I love a good practical joke, and it is that shared sense of cameraderie and physical humour which has always drawn me to working backstage and in related environments.
It is especially easy to get up to mischief when you have creative skills or the access to them. Very light things can be made to look identical to very heavy things, for example. One theatre I worked in has a polystyrene stage weight which – from a distance – is indistinguishable from the real thing. I had been there for a while before I saw it used, when the technical manager carried it level with the genuine weight in his other hand. He lowered and gently dropped the real one, then looked up and casually tossed the fake to the visiting production manager. I still remember the latter’s reaction, and am laughing at the recollection.
When I was studying, the lead carpenter convinced the designer that she should step inside the coffin they had built. He even managed to explain away the reason for placing the lid on top, and by the time the other guys had begun screwing it in position it was too late for her to do anything but accept the fact.
Those are my favourite jokes, the daft ones that involve everyone. No victimisation, no malice, just inclusive good fun. Today it is you dribbling juice on yourself because somebody pierced a hole near the top of your soda bottle. Tomorrow it is me trying to retrieve my hooded top, from its position tied to a flying bar stationed eight-feet above a freshly-painted stage floor.
The very best jokes, though, are the ones that are set up months or perhaps years in advance. Sometimes you do not even see the pay-off, but if someone else does then it is all worthwhile. I know of a theatre workshop which houses five identical adjustable spanners, one of which is plastic and came from a childrens play set. Its handle is taped and spraypainted in line with the real articles, and it was to my delight that I once witnessed a visiting crew member rush in and grab the kid-on one. A rare occurrence, but they keep it there just for that chance moment and I love that.
I consider myself pretty canny, not least because my keen wit means I instigate at least as many japes as I am party to. It is still possible to catch me out though. Recently, during a day working in the Care Home set of a local soap opera, my colleague (a permanent staff member there) asked me to open the door at one end of the room. I was suspicious – his ruse was not completely believable – but I was willing to play along. When I pulled the door handle I discovered that it, and the frame into which it was built, was a standalone unit. It is just a door in a frame, which can be positioned against any blank wall to give the illusion of further access points. “I love getting people with that,” he told me.
My birthday is in September, and one of my closest friends now lives next door to me. When I returned from running an errand on the day, I found that she had been busy in my absence. The dying bunch of flowers which had been destined for her bin were instead seconded and used as decoration. They joined a scribbled note which proclaimed “oontz” once in lipstick and ten more times in ink. When I walked into our close, the first thing I had noticed was the candle lightbulb on the floor. She had added it because it looked “industrial” (the type of music that we met through the love of), but its weight had defeated the sellotape used to attach it. I laughed hard at her efforts, and appreciate them more than she maybe knows.
Within a week, I had decided how to get her back. I hit upon something simple, easy, and guaranteed to entertain her – all I had to do was wait until Christmas. For three long months I held on, not daring to share my plan with anybody in case word got back to her. If you know me at all, you know that I can be trusted to keep your most precious secret safe for eternity. However, I find it very difficult not to share jokes, laughter, funny stories, or any other form or source of wit. I can be the worst conspirator, as I find it hard to keep a straight face at times – especially in the final build-up.
Weeks and months passed, during which I hinted that her door would be attacked at Christmas time. I knew that she would never expect what I had in mind, and I bluffed by attaching a tacky foil wreath to her door while she was out one day. Finally, after the longest time, I was able to enact my plan. I took the necessary measurements, prepared everything, then quietly set to work. On the morning of the 25th of December, the entrance to her flat looked like this:
Sadly, she did not respond to my knocks. I had to carefully peel up the bottom right corner, chap, and then quickly tape it back down before she answered. She did not answer, and I had to leave before she eventually emerged. I had wanted to capture her reaction on video, but I would not have seen it anyway, hidden behind a wall of paper – paper that she had already described as “the gayest” (she was with me in the shop when I bought it, haha. There is unsuspecting for you.)
Today, late on Boxing Day, I finally saw her. She said that it took her by surprise, as she only saw it as she was running out the door. She told me that she burst through it by punching her way out of it, which I regret not seeing. Like I noted above, though, my favourite jokes are the ones which take time to set up and which work whether they are seen by others or not.
I am certain that, upon posting this, I will remember other examples from my eighteen years in and around the industry. It is hard not to love a job, or hobby, which allows you such a degree of fun in the breaks while you are otherwise conducting yourself professionally. Just do it, lighten your co-workers’ life. Or your friend’s, or anybody else’s. Smile and the world smiles with you. It does not take much to brighten your day.
I logged in to my Twitter account the other day, prior to setting up a dedicated account for this blog in order to try and reach a wider readership. So far, the blog page is being followed by ten people, and is not yet what you might call a roaring success. If you are on Twitter, you can help me change that if you are so inclined. Please be inclined.
