The Art of the Anecdote

On Thursday, I went to see the new Gyles Brandreth show Break a Leg, which is running at the Edinburgh Fringe until Sunday 26 August.

In his career as a writer, broadcaster and former Member of Parliament, he’s become friends with a number of people in the worlds of entertainment and politics. The show talks about his acquaintance with a few of them, from June Whitfield to Frankie Howard.

The show is listed in the Comedy section of the brochure as there are a lot of laughs. Yet it isn’t stand-up, nor is it bragging. Rather, he uses his privileged access to these well-known figures and tells humorous anecdotes about them in his slightly camp fashion.

By User of Waffle TV YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/waffIeTvUK/) [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Gyles Brandreth in 2013
As such, his material is strong. The show could run for two hours and there would still be more to tell, and the audience would probably lap it up. But not everyone has such great anecdotes.

In 2007, I went to an event featuring Clive Swift, who played Richard Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances. He specifically didn’t want to discuss his sitcom days. Instead, he was there to tell us about his theatre career and how he’d worked with prominent stage actors such as Peter O’Toole.

It quickly became apparent, however, that he’d worked with these notable thespians only in supporting roles and that he was trying to turn minor episodes into a big deal. He was certainly never friends with them. One anecdote, for example, involved meeting Sir Laurence Olivier by chance in a theatre bathroom and hearing some worldly advice from him.

The only factor that saved Swift’s show from being a total train wreck was his skill on the trombone, accompanied by a pianist called Claire Greenway. Had it been a musical event with those minor stories peppered between songs, it might have worked well.

A review from the Scotsman newspaper very much captures the essence of the performance; scroll down past the review of Pete Firman to read it.

The lesson here is to make sure your material stands up to some scrutiny. Many performers – especially comedians – like to arrange preview shows, often to an audience who have paid a special reduced price for a ticket. This approach is invaluable for ironing out any kinks in the material and a useful guideline for how listeners will react at different parts of the script.

Additionally, there’s a lot to be said for having an honest friend or professional who can listen to your show to tell you what works and which parts need strengthening.

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Connections.

Before I begin the entry proper, I need to ask a question of the WordPress community.

Whenever I post an update, a link is sent to three social media sites. The Twitter and Google+ connections have worked from day one, but the Facebook one needs to be refreshed at least once every couple of weeks or the link isn’t posted. Every so often, I also remove the WordPress app from Facebook and reauthorise it, but that has no long-term effect either.

How do you fix this permanently? I’m fed up of having to make a manual post to Facebook.

Last week, I mentioned I was attempting stand-up comedy for the first time through Bright Club. It was, for a while, looking like it might be a disaster. When I was rehearsing at home. I kept forgetting to say important lines. At the rehearsal on the day, I forgot which section came next and had to ad-lib until I remembered.

During that final rehearsal, a lot of my material hadn’t received much of a reaction, probably because I was speaking to the other comics and they’d heard much of it already. But at the end of that rehearsal, the organiser wanted to check the microphone level, so I recited a limerick that wasn’t part of the act. It went down so well with the others that I was persuaded to slot it in.

English: Empty stage for a stand-up comedy sho...
This is not the venue I was in. It’s merely a generic representation of it. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There were six acts performing; I would be fifth on the bill. I chatted to the MC before the show and in the interval and we agreed it was going well. All I would need to do was remember all my lines, plus the limerick, plus the other tweaks that were suggested, plus a prop I needed, plus to speak slowly enough so everyone could catch my words.

When I walked on, I began with a joke that referenced the previous act, then launched into my own material. Most of it got the reaction I wanted, and the limerick even earned a round of applause. Indeed, everyone was a hit with the audience.

Would I do it again? Of course I would. Bright Club is slightly limiting in that you have to talk about your research; I could have crowbarred twice as many gags in there if I’d been free to discuss anything.

The performance was captured on camcorder, but it’s not yet available as it needs to be edited. I’ll make sure you’re the first to see it, Facebook connection permitting.

… and be counted.

This Friday coming, I’m going to try my hand at stand-up comedy. I’m quite comfortable with reading prose and poetry out loud, and I tell jokes on Twitter. However, this’ll be the first time I’ve combined these two skills, and it’ll be in front of an audience comprising students and academics. If you’re in Dundee, Bright Club starts at 8:30pm at The Braes on the Perth Road. At the time of writing, there were still tickets available.

