Monday, December 18, 2017

Goodish Bye

As the credits rolled on episode 7 last Tuesday, the continuity announcer said that...
... the series would be concluding next week - and added, "and it'll be an emotional show as it'll be the last ever one of the series."

Which, of course, led to a small flurry of tweets from people, asking if he meant it was the last ever... or just the last of the series... all of which is very flattering. Thank you.

As people have continued to ask me since then if this is the last one or not, I thought it was probably worth writing a few short words about it to try and add a little clarity. Or, more likely, I'll write a lot of words. Let's see how this goes.

The first thing to say is that I love the show and I'm exceedingly proud of the last five years of work. And I'm hugely grateful to have had the opportunity to do quite so much long-form stand-up on TV.

I add the words 'long-form' for a reason.

It seems odd to me that TV largely presents stand-up as something that happens in short sets of 7 or 8 minutes - or even as a quick minute, before "we get on with the rest of the show".

I don't think that's what any of my favourite comics are best at.

In terms of live work, the only times you really watch someone doing something that short is when they're a brand new act doing unpaid gigs as they learn or, maybe, somebody more established trying a new idea out somewhere.

A standard set on the circuit is 20 minutes, a one-person show at a festival is expected to be 60 minutes and a tour show is longer.

If you can get into the position of touring shows in your own name - you have to have worked out how to shape a longer show - and yet the people who have worked that out tend to be the ones being asked to do 7 or 8 minutes of stuff on telly.

I don't think doing an hour is as simple as just doing three lots of twenty. Or at least it shouldn't be. Because the longer form affords you more opportunities to link things up, to draw out themes, to misdirect audiences in more interesting ways and to make things feel more complete. You have to change things up more or they get wise to your rhythm. A short set can be great - but it's the fast food version of stand-up. It's a dirty burger. But long-form stand-up, done well, can be a banquet.

It's why I was chuffed to bits with this Sunday Times review of a show in Series 4.

The idea of 'handling an audience like a DJ at a club' sort of gets to the nub of the difference between long-form and short-form stand-up.

I don't think you can really do that in a short set. I think it's the thing to aim for in a longer show.

With that in mind; what a fantastic opportunity this series has been. When people say they think it's a shame the show hasn't been on a bigger channel, I always ask them to tell me any other channel that has given any other comic the opportunity to do this kind of show? Not stand-up and sketches. Not stand-up and anything else. Not a package of discreet bits that could be edited together in a different order and make just as much sense. Proper, long-form stand-up that actually represents what a touring comic does live? I can't think of many. I don't think I can think of any. Not just now... but for many years.

In that sense it is a dream job. And I have always tried to go about my job without complaint. There's no point moaning about having-to-come-up-with-more-stuff when coming-up-with-stuff is one of the key parts of your job. That's what we're supposed to do for a living.

And I'm not pretending that every last bit of it has been all my own work. I'm lucky enough to have worked with a fantastic bunch of collaborators - producers and writers - all of whom have contributed much. 

So please don't mistake any of what follows for any kind of woe-is-me, moaning. That couldn't be further from the truth. Here's the thing: as lucky as I am to have an almost unique opportunity to do the thing that I love, in the form that I love, on the telly... it's also bloody demanding in terms of time.

We've always recorded the shows in pairs. So when we've made six episodes (series 1 and 4) we had three recordings... and when we've made eight episodes (series 2, 3 and 5) we've had four. During this final series, we've had 9 weeks between recordings. In each 9 week block I've spent the first week having some time off. I've then spent the next five weeks working 40 to 50 hours a week and then, for the final three weeks of each block - which includes doing a few dry runs of the shows in small theatres while I try to properly hone the shows - working in excess of 100 hours a week.

Three or four times a week during that time I start work at 10am, work through to 5am try to get some sleep... and am at my desk by 10am later that morning to carry on. And while it doesn't happen every time, there are plenty of occasions where I work through the night and into the next day without sleep because I won't meet the deadlines otherwise.

And it's simply not possible to keep doing that without making yourself ill. In series 1 we didn't really know what we were letting ourselves in for when it was set up and as a result we only had two weeks between recordings. It's probably not a coincidence that I fainted on stage during the taping of episode 6.

Everyone involved - the channel and the production company and everyone working on the show - has been aware of quite how labour intensive the show is to make ever since we began. There isn't an executive involved who hasn't, at some point, been in a meeting with me when I've been awake for 48 hours and counting. And everyone has done everything they can to make it easier. But unfortunately, there isn't a short cut when it comes to building the powerpoint.

We don't write a paper script and then send it to a graphics department to build. We talk about ideas. We throw ideas around. We talk about a vague structure. And then I build it. And I don't build it to a script... me building it is me writing the script. Nobody involved in the show - me included - knows what it's going to look like until I emerge from my shed having built it.

