Stevie Martin: hello can be the hardest word in comedy
It was a dark and stormy night. It is a truth universally acknowledged. Hello, I’m beginning this article now …
Simon Sinek, author and motivational speaker, once said: “The hardest part is starting.” While I can’t imagine that applies to open-heart surgery or going to the moon, I think it works for most things we have a burning desire to try. How many people wang on about That Book They’re Going to Write, or That App Idea They Just Need to Find a Developer For, or even That Room They Want to Decorate, but never actually do it? It’s hard to start something you care about because nobody wants to realise they’re actually quite crap at their lifelong dream.
Last year I wrote my first one-person comedy show, something I’ve always wanted – and been too scared – to do. After university I became both a journalist and a person who wanged on about Maybe Trying Comedy, so to shut my brain up I formed a sketch group, Massive Dad, and hid behind other people for safety. When said sketch group started focusing on writing rather than live performance, my brain started wailing again so – having run out of excuses – I signed up to do a solo character and sketch show at the Edinburgh fringe in 2018 and promptly had a meltdown. I couldn’t work out how to start the show. I was apparently unable to write anything until I’d worked through the creative paralysis of how to begin it.
Do I kick things off with dry ice and a dramatic soundtrack? Or saunter on like a standup, charmingly casual, in an attempt to lower the audience’s expectations so far that they’ll surprise-laugh at even the most basic joke? Or maybe I should shoot out on a skateboard like I’m competing for Great Britain in the Olympic luge semi-finals? I decided against the last one.
The writer’s block continued for months, until I came across an early draft of the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (It was in the British Museum’s History of Magic exhibition book – I didn’t break into JK Rowling’s house). The plot had undergone such an intense editing process as to be totally unrecognisable. I realised then that it doesn’t matter about being perfect, I just had to get something – anything – down, so the process could begin.
Once I’d let go of being perfect, I wrote 30 different options for beginnings, from big, bold musical numbers to audio-described mimed opening sketches. Quite drunk at this point, I started to realise that the beginning of something is actually the best bit. All the heady promise, with none of the poor execution. The opening titles of films, TV series that peter out during season two, plays that start with wonder – the costumes! the set! the plot! – before you can’t feel your arse. Look, if we’re honest, you probably got bored and stopped reading this article after the first sentence.
It struck me that an hour of openings for different shows wasn’t actually a bad idea. Nothing would outstay its welcome and I wouldn’t have to shoehorn in some lame narrative arc in which I learn something at the end. I don’t want to learn anything. It’s my first ever show. If I can just make people laugh for an hour, that’s surely enough of an achievement.
If I hadn’t abandoned the hunt for perfection, I would have drowned in a mess of excuses and wouldn’t have realised that anything you create is better than that perfect slice of genius floating around in your head. In the end, I made something that people laughed at, consistently, for an entire month. Which is automatically better than anything in my head because it’s, you know, real.
The point is you don’t know what works until you’ve tried something. And if in doubt, always shoot out on a skateboard. Yep, I bought one and, in the end, it turned out to be my favourite part of the show.