My latest ‘Creative Minds’ interview is with stand-up comic, comedy writer, and singer-songwriter Ariane Sherine!
Last month, I was fortunate enough to be invited to give a talk at Inspire’d.
It was a really fun evening, and I had a great time both giving the talk – about the creative process – and watching the other speakers too.
Oh, and there was also wine, which is always a nice bonus.
Anyway, click the link above to take a look!
(And I don’t know why I look like I’m strangling someone in the video still either…)
If you make a joke about someone on a reality TV show* that you’re watching, they may well see it.
I’m just glad I didn’t say anything worse…
*Here in the UK we have a show called First Dates, where people go on blind dates and are filmed to see how they get on. This particular person on this particular episode got a bit, well, ‘familiar’ with the open bar…
‘This is Angelo. He’s a comedian. You know, stand up. Like Julian Clary.’
While I’m trying to work out whether or not to be offended, all three of them turn to look at me – the lawyer, the accountant and the admin clerk. None of them told me what they did for a living, but I heard them trade names and occupations a couple of minutes earlier by way of introduction. The party’s host (my soon-to-be-ex friend) decided that since I was standing near them she should probably tell them something about me.
By ‘them’ I mean a group of people having a perfectly nice time without me. And by ‘me’ I mean a person who didn’t want to come to this party, didn’t want to have to speak to anyone, and definitely didn’t want to have to be funny.
The lawyer speaks first. ‘Oh that’s interesting. Go on then.’
Three expectant faces, looking at me. I’m standing between a pot plant and a locked window (I tried it earlier) so running away isn’t an option, unless I barge through my three new friends , but I’m pretty sure that’d be considered assault, and as one of them is a lawyer I’m not keen to find out.
‘Um, I don’t really… I don’t really do jokes… I do like, observational things about… stuff. I do some material about things in the news but not… not jokes. As such.’
The group looks at me as if I’ve just soiled myself.
The admin clerk looks the most unimpressed. ‘You don’t tell jokes? You can’t be very good at stand-up then!’
Laughter all around at my expense: lawyer, admin clerk and accountant. United in their amusement of silly old me. I’m pretty sure the pot plant gave a little snigger in my direction too.
‘Sorry, what do you do? Admin wasn’t it?’
She gives me a suspicious look, like maybe I know too much.
I take out my phone.
‘Would you be able to sort my text messages into alphabetical order by author please?’
I was wrong earlier. Now she’s looking at me as if I’ve soiled myself.
The silence hangs in the air just long enough for me to put my phone away and feel pretty pleased with myself. Angelo 1, Strangers I’ve just met and will probably never see again 0.
The accountant tries to change the subject. ‘I used to do some acting when I was at uni. I love live performance but it can be pretty stressful can’t it? I bet stand-up can get pretty difficult?’
I’m quite taken aback by this. At last, I can have a real conversation about stand up with someone at a party! Maybe we can actually talk about the stresses of comedy life, the peaks and the troughs, the highs and the lo-
‘You wouldn’t want me in the audience I can tell you.’
And turn and see that this is the lawyer’s contribution to the discussion. I don’t think he was meaning to be rude, he was just being, well, a lawyer.
‘Why’s that?’ I ask good-naturedly, as though we’re all friends here.
‘Well, I can be pretty sharp when I want to be. I’d beat you if I was heckling from the audience. You wouldn’t know what hit you.’
He takes a sip from his drink as though that’s the last word on the subject. The admin clerk looks really happy.
Before responding, I try to find a tone to my voice that doesn’t sound aggressive.
“Well … you wouldn’t. Comedians respond to hecklers all the time, if you think about the practice that goes into doing stand-up, not to mention the fact that comedians are on stage full of adrenali- ”
‘Wouldn’t matter,’ he says, shaking his head dismissively, ‘I’d beat you.’
Me, trying not to sound aggressive again. Starting my sentence with one of those half-chuckles that tells everyone I’m taking this really good-naturedly, really, and just happen to be pointing something out that isn’t true, and we’re still all friends here and I’m a good person so nobody judge me harshly.
‘Heh, I think it would matter. Trust me, it’s very different in a comedy club. You might not even really want to shout anything out and draw attention to yourself. It’s quite differen-‘
‘No. I’d beat you. I’d definitely win. I’m a lawyer.’
