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Comedian Phil Kay’s crowdfunded anarchic autobiography was inspired by rock bands and British holiday camps

You could be forgiven for thinking that being the creator of new Edinburgh Fringe venue Bob’s Bookshop must have gone to comedian Bob Slayer’s head.

Yesterday, he began a Kickstarter crowdfinding campaign to publish comedian Phil Kay’s autobiography.

There are 17 levels of pledges running from £5 (for which you get an eBook of the opus) through £25 (you get a signed, numbered  and personalised hardback copy with a doodle and note from Phil in the front and your name printed in the book itself) up to £1,001 (for which you can get pretty much whatever you want to get).

The Kickstarter campaign aims to raise £3,333 and will run until 7.00pm UK time on 7th July – that is, 7 on the 7th of the 7th.

The book will be published on 1st August and be on sale in Bob’s Bookshop in Edinburgh and elsewhere

“So,” I said to Bob when I met him, “Phil Kay’s never written a book and you know nothing about publishing.”

“Well,” said Bob “you COULD start from that angle. But I do know about putting out records and we are working with Nick Awde who you blogged about a few days ago and who does know a lot about publishing through his Desert Hearts and Bennett & Bloom publishing companies.”

“So Phil Kay’s book will be published by…?” I asked.

Bob Slayer aims to get a head in publishing

Bob Slayer – He aims to get a head in publishing

“We will do it as a Heroes imprint because our stage shows are promoted as Heroes of Comedy/Heroes of Fringe,” Bob told me. “Part of the inspiration for doing the Heroes shows was that, in 2009, I saw Phil Kay’s show at the Fringe.”

“When last heard of,” I pointed out, “you were writing your own book about your exploits in Australia last year with Gary The Goat.”

“I was trying to finish my books,” said Bob, “but I got very busy doing other things and happened to mention to Phil Kay that I was chatting to Nick Awde about putting out books by comedians and he said Funny you should say that; I’ve just sacked my literary agent because they looked at what I’d done and asked if I could make it more coherent. What the agent was really saying was could Phil follow the agent’s idea of coherence.”

In the Kickstarter pitch, Phil Kay says: “Books are expressions of newness, of self. I am doing what I consider coherent.”

This is not normal - it is Phil Kay

Book is not normal. Nor is its author. Wholly Viable Phil Kay

“This is not a normal biography,” Bob told me. “It’s a collection of wonderful stories with Phil’s life philosophy in it. Like he says: “Imagine what you’d get up to if your job was telling tales of what you’d been getting up to… What would a man do with the blessing to do anything and be paid to retell it..?

“In the book, he talks about how, if he’s on the way to any gig, it has the potential to be the best gig in the world.

“If you stick to a script, you can only be as good as that script is. You are saving yourself from being worse than that script is; you will give an adequate performance. But, if you have a fluidity in what you are performing, you have got the potential for that gig to be the best gig in the world, because there’s no upper limit.”

A Phil Kay show - blink and you’ll miss something

A Phil Kay show – blink and you’ll very likely miss something

“Well, Phil’s gigs are never less than unique and very interesting,” I said.

“Everyone has a story about Phil,” enthused Bob. “The follow-up book might be a compilation of all the people who have wonderful Phil Kay stories. Quite a bit of the book was written when Phil Kay was sharing accommodation with Phil Nichol.”

“Bloody hell!” I said. “That must have been an interesting slice of life.”

“Doing books this way – independently,” explained Bob, “is like my Heroes venue at the Edinburgh Fringe. We cut out the middle man and put out things which are truly creative and original. It’s more like a collective.

“I used to work in the music industry and saw it go through a massive change – and change was an opportunity for different people to come along and do things differently.

“A friend of mine was a roadie for Marillion, a then long-forgotten band who were still touring, still putting out albums and selling maybe 100,000 copies and they, really, were the first band to do crowdfunding. Their record sales were going down, but they still had this hardcore fanbase who would organise themselves on a messageboard.

Marillion in 2007

Marillion in 2007 owed some of their renewed success to fans

“There were a bunch of American fans saying: Why don’t you come to America? Marillion told them: We can’t get the tour support. We can’t afford to. And the fans said: Well, if we can cover the cost, would you come? And Marillion went: Well, yes, of course, but…

“So these fans emailed round their usergroup – remember this is back around 1999 or 2000 – and they raised enough money to fly the band over. The tour got put together and the band decided to record a live album during the tour to give to all the people who had paid in advance. That was the start of Marillion crowdfunding and the fans said: What can we do to help you next?

