Open-mic comics getting paid – how funny is that?

It was difficult starting a life-changing career north of sixty, but my lifelong obsession with puns and one-liners needed an outlet, and with London bursting at the seams with open-mic venues, there was only one way out – to tread the boards.

It has been a terrific journey with around one hundred and fifty gigs, a raft of new friendships and life lessons (because you and your mates like some of your jokes, does not mean they are good). Actually, the only important people in the comedy court are the members of the jury, aka audience. The same joke that is met with stony silence on a Sunday can lead to raucous laughter on a Thursday. One gig’s perfect delivery can become paralyisis the next time you step up to the mic.

I have shared stages with around four hundred wannabes and I hardly remember any of them. But this article is dedicated to the twenty whose talent has shone through and who are surely destined for a better comedy deal than a five-minute slot in a damp pub basement. And it is for these people that I am looking to introduce a new kid on the comedy block – the paid open-mic comics.

It was a couple of months ago while watching one of my top ten fellow open-mic comics Kazeem Jamal (pictured above) that I realised how paper thin the difference between the best of the open mic and semi-pro circuit is. Kazeem has been on the circuit for less than a year, but his material, delivery and personality combine to make him an irresistible proposition on stage.

So I am actively pursuing a strategy to give talented, amateur open-mic comics like Kazeem an opportunity to showcase their talent in a decent setting and be paid for their work. I am putting together a troupe of the best of the open-mic circuit and I have hired the Stratford Circus Arts Centre theatre for the first gig of BOOM! (best of open mic) on Tuesday 29 January 2018 at 8pm. Tickets are on sale from Monday 17 December here:

It is a tough assignment because members of the jury will not be easily enticed to pay for amateur comedians. But let’s see what happens; as American comedian Dave Chappelle put it: If I can make a teacher’s salary doing comedy, I think that’s better than being a teacher.


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Self publish and be damned


I’ve got three mates who have self-published books through Amazon. As they were all published fairly recently (within the past two years) I decided to buy all three to support their hard work in starting and completing such an ambitious project. I am not going to mention the book titles or indeed what I think about the one and a half of the three that I have read. But I do want to share some thoughts.

There are different reasons why somebody might want to write a novel; literary fame, make money, therapeutic endeavour, try something new are the more obvious ones. To have the self-discipline to build a storyline, nurture and publish is in itself a great achievement. And it must be a great feeling to see the book in print with orders coming in from people out there who have heard about it. All this is possible because these days, to publish a book you do not have to go through the tried and trusted route of finding a literary agent who will have another hundred books to read having already discarded thousands of aspiring authors’ works.

So now the market is open to everyone who thinks they are good enough to self publish, which I think is terrific. And yes, some people have become famous from  this method. But whether your novel is self published or through the biggest publishing house in the world, ultimately the only thing that matters is whether people enjoy reading it.

Like art and music, literature is a matter of taste. I don’t like Jeffrey Archer’s work, millions do. I like modern American literature, millions don’t. I’ve read one page of a book lauded by literary critics (I’m actually surprised I got through one page as it was such rubbish) and I have enjoyed authors who are close to being unknown. A case in point is Derek Raymond, a kind of B-list English crime writer. I stumbled on his work by chance in a second-hand bookshop in Norfolk about 10 years ago and I  love his style of writing. It’s interesting that nearly 25 years after his death he has gained the recognition he richly deserved.

So my advice is this; if you have a story to tell, go for it. Sure, you can go on creative writing courses but if you have drive, enthusiasm and creativity I would bypass such courses and just write. You never know where it may lead. And you will surely enjoy the experience.






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Yes to copywriting, no to copy writing

woman getting mugged

Around 10 years ago I was visiting a client at a trade show in Birmingham. While wandering around the stalls I met up with a company from China who were entering the Christmas cracker market. Having written many groaner puns for a Christmas cracker company I asked if they might be interested in my services. I was taken aback by the response: Oh no! We just take the jokes from the Internet. File under wake-up call.

You walk into a store, casually place an item into a bag and then leave the store without paying. A reasonable definition of this activity is theft. Your university assignment is due in a couple of days and you have not written anything. You find a similar topic online and cut and paste the contents onto a Word document and hand it in as your original work. A reasonable definition of this activity is plagarism.

