I worked with BBC Light Entertainment for six weeks in 2015 on Vote Now Show during the 2015 election.
The work culminated in an all-nighter as the results came in and half a dozen sleep-deprived writers attempted to get our heads around a Tory landslide, and then make jokes about it.
There weren’t enough biscuits.
One meeting stuck with me from this time. Various comedians were being discussed with a view to casting them to write monologues on various topics for the show. An exec producer described an act as having ‘found her voice’ recently.
I was immediately fascinated by this idea.
What is a voice, and how do I get one?
This morning, reading Maria Popova on voice, “the waveform of the soul in writing”, I found this from poet Jane Hirshfield:
Voice … is the body language of a poem — the part that cannot help but reveal what it is.
Everything that has gone into making us who we are is held there. Yet we also speak of writers “finding their voice.” The phrase is both meaningful and odd, a perennial puzzle: how can we “find” what we already use?
The answer lies, paradoxically, in the quality of listening that accompanies self-aware speech: singers, to stay in tune, must hear not only the orchestral music they sing with, but also themselves.
Similarly, writers who have “found a voice” are those whose ears turn at once inward and outward, both toward their own nature, thought patterns, and rhythms, and toward those of the culture at large.”
– Jane Hirshfield
So the good news is you have it already. It’s just a case of listening, paying attention to yourself and the world, and of course practice, dedication and discipline.
This American Life’s Ira Glass has a soothing explanation for why the first few years of making creative work is so frustrating:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this.
We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.
Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
― Ira Glass
And when he says the first ‘couple years’ he means 10.
Self-esteem can be slippery. One minute you have it, the next the bubble bursts and it’s gone.
5 years ago I took up stand up comedy, perhaps because my self-esteem needed a boost.
It’s been a rollercoaster.
A gig goes well, and I’m Leonardo DiCaprio on the front of the Titanic.
A gig goes badly, and I’m Leonardo DiCaprio in all his other films.
Seriously unhelpful if you’re doing two gigs a night, in that order.
Social media dictates that I should be posting pictures of myself doing well, on and off stage.
It’s a lot of energy to spend trying to prove I’m good at what I do. It feels fraudulent. I’m not doing that well all the time.
This isn’t what comedians get into comedy for. Comedians get into comedy for external validation. And if they’re good, they get it.
The self-posting feels narcissistic, and without real ability and achievement, maybe it is.
Narcissism comes not out of self-love but out of self-hatred. – Audre Lorde
Stand up comedy aside, there are better ways to build lasting self-esteem than to post about ourselves on social media.
For example, the right kind of positive affirmations* and developing competencies that prove ability and achievement.
*Positive affirmations can make you feel worse when self-esteem is already a battle. “I will succeed!” doesn’t feel realistic. “I am bloody persistent and I’ll keep going until I succeed,” might just work.
If you run, enter races with beautiful medals, or record your runs online.
If you’re a comedian, write a joke you’re proud of. Practice it in front of audiences ’til it’s 80% perfect, then write some more and build it into a set. Then build the set into a show.
A lot can get in the way of these kinds of goals. Injury, coronavirus, not feeling very funny during a global pandemic…
But working towards goals is better for self-esteem than trying to prove ourselves on social media.
So where are we trying to get to as we build lasting self-esteem?
“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.”
– E.B. White and his wife, Katharine S. White
Rach: My driving instructor was a lovely Chinese man who grew increasingly frustrated with my questions about how exactly a clutch worked.
I couldn’t get my head around the biting point if I couldn’t see what I was biting.
How does the engine work, how does the clutch work, what are we doing here in a car park in Mitcham at 10 o’clock in the morning?
Mr. Yeo placed his head in his hands and sighed quietly.
Since learning how to perform stand up comedy, I’ve been struck with similar confusion about how jokes work. I need to know why something is funny to be able to write and perform it with confidence.
The frog is dying, but I can’t help myself.
Take the rule of three for example. Every comedy course in the world will tell you that the rule of three is funny.
