My latest ‘Creative Minds’ interview is with stand-up comedian Samuel Ch Zernig!
Long-story-short, I’ve started gigging again, and the video below is from a stand-up competition* I did last week at the Cavendish Arms in South London.
Feel free to share the video/let me know what you think in the comments…
And be nice, innit.
*I won the competition, by the way. Yay, me!
My latest ‘Creative Minds’ interview is with musician and writer James Radcliffe.
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…)
‘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:
You might not have heard of her, but you’ll definitely know of the legacy of Stella Adler.
She was one of the most influential and seminal acting teachers in the history of, well, acting. Taking her cue from Stanislavski’s ‘method’, she taught among others Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Harvey Keitel, and Warren Beatty.
So she was, y’know, pretty good.
I’m not going to go into too much detail about her approach – although her life and work were fascinating – what I do want to do is highlight one of her most famous quotes.
“In your choices lies your talent.”
For me, this is a quote that becomes more insightful every time I think about it.
Our talents – and by extension our lives – really are about our choices. It’s not enough to just have an ability or qualification or talent, it’s about utilising those things in the best possible way.
And yes, there are other factors that shape and inform our lives – I’m not pretending for a second that we all live in a static, safe environment which is just waiting to accommodate our next choice. But the power of our own choices on our own lives shouldn’t be underestimated.
For example, following the acting ‘theme’, a lot of people will look at a character in a film and think ‘I could do that.’ And a number of people probably could. They could learn the dialogue off by heart, and then deliver it in the same way, with the same intonation, and the same body language. They might even be able to do a passable impression (everyone can do Marlon Brando in The Godfather, can’t they..?) But the point is, that performance didn’t start off as that performance. It started off as typed words on sheets of paper. The actor’s talent was in the choices they made in terms of how to bring the character to life. (As was the writer’s talent when they chose who to write the character, and the director in his/her role, and everybody else involved in the process).
There’s a great audition tape of Robert De Niro as Sonny Corelone in The Godfather, a role which was eventually played by James Caan. In it, you can see that De Niro’s Sonny would’ve been quite different to James Caan’s. I’m deliberately not using the words ‘better’ or ‘worse’ here – the audition tape simply illustrates how the same source material can result in very different performances.
The reason? The choice to go one way with the character rather than another.
Looking at another example, this time closer to home, my first novel The Artist was about a serial killer who kidnaps and then films the last fifteen minutes of actresses’ lives. The story follows not only the killer, but also a young girl who becomes increasingly scared for her actress mother, and the story follows the way all of their lives are affected.
But, and here’s the ‘choices’ part, this story could have been completely different. And I don’t mean the names of the characters could’ve been different, I mean everything could have been. The story came out of:
- My own experiences as an actor
- My disillusionment with peoples’ obsessive pursuit of fame for its own sake
- My interest in and experience of forensic psychology
Looking at that list, the story could’ve gone anywhere and its inception still been attributed to that specific list. The ideas would still be there, but the execution of those ideas would’ve given a completely different result. The story could’ve been about a group of actors who are fed up with being rejected and take violent revenge on a top casting director. The twist could be that the crime then makes the group (in)famous, resulting in TV appearances and eventually ‘real’ acting jobs. One of them could even win an Oscar for playing themselves in the biopic.
Or, from the other side of the process, the story could’ve been about a casting director who becomes disillusioned with the industry and seeks to ‘save’ a young actress who auditions for a specific role. He could become obsessed and begin stalking her, ostensibly to protect her from the dangerous people within the industry (which, of course, he has now become).
Again, all the boxes above would be ticked, but the story itself would be completely different. I had to choose, not only at the start of the story but at each step of it.
And, not to be dramatic, I think that’s analogous to life as a whole.
We don’t just choose one path and keep going, we continually decide where to go next – as well as where not to. Ok, so you chose the job you’re in, but you also choose not to resign each day. You also choose whether to do a good/bad job at any given moment, whether to look for other work, and so on.
As I said above, I’m not proposing that we can choose every aspect of our lives – we definitely can’t – but that the vast majority of us do have choices, however small they may appear. And the way we choose to utilise the talents and abilities that we do have can make all the difference in our lives.
For instance, you might be an incredibly sensitive and perceptive person who is great at caring for people, or have a sharp eye for detail and an aptitude for design, or be talented creatively in some exceptional way. But merely having that ability or talent isn’t enough. You have to do something with it.
That, after all, is where real talent lies.
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.