“So Marillion said: Right. Instead of haggling with a record label over budgets, will you help to fund our next album?

“I certainly know that, with their second crowdfunded album, they raised half a million pounds and a single from the album went Top Ten in the UK charts.

“They now run Marillion weekenders at Pontins Holiday Camps. They take them over completely and it becomes Marillion’s holiday camp for the weekend. They play entire albums live and do requests.

All Tomorrow’s Parties were the first people to do that: to realise what a great place to do a festival a holiday camp is, with everybody totally into the same thing.

“With Marillion, it wasn’t just about getting money. It was about finding people who went: Wow! We’ve given ourselves the chance to see Marillion live!

“That lead to crowdfunding for other bands and Amanda Palmer and so on and Radiohead doing their own thing.

Bob Slayer managed Electric Eel Shock

Bob Slayer managed Electric Eel Shock

“I suggested crowdfunding to a Japanese band I was managing – Electric Eel Shock – and they said: Oh, it’s OK for Marillion: they’ve already got a fanbase. But then their record label started to really mess us about and I needed to raise £10,000 in two weeks to get us out of this record deal and I just emailed the fans, told them why we needed the money and I said: I need 100 fans to give £100 and you’ll be on the Electric Eel Shock guestlist for life. And we got the money straight away.

“After that, I did other crowdfunding and advised on Public Enemy’s crowdfunding.

“In comedy, we’ve seen similar things with Louis CK and Bo Burnham. Look what Paul Foot’s doing now.

Paul Foot shares secret gigs with his fans

Paul Foot shares secret gigs with his fans

“He’s doing his Secret Gigs, which is wonderful for just connecting with his audience, because you can only go to the gigs if you’ve already been to a previous Paul Foot gig. He says: We don’t want people in here unless they are confirmed Paul Foot fans. It takes half an hour to get into the venue because Paul chats to everybody and processes them for five minutes and then seats them and asks them what they’ve been up to. And fans get to know each other: Oh. How many times have you seen him? Those things are three hours of Paul Foot: they are the equivalent of the Marillion weekender.

“When we put Electric Eel Shock fans on the guestlist for life, the motivation was just to get immediate money, but the result was much more than that. Instead of coming to see them once, when they did a ten-day gig of the UK, people would say to each other: How many gigs have you been to? How many COUNTRIES have you been to to see them?

“Their Ichiban Fan – Number One Fan – was the first fan to see them on four continents and he eventually became their tour manager.”

“And the title of Phil Kay’s book?” I asked.

The Wholly Viable,” said Bob. “And I know from experience that it is.”

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Jimmy Savile in a time machine in an odd e-book not like Fifty Shades of Grey

Now Then as e-published by Ben

Now Then as e-published now by Ben

“Who is Ben?” I asked.

“Ben is actually an acronym formed from the initials of the three people behind this.” I was told. “Think of us as a six-armed editing/ design/ marketing monster.

“We’re like-minded friends who are a bit disappointed that the eBook revolution has mainly resulted in an awful lot of dodgy, generic pap being e-published and not a huge amount else. eBooks should be heralding in a new literature, not 50 Shades Of Grey and a bottomless pit of 50 Shades Of Grey clones.”

So Ben has/have started a publishing entity called Illegal Characters.

“Our goal,” he/they told me last night, “is to build up Illegal Characters into a brand where readers know they’re getting something weird and original – and authors know they can fart around with creative ideas that would get them thrown out of any respectable publisher’s office.”

“So why,” I asked, “should Fred Bloggs publish with you?”

“It really depends on what kind of guy Fred is,” I was told. “If Fred’s written a standard scifi/romance/thriller/self-help book, then Fred should contact a standard scifi/romance/thriller/self-help publisher.

“But, if Fred’s written something that he thinks is really wonderful that doesn’t really fit anywhere else, he should come to us. We’re happy to take the time to work on a text that’s brilliant but flawed and, as long as we like the book itself, then we’ll get behind it.

“We’re not looking for the next JK Rowling, we’re looking for someone who’s going to be the first to do whatever the hell it is that they’re doing.”

“And your first book is…”

Now Then by Colin Alexander.”

