Ed Milliband believes what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but that’s absolute tossballs. I’ve never been the same since my mate gave me some funny looking mushrooms he found on Dartmoor one autumn morning. They didn’t kill me, but every day I look in the mirror and ask myself; ‘Is this a future prime minister I see before me?’ And every day I answer; ‘No, it’s a multi-coloured marshmallow face, now let’s get the crack-pipe a’ smokin’ and seize the day.’ Bet you a tenner I last longer in my job than Ed.
Learning how to deal with the tough times is a necessity in the world of showbiz. Rejection happens a lot. It’s like being a spotty teenager for your entire life as execs and commissioners tell you your idea smells and they wouldn’t snog it even if you were the last development producer on earth. The likelihood of either getting the first job you go for or winning a commission for your first ever idea is very close to zero. Unless your mum/dad is a high ranking television exec who can usher you through the door or you genuinely are the huge talent you think you are then be prepared for a lifetime of repudiation with the occasional bout of acceptance, joy and exhilaration. The good times are worth it.
The first thing to do is to accept it’s going to happen. Be enthusiastic, chase your dream, but also be realistic if only for your own sanity. It’s incredibly exciting when you think you might have a chance. Throughout my career I’ve gone through the process of meeting people for jobs and occasionally getting them and often not. At the same time I’ve always tried to pitch my own ideas and most of the time they fall into the pit of development despair. Occasionally they pique someone’s interest and when they do it is incredibly exciting. Experience tells you it is just the first fence in a Grand National style race where the vast majority of ideas will fall horrifically and end up in a tin of dog food or a crispy pancake.
I’ve talked before about the currency of ideas and this is one of the major reasons to keep going in spite of rejection. They do open doors and get people interested in you and can lead to other opportunities even if that particular project stumbles and fails to make it, even as an each-way bet. Here’s one example of excitement, hope, rejection and redemption. Someone should make a film of this blog. Or at least work up a treatment, maybe shoot a taster and then bounce it around in development for eternity.
Nearly ten years ago I was working in factual programming as a freelance producer / director and trying my hand at comedy in whatever free time I had. I’d tried writing a few things, done a moderately received Edinburgh Fringe Show, and was regularly dying on my arse at stand up venues across the country. But then I had an idea to combine comedy with documentary (I know. This has never been done, has it?) and pitch an idea. It was about testing quick-fix, self-help type ideas to get rich, successful, find love and I was going to thrust myself into those techniques as a journalistic fall guy. Through my factual work at Tiger Aspect I had met a comedy producer, Lucy Robinson, who actually showed an interest in my work and offered incredibly helpful and straightforward advice. Often she was critical and rightly so. It’s important to remember that if an industry figure is willing to give you their time then they already think you have some talent, so if they give you constructive criticism then take it with grace. You may or may not agree with every or any point, but they are trying to help. Ignore them at your peril.
Lucy had moved on to work with Channel X, took my idea to them and it lead to my first meeting with Jim Reid and Alan Marke, which was incredibly exciting. Going to the office and seeing posters of the iconic shows they’d made was nerve-wracking, but here were two decent guys who, in spite of the warehouse conversion office setting, didn’t have a hipster/media wanker bone in their bodies. And they wanted to talk about my idea and how we’d develop it. They agreed to shoot a taster. I knew that to get a production company on board with an idea was a massive step forward.
The idea of the show was to look at quick fix ideas and expose their ludicrous nature, and we decided to film me trying out some techniques to meet and impress the opposite sex, as this seemed like a straightforward thing to set up, and something we could shoot in one day, on the street. I know this sounds bit Dapper Laughs and given the fact that this has been in the news, followed by the reports about Julien Blanc and his hideous ‘techniques,’ I’m a wee bit nervous about showing it to you. But hopefully it’s clear that, unlike Dapper, the joke was on me as the whole thing descended into hideous awkward chaos. Maybe I should retire the Matt Tiller character. If you’d really like to see what I did then it’s here.
After the shoot, I wasn’t sure how it’d gone and thought it might just be a bit shit. My first edit of the taster was poor — it was a lesson in being too close to the subject as Lucy came in and totally turned it round and made the best of the material. She told me Jim and Alan had a meeting set up to pitch a handful of projects to the BBC and would show them the taster. I was nervous and trying not to think about the fame and riches that inevitably lay ahead of me. Take that school chemistry teacher who said I had no flair, my time has come.1
After the meeting Lucy called to tell me that the Head of Comedy at the BBC loved it. Of the ideas Channel X pitched, this was the one they wanted to take forward. She sounded excited. I was excited. It was exciting. All they had to do was convince Stuart Murphy at BBC Three to commission it and I would be on my way to fame, fortune and a Twitter backlash as soon as Twitter got invented.
But alas, as you can probably guess from my lack of either fame or fortune, it was not to be. Stuart watched it and apparently liked it and thought it was funny, but didn’t want to take it further. The main reason was that there were plenty of white, middle class comedians he liked, would love to work with and couldn’t find a place for, so didn’t feel this was something he could bring to BBC Three. Even though I was obviously gutted, I couldn’t argue with that and have never felt bitter about that decision. I knew there was a wealth of talent out there pitching ideas and there were top level stand ups and character comics who deserved breaks far more than I.
Following on from the taster I took an idea based on it to the Edinburgh Fringe, Matt Tiller… Ladykiller, which was fun. It was a show that could go brilliantly or hideously as it involved a huge amount of audience interaction, but overall it was a great experience. And it was while I was in Edinburgh performing that Jim at Channel X first approached me about working for them. A few weeks later I had moved to Manchester and was developing television comedy. So, even though the venture was in many ways a failure, (well, not in many ways, it was a failure) it had a real positive impact on my career. So, like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill having recovered from a bullet to the head and eventually lopping the top of Lucy Liu’s head with her Hattori Hanzo sword, it was success hewn from the steel of failure. Except, in spite of the title of my fringe show, I didn’t actually kill anyone.