The Unknown Origin Of Ideas

‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ is one of the most irritating questions you get asked when you do comedy. It’s irritating because it doesn’t have a very good answer. Much like ‘What’s your favourite joke?’ where the answer is ‘I don’t really have one’ or I tell any that made me laugh as a kid, or ‘Who’s your favourite comedian?’ and the list I give them hits about 20 names they haven’t yet heard of and they cut me off. ‘What tip can you give to anyone who wants to get into stand-up?’ where my answer is always ‘Gig loads, work really hard’ and there is a pause while the interviewer hopes I’ll give some secret to it all. Believe me, if I had one, I’d have actually used it for myself by now. The problem with ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ though is that I still don’t really know.

Sometimes I read something, sometimes I see something, sometimes it’s just something that’s in the public consciousness. But often it’s just whatever pops into my head and that’s really annoying. I’ve been trying to write new material for the last two days. I know roughly what I want to write about yet none of it connects, and more importantly, none of it is really, well, funny yet. So far it’s several pages of scrawly, boring notes that if I stood onstage and read people would wonder if they’d accidentally walked into some sort of therapy group. Which to be fair, sometimes a comedy club sort of is.

After a year or so of avoiding watching stand-up in my spare time, I’ve gained a thirst for it again. I’ve been to watch several live shows in the last month or so, and every morning I rifle through the Netflix catalogue of US stand-up shows* that I haven’t seen as I hate myself on our exercise bike. The laughter ever so slightly counteracts having to do exercise that is more than my usual ‘getting off the sofa’ routine. Ever ever so slightly. I’m not sure I avoided other comedian’s work for a while. I think I’d just had my fill and arrogantly and snobbishly had decided no one was doing anything I hadn’t already seen a hundred times. This wasn’t at all true, it was just how I felt. Instead I crammed culture of other kinds, trying to figure out how it might influence me. Musicians engaging a crowd in-between songs, films and books drawing their audience into a storyline. Words and ideas and imagery that I hadn’t seen before. I’m sure it was all helpful. I believe anything you take in helps to shape what you do and I look forward to trying to persuade the Royal Heritage Orchestra to join me onstage for my Free Fringe Edinburgh show this year.

What I’ve noticed getting back into stand-up again is that what I enjoy most is when I feel like an act is being honest. It’s hard to describe exactly what I mean because I don’t mean that they aren’t embellishing jokes or tales in order to make them more funny. What I mean is that I like it when I feel as though the ideas an act is trying to push seem as though it’s something they genuinely think. Something that has actually popped into their head and they have worked to make the audience like it, rather than having constructed something they don’t care about because they think it’ll be what works. I’m not sure how you tell if an act is doing it, other than just getting a sense of it in their tone and passion when delivering the material. I watched Bill Burr’s latest show this morning and while I don’t agree with 100% of his material, I enjoyed it all because it seemed like it was entirely him. Every bit of it seemed to have been homegrown, with no pandering to the audience. He made them laugh at his jokes and ideas, rather than writing ideas for them. And it’s great.

Compare this to a US stand-show I watched last week that was an hour of poor stereotypes about men and women, and I spent the entire time thinking ‘but you don’t actually think that, do you?’ I would’ve said it out loud but I was doing interval training and could barely breathe at the time. I just got the feeling the stand-up in question had thought about ‘what people like’ and hammered out 60 minutes of generic dullness in the hope audiences would bite. Maybe that’s not the case, and maybe I’m just being mean. But I couldn’t care for it at all.

So know my problem is that I want to write things from my brain. That should be easy right? I mean, it’s from my brain which I have, so, duh. Simple. Ish. I mean, cockily, I like to think that’s not something new for me. I treasure an audience telling me that my 2010 show ‘Littlest Things’ seemed like ‘ was the ‘most you you could’ve been onstage’. I assume they meant that in a nice way. But putting my own trumpet down before I attempt to blow it badly, I know I wasn’t great at comedy then, and I feel and hope I’m getting better all the time. Right now though, I have no idea what I’m thinking about. I’ve lost track of politics a bit as it’s become the same boring mess towards the general election. I’m concerned anything I write now will change after May and even then I want things that apply to international audiences, not just the UK. Life is really ok at the moment which unfortunately, is very boring for comedy. My interests haven’t really changed since the last show. The few things I do care about I’ve recently seen some stand-ups talk about them in a far better way than I ever could.

This is of course unnecessary panicking. The sort of panicking I always do around this time of year when I’m bored of old material, inspired by others and yet lacking in any of my own work. Everyone has tons of thoughts and things on their mind and I’m sure those scrawly notes will become something soon. I hope. I really hope. Oh god.

‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I honestly don’t know. But if any of you have the answers, please let me know as it’d be really useful right now.


* Chelsea Peretti’s ‘One Of The Greats’ is very funny and well worth a watch. As is Bill Burr’s ‘I’m Sorry You Feel That Way.’ Also Louis CK’s latest special is just wonderful as always.


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