I always have a quick look at my Timeline, to see what people I follow are posting, before switching to the “Interactions” page so as to avoid being swamped by a million new-tweet notifications. This has changed now that I have begun using Tweetdeck to manage my personal account, this blog’s account, and the account for my “Adventures In The World Of Stand-Up Comedy” blog. However, that was my routine on the day in question.
The top of my Timeline was filled with retweets from comedian Sarah Millican, and from them it was fairly evident that she had posted about swallowing her chewing gum. Most of the “funny” answers had already been given and, as I have an aversion to being in any way “hack” with my jokes, I was prepared to skip straight to the page telling me how little I had been socially interacted with since last signing in. That was when I noticed the tweet I was drawn to reply to.
Neil “Doctor” Fox was a fixture of my childhood, his nationally-syndicated weekend chart show playing in the car on our way to or from various shopping malls, supermarkets, and trips to see one or other of my grandparents. More than anything, I remember the constant jingle that cut the word “Fox” onto a truncated sample of Robert Palmer singing “Doctor, Doctor,” from his song about having a “Bad Case Of Loving You.”
I tried to find a clip of that particular jingle, with no luck, but I did find this track by Kunt And The Gang. They appear to be offering sexual favours in return for a high chart position.
I have loved Chris Morris ever since I first stumbled upon an episode of The Day Today on BBC 2 one night, and mistook it for a factual programme for about thirty seconds. Its subversive genius soon became apparent, and it has subsequently made televised news impossible to watch. I was fortunate enough to then see the original broadcasts of his equally brilliant Brass Eye and the darkly twisted sketch show Jam. I have watched all of them innumerable times since, able to quote large amounts of all of them and awed by the beauty of his turns of phrase. “Proof if proof be need be”; “Quadrospazzed on a Life-Glug” ; “Cake is a made-up drug … A big, yellow death-bullet in the head of some poor user, or ‘custard gannet,’ as the dealers call them.”
“When dancing, lost in techno trance, arms flailing, gawky Bez. Then find you snagged on frowns, and slowly dawns… you’re jazzing to the bleak tone of a life support machine, that marks the steady fading of your day-old baby daughter. And when midnight sirens lead to blue-flash road-mash; stretchers, covered heads, and slippy red macadam, and find you creeping ‘neath the blankets, to snuggle close a mangle bird, hoping soon you too will be freezer-drawered. Then welcome… mmm… ooh, chemotherapy wig, welcome. In Jam. Jam. Jam. Jam. Jam. Jaaaaam.” – Intro to Episode 1
Brass Eye’s most infamous episode was the one-off special, Paedogeddon. From Wikipedia:
“To illustrate the media’s knee-jerk reaction to the subject, various celebrities were duped into presenting fatuous and often ridiculous pieces to camera in the name of a campaign against paedophiles. Gary Lineker and Phil Collins endorsed a spoof charity, Nonce Sense, (pronounced “nonsense”—”nonce” being British slang for people convicted or suspected of molestation or sexual crimes), Collins saying, “I’m talking Nonce Sense!” Tomorrow’s World presenter Philippa Forrester and ITN reporter Nicholas Owen were shown explaining the details of HOECS (pronounced “hoax”) computer games, which on-line paedophiles were using to abuse children via the internet. Capital Radio DJ Neil “Doctor” Fox told viewers that “paedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than they do with you and me”, adding “Now that is scientific fact — there’s no real evidence for it — but it is scientific fact”.”
That last quote, from “Doctor” Fox, is one of many that I can easily recite verbatim. Here he was on Twitter, espousing an obviously nonsensical “fact” in reply to Sarah Millican’s tweet, and I replied without a second’s hesitation – quoting his own assertion about facts and evidence.
I did not expect a reply – I figured it would be an episode of his life that he would be embarrassed to be reminded of, since various celebrity interviewees later denounced the show while publicly expressing their anger at being duped. I did not anticipate a reply from Sarah Millican either, as she has previously ignored me. Kind of. We have a mutual friend, a professional comedian who once publicly posted the link to my film “Jerry Generic” – which is a short satire of stand-up and of hack jokes and topics. Ms. Millican “replied” to it, but only insofar as to send an unrelated tweet to the friend off the back of it. I saw it as I was named in the original tweet, but the reply was not directed at, and did not concern, me. I presumed that it was easier to tack a new message onto that one rather than hit the “compose” button, and took that communication to be an act of convenience rather than a personal slight.
It came as some surprise, then, to find a reply from Foxy a few days later. He had taken my tweet in his stride, seeming to praise me for making the reference, and candidly referring to the occasional repercussions of his appearance on that show. I accepted that at face value and decided not to reply further – instead resorting to just retweeting it for others to read.