And then, when I've built it, we talk about it some more, we come up with some definitive ideas for words to go with it. And sometimes that involves me rebuilding it. And then I perform it. And rewrite and rebuild it. Then perform it again. And rewrite and rebuild it. And then all of that a third time. And then we record it.

A regular show has somewhere between 300 and 500 slides in it. (A tour show, will have many, many more) Here, for example, is a version of what a late-ish draft of this series' episode 4 looked like the day before we recorded it:

There isn't a quick way of building this many slides - especially when there are plenty of moving parts.

Unfortunately, whatever we've done to try and find solutions, the nature of the beast is that this much work has to be squeezed into the final two or three weeks before a recording.

There are lots of reasons. For one: doing dry runs will always lead to rewriting and rebuilding because it's only when stuff is performed for the first time that you discover both how long it is and how well it works. And the dry runs need to be relatively close to the recording because a performance isn't learned, it's honed. In so much as things are learned, it's muscle memory - it's about instinctively finding what you did last night because that worked, rather than poring over a script trying to commit things to memory which, in my experience (and perhaps with my limitations) robs a performance of authenticity and immediacy. I don't want you to watch me remembering stuff - I want to relate stuff to you. Muscle memory doesn't last very long. A few days off undoes it. There has to be a churn of performing/rewriting/performing/rewriting for there to be any benefit to that process.

For two: it's unhelpful to build powerpoint for bits until I know what they're going to be a part of. For example, in a recent episode there was a small section about serving suggestions. It's an idea that's actually been knocking around since the start of Series 1 but has never found a home until this series. There'd be no point in me spending a day or two powerpointing it early on because it was one of 60 or 70 similar ideas and we'd never be able to use all of them.

It only earned it's place in a show because I could see a way of connecting it to other bits. It provided a segue to something else, but also created a really easily understood metaphor that improved a later, seemingly unconnected later bit making it shorter to tell and more immediate to grasp. I need to know these things when I'm making it... and I didn't know those things at the start of Series 1. It took a new idea, generated during Series 5 to provide the context in which that old idea could do two jobs on the show.

For three: even if I we were able to come up with a paper script that someone else could create powerpoint for... it wouldn't teach me the timing of the powerpoint. On the night it's me who presses the button to fire the next transition/animation/video/whatever. And it's me who's trying to wrap my words around it. The best way of me absorbing the timings is for me to create them. It's easier to learn a song if you're the one who writes the tune.

Dave have been brilliantly supportive all round. Before we'd finished series 1, we knew they wanted series 2 and 3. And before we finished series 3, we knew they wanted 4 and 5. And before we started work on series 4, we knew that everyone was committed to trying different schedules and finding ways of solving these issues. We tried all sorts. Most of the time it made it harder. But the efforts were sincere. In the end, the reality is that there are no short cuts. And nor should there be. Like I say, I try to do my work without complaining.

It's hard to let go of such a wonderful opportunity. I know that if I wanted to make more I could. But I don't want to do it half-cocked. And I don't want to make myself ill doing it either. And I want to do other things too. I want to do more live work.

In a way, the decision to tour next year, made my mind up for me. It would be impossible to create another series at the same time as creating and touring a new show. So series six was never going to happen in 2018. And I can't help thinking that not-working-100-plus-hours-a-week is probably going to feel quite nice after five years of crazy. So it's probably best to leave it there.

I know that, with ads, each show is less than an hour long... but creating 36 telly-hours in the space of five years is something I'm hugely proud of. There aren't many comics that will get that opportunity. And I like to think I respected the opportunity - and the audience - and always gave my all to it.

In the mean time, I'm having a bit of time off over Christmas - and the channel and I are actively looking for ways of working together in the future.

If you don't know what this rather self-indulgent post is going on about - here's a nice write up of the series from the Christmas Radio Times. (My Mum's chuffed about this)

It's rare for a series to end like this, with everyone involved feeling happy that it happened and nobody bearing any grudges.

If you've enjoyed the shows - thanks for being a part of it. I'm pretty sure they'll be available on UKTVPlay for some time to come. The final episode airs tomorrow, Tuesday at 10pm. I hope you can catch it.

If you want to make sure you know what I get up to next, my mailing list is the best way to find out.

For now, my thanks to Nick Martin, James Fidler, Judy Lewis, Nick Doody, Sarah Morgan, Carrie Quinlan, Carl Cooper, Paul Wheeler, Kumar Kamalagharan, The Bilroth Quartet, Annabel Port, Richard Watsham, Iain Coyle, Jamie Isaacs and a whole host of other people who all came on the ride with me. I've had a blast.