Why the %#£! does it matter whether a book contains swearing? There’s no such thing as ‘bad language’

censorship

At news award-winning book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is set to be pulled from a school reading list over parental concerns about swearing, the debate around language and swearing in literature continues to rage on. But what impact does banning books for supposedly ‘bad’ or ‘offensive’ language actually have, and what message does it send? Professor Wu investigates…

Freedom of language

The Whitbread Book of the Year winning novel, Curious Incident, has been pulled from the summer book reading list by a Florida School because, as one parent said: “the f-word is written 28 times, the s-word 18 times, and the c-word makes one appearance […] a few characters also express atheistic beliefs, taking God’s name in vain on nine occasions.”

It’s perhaps easy and over-simplistic to simply write off this latest act of book censorship from the evangelical, overtly hysterical US ‘sensitive parent’ school of thought. The type of thing the character of Kitty Farmer in the film Donnie Darko might do. Yet to do so is perhaps to sideline an otherwise important debate.

Indeed, this is something the author of Curious Incident, Mark Haddon, himself highlights: “The truth is that it always generates a really interesting debate among school kids and librarians and parents, not just about Curious, but about literature and freedom and language, and this is an undeniably good thing,” said Haddon.

The issue here is exactly the point Haddon raises: that at its very core the debate here concerns freedom – freedom of language; of literature; of expression; of culture. And when it comes down to it, attempts to limit and control this freedom are not made solely by fundamentalist Christian parents in Florida who don’t want to read swear words or confront any possibility concerning their religion and belief other than those offered by the bible (which itself, of course, is so full of contradictions that it, perhaps ironically, leaves itself open to almost limitless interpretation – affording readers countless opportunities and possibilities of reading into it however they like to make assumptions that suit them).

Because of course attempts have been made to censor and control creative expression for hundreds, if not thousands of years…

Censorship and control

Think of the words of James Kelman, one of Scotland’s most important living writers: “there has never been a time in the history of this country when censorship and suppression did not exist. […] The film, theatre, newspaper and mainstream magazine industry, all exercise censorship, they collude in suppression.”

Of course, Kelman himself has been the subject of this suppression and censorship. In 1994, when Kelman won the Booker Prize for his novel How late it was, how late, the controversy that followed deterred publishers from promoting his subsequent books. Indeed, the author was held up to public ridicule; made out to be something far less than he was. A contemporary columnist at The Times compared the experience of reading Kelman to being stuck in a train carriage with a drunk Glaswegian. It’s possible this columnist may have missed the point of it all.

After all, How late it was, how late, acts as a subversion against attempts to control language. The changes in syntax, the interior monologue technique which leave paragraphs unfinished and the frequent use of expletives such as “fuck”, act as a retort to the conception that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to speak. Because, in truth, there is no such thing as ‘bad language’ – it’s just language. It’s expression.

Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres

Part of debate against swearing or otherwise non-standard English stems from Adam Smith, who, in 1748, began a conscious effort to standardize the English Language. His Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres hoped to cultivate “the most imperfect” dialects found in regions of Britain, and sought to do away with anything that deviated from ‘standard’ English.

The crucial flaw in Smith’s works and reasoning, though, is that ‘standard’ English is a myth. The reality of language, the reality of the way we speak and the way we think, is anything but standard. It’s utterly flawed and imperfect – prone to irregularity, syntactical confusion and occasional absurdity. Yet there’s also a certain beauty and truth in this. In fact, it’s only by breaking rules and deviating from ‘the standard’ that we might hope to create new forms of expression – or even new words.

Any literature that therefore does not contain swearing, or some form of irregularity or deviation from Smith’s rules, stands against the natural. This is part of the reason David Shields, author of the acclaimed Reality Hunger, described traditional novels as “unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived and essentially purposeless.”

It’s clear why such attacks against the novel can be well-founded. After all, there is certainly something contrived about characters who only speak eloquently – if not perfectly (with a masterful use of all grammar and punctuation). This is indeed something Kelman rails against in his essay The Importance of Glasgow in my work:

“Look at the nice stalwart upperclass English Hero (occasionally Scottish but with no linguistic variation), whose words on the page were always absolutely splendidly proper and pure and pristinely accurate, whether in dialogue or without. And what grammar! Colons and semi-colons! Straight out of their mouths! An incredible mastery of language.”

