It’s pouring down. I wonder if a good litmus test for whether someone has crossed the threshold into adulthood is what they think when looking out of a window during a storm. If it’s along the lines of, Oh wow, I can turn the sprinklers off and save on the water bill, you’ve not just crossed the threshold, but performed a little pirouette on it. I’m certainly at that point. Maybe not a pirouette; I’ve never been that physical.
I’ve wanted to write a little update for a few weeks, but needed some down time. Turns out that I developed shingles. When I told my friend, Karl, he was incredulous. “Shingles?” he asked. “What are you, Victorian?” Well, it’s true that sometimes I wear my shirts done up right to the top button, but alas it’s a virus. It’s not really contagious (a point I’ve bellowed as friends ran screaming out the door), but lies dormant in anyone who has had chickenpox, waiting for the right time (in my case, probably stress) to come up and make itself comfortable. You might say that I “manifested” it. Isn’t that what Oprah encourages? Well, I have a pretty powerful mind and all I got were these lousy spots on the right side of my torso…yes, you get them on only one side. Symmetry is no longer á la mode, it seems.
When I went to the doctor, I didn’t expect to find out it was shingles. I thought that my spots and feeling like I was sunburnt (that’s how I would describe the initial feeling) were the result of working out too hard at the gym and not wearing a suitable t-shirt. It turned out that my bursts of running on the treadmill while watching The Chaser or reruns of M*A*S*H weren’t the cause. Friends and strangers told me that they were surprised someone my age would get it. The first few times I heard this, I thought they were trying to flatter me, and I would playfully throw back my head á la Blanche Devereaux. Turns out they weren’t flirting because, well, who wants to flirt with the shingled patient.
The worst of it has now passed. But this episode has made me evaluate the ways I handle stress and anxiety. It also gave me some time to slow down. I’m rarely bored, but days and nights on the couch with itchy spots and a pricking sensation in my spine started to wear thin. I did start watching Nashville after planning on doing so since it started in 2012! We also watched the really lovely Boy Meets Girl starring Michelle Hendley and Michael Welch. In these days of fearmongering regarding trans issues, I thought it was a sincere and charming film. I hope Michelle makes another movie soon; and I was pleased to reacquaint with Michael Welch, whom I loved watching in Joan of Arcadia but hadn’t kept up with. I’m glad to reacquaint with him.
I also started researching three new interviews (the interviewees are really being patient with me), as well as continuing work on a long-term project. When I haven’t been able to work, I’ve been inspired by creative friends who have completed exciting projects. Bob is doing a great job hosting his Sunday Sleep In on Three D Radio. Another Bob, Bob Evans, has a new album, Car Boot Sale, and podcast, Good Evans, It’s a Bobcast! Simon Williams’ jewellery label, USE, is making its way to international fashion festivals. Nat Luurtsema, who wrote the delightful memoir Cuckoo in the Nest, has a new book coming out very soon: a young adult novel called Girl Out of Water. In the U.S. I believe it will be called Goldfish, and who knows what the translations will be in other countries (well, I saw on Amazon that the French title will be Moi et les Aquaboys, which is really so fabulous). She has also completed a short film called Three Women Wait for Death (replace “women” with “men”, and you’ve got my social activities covered), which I was happy to be able to help along in the final stage with a little Kickstarter money. Karl Geary has inked a deal with publisher Harvill Secker for his first novel, Montpelier Parade. Like Nat, Karl’s a beautiful writer and filmmaker, and I’m so pleased for him. Patrick Harvey is co-starring in a new horror film named Scare Campaign with Ian Meadows and Meegan Warner. I love a horror film. Speaking of horror, Matthew Currie Holmes, who is well-known for his horror movies (remember him as the director, M, in Wrong Turn 2?), is in post-production for his writer-directorial debut, Traces, starring Pablo Schreiber, Rick Springfield, Sharon Leal, and Sosie Bacon. Matthew is a music aficionado (making music, himself), and music will play a big part in this story of a record-store flunky and former one-hit wonder given another chance at the big time. And Donna Loren has a new pictorial biography coming out, Donna Loren: Mover and Shaker in the Center of a Mid-Sixties Pop Maelstrom. Do you like candids of people like The Supremes, James Brown, and Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as the sets of Batman, The Monkees, and the Beach Party films? Well, it’ll be quite the coffee-table book in beautiful black and white and far-out colour. I have so many people around me who inspire.
