During the recent celebrations for its fiftieth birthday, television channel BBC 2 broadcast some of the classic comedy series that have become its hallmark over the last half-century. Amongst repeats of Fawlty Towers, Absolutely Fabulous and The Goodies were new episodes of The Fast Show.
For the uninitiated, The Fast Show offered sketch comedy at its most pared down and quotable. Moving at startling pace (hence the name), every single character was sharply drawn and had a distinctive catchphrase or tic. They included Swiss Toni, a car dealer suffering a midlife crisis, and whose coping mechanism was to describe everything – absurdly – as:
like making love to a beautiful woman.
Completely unrelated to BBC2 and its comedy back-catalogue, recently I was also thinking about writing competitions. All but a few writers would describe their relationship with competitions as 'complicated', so there is nothing new about dwelling upon them. But with The Fast Show to the fore of my mind, I couldn’t help but reflect that taking part in competitions is … well, it’s very much like making love to a beautiful woman.
At first, you spend time worrying about whether the experience will live up to expectations. There’s pressure to perform at your best, to come up with fresh ideas that will keep things interesting. Then there’s all the build up – trying one thing, then another, to see what works.
Keeping within the rules is essential, though the less said about word count the better (nobody likes exaggerations about length). What finally follows is a lot of hard work but strangely fulfilling and, by the end, either both parties are perfectly satisfied … or you are left facing bitter rejection.
You get the idea. Cheap innuendo (and stealing comedy formats) aside, you may have divined that I’ve suffered some new disappointment in a competition.
And you would be right! The results for We Said Go’s inspiration-themed travel writing contest have been announced. Not only did my entry not get placed in the top three, it didn't even merit a place among the top fifty. From five hundred-plus entries received, it failed to reach the top 10%.
I had no God-given right to be judged near the top, of course. But where this competition differed was that We Said Go published every single one of those five hundred entries on their website, so people had the chance to read what I submitted and positive feedback led me to think that I’d made a breakthrough. This time, maybe, I was in with a shout.
Except for the winners, competition entries usually get zero publicity. We put the time and effort into creating something, and the only reward is for it to exist. You can publish the work afterwards, but it has the stigma of ‘failure’ attached. On the other hand, having the work in front of an audience as well as in front of the judges makes it feel alive.
The clarity about that contrast in approach came from listening to an episode of The Comedian’s Comedian podcast. Stuart Goldsmith interviews fellow comedians about their craft – be it their writing habits, the process of turning ideas into jokes, their views on the comedy industry, or their views on creativity generally.
An interview with Carey Marx in episode 75, for example, blew me away with his opinions about the writing process. So much advice for writers is based around forming sustainable habits, about setting yourself up to write consistently. Anything else is potentially destructive to your talent or your self-confidence.
It makes perfect sense, so why try and fulfil your creative impulses any other way? Here’s what Carey had to say:
I have had systems. I constantly drop systems. I think whenever I get comfortable with something, I then drop it because I’m no longer learning by doing the same thing all the time.
That’s quite a radical – not to say mindful – way to practice your art. It’s certainly not an opinion that everyone would agree with, but that’s the beauty of having an extensive archive of in-depth interviews. There’s plenty of scope to agree with the interviewee, or to rant at your iPod when the opposite occurs.
Like Professor Brian Cox standing atop another dramatic mountain vista, the podcast is both entertaining and thought-provoking, while doing a much better job of avoiding pretentiousness! The subject matter is relevant to other forms of expression than joke telling, so while an interest in comedy helps, it’s not essential. Some of the best episodes feature people you’ve never heard of, or who you have no opinion about as a performer.
Here we are in a world of subjective opinion. Competitions, they are what they are … and if you can get into a semi-final or a final, you might pick up an agent … and you’re off.
That kicked my brain into thinking about comedy competitions compared to the competitions I go for. Whether written or spoken, the work is intended for an audience, but comedians have the benefit of presenting their material at the same time as being in the competition. They don’t deliver it to a room that is empty except for the judges.
We Said Go’s policy of publishing all of the entries was doubtless a time-consuming process for them, but it generated a lot of content for their website and gave the entrants an audience. That sounds like a win-win to me. Disappointing as the result was, it put my writing in front of many more people. When that is the case, who knows who you might impress?
In the world of subjective opinion, the only result that matters is finding people who like what you’ve done – even if the competition judges don’t fall into that category. There are two slight downsides I can think of: you have to resist directly comparing your work with your fellow competitors, and the rejection is that little bit more public.
Saying something new and original about dealing with rejection is difficult, so I’m going to end with a quote about it from the same Kerry Godliman interview. Of all the Comedian’s Comedian interviewees, I particularly identified with her attitude of just getting on with things and generally being happy (or “not tearing your heart out”):
Rejection’s horrible and hurts, but it passes.
Which is why, now that I’ve finished this blog post, I’m off to put the finishing touches to an entry for another competition. Because the rejection – and the frustration – passes, and because there’ll be another Comedian’s Comedian interview to inspire afresh next week.