Yet not only is there something problematic here from the point of view of accuracy, realism and truth; there’s possibly something more troubling and disconcerting at any attempt to control language and freedom of expression.

Just think of Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting (a book which has three instances of “cunt”, one of “fuck” and one of “fucking” on the first page). Welsh rails against moves to censor literature on the basis of swearing – and explains:

“it seems to be an attempt to erase and/or marginalise certain cultures, i.e. the working class, the ghetto and so on. Language is a living, organic thing. If you try to control that and prescribe what people say, the next thing is prescribing what people think.”

Such concerns of course follow the thoughts of Orwell, who wrote in Politics of the English Language that “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Indeed, Orwell also refuted the idea that one should follow “a ‘standard English’ which must never be departed from” – rather, he said, “correct grammar and syntax are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear”.

What this again illustrates is that to suggest a book is of poor quality because it deviates from the norm or standard, or because it possesses within its pages swear words or other words in which people find offense, is to completely misread such a book, and to misunderstand the point of it all – not just the book; but culture itself.

This is because culture is not standard. It should not, therefore, be contained or controlled. It is natural. It is alive. It flows and changes in various fluctuations and metamorphoses. Just as one should not attempt to limit access to or dismiss books because they contain ‘foul’ language, neither should one attempt to downgrade or delegitimise books written in perfect Standard English – because they have an equal part to play in showcasing one part of the greater whole that is ‘culture’.

And here one can see the danger in trying to standardise or control language, because: “The standard language literary form becomes ipso facto ‘the’ literature, and everything else is subservient. It’s marginalised. Writers who are using phrasing and rhythm and grammar in a different way from the standard English literary form – in other words, trying to capture language as it is used by their own community – well it’s a form of English, but it’s inferiorised. It gets pigeon-holed as, at best, vernacular literature,” as Kelman notes.

What’s the f*cking point?

Of course, the hope when attempts at banning books or censorship occurs is that such attempts will backfire; setting those asking for such things up for ridicule, particularly from younger people. As Irvine Welsh says: “It makes [censors] seem very infantile.”

And this, it must be said, certainly seems true. How can anyone, after all, be genuinely upset by swearing – words that irrefutably exist and form a crucial element to our language. People so often don’t even swear to be abusive or to cause offense: it’s just how people talk.

Here again, Kelman is on hand to explain further: “people can use swear words to emphasise the beauty of something – so it’s not really a swear word at all. If you say something is ‘fucking beautiful’, how can it be swearing, because you’re emphasising the beauty of something. If so-called swear words should only be used when appropriate, well what do you mean, ‘when appropriate’? I was in my 20s before I even realised the word ‘fuck’ had to do with a sexual act for some people. It was never used in that way for myself, and none of my community used it in that way.”

Indeed, Willy Maley recognises the range of functions swearing can adopt in Kelman’s work, in his essay ‘Swearing Blind’. Maley writes: “The swearing is integral to Kelman’s power as a writer. It is neither a vulgar and superfluous supplement nor an offensive coating concealing shortcomings in the narrative, dialogue or characterization.”

So, when we see stories of people, organisations, parents, or – more worryingly – governments attempting to censor, ban, delegitimize and generally control the books we read and the type of culture we have access to, we might think ourselves in a position to point out that there is nothing logical about their stance. And indeed, we might suggest they are ever so slightly missing the point of it all.

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Experience: Working with a writing mentor

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I don’t have an infectious disease but if I did, I imagine telling people you have one garners much the same reaction as telling people you’ve written a short comedy film.

There’s normally some initial interest – even enthusiasm – but then a yawning chasm of social awkwardness opens as people think I might expect them to like the film or even worse – find it funny.

Help, guidance and expertise

Not withstanding this reaction I am pressing on with my lonely foray into character comedy and writing what I hope might someday be the pilot of a sitcom. I am helped in this by Micheal Jacob, my writing mentor who has, so far never backed away from me in a social situation (although there’s still time).

Micheal is a hugely experienced former BBC exec producer and is behind some of the UK’s best-loved comedies including The Smoking RoomMy Family and Birds of a Feather. He is also the author of a smashing book on TV sitcom Getting It On and I am genuinely honoured to have his help, guidance and expertise. I am only sorry that I am not writing things more quickly. Indeed whole civilizations have lived and died in the space of time I have taken to write 27 pages of script.

