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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far way… in zone 2

This weekend, I had the Star Wars Secret Cinema to look forward to.

Unlike the Back to the Future one, I was actually going to get dressed up in a suitable outfit. And after spending an afternoon traipsing around various fabric and charity shops in Walthamstow, I had got my costume together costing about a tenner.

So my plan for the weekend was to have a quiet night on Friday, get some writing done during the day on Saturday and go to Secret Cinema, then do an Edinburgh preview in Balham on Sunday afternoon.

Just as I was about to leave the office on Friday, I remembered that I needed to print my ticket. However, when I saw the date on my ticket I realised that I hadn’t booked for Saturday at all. I had actually booked for Friday. I haven’t had much luck with this event, first I booked a child’s ticket in my excitement, and then I forget exactly when I’m meant to be there.

The problem with getting everything organised for my Edinburgh show and now having more responsibilities at work is that anything that doesn’t fall into one of those categories can get overlooked.

I thought about heading back to my house to get my outfit, but this would probably delay me by about an hour and a half. So I had to head straight there in my civilian clothes. Well, I say ‘civilian clothes’, but I was actually wearing a niche Star Wars reference t-shirt for Tosche Station power converters. And to think, I’d spent all that time perfecting my Jar Jar Binks look for nothing.

The event was talking place at an old printing works in Canada Water. The organisers had impressively recreated a wretched hive of scum and villainy in the place where they used to print the Daily Mail. I don’t know if this was intentional, but it certainly gives the whole thing a satirical slant.

The scope of the event is huge, taking in space travel, Tatooine and a space station, not a moon. They’ve done a great job recreating the look and feel of the Star Wars universe, looking around you know exactly the world you’re meant to be in.

Actors in costumes were walking around throughout proceedings, re-enacting certain points in the films. It’s always a thrill to see Stormtroopers, Boba Fett and Darth Vader, even if they aren’t the real ones.

The most impressive moment is when [spoiler alert] they re-enact the attack on the first Death Star, with the trench run featuring a full-sized X-wing suspended from the ceiling and moving around as if it’s actually flying.

In many ways, it was a lot easier for the Back to the Future event they did. The film was set on Earth, with clothes, technology and vehicles having really existed in the 1980s or 1950s, apart from the time-travelling ones. Star Wars is almost the exact opposite, with everything having been created specifically for that universe.

It was always going to take a lot to top Back to the Future and I applaud the Secret Cinema team for their ambition in realising such a massive project.

There is no getting away from the cost for a ticket. It is £80. And the more money you spend on things, the higher your expectations are. I enjoyed Back to the Future more, mainly because it was a bit more laid back. You had a chance to explore and take in the surroundings. Although you can spend a fair amount of time exploring Mos Eisley with this event, it did feel a bit like you were being ushered around. I can understand that though, it was inevitable with such a gargantuan undertaking.

But if you’re a Star Wars fan, you will find a lot of stuff to enjoy. If I could go again at a discounted rate, I definitely would. If I can also get my voided child ticket upgraded and pay another £20, then I would also go again. I’ll make sure I wear my costume, even if it involves wearing it to work.

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Two more previews done, two to go

I have done another two previews of my show and the material is coming together fairly nicely. Unfortunately, the quiz is currently miles away from where it needs to be.

The first of my latest round of previews was at the night I run in Walthamstow. At my preview there last year, I properly tanked in a sweltering and tired room. This year, I was much more optimistic due to the weather being overcast.

The usual format of this night is to have four acts doing five to ten minutes in the first half and then the same again in the second half. At last Friday’s show, it was business as usual in the first half and I was due to do my thing in the second.

We had about 15 people in for the first half, which wasn’t a bad amount at all for a free gig on a Friday night in July. However, all but two of our audience left at the interval. The first half went pretty well and they seemed to be enjoying themselves. But they may have all decided that they really didn’t want to see my show. The fools.

We managed to get a couple more people in and the preview went ahead. I’ve performed in front of far smaller crowds and it’s good preparation for the Fringe. The show went much better than it should have gone in the circumstances and the recording sounds like the crowd was about five times as large.

But this preview did highlight the risks I was taking in the quiz of leaving too many questions and answers reliant on opinion and subjectivity, as well as questions that are probably over complicated.

My second preview was in Chelmsford. I had five days in between to get the quiz closer to what it needs to be. I ended up getting nothing done in that time and was rewriting the questions on a picnic bench outside the venue, half an hour before I was due on stage.

