Tell us about your show, You Build The Thing You Think You Are.
It’s a combination of two things really – last year I discovered a way of doing things that combined nonsense with something that felt a bit like conceptual theatre and resulted in a show that really meant something to a lot of people. So this year I wanted to pursue the same method but apply it to something that felt a bit more like stand-up, which I haven’t really done since 2017.
So it’s more personal and anecdotal and focused on a specific story I wanted to tell, and less about conceptual vagueness. But it’s still using some of the tones and ideas I discovered in my last show.
And then the other side of it is that I was feeling very mixed up about moving house and I felt like it was a good metaphor for the thing which all my shows are about, which is processing your own identity in a way other people can understand, and I wanted to explore that story and find some stuff in it that might mean something to other people.
What inspired you to write a show about how people construct their identities?
I was reading a book called Immortality by Milan Kundera which said that we construct our identities either by adding things, and associating everything we add as being a core part of our personality, or by taking things away, and trying to find out what we actually are underneath all our affectations and quirks.
I felt like I’d been adding for 30 years, and wanted to do some taking away, and then at the same time I got evicted from my flat and felt this weird severing – like I’d suddenly been physically cut off from the version of myself I’d come to be comfortable with over the last eight years. And I felt like somewhere in all those ideas and images were the beginnings of a show.
How well did this theme mesh with your absurdist storytelling style of comedy?
All my shows are basically about the same thing – that there’s a lot of stuff going on in your head that means a lot to you but can never possibly mean anything to anybody else. And every show I’ve made has been an attempt to express that thought through various anecdotes or bits of colourful, visual nonsense.
My thinking has always been that dressing up and dancing around and doing silly voices is an equally good way of expressing who you are as actually telling a story about your own lived experience, because it all ultimately amounts to the same thing. So I’ve spent a few years practising the combination of those two things to explore an idea, and this felt like as good a theme as any to apply that approach to.
What is your trick to balancing your own personal stories with enough vagueness to make your show relatable to a broad audience?
Last year my trick was to just remove as much of my actual self as possible. It was a show about an imaginary character called Mr Fruit Salad who emerged from some personal emotional trouble I was going through at the time. I tried to not talk too much about specific things that had happened to me so that he just represented a feeling the audience would be familiar with rather than representing my life in any way.
This year’s show is a bit more focused on telling a story that actually happened, so it’s a bit different in that respect. But my approach is still always to focus as much on the feeling of what you experienced as on telling the details of the story itself.
I think that an audience only has so much interest in the life and experience of the performer, but if you can use your performance to articulate something that makes them think the show is about them and things they’ve experienced, then suddenly you’re making something that’s so much bigger.
This was originally planned to be a live show. How much of an impact has changing the format of the show had on the show itself?
It’s meant that I can no longer tell where the laughs are, which is a bit nerve-wracking. It’s all been adapted from a show I previewed live a few times, so I know the gags and the laughs are in there, but when I’m watching it back and editing it I find I’m much more absorbed in the story and the ideas and the form of it – things like “Oh, that cutaway does something interesting to the pacing, that angle draws the eye to this interesting thing” – than I am absorbed in wondering whether or not it’s funny or the jokes land or whatever.
I’m pretty sure it is funny, because I remember it being funny live, but I feel like somewhere in the adaptation process that’s no longer the point of it, because I can’t hear the laughter, so my interest has been absorbed into other elements of it.
What have you done to make the film evoke the live comedy experience?
I think Zoom gigs and Twitch gigs are really good recreations of mixed bill nights, where the main reason the audience comes is to enjoy the shared collective experience of a fun night out. But they don’t feel like a good format for recreating the experience of watching an Edinburgh show.
Personally, I don’t go to see full hour-long comedy shows purely for entertainment purposes, I go to them because I want the experience of sitting in that performer’s imagination for an hour and seeing what they’ve made and feeling the things they want me to feel. That feeling, I think, is massively diminished by livestreaming because there are such limitations on where the performer can physically go and what they can do. They’re always stuck in their bedroom looking into their webcam. It’s a format with limitations that a stage, weirdly, doesn’t have.
