Stand up comedian - improviser - writer
  • The Process Of Writing A New Show - Phase 1

    Mon 23 Sep 2013  ·  10:39PM

    It’s that time again. Today, I received my confirmation email from Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival, asking me to formally register my show for next year. That means I’ve now got five months to put the new show together, and I’ll try to use this blog to keep you up-to-date with how it’s going.

    Ahh, but where to start?

    Well, the first thing to do is to analyse last year’s show. Earlier this year (2013), I performed my third solo show in the festival. My first two (Tom Young’s Social Network and Tom Young’s Fantasy Life) had been successful for different reasons. The first – Social Network, a show about my life and my relationship with my friends – was a box-office sell out by 160%, and let me prove to myself that I was capable of writing and performing an hour; the second show – Fantasy Life, about my love of Superheroes, fantasy, and all things aspirational – was artistically superior, and it remains one of the best stand up experiences I’ve had, if not the best. However, this year’s show – Tom Young’s Unfashionable Thinking, about my tendency to ignore whatever’s meant to be popular – was the typical “third album” disappointment; it didn’t perform well at the box office and I wasn’t happy with the comedic quality of the content – it was smart, but it didn’t really get enough laughs to justify its existence. It especially didn’t help that when I previewed a block of it in January, I bombed for a solid twenty minutes, thus eradicating any confidence I had in the material whatsoever, and though the changes I made subsequently helped, it was still not as strong as I’d desired.

    So, I know what I don’t want to repeat, content-wise; what should I do about a venue and time slot?

    My last two shows have been on Sunday nights at The Y Theatre. It’s a beautiful, Victorian venue, and I have a good relationship with the staff, which is why they agreed to put me on. The trouble is – based on the level of my reputation – I would struggle to fill its 300 seats at peak time on a Saturday, so to bring in a decent audience early-evening on the festival’s last Sunday was a real battle. It’s also quite a difficult room to play for a comedian, because the stage is so high that you’re on a completely different plane to the audience.

    Therefore, the first thing I’ve rectified this year is my venue choice. I’ve moved to The Criterion – another venue that I have an ongoing relationship with, as my improv group performs its monthly gig there. The 70-seat Criterion was also awarded “Best Small Venue” at this year’s Comedy Festival, thus making it a popular choice; I’ve also got a much better time slot (9:45pm on the middle Saturday) which will hopefully ease some of the promotional pressure, in terms of drawing in an audience.

    With the administrative aspects taken care of, I can now turn my attention to the artistic side. First things first; what’s the show about, and what do I call it?

    Some people prefer to write a show first and come up with the title afterwards, but I prefer to have the theme and title first, in order to focus the material around something as I’m writing. Also, purely as an affectation, I’ve tried to use different lettered initials in each of my show titles thus far. F, L, N, S, T, and U have all been used up by my first three shows, so I’m looking for a new combination this time around.

    I’ve decided that my theme this time is “issues”. Three advantages to this: A) I’ve already been working on some material about feminism that I want to include; B) it’s generic enough to let me talk about anything I want, while still providing some immediate focus (what are my issues? What are the big issues that affect me? What are the audience’s issues?); and C) it’ll allow me to justify taking questions from the audience, as discussed in my previous blog post.

    I like to give my shows a uniform appearance by having all the titles begin with “Tom Young’s...”, so as to imply ownership of the ideas expressed within (plus, my name has to appear in the title somehow, so why not make it the first part?). Therefore, I’ve decided my new show will be simply titled Tom Young’s Got Issues. The main advantage to this title is that it’s far less wordy than Tom Young’s Unfashionable Thinking, which even I struggled to say.

    The next step is writing the blurb for what the show is about. This is particularly tricky, as the festival brochure gives you a little over 50 words to explain it, and make it seem interesting enough to the casual reader to make them want to go. The website version can be longer, but the contracted version is the real skill, not to mention that it forces you to consider what the tent poles of the show will be.