The first half of material went pretty well, with some big laughs in places. There are a few bits I need to work on, but nothing dramatic. And my last-minute additions to the quiz went well, but there was still a bit in the middle that didn’t work.

I thought the preview was decent, but afterwards somebody at the bar told me that I was very brave, or words to that effect. When someone says this to you after a gig, it generally means you haven’t done very well.

But it is definitely a good thing that I’m having problems with the show. It makes me think harder about how I can improve it. I have two previews left. There’s still time to get things right and I work best when I have a deadline looming.

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First preview for 2015 done

I had my first preview last night of How To Win A Pub Quiz II: Advanced Edition. As I am out of practice with the format, there was a lot of stuff I needed to remember to prepare.

Thinking that I had another crucial five minutes to get stuff ready, it would be a rush but I thought I should have been just about ready to go. However, just as I was trying to remember and find exactly what I needed, I was called to the stage. I was still trying to locate stuff at the bottom of my bag, so had to ask for a few more minutes.

By the time I eventually got onto the stage, I was ill-prepared and couldn’t find the sheet of new material I’d printed earlier in the day.

It could have been a disaster, but fortunately I was in the Hollybush in Cradley Heath. It is one of the friendliest and most forgiving rooms there is in comedy.

I thought I would try something different with the show format. Last year, the first half of the show was stand-up and the second half was the quiz. Last night, I thought I would split that up as well. So I would start off doing 15 minutes of material at the start, then the first part of the quiz, followed by another 15 minutes of stand-up and then the final part of the quiz.

The first part of the show went well, with material that I have honed over several months. But things fell apart in the second half when I couldn’t remember exactly what I wanted to say as I had lost my new material notes. Some of the new stuff about music went well, but the stuff on sport tanked and I didn’t end up having enough time or confidence in attempting to remember the new film stuff.

It could have gone much better, although it’s actually good for stuff to go wrong in previews as it forces you to improve. Despite this, the 15 or so people there seemed to enjoy most of it.

I don’t think I’ll be trying this revised format again, because the one I had last year worked really well. And if you’ve got the audience tuned out of listening to stand-up, it can be difficult to tune them back in again.

With the first preview done, I have just over a month to get the show up to scratch. There is still time, but I’ll be cutting it pretty finely this year.

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That elusive 20

If you get paid sets at comedy clubs, they are generally at least 20 minutes long. However, it is very difficult to get your 20 minutes honed if you are not regularly doing sets this length.

Many clubs won’t book you to do 20 minutes unless you have a solid 20, particularly in London where a ten minute set is a luxury.  Although I have done multiple 30 minute and hour sets at a couple of Fringes and previews, I still don’t know what my ‘club 20’ should be, or if the material I have that works will actually be long enough.

Fringe audiences tend to be a lot more open-minded and willing to go with you on some whimsical tangent that might not really go anywhere. Comedy clubs are not usually so lenient and you need to be tighter. But this is just a loose rule and I have also experienced harsh Fringe crowds and generous ones at clubs.

I was booked to do 20 minutes in Birmingham on Saturday. I spent the previous week trying to think of what my strongest set would be, but didn’t get around to writing anything down or it until Saturday afternoon.

The Mockingbird Theatre it was a great venue, a theatre with cinema seating and about 60 people in.

I knew I was on second. But as there were only three acts and an MC on, I assumed that there would be a break before my set. However, it was only after the first act finished that I got around to asking the promoter if there was going to be a break. I then found out that I was on straight away, so had to rush backstage to get the stuff out of my bag.

I had about two minutes to get everything together. I needed to find my watch and get my set written out.

I was wearing an old PE shirt from my school days, but was planning on changing into a shirt to look a bit more presentable. In the end, I didn’t have time. So with barely three words scribbled onto my hands, my name was called out and I had to go on.

Two or three years ago, this sort of situation would have caused me to get tense, flustered, and incoherent. I used to think that unless I had my set written out precisely on my hand, then I would forget everything I was supposed to say. But I think that having done my own solo show has really helped me stay calmer and put my mind at ease in such situations. It is common to still be trying to usher people in to watch right when you’re due on.

There were a few lines that didn’t get the big laugh I was hoping and other lines that I also forgot due to my lack of preparation. Despite this, I really enjoyed it and got some really hefty laughs from  a lot of audience interaction. It is always nice to do well, get paid, have the promoter want to rebook you, but also knowing that you can do better.

Saying that, I’m booked at Pear Shaped on Wednesday and will probably die on my arse.