The above scenarios are all too familiar as dependency on web solutions to solve problems increases. The point to stress here is that there is a big difference between online researching and online cutting and pasting.  I write blogs for a raft of clients and use search engines to educate myself on topics that include products for locksmiths, expensive cameras, graffiti, digital marketing, care homes and franchising. But I am never tempted to lift a chunk of text from a website and paste it as my work. I can, however see how people can be tempted to do so. The Internet is almost impossible to police so the chances of getting caught are remote. Who would ever find out if you lifted text from a blogger with 35 followers on Twitter? The answer to this conundrum is simple – people should not need telling that taking something that they do not own is morally and legally wrong.

Not everyone who writes copy is a copywriter. The Internet is a meritocracy, anyone can join in and some great writers have been discovered while blogging. So there is no need to hire people like me to get your message across. But if your copy actually belongs to someone else, then you might want to consider not trying to pull a literal fast Buck.

Copywriting is creative work which takes many years to perfect into an art. Copying, cutting and pasting someone’s writing is fraud which takes a few minutes. There is a word for people who do such things. It begins with ‘c’ and ends with ‘s’. They are cheats (unless another word springs to mind).

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Wrong grammar? Shop ’em!

Near where I live a second-hand white goods outlet opened with the clever name of Sell Fridges (hardly competition for the Oxford Street giant, but a quirky name which raised a smile). I love this kind of thing – a few years ago I stopped at a traffic light in Potters Bar alongside a van with this lovely caption: “Singh & Singh Plumbers. You’ve tried the cowboys, now try the Indians!” On the basis of that slogan, I called them to do a job.

However, all is not well on the shop front. I continually see terrible grammatical mistakes on high street signage and although I have vowed never to shop at such places, these mistakes are so prevalent, I really don’t have much choice. Here are some of my favourite inaccuracies inside and outside stores: Barber’s; Aisle for less than 10 items; open Sunday’s; ATM’s.

Now I am not suggesting that we get over stroppy about this blot on our landscape, I think this gentleman is going too far: but there a serious point here. If the proprietor cannot be bothered to check how he or she presents publicity collateral then how much can you trust the products sold? And we are not only talking about small independent minicab offices behind the betting shop. We are talking about huge companies and organisations who employ overpriced hipsters to write their copy. Maybe that’s why we get TV adverts inviting us to ‘travel yourself interesting’, informing us that eating a certain hamburger will involve ‘lovin’ it’ and we should ‘Think different’ before buying a computer.

English is the world’s most commonly used language in business. it is the default language for air traffic control and medicine and is used by 1.5billion people, of whom around half a billion are native speakers. Is it too much to ask that where the language is on show we ensure it is correctly presented?




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Poor grammar and syntax? I’m shooting from the hipster

What the hell is wrong with you? Yes you, the hipster too young to grow the wretched Shoreditch beard; yes you who commissions the tech wizards with designer glasses working from a bean bag to build your start up’s website for two grand instead of the eight they normally take; yes you who within five years will be flying to LA every six weeks to ‘consult’. FFS, with all your success, why don’t you care how your English looks?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to embarrass you and point out how many mistakes are lurking on your website, app, brochure and social media pages (although, believe me, I really could, would, and even should). Instead, free of charge (I’m all heart) here is a list for you pin on the Smeg fridge in the breakout area of the converted hat factory where you work. It is not exhaustive but it will remind you of how empty your lives really are, and when you are old enough to buy a beer, you will come to the care home where I live and personally thank me as I dribble down my cardigan.

It’s / its: Dude, it’s simple, so put the word in its correct context.

Numbers: One to nine and 10 to infinity.

Hyphens: Short hyphens are for prefixes and long hyphens to divide clauses in a sentence:
The pro-Europe MP made a passionate speech. (short hyphen)
We currently have places for two interns – please contact our personnel department for further details. (long hyphen)

And / &:  Don’t use & as ‘lazy’ shorthand. See the difference, firstly where & is used correctly – Marks & Spencer, B&Q; Health & Safety Executive. Then, where it should not be used: The long and winding road.

Less or fewer:  The word ‘less’ applies to uncountable nouns (for example weight and periods of time). It does not apply to numbers of people and items. It costs less than £10. I have received fewer parking tickets this year.