Another head shake, another sip. I decide to make fun of him a little bit. Non-aggression, my arse.
‘Sorry, and what’s being a lawyer got to do with it exactly? You don’t heckle judges, do you? You don’t stand there making the jury laugh, surely? You’re basically just listing bad things about the other guy, or good things about your own. So it’s not the same, is it?! Unless you do actually just stand there making jokes the whole time, in which case you might have a point that you’d be good at heckling, but you’d be a crap lawyer . And you still wouldn’t beat me.’
I don’t say ‘you jumped up little prick!’ at the end of that sentence. My tone and general demeanour say it for me.
The silence following my little rant isn’t what you’d call ‘golden’.
I decide at this point there’s basically one of two ways to go – backtrack and keep some dignity, or keep digging. It takes me exactly a fifth of a millisecond to decide.
‘And Little Miss Admin over there. All this crap about me not being a good comedian cos I didn’t tell you a joke at a party. It’s not just about telling jokes is it?! Any moron can recite a joke they’ve read in a cracker. It’s about reading the audience, and honing one-liners and telling well-crafted stories! It’s about getting out there and perfecting your technique!’
A little audience seems to have built up now, with people looking over to see what’s going on.
The accountant opens his mouth as though he’s going to say something. I don’t let him.
‘No! Accountant! There’s more to it than that.’
I turn to the lawyer.
‘And all this stuff about beating me with a heckle, are you on crack? How is a lawyer going to beat a comedian at comedy? I didn’t tell you when I met you that I’d be better than you at chasing ambulances, did I?’
Some of the ‘audience’ have started laughing, I’m getting quite into this.
‘Ooohh, I’m a lawyer, I charge people a thousand quid a day to go into court dressed like a tranny.’
More laughter. Good crowd. Maybe it was the wiggle I did as I said it.
‘Then I try and get the old guy who sits in a big chair to agree with what I’m saying so that I win, which means I can then charge two thousand quid a day to the next loser who is getting divorced.’
Not as much laughter at that one, but still some. You’ve got to take what you can get sometimes.
Probably best to stop wiggling now though.
The accountant opens his mouth again.
‘Stop it! Accountant!’
This is my audience, get your own!
‘Ooohhh, admin clerk, oooh, I move paper from one filing cabinet to the other and that means I know about the state of British comedy!’
The accountant wants to say something again. I pause to let him speak this time, not to be courteous so much as to catch my breath.
‘It’s really going for it!’ he shouts excitedly.
Not quite the heckle I was expecting. Then I realise he’s looking behind me.
‘What? What’s really… going for…’
Then I realise everyone is looking behind me.
I follow their gazes and turn to look out of the window, very quickly seeing that my audience isn’t my audience at all. They’re laughing because two dogs are shagging behind me and they can see them through the glass.
I mumble something about being upstaged by a pair of ‘bloody dogs’ and escape.
I don’t go to parties anymore.
Gigs are much less stressful.
A version of this story appeared on the Chortle website in their Correspondents section. Written by me, obviously, I’m not plagiarising here. If you’d like to read essentially the same thing all over again but on a different website, you can find it at:
I recently watched an old man dress up in a leather-look S and M outfit, thrust about in what looked like a strip club and get perilously close to having a heart attack on live TV. Ordinarily this wouldn’t have made me laugh, in fact in any other context I probably would’ve been quite concerned.
But the old guy was a celebrity, you see. So I actually quite enjoyed it.
As with anything I enjoy, I thought I better analyse it to death so as to ensure I never enjoy it again. Which is why this particular programme raised two questions for me:
1. Why do celebrities do this?
2. Why do we watch them?
It’s tempting to suggest that the only reason a celebrity would put themselves through the humiliation of ‘Big Brother’, or ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ or [insert name of latest celebrity reality show here] is for the money. Personally, I don’t buy that as a reason. Yes, I think a lot of the celebrities in these shows have, to put in nicely, ‘fallen on hard times’, but I think there’s more to it than that.
I’ll give you a clue. The word I’m thinking of consist of four letters, and starts with F.
