Creating content for the Great Internet Toilet in the Sky

One of my biggest fears in life, outside of a nuclear war or losing my children to illness, is failing. In fact, my fear of failure is so acute and all-pervading that it’s held me back most of my adult life. I tend to cling to my comfort zone where it’s safe, and I can do things moderately well. I rarely, if ever, raise my head above the parapet and have never really been inclined to challenge myself. To do so is to flirt with failure. In the words of Homer Simpson, when offering advice and reassurance to Bart and Lisa: “Kids, you tried your best…and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.”

I pretty much live by these words.

I have occasionally stepped outside of my comfort zone. In 2015, I volunteered to do a diary reading at an event my friend was organising. It was by no means a gig at the O2 Arena – just a small function room in a Birmingham bar – but there was still a small audience of flesh and blood strangers expecting some form of entertainment.

Over several weeks I rehearsed my diary reading intensely, using my lunch breaks at work to practise my delivery and constantly tweak the little act I’d written. I aimed to get a couple of laughs and not get bottled off the stage. (Although, as the audience was sitting close enough to spit a drink directly in my eye, the fear of being taken out by a volley of bottles was unfounded.)

Me performing my schtick at Cherry Reds in Birmingham in April 2015.

The diary reading itself went pretty well. I avoided being unceremoniously yanked off stage with a vaudeville hook, got a few laughs, and walked off the tiny stage brimming with newfound confidence. I sat in my car for a while afterwards, in a dimly lit corner of a multi-storey car park, feeling completely high from the experience. I recall whooping loudly, relieved and elated (I’m not usually a ‘whooper’). The problem was, the evening had been so perfect that I didn’t want to risk doing anything like that again in case the next time…I failed.

So that was the last time I did anything. That was the last time I put myself ‘out there’.

That was until a year ago when I noticed a tweet from HappyToast who said that he wanted to see some Salt Bae-inspired piss-takes of people pretentiously creating theatre around some achingly ordinary culinary dishes. On a whim, I decided to film myself ‘sexily’ preparing a cheese sandwich, which saw me squirt mustard down my forearm and throw salt flakes in my eye. I posted my reply and waited nervously, my stomach churning as if spasming at the idea I might eat my inedible prop.

Miraculously, my little video reply seemed to go down quite well. And the moderate amount of retweets, likes and nice comments it received (significant for my little Twitter account) briefly bolstered my low confidence.

Three weeks later, still buoyed by the ‘success’ of cheese sandwich Salt Bae, I ad-libbed a little skit in which I mocked the anti-vaxxer who served fake legal papers at Colchester Hospital, decrying coronavirus as “an absolute plandemic hoax”. This video also received a few nice comments, likes and a smattering of retweets. So I dared to continue.

Even though my two videos had been unscripted, it was at this point that I decided to try my hand at writing ‘comedy’ content for Twitter. (I was so invested in the idea I even bought a green screen.) So I took a break from writing blogs (another thing I’d largely failed at in the preceding 12 years) and challenged myself to write little scripts that I would perform in the dead of night, edit on my phone and then post to Twitter with a huge intake of breath and a slight queasiness.

It’s undoubtedly been a mixed bag since then. I’ve had many failures in the past year, but I’ve also had a few, what I would loosely term, ‘successes’. And what’s surprised me, given the numerous times I’ve posted something that’s died a terrible death online, is that I’ve kept wanting to do more. I would be lying if I said those moments haven’t stung terribly and made me feel utterly shit about myself (I’m going through that right now with something I posted a few days ago). And I have occasionally spent several days wallowing in self-pity and self-loathing. But then another idea will germinate, and I’m again filled with enthusiasm to try to write something that might make people laugh.

I won’t list every video I’ve done, but here are a few from my year of…having a go.

The ‘successes’

Patriotically swimming in shit

Without a doubt, this has been my most successful video to date. I wrote and recorded it on holiday in Cornwall and posted it to Twitter while sitting on Withnoe beach near Freathy. Almost immediately (to my genuine surprise), Brendan May liked my tweet and left one of the best and most uplifting comments EVER. “This is totally fabulous!” he said, with an accompanying video of him laughing at my little skit. He then kindly retweeted it, and for the next 24hrs, my phone constantly vibrated with notifications of likes and retweets.

That 24hr period was exhilarating; it was like a drug. When people were commenting with the cry-laughing emoji or quote-tweeting the video with “Bloody brilliant!” it felt like I had finally achieved something. I’m not sure I’ll ever top this one.

Anti-masker pops to the supermarket

“This is about as funny as cancer,” said Dave Numbers (a Twitter account long since suspended), who later admitted that he’d posted his original comment before actually watching the video. Oddly, for a man who was clearly aligned with the anti-vaxx and anti-mask crowd, he later claimed that it was “pretty funny”. I guess I’ll take that.

Foreign Secretary fighting for human rights in the Gulf states

When I first posted this video in early July, it amassed six likes and just over 200 views. Then, a few days ago, I replied to a Chris Bryant tweet with it, and quite unbelievably, he retweeted it! Thanks to him, a failed video had new life breathed into it.

Tucker Carlson hears the reasons for Boris Johnson’s resignation

This video was a send-up of Thomas Corbett-Dillon’s interview with Tucker Carlson. As a former advisor to Boris Johnson, he considered himself uniquely placed to furnish American audiences with a range of bizarre (and completely untrue) reasons for Johnson’s resignation. (Incidentally, Corbett-Dillon is a “digital campaigns expert” who worked on Penny Mordaunt’s failed leadership campaign, which farted out this thunderingly patriotic collection of Shutterstock clips.) I recorded this in my car on my lunch break. It was one take and a lot to remember, but I got there in the end…after about 45 attempts. My favourite comment on this was from someone who asked (in Latvian): “Is this fake?”

