He's not just an masterful stand-up John Gordillo, is also regarded as a scholar of the trade, so aspiring comics – read on …
I have this idea in the back of my head of what a proper comedian is. And I’m not it. A proper comic leads the audience down a path, then pulls the rug out at the last minute with an outrageous lie (joke) that hoodwinks the crowd. The people laugh uproariously and the comic moves on to the next bit, the audience’s faith in them undimmed because they know they’re having their leg pulled. Milton Jones, Tim Vine and Davey Johns are, in different ways, good examples of this.
When I tell that kind of joke, either nobody laughs, or they do but they also stop believing in my next set-up. I get laughs when I’m committed to a subject and the audience believes I care about it. So instead of thinking of jokes as jokes, it helps me to think of them as digressions that run off the stem of an idea I’m building. Because of this, I find I rarely write from the funny idea backwards (ie find a premise that I can back-engineer to fit a punchline). Occasionally I do this, but the set-up has to sound like it comes from a genuinely observational and personal place for it to get a proper laugh. Whenever I do write from the punch back, they come out as my shortest bits, because they’re not usually about much apart from the gag itself.
I almost always decide on the subject first and wade around in it till funny things come off it. I only need to feel a connection in the topic; a spark of interest. It doesn’t have to be funny, it just has to be interesting or fucked-up. Again, this is why I have very few 30-second bits that I can just cut into a set for variety. I’m better once I’ve got a head of steam going. I also like the set to feel like it’s one long routine/progression, like it’s about one thing. For that to work it has to be high stakes and credible; and the fewer breaks and changes of subject there are, the longer I can sustain an emotion for.
No hack subjects
It’s all about emotions for me. I agree with the truism: there are no hack topics. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, what matters is your relationship to it. It’s the emotional reaction to the thing that roots it and inspires the funny digressions. That’s the order I think of it in: be interesting and credible first; then worry about being funny. So I like to stay with a subject and get as emotional about it as possible, for as long as possible, because a) I think it’s more involving and b) the longer I can string something out for, the less I have to think about finding a different thing to talk about. I find I need a good reason to open up a subject because if I’m just being flippant or dropping in & out of subjects for the sake of it (ie only telling jokes) the audience thinks I’m being smug and they don’t laugh.
This is what dictates how I write, and it’s essentially because I don’t know how to tell a joke.
When I write, I pace around and blather into a voice recorder looking to find out what the emotions are and exaggerate them. Why is this specifically needling me? How am I wrong and fucked-up inside it? etc. This part of the process is also useful personally, because I get to work out what’s really bothering me and informs what I think about the subject in real life. A lot of my stuff seems to start in classic observational territory. I’ll notice a tiny thing that bugs me – the kind of stuff you’d see Mcintyre or Josh Widdicombe pick up on. But the more I stay with it (look at it from all angles, don’t move off until I’ve got the most ideas and fun out of it), it unravels and I often find out there is a Big Picture Problem lurking behind it. Lately my problem with things tends to be political.
So I’ve started to get political in my gigs. I don’t know how to ignore these massive systemic political and economic problems that – as I see it – demand a radical, fundamental re-evaluation of priorities. But systemic targets are no good for comedy. Specifics are funny, systems aren’t. For example, in a recent routine about the TV show HOMES UNDER THE HAMMER, the bits where I talk about the dark ideology of daytime TV don’t get laughs; the bits about the loathsome presenters’ hair, do. I’m still trying to find a language/tone inside this kind of stuff that lets it be light and funny, but which makes the point. It’s important for me to try and figure out the most interesting and accessible way of saying the unsayable thing (though as I write this, I realise that statement probably applies to all of comedy, no?).
What I’m saying is I’m not interested in preaching to the choir. The point is to be able to do this stuff on Saturday night in Nottingham and bring them to the point. That’s the skill I’m trying to build right now – trying to find ways of making these serious/humourless points in a funny context. Using comedy, the point is to make the point.
I sidetracked myself. So I pace around and talk into the machine. I also write things down. I’ll make lists of associated ideas, odd phrases connected to the subject etc. But it’s a very haphazard process. Every comic I really admire holds their material in their head and doesn’t write much down. But my memory for anecdotes and jokes is bad, and it helps me to look at words on paper and react to them and scribble. Then I pace it around again, then go back and transcribe/write a bit more. Most of it is wasted of course. But moving around and saying the ideas out loud works for me because comedy is an energetic thing, and new ideas come to you when you’re moving around and saying it with the energy you might use in the performance. Occasionally I’ll make myself laugh, but usually I just get a twinge, a feeling of “that’s worth saying” and it’s only later, if it got a laugh onstage, I’ll allow myself to laugh at it on the way home.
I work in big chunks – so will put in 5-10 min segments into the set at a time, rather than eking out a line here and there. This means I’ll have often have a routine in the lab (i.e. at new material gigs) for a few attempts before it gets into the paid set. Then once I start getting familiar with it onstage, it expands, and there’s more writing – lines here, sub-routines there. But it’s all about fuelling the energy of the performance. It’s intuitive and messy. I never get to do a bit exactly as I wanted. I’m always listening to what the crowd goes with – not just at the level of laughter, but also what makes them lean forward and want to know more. It’s really formed with the audience.
Raising the stakes
Also before it goes to stage I’ll often sit down with another comedian and do the stuff for them and hear it come out of my mouth for the first time, and then steal any jokes or better turns of phrase that they give me. I know acts who have a problem with this kind of thing, because they feel that would make the material less theirs. I don’t agree. I think it tests and sharpens the ideas. As a stand-up you are the ultimate author, you have to haul it through and if someone’s given you a good line/idea, you still have to find a way of getting it into your world. It still has to go through your filter and inevitably I end up favouring the stuff I came up with because I can more readily see it in my mind. If I’m ever sitting around with a comic and coming up with stuff for me/them, the rule is: whoever thought of the premise gets the joke.
Like in a story, I think the emotional/intellectual stakes in the set should get higher as it goes on. It’s why a lot of comics close on sex stuff because where do you go next that’s more personal or revealing? Mick Ferry, who’s an exemplary stand-up, said to me the other day that for him it doesn’t matter what order you do the jokes in, just do them as they come to you on stage. I envy this state of mind, there’s a freedom in it. To me there are early-set bits and later-set bits and once I’ve opened up a seam and the stakes are raised, it’s harder to go back and do lighter, general stuff.
Here is an idea I got from Reg Hunter that works for me: he often thinks about what the most personally incriminating/highest stakes/interesting/fucked-up/transgressive idea/moment is that he’s trying to get to, and he’ll then construct the whole set backwards from there so that the flow of ideas leads the audience to that point. I now do this where I can – and again, it’s all in service of trying to make the set seem organic, so it all feels like it’s about one thing and nobody feels they’re being hoodwinked by jokes – which I can’t get away with.
• You can see John Gordillo in action at Soho Comedy Club on April 5 and 19