“The premise of which is…”

Jimmy Savile steals a time machine… It’s a sci fi comedy about a nerdy professor and a pissed-off schoolgirl who are trying to wrestle the machine back from Savile before he rewrites human history to his own sickening ends. Featuring cameos from the Bronte Sisters, Shakespeare and A Time-Travelling Alien Who Cannot Be Named For Copyright Reasons. It also explains the true story of Jesus in a way that will probably have Dan Brown kicking himself for not thinking of it first.”

“And it has just been published this week,” I said, “which is why you’ve approached me?”

“Well,” I was told by Ben, “the plan was (and still is) to have a Spring launch for Illegal Characters with three full-length novels. But, when Colin told us about Now Then, we had to read it. And, once we’d read it, we thought it made a pretty good statement of intent for Illegal Characters.”

“Because?”

“It’s weird, it’s lots of fun and it would probably have been subjected to a lifetime of snippy rejection letters from other publishers.

“The fact that it’s a piece of fiction about something in the news right now was also really appealing because you don’t get a lot of rapid-reaction literature. You certainly don’t get a lot of rapid-reaction book publishing. So we took this on as a challenge to see how quickly we could produce it. Answer: very quickly.”

“And your deal is?”

“Illegal Characters is offering a financial deal that’s pretty hard to beat – no upfront costs, half of the profits.”

“Oh well,” I said. “I’ll blog about anything interesting and the film I saw today was shit.”

“Outstanding,” said Ben.

And then he/they went away.

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How to get a book published…

A Dodo: like which books are as dead

1638 picture of a Dodo: print books are as dead

I had  no subject for my blog this morning. Like Mr Micawber, I waited for something to turn up. And it did.

A British comedian of my acquaintance, who is quite well-known, sent me an e-mail:

I am 174 pages (57,177 words) into my first novel. Have you any ideas as to what I should do with it? Even as I write this, I can see I am asking for it…

I replied:

If you have an agent you trust, get them to submit to mainstream publishers a one-page synopsis, a two-paragraph biog of you and around 20 pages of A4 text which gives ’em a feel of what the book will be like.

All publishers are running scared at the moment so you may get rejected by 10, 30 or, indeed, all traditional publishers. This is nothing to do with the quality of your book. Also, many publishers are second rate people – otherwise they would be in a better-paid job.

People who can, write. People who can’t, publish.

You should simultaneously look into print-on-demand with someone like lulu.com – remember that, with a traditional print publisher, the author gets only 7.5% on a paperback sale. With print-on-demand you get a much higher percentage, though without a mainstream publisher’s publicity and access to shelf space… but remember, too, that Amazon and Apple will also screw you for a large percentage when you sell through them at a normal price.

Print books are dead, so be aware you are also writing for eBooks.

In your case, you want some print books to sell at gigs and eBooks online as well as print books online.

Traditional print publishers tend to want 90,000-120,000 words, but the cost of production is in the number of pages not in the wordage. They can adjust the typeface size, gaps around text etc to fit the number of pages which they decide is economical.

The advantage of a traditional print publisher is they will pay you an Advance… though it is paid one third on signing the contract, one third on delivery of an acceptable manuscript and one third on publication. So, if you get a £9 advance, you actually only get £3 in advance of writing the book.

A traditional publisher may take 18 months to get your book published and available for purchase. Print-on-demand is instant, once you sort it out, which may take you a few weeks.

We live in interesting times.

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Yesterday, I saw an old woman and the publishing industry jumping off a roof

The future of traditional publishing

The future of traditional print publishing

Last night, I had a dream.

I was standing on one side of a slightly old-fashioned British shopping street, perhaps built in the 1950s or 1960s, just after the Second World War.

The buildings had right-angled edges and flat roofs – What were architects thinking after the War? Flat roofs? This is rain-drenched Britain, not some part of sun-drenched California.

The shops on the other side of the road were two storeys high and slightly set back from the road with a wider-than-normal pavement. They liked to have lots of pedestrian space in front of shops after the War. I guess there were flats where people lived above the row of shops; I wasn’t really aware of such fine details in my dream.

But I became aware, at the last moment, that an old woman was standing on the edge of the roof above the shops, two storeys up. As I became aware of her, she jumped. She was wearing a light pink, thick woollen coat. And she wore a head scarf.

When she hit the concrete paving slabs below, there was the sound of three – it might have been four – ear-deafening cracks – the sound of breaking bones. There was a slight echo as her bones broke. Her legs hit the concrete paving slabs first, then she crumpled. But she survived the fall. As she lay there, I could see her face contorting as the ever-different agonies hit her. But I could not hear her desperate screams.