And it is. There’s no question about that. The age-old mechanism of establish, reinforce, subvert is as tried and tested as ‘See it, Say it, Sorted’ isn’t.
But why are three things funnier than two? Why don’t four things work so well? And above all, why do some third-thing punchlines work better than others?
To help me with this, I consulted Clare Jonas from That Thinking Feeling.
Clare, why is a comedic triple funnier than a double or quadruple?
Clare: Good question! I don’t think anyone’s actually tried to figure out this exact thing with an experiment… so I cobbled together an answer from my psychology knowledge.
First, let’s tackle the number element. In order to make this kind of joke work, you need to establish a category and then flout or subvert it in some way.
It should be obvious why one item in the list won’t work: you usually can’t establish a clear category from just one thing, and you certainly can’t subvert the category. Because a lot of words have multiple meanings, you need the second item in the list to solidify the category, which means it also shouldn’t be the funny thing.
Here’s an example first item: boxers. This could belong to a number of categories…
Underwear: Boxers, Y-fronts
Sportspeople: Boxers, rowers
Dog breeds: Boxers, spaniels
Words that end in -oxers: Boxers, foxers
So, why not establish the category even more solidly with a third or fourth or fifth item before subverting? Because humans have limited attention spans. We usually use working memory (a sort of temporary store for information) to keep track of things that we need to keep in mind right now. When you’re reading or listening to someone tell a story, a lot of your working memory is taken up with what’s going on in the story – events, characters, how things relate to each other. If I ask you to remember a long list while you’re listening to a story, either you’ll forget the list or you’ll lose track of the story. A two-item list is a balance between the need to establish the category and the need to keep your audience’s attention.
A different use of this kind of three-part list is an age-old rhetorical device called hendiatris, which gave us such classics as friends, Romans, countrymen and reduce, reuse, recycle. We have a powerful cultural expectation that the third item in a list will complete it in an emotionally or aesthetically pleasing way. The subversion of that expectation is funny – but why?
I’ve written before about how humour works, and the honest answer is that there’s no one theory which can explain all of it. In many cases, it’s probably about mild tension being resolved. In something like stand-up comedy, this tension might come from a variety of sources, say the topic is mildly taboo or emotionally difficult, or the narrative is gripping and you don’t know what to expect, or even that you’re worried whether the comedian is going to land the joke. If the tension is resolved, you’re relieved – but add a silly or incongruous subversion to that and you are likely to express relief by laughing.
Let’s talk a bit more about incongruity, because you can’t just whack any old incongruous thing on the end of a list to make a funny. Returning to one of the earlier examples…
Boxers, Y-fronts, briefs -> Congruous, not funny
Boxers, Y-fronts, cathedrals -> Incongruous, not funny
I like to think of this as a series of concentric circles. The trick is to find something that’s slightly outside the category you’ve established, but not so far that you can’t see any connection between the first two items and the final one (Only Ross Noble and Eddie Izzard can make this funny – Rach.) Underwear and pubic wigs are reasonably closely related, underwear and large buildings not so much.
In this case, merkin is also good because it’s slightly rude (another type of subversion, this time about social norms of what we ‘should’ talk about in public) and it’s one of those words that sounds funny even if you don’t know what it means, like spatula.
Not every minor subversion is funny, of course. Some minor subversions might be offensive or confusing, in the general sense or in the specific context of what you are saying and who you are saying it to.
As with all comedy, the key is keeping in mind who you’re talking to.
Perhaps your audience is entirely comprised of Conservative women over the age of 80. Will they know what a merkin is? If they do know, will they think it’s too rude?
Perhaps your audience is made up of curators at the Amsterdam Sex Museum. Will they be so used to merkins that they find them boring? Is it not rude enough?
Rach: So, the category circles might change size, depending on your audience. If your ‘third thing’ is in the central established category circle, it won’t be a surprise, so it won’t be funny – though if you’re lucky you might have made a hendiatris. If it’s in the ‘TOO FAR’ circle, it doesn’t make any sense.
