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Take That China!
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Wednesday, April 28

From the bottom of my heart and the heart of...

Chortle has published my article on musical comedy.

It's quite a thing

I don't really know how I do what I do. I don't know what I do well or not. I'm not in a position to know that, not until later on when I look back.

My day revolves around three lives, which I'm trying to live concurrently, sometimes succeeding more than other times. Those lives are:

1. Home - I have a lovely girlfriend (who reads this) with whom I want to enjoy a home life (and going out life). Going out doesn't just mean taking her to my gigs, though she's very clued up on the whole gig thing, and seems to understand how it all works.
2. Work - I have a demanding job. I seem to be somewhat required to stand in the middle of a bunch of stress and do the whole Michael Caine at the end of the Italian Job bit - "Hang on lads, I've got an idea". Actually, sometimes, I think I don't do that. Sometimes, the world's on fire and I'm saying "hey everyone, butterflies". Don't read some assumed virtue in what I'm writing. I think the key thing is that I'm deliberately an outsider in the office, and I don't really get too fussed by the assumptions people start with. I'm going to see it my way too.
3. Gigs - perhaps this is where the outside in me belongs. Right now (and probably since February), my world has revolved around a show that I'm rather hoping will push me up a rung of the ladder. I'm not talking career so much a capability. The former a result of the latter in the best case scenario. On top of the show, there's general gigging.

So I have to balance these things. Sometimes my priorities are a bit skew whiff. Tonight I accepted a last minute gig, which meant I could try out about 15 minutes of my show (as well as doing 5 minutes of "normal stuff") in front of an audience. I'm pleased to say that the material survived the audience, which is nice. I think some of it worked rather well. Better than I expected. Which is nice.

My day is a constant task switch. I start it by making tea for my girlfriend, feeding the cats and then bustling out of the house, usually later than I think it is, to then drive to work, rehearsing my show en route, stopping for a break in the rehearsal to make a work call and then returning to the rehearsal to complete the journey and then do work, with show stuff in the breaks, and gig bookings as and when they come my way. Then it's rehearsing on the way home, unless I'm doing our "decompression chat" with my girlfriend, post work, in which case I'm the doting boyfriend, unless I've got a gig to get to in which I might be the pre-gig comedian.

It's confusing.

It's also what I do. I straddle all of these things and I try to keep myself on my toes. This stops me mutating into a do-nothing-fat-lump-of-poo.

I was going to write a diatribe about something or other that bothered me earlier on today. I say today, it's now really tomorrow (well, the thing was yesterday) owing to the fact that human clocks aren't synchronised with how I live my day. I think I will not have a rant. I will say that I think you can do enjoyable comedy without being a cliche, though some of the cliches are there because they're a quick route to getting into doing what's unique.

Thankfully, my comedy is not about "Changing the lyrics to a well-known song so they're a bit dirty" which is probably the best description of the worst sort of musical comedian. That's not to say that I wouldn't use those tricks or sing a filthy song... but there's got to be more than that in stand-up, or it's not worth doing. There's got to be a back-up gag, a broader conceit, a redeeming twist. Or it's got to be a throw away... or deliberately childish so an audience buys into it as a shared game.

We could take any song and make it filthy, but it's only funny to those people trying to make it so. Here's a blue baa baa black sheep.

Baa baa black sheep, have you got the horn
Yes sir, yes sir, I'm watching porn
Then I will master
Then I will bate
Then I will put my jizz all over your plate

Easily done... absolutely pointless! If you even smiled at this, then you are wrong.

Note: I watched a clip of something doing something much less sophisticated than that earlier ad it made me cringe. At least I can think about it rationally now.

And out.

Tuesday, April 27

A Gig Report

I've had gigs before which are difficult. I could even write about what makes a gig difficult. However, I thought I'd try writing about how I managed to do a gig on Saturday night which was clearly a losing battle before we started. I walked away from the experience fairly unfazed by the whole thing. Am I delusional? Am I a glutton for punishment? Or is this just a bit of experience and positivity? Your choice. Here's what happened.

