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Grafting

This year, I am prioritising getting new material honed over paid gigs. It’s just as well, because otherwise driving a 175-mile round trip to Birmingham on Friday night for what turned out to be a reduced set of five minutes at a spoken word night might seem like a complete waste of time.

The other side of this is that I’m getting offered barely any paid gigs, but I’m also not actively sending requests for them. After eight years of plugging away, a logical person might consider this to be a pretty shocking failure.

When things aren’t going well, it’s all too easy to blame other factors such as the audience, the way the gig is run, not getting enough sleep, or needing a poo before the gig and there being no soap or toilet roll. But after a while, these just become justifications for your own failures. Either you get bitter, or you can keep trying to get better. It’s just one vowel’s difference and cheesy as hell, but I do love cheese.

Also, I’ve done two official sold-out runs at Edinburgh Fringe. So shut up, logical person. Admittedly, this does put me among pretty exclusive company among the circuit stragglers.

On the flip side of this, the new stuff has been going really well for the most part. I’ve suddenly got a lot more stuff that is getting to the level of where it needs to be. This has been achieved by writing, trying it out, writing some more, trying it out again slightly differently, then more writing and more gigging. There’s no secret to it other than hard work and that’s the key thing. I have been far too lazy in the past few years. I’ve not been booking up enough gigs or writing and performing enough.

The other thing behind this is that I am writing and testing stuff for my new hour show. It definitely helps to have a focus and a target to aim for. In August, I will be returning to the Kilderkin for Stop the Press, I Want to Get Off.

When you’re planning a show, it’s useful to have an idea of the venue in mind and there are few rooms I know better than the Kilderkin. In fact, I am fairly sure it’s where I have performed the most number of times. A quick calculation suggests that this is around 80 times from four runs at the Fringe, with only Walthamstow’s Ye Old Rose and Crown coming anywhere close to that and those were monthly gigs over six years. This isn’t something I’d ever thought of until now.

I’ve done two previews so far. At both, what I thought would be an hour turned out to be just over 40 minutes. This was fine at the second as it didn’t matter if I ran under. However, at the first one, I was part of the world record attempt for the longest running comedy gig and had to make sure that I at least did an hour. Fortunately, I had my notebook and was able to pick out bits of material to ensure I went the distance. My comedy accomplishments are now: two sold-out Edinburgh Fringe runs, a world record, and a white sock from all those dodgy nights in Tooting.

My new show still needs a fair amount of work, but I like the direction I’m going with it. I’ve got another preview on Thursday, but definitely need to book up several more.

Oh, and I’ll also be doing How To Win A Pub Quiz for the full-run at Stand 2 in August. I just couldn’t leave it alone.

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Reinvigorated

If you’re wondering why I’ve not written anything so far this year, there is no reason other than I’ve not really felt any need to. But for my first entry in 2018, I am pleased to report that I am feeling reinvigorated, at least as far as comedy goes.

For the first time in many years and not including the Fringe, I have done three gigs a week for four or five consecutive weeks before the snow interfered. Many of these gigs were also to trial new material.

A wise man once said: “It is better to die on your arse and learn from it, rather than coast along in a bubble of mediocrity.”

I may share a latop with this mysterious philosopher. I have recently realised that coasting along in this bubble is exactly what I’ve been doing for far too long now at too many gigs. I’ve become complacent and over-reliant on material that worked four or five years ago, but that I’ve since become disconnected with. When you become disconnected from your material, people tend to stop laughing at it and that’s never the audiences’ fault. I’m also a different person to the one that originally wrote many of these jokes. I mean, I am the same person, but I’m older and am no longer sleeping in a bin bag, covered in flea bites.

Another thing that brought this stagnated material issue into light was after one of my higher profile gigs last year that went okay, but not as well as I’d hoped. I went through my setlist and put the year the joke was written next to it. There was a worrying lack of material from pre-2014, which is no coincidence that this the last time I took a new show idea up to Edinburgh How To Win A Pub Quiz has been far more successful than I ever anticipated when I initially came up the idea. I’ve had so much fun with it and genuinely love performing the show, but at the same time it’s meant that I’ve not been writing anywhere near as much new material specifically for a show that I was doing in the years before 2014.