(No, not that word)
As an actor/comedian, I know all about pursuing fame and how all-encompassing that desire can be. And I’m not just talking about the other people I’ve worked with, I’m talking about traits I’ve seen in myself. I even wrote a book about it for crying out loud – a crime thriller called The Artist. In fact, if enough of you go out and buy it, I might even get famou-
Wait a second…
And that bit of shameless self-promotion is, by the way, exactly my point. For some people pursuing fame and the adoration of the masses is hard-wired. Yes, you’re getting your self-worth from what other people do and say to and about you, but when it works, it really works. I’m not going to go so far as to suggest that it’s an actual addiction, but it’s not far off.
(And seriously, if a couple of you could just buy my book, it’d be great…)
Let’s take stand-up comedy as an example. Getting up on stage and making hundreds of people laugh is incredible. Seriously, as experiences go, it’s amazing and pretty hard to top. But then you get off stage, and suddenly you have to participate in ‘life’ again. In difficult, unpredictable, uncontrollable life. Now if someone offered you the chance to live onstage for a few weeks – and also said they’d pay you for it – the question would go from ‘why are you doing this’ to ‘why wouldn’t you’.
In some ways, the second question answers the first – Why do they do it? Because we watch them.
Which still of course leaves the second question unanswered – Why do we watch them? What do we get out of it?
I think there are a number of reasons, but a big part of it is watching people who are richer, better looking, and more successful than us being portrayed as human. They get hungry and tired, just like us. They have to get on with other people, sometimes when they don’t want to, just like us. They’re forced to dress up in PVC and dance around, just like…well, this isn’t about me, so stop judging.
Let’s move on, shall we?
And we don’t just watch these shows in order to see famous people portrayed as real human beings either, we do it to see them humiliated. One of the maxims of slapstick comedy is the higher the status of the ‘victim’, the harder we’ll laugh. A frail old lady falling over isn’t particularly funny, but a young, posturing male strutting down the street and falling over his own feet probably is. It’s the whole clichéd thing about slowing down to get a better look at a road accident, the same reason people gossip about their bosses at work – it makes us feel better about our own lives and the situations we’re in. It comes down to basic human nature. Why bring ourselves up when we can bring others down? It’s easier, and doesn’t require us to do any work.
And that’s why these shows will always exist, because we’ll always want to watch them. And the celebrities know this, and the TV executives know this, and you better believe that the advertisers definitely know this…
Quite simply, if we stopped, so would they.
But we won’t. And so, naturally, they won’t either.
Now, about my book….
Not to boast or anything, but Angelina Jolie put her arm around my waist once.
The short version of the story is that I saw her in a shop, asked if I could take a photo with her, told her she was great in ‘Gia’ (still one of the greatest performances by anyone in anything as far as I’m concerned), took the photo, and that was it.
Except that wasn’t quite it, because that short exchange taught me more about fame than I could have imagined.
You see, as I was summoning up the courage to speak to her, it suddenly dawned on me that I wasn’t just about to ask Angelina Jolie for a photo, I was about to have my opinion of her set in stone probably for the rest of my life.
That might sound dramatic, but it’s not. Think about it, what if, say, there’s a particular singer that you like. No, love. You’ve got all their songs, feel like their music is speaking to you, I dunno, maybe you’ve got a tattoo of their face on you somewhere. Ok, now what if you met them and they were rude? What if their behaviour in those few minutes wasn’t what you expected it to be? It would change your opinion of them, and not just going forward either. It’d make you wonder whether they were, at heart, a horrible person and were ever any good at all.
And notice that this is all one-sided by the way. It doesn’t matter how nice a celebrity may be to someone, if that person feels they’ve been slighted, then they’ll spend the rest of their lives mentioning it whenever the person’s name comes up. In short, it’s pretty subjective.
I’m obviously not talking about a famous person spitting in someone’s face or kicking their kid or anything by the way, I’m just talking about a short interaction that maybe wasn’t as earth-shattering as you thought it’d be.
And another odd thing I noticed about my own reaction was, after we took the picture and exchanged a few words, she went right back to browsing the products in the store. To me, that was weird, because surely that’s not what movie stars do. I was expecting something different. Don’t ask me what, because I still don’t know, but it was as if I was waiting for her to do something movie star-y. I was expecting something exceptional from her, a performance of some kind.
And that’s when I realised that, as a famous person, you’re pretty much always going to be both the highlight of someone’s week and at the same time a bit of a disappointment.
Let’s look at, say, Robert De Niro. I’ve watched some of his films over thirty times each, if not more. You could put Taxi Driver on right now, mute the TV, and I’d pretty much be able to recite the film by memory. Same with Heat, The Godfather 2, Casino, Goodfellas, Raging Bull – I could go on but you get the point.