The other people involved in the gig were colleagues, or well wishers from the comedy world. These are our friends. We are comedians and comedy people. We get the chance to meet in a quasi-random fashion. It's like a bizarre dating service just marries people together according to the whims of the comedy gods and the promoters. So when someone you've not seen in a few years is on the bill, or even someone you saw a couple of months ago, it's good fortune to see them, catch up, share gig wounds and reminiscences of past success/failure.

The process of putting on a show makes us show-folk. A bit like clowns. Or strippers.

Knowing the Signs
You should always be optimistic about the chance of making a gig work. But experience shows you when things are not going to be 100% perfect. So, you recalibrate what success might look like. You try not to let it bother you. What can't be changed can't be changed. You're there, so you may as well make the most of it. That's where the recalibration comes into it. If there are two people in the room, then you work out what two people laughing uproariously sounds like (not much) and make that your goal. Most of all, you know not to blame the good people for the bad circumstances.

And then...

Don't take it seriously
I am very serious about giving a good account of myself and learning from my experiences. However, there's no point in having a massive strop or hissy fit if things aren't right. If you know it's not "in key", then you have to shrug it off with the whole "well, it's only a gig"... because ultimately it's just that, a folly, a bit of fun, a bit of entertainment. Sure, you plan for these things to be artistically vibrant, and incredibly successful, but not giving a shit occasionally will also pay off.

Laugh off the fear
And when the metaphoric tomatoes start flying, when the circumstances seem out of control, where other factors kick in and make it seem scary, ridiculous, pointless, or hopeless, then you have to laugh. A gig that's not working is a parody of a gig. If we were watching it to happen to someone in a sitcom, we'd laugh at their misfortune. So, you should be able to laugh at all the hysterical misfires that happen at a bad gig. Other acts, broken PA systems, the room falling in, the room flooding... it's all happened... laugh it off. It makes the world a better place.

Be glad you're not opening
If you're not opening, then respect to the poor bastard who jumps on the grenade and takes one for the team in a mixed metaphor of unenviable doom!

One for me
And finally, find something you find funny and use it.

So on Saturday night, in a snooker club/working men's club, where I picked up a piece of pool chalk on the way to the stage after a night of staring, ignoring and otherwise non-appreciation from the audience, I walked confidently to the mic, told them how they were a challenge, how nice it was to be in a snooker club, emphatically chalked the microphone and set about doing my thing.

I found it funny... sort of.

A Positive Post

Preparations for The Seven Deadly Sings are going well. I know the show well enough to perform it. I think it's tight where it needs to be and has some unknowns, which will be the fun things to watch for when I perform it.

I've got a last-minute gig tonight, where I can try out some of the material. I'm looking forward to that.

I've also spread the word as much as I reasonably feel I can. I'm a little nervous about what's to come, but all in all, I'm feeling positive about the premiere of the show in Brighton. On top of that, I rather like the format of the year. Targeting Brighton in May means that Edinburgh in August feels like it's plenty of time away - long enough to fix the show if it needs tweaking.

So yay.

Saturday, April 24

It's a funny life

I should really be in bed. I can't quite get around to it. I'm doing my usual trick of air-drying after a shower. I will dry properly and then get to bed, honestly I will.

I had a gig tonight in London in a club I've not played before. I think it went well enough for me to feel happy asking for more challenging work within that club. That's a nice feeling. I even slipped in one of the songs from the new show as part of my set and the audience understood it. In fact, it's probably superior in quality to a lot of the stuff I've been doing in previous years, which is also heartening.

It's been a busy time for me creatively, recently. I think I've had a problem with generating new material in the past, but at the moment, I've been banging out all sorts of things. This evening I did a bit of a redesign of my Ashley Frieze website, so I can direct anyone who might be interested in the direction of my various outpourings. I think this year is going to be one where I crank out a lot of new stuff; hopefully I'll also get the chance to play it to plenty of audiences and maybe even have them like it.

The love of Doctor Who is not even remotely lessening, and I'll have pictures from a Doctor Who obsessed project I've been working on recently soon. Let's just say that the cats are going to become Doctor Who fans if I've anything to do with it.

It's a funny old life this stand-up malarkey. I'd been feeling rather off form over the course of the day, even a bit ill and sore-throated. Then I travel a couple of hours to a gig, it fill with about 60 strangers, and I feel great. That's kind of normal.