Well, that’s all for now. Back to research, writing and, with any hope, sharing some new projects with you. The picture above is a rainy day in Tokyo. I loved the design of the umbrella. I tried to bring it back, but it wouldn’t fit in my suitcase, and I didn’t think the Japanese would have been fond of my Emma Peel impression if I carried it as hand luggage. Right now, I’m reading up on reflexes in infants for a developmental psychology presentation I’ve been asked to give. I’ve come across one I’d never heard of: the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex. It’s also known as the “fencing reflex” because the infant’s head, arms, and legs resemble the position taken by a fencer. Maybe that’s the sign you’ve crossed the threshold from childhood to adulthood: when the tonic neck reflex is replaced by the tonic and gin reflex – the sudden urge when confronted by limes and ice to fix oneself a highball. Bottoms up, I say!
Have you ever felt “a bit short changed in terms of life” or that you’re one step away from getting “found out” as an imposter? Mark Smith understands. I knew there was a reason that I liked him. That and he’s also darn funny. Since starting in comedy a few years back while at University, Mark’s been living the life of a working comic gigging all over the U.K. Since 2010, he and pal Max Dickins have recorded their podcast, Dregs, a name coined by Mark’s father. The pair had been a part of sketch revue group, The Leeds Tealights, and dregs are, after all, the remnants of tealights. A few months back Mark debuted his solo Edinburgh Fringe show, The Most Astonishing Name in Comedy. Russell Howard introduced him as “One of the best new comics around”. I agree (as if Russell needs my approval).
In this chat, Mark tells me about all sorts of things: from comedy writing, gigging in intimate settings (not what you think) and the Edinburgh Fringe, to how he navigates expectations at parties and how he might like to while away some years.
Adam: When I was young, I wanted to be a doctor like the ones portrayed in the Australian TV serial A Country Practice. Then I realised I didn’t like the sight of blood (or stethoscopes for that matter) and so I thought maybe I could just star in A Country Practice. Those dreams of dramatic stardom didn’t pan out. What did you want to be and when did you decide that you wanted to get into comedy? Mark: When I was little I very vividly remember that I wanted to be a doctor, but as I grew up I realised I wasn’t good enough with any of the scientific subjects at school. So that was that I guess. I didn’t ever really think about getting into comedy until I was about 21. I was always a huge fan of comedy but never saw it as a thing I was ‘allowed’ to do I suppose. Then my best friend started getting into it and I was like ‘hey, this is forus’.
Adam: Tell me about some of your first gigs. Mark:My first gig was for the Chortle Student comedy competition. It was incredibly nerve wracking as you’d imagine. And I was rubbish, as you’d imagine. But there was something about it that I enjoyed and so I thought I’d give it another go. I’m still doing that really. Giving it one more go, every gig, until someone says that I mustn’t keep doing this.
Adam: After you’d started in comedy you didn’t pursue it intensely straight away? Mark:I probably did about five gigs in the first six months. So no, not intensely at all. I was a student up in Leeds and there were a few really good comedy nights but nothing that was exclusively for the students. Bear in mind that this is a huge university with a massive student population, and there was no comedy for them whatsoever. So I decided to start a night at the [Leeds University] Union and MC that. It was ideal really, I got to get some stage time and the students got to see some excellent comedy for £4.
Adam: Comedians devise material in various ways and settings. In her book, Nat Luurtsema said that she dresses up to write even when she’s at home, and the choices may be a ball gown or silk and stilettos. She did acknowledge that some of her choices led her neighbour to suspect that she was a rather unsuccessful (given she was always home) sex worker. You’ve said before that you’re not the kind of comedian who begins with a blank page and starts writing. What is your process? Mark: I basically write anything that I find funny in the notes in my phone. It could be anything, a turn of phrase, an idea or sometimes a fully formed joke. Then when my phone is filled up with those I’ll sit down and try and write about each of those ideas. Most of the time you look back on your phone notes and realise that what you’ve written is either impenetrable or just shit. Like I’ll often wake up in the middle of the night, write something down and think it’s brilliant. Then look at it in the morning and realise I’ve just written something like ‘dongboots’ in my phone. Nonsense. Other times though I find it’s a good jump off point. After that it’s a case of writing and testing it. And doing that until it works and is good enough for a paying audience to see.
