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Somebody save me

I have a gig on Thursday, which will be my first one for a month. Even if there are last-minute petrol shortages – and I know I risk causing one by using those two words – I have about 200 miles more in my tank than I need to get there and back. So they’ll have to lay on quite the detour from road closures for that to happen – and I may have also risked that happening by using those words.

It could very well be my final gig of the year. I don’t have anything else booked up until January and am almost resigned to the fact that I won’t have any in December.

Anyway, a gig being on the horizon has spurred my dormant joke writing skills into action. I’ve returned to a subject I’d trying to write jokes four years now with little success. I am talking about the TV show Smallville, about the life of a teenage Clark Kent, played by a man in his late-20s.

For the uneducated, the title of this blog comes from the Smallville theme tune. It is not a cry for help, at least not intentionally.

Admittedly, I haven’t tried very hard with the jokes about it after a couple of early attempts didn’t fly, which is actually appropriate for a show that actively aims to stop Superman from flying.

But the reason I have come back to it is that I have the waste of time factor gnawing away at me. My belief is that if I’ve spent so much time doing something, I might as well try and get something out of it. Ideally, a joke. This was my reason behind writing jokes about giant squid, which ultimately led to me developing a show that did rather well at Edinburgh Fringe and allowed me to travel the world.

And I have watched 216 episodes out of 217 of Smallville. The one I’ve not seen was about witches and looked awful. You’ve got to draw a line somewhere. I should add that I watched these episodes over ten years, it’s not something I’ve been doing on the sly this year.

I don’t have many jokes to show for it so far, but what has helped is one of the cast members was jailed in real life for being second in command of a sex cult. That was definitely a secret identity I never predicted.

The other thing is that I don’t remember too many of the episodes. Again, this is also appropriate, as convenient amnesia was a recurring plot device to stop people from remembering Clark’s secret.

Time will tell if jokes about Smallville do lead to another sold-out run at Edinburgh. I will admit, I have my doubts. But to know for sure, I will have to start the trial and error process from the stage. And I am fairly confident there won’t be many other comedians performing similar material, probably for a good reason.

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Metacrisis

Facebook has this week revealed a corporate name change to Meta, which I am sure is going to solve all its problems. A creepy video was released, where Mark Zuckerberg tried to convince the world that he’s just a normal guy and his organisation definitely doesn’t have any sinister intentions about new ways to manipulate people. I mean, a site that was reportedly invented with the sole purpose to stalk girls at American colleges could never do anything weird or disturbing.

I joined Facebook in December 2006. Admittedly, it was reluctantly. I was quite happy on MySpace, for the most part. But while Tom’s and his Space quickly vanished beneath the waves of time, Facebook flourished and became the go-to site to stay in touch with people and also get comedy gigs.

The reason I am writing about Facebook is that I had my account locked just over a week ago, for what it described as “unusual activity”. This is coming from an organisation where investigations have found that data bought from Facebook was used for targeted ads intended to suppress the votes of African American citizens who had been profiled as being less likely to vote for Trump in 2016. Facebook ads have also been used to pump falsehoods during the Brexit campaign in favour of leaving the EU, as well as the sit being used to spread anti-vax content and conspiracy theories.

Oh, and the site was allegedly founded specifically to stalk girls at colleges. I don’t know if I’ve already mentioned that. Presumably, that sort of behaviour is perfectly acceptable though.

You never had these sorts of problems on MySpace, it was mainly just full of emo kids who spent hours adding mods to their profiles.

The site asked me to confirm that I am really me by uploading some official form of ID such as a passport or driver’s licence, or at least something with my address on it. There was no way in hell, or anywhere else for that matter, that I was going to share this with Zuckerberg’s dodgy data farm, so I opted to leave it locked.

As things turned out, my account was locked immediately after I got back from the supermarket. While doing my shopping I bumped into a girl who was in the year below. She suggested that a group of us old-schoolers living in the area should meet up to reminisce about the olden days. Then just over an hour later, my profile disappeared in what looked like I’d rather shut down my Facebook account of 14 years rather than attend a meetup.

But for about 48 hours, I was free from Zuckerberg’s creepy tendrils, save for WhatsApp. Facebook was out of my life and it felt amazing. No longer would I waste hours of my time scrolling through the inane ramblings of people I sort of used to know but haven’t seen in years. No longer would I see someone pop up on my news feed and have honestly no idea who they were or why we were apparently friends. No longer would I think less of a casual acquaintance for expressing questionable views on social or political issues.

