Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #023 with Jen Ives.
Jen is a prolific writer/performer/podcaster and all-round creative. Her talent, openness to discussing personal experiences in funny and relatable ways, and impressive work ethic is helping her to build an audience and develop an exciting career as a writer/performer. She was also recently featured in The New York Times and if THAT doesn’t get your attention, I don’t even know what to tell you.
When did you start writing?
I’ve always written something or other. I mean, it wasn’t good when I started – and I didn’t know exactly what I was writing it for – but getting the ideas on the page has always been important to me (especially because my memory is pretty terrible).
When I was a kid, I thought I wanted to write comics – but couldn’t draw so turned my attention to writing a book. I wrote an entire novel called “Boot Sale Bitch” before I started doing stand up or writing sketches – and it was awful. I deleted it, and I don’t think there’s even a copy of it anywhere now – but it was good for me just to see if I could do it.
Are you a full time writer/performer or do you balance with a day job?
I do balance with a day job at the moment. I think a lot of young adults are in that position at the moment (full transparency, I’m 30 now. Dunno if that still qualifies me as a “young adult” or if I’m an “old adult”), however paid writing / performing is more regular now.
Ultimately, I think it depends on what sort of job you’re balancing it with. I can imagine it’s tricky getting to the comedy clubs by 8pm if you’re an ambulance driver, or a on-call murder detective. Thankfully, my job doesn’t require me to help anybody, so I can just space out all day and think about jokes.
You’re represented by Hannah Layton Management. When did you sign and how did it happen? What advice do you have for people who are looking for representation?
For me, it was sort of like a courtship over a couple of years. I approached the agency through email, to enquire about representation & at the time, it just wasn’t to be. So I spent more time focusing on getting better at stand up, and trying to build a name for myself – and then approached them again. That time, the Edinburgh Festival was just starting for the year so it was bad timing.
I kept emailing other agencies and went for a few meetings with different ones. One thing I think is useful is to catalogue all your achievements in a sort of “comedy CV” that you can send out to agencies – so they know what you’ve been up to and what you’d like to be doing in the future.
The final time I got in contact with Hannah Layton Management, I had just got to the finals of the Funny Women stand up comedy competition and got some recent paid writing work for a Hat Trick Productions podcast (SeanceCast), and I guess it just felt like it slotted into place then. I should probably stress that the week before I got signed to Hannah Layton I also had two other separate agency rejections – so, although it’s easy to get disheartened – it’s good to be proactive and chase things up.
As well as a writer, you perform stand-up. What was your first set like and how did it go?
My first ever set was about 4 years ago – upstairs at the Caroline of Brunswick pub in Brighton. I’d been wanting to give stand-up a go for a long time, so finally plucked up the courage and just emailed the booker – and she kindly put me down for 5.
One problem was, I actually went to the wrong Brunswick pub (there are 2 in Brighton) and I ended up having to run through the street to get to the other one on time. I think because of the adrenaline and worry about being late, it actually helped me to think less about the set going badly. Looking back, I’m sure the set was rubbish. I can still picture my notebook, and I think there were about 5 “jokes”. Still, the audience were nice and they laughed at some of it – so it encouraged me to carry on.
What do you miss most about live performances?
I miss the atmosphere, and the unpredictability. Online gigs have been alright in a way – they’ve helped entertain people and raise money for good causes, but they don’t compare to the real thing. I miss a club night, like the Bill Murray in Angel, where you’re surrounded by an audience and it feels like they’re going to rush you unless you make them laugh.
Who are the writers and/or performers who inspire you?
I really love Julia Davis’ work and have been a big fan of her comedy for a long time. Growing up, Harry Hill and Vic & Bob were big influences on me.
I first discovered you and your work after reading one of your blogs. As a writer, you’re able to communicate personal experiences in hilarious and relatable ways. What tips do you have on mining life experiences for entertainment?
That’s really nice of you to say, thank you. Something I used to quite often find myself doing was editing out the truth of a feeling or situation and instead adding in what I thought was “smarter” or “funnier”. But a little while ago, I just stopped doing that. I don’t think everything you write needs to be “true”, in fact – I think lies can be really fun and important. But I do think it often turns out funnier when you decide to keep in the bit you were slightly self-conscious about.
It’s the same as stand up, really – in that I’m always hoping there is something relatable hidden in our apparent differences.
Have you ever thought about turning your story into a series or film or are you more interested in other projects?
I might be working on some stuff at the moment! For me, it’s more about figuring out which life stories are best suited for which projects. I feel like I have a lot of different stories to tell.
You’re really prolific as a content creator and seem to have a great attitude where you’re just trying to get as much out there and express yourself in as many ways as possible. What’s your process like when you come up with a new idea?
I’m always sort of experimenting with different processes, so I dunno if I’ve figured out any sort of hack. In all honesty, I’m just a bit of a try-hard. Sometimes, I’ll write something scripted and have it in a drawer for months and other times, I’ll film a video on the fly without much pre-planning (which usually does way better than anything else, by the way).