After this introspection, you’re probably wondering exactly why I’m feeling reinvigorating. Well, that is because I have been writing a new hour show for the past couple of months. I will be taking this up to Edinburgh Fringe this year. The provisional title was What Are You Going to Do?, then was A Decade of Life and Death, and it’s currently Stop the Press, I Want to Get Off. The show looks back on my time as a reporter for a local newspaper, then quitting to follow my dreams, and all the horrible things I’ve been through since then, i.e. sleeping in a bin bag while covered in hundreds of flea bites.

I have been trying out large chunks of the new stuff at various gigs, much of it is getting good responses and I’m getting excited by performing comedy again. Having an hour show to work towards is really helpful to focus the mind. I will also be returning to the Kilderkin, where my pub quiz odyssey began. It’s difficult to see my new show reaching the same levels of success, but it is a different animal. My main aim is to create a show I’m proud of and hope people enjoy it, but you just don’t know until you give it a go. The first outing for the new show is in a couple of weeks.

But never fear, pub quiz fans. I am taking up another show this year to Edinburgh, called How To Win A Pub Quiz: 90s Edition. I can’t leave it behind just yet. Coincidentally, I also need money to buy a house.

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Looking back at 2017

With a few hours left of 2017, I will now summarise what has occurred in the past 12 months.

There are no surprises to learn that the highlight of my 2017 was doing a sold-out full-run at Edinburgh Fringe. That this was also a year when many shows on the same side of town struggled for audience makes it all the more of an achievement. Being asked to do the show at Newcastle Stand was also a thrill, even if my journey there was an ordeal to say the least. Leicester Comedy Festival in February was another highlight of my year, and I really enjoyed my shows up in Glasgow.

I have also made the most money from comedy this year than possibly the previous six years combined. Outside of my hour show, I have done more gigs than last year and a decent amount of these were paid. But it still remains that How To Win A Pub Quiz is going substantially better than my progress on the main comedy circuit. This is partly because I’ve been doing the same material for so many years that I’ve become bored with it and also that I’ve not been booking up enough gigs in my diary. To rectify this, I am planning to do an hour of stand-up in Edinburgh next year without any quizzes, just me and a microphone. Hopefully I’ll have an audience as well. Forcing myself to do a totally new hour will give me a much-needed focus and motivation to write more, plus I’ll need to do more gigs to try stuff out. But do not dismay, quiz fans. I am also planning on doing a variant on How To Win A Pub Quiz in August. I don’t know what sort of state I’ll be in at the end of the month, but I’ll worry about it then.

It has been a good year for attending music gigs, as I’ve managed to see Guns and Roses once and Iron Maiden twice, plus Weezer, The Darkness and Jarvis Cocker. At the moment, 2018 is looking pretty empty on the music gig front.

In November, it was nice to do some reporting for the first time since 2009, when I was sent out to Finland to write a feature on an electric ferry as part of the day job, even if my shorthand turned out to be a little rusty. When I was a reporter in 2008, I was looking into last-minute trips to Scandinavia. I ended up buying a Playstation 3 and spent my holiday playing on it instead, which pretty much sums up what was the worst year of my life. While in Finland in 2017, I suffered from a severe bout of food poisoning, which is also a decent summary of my 2008.

Onto films, my favourite one of the year is probably Logan. I really enjoyed The Last Jedi as well, which has polarised opinions. I’m writing a more detailed assessment of this, so stay tuned. This should tie-in to my idea for a podcast, which I’m hoping to get up and running this year.

New Year’s resolutions: write more comedy, do more comedy admin, spend less time procrastinating on my phone. Every year, I also say that I’m going to learn a language. I’ve been learning Spanish for the past year on the Duolingo app and am going to be doing real language lessons next month.

I don’t know what the next 12 months will bring or where it’ll take me, but can at least be fairly certain that I’ll be writing a review of it in 364 days time.

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Madeira, oh dear ah…

For the past few years, I have taken a tactical holiday in November or December to get some much-needed vitamin D in the winter months, when it’s also cheaper and not overwhelmingly hot.

I have been heading towards the equator where the temperatures are still decent, with Malta and Gran Canaria my previous two winter holiday destinations. Coincidentally, these also seem to be locations where old people go at the same time.

This year, I had a look at the map and chose to put a year of learning Spanish on Duolingo to good use by going to Madeira, where they don’t even speak Spanish. Fortunately, I was able to become 18% fluent in Portuguese before I went, at least according to official Duolingo records.