Adam: Phyllis Diller invented her husband, “Fang”, for her routine. I think she said other comics used their real husband’s names, which was fine…until they died and they had to change the act. How do you decide how far to go with using real people or situations in your life? Mark: Ha! I tend to use real names for real events because otherwise I’ll get all confused mid-routine. If ever I use a made-up event I go with the name Kelvin who is a friend of mine from back home and he doesn’t mind me doing that because he doesn’t exist.
Adam: Some of your standup deals with your dissatisfaction with a monosyllabic name. You have the opposite problem to say a Ben Kingsley (Krishna Pandit Bhanji), Alan Alda (Alphonso Joseph D’Abruzzo), Fred Astaire (Frederick Austerlitz), or even Benny Hill (whose original name, Alfred Hawthorne Hill, could have led to a life as a museum curator). You did go by the name Winston Smith for a while. How does having a simple name impact you (how do you ever know what you’re getting up to on Google?), and when changing it the first time why didn’t you experiment with the whole thing? Mark: I think when I first started I worried about stupid shit like that. I thought Mark Smith was too boring a name and that people would forget it immediately but it turns out that no-one cares what your name is as long as you are good. If people want to Google me they can just bang the word comedy on the end of Mark Smith. EASY!
Adam: When I tell people at parties that my background is in psychology they usually ask, “Oh, are you going to analyse me?” Occasionally they’ll also want to know whether I can see their future. I have to then explain that, “No, I’m not a fucking fortune teller” (note: psychology, being the pseudoscience that it is, I do make use of crystal balls from time to time). Do people you meet expect you to always be ‘on’? Mark: I think a lot of people do yeah. But generally it’s not too much of a problem. To be honest most of my friends now are in the same job or something similar and so it’s cool to not have that pressure. I never really liked it so when I first started I would tell people on a night out that I was an accountant or a delivery man or something else that never really needed any more explanation. Just a good, solid job that would cut any expectation. Now I’m fine with it.
Adam: You first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007 as part of an ensemble. You then went on to direct and write shows in subsequent years, appear with your Dregs podcast partner Max Dickins, and as part of The Comedy Zone showcase. Just a few months ago you debuted your solo show. How do you prepare for the Edinburgh Fringe and what’s it like for the performers once you’re there? Mark: Edinburgh is an enormous, grizzly beast with huge blood-stained fangs and terrifying claws and a weird sort of grin on its face which has also got six eyes. Imagine that! I’m sorry what was the question? Yes Edinburgh, I have a love-hate relationship with it really. I love it when I’m not there but when I am, like most performers, it becomes all encompassing and engulfing. You start to think that the world revolves around this little bubble you create. I think it’s really unhealthy. Having said that, it is a wonderful place, the city is beautiful and it’s full of great comedy. I just wish it wasn’t seen as the biggest thing of the year. So many comics, including myself, see it as the focal point of the year whereas I think it should be seen as just a thing that happens. A really good, but horrendously gruelling thing that happens.
Adam: On one of your podcast episodes, you and Max were discussing playing to almost empty rooms. Mark: Four’s quite good though, isn’t it? Max: Well, it’s good in the context of having sold no tickets. Mark: Yeah better than no. I can’t remember what I sold. Max: What you sold. Mark: I know sellout was used a lot. The word ‘sellout’, total sellout.
I’ve lectured to rooms with a capacity of 500 before that only had four students. How do you deal with that sort of thing? Mark: It can be quite demoralising but that is the nature of Edinburgh, and gigs in general. As a new comic you learnt to play those tiny numbers so it’s not such a problem to be honest. Obviously it’s not ideal, but it’s fine. Sometimes it’s nice to have a small audience because you can literally get to know your entire audience. My favourite show of my last Edinburgh run was on the last night. I had seven people in and they were glorious. We had a proper laugh and everyone (I think) thoroughly enjoyed it. Obviously it’s a different sort of satisfaction to having a particularly good gig in a packed house but it’s still cool.