    Single, broke, 25, and living at home; it’s fair to say Tom’s got issues. But it’s not just his own problems that affect him: there are big issues like feminism, cultural issues like faith, and will Peter Capaldi be a good Doctor Who?

    Returning for his fourth successive year, this Leicestershire comedian will tackle these issues and more, as well as those suggested by the audience on the night.

    I’m fairly happy with that description. It includes the bullet points of all the main things I want to talk about. Faith is a particularly interesting one; it’s something I’ve been putting off for a couple of years, but I think now is the time where I’m able to do it. I was raised Christian, and technically still am, though I stopped going to Church a couple of years ago. Now, there’s a constant battle in my head between my religious upbringing, and the rational mind that I’ve since acquired. As John Updike says, “I’ve never been able to take the leap of un-faith.” Therefore, if I’m going to talk about religion on stage, I don’t want it to be the lazy, disinterested, dim-witted attack that many (likely-atheist) comedians would take. I want it to be personal and sympathetic; insular and considered. I want it to be about why I can’t cut ties with it completely, but can’t fully stand by it either. Up until now, I’ve only really skirted around the edges of these ideas, and that’s a failure to do my job properly.

    On the other hand, the section on feminism will be an attack – albeit, a very specific one. I’ve touched on this in previous blogs, but never really explained what I mean:

     For me, the core principles of feminism have been perverted by a minority of women who use it as an umbrella label for their generic-man-hating, or by those who seek to instate women as the new dominant gender. I don’t believe that having either gender as the dominant one is helpful, and I resent being lumped together with the men who don’t respect women. The version of feminism I believe in and support is the vision of equality; I believe that all people should have equal chance and opportunity to pursue the life they want, regardless of age, race, or sexuality. That’s why I describe myself as an equalist, rather than a feminist. However, I also don’t believe that it’s necessary for all women to strive towards the same goal, and sometimes it appears to me as though that’s what the “sisterhood” wants. “Ban Page 3; it subjugates women” – well, presumably not in the eyes of those women appearing in it, who would presumably argue that it celebrates the female form. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but why are we so determined for everyone to share the same views on everything? Similarly, in a workplace context, I don’t believe in hiring someone “because we have to show we’re diverse”; I believe in hiring the best person for the job, regardless of who/what they are – as far as I’m concerned, women are equally as employable as men, and if the better candidate is a woman, that’s who I’d hire; if the better candidate is a man, then I’d hire him. Gender shouldn’t even be a factor on a résumé.

    Anyway, that’s roughly the argument I’m planning to make, except there’ll be jokes scattered across it.

    The other thing to consider with writing this show is that I only need 40 minutes of material this time. In previous years, I’ve had to pre-write the full hour, but that’s left no room to improvise – a favourite skill of mine – and so I’m deliberately making space for it this year. By leaving myself 20 minutes to answer audience questions (gathered before the show, but unseen by me), it’ll give me a chance to riff off them, and make the show feel alive, in a way that it wouldn’t if I were just reciting a script.

    The last thing I need to start considering is whether or not to use a PowerPoint presentation. My last three shows have all featured one – mainly as a system to help me remember the material, and to provide the show’s structure – but this year I’m thinking I might not need it. The argument against it is that I’ll have less material this time, I’m in a smaller venue, and I’d have to source my own equipment. The argument in favour is that it would continue the uniform presentation of my shows thus far, making each show feel like chapters in a book. The trouble is, if I stick with that argument, I might never evolve as a performer, and I’ll end up tied to the projector forever.

    Still, early days. The fact that I’ve even got a title, theme, and vague handle on what I want to talk about at this stage is, frankly, incredible. I shall probably do a January preview in Northampton like I normally do, so I need to have most of the show ready by Christmas (I never get anything written during the holidays). I’ll try to update my progress before then, and hopefully, this insight will make you want to come to the show – I should hope so; I’m way past 50 words now...

    Tom Young’s Got Issues will be at The Criterion on Saturday 15th February 2014, starting at 21:45. Details can be found on the Gigs page.