I’ve been listening to the Comedians Comedian podcast, a fortnightly podcast hosted by the stand-up Stuart Goldsmith where he interviews excellent comics about their writing process and careers. It is always terrific and you can get them here.
The most recent one was with comedy legend Arthur Smith. He said something great about cliché.
He says that writing is always about killing clichés to some extent, to describe a thing in a way that it has never been described before. Rather eloquently he describes cliché as a pre-digested thought put into a pre-digested phrase. It is unanalyzed, un-broken down, not fully understood, not the crux or the essence of the idea. It is an unexplored emotional response to the world. It is lazy thinking vomited out in a lazy phrase. He goes on to assert, correctly, that you want your thought to be original, not to be filtered through somebody else’s perception.
Smith goes on to quote Alan Coren, via his daughter Victoria, saying that if you’ve got a subject don’t write down the first thing that comes into your head because that’s what everybody else will think of. Don’t write down the second thing, because that that’s what clever people will think of, but write down the third. Because the third thing will be entirely you. Finally, ask yourself: is this something someone less talented than me could have come up with?
Resisting the cliché is difficult. It’s about delaying gratification. As we write we live with this fear that we will not produce anything, so we grope around for anything at first, and we find something that works: it may be structurally sound and reliably funny because we know that similar things have been known to work in the past. We receive this rush of dopamine into our brain, a rush of creative joy, we are relieved. And when we have achieved this it is easy to feel satisfied and stop, or to move onto the next easy dopamine hit. But to create something truly worthwhile and new we need to push through this first phase, trawling through the arid dessert of the creative process, until we eventually solve the problem. That is hard, painful, and often goes nowhere. But there is no other way.
Remember the goal is this “create something that no-one has created before, something new, something that only I could have come up with”. Not “to create something”. The tyranny of the blank page often scares us to hiding within the comforting walls of cliché, but we must run screaming into battle against the creative obis, the unknown. We do this knowing that most days we will be obliterated in a storm of arrows, but that one day we may make it through, slay the beast of mediocrity, and create something truly memorable. The take-away is simple: be a warrior.
It is hard to resist the easy creative task. That’s why people love “brain storming” so much: you generate huge volume of ideas and feel like you have done a good morning’s work. But most of these are first step ideas, aka clichés. The hard work that brings true innovation is found in the second, third, fourth steps as you explore the initial idea and nose around in the nooks and crannies, the shadows, until you find something hidden from the view of mere mortals. Then you show it to the world, and they think you are a magician. But you are just a bloke in a cafe with a pen who didn’t stop when it got hard.
I struggle with doing the tough creative work. I view the first few years of stand-up as getting all my shit jokes, clichés, out of my system so I can start writing something that is actually approaching new and interesting. I decided in September 2011 that I was going to do an hour long show in Edinburgh 2012. At the time I had about 7 minutes of material after a ruthless cull of stuff I wasn’t happy with. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to fill the time, so I set about writing loads and loads with the focus on volume not ingenuity. I had no creative filters, and I wrote a lot of pap. But the journey has been worth it: I’ve learnt that being creative, and creatively prolific, is as much about what you delete as what you produce. It’s about setting your filters, defining the creative problem with some constraints. Fill the first page with clichés, use them as starting points to focus on more interesting angles, and then burn the first page. You’ll have more time to focus on the good stuff (don’t waste 8 months of new material gigs on a load of clichéd shit), and you’ll develop a voice, and an act that stands out from the beige crap that plenty of other people are using.
Finally, Arthur Smith made another good point: if an audience has laughed a lot at a line, there is almost certainly room for more jokes, a topper, hopefully a whole routine. It’s almost free laughs. This is a good principle: spend longer looking for something truly original, and when you’ve found it make sure you milk it for all its worth.