“People think you’re certainly going to die if you jump,” I said to someone. “Stupid.”

I guess she died eventually.

Well, she would do, wouldn’t she…

People do.

So it goes.

Yesterday, I went to the first in a two day seminar about Self Publishing held in the Guardian newspaper’s very modern new offices. I was not initially impressed as, at this cyberworld event in their flash new-ish building, it took over ten minutes for someone to tell me what the access code for the internet was.

“Here it is,” she eventually told me, “but it’s very unreliable.”

And so it proved.

Very very unreliable.

It took me around nine attempts to actually post my already-written blog yesterday morning.

Not impressive.

I was also not impressed when the intro included the words (I paraphrase) “Penguin Books are not going to collapse.”

They were taken over by Random House in the last month. The new entity has been nick-named ‘Randy Penguin’.

In a tea break, an art lecturer said to me: “Artists have always been self-publishers when they start out.”

True. And something I had never thought about.

I had also never thought about the fact that, with books now selling online with small thumbnail images of the cover, book designs have to be less detailed and perhaps less interesting than they used to be – in the same way that, when CDs replaced LPs, the cover artwork was more effective when slightly simplified because the physical size was smaller.

The very wise and very clever author Polly Courtney pointed out that the people wheeled on to radio and TV shows to talk about some subject-of-the-moment are often actually not genuine experts – they are just people who have written a recent book about the subject.

The day’s talks made me even more certain that printed books – like vinyl records and soon CDs – are dead. Vinyl records still exist, as do VHSs.

That art lecturer told me a student had recently wanted to shoot and edit something on VHS “to give it an old-fashioned feel”.

Vinyl records still exist. I guess printed books will still exist. But the business will be in cyberspace. Print-on-demand will fill the gap as traditional publishing declines, but eBooks are the future. And self publishing.

Apparently, last year, 18 of the top 100 books sold on Amazon were self-published.

Apparently, crime writer John Locke – the first man to sell over a million self-published digital books on Amazon.com – sold his first two novels at 99p each… His third book was priced at £1.99… and then he priced his next book – How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months! – at £5.99 … It now seems to be on Amazon at £8.99 reduced to £1.88.

Other things I learned yesterday were that only the foolish self-publish in the run-up to Christmas because the current competition from traditional publishers is too intense… and there is a spike in e-book sales in January because people are playing with their new Kindles, iPads and other electronic readers.

Traditional publishing, like the woman who jumped from the roof, is not dead. But it is in agony and terminally crippled.

And, no, I did not make up the dream of a woman jumping.

Yes, I  really did dream that.

Any psychologists out there who can explain the dream, please do.

Any traditional publishers out there with money they want to throw my way to prove me wrong, please do.

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Rearranging books on the shelves of the Titanic as the iceberg gets even closer

Never to be available as printed book

“Printed books are dead,” I told someone recently.

I was having a chat with him because he intends to become an independent publisher. He seemed to me to be surprisingly still wedded to physical books printed on paper.

I pointed out to him that it used to be the case, when you travelled in a London tube train, you saw lots of people reading books and newspapers.

Now – and I do often consciously count ‘em – most people in the late afternoon or evening are looking at smartphones or tablets or occasionally Kindles. And a few are reading the free Evening Standard. No-one is reading a paid-for newspaper. Almost no-one is reading a printed book.

“That’s only in London,” he told me.

I don’t know if that is true. But soon it will be everywhere.

Local and regional newspapers are dying. National printed newspapers and magazines  are plunging off a cliff. And printed books are in terminal decline.

I am in the process of turning my 2010-2011 blogs into an eBook – a soul-destroying process.

I would only issue the blogs as an eBook; there is no point publishing them in a printed book. No-one will buy it, of course, even as an eBook – because they can access the same material for free online. But there might be a few sales if it is pitched very cheap; and it is a tiny bit of self-publicity; and it is a learning process for me.

Malcolm Hardee book. New version published?

Once I understand the pitfalls, I intend to re-issue comedian Malcolm Hardee’s iconic autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake as an eBook and as a print-on-demand book, possibly in a revised form (the publisher changed the original opening and the chapter endings, making it less interesting). And I have four other ‘books’ partially-ready after that, some to be issued solely as eBooks, some as both e and print-on-demand books.

Print-on-demand means you only print the exact number of books required; there is no wastage.

