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Monday, July 10

Designs and Pictures

Design week
This week at work is called "Design Week". It's a week where we don't make any new code and, instead, prepare for a four week period of coding by spending a week investigating the requirements, writing designs, working out interdependencies between tasks and working out how to order the work in the following week. In my previous company, some of this was done by a small group of people, "analysing" the problems and "writing stories", and the rest of this was done in a 2 hour meeting, part of which was spent showing what we'd done last time, and part of which was called "the planning game" which involved "guessing" what the hell we might be able to achieve while management guessed what the hell they might want.

I don't think it worked at my last company.

I think the design week can work quite well. The only negative I can see is the old "work expands to fill the available time" thing. Because we have a week to do these designs, we take a week to do it. We're also doing "BUFD" - "Big Up Front Design", which seems to go against the idea of making a snug to-order solution that is based on immediate requirements, rather than some stuff that appeared in the mist of someone's crystal ball. However, we're only designing for four weeks' worth of requirements, and I think the process of going through the design tends to reveal the things which would otherwise hurt us badly during coding.

So, comparing this week to the last two weeks, which I spent "always on the brink" while coding on the critical path, with what felt like the entire success of the project resting on my shoulders (felt like, not necessarily exactly like that), starting this design week felt like a breeze of fresh air.

Off To Manchester
The slightly lighter weight week (try saying that quickly) was complemented by a couple of gigs. Today's gig was a preview of the Great Big Comedy Picnic - the show I'm a part of in August at the Fringe. We were performing at Bar XS in Fallowfield - one of my all time favourite venues. I headed out of the office at 4ish with the aim of getting to the venue by about 7.30. The show was due to start at 8.30, and I wanted an hour to try out some new material.

Part of the idea of going to Edinburgh to do stand-up is to push myself into doing something newer or better. Part of the idea of a preview is to try out material which is going to be used as part of the show in Edinburgh. Therefore, it followed that I should try out something new. How new? Well, I had been rolling an idea round in my head for a bit and I've been trying out introductory bits which seem to get me there at other gigs. So, I tried to complete the writing bit and some of the rehearsing in the car on the way to the gig. In this case, it was a song, so part of the rehearsing involved working out the chords and how to play it. I took a wild guess at what the chords would be, based on my knowledge of music, my ear for music, some experiments I'd done with an earlier draft of the song, and pure guesswork. I would have an hour when I arrived at the venue to try it all out and commit it to memory.

One of the problems I have with this sort of thing - trying out a new song in front of an audience - is that I tend to go into the song a bit quick and not necessarily have each line on the tip of my tongue. This means I have to actively remember it and, also do so at a pace while trying to convey what I think is funny to the audience. This is easily gotten wrong and I have, on more than one occasion, found myself stopping a song midway through as I can't remember the next bloody line! I wanted to avoid that happening.

There were a couple of things in the song which I thought were a bit weak and a couple I thought would work quite well. The song was based on the repeated phrase "Weekend Dad" and was a McFly-esque "trying to be sensitive, but being inappropriately jaunty" ditty. I was aware that the "Weekend Dad" bit had exactly the same tune as "Absent Friends" by The Divine Comedy. However, since it's only two notes, and since I was also going somewhere else with the chords, I didn't think that mattered. As a tribute to McFly's tribute to The Beatles, I had a Beatles ending on the end... also derivative, then... and finally, there was a line in there from a Squeeze song (I think) about being "up the junction". Quite a lot of influences, then. However, the acidic phrases about a divorcee dad and his access to his kids, felt like it might be interesting.

The gig
I arrived in plenty of time. I had the chance to rehearse and see other people arriving. The MC of the gig was also previewing his show and was unusually nervous.

Amazingly, a fairly substantial audience turned out, despite this not being the regular night for the gig. The show got underway late, and I'd paced around playing the same 5 chords over and over until I reckoned I'd got it all sussed. The atmosphere in the "green room" (which is actually not green or even a room) was quite tense and I was starting to feel affected by it myself.

The first act on was part of our show. We had only 45 minutes for our three acts, so that was 15 minutes each. Ideally we'd have had 20 minutes each, as that's what we're doing in Edinburgh, but it's still worth coming all the way to Manchester to do 15 minutes in front of the particular audience who attend Bar XS. So, on with the show. Unfortunately, the first 15 turned into nearly 18. Given the tension of the MC, who was worried about his own show (in part two of the night) overrunning and not working, an overrun in our bit was turned into some backstage tension. We replanned. The middle act and I were told to cut down our time more. Whatever. Just make the show work.

When the middle act went on, I was then told what time we needed to be done by. So, essentially, my role was just to bridge from when she finished to when our slot was up. This could be 10 minutes, it could even be 20. It would depend... ideally, I should keep it shorter, rather than pad it out. However, from my own point of view I had three missions:
  1. Make the trip worthwhile
  2. Do something new
  3. Leave the audience warmed up and laughing
The first is my primary objective whenever I travel more than 100 miles for a gig. The second was "preview" objective. The third was my contribution to the night itself. The first two acts had taken the brunt of a cold audience and they were both fairly low-key acts. I'm a barn-stormer of a high-energy cheery-mo'fo' and I wanted to leave a big cheer in the room... the ice should be broken.

Overall, my set went well enough. Some bits failed slightly (even bits which I'd tried a few times and thought worked). I wasn't incredibly confident when I ploughed into my new bit, but I ploughed into it nonetheless. I forgot it, of course, but kept the song going, which dragged it out a bit, and got a big laugh in the middle and a big applause at the end. I felt, however, that it hadn't worked. I ended strongly enough and met my three main objectives (enough).

Just before leaving, another act had a quiet word with me, along the lines of "some of your gags in that song are nicked from my set". He wasn't being horrible, or suggesting I'd necessarily nicked it. He'd been shocked to find something he considered as his material suddenly sung at him by me. I was surprised he'd taken it that way too and wasn't sure whether I'd ever heard this particular bit of his material. On balance, I probably have. On balance too, the things he pointed out are not jokes, they're just observations of fact, which he makes jokes of, and I rhyme into a song.

If anything would guarantee the demise of version 1 of "Weekend Dad", it would be the combination of one comedian's discomfort with the similarities between the lyrics and his material, and my discomfort with the first performance.

I think there may be a version 2 waiting in the wings, but I don't know.

Of all the known plagiarisms in the song, the actual breaking point was elsewhere.

As I was leaving the venue, I was simultaneously collared by another act and a member of the audience. The other act is a smashing fellow and I always enjoy talking to him. There's a certain amount of admiration which means that when he speaks to me, I'm chuffed. So, he got my attention for the few seconds of the conversation. I'd almost completely blanked the audience member. However, something flagged inside my head to make sure I spoke to the audience member - without the audience I'm nothing, and I felt it would be rude not to be respectful of the unknown person who had accosted me. I turned to him and was gracious. It turned out he'd seen me a few times and still didn't hate me. Good times!

Photo Shoot
I hurried from the gig before the second half of the show as I was to have my photos taken. We needed two sets. One was for the poster for the show in Edinburgh (I was the last to be snapped), the second was for my own self-promotion (as a stand-up comedian).

It took a couple of hours and was accompanied by gig stories and amusement as I pulled a multitude of faces and posed in a suit, or with my guitar slung over my shoulder. The results were impressive. More on that when they're delivered further.

Late Night Drive
A late night drive home was accompanied with the gig recording. The gig had gone better than I thought, but that's the sort of audience where anything vaguely cheery can sound amazing.


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