The Media and Robin Williams

On Saturday 16th August 2014 I took part in a roadshow event for Worcestershire Film Festival. The previous day I had written something in my ramblings diary about how the media had reported the death of Robin Williams. Essentially, this piece was not for public consumption but upon finishing it, rereading it and wiping away a tear I sent it to festival organiser, Simon Munn. He decided that it would be printed and distributed to all the audience who showed up for the roadshow event.

I present it here for you now.

imageOn Monday Robin Williams died by his own hand. For years organisations like The Samaritans have asked traditional media to report suicides with care. Not just to help the victims’ families to grieve as they need to but also to protect members of the public who feel that taking their own life is the only way out. The advice given is that coverage shouldn’t be extensive or sensationalist. It should avoid explicit details of suicide methods and suicide shouldn’t be portrayed as quick, effective, painless or easy. Finally, there should be a sensitive focus on life achievements and the wastefulness of death.

Almost every traditional media outlet has failed in all of these points in their quest for sales, website clicks and advertising revenue.

We come together today as filmmakers, as writers and as actors. As artists. To begin let us celebrate Williams’ life and work by remembering those roles and routines we loved.

Nanu nanu.

Do you think God gets stoned? I think so – look at the platypus.

Good morning Vietnam.

It’s not your fault.

If we just count those that have sought medical advice then we know that one in four people will suffer from mental health issues. The true number is much higher. And do not be fooled. The Black Dog does not stop barking at doors of the rich, the powerful or the funny. The black dog has no prejudice. It barks, bites and shits in all corners of our society. Right now, billions of people around the globe can feel its paws pressing on their shoulders.

What happened to Robin Williams is tragic. We can only hope his family and friends can grieve and move on with their lives. For us there is a way we can thank Robin Williams for all those good times. We do not let the Black Dog ruin our life. We do not follow the same path. We remember that when the dog is barking in our face we fight it. Remember…. It’s not your fault.


Gig #144: The Roadhouse, Stirchley. 11th Aug 2014

As ever Scroobius Pip says it better than anyone ever could:

Soulless music, artless lyrics.
Goalless movements, heartless gimmicks
Controlled and clueless, careers lasting a minute.
If this is the big life, well I ain’t lookin’ to live it.

I’m always banging on that you have to find what you want from stand-up comedy and it is obvious that I want something from it. Afterall, I instinctively put myself into a gig for Manilla Road and I’m still keeping my hand in by Co-MCing Anarchy. I also put myself forward for this gig at The Roadhouse.

Why? Why did I do that? What do I want?

I don’t want a career in comedy. I don’t want to drive up and down the motorway four times a week to gigs. I don’t want to wander into a pub to find no microphone, a rude landlord or a pissed up stag do with their unfunny heckles ruining the night. I don’t want to do a two hundred mile round trip to perform for six people. I don’t want to chase fake promises of progression from dodgy promoters laughing all the way to the ski resort. I don’t want to have a social media strategy. I don’t want to discuss posters with Tim from Marketing. I don’t want to write a Chortle Correspondence Article to promote myself.

Which is all well and good but what do I want? That is tougher to answer.

Initially I sketched out what I did at Manila Road which was essentially:

Pledge of Allegiance
Stealing Novels
Stealing All Along the Watchtower

This had all been done with a laid back, vulnerable but world weary persona and while I’d enjoyed reading out the chord progression to All Along the Watchtower for far longer than was comfortable I knew I wanted to do more than that. However, I liked the persona and felt it had something so decided to break the routine down a bit.

The Pledge of Allegiance is a nice section. It shows the audience a chunk of the character and gets them making some noise without the hacky “give us a cheer” stuff.

The Attenbourgh bit is now quite strong. I’ve performed it about four times and it’s getting tighter and tighter. Its purpose is again to reinforce the character I’m playing. Crucially, it’s also nice and soft. There is no bad language in there, nothing that could cause upset (even to Attenbourgh). It’s nice and laid back and full of subtle exposition. I’m proud of it.

I chucked out the stealing novels section because that hadn’t worked too well at Manila Road and rewrote the All Along the Watchtower bit so it made sense without it. I timed it and I had about six minutes. Like a scar I scratched an asterix against the Watchtower bit. My note to say, “If possible, get rid of this.”

