he has now retired to spend more time with his personality.”

Around 2005, Phil used to be co-promoter and co-compere of The Funny Bone comedy club in Finchley Road, near his home in Hampstead, as well as running another comedy night in North London at The Culdesac. In May 2005, Chortle wrote:

“Regular compering at the small empire of open-spot gigs he runs in central London has given him a level of comfort at being on stage, but even with that near-daily experience of performing, he still doesn’t appear naturally funny… He comes across relatively effortlessly as a nice enough bloke, but there’s a yawning gap between that and the X-factor that will elevate him from the open mic circuit. On current form, it’s a gulf Klein cannot bridge.”

This is a YouTube clip of him performing in London, it seems likely, in 2006:

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Yesterday a man stood in Leicester Square with a placard saying he had absolutely no message for the world

This man has no important message for you

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

Yesterday, I was rushing to a meeting at 6.30pm just off Leicester Square, in London.

At 6.18pm (that exact time is on the sound recording on my iPhone) I saw a man standing in the North East corner of Leicester Square with a placard saying:

I HAVE NO MESSAGE. AND I’M NOT SELLING ANYTHING. I JUST HAVEN’T GOT ANYTHING BETTER TO DO.

So, obviously, I went up to him.

“You’re a performance artist?” I asked.

“No.”

“An actor?”

“No.”

“So” I asked, “Why?”

“Why?” he asked me in reply. “Why not? It’s something to do. I haven’t got anything better to do. It’s on the placard.”

“So what did you do,” I asked him, “before you didn’t do anything?”

“That’s a bit of a mind-turning thing,” he replied. “It’s been like this for years. I haven’t had anything better to do than this for years.”

“Did you go to college?” I asked.

“I did, but that was years ago.”

“What was the subject?” I asked.

“History and politics,” he replied.

“Ah!” I laughed. “So, you’re a failed politician?”

“Failed.” he said. “Completely failed to be a politician.”

“You could get yourself exhibited at the Tate,” I suggested.

“Do you think so?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Like a Damien Hirst thing.”

“It’s an idea,” he agreed. “In the Tate? Just stand on the steps at the Tate?”

“Yeah,” I told him, realising he was thinking of the old Tate building. “In fact,” I said, “you should stand at the main entrance to Tate Modern – at the slope – and you might get a commission. You might get a commission to stand there for weeks on end.”

“Brilliant,” he said with little enthusiasm.

“Leicester Square is the wrong place for you,” I suggested. “This is the home of showbiz and Hollywood. But, if you go to Tate Modern, that’s the home of people who give lots of money for nothing. That’s your ideal market.”

“So that would be my attempt to advertise myself?” he asked.

“Is that too commercial?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I dunno. I probably need a seat or something. Do you think they’d give me a seat?”

“No,” I said, “you’re better to stand.”

“But it’s going to get knackering after standing for too long,” he said.

“But,” I explained, “if you’ve got a seat, it smacks of lack of cutting-edgeness.”

“You think so?” he asked me.

“I think so,” I told him.

“Basically, you’ve got the wrong market here,” I told him.

“You think so?” he asked.

“I think so,” I told him, “There was a story that Damien Hirst was on his way to see some people who wanted to commission him to create a work of art and he accidentally stood in some dog shit on the pavement outside the building and he went in and put the shoe with dog shit on it on the table and they were very impressed.”

“If there’s some dog shit, I could step in it,” he said trying, I think, to be helpful.

Message from the messenger with no message

“Nah,” I said. “That’s been done. This is original – what you’re doing here is very original and admirably meaningless. The important thing is it’s totally and utterly meaningless.”

“Of course it is,” he agreed. “Because that’s life for you. Life is totally and utterly meaningless.”

“How did you get the idea?” I asked.

“It just came to me one day,” he said, brightening up slightly. “It just came to me. I thought Why not? Why not do something completely pointless and meaningless?”

“How long ago was that?” I asked.

“About four years ago, I think,” he said, his enthusiasm dimming. “I’ve been doing this for four years.”

“Oh!” I said, surprised, “I’ve never seen you before…”

“I stopped doing it for years,” he explained. “I started four years ago, but then I didn’t bother for about two or three years.”

“Why?” I asked. “To create a demand?”

“No,” he explained. “I just stopped because I couldn’t be bothered.”

“Why not have a hat on the ground to collect money?” I asked. “Would that undermine the idea?”

“No,” he said. “I just haven’t got round to doing it.”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Phil.”

“Phil what?”

“Phil Klein.”

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“London.”

“And you live in London?”

“I live in London.”

“Can we take a picture?” four passing girls asked Phil.

“Yeah,” he said, without much interest.

“You have a market here,” I told him. “You should be charging for this.”

The girls took their pictures.

