How to Life as a Comedian

When I started out in comedy I had this image of what life would be like as a professional gagmerchant. Images of tours in foreign countries, fans chanting my name and having an aftershave named after me danced through my head. It became quickly apparent that while I could perform as much as I liked in foreign countries I could barely speak English, that a good proportion of fans would rather wear your skin than get your autograph and no one in the world wants to smell like me. It would have been helpful for someone to have taken me aside and told me what to expect so I thought I’d be that guy for some of you new guys.

Fat Jesus

(Like a chubby Jesus)

These are some of the lessons I’ve learned from life as a comedian so far. I’m sure there’s a lot more to learn but for now these are things I wish someone had told me right at the beginning.

1. Your social life will disappear  – Your comedy will become your social life. All that time you had before, evenings, weekends, bank holidays, that’s all going to disappear mainly because it’s exactly when comedy gigs are held. Any hobbies you had previously to this will go on hold as the time you used to have before is devoted to writing for, driving to and performing at gigs. You will think this is ridiculous but believe me when you spend most nights in bars performing to drunk people you stop wanting to be one of those drunk people and every night you’re not out with your mates you’re out performing to crowds of hundreds.

2. You’re going to lose friends – Prepare to lose a portion of your friends. You are embarking on a hobby/career that most people can’t understand but hold in awe. There are very few people who will be able to understand why you have cancelled going to their stag do because you finally got that try out spot at Jongleurs that you’ve been trying to get for a year. No one will understand that you do really want to go to their wedding but you’ve finally got an unpaid 10 slot at the comedy store on that Saturday and that’s a massive opportunity. You have worked years to finally get onto a TV level lineup in London on a weekend and no one is going to get why you go and do that for no money while they celebrate the union of their lives, they just won’t be able to understand the importance. This will drive a wedge between you and them. You can’t keep up the communication with them and when you do the things you used to talk about aren’t as important anymore. It’s not all doom and gloom you’ll make new friends but you are going to drift away from some of the ones who you thought were closest to you simply because they can’t understand your life anymore.

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(So you drive for two hours for no money and miss my son’s Bar Mitzvah! I JUST DON’T GET IT! Why couldn’t you have just stuck with the EDL, at least they only work during the day at weekends!)

3. A lot of people are going to be jealous  – People are going to be massively jealous of you, you’re doing something that people want to do and very few actually do (though it’s going to feel like everyone and their mother does standup). You’ll lose friends over it and people will tell you you’re crap on the internet because of it. They want what you have and the only way they can express it is negatively. This can be in a massive rant on facebook or just by never calling you back. It’s alright though you don’t really need people like that in your life, if they’re this way about a career change imagine what they’d have been like with you getting married or having a baby or coming out as gay. Ignore the jealousy, delete the messages and comments that make you feel bad and just get on with your life. Rise above it.

4. You’re going to get a lot of criticism – I’ve already written about jealousy and in fact I didn’t know if this should be in the same point. Negative criticism purely stems from jealousy. Whenever someone criticises you in a way that’s designed to make you feel bad it’s because they feel inferior to you and want to bring you down to their level. It’s hard to ignore, especially for comedians as we NEED other people to like us, but you have to put it to the back of your mind. You should see it as a positive, these people wish they had the life you have and they feel powerless. Feel sorry for them not you. Positive criticism should be accepted though. If someone, a peer or long term comedy industrialist for example, has a suggestion for your performance then listen to them and decide for yourself if it’s worth changing a joke here or being more energetic there. Some of my best stuff has come off the back of someone suggesting a tiny change.

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(And you’re sure this will improve my act? Why are you laughing? Oh it’s funny already! Then yeah sure get me on stage!)

5. You’re going to have some awesome adventures – You are going to do things people dream of doing and you’re going to do them for free or get paid to do them! You’re going to meet some of the biggest legends in comedy, you’re going to perform in 7 star hotels in Dubai and take full advantage of the facilities, you’re going to be onstage in front of 10,000 people introducing acts you would normally have to pay hundreds of pounds to see. You’re going to be invited to walk hundreds of miles with other comics then perform at the end of it. You’re going to be taken on boats across lochs. Most of all you’re going to be doing what you love and you’re going to be making people happier. That is the truth of the comedian’s life, it’s completely amazing.