So, my confidence is in a good place and I am going to get some rest.

Tomorrow is a day of hard work (actually, I mean today as I'm writing this at 2.33am). I've got to somehow put the 60 minute The Seven Deadly Sings show into my head. I really only have about 5 hours in which to do it. How can it be done? Well, I wrote it, and I've heard various recordings of me rehearsing it... so the best solution... mind-map it and then make it up from the mind-map. Hopefully that'll do the trick. Remember the gist and then reconstruct it virtually word for word. It's going to have to change anyway, so I shouldn't be remembering the punctuation marks so closely.

That's it. Vision blurring. Bed.

Tuesday, April 20

Warm and Fuzzy

Well, it's the day after the night before. Conversely, it's the day before the night after, and the afternoon preceding the evening before the night after the night before the morning of the afternoon that's being discussed. I know it's a cliché to put it that way, but clichés often represent the most efficient way of saying something, so the afternoon preceding the evening before the night after the night before the morning of the afternoon that's being discussed is how I'll describe when now happens to be. I'm on the outside of 3 cups of two-shot coffee and I have some fizzy water to drink in a minute.

If I'd taken time away from my busy schedule to muse on the subject of chronology, then I think it would be pretty pointless, even for me. I'm in a funny old mood, though, so please bear with me. I'm even wondering why I even bought the album I'm presently listening to Lemar's "Time To Grow". I rather like one track on this album. Hold on... I'll just listen to that... there we are. I can listen to something else afterwards.

I should really write that song I meant to write about there being only one good track on most CDs...

Anyway, this blog isn't about material I haven't written. I went to my great white office earlier and penned this:

So come on, safe surf
Don't be a dick
Put on a condom on your mouse
And wash you hands between each click

Come on, safe surf
It has to be done
You have to get your vaccinations
Before you visit Amazon

Take precautionary procedure
Before you visit Wikipedia
And question your mental health
If you are Googling yourself

It's the tail end to a song I start on this blog here. Now all I have to do is assemble them into a single document, learn it, record it, and be happy.

Even that's just a distraction from the real big even in my life. The sodding show. If I am obsessive enough about this show (which show? Why the Seven Deadly Sings of course) then it will be the success I really want it to be. In short, there's no substitute for the combination of hard work, inspiration and listening that makes good comic writing/performing. If I am too obssessive about it, I will alienate everyone close to me and become too miserable to enjoy the process. As they sing in Avenue Q - "It's a fine fine line". Interestingly, that's also the motto of the local microscopic pen shop... or... well, there's a host of other punchlines you could write there.

I'm deliberately trying to have a day off the show today, except I can't because I woke up with one of my songs running round my head, and I keep thinking back to last night and what needs to be done to the show to convert it from an uppy and downy preview into a solid and tight machine of humour.

There's an interesting effect when you work on an hour-long show like this. At first, it feels foreign and blethery... because it is... then, as you go along, it starts to get smaller and smaller and the pace gets right and you always feel close to yet another highlight and... well, it becomes like a tool you can use to make laughter. At least, that's how I felt with The Seven Deadly Jokes and The Musical! The big difference here is that I'm doing this one on my own, which is a new experience.

Given that I'm ostensibly quite a control freak, it's odd that I should feel so odd being in total control of every work. Perhaps I benefit from a more collaborating writing process... or perhaps it's a confidence issue. The good thing is that I turn out to be not too worried about listening to the audience. There will always be some jokes that I defend on the basis of "it makes me feel gleefult to say this", but in general, I often don't see the point in beligerently continuing with something which has proven not to come out funny with audiences. I fear that the inexperienced me who wrote my early sets and took ages to get to a hardcore of comic material in the early years may still have a voice when I write new stuff. But if I use the audience as my collaborator/editor, then it will actually be different. Which is good.

It really is a trip into the unknown when you put a new show together in the way I've been doing it. Instinct plays a part... and the ability to sell something on stage is another key player. What I hope to achieve is something that's interesting and funny. That's a hell of a goal and many people have tried and failed. I plan not to fail. So, I am going to have to be prepared to re-draft and even hit the delete key, like an angry cyberman might.