Learning from Micheal: advice for working with a mentor

In 2013, I won a competition through comedy film production company COFILMIC to have my script of Tea Time in Haworth, made into a short film. Micheal kindly offered to script edit for me and then after chatting about magical northern realism and his experiences with tempestuous actors, encouraged me to keep writing – but next time a longer piece. Which is what I’m currently trying to do.

Here are my five tips on what I’ve learned from working with Micheal:

  1. Realise what a mentor is for
    A mentor isn’t going to tell you what to write or how to write – however much you might want them to. They’re not going to write things for you. You have to do the thinking and the writing. For me, Micheal steers me in the right general direction and gives me constructive advice and feedback via sometimes frustratingly vague but eventually always very useful comments.
  2. It’s up to you to do the work
    In an early email exchange, Michael said that I should make one part of my story ‘more complicated’. What in God’s holy order does that mean? It’s already complicated – isn’t it? I went away and downloaded a script of the genius that is The Smoking Roomand broke it down into scenes to see what ‘complicated’ meant. I then bought a book of Royle Familyscripts and read all three series – taking notes as I went. If you’re still unsure ask for clarification but do the work first.
  3. Be ready to take brutally honest feedback
    If you want people to say only nice things about your work, go ask your mum. I find writing workshops where everyone sits round saying how great other people’s ideas are to be deeply unhelpful. Micheal is always courteous and polite with his feedback but the message is always crystal clear. A mentor doesn’t do the writer any favours if they’re not frank. It’s good to be a bit scared of them.
  4. Know your own style but trust their judgement
    Part of the problem with writing scripts is that every bugger has a view on them. But some bugger’s views are better than others – like Micheal’s. If you’re writing something like a sitcom and your mentor tells you something won’t work – that’s because it probably doesn’t work. If you feel you’re being forced into taking a course of action that you wholly disagree with – you’ve probably got the wrong mentor.
  5. Never take your mentor’s help for granted.
    Be nice to them, don’t abuse their help, always understand they are busy. Don’t hassle them but make it clear that if you need them to look at something quickly. They’re a writer, they know that you work to deadlines. Also, be respectful of how you communicate with them. In general, writers tend to like good writing and get pissed off with typos, poor spelling and general sloppiness – whether in your work or correspondence. I know I do.

So, in summary:

  • Don’t expect your mentor to do your writing for you – that’s your job
  • Feedback isn’t always going to be easy to understand – do the research
  • Feedback isn’t always going to be easy to take – deal with it
  • If you really don’t agree with your mentor’s advice – get a new mentor
  • Respect people and don’t be a pain in the ass (this is just general life advice)

About the author of this post

Chris is a writer, blogger, former philosophy lecturer and now co-founder at Prolifiko, a tech startup making digital productivity tools for writers of all types. His most recent side project is a new blog called Founders and Philosophers, where he’s aiming to write about what entrepreneurs can learn from history’s greatest thinkers.  He tweets at @SwarmComms.

 

You’ve read about it: now watch the film!

You can now watch Tea Time In Haworth, the excellent short film written by Chris, here. Nothing in the rulebook’s very own movie critic and film aficionado, Professor Wu, says: “Tea Time in Haworth is an absolutely excellent film – funny, interesting and engaging all in equal measure.”

In Plain Sight

plain sight pic

Eyes that cannot close,
Do not always see
For behind each blink
Forms a memory,
And she makes none.
Her stone drapes,
Fold heavy,
As sunken shadows
Embrace gravity,
Woebegone.

Deep loss
Is not solely felt
By those who remain
and remember,
The resilient ones,
Frozen awake
The benighted
Passively surrender
And dead stare,
with silenced tongues.

About the author

Artist and activist, writer and creative conservationist, Asher Jay, uses ground-breaking design, multimedia arts, literature and lectures to inspire action and promote change. All her work is anchored by the deep commitment she harbours toward the realisation of a collective future. Visit her website and tweet her @EarthHeiress

Jeremy Corbyn passionately backs the arts and creative industries

Man of the moment Jeremy Corbyn has written a passionate article in The State of the Arts, arguing what we here at Nothing In The Rulebook have always known: that there is creativity in all of us and, as such, government should be supporting the arts with funding – rather than slashing art council budgets left right and centre.

In an attack on the increasing inequality of opportunities within the arts and creative industries, the Labour Leadership frontrunner argued that “every child deserves the chance to learn a musical instrument, act on stage, and develop their creative imagination.” He also pointed out that “the arts and creative industries are the backbone of much of our cultural heritage” and, as such, would be protected and defended under a Corbyn-led opposition Labour party (and, of course, under any future Corbyn-led government).