There was also the fact that I would lose touch with large swathes of people from various points in my life, not to mention losing all those hundreds of pictures – many of me drunk. But it was a price I was prepared to pay.

Then I realised the sad truth. Without Facebook, I would find it almost impossible to get any comedy gigs. I mean, I am finding it difficult enough as it is without losing my sole source of leads. With the exception of one or two long-established gigs, probably about 97% of all comedy gigs looking for acts are posted on Facebook groups.

So I set up a new account. It’s smaller and with far fewer ‘friends’, but it will be used for exactly what I need it for. Not sharing personal information to allow any sort of data profile to be built, or engaging in political debates with people I barely know, but purely for booking comedy gigs and making the occasional stupid comment.

My old account is now consigned to a server archive either somewhere in Silicon Valley, or somewhere in the world far less expensive. All those memories and stupid conversations are locked away, never to see the light of day or the light from a computer screen ever again. And that’s fine. It’s the past. It’s gone, no longer matters, and does not define me.

There is no question that social media and particularly Facebook has made the world a far worse and more divided place.

Everything that rises eventually falls. I can only hope that Facebook’s ultimate demise isn’t far away, provided I can find another way to get comedy gigs. But the damage it has done to the world may well last for far longer – from Facebook, not necessarily from my comedy gigs. And I maintain my view that MySpace was always better.

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On the road again

On Friday night, I drove 100 miles down to Swansea to actually perform a comedy gig. It was fraught with delays, taking an hour longer than it should have done. And a further reminder of just how much I hate driving to gigs.

But still, I had plenty of time. And I’m pleased to report that there was no repeat of that horrific five-hour drive to Newcastle that should have taken just under three. For one thing, it would have taken me to completely the wrong place. More on this later.

I was in town to perform at Swansea Fringe, having previously performed there just over two years ago. Before the dark times, before Covid.

I was in a different venue this year and arrived to find the stage area right next to the front door, which isn’t ideal. But with fringes, venues can be a bit like that. The room was long with a bar on one side and the room becoming a corridor further at the back. The sound system was a considerable upgrade from my previous show in September, which certainly helps when performing in a room not designed for comedy.

The show itself went well. Despite not having had a gig since 9 September, performing felt good. People laughed when they were supposed to. And some newer ideas and jokes I have added to the show relatively recently now look like they’re here to stay.

Bizarrely for a Friday night in Swansea, the majority of the disruption came from the two front-of-house volunteers sitting on the desk by the door, regularly chatting to each other and oblivious to my references to it. Fortunately, they didn’t stay for the entire show. And if anything, it brought the audience together more. Regardless, it was a decent show and the audience seemed to enjoy themselves.

Now, back to the subject of going to the wrong place, there was the drive home the next day. Compared with the drive down, there were hardly any delays. But what stopped me from getting home earlier was a stupid and inexplicable detour from Google Maps. For some reason, Stroud has about four or five different sets of temporary traffic lights at the moment. So when Google suggested taking another route, I thought that made sense. Only this route ended up taking me off the motorway two exits past my normal junction, which is where I used to get on the motorway to go north. So it sort of made sense. But then when I was nearing the middle of Cheltenham town centre and it said I was about a mile away from where I needed to be, I finally twigged that something was up and stopped the car.

Despite setting Google Maps to take me to my home address, it was instead trying to take me to Cheltenham Racecourse. This is somewhere I have never been, have no interest in going, and have never even looked at on Google Maps. So why this happened is a mystery. I can only assume that Google had detected that I was doing a comedy gig and wanted to keep the tradition of frustrating gig driving alive.

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Returning of returns

I have returned from a most excellent week in North Devon. It was sunny every day, but that nice autumn heat that is a pleasant one and never gets too sweaty. I also had a Hocking’s ice cream every day, which is a habit I could certainly get used to a little too easily.

I managed to avoid taking my dog to the beach, opting to take her on the rural back roads where there was much less chance of meeting another dog and experiencing any canine confrontations.

And I swam in the sea. It was rather cold and I didn’t stay in for long, but I did it. And that’s the main thing. All in all, it was a successful trip to a part of the world that is full of fond childhood memories.