Stand-up is a stream of consciousness art form and needs to be delivered from memory. I don’t have a great track record with memorised pieces. If you’ve been a long-term subscriber, you might recall the time I crashed and burned when trying to recite my opening piece:

But Bright Club looks after its comics. I attended a four-hour training session with Susan Morrison from The Stand and came away with a book titled Be a Great Stand-Up. There is also a rehearsal session tonight.

At first, I had some difficulty writing enough material for the eight-minute slot, but by using the techniques imparted in the training, I’ve added parts and cut others, and more or less made it the correct length. And I’m not having as much difficulty recalling it as I thought I might.

I sometimes forget not everyone is comfortable speaking in front of an audience; this was brought home to me during a discussion with classmates on the MLitt course I’m taking. I’d like to share with you, therefore, three great pieces of advice about posture, emotion, and focus. I’ve learnt two of these from experts, while the other is from me.

  • Posture, Giles Brandreth. In his Edinburgh fringe show Word Power!, former MP Brandreth imparts a wealth of advice. My favourite tip was a rather rude one to help you assume correct posture on stage: nipples leading. In other words, make sure they’re pointing straight forward and your posture will look after itself.
  • Emotion, Jenny Lindsay. During the summer, I attended a session run by one half of Rally & Broad. She related a story about a writer who was becoming upset every time she reached a certain part in a monologue. She asked the rest of the cast to write positive messages on the paper to help her through it. This is an extreme case but it is a useful way to remember everyone else wants you to succeed.
  • Focus, Gavin Cameron. This is general advice, so I’m hijacking it and sticking my own name upon it. For most of the time, I avoid looking at individual members of the audience. Instead, I pick a point of focus beyond the back row of the audience and address it. For a change in focus, I look between two audience members; the person on the left assumes you’re looking at the person on the right, and vice-versa. This allows you to concentrate on the words without being distracted by the listeners.

The only real way to improve is to keep doing it. I often ask to have my pieces videoed – as Bright Club will be – and watch it back. I’ve long reached the stage when I’m able to watch and listen back to myself without wanting to turn away. From doing this, I’ve learnt I say ‘um’ a lot without me even realising it, and that’ll be the next fault I work on.

I’d like to leave you with a video of me reading my poem Textbook. It’s one I had difficulty writing, but has proved so popular that it was used to promote the MLitt course along with the work of my contemporaries. I was most pleased I managed it in one take, and I hope Friday’s gig goes just as smoothly.

 

A Sense of Time

I’ve recently started watching old episodes of the comedy show Drop the Dead Donkey. At the beginning of each episode, an announcer now explains some of the topical references. As the series ran from 1990 to 1998, it’s likely a lot of them will have been forgotten.

A similar rule applies to fictional writing. If you want to set a story in a particular era, there might need to be some explicit or implicit reference to the timeframe in which the story is set.

For instance, one of my novels is set in 1964. This is introduced to the reader when a 21-year-old character is revealed to have a birth year of 1943. There are plenty of other era references throughout, but this avoids the dull initial statement that, “The year was 1964.” In one of my short stories, the 1980s is drawn more subtly, since the main character possesses a Filofax and a pager. It falls under Elmore Leonard’s classic advice to show, not tell.

To me, it’s important to avoid jarring the reader by letting them assume the story is set in the modern day if it isn’t. If a character is described as arriving home by car, then watching TV, that could have happened any night in the last fifty years. But tell the reader that the character arrived home in a Ford Capri, or watched Popstars: The Rivals, and that says they belong to the 1970s or the 2000s, especially when they go on to look up a number in the Yellow Pages and dial it from a wall phone. There will, of course, be occasions when you’re already aware the author lived in or wrote about a particular era.

The alternative is to make this story timeless. It’s hard to do in an urban environment since architecture and technology change, but it can still be done very successfully. If you’re describing a natural scene, it’s much easier to imagine it being any time over the last thousand years.

For anyone reading this well beyond 2014, this entry was set at a time when David Cameron was Prime Minister, coffee-lovers went to Starbucks for their fix, and people still thought Twitter was a good idea.