“It is my firm belief that the role of government must be to work alongside arts communities and entrepreneurs in widening access to the arts, and for this broader engagement to stimulate creative expression, as well as support us in achieving our social objectives,” Mister Corbyn wrote.

Corbyn argued that the Government was using the guise of a misguided – and economically illiterate – austerity programme to make savage, ideologically driven cuts to the UK artistic industries – and was following on from the moves of Thatcher in the 1980s, which, Mister Corbyn noted, “sought to disempower the arts community, [in an attempt] to silence the provocative in favour of the populist.”

In a rousing call to arms, Corbyn wrote: “Beyond the obvious economic and social benefits of the arts is the significant contribution to our communities, education, and democratic process they make. Studies have demonstrated the beneficial impact of drama studied at schools on the capacity of teenagers to communicate, learn, and to tolerate each other, as well as on the likelihood that they will vote. The greater involvement of young people in the political process is something to be encouraged and celebrated.”

“Further, the contribution and critique of our society and democracy which [the arts have] the capacity to offer must be protected. To quote David Lan, “dissent is necessary to democracy, and democratic governments should have an interest in preserving sites in which that dissent can be expressed,” The Labour Leadership frontrunner said.

Analysis

“While it is as yet unclear what Jeremy Corbyn would personally make of Nothing In The Rulebook, both myself and my esteemed accomplice, Billy the Echidna, believe he would be firmly in favour of our project, and would like to take this opportunity to invite him to contribute to our site any time – alternatively, he can always pop by and say hello at our residences at London Zoo or the Natural History Museum,” Professor Wu says.

“Jeremy Corbyn has worked with and for the arts sector throughout his time in parliament, and his most recent article demonstrates why he is winning the hearts and minds of people throughout the country, and across the political spectrum,” Professor Wu adds. “For too long, funding of the creative industries have been slashed, and creative individuals from poorer or less fortunate backgrounds have been denied the opportunities to express themselves that they deserve. We can’t all be Benedict Cumberbatch, you know.”

Billy the Echidna agrees: “The devastating £82 million in cuts to the arts council budget over the last five years is repealing creativity and increasing callous commercialism, as priceless community programmes, art galleries, operas and other artistic and creative organisations are targeted by a neoliberal ideology that places value on currency, rather than human beings.”

“It is heartening to see the levels of support Mister Corbyn is currently experiencing, as the government needs MPs like him who are able to offer an alternative programme for the arts – which supports their ability to enrich the cultural lives of hundreds of thousands of people, while also promoting a feeling of community ownership and spirit, from which we all benefit,” Billy adds.

Both Billy and Professor Wu noted that the Government cuts to arts funding seemed driven by a vehement, ideological drive to attack the artistic industries, which appear to frighten conservative minds, due to their propensity to foster original thought and promote ideals at odds with neoliberal ideology.

“Faced with the challenges ahead, we both firmly support Mister Corbyn,” they said. “To use a popular social media hashtag, let’s just say, in Jez we can!”

See how it feels

commute-2

He wanted to kill someone. Not anyone in particular, or for any particular reason – he just wanted to see what it felt like.

He didn’t want to get caught, though. He’d be careful.

He bought a high-powered collapsible rifle with a silencer from a bloke’s mate’s friend of a pal, and found an old abandoned building in Bethnal Green that was right next to the railway line to Liverpool Street.

He went in, suited and booted at 7.00am. He found an old fridge to sit on, opened the briefcase and constructed the gun.

Sitting in the darkness (away from the window, of course), no-one knew he was there, and once people did they wouldn’t be able to do anything anyway – no-one would know exactly where they were, and by the time they’d called the police he would be gone.

Then he simply waited for one of the frequent trains to stop outside, as it waited for a platform at the next station to clear.

He just wanted to see what it felt like.

Eventually a train arrived. Commuter traffic into which he’d blend perfectly; all suits and power – he nearly tried to justify it in his mind as a statement against capitalism. Some protest.

There was a man facing towards him, reading a book – he’d do.

He peered through the scope, adjusting it as he did so. Between the eyes was industry standard, he’d been told.

The cross hairs on the bridge of the nose, and the man looked up – looked straight at him. Blue eyes.