6. You’re going to be poor – There’s no way around this you’re going to be poor for a while. When you start your comedy career you’re going to be driving all over the country doing open spots for nothing except the chance to do other spots in different places. You’ll be funding it yourself and it’s going to drain your resources. Then one day you’ll think “I can make a living out of this” or “my day job is interfering with me progressing my comedy career” and you’ll quit. At this point your main source of income will disappear leaving you with an unstable and unpredictable flow of money. Some months you’ll earn thousands, some months you’ll earn hundreds and some months you’ll end up begging your parents to pay your phone bill. It’s going to happen because it has to. Gradually your income will stabilise and you’ll get more and more from regular big clubs but initially you’ll have to tighten the purse strings and learn how to live on £15 a month’s worth of food.

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(Here we have the comedian’s triple. A breakfast, lunch and dinner combo that brings together both resilience to decay and lack of flavour, just add multivitamins to prevent nail and tooth loss)

7. Have jokes, will travel – You are going to do thousands of extra miles every year. You’re going to know exactly where Harpenden is when someone asks you because there’s a gig there. You’re going to be in so many service stations that you’ll start to have favourites (mine’s South Mimms on the M25, it’s just really nice). You’re going to travel abroad and see places you’ve only seen in holiday brochures. You’re going to stay in hotels you’ve only ever seen in James Bond movies. You’re also going to stay in B&Bs that look like they might have been used for a porn set 30 years ago and haven’t been cleaned since. Thing is you’ll go places that only performers get to go, it’s pretty incredible.

8. You’re going to be an example to your children – Remember when your parents said to you that you could be anything you wanted as long as you worked hard at it, didn’t matter if you wanted to be a rocket pilot, a ballerina or a neurosurgeon they would be proud of you for living your dream. Remember them saying that then going and working in a soul crushing job that gradually made them hate themselves more and more until finally they retired and had nothing but work’s christmas parties to be nostalgic about from their working life? Remember that? You’re going to be the exact opposite. When you tell your kids that they can be anything they want you’ll be living proof of it.

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(Well almost anything I mean cut the crazy in half before you push them into the world dressed as a zoo animal)

9. You’re going to meet the best and worst of humanity – Be they drunk punters in the back room of the bar or an anonymous comment on an internet forum you’re going to be exposed to the worst people society has to offer and you’ll have to learn to deal with them. You will also be meeting the best humanity has to offer. Priests, soldiers, other comedians, heroes of stage and screen you’re going to meet them all eventually. You’re putting yourself up there on a pedestal and people will take notice, some negatively and some positively.

10. You’re going to change as a person, for the better – Being a comedian means doing a lot of things contrary to our natural instincts. Standing and talking about ourselves to hundreds of people is against everything you’re told to do growing up. Telling everyone how great you are all the time and remaining positive publicly are things that we don’t really know how to do. When bad things happen to you you’re going to have to be seen to overcome them with grace and learn from them, breaking down and losing it will destroy all your hard work in building your career so you put on a brave face and you march on. You know what? You become that kind of person. When you force yourself to overcome obstacles and look for the lessons in failure you actually become the kind of person that does that. You’ll realise you can pretty much get through anything. When you look back years into your career at the life you had before you’ll realise that now you have it so much better simply because you know how to get the most out of everything. Bill Cosby said “You can turn painful situations around with laughter. If you can find humour in anything you can survive it”.  It’s a little bit of magic.

So there you have it my top ten tips I wish someone had told me for new comedians. I love writing these and the response to them has been overwhelming so I hope you enjoyed this and I look forward to hearing your feedback!

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How to Small Gigs

You’re excited. It’s Friday night and all week you’ve been looking forward to performing. You booked the gig weeks ago and other comedians who’ve done it tell you the audience is great and you’ll love it. You’ve even pushed yourself a little bit and written a new joke or two, the elation is intoxicating. The whole drive there you’re going over the material in your head, preparing yourself for the inevitable applause breaks from the hundreds of semi sober punters clapping your cleverness.

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(No stop come on guys oh go on then just 3 more minutes of applause!)

You pull up to the postcode the promoter has given you. This can’t be right can it? This doesn’t look big enough to house the seething masses you’ve been told attend this venue. You glance across the street hoping to see the neon signs of Geoff’s Comedy Extravaganza but the burnt out husk of a Ford Capri stares at you sadly. Appearances can be deceiving, never judge a book by its cover and all that, inside it could have a specifically designed music hall and multi million pound sound system. You push open the cracked door of The Drum and Dog hoping for a sudden explosion of crowd noise. You’re greeted by a half blind farmer, a barman and two sick greyhounds. The barman says “Hi, I’m Geoff! glad you could make it! We’ve got a much bigger crowd this week Old Terry had to bring his other dog too!”. Disappointment hits you like a Miley Cyrus mounted wrecking ball. You can’t possibly do well at this gig, can you?

local pub

(So you want us to stand actually on the snooker table right?)