Luckily, I had the chance, last night, to do a live rehearsal of my "show". The audience were interesting as they were both ideal and sub-ideal. They were ideal because they contained some big-laughers who were trying to find it funny. They were sub-ideal because they were relatively small in number (which also reduced my fear of failure) and because they were sitting in a bar late at night (10.30) being presented with something they aren't used to being presented with - a one hour long show which rattled along regardless of how much they might need a wee, drink or cigarette.

The people of Stafford gave me exactly the feedback I needed as I went along. They were patient with me and didn't mind too much as I sweated my way through the hour of blether in my black folder. I was sweating through being hot, rather than nervous. I felt quite good about it, though there's a lot of work still to do to get to "polished".

On top of the audience response, there was also the feedback from the three acts present, whom I'd asked for notes. They took this to mean "offer me some new punchlines". I shall take this as a good sign, as their suggestions were relatively non invasive. There wasn't much in the way of "jeez - why did you even think that was remotely funny", which is good. We did a quick zip through the material and in some cases, I felt good about the idea of cutting some of the lesser stuff. The show ran to 62 minutes last night, which is still about 5 minutes longer than I'm comfortable with, but I can make some good cuts and then it will be there.

So, I left Stafford at a late hour and got home somewhat later. I've discovered what a royal pain the arse my set up is going to be, since I have a piano, guitar, 4 FX pedals and a whole bunch of props to get in the right configuration before we start. I'm also uncertain about using my mobile phone as a portable sound FX player, but I think it's probably the simplest way of getting everything to work.

Last night was a major effort for me, but I'm glad of having done it. I haven't been that nervous about a show in a long time. It turns out that the opening song really worked for the audience and so I shall now assume that the show has a strong opening, regardless of future audience response (as sometimes self-belief can make it possible) and this will help a lot. It was nice to hear that song with the laughter track. They got it more than I thought they would.

Hell, even the last song worked and that's actually quite a weird one.

So, thanks for being my comedic collaborator, people of Stafford. Now it's back to the editing room for me.

Friday, April 16

Not A Mistake

I fancy writing a blog entry about mistakes I have made. This, is not really a very positive thing to write about. So instead, I'm going to tell a story. Perhaps I'll look at my past errors another time, since you should always be able to laugh at stuff that went wrong, which is all I want to do... well, not ALL, but a lot.

So, here's a story about something which happened way back when. In fact you can find the original story here. It happened nearly 6 years ago.

I was gigging with my friend Barry. We were off somewhere in Scotland, starting out in the North East. Barry and I gigged a lot together in those days. He was living in Gateshead and had a problem with insomnia. The problem was that he couldn't sleep at night at home. He was perfectly capable of sleeping in my car on the way back from gigs. The way I see it is that his insomnia was a bad case because it effectively prevented him from sleeping when he needed to recuperate for work the next day and it was a bad case of insomnia because it didn't work reliably enough to keep him awake when I wanted some non-snoring company on the journey home.

I've, many a time, told the story on stage of how he used to request that I played Classic FM while we drove home on the red eye and he slept. This was excellent training for my staying awake skills. And on one occasion he insisted that we stop off at the most haunted castle in Europe on the way home. Not only were we ghosthunting at 3am, we were also gatecrashing.

But, I've gone off topic.

This story relates to what happened when we saw a couple of hitchhikers on the roadside of the A1 with a sign that read "Edimbur". I picked them up, I believe, partly because their sign was incorrectly spelled and I wanted to correct them. It was a couple of students - one male and one female. They spoke very limited English with a heavy accent. They claimed to be Czech and explained that they were going somewhere near Dundee to pick Raspberries. According to my original blog post, they said that they were going to Birmingham, near Dundee. I started to suspect that they were taking the piss and were in fact comedy UK students, just pretending to have an accent. It sounded like a wind up.

Then I saw, in the rear view mirror, a genuine look of slight concern about being trapped in some stranger's car when you didn't really know them. They were real.

We tried to engage them in conversation. We wanted to tell them why we were driving to Scotland. What's the Czech for comedian? No idea. They didn't know the word. So we said "We are people who make you go HaHAHAHAH" - this caused them to laugh nervously and I said "yes, that's it". I think that happened, though perhaps I made a little of that up to make the story funny. No, I'm sure it happened like that.