So what if I met him? How could he possibly live up to that back-catalogue? I’d be expecting Travis Bickle or Neil McCauley or Vito Corleone, anything less would be a real disappointment. But, and here’s the rub, even Robert De Niro isn’t Vito Corleone. Nobody is. Expecting a person standing in front of you to somehow be the same as they appear in an edited, polished performance – complete with special effects, dramatic soundtrack and the perfect script no less – is always going to be disappointing.
And so it goes with celebrity.
Not that there’s no merit to meeting the people you admire – I’m still trotting out my Angelina Jolie story all these years later – but it’s good to be mindful that it’s likely the person you meet won’t be the larger-than-life figure you were expecting.
And that nobody really can be.
And, just to reiterate because it’s important this is clear, Angelina Jolie put her arm around my waist and let me put mine around hers.
So, you know, ha.
I’ve just spent 90 minutes watching Tom Hardy fight everybody, act like a pantomime character, pretend to be two people having a conversation with each other, and break the fourth wall by ranting down the camera at me.
And I thought it was incredible.
After watching Tom Hardy in Bronson, I started thinking about other performances that I’ve loved over the years, and realised that – generally speaking – the best, most daring work is done by actors early on in their careers. I’m talking about Gary Oldman in The Firm, Tim Roth in Made in Britain, Ray Winstone in Scum, Al Pacino in Panic in Needle Park/anything in the 70s, Robert De Niro in Mean Streets/anything in the 70s, Angelina Jolie in Gia, Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, Robert Carlisle in Trainspotting, and Leonardo Di Caprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape…. The list goes on and on.
The more I think about it the less incidental it all seems to be – a disproportionate amount of performances that have stayed with me long after the film has ended have come from the beginning of an actor’s career, rather than the middle or end.
And this isn’t an insult to any of the actors I’ve mentioned above by the way, I’m not saying that any of these actors are past their prime (let’s just not mention the word ‘Focker’ at this point, yeah?), but why do so many actors do such great work – and as such extreme characters – when they start out?
I think there are a number of reasons. Firstly, and probably most obviously, young actors are hungry to prove themselves and make a name. They want to show what they can do and how far they can go, and what better way to do that than by playing an incredibly complex character and make them believable?
Secondly, they’ve got nothing to lose. If you’re an established star with a persona to damage, you probably won’t really want to take the chance of playing a violent criminal who takes a hostage and forces him to smear Vaseline on his naked body. But if you’re a relative unknown, there’s no persona to damage.
Another point related to this is the ability of the audience buying into you as a completely different character, especially if you’re known in one particular genre. Some people can make the switch (Tom Hanks for instance), but others might have trouble because audiences want them to do what they’ve always done and don’t want to accept anything else (six words: Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy). So unknown actors are more likely to choose roles that would be considered too risky by more established performers. Twenty years of audience baggage will also make it that much more difficult for you as an actor to convince the current audience that you are that particular character (although this will always be a problem to an extent, and not just when playing ‘extreme’ roles).
Younger actors also don’t have the luxury of being able to phone a performance in if they feel like it, they’ve got dues to pay and a body of work to build. If you knew you could sleepwalk through a film and get paid £20 million for it, or knock yourself out reliving some childhood trauma in a small indie movie for equity minimum, which would you choose? Artistic integrity is all very well, but if you ‘went there and did that’ twenty years ago, you could be forgiven for wanting an easier, more lucrative deal in later years. And a huge star doing a small movie isn’t generally the ‘done’ thing either, audiences will think you’ve either fallen from grace or lost your mind. People generally don’t skip up and down the ladder of success and get away with it (although some do – Steve Buscemi, I’m looking at you…)
An interesting aside would be to look at comeback roles that people have had where they’ve been applauded for being ‘daring’. Although, if your career is in the toilet what have you got to lose, really? You’re at the same level as an unknown actor – in fact in some cases, regarded as even worse off – so you’ve only really got something to gain.
I don’t know the reason, and I’m not pretending to. But what I do know is that some of the most incredible, memorable performances that I’ve enjoyed time and again have been from actors who are young, hungry and – most importantly – talented.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and burn every copy of ‘Meet the Fockers’ that I can find.