The answer is you can. When I was starting out I did hundreds of these gigs across the UK, all new comedians do, always for free and always just to get some performance time. It was disheartening because I immediately thought “what’s the point?” but this is a guide for new comedians just to give some tips on how to use small gigs to your advantage.

1. A gig’s a gig – You got booked for a gig, that means other people applied and didn’t get the spot you applied for. It may not seem like much but you should be proud of the fact that someone chose you to perform at their venue. When you think of it like that you’ve already got one audience member you know wants you there.

2. New material – small gigs are the best for improving new material or honing your better set pieces. The setting is so intimate that you can physically see what impact your material is having on the individuals in that audience. So what if there’s only 4 people there? You’ll have to work a bit harder but it’ll feel better when you win them over.

3. Practise MCing – this is an excellent opportunity to practise talking to the audience and using things they say to make up material on the fly. There’s 4 people there you can get through them quickly enough, you may even have material that relates back to what they’re saying. If that’s the case you’ll look like a master comedian and suddenly you’re a hero. When people are so close they can taste your eyes they tend to feel obliged to respond to any questions they get asked.

4. Ask the audience  – Be they the bar manager, the promoter or the blind farmer talk to all of them through the night. You don’t know which of them is going to be able to give you an opportunity in the future. The promoter may end up running all of the corporate bookings for Virgin’s Christmas parties, he’ll remember the guy who was friendly and confident when he was starting out. The farmer may be the guy who rents out his fields to a huge festival and one of the caveats is they have to book you to host the comedy stage, all because you told him you hoped his dogs got better. BOOM.

tomjones

(or got his daughter pregnant by accident. Either way a gig’s a gig)

5. Don’t be lazy – Just because there’s 4 people there doesn’t mean you shouldn’t perform anything but the best. The other guys on the bill are watching your performance too and again you never know when one of them is going to run their own gig or need someone to support them on their first tour.

6. Be enthusiastic – If you’re excited about performing and showing that energy on stage it’ll be infectious. No matter how many people are watching you they’re going to get on board if they think you’re genuinely excited to be there. For them this is their only night out and they’ve got themselves all doled up and got a babysitter so give them the experience they’ve been expecting not a self obsessed ego rant about how small the place is and how you should have stayed at home, remember you’re there doing a job so do it properly.

7. Support the other acts – You love it when you hear people laughing at your stuff and you’re performing so why should that be any different when someone else is on stage. A small gig can seem bigger if all the acts are getting involved too. Laugh loudly, clap at the best bits and reply when the guy on stage asks a question after all it IS a comedy night and why shouldn’t you have some fun too. Same goes for when they come off stage, talk to them about their set, let them know how much you liked it and genuinely enjoy the show.

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(No you were funnier! No you were! No you were! Yes actually you’re right I was)

8. Have fun – Sounds stupid but this is your hobby enjoy doing it, be positive about the experience and don’t focus on the negatives. Try things you wouldn’t normally do in other shows like silly voices, character pieces or poems. It’s a perfect time to try something you’ve always wanted to do but never had the opportunity to.

9. Thank them – People aren’t stupid, they can see that 3 guys and a duck isn’t an audience. It’s the setting for a new american sitcom. They’ll appreciate the courtesty if you thank them for the opportunity and thank the audience for taking the time to come out. If those 3 guys tell their friends and bring families next time the gig is going to grow. The duck can fuck off.

10. Be realistic – sometimes a gig just isn’t going to work. I once showed up to a gig with 9 other comics in the middle of the West Midlands and they’d advertised it for a different night. There was literally just the promoter there. In this scenario there’s not much we you can do as a comedian so the lot of us decided to have a bit of a laugh and a workshop. We ended up doing each other’s material and enjoying the night. There are some shows you just can’t perform at and telling the promoter, in a friendly and helpful way, how to improve the gig will probably get you on better terms with him. If you help him make the gig into something bigger and better next time you come back you’ll be playing to a much better room.

There you have it 10 tips for new comics to help do well and enjoy small gigs. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it and let me know if it’s helped you with your performance. Don’t tell me if it’s aroused your sexual desire though, there’s somethings I don’t want to know.