I signed up for a mountain bike trek. I hadn’t ridden a bike in 14 years, but you never forget. It’s like… something I can’t currently think of.

Most things I book through Expedia are full of pensioners, those are just the rules. On the plus side, it means I almost always have superior fitness levels to the rest of the group. So it was quite a shock to get in the van to go mountain biking and be surrounded by young Germans and Swedish people in professional cycling gear. Then there was me dressed in cotton shorts and a t-shirt, with old trainers.

But it surely didn’t matter, because I’d ridden a bike all throughout my youth, mainly at Center Parcs as I wasn’t allowed out to ride in the road where I lived until I was 12. And I should add that when I was 12, I had a mountain bike with five gears. Five entire gears.

It turns out that mountain biking had changed quite substantially in the 21 subsequent years and I didn’t even know how to use the gears on my bike. The guide quickly saw my ineptitude and prevented me from going on some of the trails.

Despite my legs seizing up with cramp at various points and other members of the group literally pushing me along at others, I somehow managed to complete the 40km trek. I was completely caked in mud, but I’d made it.

It turned out to be a perfect metaphor for Brexit negotiations. I signed up for something I thought would be easy, only to be find myself in an uphill struggle that was way beyond my ability, surrounded by much more experienced and knowledgeable European people who ended up taking pity on me.

The next day I was unable to walk properly, with my inner thighs red and swollen. I was also bruised from falling over a few times and am naturally pasty. So I was at least red, white and blue to embellish the Brexit metaphor further. There’s your patriotism.

I did at least get a couple of days of sun before the clouds took over towards the end of the week. Then I rounded my holiday off by getting a norovirus on my penultimate day.

No prizes for how I spent my final day. Of course, I went on a sightseeing trip of the island.

Okay, I didn’t. I signed up for a sightseeing trip, but after having spent the night vomiting at both ends, I thought it was probably best to change my scale down my sightseeing to the inside of a toilet bowl. I even saw some local wildlife in the ants that were living in my hotel bathroom. A norovirus did at least give an edge to the flight home, like Russian roulette of the arse. I can’t think why the woman sitting next to me moved seats.

I’m now planning next year’s holiday. This one is going to take some topping.

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One for the scrap book

Tuesday night was definitely one for the scrap book. I performed my show in the little room at Leicester Square Theatre on the same night that Stewart Lee and then Bill Bailey were on in the big room.

It’s not quite as exclusive as it sounds, because anyone can perform in that space I was in as long as they’re prepared to cover the costs. I was originally planning on using it as an opportunity to get production companies in to see where else I could take it. Then when ticket sales were stubbornly slow, I chose to just concentrate on getting a full room and enjoy the night for what it was. I did at least manage to get it filmed for the first time ever.

The last two occasions I’d performed in the Lounge were part of the Leicester Square New Comedian of the Year heats, which both went pretty badly. In fact, one was so bad that Moz, who had come on audience duties, refused to vote for me. I am pleased to report that my gig this week went considerably better. Moz was on tech duties this time and had no voting rights. I’ve since worked out after my costs, he’s going to get £10 more for the gig than me.

The show itself was good fun; I had a full room that was very much like an old Ruby audience, consisting largely of old friends, colleagues, and housemates. I had to resort to nagging anyone and everyone I knew in London after sluggish ticket sales, which might not be the best sign of my show’s commercial viability outside of Edinburgh. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the show and it was a nice note to end it on for the year.

In related news, I’ve realised that I’ve have become too comfortable sticking with stuff that I know works. For the past three years, I’ve only really had to worry about 15-20 minutes of material in my Pub Quiz.

So, I have set myself a challenge next year to do an hour of stand-up in Edinbrugh. There will be no questions, facts bells or mentions of giant squid, but I can’t guarantee there won’t be at least one reference to The Darkness. Not only this, but I am forbidden from doing any pre-2016 material during the show and also at non-paid gigs. Both of these things should give me a kick up the arse to create and hone new stuff.

I’d be mad to drop Pub Quiz given how well it’s been received, so I will also be working on a new version of the show for next year’s Fringe. It’s looking like 2018 is going to be busy and push me further outside my comfort zone, which is very exciting.