SPINCH.

The man’s head was gone, and screaming erupted from the carriage.

He sat down, collapsed the gun into the briefcase, took the stairs three at a time, and then out onto the alley where the screaming was ripping apart the sky.  Under the bridge and away – turn left onto the street, and off towards the station. A few of the male commuters had managed to get free. They ran towards and past him, not even a second glance.

So, how did it feel, he considered.

Not much cop. Bit of a disappointment, really.

About the author of this post

The Goatman – due to the usual experiments going wrong &c &c, The Goatman is  an internationally-available gentleman of letters, raconteur and wit. His amorous conquests are myriad, his taste in whisky of renown, and his ability to look comfortable in extreme situations is of significant scientific study. He has been known to conspire with Vagabond Images.

London-based poet? There’s a job for you

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Young, poetically-inclined Londoners should take note here – fears that “there’s no money in poetry anymore [sic: or at all]” are wholly misguided. In fact, there looks to be a truly fantastic opportunity for aspiring young poets living in the Capital, as London Laureates announces applications are open for the next Young Poet Laureate for London.

Acting as a voice for young Londoners, the winner will provide reflections on current events across the capital throughout the coming year, as well as working with communities and London based organisations to inspire and inform through poetry. The Young Poet Laureate is a Spread the Word programme, supported by the Foundation for FutureLondon.

This terrific opportunity supports and develops some of London’s most talented young poets, generating income possibilities, creating work opportunities and elevating the profile of the successful poets, accelerating their careers as creative professionals.

Part of the role will include the opportunity to carry out five two-week writing residencies in different community settings – all while encouraging people to get involved through writing and performing poetry with workshops, ad-hoc interactions and planned performances or readings.

With a fee of £1500 paid for each residency, the total value of the contract for the Young Poet Laureate for London is £7500, plus any additional commissions that arise as a result of holding the title.

If that wasn’t enough to entice you to apply, our very own Professor Wu issued the following endorsement of the programme: “The opportunity here for aspiring young poets in London is not one to miss. This is a thoroughly brilliant initiative and one which I endorse wholeheartedly.”

“From my tank here in London Zoo, I am fortunate enough to meet a wide range of visitors to our city; and have noticed to my chagrin the lack of poets and, indeed, laureates – especially among the younger population. We therefore need such programmes – not just to inspire others, but to help lay the foundations of culture in this most vibrant of cities. More than banks and skyscrapers and new airport runways, this city needs poetry. We all need poetry. Because poetry, more than anything, is about love and about life,” Professor Wu adds.

The deadline for applications here is fast approaching, so make sure you apply now, while there’s still time! Spread the word poets! Spread the word!

Professor Wu’s writing tips

Power of Words

Maya Angelou once said there was no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. If you have such a story, doubtless you’ll understand such pain. Of course, to overcome it means to write out and finally tell said untold story. Which, inevitably, is easier said than done. So, when setting up to write your novel; or short story; or poem, here are a few writing tips that, with luck, will set you on your way. Bon chance! – Professor Wu.

  • All stories are true.
  • You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write
  • Art is theft
  • You can tell a good story if it embarrasses you
  • Success is relative. The end goal of writing needn’t be getting published – or making money. It’s simply about joining the conversation. If you have something to say; say it.
  • If you’re writing a scene, ask yourself: ‘could this take place on a hot air balloon?’ If yes, it probably should.
  • There’s nothing in the rulebook that says a giraffe can’t play football!

Piggiebacking to Victory

An interview with the most searched for echidna in the southern hemisphere

Piggie the Echidna

Piggie the Echidna

Let it never be said I haven’t shown solidarity with my egg-laying mammalian brethren. In an exclusive interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Piggie the Echidna talks imprisonment, conquering fear and what the future holds for the much-loved pet and ambassador. Billy the Echidna (BK)

BK: Thank you for speaking with me today

PE: The pleasure is mine. I’ve never been good at sitting around doing nothing

BK: If I could bring you back to that fateful day…

PE: Of course. I’ve kind of dined out on the fact I was the first echidna successfully bred in captivity at the sanctuary, and dining is how I spend a fair bit of my time. I’m an after dinner speaker you see and for the reasonable fee of 30 crickets I will delight your debating society or after dinner club with tales in utero.

BK:: But back to the matter at hand…

PE: Yes, so I was stociously drunk.

BK: Weren’t you dining at the time?

