Friday, April 30, 2010

A difficult ride

There is no doubt about it: the preparation for my festival show is turning into a quite difficult ride. The main reason is that I made the task difficult for myself, not only by increasing the length from 30 to 50 minutes with the aim of re-utilising no more of 30% of old material (at the moment is more something like 50%), but with my “thematic” ambitions. The problem is, while I would have liked last year’s show if I saw it as a member of the audience, I wouldn’t have considered it one of my favourite shows. What I really like, in fact, are thematic shows like those that Richard Herring seems able to produce with reliable quality year after year. Not only, but the lack of any thematic ambition meant that there was a side of myself (better, a side of how I like to see myself) that was completely under-represented. I mean my “philosophical”, analytical side and the “quirkiness” of humour that represents in my opinion its best comedic expression. On the other hand, praise was often centred on my being the “charming” Italian, which I found actually quite surprising. Of course the tension between what you are and what you want to be, or between how you see yourself and how other people see you, is one of the cruxes of life. Even more so in an activity like comedy that is so much about been seen and been judged.
I think there was also a problem of “status” there. In this blog I once commented on an audience review that pointed out how my alleged problems with the English language were scarcely believable in the light of my education and profession. Back then I dismissed the criticism as nonsense, but now I realised that whoever wrote that reviewed was onto something. I mean, the role I unconsciously played was that of the low status foreigner/immigrant/outsider, which is of course the easiest role to play for an Italian in London. I didn’t know it back then, but Milton Jones in his very good book points out how low status tends to work better than high status in Britain and how in America, surprise surprise, seems to be the other way round. Problem is: is it how I see myself and I want other people to see me? Of course not. I’m proud of my ability to play with language and ideas and I do comedy because I like getting laughs by doing exactly that. If I want to be able to express that side of me and be recognised for that then I probably need to play a higher status. My new show, in fact, is written from the point of view of some sort of “mad philosopher” who tries to solve the most difficult questions of identity and free will in fifty minutes of comedy. I must say that I feel much better in that skin.
But will the audience like it too? Sometimes I fear that what I’m doing here is choosing not to be liked for right reasons over being liked for the wrong reasons. It’s probably what happened yesterday in Birmingham during my very preview. There was a group of people at the back of the room who chatted all the time and sometimes heckled me. They really hated my Italian-born London-based pseudo-philosophical smugness. I’m sure they would have loved me joking instead about my inability to pronounce the “h”. Well, you make your choices and you pay the price for them. Those people are clearly not part of my new target audience, I hope that in Brighton and Edinburgh (on the basis of them being festivals, not only of not being Birmingham) I will find a more sympathetic attitude.
Yesterday’s problems, however, were not only of a psychological or sociological nature, but were also due to some structural flaws in my show. The theme gets lost too often and some links are so weak that Anne Robinson would be spoilt for choice. The challenge now is recognising and addressing these problems but without loosing faith in the general approach. Nobody forces me to do comedy and I don’t need or expect to make any money out of it, so there is no point in doing anything else than what feels right. Hopefully I will also get some people to like it for the “right” reasons along the way, but quoting Coldplay: nobody said it was easy.


  1. As much as you want a theme, and I can relate to that, it shouldn't enslave you. You ought to be able to digress, knowing that you'll return. That could let you play with status a bit more. I'm wondering if status can shift or be moveable? Or if for a show it must be in one plane?

    But with philosophy you can have fun. Look at Stoppard in his plays. Quite a few people have used the tree falling in the forest idea--if my granny fell over would anyone hear? Sick.

    Good luck with the preparation!

  2. John, I think you are right on both points there. You can indeed have a movable status, for instance by keeping base high status with "bathetic" falls every now and then. And indeed you can have digressions, but only as long as it's clear what they are digressions from. Thanks for your wishes and ideas.