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A race against time

In what was the largest audience I’ve ever had for How To Win A Pub Quiz on Friday in Newcastle, I had quite possibly the worst kind of preparation.

I’d opted to drive, as the train tickets were £67 return and there’s no way I’m paying that for something I can do for cheaper and be less restricted by departure times.

I left Manchester at around 1.30pm and every route planner I’d looked at said it would take me around three hours. I’d booked a 24-hour parking space, so I’d have plenty of time to park up, then get to the venue to soundcheck for 5pm, giving myself a good hour and a bit to relax and prepare for the show at 6.30pm.

The one flaw in my plan was motorway delays. Lots of them. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced so many. There were various moments when I was at a complete standstill, with the ETA on my satnav getting later and later, and the sun beating down on me just to make things even more uncomfortable.

The two-hour cushion I had to play with ended up dwindling into nothing and when I finally got moving, it was a race against the clock to make it to the venue in time for the start of my show. I’d been in regular contact with the venue and there was no option of starting 15 minutes late as the show on after had sold-out and they needed to get the room ready.

Throughout all of this, my bladder was getting fuller and fuller. In the end, I had to make an executive decision and  piss on the grass verge in a lay-by in full view of passing traffic. The alternative wasn’t worth contemplating.

I reached the centre of Newcastle at 6.20pm and was driving around, frantically searching for a parking space nearer the venue than the one I’d booked, while doing my best to negotiate my way around a one-way system I’d never used before. At 6.26pm, I’d found my beacon of hope: a parking space.

I parked up and dashed to the venue in a sweaty and stressed mess. It was now 30 seconds before my show was due to start. Fortunately, the venue manager took pity on me and gave me five minutes to compose myself.

I had 76 people in, it was a decent show and they were good fun, but I can’t help think how much better it would have been had I not arrived at the venue in such a state mere seconds before the show was due to start. What worked in my favour was that I’ve done the show so many times now that I can just click into it. I definitely felt much better at the end of the show than I did at the start.

But next time, I’ll be getting the train.

 

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The ridiculous ride continues

The ridiculous ride that is How To Win A Pub Quiz is continuing to ever greater heights

The other week, I was asked if I would like to perform the show at The Stand in Newcastle. The venue capacity is for 300 people for a show that I originally hoped would get me at least double figures ever day at the Kilderkin on the Free Fringe. I was in two minds about accepting, as the show was never intend for that many people.

Whenever I’m mulling over being offered stuff I have doubts over, I always think back to one of the first people I interviewed when I was a reporter in 2008 called Stan Dibben. I don’t expect you to have heard of him, but he was a former world sidecar racing champion, had been a member of the team who worked on the Bluebird land speed record, and even redesigned the wheels of supermarket trolleys. He’d released an autobiography that and when I asked him about how he had come to experience such a diverse array of weird and wonderful things, something he said stuck with me: “You say ‘yes’, always.”

So I accepted the offer and will be performing in Newcastle on Friday 27 October.

As a precaution, I asked for them to cap the ticket sales at 120 just to be on the safe side as I don’t want to be held back by doing too much admin. I obviously don’t expect to sell this many tickets, although I wouldn’t bet against it considering how ridiculously far this show has taken me so far.

One of those Facebook memories things came up recently from 2007, in a conversation with a mate about some comedy scripts I’d written and how I was trying to book up some more gigs. Then I remembered that ten years ago, I was also washing up and working in various warehouses through a temp agency. A lot has happened in the past decade, but it reminded me that I really haven’t done too badly at all.

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Edinburgh Fringe 2017: a summary

When I woke up this morning, it felt a lot like that scene towards the end of Hook when Peter wakes up underneath a Pan statue to find himself back in the real-world and dressed in formal clothes. Thankfully, I didn’t find myself outside or have to climb a drainpipe to get back into my flat, but did have to go back to the day job.

I definitely felt like I had left something magical behind and wondered whether or not what I’d experienced in the last three and a bit weeks was real or just existed in a dream. I have since decided that it definitely was real, because no-one would dream something containing so many lifestyle choices that have such severe and detailed consequences on the bowels. If Narnia and Neverland had a child that liked to drink, it would be Edinburgh Fringe.

Admittedly, getting home was a lot easier for them in Hook as they just flew and I had to drive 4.5 hours. Fairy dust was seriously lacking in the equation and I had to make do with Lucozade and glucose tablets, because I’m sure I would have been able to generate the necessary level of happy thoughts from just thinking about my Fringe. This would also have saved a lot of money on petrol, depending what taxes fairy dust was subjected to.