The ones I was quite proud of (but which didn’t do very well)

Piers Madeley interviews Mick Lynch

Admittedly, my impression was more Madeley than Morgan – but a decent effort nonetheless. I also learned a valuable lesson with this one: perhaps unsurprisingly, Ian Botham’s cock is not an essential ingredient for making a successful video on social media.

Brendan Clarke-Smith’s Jeremy Vine interview

This obnoxious Tory prick was interviewed on Jeremy Vine in June 2022, where, as expected, he went to bat for Boris Johnson, saying that he was getting “sick and tired of people using personal tragedies and what’s happened with Covid to try and further their party political agendas”. He got dragged on social media for his comments, and I was more than happy to contribute.

The Amazing Colossal Man

This video was a send-up of Tory MP Nick Fletcher’s absurd speech, where he claimed that recasting male heroes as women risks driving boys to crime. I went large on the dreary northern accent, which, if anything, was an improvement on Fletcher’s actual voice.

Minister defends Boris Johnson’s birthday party

This video was perhaps one of my favourites from the last year. It was a response to the reports about Boris Johnson attending his birthday party in Downing Street during the first lockdown when indoor social gatherings were outlawed. I rewrote this one several times to make it as tight as possible (I’d previously contacted the brilliant Larry and Paul for advice on comedy writing, and they said to be “brutal and ruthless with the writing”) but it only clocked up 20 likes from 1,600 views. Still, I fucking liked it!

Pureblood at the checkout

This sketch (one of the very early ones) was based on a Vice article about how anti-vaxxers had developed a new cryptocurrency called ‘Unvaxxed Sperm’. Due to the false belief that the COVID-19 vaccine damages fertility, anti-vaxxers had begun promoting the idea that ‘pureblood’ (i.e. unvaccinated) sperm would become a hugely valuable commodity in the future. If you think that sounds utterly batshit, then you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Gillian McKeith championed the idea that unvaccinated men could “name the price” of their spooge. Anyway, the video got six likes and five retweets (two of those were me). After filling a vial from my son’s chemistry set with fake sperm made from milk, flour and egg, I expected more. Tough crowd!

Stuff that died horribly

Mark Francois plagiarises Martika

I really liked this one! Unfortunately, only four other people felt the same way, and it tanked hard.

Light entertainment opportunities for terrible people

After Rudy Giuliani was revealed as a contestant on the US version of The Masked Singer, I made this video about how truly awful people are often given light entertainment gigs, which helps to repair their toxic brand (see also: Sean Spicer on Dancing With The Stars). However, after spending a fortune on props, the ‘likes’ for this one didn’t even climb into double figures. It was an expensive failure. Possibly the worst thing about my tweet was that, for reasons unknown, I put a flashing light emoji on it as if it was the much-anticipated latest video from someone actually successful and wildly popular. But the universe kindly reminded me of the reality: you’re a little-known cunt. And given the props budget, a poorer one.

The Blender

I thought this summed up the state of the country quite nicely. To this day, I still believe that if the Tories announced a policy whereby random members of the public were to be dropped into an industrial-sized blender to be graphically sliced up and dismembered for TV entertainment, it would barely make a dent in their opinion polls. Anyway, no one liked it.

Things I learned from The Last Kingdom

OK, I have to admit… I had dreams of this video (featuring historically accurate costumes) being retweeted by Eliza Butterworth or Alexander Dreymon, perhaps even leading to a small role in a Last Kingdom spin-off or something. To cut a long story short: that didn’t happen.

GB News heatwave interview

This video was a pisstake of Beverly Turner’s Don’t Look Up interview with BBC meteorologist John Hammond just as an intense 40-degree heatwave was about to hit the UK. Sadly, it bombed. Then again, maybe everyone was outside enjoying the lovely weather instead. Yes, that’s definitely why no one liked it.

Being Mark Zuckerberg’s avatar

I wrote this while COVID was ravaging my family. And to realise the vision of my addled brain, I had to squeeze into various costumes from my sons’ dress-up box while they slept soundly upstairs.

I also had to sneakily borrow a mustard-coloured shirt dress from my wife’s wardrobe to make up one of the costumes. “Have you been wearing one of my dresses?” she enquired a few days later. In what would typically be the opening salvo of a difficult conversation, I’m not sure if she was relieved that I wasn’t cross-dressing or concerned that I was spending my evenings trying to style myself like Michael Portillo. Still, for all the effort – it didn’t do very well.

The short-lived leadership campaign of Grant Michael-Green-Shapps

This video was a send-up of all the ridiculous leadership contenders – with their excruciating campaign videos – who crawled out of the woodwork at the start of the Tory leadership campaign only to swiftly abandon their ambitions and champion one of the frontrunners instead. Despite running, terrified, from an imaginary Michael Crick during my lunch hour, the video quietly died.

I’ve genuinely enjoyed the process of making these videos. I’ve loved the challenge of trying to write quickly, occasionally scrabbling around for props and having to learn lines like I’m ‘Innkeeper #1′ in a school nativity. It’s been fun! And if I’m to be kind to myself for a change, my videos – on the whole – didn’t completely die out in the wild. They’ve all been liked and shared to varying degrees by complete strangers who don’t owe me anything. So there is that. And I think failing (and doing so publicly) has been good for me. It’s taught me that you can come back from those moments.

I’m never going to be a Rosie Holt, Matt Green or Will Sebag-Montefiore, or do anything quite as brilliant as Larry and Paul or The Exploding Heads…and I think I’ve almost made my peace with that now.

So maybe I should end this blog post by revising Homer’s quote: “You tried your best…and you sometimes failed miserably. The lesson is: keep on going.”

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