In terms of: Do not use, ever. The phrase is a virus contaminating the English language. If you use it, your computer will crash and a divine presence will make Haggerston look like Croydon..

Money: You know you love it so give it some respect. Turnover last year was just south of £10m. The industry is worth £12bn.

How to write a phone number: Really? Yes, my friends. You may well be sitting on $7bn worth of investment but if you write your number 07973824303 people will think you are a hairy-arse plumber with receipts and Mars wrappers on your white van dashboard. Break up the numbers: 07973 824303 and for landlines think a new football line-up 3-4-4 (020 7254 1500).

Chill out on exclamation marks: I was editing a website turning over around £15m and spotted this gem: Thanks to all our staff who participated in the fun run. We raised over £4,000 for charity!!! Why stop at three? Treat an exclamation as you would a glass of boutique wine, savour and caress it, don’t cheapen it with repetition.

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Stand up and be counted out

Long long time ago, I worked Saturday nights on the sports desk of the People newspaper. The shift was always great fun and I was honoured to work alongside some very talented sports subs who had in their younger days been at the very top of football reporting and editing.

The work was intensive as we edited copy that came in from the country’s finest drinkers (particularly the Scottish match reports) and we had little time for the nuances of the English language. After knocking the reports into shape we then had playtime – coming up with pun headlines and that was when the real creative juices were flowing.

My dear mate Andy Cooper (now editor of Devon Life) came up with the best football headline of all time; around 1997 Chelsea had a goalkeeper from Moscow called Dimitri Kharin and he saved a penalty late in one game to win the match. Andy’s headline From Russia with glove deserves to hang in the National Gallery.

I came up with plenty myself of course; Niall Quinn missing a late penalty (Death on the Niall) and QPR losing 4-0 at home under manager Stewart Houston (Houston, we have a problem). These Saturday night frolics spilled into the day job as I persuaded a Christmas cracker company to buy some generic puns (I’ve written an opera about the economics of Cornish pasties…the pie rates of Penzance.)

Around three years ago I started writing generic one liners and put them before a quality control committee of my elder son Tom and three mates, David, Tony and Dan. When a new pun came to me in the middle of the night I’d send it to myself through my smartphone and the QC people kept the better ones for a short list.

And after scything the short list of around 300 down to 50 I decided that at my age I am not going to get too many chances to see if they work and after friends persuaded me that my material is good enough for a live audience, I took the plunge on London’s Open Mic circuit.

To date I have done seven gigs, each one of which I have thoroughly enjoyed. The way it works is that there are around 20 people doing a five-minute slot each and you are expected to take a friend so there will be at least 40 people in the audience. It is rare to find people doing the one-liner routines, most of the stuff people churn out is observational comedy (finding a girlfriend/boyfriend, job and flat) along with totally ‘left field’ stuff like the guy who spend his routine setting up the stage like the start of a 100m race.

The most interesting thing for me is the different reaction to the same joke in two different venues – from laughter to silence. And it has taken me a few gigs to realise that presentation is far more important than quality of material. So there is plenty to work on.

Here are a few from the collection:

I auditioned for one of the support roles in Snow White….I didn’t even make the short list.

I lost my temper with the boss at the aircraft repair centre….so they sent me on a hangar management course.

I got a part-time job in a bowling alley….I’m tenpin.

I was gutted not to make the pole vault team at university…..never got over it.









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(In) terms of endearment

Anyone who knows me will give a glowing reference about what a splendid chap I am; tolerant of everything and everyone, never complaining, praising people 365/24/7, never bearing grudges – you get the picture. But there are two things in the UK that can turn me from Father Teresa into Most Wanted at the dropping of a full stop.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day – because this blog is not about food, I will leave that as a given. But however important breakfast may be, it is becoming increasingly difficult to swallow my Stoke Newington important-meal-of-the-day organic oats drizzled with grated Nicaraguan cashew nuts when the tiresome Sarah Montague moves her lips towards the microphone in the BBC Radio 4 Today studio.