PE: Fermented fruit. Addicted to them some would say. And I can bring your scout troop or AGM to tears with the story of how I conquered my addiction for only 30 crickets.

BK: They came for you at night?

PE: Oh yes. Terrifying. I had passed out on a bed of plum stones from the effects and next thing a gloved hand is bristling my spines. I assumed it was my keeper come for a roll in the hay and a drunken fumble but something about this gloved hand felt different. I felt another on my side and it grasped me and I could feel my legs coming out from under me.

BK: Do you think there was a sexual motive to your kidnapping?

PE: What I can tell you is they touched me in ways I hadn’t been touched before by another living being. That’s to say they tossed me into a sack. I thought nothing of it and fell back into an intoxicated slumber.

BK: Weren’t you afraid?

PE: I’d grown weary of life in the sanctuary. The prestige that comes from being the first of one’s kind born behind plexiglass had dampened with age and I was contemplating life away from the sanctuary’s soothing heat lamps. And i would have got quite far in that contemplation if at the time I wasn’t rolling around in a sack on the floor of Ford Transit.The fear set in when I wondered if these kidnappers weren’t just stoned high-schoolers or animal rights activists but jihadi extremists, and I was to be ransomed to fund their cause. If the sanctuary wouldn’t pay, I feared my tiny head would be removed from my spiny shoulders on video for the world to see.

BK: Could you overhear anything your captors were saying as they transported you?

PE: Not quite, they were blaring Men at Work through the stereo; the only word I could pick out was “Rosebud” which is when I realised my assailants were Orson Welles fans. Serious foes indeed.

“They kept laughing at how weird I looked and humming a bizarre melody they called my theme song.”

BK: Where did your captors take you?.

PE: We parked up what I can only imagine was about 20 minutes from the sanctuary. They let me out of the dark sack and I waddled around the floor of the van looking for weaknesses in the van’s design or grubs to eat They kept laughing at how weird I looked and humming a bizarre melody they called my theme song. I had never been so humiliated. We did that for what felt like hours and then they put me back in the sack. The next hands to reach in and clasp me were my keeper’s so I can only assume that after tiring of my peculiar appearance they brought me back to the sanctuary. Baffling really.

BK: The entire experience must have been traumatising.

PE: If I hadn’t been so wasted I’d say so but the world is a stage and the men and women on it merely players.

BK: I’m not sure I see how that reference is appropriate.

PE: You will my boy, in due time.

BE: Now you’ve settled back into life in captivity, what does the future have in store for Piggie?

PE: I’m so glad you’ve asked even though I shouldn’t be saying something. I’ve been commissioned by BBC3 to present an untitled talent search programme for Britain’s best escape artist. The catch? They’re escaping death itself.

Piggie the Echidna lives at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, Gold Coast, Australia. When not hosting obscure reality television, she is drunk.

Experience: My first 20 gigs as an aspiring stand up comedian

Microphone-Whealans

It’s my first gig. I’m at Angel Comedy, and it’s rammed. There are people standing, there are people being turned away from standing. The MC, Barry Ferns, has got the crowd properly warmed up. This is an audience that wants to be entertained, they want to laugh at every joke and unless they find a very good reason to not, they will.

There’s been about fourteen comedians on before me and I’m the penultimate act. I’m nervous, properly nervous. I’ve got about five friends in the audience, well three friends and two friends of friends. This is a room of total strangers, about a hundred of them, and I have to make them laugh. Mental, why did I ever sign up to do this?

Barry does about five minutes, calls my name and before I’ve had time to do any final preparations  I’m on stage. I take a deep breath and launch into my first joke. It’s a good joke but I tell it badly. It gets a big laugh anyway and my nerves dissipate. My next joke goes well too and the one after that. My entire routine about King Solomon goes down a treat, it doesn’t really have an ending and there are no proper punchlines, but if it’s getting laughs like these who cares? Comedy is easy and I’m fucking brilliant at it.

It’s my second gig. I’m at Heavenly comedy. It’s a small room below a pub which the comedians have to set up before the gig. There are seventeen comedians on and two genuine audience members. The room is hot and the audience is bored. They want to go home but they aren’t allowed to because they’re all comedians, they have to stay to the end to support the other acts and turn makeshift comedy club back into a small room beneath a pub. They don’t want to hear two minutes of incompetently told jokes about being tall and a three minute routine about King Solomon that doesn’t have any punchlines. Especially not from a man who is visibly shaking from nerves. At best, I get two laughs. Comedy is impossible and I’m fucking terrible at it.