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Organisation

In less than two months, I will be performing in Edinburgh and it is safe to say that I am much less organised than I was last year.

This time 12 months ago, I’d already done one preview and my show was taking shape nicely. This year, my first preview isn’t until July and my show is only half-written.

This is both good and bad. It’s good because nothing gets me writing like a deadline and I’m less likely to be bored of my material by the time the Fringe comes around. It’s bad because I may not have enough time to get it properly road-tested

Compared with a year ago, I also haven’t done as many gigs. This is partly due to me not being able to do as much comedy admin during work hours now due to extra responsibilities, and also partly because there don’t seem to be quite so many gigs around now. A few years ago, it was quite easy to do two or three open mic gigs in one night, a few days a week. Whether or not any of them would have an audience is another matter.

The London comedy and open mic circuit has been on the wane for a while, but it now looks like this waning is going up another couple of notches. My reliable gig on Monday in Aldgate East is no more; it was often dreadful, but usually useful.

Another regular open mic venue is also ending in July, a long-running venue has also been recently sold, with rumours of a staple open mic venue likely being sold.

I’ve been saying for a few years that I think my comedy future lies outside London and further north. I’ll have to see where I am with everything after the Fringe and make a decision at the end of the year.

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From downing to Downing Street

This week, I tried out my idea of downing a pint of beer and then a pint of Guinness as an allegory of films and their similar, but darker sequels.

I cheated slightly by the pint of beer only being a pint of shandy, but then I reserve the right to special effects when it relates to films. Also, the pint of shandy was infinitely more real than the unnecessary CGI that pollutes far too many films.

You don’t know if something is going to work until you try it out. I managed consecutively downing the two pints fairly easily, but it didn’t get the big laugh I would need to justify doing this every day in Edinburgh. If I am to do it again, I actually need to write the routine more tightly. Downing consecutive pints might go down well at a UKIP rally, but not on necessarily on a Fringe audience unless it has the material. I can’t ever see myself performing at a UKIP rally, but then I am looking for previews and know I’ve definitely got a crowd pleaser if I am booked.

In similar news, I am still hoping the general election result is all one big stunt by Derren Brown and when I wake up, everything will be fine. You fooled us, Derren. Please show yourself soon.

On election day, I woke up with had a good feeling that everything would be fine and the Tories would be out. My gut was telling me that it would be close, but that Labour could just snatch it. My gut has also kept a close eye on the polls. I have since learned to not trust the political insight of my gut or polls, as the respective end-products are much the same substance. No-one really knows anything until it happens.

The Prime Minister remains the same coward backed by tax-avoiding millionaires and a rabid right-wing press that is scared of anything that may force them to change their ways.

Despite all the horrendous things that are likely to happen, I have tried to think of some positives:

  • There is always a better chance of a revolution when the Tories are in.
  • They only have a majority of 13 and conflicts within the party are inevitable. It won’t be long before it falls apart.
  • Music and comedy are much better when they have a hated authority to rally against. Look at the 1980s and 1990s. I urge people to harness their anger and form a band. There are already far too many comedians.
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A paid gig

I got recognised last night by a table of people in a pub who had been quoting my material, which resulted in paid work.

I have made this sound much more impressive than it actually is, but it remains true.

I was putting up some posters for the comedy night I co-run in Walthamstow and a table of middle-aged people, who had been to a previous gig, saw me. One of them had been trying to tell them one of my jokes, but had messed it up. To be fair, I often do this as well.

One of the group offered to pay me £1 to tell it properly. So I took his money, told the joke and got a laugh. They then offered to pay me another £1 for another joke, only I couldn’t think of any that would actually work in the context of what was effectively joke table service to four people in a pub. Although I often do gigs to much smaller crowds, I have usually at least have something prepared.

I should have left it at the one joke, because the second joke tanked. But they wanted more. So I told them another one on the premise that if it didn’t get a laugh, I would refund them the second £1. I told the joke to a confused response and then promptly fulfilled my agreement.

But I was still £1 in unexpected profit, and then made a quick exit before they tried to reclaim that as well.

I should probably start working on a set if such a thing happens again. It could even be a new way of making some money from comedy, but could also be interpreted as begging.

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Expenditure and refunds

I have taken the plunge and forked out almost £300 to be listed in the main Edinburgh Fringe brochure.

It has been long four years since I last did this in the naive and often painful days of A Mixed Bag.