Adam: You’ve been recording Dregs since 2010. What do you enjoy most about the podcast? Mark: I enjoy talking shit nonstop for a while and then letting our producer pick the bones out of it. We’ve been so lucky to always have a good producer. We had Joe Thomas for a couple of years and he is basically a genius. He’s now the youngest station controller in the entire country at a station in Oxford. Now we have Will who somehow manages to make even Max sound amusing at times. And that takes a lot. I like working with Max though, he’s a funny little shit.
Adam: I particularly like your ribbing of Max in his attempts to be a ‘Renaissance man’. And how almost in the same breath you guys can go from discussing ‘gravitas’ or ‘hyperbole’ to more “blue” humour. Mark: Yeah, it’s pretty stupid most of the time. To be honest a lot of the time I feel like I black out and then only realise what’s been said when we hear the edit. I have a feeling that’s down to Max drugging me etc.
Adam: On Dregs you mention a lot of the travel you’ve done. Where is your favourite place so far and have you/will you gig overseas? Mark: I love America. I go there as often as time permits and plan to drive all around someday. I love everything about it but particularly baseball. For some reason baseball has really got under my skin. It’s something I can absolutely get onboard with and given that that’s about the most American thing in the world it make sense to move there and watch it every day for the entirety of my life until I die of baseball.
In terms of gigging I haven’t done that much overseas. I went to do a couple of nights in the Middle East in Bahrain. That was cool. I’d like to a lot more though. Specifically Australia. I’d love to do Adelaide and Melbourne. I visited Oz when I was about 22 and did that whole student thing of going up the east coast. It was fucking amazing.
Adam: A lot of people would have become familiar with you through Russell Howard’s Good News. It’s quite popular here in Australia. How important is a show like that to building your profile? Do you like performing for TV? Mark: I think it is very important, or at least it’s been very important for me. I don’t know if I like performing for TV because I’ve only really done it the once. Obviously it’s cool though and I’d like to do loads more of it.
Adam:What are your plans for 2014? Mark: I’m currently co-writing a TV series with Nick Helm that is going to be filmed in June. On top of that I’m writing my new stand up show and trying to develop a couple of other TV things, so I guess we’ll just see what happens.
Adam: Anything else that you’d like to mention? Mark: Yeah, get me on Twitter. Ha! What a shallow thing to say. But seriously, do. Like one in twenty of my tweets are reasonably funny.
Mark’s Twitter home he speaks of is found here. He also has a website (I knew I should have gotten something besides dot com. The .co.uk looks so pretty on his…). The Dregs podcast can be listened to here (via SoundCloud) or downloaded through iTunes.
At the start of a year I find myself thinking back to what I was doing same time, last year. It’s odd because, until recently, I rarely had a January off since early Uni days and it was always similar. When I was writing my PhD, I’d cloister myself away in my office while all the academics had left for the year. Looking back, I don’t actually think we were allowed on campus during the Uni shutdown. But nothing was going to stop me one year from having a quiet space to try to make sense of Vernon Lee’s 1913 little pink tome, The beautiful: An introduction to psychological aesthetics. The study of aesthetics is quite tied into the psychological study of empathy (my PhD topic). As an aide, I will be revisiting that work when I finish a review article later in the year. For now, all I remember her writing about was imagining a mountain “rising”. As another aside, and in truth, I had two work spaces at the University. One office was on the campus where I tutored, and consisted of inbuilt wooden furniture and a wash basin. The other was a cubicle in an open-plan office where the director had an unrealised dream to install a spiral staircase from our offices down to the photocopier on the bottom floor. We settled on a water cooler.