What a Fringe it was, with 100% of my reviews being four-star. I may have only had two, but that’s not the point. I also gained the necessary ticket sale requirements for official sold-out status for my run and made a healthy profit that will unfortunately make me appear on HMRC’s radar.

Before the Fringe started, I was seriously thinking about jacking comedy in and becoming a grown-up with a career and a mortgage. Following the Fringe, I have realised that there is no way I can leave this behind. How To Win A Pub Quiz in particular has something magic that is going to ensure fun whenever it is performed, or at least for a large percentage of performances if I do material that actually works.

Now I just need to work out a way of ensuring that everything fits in around comedy, instead of trying to make comedy fit in around everything else. I’ve also got a few other potential projects in the pipeline that will be very exciting if they materialise. Hopefully I will have more details on these shortly.

I always say that next time I go back to Edinburgh will be to do solo hour without a quiz and have decided that this will happen in 2018, which I’m intending on doing alongside HTWAPQ. You now have this in writing, so please sue me if I don’t do it. My current idea has just been inspired by half a bottle of wine and features jetpacks; actual real jetpacks, live on stage. What could possibly go wrong? Stay tuned for more.

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Edinburgh Fringe 2017 – Day 21-22

Thursday 24 August turned out to be pretty good. Despite ticket sales being my second lowest of the run and having two empty rows due to people who bought tickets not showing up, it was a fun little show and crucially bumped me 20 seats closer to the magical 95% mark to achieve sold-out status.

And I am pleased to announce that today, ticket sales have gone up further and I have now crossed the official sold-out threshold with two shows to spare.

In spite of having done the pub quiz show format for four Fringes now, I am still really enjoying it and finding new laughs in bits of material I have done countless times.

In other news, the end of the Fringe is fast approaching and I am trying to muster enough energy to get me through it.

It could be that my Fringe stamina has decreased after I only did a half-run last year, or my tiredness could be the result of having to walk 3.5 miles every day, but I am feeling utterly exhausted in any case.

I now only have two shows left and in many ways I don’t want the Fringe to end. In an ideal world, the Fringe would last for 12 months of the year and then I really could do this full-time. However, many areas of my body are currently protesting at doing this for just one month a year and threatening to punish me if I continue this ridiculous diet and lifestyle.

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Edinburgh Fringe 2017 – Day 10-20

Before the Fringe began, I did not think I would realistically get sold-out status for the full-run. Now I am within touching distance of those damn sold-out laurels, I am determined to get them.

For those not in the know, you need to have sold 95% of your tickets for your show to achieve official sold-out status and receive your Fringe laurels. And at the moment, despite all expectations, no PR and a significantly reduced numbers of punters in the vicinity due to nothing happening in St Andrew’s Square this year, I am currently on 91%.

Not that I’m getting obsessed with it or anything, but I just need to sell 32 more tickets from my last four shows to reach the magic 95%.

In a year when many of my incredibly talented friends have struggled to fill their rooms, I have done ridiculously well and really shouldn’t be so fixated on what is only really a graphic I can use on promotional materials.

For someone who doesn’t get anywhere near enough paid gigs, I know I should just be grateful for having done as well as I have in what can only be described as the comedy equivalent of a personal Narnia. In a week’s time, I will have gone back through the wardrobe and into a totally different reality where I am much less successful.

And whether or not I get past the 95% threshold all really rests on Thursday 24 August. Ever since I have been checking the presale numbers thousands of times daily, this has been the one day that hasn’t been selling anywhere near as well as the others. Even when the Fringe started, this one day was stubbornly on six tickets. At the time of writing, the number of tickets sold has risen to a significant 32 as if to taunt me.

To stay on target, I just need to sell four more tickets for tomorrow, then sell-out the other three days and I will have just scraped through. I’ve done as much as I can; now it’s for the Fringe Gods to decide how many more people will come to see my show.

The important thing is that the response from people who have seen my show has been hugely positive. Whatever happens and however many people I end up getting through the door, I am just going to enjoy my four remaining shows of what has been a great Fringe.

Nevertheless, I am so close to getting those damn laurels that I can taste them. They taste laurelly.