But this week is going to be a busy one where I am plunged back into the real world as a reluctant grown up. I’m heading back to London this afternoon for the first time since the end of March 2020. This could well be my longest gap between visits to the capital since possibly the late-1990s. This evening, I’m meeting my old comedy muckers Langton and Moz for a pint. It will be the first time the three of us have been together in four years.

Then tomorrow morning, I have to do HR stuff at my new-old place of work. So I’m hoping those old dogs won’t lead me astray like they did circa 2010. Then I’ll be back in full-time work again after a two-year hiatus disguised as freelancing. But I will be working from home, so spared of the ordeal that is the commute. I am already looking forward to that first full month of pay.

And on Friday, there’s going to be some more comedy. I’ll be going back to Swansea for what is set to be the second and final performance of How To Win A Pub Quiz for 2021. As things currently stand, anyway, I am always open to bookings – and also money. I’ve not had a gig since my last performance in Stroud just over a month ago, with admin still proving the main stumbling block. I doubt I’ll feel quite as rusty as my first gig back in August and should be able to slip right back into the rhythm of things. I mean, I’ve done the show enough times by now that I find it far easier to perform than a stand-up set at a comedy gig.

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Winding up the freelancing

This week was my final full week as a freelance journalist, at least for the time being. That is if it’s possible to have a full week as a freelance journalist when not working full-time hours.

Anyway, I had three deadlines for features and managed to meet them all. Working to freelance deadlines certainly took a bit of getting used to. Initially, I barely did any work until about four days before the article was due.

I would often wonder why it always felt like such a rush and why I never seemed to have enough time. Then I remembered that I often had three or four weeks after receiving the brief to get the article written.

Occasionally when I get into bad habits, I hear the voices of my old editor and news editor in my head from my reporter days for corrective action. In this case, it was my news editor who used to say: “Always put your calls in first.”

As if by magic, when I was more organised with putting articles together, the deadlines became a lot easier to hit.

I have enjoyed a lot about the life of a freelancer. There has been the variety in workload in writing about various subjects and freedom to choose what hours I work, plus ample time for dog walking.

What I haven’t enjoyed is the uncertainty of it, never knowing whether or not I’ll manage to get any work from one month to the next. I read something on Twitter that freelancing was a constant balance between either taking on too much work or not having enough.

Then there is the matter of invoicing and chasing unpaid invoices. Some publishers are really good at paying within a month of receiving the invoice, but others can take the better part of two months to pay up. There have been others that have taken even longer, and the chasing up can get rather tiresome.

But I know it can work, I know how to put together features, and will probably continue writing the occasional freelance article here and there for stuff that interests me. I also know roughly how much I can realistically earn from it a year. I will save this information for future reference if another viable income stream materialises. Say, one that might involve saying words into a microphone in the hope of receiving laughter.

Based on current statistics, this could take a while. Things are still sluggish in that department, even if this is currently half intended. I did have one gig booked this week, but I didn’t actually end up performing. The gig was an unpaid 10 minutes and 30 miles away. I have no problem with either of these facts ordinarily, as I was going to use it for testing new material. But then came the madness with petrol supplies and I thought it was best to conserve what fuel I did have left in my tank. This is not a metaphor.

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Admin time

In what must be my most productive day of comedy admin for about three years, I sent three emails for booking gigs yesterday. I sent one, then saw other spots advertised and got on what could almost be considered a roll.

I don’t know if I’ll get any of them, but I need to get back into the habit of trying again. It’s all about persistence, or perhaps just not taking the hint.

It’s difficult to get back into the gigging game quickly at the moment as many spots are filled for some time yet due to the Covid backlog, while others are booked far in advance.

In fact, my reason for getting back on the gig-based horse was for the performance of HTWAPQ at the local brewery that I had booked in around March during their crowd funder campaign. I don’t know if I’d have started gigging again yet otherwise, given how everything still feels a bit weird with Covid. And it’s hardly like I’m being inundated with offers at the moment.

But performing stand-up again has given me that itch that I now want to scratch. This week, I have a gig in Bristol. Then I don’t have anything booked until 22 October when I’ll be doing HTWAPQ in Swansea. After that, things might get increasingly itchy. Having long interludes between gigs also makes it much harder to hone new material. But the only way to scratch the itch permanently and get the material honed is through regular gig admin. Unfortunately, they don’t sell any cream for this sort of thing.

