From hilarity to hardback: the comedy shows that became books

·7-min read

When developing her solo show The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale, theatre-maker Haley McGee was struggling for an ending. “A friend said to me: ‘Stop trying to write an hour of material. Just write everything you need to write. Then you’ll find an ending, then you can go and cull.’

“So I wrote everything I wanted to write,” reports McGee. “When I read it out loud it was six hours long, and 60,000 words. And I told that to my friend, she said: ‘You wrote a book!’”

Four years later, The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale is a book, adapted from the hit show that McGee premiered in 2018. Its journey from stage to page is not unique: comedian James McNicholas has just adapted his Edinburgh hit The Boxer, about his middleweight champion grandad Terry Downes, for publication as The Champ and the Chump. I saw two comedy shows this month – Glamrou’s From Qu’ran to Queen and Njambi McGrath’s Accidental Coconut – whose material has also had the literary treatment, in books developed alongside the stage shows. “I do think solo shows are closer to books than to plays with multiple characters,” says McGee. “There’s room for interiority, in the way that there isn’t often in traditional plays.”

I spoke to McGee (who I know from Camden People’s Theatre, where I work and her show premiered) and to McNicholas about binding their stage work between hardcovers. What do you gain, and lose? For both, the great opportunity was delving much deeper into the raw material. “I remember the moment I printed out my fringe show,” says McNicholas, a member of sketch troupe Beasts before The Boxer launched his solo career. “It was 18 pages long, and I thought: that’s not really enough for a hardback book. It was daunting to get that up to 90,000 words. But it was also gratifying to delve into aspects of the story I’d had to leave out.”

James McNicholas as The Boxer.
James McNicholas as The Boxer. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Years before appearing alongside Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who, McGee was a skint jobbing actor. Her show is about her experience trying to pay the bills by auctioning off gifts received from ex-lovers. To do so, she has to calculate their value, and is determined to take sentiment (the quality of the relationship, its duration, how it ended, etc) into account. The stage show was packed with endlessly digressive material – but still traded in comic brevity. “In the show, you could have fun saying, ‘This wasn’t a very significant relationship, so I won’t give this particular gift any time’,” says McGee. “But in the book, it didn’t work to do that. It seemed like we had to give every item its due.” The book also includes a whole new background story covering the state of McGee’s romantic life while she devised her show and developed its mathematical formula for “the cost of love”.

I wonder how it felt to include material in the book that must at one point have been rejected from the original show. Did these performers turned authors ever feel grubby peeling this stuff back up from the cutting-room floor? “There was a section on the history of yard sales that I desperately wanted to keep in the show,” recalls McGee. “But it didn’t work, and we cut it. Then when we put it in the book, it got reduced and reduced, and it’s now about half a sentence long. So the things that got cut from the show ultimately got cut from the book too.” McNicholas felt that the unused material from his stage show – about his grandad’s remarkable career and the shadow he cast over James’s life – was rich enough never to feel second-class. “Having done the research and published the book, I still kick myself when I think of stuff I didn’t put in. Which suggests to me that I wasn’t short of material.”

So much for the process. More striking were the new pressures they both felt in the literary rather than performance world. In McGee’s case, these related to a lack of control she experienced when writing for publication only. “On stage, I feel like I have control over how the audience receives the story. I can make adjustments if I feel like they’re not understanding or enjoying. I can slow down, add a sentence or give them a look to undercut something that feels too sincere. I just have so many things at my disposal to guide them through the story. The scary thing about the book was not having that control.” It also meant that “whereas in a live show, every time you do it you can make little tweaks, with a book what you publish needs to be perfect”.

McNicholas, first and foremost a comic, perceived a different pressure – the pressure not to be funny. “The first draft I submitted, my editor told me, ‘You don’t need to do as many jokes.’ And I was like: ‘Oh. I worked hard on those.’ But it was interrupting my flow, and for the reader, that’s quite intrusive. For my insecurity about being funny to present itself in the form of a joke every paragraph was unnecessary. That was a big lesson – and a good one, because being less funny allowed other themes and strands to come to the surface.”

Fellow standup – and Bafta-winning TV host – Mo Gilligan had the same experience, recasting stage routines about his childhood into his recent memoir That Moment When. “For me,” he told me, “writing a book and trying to make people laugh with it, I don’t know if I’ve got that skill yet. So I just tried to write a book.” He may be one of the hottest properties in UK comedy but with the memoir, he says, “I wasn’t trying to be funny, – although if you find it funny, that’s great”.

Another significant difference when recasting stage material for publication is the shape of the feedback loop. “With most of my work,” says Gilligan, “I get an instant reaction. But people read books in their own time, and it takes a couple of weeks before it starts filtering out which bits people found funny and connected with.” Gilligan sounds Zen about that; McGee wasn’t. She missed the buzz around opening night, and the intensity of knowing a show will soon be over. When her book launched, “there was this feeling of ‘OK, now it’s just out there’. And there’s no end date to when people are going to be done consuming it. That’s so foreign to me as a theatre-maker, when – especially as someone who performs their own work – I’m so involved in how it’s being received.”

Both McGee and McNicholas plan to revisit their stage shows; Gilligan is already on the road with another round of youth-and-young-manhood anecdotes. Has mining so deeply the experiences behind those shows changed their relationship with the original material? Might it reduce the stage shows to mere first drafts? Not for McGee, who sees book and show as quite separate, and insulated from one another. “The show is about the value of relationships that fail. The book takes it a step further and talks about integrity, that the prize isn’t really having a relationship, the prize is behaving with integrity. That stuff’s not in the show. So while there’s overlap, they’re about two different things.”

“I suspect it’ll feel quite emotional to do the show again,” says McNicholas, “with the weight of all that extra introspection, all that time spent with the story and characters. I’m bound to carry that with me onstage. Which could be really helpful – or really hard.” As for whether his experience in literature will affect how he approaches future stage work – well, McNicholas doesn’t doubt it. “I thought writing an [hour-long] Edinburgh show was hard – whereas I now can’t wait to write an Edinburgh show again. It will feel deliciously small.”

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