Yesterday, I went to a two-hour event called Going Indie: The Writer in The Digital Age at the Free Word Centre in London. I was surprised that, there too, there was a reluctance to admit the printed book is dead. Almost all the talk was about the apparent rise of small, independent publishers with an emphasis on printed books and physical bookshops rather than the opportunities for ePublishing, self-publishing and internet retail… although Amazon, of course, was mentioned.

I was interested to hear that 60 million books are sold in the UK every year and 20% of those are cookery books. I do not know how many of the non-cookery books are eBooks. I understand that now, in North America, sales of eBooks outnumber the sales of printed books.

Amazon, of course, dominate. And they have lots of different charts covering different subject areas.

Interestingly, Darren Laws of small British publisher Caffeine Nights yesterday explained how he had increased the profile of one of his books on Amazon.

“We looked at the charts and looked at what was selling,” he revealed. “We saw that, on the numbers, one particular crime fiction book we published was outselling the No 1 sports fiction title on Amazon. Our book had a sports fiction background so, legitimately, we swapped the chart listing for it from crime fiction to sports fiction and suddenly we had a No 1 book. It found its audience readership, it stayed there for quite some time. On eBooks, we were selling a couple of hundred a month on that title: quite good for a small company like us.”

Justine Solomons of Byte the Book observed: “The internet gives you the ability to find someone who’s a bit like you.”

She also, rather oddly, admitted: “I used to choose the books I read by publisher. That’s becoming increasingly important: brands.”

Indeed, some small publishers now have subscribers, rather like book clubs, where their readers pay to buy future as-yet-unknown books from the publisher.

Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press said: “We publish contemporary European bestsellers in translation so, although our authors are very well-known abroad, no-one knows them here and no-one really cares if they’ve won prizes and sold millions of books abroad. We run a highly successful subscription service. We have subscribers up to the end of 2015, but we have only announced our 2013 catalogue. So people are trusting what we will be putting out. We have a strong brand.”

“You’re going more towards the magazine model,” Justine Solomons suggested to her. “The definition of a magazine is you have a body of work and you have issues from it. It doesn’t need to be journal articles. Granta ran on that model for a long time. You subscribe because you know the sort of stuff you will get. Like The New Yorker.”

Peirene Press also hold ‘roaming stores’ which sell books.

Rebecca Swift of The Literary Consultancy pointed out: “Meike was last seen in Budgens supermarket at Crouch End. This kind of ingenuity and dextrous thinking around how you’re going to sell what you’re passionate about is absolutely vital and goes hand-in-hand with really good publishing.”

“That story underlines why independent publishers are so exciting,” said Rachael Ogden of Inpress. “You don’t find the Managing Director of Random House at Budgens. They don’t get that close to the reader.”

To me, though, all this talk of printed books is like King Canute standing on the bow of the Titanic, talking about re-arranging books on the shelves in the library as he watches the iceberg approach and admires the craftsmanship which went into the building of the ocean-going liner.

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Crowd funding the man who wrote for Tony Hancock ten years after he died

(Versions of this piece was also published by the Huffington Post and Indian site We Speak News)

Robert Ross yesterday – cheers to donations

Robert Ross has written books on the Carry On films, Fawlty Towers, Marty Feldman, The Goodies, Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd, Sid James, Monty Python – the list goes on and on and on.

But his latest book Forgotten Heroes of Comedy is not being handled by a ‘traditional’ publisher. It is being ‘crowd-funded’ by Unbound.

“The way the pledging works,” Robert told me yesterday, “is that, for donating £10, you get an eBook version and your name in the back of the book. For £30, you get a hardback copy, an eBook and your name in the back. For £50, you get all that plus I sign the hardback. For £150, you also get invited to the launch party. For £250, we throw in a pub lunch with Barry Cryer and me, which some people have paid for already. And, if you pay £1,000, you can have the forgotten comedy hero of your choice added into the book.”

“Has anyone forked out the £1,000 yet?” I asked.

“Well,” Robert told me, “I have had offers of £1,000 not to write about some people – like Jimmy Clitheroe and Peter Glaze. Someone was very anti-Peter Glaze. But he’s still going to be in the book because I liked him on Crackerjack as a kid.”

“So what is the criteria for getting in?” I asked.

“Well,” explained Robert, “You have to be a professional comic and not had a book written about you nor had the whole TV docu-drama thing or the Unforgettable-type documentary made about you. And you have to be dead. I’m not going to say that a person is alive but hasn’t worked for ten years, so they’re forgotten. You’ve definitely gotta be dead.”