Unsure what I would do I just sat back and waited to see what would pour into my mind from outside. It turned out that two subjects would bombard me. The conflict in Gaza and the issue of “controversy”. It seemed strange that the Israel Palestine conflict that has seen numerous murders and war crimes on both sides of the fence was also being fought on Facebook with pithy images which consisted of typically a misattributed quote and a semi-connected photograph. This was then shared to pin flags to political poles but it seemed to do nothing but disrespectfully condense a horrendous humanitarian conflict caused by leaders on both sides into a soundbite. That all sat quite uncomfortable with me.

To compound this it seemed like Facebook was playing one of their social experiment games with me because my timeline seemed populated with three people who were claiming to be “controversial” or “edgy”; If you are wondering who well it was two comics and one writer who I won’t name because they do everything possible to seek attention and I won’t pander to that.

I accept that art (and I’m including comedy as an art form) can be uncomfortable, it can hurt, it can make you think, it can even be throwaway tripe but I cannot see how it can controversial. Controversy is a dumb label stuck on things by an audience who are so scared of their own shadow that it makes their opinions on anything meaningless. I once heard Grayson Perry be referred to as the “controversial artist”. Do you know why? Because he wears women’s clothes. That’s not controversial. That’s transvestism. What sort of a mind do you have to have to refer to a transvestite as “controversial”? You can’t even claim it’s because of his art. He makes tapestries and pottery with sterile images on them. We live in a world where a transvestite potter is called “controversial”. Holy Mohammed on a fold up bike what’s become of this society?

So if you think you’re being controversial or edgy then you’re not. It is also possible that you are using labels of “controversial” and “edgy” to disguise the fact that your work is diabolical. Take away any ridiculous notion of controversy and edgy that you or the audience have and ask yourself do you have anything else?

With these thoughts rattling around my head like a diminutive child trapped in a big barrel that’s been thrown down a huge hill I wrote and tried to see if anything would come out.

An old routine I did about Pacman escaping the maze and running riot in the world of geometry appeared from somewhere and suddenly became a metaphor for the conflict in Gaza. I timed it all and it was about eight minutes. I wrote some more and then a bit about “controversy” popped up. It has a short shelf life, it’s full of in-jokes but I felt it was beautiful.

I have to admit, I was chuffed with what was on the page. Ultimately I found it funny but I also found it shifted my own paradigm on Gaza and the exposition explored my feelings about comedy and controversy with a deft touch.

However my confidence in the material didn’t help with the nerves. I knew it was anti-comedy again and I wasn’t sure how the audience would take it.

Zhing and I arrived at The Roadhouse and very soon and two familiar faces showed up. This person and her partner had been a regular at the comedy nights about a year before and I got on very well with both of them. Sadly, Leukaemia took her health, her hair and her ability to get out of the house. They both fought and I’m proud to say that with a new crew cut and a diagnosis of “clear” she was out of the house. I threw my arms around her knowing that there was a point I thought I’d never do that again. It made me feel warm and fuzzy inside but also applied more pressure. I wanted to have a good gig for those two. I gave serious consideration to binning everything and doing the old faithful depression routine.

Happily I didn’t. I was on third and took myself out of the room to concentrate on clearing the shit from my pants and trying to calm down. I saw the second act finish and slowly walked back in. My mouth was dry, my heart was trying to thump its way out of my chest and my balls shrivelled up like they were two small steel bearings rolling around a concrete mixer.

It all went surprisingly well. I had at least a couple of applause breaks and every time I expected a laugh a got one. The other acts in the room loved the in-jokes about controversial comedy I had put in and it all felt surprisingly good.

The question remains… what do I want from comedy?

It has become apparent in the last week that the routine was the antithesis of what bores me in comedy. I never tried to be odd, uncomfortable or thought-provoking but I think this routine achieved all three. All I tried to do was be funny. It dawned on me that before I was trying to be funny and trying to fight my demons. Now I’m just trying to be funny and seeing what happens.

The game, the business, the industry… nah. Edinburgh… nah. Posters… nah. Social media strategies… nah. Long drives… nah. Progression… nah. Popping up at a local Open 10 gig once in a blue moon and trying to say something I find funny about what’s on my mind. Yeah… I think I want that. 

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