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Return of the quiz

Thursday saw my first performance of How To Win A Pub Quiz in 18 months. When I last performed it, I was in Wellington, NZ, and would start off making jokes about the thing called Covid-19 that I’d been hearing about in the news. What’s all that about?

While so much has changed within the past year and a half, there are some things that haven’t changed – namely my material. Admittedly, I have dropped the Covid opener. What also hadn’t changed was my show’s magical ability to sell out venues, provided there’s a cap at 60 people.

Although this isn’t quite the full story. As it was almost as local as physically possible, about half of the audience were people I knew – either school friends or neighbours – and knowing so many people in the room certainly heightened the nerves after such a long break. But the other half of the audience were people I had never met before.

It was a real luxury to do a gig within walking distance of my house, which isn’t something I’d done outside of festivals since my days running that delightful Friday night gig in Walthamstow. There is something joyous about staying in the venue for a couple of hours after the show for a few pints, before stumbling home and not having to worry about potential road closures and diversions on the drive.

But there were some technical issues. When I arrived at the venue, no one could figure out how to get the sound come out of the speakers. The volumes and other levels were controlled by a tablet. Give me a clunky old analogue mixing desk any day of the week, where you can’t alter the settings by the mis-swipe of a finger. Once that mystery was solved, I had to figure out how to fix the microphone that was cutting out every other word. I switched to another cable and changed the mic, it worked better but some problems with sound and acoustics did persist.

The windows on the left of the room were all open to let in some much-needed fresh air and get the germs out. However, the trade-off from this meant that it also caused some sound to escape. As a result, people at the very back of the room found it difficult to hear what I was saying for the first part of the show. Not only this, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying to me from the back of the room. And this is kind of crucial for a show that is so interactive and aims to allow everyone to add something to proceedings.

It was also really hot, to the point where I was sweating profusely from my forehead and that then flowed into my right eyeball. Cue stinging.

Yet despite the sound issues and the heat, people who came along all seemed to enjoy themselves. They even said so when I was within earshot unbeknown to them, which is normally when you would get slagged off. Others also came up to me afterwards to say how much they enjoyed it. Plus the people complaining that they couldn’t hear ended up coming a very close second in the quiz. It’s possible they were just getting in their excuses early. So there is certainly an element of me being too hard on myself.

The problem with performing the show to a particular standard or level is that when it doesn’t quite reach the level you know it can and has done, it always feels slightly disappointing – even though it shouldn’t.

I felt a little rusty, but I settled back into it again. And by the end, it felt like I had never been away. There is definitely still life in the old pub quiz dog yet. Just how much life remains to be seen, but it is a very difficult thing to leave behind.

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Another gig

I had my second gig on the Covid comedy comeback trail on Monday. It was in Swindon, so only 40 minutes drive away. This is considered local in comedy.

Despite being about twice the distance away as the Cirencester gig, it was much less hassle to get there. The roadworks that Highways were doing on my route had ended and I’m pleased to report that there were no issues – other than trying to work out how Swindon’s famous Magic Roundabout actually functions. The trick is to not think too much about it. The more thought you give it, the more confused you’ll get.

As a result of no delays or diversion, I arrived at the venue much less stressed. And I was on first after the first break instead of opening the show, giving me a bit more time to relax and get my set and thoughts together instead.

Pre-Covid, arriving at a venue stressed and going pretty much straight on wouldn’t phase me too much – see Newcastle gig in October 2017 with the five-hour journey and two solid hours of delays. But after ten months without a gig, I could definitely feel the rust.

Monday’s gig had much less rust. They were a great crowd and it was nice to see another full room. I did a lot of riffing around the material, which is always when I have the most fun. I tried the two new bits I’d first aired in Cirencester the previous week.

Some bits went better, some bits didn’t. But it felt much better on the whole, and not quite so much of a shock to the system as my absence from the stage had been four days, as opposed to ten months.

It still feels a little odd to be around crowds and I think I was the only person in the venue wearing a mask. I was convinced that I had picked up Covid after the gig, so went and got a test. And it turned out to be negative. So suck on that, you respiratory illness with a pretentious spiky crown.