Mario Fabrizi,” I suggested.

“Absolutely,” said Robert Ross. “He’ll be in the book.”

Arthur Haynes,” I said. “The biggest name in TV comedy in the early 1960s.”

“Arthur Haynes is going to be in the book,” said Robert, “although he is going through a little bit of a resurgence now because Network DVD have just released two or three volumes of his shows and Paul Merton did a BBC4 show on him. Ironically, ITV were a lot better at keeping stuff than the BBC who tended to junk things quite willy-nilly. With Arthur Haynes, almost a complete collection of his shows exist. They just haven’t been re-screened. So he’s been forgotten.

Max Miller: not forgotten

“People like Tony Hancock are not forgotten because his shows have been broadcast ever since. There are some music hall comedians who are still remembered – like Max Miller who made a lot of films and he has a statue in Brighton and a fan club. So he won’t be in the book because he’s not a forgotten comedian, even though you could ask the guys in this pub who he was and they wouldn’t know.

“It’s almost like a tightrope. The comedians have to be interesting and justifiable to be remembered but not too famous to have been ‘done’ before. It’s ones I think should have been celebrated more than they have been.”

“Traditional publishers,” I suggested, “must have been wary of a book about forgotten comedians?”

“Well, that’s why Unbound are great as publishers,” said Robert, “because they will take a chance on proven writers and help them do their dream projects. They give writers a chance to take something out of the bottom drawer that no-one’s wanted to do so far. They have authors like Julie Burchill, Terry Jones, Katy Brand, Robert Llewellyn, Jonathan Meades and Hardeep Singh Kohli with books that are very personal to the writer.

“The major selling point of Forgotten Heroes of Comedy – though they are forgotten comedians – is that, if you love comedy, all these people intertwine with Frankie Howerd, Morecambe & Wise and all the greats and each one will be championed by a contemporary comic or comedy writer… so Danny Baker’s going to do an introductory piece on Peter Glaze, Terry Jones will do Ronald Frankau. I’ll write the major article about the comedian, but they’ll do a couple of paragraphs about why they love them so much – Why the fans of, say, Mark Gatiss or Stephen Fry should find out about these people because they made them what they are today.

“The original idea was that the book would include around 120 or 125 comedians and have about 1,000 words per person. That’s gone a bit mad now because, since I started doing it, I’ve written at least 2,000 on some people. I’ll try and preserve the fun thing on the page. And, as I write it, I’m dropping in autobiographical bits about how I remembered them as a kid, things my dad told me about them and stuff like that.”

“How did you first get interested in comedians?” I asked.

“When I was small, my dad – bless him – illegally taped Hancock’s Half Hour shows and Goon Shows off the radio and he would play those to me. They were almost like my lullabies. Then my mum and dad worked out at an early age that I would stop crying if they put me in front of a TV and I fell in love with uncles and aunts like The Two Ronnies and Hattie Jacques and Frankie Howerd. I developed an obsession with comedy. When I was about ten or twelve, I wrote scripts for Tony Hancock who, at that point, had been dead about ten years – just writing silly half minutes.”

“So you wanted to be a comic?” I asked.

“No,” said Robert firmly. “I was just fascinated by comedy. I wanted to write about it. I wanted to be a writer. Around the age of fourteen, I was writing film quiz books on old films – comedies, westerns, old horror films. I loved old films. I was trying to get published at fourteen – very precocious. but I didn’t get published. I started writing my Carry On book when I was sixteen – it wasn’t published for another ten years. In between, I worked for a bit and went to university.”

“Worked for a bit doing dull things?”

“Worked for British Rail, the Ministry of Defence, all very hush-hush.”

“You can tell me,” I said.

“No I can’t,” he said. “But I only worked in ‘proper’ jobs for about three years before university. I graduated in English and Film Studies and got the Carry On Companion published within about six months of leaving university. Ever since, I’ve written about one or two books a year, supplemented with CDs and DVDs and sleeve notes and commentaries for DVDs and radio shows.”

“And the idea for Forgotten Heroes of Comedy first came to you when?” I asked.

Monty Python’s Terry Jones does not live in Muswell Hill

“In 1999,” explained Robert. “I was having dinner with Terry Jones – so it was the 30th anniversary of Monty Python. I was having some take-away curry at his house in Muswell Hill – he’s moved now, so you can’t find him there – and he had this 78 record player and he was going through his records.