But I always have different things sort of simmering away out the back. It’s how I read, as well. I wish I could just focus on one book at a time, but I can’t. I dip in and out. There are so many projects that I’ve released under different names or anonymously (yes, I’m Banksy) and you could call them “largely unsuccessful” or a “complete flipping waste of time” but they kept me entertained while I was doing them. The truth is, I just really like making stuff. I find it fun.
Is writers block ever an issue for you and if so, how do you deal with it?
Not really. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have periods where I’m not writing, though – because I do – but I sort of look at those times as opportunities to re-evaluate, or have some new experiences. Eventually, you’ll find things to write about again.
You’ll always end up hitting a wall on a project, I think. When that happens to me, I just take a bit of time away from it and work on something else. You’ll come back around to it.
You recently started using Twitch as a platform for your work. How did that go and would you recommend it for other creators?
I think it’s a really cool, interesting platform. I really like that people are able to build up these followings and create communities through shared interests like gaming, or politics, or drawing. I’ve experimented with it a little bit, on and off, but I personally haven’t found it too useful for what I want to do just yet. Also, my internet is a little bit too shitty to really get on board properly.
What advice do you have for people who would like to start making web videos and build an online audience?
Unless you’re one of those lucky few who manages to pull something highly relatable straight out of the bag and get re-tweeted a zillion times, then it’s going to be a quite slow process building up a “following”. Finding your “voice” also takes trial and error, so try not to be too afraid of “failing”.
A video that only gets 20 views isn’t a “failure”, it’s just a first draft that you did publicly. I think you have to enjoy engaging with whatever platform you’re using – for example I actually really enjoy Twitter, so I don’t find it too difficult keeping up with it.
On the flip side, I find Instagram kind of boring so don’t do much on there. It sounds simple, but just make the thing you want to make. So many cool things that you like on TV started off as some dumb thing, filmed for cheap and put up online.
You also have a podcast, PEAK TRANS. How would you describe your podcast and how did it get started?
It’s a podcast where I talk to cisgendered comedians about current trans issues. I started because I was getting sick of the misinformation being pedalled in the UK surrounding trans people. We keep it light though, and it’s usually pretty surprising how much/little some people know about “trans issues”.
If anyone was thinking of starting a podcast, what’s your biggest tip?
Oh gosh, I’ve made so many over the years and this is the first one that’s sort of “taken off”. I guess try not to get discouraged, and make sure you put out episodes on a regular basis. In terms of concept, simplicity seems to work the best – something too long or convoluted and people lose interest pretty fast. Unless you’re Joe Rogan – but no one wants that.
You were a writer on the award-nominated podcast, SeanceCast. How did you get involved and what was the experience like?
I was approached by the production company after they saw some of my silly videos on Twitter. I had a meeting with them to discuss possible ideas, and they asked me to get involved on SeanceCast. It was a great experience – I wrote 2 sketches for it, but they also asked me to do voices. Really, it was my first “proper” paid writing job – so it means a lot to me and I’ll never forget the experience. It’s really satisfying to see something you’ve written be performed.
You had material broadcast on the last series of Newsjack. Is topical comedy something you’d like to do more of? I imagine you’d make a great guest on a panel show.
Yeah, I’d love to. It’s a very different discipline, I think – and it’s fun to learn how it’s done.
Thank you – I’d love to be on a panel show one day.
What does it take to write a good joke?
Trial and error. Most of the time, things that I personally think are really funny rarely “work” as a bit. There’s a difference between what one person thinks is clever, and what a room full of different individuals collectively agree is funny.
Most of my favourite bits I do have started as very luke warm audience reactions, that I’ve fine tuned over the process of trial and error.
Are there any books or podcasts you would recommend for other writers?
It’s not a hugely original suggestion, but “Born Standing Up” by Steve Martin really is an inspiring and wise look into the work ethic of comedy writing/performing. Also, The Bible (kidding).
I only listen to stupid podcasts where people gossip, so I dunno how helpful they would be for writing. Joe Rogan? (kidding).
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m writing a few different pilots at the moment – some with TV in mind and some for radio – just trying to get them polished. I’m always formulating new ideas for stuff – I try not to be too precious on one particular thing. I’m a bit superstitious when it comes to talking about unfinished work though!
If you could reboot any TV series or movie from history, what would it be and how would you bring it up-to-date?
I’d bring back Quantum Leap, because it’s a brilliant concept. But I’d be the lead. And I’d be writing it. And it’ll be called “Quantum Jen” (not joking).
What are your current goals as a writer / performer?
I love writing and performing, so really my main goal is to just continue to get things made. Also to make enough money doing it that I can be financially comfortable. Also, to have lots of positive attention and admirers.
What’s the worst thing about being a writer?
What makes you laugh more than anything?
That vine of the little irish girl chucking a life-size doll at a wall and screaming “gimme your fucken money!”
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