Joz Norris, who performs regularly on the alternative comedy circuit, explains why he's never tried to encourage his family to stray from mainstream shows....
Roughly twice a year every single member of the Norris family, be they nuclear or extended, gets round a table and eats food together. You probably have a similar tradition in your family. Mine takes place at Uncle John and Auntie Sally's home in Thornby, Northamptonshire, and conversation, as ever, is varied. "Of course, babies get so much attention these days," says Grandma, who has gone a whole seven minutes without reminiscing about something and is therefore starting to feel nostalgic. "In my day, we would leave the baby to themselves so they could get all their crying out of their system, didn't we?" The eminent pianist and scholar David Owen Norris nods sagely and winks at Uncle John, sombrely intoning "That's why we're so retarded, John," before nibbling at another new potato.
Eventually, as is inevitable at these gatherings, the conversation turns to comedy. It's natural enough that they should want to talk about it, seeing as Cousin Joz has gone into a career that is utterly alien to all of them and has been so overtly glamourised by the media over the last few years. Uncle John begins to talk about his favourite comedy heroes, like Michael McIntyre, whose friendly and inoffensive demeanour makes him a real breath of fresh air. Cousin Brett chips in too, singing the praises of the brilliant self-deprecation of Sarah Millican. And here's the odd thing - every year Cousin Joz (which, the scene having been set, I now feel I can admit is none other than myself, faithful reader) can never bring himself to upset the apple-cart by going into any detail about what he values and loves in comedy, but simply nods and agrees with everything they say.
Now, it's important before I proceed that I make one thing very clear - I am in no way in this piece trying to position myself as some kind of vanguard of alternative comedy, nor to demonise the mainstream. People like McIntyre and Millican are enormously talented figures who have worked hard to have a nation rightly praising their skill and prowess. But my own sense of humour has always led me to comedians less cosily familiar in what they talk about, people willing to take risks and put themselves on the line and who aim to do more than just entertain an audience through something relatable and familiar, but also to surprise them and shock them and do things for them that they could never have anticipated.
The process of doing comedy is, inherently, one that involves journeying inside yourself to find out what it is about you that makes you and other people laugh. I've never had the kind of brain that's particularly adept at writing a brilliantly witty gag, nor at analysing something familiar with pinpoint accuracy to the extent that it becomes ludicrous.
I learned over the last couple of years that my brain seems to come alive and be at its funniest when it's allowed to go into unusual territory. My work with the aptly-named collective of lunatics that is Weirdos Comedy Club (pictured) notwithstanding, I never deliberately set out to be "weird" or "alternative", arriving at what I do more out of experimentation and accident than any grand plan to "be a weird comedian." There are far more brilliantly bizarre and unusual acts than me whose work I love and am inspired by, but I'm probably difficult to categorise as a Millican or a McIntyre and it's also in the ranks of the stupid and the surprising that I find most of my favourite comedy.
Of course, silliness for silliness' sake, clowning, and surreal comedy have become more and more in vogue over the last few years. Most comedy audiences in London are well-versed in the alternative and have a good awareness of it, but heading out to the Midlands for a family gathering does remind you of the odd stranglehold that cosy, familiar observational comedy has on the minds of most of the country outside of the capital. Over Christmas I found myself strolling with family across the Black Mountains and admiring the view and thinking to myself "I can see for miles and miles and miles from here, and I bet that in the entire panorama I can see, there's not one person who knows who Tony Law is."
Outside of London, there isn't much need for the freshness and madness and urgency of the alternative scene - people have infinite space in which to live their lives, so it feels a bit like all they need to make them laugh is something familiar, something simple and friendly rather than something bizarre or unpredictable. Uncle John has never seen me perform - I hope that, as and when he does, he would enjoy it, but the fact is that it's rare that comedy reaches the more far-flung corners of the country except via the TV, which tends to favour familiarity and things it knows will secure a mass audience over the bizarre risk-takers. Outside of London, to even be aware of the growing alternative comedy movement you have to already be looking for it, be watching the less trumpeted TV shows or searching for it online. So it's natural, then, for people to acclimatise to the kind of comedy they come into contact with most.
Why is it, then, that I never try to instigate a debate at Christmas, to tell all my relatives about the weird and wonderful alternative comedians whose work inspires me and makes me laugh more than anything else? For one thing, it's difficult to tell them that I have a closer affinity to a comedy circle they've never seen on the TV or heard about, without suddenly making myself seem infinitely less glamourous to them. Plus, there's something nice about your extended relatives thinking that you're in some way connected to things like Live At The Apollo or Mock The Week, which I'm repeatedly being told I should go on one of these days.
There's also a time and a place for grand, sweeping statements like "Actually, while I respect your opinion and deeply respect and admire the individuals you're talking about, most of them do very little for me and there's this whole other comedy world you don't really know about that I'd rather talk about" - the dinner table of your extended family who you see twice a year is not it. It's also a rather obnoxious thing to say, particularly as my preference for the bizarre never arose out of some sense of duty or principle - it's just a preference, nothing more.
Once upon a time, things like Live At The Apollo were all I had to go on too. They fostered a love of live comedy in me, and now that journey has led me to discover a whole new world of unpredictable madness and stupidity. And ultimately, having somebody preach to you about forms of comedy you're unaware of is the worst possible way of being introduced to it. We all make our decisions based on what we're familiar with and, that way, we choose our favourites and our preferences. Then, perhaps, if one day our love of comedy leads us into new territories and we find something that surprises us and makes us reassess what we assumed about comedy up until then, then surely that's the best possible way to go about discovering something new? It's much better than having Cousin Joz preach at you and start an uncomfortable argument over the dinner table, anyway.
This Sunday I'll be playing at the Leicester Comedy Festival, just up the road from Thornby, and Uncle John will be coming to see me for the first time. Only time will tell whether he'll find it exciting and new and a little bit different to what he's seen before, or whether he'll come away even surer in his knowledge that it's the friendly and familiar comedians who do it best, but whatever happens, there's no better way of finding out what you like than trying something new first-hand. Plus, there's no better way of challenging yourself as a performer than trying to show something different to somebody for whom it might end up being a gateway into a whole new world of comedy to explore.
Mr Norris Snr, though, has wisely thought best to warn his brother to adjust his expectations, calling him up recently to explain "It's not like Michael McIntyre, John. You mustn't go just expecting jokes. It'll be more like a theatrical performance. Go expecting a Pinter play." So at least Uncle John knows what he's getting into. Never being one to go out of my way to make my dad look like a liar, I will aim to make Leicester the most Pinteresque performance I've ever given. There will be pauses.
'Joz Norris: Awkward Prophet' will be playing at the Leicester Comedy Festival on Sunday 9th February at 16:45 as part of Bob Slayer's Heroes of Fringe venue at Hansom Hall. Tickets are £5 in advance, or Pay What You Want on the door. Show Listing
To find out more about Joz visit www.joznorris.co.uk