I like to make things. When I first started out in this wonderful business we call show, back in the time of black and white 8x10s in stiff-backed brown envelopes, and using a landline to call another landline to ask about a gig, I considered myself lucky – and still do – that I'm able to create what I do on stage.
But as a great man once said, things change, people change, hairstyles change and interest rates fluctuate, and these days, in the gleaming futurescape of now, where people Snapchat their Siri to confirm a gig on Facebook live, it's almost stupidly possible to make whatever kind of thing you like.
I consider myself basically a live performer. A stage-bound shtickmeister. But over the last few years I've realised what a baseless constraint that is. When we were kids, we didn't have to choose between writing a story, drawing a picture, pretending to be Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, or starting a small fire at school – we did all of them, because they were all creative and fun.
And now that I'm, at least technically, a grown-up, and the tools to make things are fairly affordable, the fun in trying everything can resume. The restrictions on genre can melt away a little, and you can define yourself just as a maker.
I've talked in the past about my depression (relax, I'm not going to do that again, at least for a while), and how there's no more soothing therapy than to make something. Whether it's a Lego model of Keith Chegwin's soul, or a YouTube video of some stupid trick I thought up after eating too much cheese, or a pretty photo of someone or somewhere beautiful, or a column that I've been allowed to write for a prestigious comedy website because I hacked the editor’s phone and made copies of his boudoir selfies – it doesn’t matter what it is you make, the act of making something, of pouring yourself into it, honing it, polishing it, and finishing it, is bloody brilliant.
You feel that you've achieved. That you're useful. That you can create something where before there was nothing. It's good for you, and – bonus – you end up with a thing you've made.
So, last week, I made something. I'd been making notes on it for a month or so. Roping in friends and colleagues to help me with it. Spent time, and energy creating it, and polishing it. It was hard work, but I knew it'd be amazing when it was finished. And finally, the hour came, when I could step back, fold my arms, and look at what I'd made.
And it was shit.
Really, really awful. Technical issues. Conceptual problems. A puddle of nope from start to finish. It was fucking amateur hour.
It's almost taboo to talk about failure in terms outside clichéd inspiring motivational quotes, such as Einstein's famous ‘A person who has never made a mistake never tried anything new.’ I mean, maybe, sure, Al, but that's not helpful when you've just crashed and burned, is it?
Because when I looked at the plate of cold cat sick that I had just spent dozens and dozens of man-hours working on, I felt pretty goddamn shabby. I'm a weird boy, emotionally. No middle ground with me. I'm either full-on eyes-of-fire, fists-balled world-conquering swagger, or curled up in the airing cupboard in the foetal position, rocking in gibbering lameness. So, because no motivational quote is going to cover it, here's how you feel when you fail hard:
You wonder what you were even thinking. Even if nobody else outside of your head will ever see the abomination you just made, you somehow know that the whole world is shaking their head and laughing at you. You'll be on stage the next night, and you're sure that the wave of flop sweat fail that radiates from you will be so powerful that every schlub in the audience will know that you're not as good as you pretend to be – at anything. You're a fraud. It's all a front, and its cracking. Even though only you know the extent of your misfire, you still feel humiliated. You feel as if you let down anyone who had faith in you in the past, or who might in the future. You want to never make anything ever again, because what if you fail again.
And that's when the voices in your head have played their weakest hand. Because if you're smart – and let’s say, just for the sake of this column, that I am – when you ask yourself ‘What if I fail again?’, the only – absolutely the only - answer is, ‘Yeah, what if I do?’, and then you realise everything's going to be OK.
I've failed harder than this before, and I will again. A few years ago, I played to my largest ever audience. 7,000 people. I killed. And then, when I bounded up on stage to take my curtain call, I tripped on the last step and fell flat on my face in front of all of them. Tore the trousers of one of my favourite suits and had to stand there on stage while the other performers took their bows, fighting back tears and bleeding from the groin. Back then I wanted the ground to swallow me up and never spit me back out, but these days, I fucking love telling that story.
What doesn't kill me, gives me an anecdote, right?
So. Yes. Fail. Fail hard. Fail spectacularly. Find the time and energy to let as many stupid ideas that come into your head reach fruition as possible, because why not? You don't have much time on this mudball, so make some things. Make lots of things. In my experience the vast majority of them will be resolutely, y'know, fine.
Some will be the drizzling shits. Maybe lots will. But every so often you'll make something that, for whatever reason, reaches escape velocity and is great. Something that might mean something to someone else. And the feeling when that happens lays the smackdown on the feeling you get when it doesn't.
One of my mantras is: ‘If in doubt, make’. Origami, or a full-length theatre show, and everything in between, because you learn more from watching a crappy show than you do from watching an amazing one, and you learn more from failing than you do from success.
I'm going to go back to pretending to be Starbuck.
Published: 6 Dec 2016