Stand-up, novelist, Fighting Talk regular, snappy dresser, dressing room pacer and “English grump in rural France”, Ian Moore, shares his tips
I think one of the questions you’re most often asked as a comedian is, “Where do you get your material from?” It’s up there with, “So you really manage to make a living at this then?” which is always such a positive thing to hear after a gig. There is in fact enough going on out there to make generating ideas for stand-up a relatively straightforward exercise in joke foraging. The tricky bit is turning those ideas – generally half-baked and gossamer-thin notions – into actual routines.
As writers and performers we’re all fascinated by how our contemporaries write and, horrible phrase, churn over material. Most of us have a notebook which we carry faithfully about with us, some of it containing lucid, potentially world-beating routines, but which also contains a vast selection of drunken, late-night drivel scrawled hurriedly on the night bus – and secretively, in case you’re called out as a dangerous pen-wielding intellectual. But when you know you have a nugget, that’s when the work starts.
As a comedian and an author, I write for two very different disciplines, but it wasn’t always the case. In the early days I wrote my stage material almost as prose; wordy monologues which would then be adapted into performance material while onstage when shortcuts through the language were needed to get the point, preferably the joke, across. As I became more experienced, however, I was able to write as it would be performed. A dialogue, a performance prose with pauses for delivery built into the punctuation so it was “stage ready” without the need, mostly, for editing.
But I can’t do that sitting down. As a stand-up I find the easiest way to write stand-up is standing up, actually moving about. That may sound facile, but I find it helps enormously with the rhythm of the material; performing it as you write it speeds up the process, you immediately have a feel for what works.
My office is a long room in the eaves (The eaves above the stables. Yes, I know how that makes me sound and I’m aware that not all writers have the opportunity to convert the eaves above their stables, but a rambling old farmhouse is exactly the kind of thing you can buy in rural France for the same as a two-bedroomed semi in Crawley! It’s precisely why we made the move here.) So I have two sloping “ceilings” either side of me. I’ve painted chalk boards along the lengths of both of them and spend my time walking up and down, writing ideas on the walls, constantly on the move, constantly “performing”.
Those who know my habits in a dressing room know that I very rarely sit down. Over the years this has been put down to the fact that I don’t want to crease my suit, or that my trousers are so absurdly narrow, sitting down may actually have embarrassing consequences. Well, that’s only partly the reason. I’m a dressing room pacer, I need that nervous energy to perform at my best, so I’m constantly on the move, and over the years I’ve managed to take that nervous energy into the writing process too. For writing material I need energy, I’ll often have music blaring out as well, and it all helps to create a certain chaotic yet creative vibe – hopefully like a gig. I sometimes even get one of the kids to hurl abuse at me for added authenticity.
Novel approach (sorry)
Writing books however is a very different experience indeed. If there’s music, then it has to be very quiet and largely instrumentals – this week’s playlist has been mainly Booker T & The MG’s – I’m seated and at the laptop. Prose, as opposed to stand-up material, feels like it needs to be more ordered. The need for greater structure means a more austere process, more discipline. Whereas I feel I can multitask while writing stand-up, the books I’ve written have required a more solitary, calm environment. I deliberately have no wifi in my office so that there are no distractions.
And I mean no distractions. If I were to give aspiring writers any single piece of advice it would be to turn off Twitter and Facebook, they are enemies of discipline, constantly hovering about and dropping litter onto your pristine creative landscape. For my next book I need to be doing more research, but that doesn’t mean I’ll sneak onto wifi every time I need a fact checking, I’ll make a list of what I need to check later on, or – and I know this may sound dangerously radical – I’ll look something up in a handy reference book. I know! Remember them?
Maybe it’s the fact that with books there are deadlines, whereas stand-up always feels like a looser, more laid-back relationship; but I enjoy the contrast between the two disciplines enormously. The “grown-up” prose writing gives way in the evening to a more party-like, relaxed atmosphere. Gone are the endless cups of tea, now it’s a glass of rosé, the shoes are kicked off and the performance face is on. Though in truth, I’ve never kicked off my shoes in my life.
So how am I writing this article? How does it fit in to my two jobs as it’s really a bit of both? Well, I’m in the bar on a rough ferry crossing surrounded by people who are looking very green indeed and regretting their breakfast choices from earlier. I’m in the corner making notes and watching, but will it be stand-up or a scene in the next book? I don’t know yet, that’s where the fun begins.
• Ian Moore is speaking at the Chortle Comedy Book Fest on November 9 (details here), and his latest book – C’est Modnifique! Adventures of an English Grump in Rural France – is out now.
• And you can see Ian perform at the Comedy Store this coming weekend