We couldn't communicate with them, so just chatted in the front while they sat in the back looking at the road. Barry talks in a fairly gruff voice when he's speaking quietly. He sounded almost conspiratorial. With his accent and speed of talking, it was quite possible that our friends in the back might have read his words as meaning something other than "So Ash, when are we going to get to Edinburgh" and more like "So Ash, when are we going to pull over, murder them and bury the bodies?".

Then I got a flat tyre.

So I had to pull off the road. I also had to try to explain why I was doing this and why I had to pull the hitchers' bags out of the boot. What's Czech for "No, I'm not pulling out your bags so I can bury them with you?". Well, luckily, some man-instincts kicked in with the man of the duo. I pointed out the flat tyre and the fact that I was going into the boot as a result of it. He understood and immediately set about getting involved in the tyre change. We had just body language, pointing and grunting to work with. We managed to both cooperate in changing the tyre and have an argument about the best way to do it. All just in the universal language of "bloke".

And so our hitchhiker's got a free ride and I even bought them drinks while we were refilling the tyre in the petrol station en route. I assume they got to Dundee and picked some raspberries. I later found out that this is a genuine thing that happens in Dundee.

You've got to love local newspapers

My own write up in a Staffordshire newspaper. It's quite nice and they've only made one spelling mistake. On top of that, it's not altogether a bad pun they've used for my photo. From the perspective of the paper, I'm some big smoke from outside of the area coming to bless them with my presence and I've done them a favour. In truth, I'm just a normal version of me, working hard to pull a show together and make hilarity.

That said, it's a very welcoming way to be treated by all of Staffordshire, so thank you.

They've very kindly not just reproduced the press release of The Seven Deadly Sings, but have thought about what they want to say and have written their own words, quoting tidbits here and there.

Friday, April 9

Something of a Diversion

As is oft reported on this blog, even the best of plans can go horribly wrong. In fact, I’m sure I recently read in a Douglas Adam offering of some sort (I’m currently re-reading “The Salmon of Doubt”) that the most efficiently planned plans are most easily knocked off the rails. I’m paraphrasing, probably quite badly. It’s certain for me that not having a plan makes it a cast-iron guarantee that your plan won’t go wrong, though it also means there’s a cast-iron guarantee that you won’t achieve what you set out to because you didn’t set out to achieve anything. These sorts of discussions often end in circles, tears, or infinite loops.

It’s probably best to say that making a plan is good, and having a plan with vague bits is better, since you can, then, generally claim an achievement of a broad brief without having to get all picky about the little unimportant things like the actual details.

None of this even hints at what the hell I’m on about, so I’ll explain some more of where I am/we are, and what’s been going on.

We are on holiday. If the plan was to go on a holiday, then we’ve achieved it and will be able to collect our certificate saying “for services rendered to the state of being on holiday, here’s a certificate, certifying that you like pieces of paper with the facts written on in cursive script”. However, where we would, by now, have spent the most of a week on holiday in Italy, with Naples as our base (in a sort of staying way, not in the sense of a Bond villlain’s evil undersea base sort of way) and with such places to visit as Pompeii (definitely) and The Great Wall of China (unlikely). Reality is different to plan, and we’re presently in the Isle of Wight and have seen Pompey (Portsmouth) across the bay from Ryde which isn’t even where we’re staying.

“How did it get like this?” I hear my own inner voice cry in the manner of a rhetorical question that claims to be caused by the reader (who may or may not even exist). Well… it all started (harps play, text goes all blurry like it’s in a pond)… on Saturday night.

On Saturday night, after a successful morning of getting out of bed, getting breakfast, having a drive around Leeds, and meeting a friend for lunch, we had managed a successful and dull 3 hour drive to London Stansted airport, where we’d booked a room in an airport hotel that came with free parking. This sounded great. In reality, once they’d put surcharges on for transfers to the airport from this hotel, amounting to about £16, you started to wonder if there wasn’t something of a scam about this deal and whether the up-front pricing shouldn’t be forced to include these things as they’re not exactly optional. But we survived that… it’s only a few quid, after all.