After some uncertainty about whether I want to continue with stand-up, I want to do much more of it. I just need to get more gigs in the diary and get back into the habit of booking admin. In fairness, it has been about three years since I have done much of that, and that was after getting incredibly lazy with it for a few years preceding it. I’m still trying to figure out exactly where the gigs are and how to get a spot, but I’ll get there.

Now, my attention goes to Thursday when I perform HTWAPQ for the first time in 18 months. It will be at Stroud Brewery, so nice and local. I had no idea how many tickets I’d sold, as I’m thankfully unable to access the link. I found out a few days ago that have sold 41. This is a good number for the show and I have about 19 left to sell, so reckon I should get a few more in. Now I just need to see how much of it I can remember.

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Gigging again

On Thursday, I performed a stand-up set at an actual physical comedy gig for the first time in ten months. And it was also back in Cirencester, where I had my vaccine and don’t know if I’ve mentioned it a lot on here, but it’s where I used to work as a reporter for the local paper.

It was only ten miles away, which is a real luxury for a comedy gig. Now, one of the things I detest about performing comedy is driving to the gigs. And there’s nothing that makes my heart sink more than road closures and diversions, which are especially stressful if you’re on your way to the gig. But it’s also infuriating on the drive back afterwards late at night, where you just want to get home as quickly as is physically possible.

Given that my gig on Thursday was only ten miles away, I never thought there would be any difficulties with this. But Highways England managed to find a way, by closing the main road I take into Cirencester. I would expect Tom Tom to be deceived, but I was surprised that Google Maps didn’t pick it up.

I had to take a detour through the narrow back roads, where there’s often only enough room for one car to pass. This meant waiting for what seemed like 20 cars all coming the other way.

I arrived at the gig way more stressed than I should have. But I thought I may be on later in the night as I lived so close by. However, I found out that I would be opening the show in 20 minutes. Cue one trip to the toilet. Then three minutes before the show began, I felt the need for a second visit. Or number two number two.

I felt a little rusty and my cursed throat also threatened to sabotage one or two punchlines at the vital moment. I’d planned to try out some new material in the middle of my set, which didn’t all work. But there was I could feel the new bits clicking into place on stage and even ad-libbed some callbacks to the new stuff later on. And the tried and tested stuff was well received.

It was a great gig. The lads at Barking Toad had packed the room out, with people resorting to watching the gig from outside of the room as there was no space inside.

For the drive home, I was at least prepared for the diversion. Then the next day, I woke up at just after 5am to let my dog in the garden. But I struggled to go back to sleep again. My brain was going over the gig and figuring out what worked, what didn’t, and what would work better.

Stand-up comedy is sort of like a cross between a drug, depression, and a life of crime. You can never truly leave it behind. It’s always there, gnawing away at you somewhere. And just when you think you’ve got out of it and are clean, it drags you back in again. While I was giving some serious consideration to quitting during the past year, I now want to do more gigs. Stand-up comedy has taken its grip on me again, but just for how long remains to be seen.

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In the diary

I have an actual comedy gig booked in this next week. Although after a ten-month absence from the stage, my admin skills are a little rusty. I was convinced it was on Tuesday, but it turns out that it’s on Thursday.

The extra couple of days will prove useful, as it gives me more time to turn my half-formed ideas into hopefully functional jokes. Then again, as I’ve written on here many times over, you never truly know if a joke works until you try it out on an audience at a comedy gig or two.

It remains to be seen how many of these half-formed ideas will turn into successful jokes, but that’s part of the excitement and I’m looking forward to getting back on the comedy stage that was the one constant in my life for ten years; before the dark times, before Covid-19.

These past couple of weeks marks the first in a while I have started missing being on stage. This is partly due to seeing crowds at the scaled-down version of Edinburgh Fringe that is taking place this year; particularly seeing that back room at the Kilderkin full with people standing at the back. It brought back fond memories of that phenomenal run I had there in 2015 when I didn’t realise how much possibility lay before me. It didn’t bring back fond memories of the 2018 stint I did there, as I don’t have any of that run – just pain and sadness.

Edinburgh Fringe has always been the one thing that has kept me doing comedy, throughout the tough times – even bizarrely enough through the tough times at the Fringe as there is nowhere to run and demons must be confronted.

When you take Edinburgh Fringe away, it takes away a lot of my focus and incentive for doing comedy. I am now looking forward to returning there next year in whatever form that may be, possibly even with some of the new jokes I may try on Thursday.