“He had all sorts of weird and wonderful things like Laurence Olivier reading poetry – and he had this one of Ronald Frankau – a song called Winnie The Worm – a quite double-entendre laden song – and he played this and I said I like Ronald Frankau and he said No-one’s ever heard of Ronald Frankau. He’s one of those forgotten heroes of comedy and then he said, That’s a great idea for a book. I’ll do the foreword and you write it. So I said OK, fine. And that was 13 years ago because, as you suggested, publishers don’t want to do a book about people who are forgotten.

“After that, every time I saw Terry, he said Have you got a publisher yet? and I said No. Not got a publisher yet. But now Unbound have picked it up.

“If people sponsor it by pledging money up-front to get it going,” I said.

“Yes,” said Robert.

“You are only including forgotten recent comedians?” I asked. “Would you do an 1862 music hall act? You presumably wouldn’t do Greek comedy.”

“I’m gonna go back to maybe the turn of the last century, when people were making gramophone records. Maybe back to 1890.”

“So not the first Punch & Judy man in London?”

“No, that’s more a historian job than a comedy historian job.”

“Only British comics?” I asked.

“I’m doing Americans too. British and American at the moment.”

“Americans such as?”

Shemp Howard.”

“Who he?” I asked.

“Exactly,” said Robert. “The forgotten third of The Three Stooges. He was the one who came in to replace Curly, the bald one, when he got very ill and died and he was there for a good seven or eight years making lots of films, but no-one knows who he is.”

“So,” I suggested, “you wouldn’t have an entry on Zeppo Marx, but you might do one on Gummo Marx?”

“At the moment,” said Robert, “Zeppo is in, because Zeppo left early. And maybe Gummo will be in as a footnote to Zeppo.”

“You’ve got a great life,” I suggested, “writing about your heroes.”

“And, by virtue of doing that,” said Robert. “you meet some of your heroes and some of them become really good mates, which is quite bizarre.”

“I never want to meet my heroes,” I said. “People who seem great on screen tend to turn out to be shits and people you assume are going to be shits turn out to be great.”

“You can meet a few people who are not nice,” said Robert.

“Charlie Drake?” I suggested.

“Well, I never met him and he was never a hero of mine.”

“So tell me some awful story about some person without naming them.”

“No,” said Robert. “I might want to use the stories for the book! And, if I tell you a story about some anonymous person, I’ll be hounded with Who was this person? – You’ve got to pay for the book to find out who people are. I’ll slag them off in the book, I promise – if you pay me.”

Which brings us to the point of writing this blog.

Can anyone lend me £1,000?

It will go to a good cause.

(As an aside to illustrate how interesting this proposed book might be, Ronald Frankau, whose Winnie The Worm Robert heard at Terry Jones’ home… is the father of Rosemary Frankau, who co-starred in the long-running 1980s BBC TV sitcom Terry and June and grandfather of Sam Bain, who co-writes Channel 4’s sitcom Peep Show.)

Here are Robert Ross, Terry Jones and Barry Cryer talking about the book…

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Filed under Books, Comedy, Humor, Humour, Nostalgia

I am worried that I was wrong to give advice to this comedian on how to blog

Lewis Schaffer shows his true colours

I was going to blog about something else today. But then I looked at my e-mail Inbox.

I may have a rival daily blog. I am worried.

When I was a student, in the dim and distant years of the last century when people still used quills and wore flared trousers, I got myself a summer job in the press and publicity department at Penguin Books. One day, they had a visit from a man who was starting up a publishing business in Malaysia. He had asked if he could look round the  Penguin operation at Harmondsworth to see how it was organised on the ground.

Very politely, they told him everything they could to help him. All about their relationship with their printers, their distribution system, the economic set-up of the company and so on.

At the time, I wondered, Why are they doing this? They may find in the future that they have trained their own business rival.

I still do not know why they did it.

Last week, Lewis Schaffer, the not-yet famous American comic based in London, phoned me, asking advice.

“I think maybe I should scale down all the online stuff I do,” he told me. “What do you think, John? Maybe I should stop Tweeting on Twitter, stop doing stuff on Facebook, stop all this social networking stuff or scale it back. Or maybe I should increase it.”

This was classic Lewis Schaffer; it went on for about ten minutes.

I was watching the climax of a movie on TV. I kept watching and listening.