“It spreads the word,” said Phil. “It spreads the word.”

“What word?” I asked.

“I dunno,” Phil replied. “There is no word. But it’s spreading whatever is there to be spread in its own kind of way. So this is like… yeah…”

“Where do you live?” I asked. “What area?”

Hampstead,” Phil told me.

“Oh my God!” I laughed. “You’ve got too much money!”

“Not me,” Phil said. “My parents.”

“There’s Art somewhere here,” I mused. “Performance Art. What do your parents do? Are they something to do with Art?… Or maybe psychiatry?”

“They just earn money,” Phil said. “Doing stuff. Well, my dad earns money doing stuff.”

“How old are you?” I asked.

“Erm… Thirty… nine,” Phil replied.

“You sure?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“You were a bit uncertain,” I said.

“No,” said Phil, “I just felt… It was a bit of a question… thirty nine.”

“You must have done something,” I suggested. “In an office or something?”

“No,” he told me, “I’ve literally done nothing in my life. This is as exciting as it gets for me. This is as exciting a journey, an adventure as…”

A passing girl took a photograph of the large question mark on the back of Phil’s placard.

Seeing the back of the man in Leicester Square

“Thankyou,” she said.

“It works quite well,” he told me. “You see, I have a question mark on the back and a statement on the front.”

“It might be a bit too multi-media,” I suggested.

“You think so?” asked Phil. “Too…”

“Too pro-active, perhaps,” I said.

“You think it’s too active?” asked Phil.

“You need to be more passive,” I said.

“Right,” said Phil.

“Ooh!” I said looking at my watch. “I have to be in a meeting in two minutes!”

“You’ve got to go in two minutes,” Phil told me, with no intonation in his voice.

“Let’s hope the iPhone recorded that,” I said. “If it didn’t, I’ll be back again! Are you here at the same time tomorrow?”

“I could be,” said Phil.

When I came out of my meeting an hour later, Leicester Square was more crowded and Phil and his placard had gone, like a single wave in the sea.

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Filed under Art, Comedy, Eccentrics, Humor, Humour, Performance, Surreal, Theatre

Someone appears to be trying to screw me out of money I am owed and that never seems to end well

When I was newly 18 – just a couple of months after my 18th birthday – I tried to kill myself over a girl. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I’ve never regretted it.

But, being a novice at such things, I used drugs – aspirin, paracetamol and codeine. This was a mistake. I had always been shit at Chemistry in school. I always came last in Chemistry, except on one occasion when I came next-to-last. The Chemistry master wrote on my report A fair try and emigrated to New Zealand.

The reason I mention this is that people have always tended to mis-read me. For one thing, they misread nihilism for jollity: a very strange misreading, even if it is occasionally humorous nihilism.

But people (as always) read other people’s thoughts and actions based on their own psychological make-up. This seems to mean that most people think I give a shit.

And they assume that I will calculate consequences in the same way that they would. This is not necessarily true. When I get into a tussle of tiffs. I do calculate consequences, but I may calculate them (from other people’s viewpoints) unexpectedly, in the sense that a scorched earth policy or the Cold War nuclear concept of MAD (mutual assured destruction) does not worry me. I do try to warn people about this, but they seem to ignore the warnings.

They are so used to reading between the lines that they don’t really pay attention to what is actually being said.

If you have, at a point earlier in your life, assumed that you would cease to exist in 60 or 30 or 10 minutes time and if that was an outcome you decided was acceptable – welcome, even – then, trust me, risk calculation later in life may not be on the same measurement scale that other people assume.

The comedian Janey Godley has said of performing comedy: “If I ever stood in a room with 600 people and talked for 15 minutes and nobody laughed, then it’s no worse than having a gun held at your head and I’ve already had that, so it doesn’t really scare me.”

She speaks from experience.

In different circumstances, so do I, though I have never had a gun held at my head. Though there was that unfortunate incident with the young Yugoslav soldier sitting up a tree in a forest outside Titograd.

The fact I genuinely care very little about consequences may also have something to do with having had a Scottish – and Scots Presbyterian – upbringing. The world is full of greys. It is not black and white. But, whereas others may not see a dividing line between the shades of grey I see from my personal viewpoint, I do.

Most decisions and most things in life don’t matter. But, if I decide something DOES matter, then I know where I have drawn that line. One side of that pencil thin line is what is acceptable. On the other side of that pencil thin line is something that is unacceptable under all circumstances.

Up to that line, I am told I am very malleable. If that line is crossed, though, then I will attempt to rip your throat out.

My rule of thumb is three strikes and you are out.

Fuck the consequences.

Just thought I’d mention it…

Now, anyone got any money-making propositions they want to run past me?

Perhaps a job as a risk assessment advisor?

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