I’ve done twenty gigs now and many of them have been like my second. A room either beneath or above a pub in front of around fifteen other comedians and a few genuine punters who look somewhere between confused and concerned. I genuinely love it and my only regret is not having done significantly more over the past three months. I secretly think I’m quite good too. Don’t tell any of the other comedians I said that though or they’ll shun me for being immodest.

My earnings thus far are: three drinks (two Cobras and a Yakima Red) and eleven AAA batteries. I won the batteries for coming joint second in my heat at the Jaunty Lark competition, which is my career highlight to date, and every appliance I power with them will a reminder that I’m at least a reasonably good comedian. Unfortunately all my alarm clocks, nineties Gameboys and anal vibrators require AA batteries, so I’m hoping I’ll win some of them in the final (which is later this month).

I’ve performed, all in all, about twenty-five minutes of material. Some of it has worked, some of it, like my 4 minute routine about Stewart Lee, has conclusively not. I write a lot of material as the writing is probably my favourite part of the whole thing. Aside from the booty and batteries obviously. The process of watching a routine turn from a half baked idea based around a single pun to a genuinely tight five minutes of comedy is wonderful. I’m seldom happier than when I’m in-front of six other comedians trying to turn my new routine about satire and feminism into something that’s at least serviceable.

About half of the gigs I’ve done have been ‘bringers’. A large proportion of the gigs available to new stand-ups require the act to bring audience members along with them. My friends, generally, have been very supportive and I’ve only had to cancel one gig due to unreliable companions. Most comedians seem to hate bringers and some refuse to do them on principle. I’m somewhere in the middle. Most of the ‘great’ audiences I’ve had have been rooms full of people dragged along by acts. It’s a pleasure to perform in-front of a packed room but I’m also beginning to run out of friends who haven’t seen most of my material. There’s only so many times you can sit through my puns about Ed Balls.

I’m not sure the friends of acts are proper audience members anyway. They either only laugh at their friend or are so surprised that some comedians on the open-mic scene are actually quite good that they laugh uproariously at every single joke. My twentieth gig, this evening, was in front of my first genuine, paying, audience who’d come of their own volition (for some reason) and the atmosphere was very different to what I was used to. Obviously I’m far too new a comedian to make wild judgements about the nature of audiences but my feeling is that bringers aren’t a particularly good place to hone your craft. I’m only going to become a great comedian if I learn to kill at the nights where it’s just the other comedians and a few bedraggled people off the street. After that, a room full of real, actual, people will surely be a doddle?

Anyway, I’m getting better slowly. Lots of comedians have come up to me and said they’ve really enjoyed my sets, or given me invaluable advice, which is always lovely. I’m constantly humbled by how many other brilliant comics there are on the circuit. As arrogant as I am, there’s rarely a night were I can conclusively say I was amongst the funniest on. I went to see the wonderful Bridget Christie a few weeks ago and her brilliance reminded me quite how far I have to go before I’m considered even competent. I reckon I’ll need to do at least eighty more gigs before I can even begin to think of myself as a proper comedian, I’ve got around ten planned in over the next two weeks. That’s a start.

About the author of this post

Daniel Offen is an aspiring comedian and writer. He has written four jokes and half a book. He assures us he is capable of all of the usual thoughts and emotions of an unusual twenty four year old man and will talk about them at length. He deal primarily in irony and whimsy. He tweets as @danieloffen.

On Schadenfreude

 

When I were a lad, we used to keep chickens. One Easter they hatched a brood of chicks – all little yellow fluffy things, and one black one, who was immediately and clearly the runt.

I went to feed the chicks one day, and replinished their water. They raced towards the plastic dish that served as their bowl, squeaking and bleeping with delight, and the black one was – for the first time in his life – at the head of the pack.

As he got to the bowl in his excitement he stamped his big flat foot on the edge of the dish, thus spanging himself as hard as possible right in the face and destroying their water supply.

About the author of this post

The Goatman – due to the usual experiments going wrong &c &c, The Goatman is  an internationally-available gentleman of letters, raconteur and wit. His amorous conquests are myriad, his taste in whisky of renown, and his ability to look comfortable in extreme situations is of significant scientific study. He has been known to conspire with Vagabond Images.