Well, last year at about this time I was in a wedding for dear friends of mine. Five days later Bob and I boarded a plane to Singapore for a week trip there and to Penang. I always get sick on overseas holidays. It might be my body’s subconscious way of maintaining my “suck the enjoyment out of everything” stance, even when I am using hotel-provided Malin+Goetz. In Paris my friend Carlo had to put up with me sniffing my way through Printemps. When a group of us travelled around the U.S. a couple of years ago, I got very ill with a bad throat infection in Orlando during our Disney jaunt. Running from Splash Mountain to It’s a Small World was no fun and I did doze during Carousel of Progress. Anyone who knows me would know I must have been sick to sleep through that.
On about the third or fourth day of being in Singapore, like clockwork I got my usual illness. Fortunately, we were heading to Penang and were going to say at the Golden Sands Resort on Batu Feringgi Beach. Now, a bad cold (and who, really, gets a cold in Singaporean weather?) at a resort can be a bad thing. It doesn’t really want to make you swim all day. It does prep you, however, to spend afternoons on a deck chair only lifting your head to order your next cocktail. By about the third or fourth, the lifting of the head has given way to a little grunt in the direction of the waiter and a head lift abandoned part way through due to a lack of the needed amenities. When we moved on to the Eastern & Oriental Hotel we had a door in the room that led out to the stunning pool and, best of all (for me; an idle holiday was Bob’s worst nightmare) more deckchairs!
It was in Singapore and Penang under the struggle of my delicate condition (kind of like Ingrid Bergman’s anxious opera singer in Gaslight, although I always fancied myself more the Angela Lansbury tart character) that I continued reading Nat Luurtsema’s wonderful Cuckoo in the Nest. In it Nat details her move back home to her parents when the Real World (i.e. the recession) meant that she and her boyfriend couldn’t find a new apartment after moving out of their cosy but happy (“Despite the squash, Craine and I rarely argued but I suspect it was because there wasn’t room to gesticulate. If you folded your arms, you got wedged and only buttered elbows set you free.”) north London flat.
Nat is one of my favourite comedians. I think that the first thing I ever told her on Twitter was that I’d applied a mud mask to my face and then gone to answer a really long telephone call and, when I’d finished talking, I’d forgotten I had the mask on and so was convinced my face was paralysed. She was sympathetic and, if you read her book, you’ll see that she understands things like that. I really related to her from the first few pages:
“It didn’t help that my parents had long ago convinced themselves that I was a moron, and I was reluctant to leave behind a life of giddy freedom to return to a house where I was treated like a lunatic child. Years ago they decided: ‘Natalie may be good at school but she’s an idiot otherwise,’ and like the obedient mollusc I am, I grew into this persona until it fit like a stained glove. I swear I’m fairly competent most of the time, but the moment I’m back in the family home, all the jokes about my ineptitude make me paranoid and incapable. I blame their expectations of my idiocy for my…well, acts of idiocy. I guess they could claim that their expectations are founded on my years of idiocy, but at this point it would all get a bit Catch-22”.
Nat is a very gifted novelist and I found myself continuously stopping Bob reading his book (or the cocktail menu) to read him something she had said. You really must read it. I find it too daunting a task (these days, I find many a task daunting) to pick out some of my favourite bits, so I just flicked through the book and stopped at a random page. Here, Nat and (Tom) Craine are sent to find a neighbourhood cat that Nat’s mum worried looked “confused”:
“It was hard to know what this situation required, so I took the Financial Times, an abacus and Craine, who had chosen a poor day for a visit. He had already endured a 7am visit from mum tiptoeing through my bedroom humming ‘I’m not here, ignore me,’ while she dug some socks out of my drawer and he shielded his nipples. In recent years my bedroom had become a communal storage area and our semi-naked presence in it didn’t seem to make any difference. It was like living in a handbag”.
And if audio is your game, you can download Jigsaw, Nat’s sketch comedy with Dan Antopolski and Tom Craine here.
Well, almost a year to the day, I am awfully pleased for Nat who has been nominated (with director Ben Mallaby) for a 2014 Best British Short Film BAFTA for Island Queen, which she wrote and starred in. You can watch that here and, again, you really must.
So, who knows, what 2014 will bring. Hopefully, I’ll finish some new writing projects at work. And I was thinking of buying a new vase. Lemme know which one you want the update on in 2015. Finally, if you head to Penang, make your way to Kebaya restaurant in the Seven Terraces Hotel, Georgetown.