Occasionally, I would say, “Mmmm,” or “Ah.”

I know from experience that it comforts Lewis Schaffer as he talks. He does not phone for advice; he phones to talk. At one point, I managed to get a word in and perhaps foolishly gave him some advice:

“You should blog,” I told him, still watching and listening to the explosions on the TV screen. “You are a natural blogger,” I told him, still on verbal auto-pilot, “I think you should give up performing your own comedy shows. You should be a ‘meeter and greeter’. That’s what you enjoy. You should meet people at the door, shake their hand, greet them, find out about them, have long chats with everyone, make friends with them. That’s what you like. You don’t do shows because you like being on stage; you just do it to chat to people. Don’t bother to perform a show on stage. Why bother? It just gives you stress. Just welcome people to the show but don’t do the show. Blogging is performing without the stress of performing.”

“Who do you think I should blog with?” Lewis Schaffer asked. “Who do you blog with?”

“Wait a second,” I asked him.

Five people got machine-gunned on screen.

WordPress,” I told him. “I think you should either use WordPress or Blogger.

“Blogger has the theoretical advantage that it is owned by Google, so it might prove better at some point in the future, but Google picks up everything on the WordPress blogs anyway. I used to blog on Blogger, but I preferred the templates on WordPress. Really, it would be better for me to blog on both. To duplicate the blog and have it running on both. But there have been so many blogs now that it would be too complicated to go back and duplicate everything and I don’t think it would be very effective to start duplicating now.”

“What about Janey?” Lewis Schaffer asked.

“Ah!” I said, “Janey Godley… Well now…”

“Janey is another league entirely. She has a man who duplicates her blogs on I think it’s something like 170 or 180 or more different websites. When she was at her blogging peak, I know she was getting over 500,000 hits every week, because I worked it out for her on about three occasions over a period.”

“Jesus!” said Jewish American comedian Lewis Schaffer.

I paused.

Another three people died on screen and a car went over a cliff.

“Janey’s main blog is on Blogger,” I continued, “but it doesn’t really matter because it’s everywhere. Do a Google Search for “janey godley” + blog and you get some idea. She also has a widget on the homepage of her website which links to her blog and updates every time her main blog is updated. But she tends to Tweet now,” I told him. “She blogs less but could Tweet for Britain in the Olympics.”

“I don’t know, John,” Lewis Schaffer said to me. “I think maybe I should scale down all the social networking stuff I do. What do you think? Maybe I should stop Tweeting on Twitter, stop doing stuff on Facebook, stop all this online stuff or scale it back. Or maybe I should increase it. What do you think?”

This was classic Lewis Schaffer; it went on for another ten minutes.

I kept watching and listening to the movie on the TV screen.

Eventually, Lewis Schaffer talked himself out.

But I woke up this morning and there was a Google Alert in my mailbox.

Lewis Schaffer seems to have started a daily blog three days ago. It is on WordPress. His latest blog is about stress and worry. It is headlined The Power of Worry. It includes the words:

I was happy with my gig.  One old guy did walk out in front of the stage and gave me and the audience of 150 a big, theatrical yawn. I can make people walk out in seconds but I climbed on top of a table and shouted at the guy “Do you think you hurt me by leaving? My wife left me and took my kids!” 

I think Lewis Schaffer has found a way to write a blog about worrying… about which he will worry. He can be very funny when he does not worry too much about being worried. And often when he does. And he does, still, have the best Holocaust joke I have ever heard.

But what if the increasing number of people who read my blog decide that his blog is more interesting? Should I be worried? Or should I just print a photograph of Lewis Schaffer, naked, with this blog and hope it puts people off?

These are testing times for me.

I highly recommend Lewis Schaffer’s ongoing twice-weekly comedy shows in London and his blog (if he keeps it going). Just never ever give him your telephone number. Truly. Just do not do it.

POSTSCRIPT

There may be more pressing things to worry about, though. Just as I was about to post this blog, I got a text from comedian Bob Slayer, on his way back to Britain from Australia. I am looking at it now, with rising fear. It says:

Landed in Brunei. 3.5 hours til flight, so going on 2 hour tour. Unfortunately is wrong time of day for monkey tour so going to food market. Maybe to eat monkey?

Now he is safely out of Australia, I will go and re-post those two blogs I temporarily removed about his exploits in Oz.

But I pity the poor people and monkeys of Brunei.

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Filed under Books, Comedy, Writing