We ate a meal in the pub opposite the hotel and then bedded down in a rather odd sort of a room, which was a bit like a chalet in a converted barn. As it happens, it was very comfortable. A nice night’s sleep was had by all until. Dun Dun Dhaaaah. My girlfriend woke up in the small hours with extreme stomach problems and was quite ill. I’ll not go into the pooey and sicky details, except I pretty much just have.

We had a problem when morning came. We’re supposed to be leaving the hotel at 9am for a flight at 11am and one of our party is in no state to travel and the other one (me) is starting to feel a bit woozy as well.

Cue phone calls to travel agents, family members, travel insurance companies and anyone else we fancied. After a bit of thinking, I cancelled the car that was coming to get us, cancelled the whole holiday (it would have cost 75% of its total cost to enable us to fly out a day later) and then tried to deal with the fact that we were both now rather sick.

On top of this, we couldn’t stay in the hotel where we were as they only had a small number of rooms and these rooms were booked solid for the next night. The chamber maid wanted to clean the rooms, we wanted to just hide and die quietly somewhere.

In the end, I drove over to the airport for some medication from Boots. The stuff I wanted was airside, so the lady from the Boots I could go to took my money across to the one behind security and bought what I needed for me. Very nice of her indeed. There was a lot of hanging around and waiting for me to do that morning. I stood about 20 minutes in the terminal waiting for the Boots lady. Earlier in the day, feeling a bit queasy, I’d stood waiting for the 9am taxi to arrive so I could send me off on his way again. Realising I had about 6 minutes to wait for him, I hit on the idea of working through the song Bohemian Rhapsody in my head, in real time. That’s quite a good way to make six minutes pass.

Anyway, back at the ranch, well, barn. We weren’t feeling better but had to leave. The hotel owner organised me a room in a nearby hotel and we holed up at the Hilton for the next 24 hours. A cheap rate was already negotiated for us, and I managed to get us into a suitable room by pointing out that we were both ill – the state of my girlfriend, who hobbled in on my arm very convincingly, did nothing to disprove this. We ended up in a nice room which we really couldn’t appreciate because we were ON THE BRINK OF DEATH. Well, we weren’t but we were sleeping and feeling horrible for the entire time we were in there.

At some point my girlfriend managed to download the Doctor Who episode that we’d missed on Saturday night, and couldn’t download on Saturday night because the first hotel didn’t even have any internet connection (WHAT!?).

On the Sunday lunchtime, after we’d managed something like breakfast and had stopped all the sleeping, and had finished watching the Doctor Who, we went back online and asked the question “Where can we go that’s easy to get to and a nice play to have a vacation?”. The answer – The Isle of Wight.

So here we are. We’re on the Island. It’s nice here. The sun is bright, the sea air is full of vitamin sea. We met my Island resident friend last night and had drinks and food (and shouting over a band). It’s been a good break. It hasn’t been Italy, but it’s been a rest and some time together, which is really what we needed.

I’ll leave this note with one final story, an even from yesterday which made us rather righteously indignant.

As we parked the car in Ryde, we noticed that one car was in a rather strange place. On closer inspection, it was in a strange place because it had rolled forwards out of its parking space, across the lane between spaces, and into the car it was now headbutting in the next row of cars. The car park was on a reasonable incline, and gravity and the lack of handbrake power had caused this car to follow Newton’s laws quite emphatically and move until a force acted to stop it (actually gravity acted on it accelerating it until a strong force acted to decelerate and stop it – in this case the front of someone else’s car).

We are quite decent citizens and we are also suspicious of other’s people’s decency. So we wrote a small note and attached it to the rear of the victim’s car. It read “The car with registration XYZ123 rolled into yours. Just in case they drive away before you do”. I wish we’d actually kept a copy of that reg plate, so I didn’t have to write the made up XYZ123 placeholder above. I also wish we’d kept the details for another reason; when we arrived back at the car park, the offending Newtonian vehicle had been removed – driven away we presume. In addition, the note we’d left had been removed too. So one must assume the driver (I say driver, I like to think that maybe they just sit in the seat and wait for whichever forces come their way to just act) decided to cover their tracks and even noticed the helpful note that would have provided vital evidence to the car their incompetence had caused to be damaged.

So the Isle of Wight is an Isle of dark deeds and bright days. All in all, it’s been a holiday to remember.

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