If it’s in the offensive section, it could be funny, but a stand-up audience might be nervous to laugh out loud. It’s certainly not going to get you booked for the Royal Variety Performance.
In conclusion, establish, reinforce, subvert by the correct amount and you have yourself a punchline.
Postscript: Rach eventually overcame her clutch based confusion, and nailed her driving test on the fourth attempt.
Sally wants selective ovulation, James wants a skull flap. There’s a suggestion from the audience for One Massive Ear and Simon is borrowing from the opossums which could hold the key to saving snakebite victims.
We discuss enhanced vision, limb regeneration, gecko hands, super kidneys and re-breathing.
Extracts from the episode, edited for readability are available here.
In the news…
Kate is tickled and baffled by a news story about Microsoft. They have patented to generate cryptocurrency by monitoring people’s brain activity.
Steve’s news story is entitled, ‘Venomous Frogs use Heads as Weapons.’
And Rach’s levelled up human is Bertolt Meyer, a DJ, producer and Professor of Organisational Psychology from Technische Universität Chemnitz who has hacked his prosthetic hand to hook it up to his synth.
Steve wants to borrow the abilities of the Iberian sharp-ribbed newt, a type of salamander which can regenerate limbs and organs.
Kate, on the other hands, thinks the human body should be able to see the polarisation of light
From the audience, we have suggestions including souped up kidneys and gecko hands.
Finally Simon has a suggestion from nature.
Which of our suggestions will make Rachel’s shortlist? Which will win? Listen to find out.
If you’re a gardener, the best thing might be to just start writing. Don’t worry that you haven’t had an idea yet. Allow the idea to emerge as you write.
To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing…
When I find myself facing a blank page, that’s always going through my head.
What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.
6. Start by blocking distractions
Having Whatsapp messages, texts or carrier pigeons flying in through the window can be distracting.
Start by putting your phone on airplane mode. Or use an app like Flora to keep you on track. This is a lovely app. You plant a seed, the tree grows while you’re writing. If you close the app or wander off into other apps on your phone. THE TREE DIES. Brutal.
Above all, don’t panic! Writer’s block can be more to do with what else is going on in our lives than a lack of ideas.
If you can make space for it and try all these techniques, the ideas will start to flow.
To celebrate the 42nd anniversary of the original radio broadcasts of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the British Library are hosting a whole day of events.
Stand Up for Towel Day will be there, with Steve Cross, Cerys Bradley, The Underground Clown Club, Declan Kennedy, Jonathan Hearn and The Story Beast all performing homages to the late, great Douglas Adams’ work.
42 years ago tomorrow (Wednesday, 8th March, 1978), a radio series called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was launched on BBC Radio 4 at 10.30pm. The author, Douglas Adams, was disappointed with the timing of the broadcast, as the timeslot was guaranteed to turn the programme into a ‘cult’ with a small but dedicated audience.
Happily, the programme gained a very large mainstream audience, and spawned books, a second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth radio series, a TV show and two films to date.
Earlier this year, Simon Watt and I recorded an episode of our podcast, Level Up Human, live at the Barbican in association with The Physiological Society. This episode was recorded with expert guests, marine biologist, writer and documentary maker, Helen Scales and KCL professor of developmental neurobiology, Robert Hindges.
First we look at human enhancements from around the world. Helen brings news of a man with an exo-skeleton allowing him to walk.
Robert tells us about developments in prosthetics which allow users to experience feedback from artificial limbs. And Rach has evidence that thumbs are getting faster.
Next: pitches from our guest experts, the studio audience and Mother Nature herself.
Robert wants a higher flicker frequency in the human eye. Helen suggests we all become extreme free divers with the breath holding abilities of the sperm whale.
The audience want improved cooling systems, reduced urination, lego wrists and multi-sensory anaesthesia. Simon pitches the arsenic resistant qualities of the Mono lake nematodes.
Which will make it onto the shortlist? And which will win? Have a listen to find out.