Montague has a distinguished academic, business and journalism record so it comes as a surprise that she would metaphorically snug up on the bench to football luminaries Steve Bruce, Big Sam Allardyce and Alan Shearer with her incessant usage of the odious phrase ‘in terms of’. I’ve heard Bruce say ‘he’s gone and went down the wing’; I’ve heard Big Sam say ‘today was about our lack of ability to not produce the ability we have got’; and I’ve heard Shearer say, ‘in terms of Wayne Rooney’. So for a person of her alleged expertise as a broadcaster it is indeed a great shame that she reverts to ‘ITO’ when she needs to buy a few seconds to gather her train of thought.

To Ms Montague and everyone who makes a living from kicking a football to those teaching them how to I say this: stop using ‘in terms of’. It is a lazy and sloppy way of wasting words. If you mean ‘relating to’, how about saying that instead? Or try saying nothing and just ask the damn question without it.

Now I’ve got that off my chest, allow me to indulge myself in a facet of UK life that also makes me reach for the keyboard rifle. When I was a lad up to when I was well on the way to being a responsible adult with wife and two kids, removals companies, lorries and vans had logos and straplines that described what they did, which was handy, in case you might want to purchase their services. There was Knights of the Road, Pickfords Removals, Salford Van Hire. You knew what they were doing.

But in an era where the 2012 Olympic Games logo devised by brand agency Wolf Ollins cost UK taxpayers a reported £400,000 (I might add that had either of my lads brought that design home from a school art lesson, I would have sued the local education authority) then perhaps I should not be surprised that removals companies, lorries and vans are now not being driven by a man (or woman) with a rolled-up copy of the Sun on the dashboard and delivering stuff. Nope, they are now ‘redfining logistics’. So that’s what they are doing is it? It may come as an absolute surprise that if the traffic on the M1 is flowing, he (or she) will deliver on time. If there are lots of cones outside Watford Gap Services he (or she) will not deliver on time and he (or she) may stop for a fry-up at Leicester Forest East. But one thing is for certain, the stout person behind the wheel is not ‘redefining logisitcs’ and nor is the company that has hired his (or her) services.

The copywriting dipsticks who come up with ‘travel yourself interesting’ (Expedia) ‘#fooddancing is living well’ (Sainsbury’s) and ‘he feels epic’ ( think they are ‘edgy’. They are not – feeding the monster that is slowly throttling to a slow death the once great English language is nothing to be proud of.










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Jam tomorrow?

Around fifteen years ago I was sitting in an editorial meeting for a quarterly magazine I subbed. The final article had been submitted that morning and the graphic designer needed a maximum of three words to fit the space he had created for the headline. I had not read the article; it was about the impact on the environment of cheaper fuel prices. I skimmed the piece which the designer had dressed with a ubiquitous image of a motorway that resembled a car park, wrote down my headline and passed it round the table.

In any presentation of copy, the headline is what gets you over the line, it can be the difference a person actually taking the trouble to read the article or passing on to the next article. Have a look at these catchy headlines from some of UK tabloids’ best punsters.

Each one of these headlines uses the space allocated to make a hard-hitting comment that perfectly describes the news piece (although I am not convinced that some of these stories are worthy of the news tag). But one thing is for sure, to write such brilliant headlines is a skill that is developed over many years of practice. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book Outliers: The Story of Success you have to put in a minimum of 10,000 hours practice to maximise your talent. The late and great George Best would stay behind after training to practice hitting a football against a crossbar from 30 metres; the iconic Australian batsman Sir Donald Bradman would hone his hand-eye coordination by hitting a golf ball against a wall…with a golf club and Stanley Matthews would duck and dive among the heaving summer crowds strolling on the Blackpool promenade to sharpen his body swerves.

And so it is with headline writing. I must have written well over five thousand in the years I have been earning a living writing copy. I remember the ones that made Sunday People sports editors smile, Sunderland striker Niall Quinn missing a penalty (Death on the Niall) and Stuart Houston suffering a 4-0 home defeat while manager of Queens Park Rangers (Houston, we have a problem). But there were many that simply did not work because they compromised the space allocated, or, to paraphrase comments from various sports editors I worked under: “What do you think this place is Rivlin, the f**king Observer?” Perish the thought.

But if the space does allow the creative juices to flow, you can see real genius at work, as was the case with this classic fifteen-word headline from the News of the World in 1970.

You may be wondering what the headline of this blog has to do with its content. It was actually the headline I came up with on that slip of paper fifteen years ago.

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