It is a lot of money that doesn’t guarantee any audience or anything else, but does increase your chances of getting a review. When I first started comedy, getting a review scared me. Now I don’t really care, it is inevitable that not everyone is going to like me.

I was going to register the show last year, but couldn’t work out the online registration form on a lunch break at work. I also didn’t know if the show was going to work.

Unlike last year, I know that the format of my show does work and also gives me a lot of freedom to piss about with it.

The plan at the moment is to write a new show, but keeping one or two of the bits from last year that worked well. But then if large chunks new stuff does turn out to be rubbish, I at least have some of last year’s material to fall back on.

In other news, I chose to further dip into my savings to get a ticket for the Star Wars Secret Cinema. Although it is £80 and a lot of money, I know that if I don’t go then I will regret it. The Back to the Future showing they did a few months ago was mightily impressive and the lure of something similar but with Star Wars proved too much.

However, not everything went according to plan in my ticket purchasing. The first date I tried to buy a ticket for turned out to be sold-out just before I’d entered my payment details. So I quickly clicked through to book up another date and managed to get one, only for the confirmation screen to tell me that I had booked a child’s ticket. To avoid missing out entirely, I booked an adult’s ticket for a month later.

I am now pursuing a refund for the ticket I can’t use and have stated in the letter: “This child’s ticket is no use to me, because I am 30 years old.”

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On a downer

At my gig in Walthamstow last night, I was due to honour an agreement made the previous month to down a pint of Guinness on stage. Despite anyone there barely remembering me making this pact, I had to fulfil it nonetheless.

The last time I downed a pint of Guinness, I ended up in hospital with a broken ankle. It wasn’t just the downed pint that hospitalised me; it was joined by a ridiculous amount of alcohol and other circumstances that I won’t go into for legal reasons.

But still, I was slightly apprehensive about something going horribly wrong, even if I am perfectly comfortable with public failure by now.

The downing started off well, but it got more difficult when I got to the final third and encountered foam at the bottom of the glass.

I pushed through the unpleasant foam barrier and achieved my objective, much to the delight of the 20 people in the room who were cheering me on and had mostly come back for the second half to see me attempt my feat.

It also gave me an idea for my Edinburgh show in the film section, where I talk about trilogies. My idea is to down a pint of beer to a (hopefully) cheering crowd. Then I down a pint of Guinness immediately afterwards, which proves that sequels aren’t usually as good as the originals – but they are darker. Then for the third, I try in vain to get something out of the two empty pint glasses, but it doesn’t amount to anything and I should have stopped at two.

I think there is something in this idea, but don’t know if I could literally stomach downing two pints every day in Edinburgh during my show. So I may film it as a sketch.

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Return to the Forbidden Planet

When it comes to 7-12 February, I often think back to what I was doing in the year 2000.

I was 15 years old and had somehow landed the lead role in a school production of Return to the Forbidden Planet, largely because so few boys were willing to do it.

I had about four months of after-school rehearsals for it, and for the first three months I could barely speak. If you are unaware of the production, it is essentially Shakespeare’s The Tempest with bits of his other plays spliced in and a load of 1950s rock n roll songs in it.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to sing but I was really struggling with the script. If I wasn’t swallowing words, then I was talking at such a low volume that you could barely hear me on the other side of a classroom. I wanted to drop-out, but I hung on in there because I knew that I wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to talk to a certain girl.

Then a couple of weeks before the opening night, when the teachers must have been worrying frantically about how awful their Captain Tempest was going to be, something just clicked into place and everything started working for me. I think it must have been my ridiculous outfit that helped, consisting of an Elvis jumpsuit, a Biggles flying jacket and hat, a scarf that stuck out at an angle and a very large false moustache. It transformed me from an insecure teenager into an intergalactic clown.

I played the role for comedic effect and getting big laughs from such a large audience was definitely a deciding factor in making me want to pursue comedy.

It was certainly the highlight of my time at school. For a brief period, I was hot property and people wanted to talk to me. Two weeks later, I was back to reality and returned to being ignored. Fame is fickle.

It is quite weird thinking that 15 years have passed and I am now double the age I was then, but it remains a fond memory. That young fool has a lot of terrible things ahead of him in the next decade and a half, but I think he’s going to be alright.

Oh, and nothing ever happened with that girl. I last saw her a few months ago sitting across the aisle from me on a train back home. Her head turned towards me and I was getting ready to act surprised and say hello, but then she got up and moved carriages. I just hope my 15-year-old self doesn’t find this out.