So my approach with this film was to abandon the live interactive elements of Twitch or Zoom and instead prioritise the ability to go anywhere at any time and do anything, to use cutaways that flash back into my memory or flash forward into my imagination, or recreate the experience of following a train of thought in a slightly unpredictable way. I’m hoping that approach comes closer to the feeling I get when I watch an Edinburgh show.
Have you taken anything from creating such a different kind of show that you’ll carry into your live comedy when it returns?
Like I said, my focus has been drawn away from wondering whether or not a particular bit is funny and towards wondering how to make it more inventive and interesting. I’m watching it thinking “What could happen here that would be surprising or imaginative?” rather than thinking “What’s the right gag for this moment?” And I actually find that an exciting way of thinking about a comedy show – just trusting that it will be funny, and thinking more about how to keep it surprising more than anything else.
What have you got planned for the Q&A sessions you’re doing alongside the show?
They’re all basically about the same subject, which is “We’re in a situation where it’s difficult or impossible to continue making things in the way we used to make them. What do we do?” And I’m just exploring different sides of that subject with some of my favourite people in comedy.
Sean Morley has been doing really inventive, surreal, genre-pushing stuff on Twitch which I’ve really been enjoying, so we’ll talk about inventing new formats and doing things on your own terms; and Saima Ferdows is part of the Live Comedy Association so is part of a concerted effort to find practical solutions to enable the industry to survive and move forwards, so we’ll be talking about that issue from a more industry-wide, behind-the-scenes perspective.
But essentially, every day I’ll be chatting to a friend about more or less the same idea, and I’m hoping they’ll be quite informal and fun while also maybe shedding some light on some interesting new approaches.
What do you hope people take away from your show?
To be completely honest, I really don’t mind. I made this film for selfish reasons, because I was sad about having to put several months’ work in the bin and because I needed a project to distract myself during lockdown and make myself feel creative. The purpose of making it was just to get it out of my head.
It’s my hope that by screening it online and holding these Q&As I can turn it into something that does mean something for other people too, that expresses something about the feeling of being displaced in your life, which I think is something we all feel more or less constantly at the moment. If anybody watching it takes anything away from it, whether it’s just the sense that they’ve enjoyed a fun, silly show or the sense that a familiar feeling has been expressed for them in an unusual way, then it will already have done enough.
I just hope people enjoy it.
Do you have any recommendations for anyone looking for other things to do to pass the time during isolation?
Well, in terms of online entertainment, there’s so much great stuff going on – the NextUp Comedy Festival is hosting a different show by a different comedian every day in July. Some of the most inventive and fun streaming gigs or shows I’ve seen include Stu Goldsmith’s Infinite Sofa, the stuff on the Cosmic Shambles Network and, as I mentioned already, Sean Morley’s very inventive Twitch stuff.
But to be completely honest, the other thing I’d really recommend is taking the opportunity to cultivate your life outside of the internet. I’ve strengthened some friendships during lockdown by just being there for one another more than we usually would be, and getting inventive in ways of hanging out by coming up with games and so on. And I’ve started gardening and working harder at trying new recipes, and so on.
This has been a good opportunity to figure out what my hobbies and interests are outside of watching comedy, and while there are elements of lockdown I won’t look back on with fondness, I’ll always be appreciative of that opportunity.
The other thing it’s worth doing is supporting the #SaveLiveComedy campaign which is being organised by the Live Comedy Association – comedy’s in big trouble at the moment, and the LCA are doing amazing work in trying to find ways to help it survive and continue, so do look up the campaign and help in any ways you can.
Joz is streaming You Build The Thing You Think You Are with live Q&A sessions from Monday 20th – Sunday 26th July 2020.