John Fleming on the attitude it takes to be a comedian
Yesterday I had lunch with a comedian in her twenties – not inexperienced but not yet fully supporting herself on her comedy performing. She is having an early career crisis. She’s no fool. Very sensible of her.
She thinks maybe she may be wrong giving up pretty much everything in her private life to pursue her might-never-happen career.
She has little social life outside the one-night-stand Open Spot comedy circuit and she is in London, away from all the people she really knows and loves in her home in the North West of England; she is alone on Planet Transient; she no longer has a boyfriend and she is struggling to make ends meet, working in a day job that bores and frustrates her. She does well, is playing lots of gigs but gets to bed late after her comedy work and has to get up very early to commute to her busy day job which allows no time to think about or arrange anything in her more-important-to-her comedy world.
This is the reality of one of the most glamorous jobs in Britain: being a comedian in your twenties.
‘Perhaps I’m just wasting my time.’ she said to me over lunch. (Obviously I was paying). ‘What if I never succeed and don’t get anywhere within sight of success? I’ll have wasted years of my life for no reason. I don’t even like London. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be. Maybe I should just go back up North, get a job where I can have a life, find someone to marry and settle down and have children and I know I’d be happy watching them grow up.’
I told her, if she did that, life would be less stressful but she would never know if she might have succeeded.
‘If you try and fail, at least you will know what the outcome is.’ I told her. ‘If you go home and have a happy life in tranquility with a husband and children – and that’s assuming you can find a good relationship – it will always be gnawing away inside you “What would have happened if…” You WANT to do comedy. It’s a vocation, an urge inside you…
‘More than being a nurse or anything else. If you don’t play it out as far as you can, you will never know for certain what might have happened. On your deathbed, in 60 years, you will still be looking back on your life thinking “What might have happened if…” If you do not try, you have the certainty of not succeeding. If you do try, you risk failure – but you could succeed. It’s a toss-up between the certainty of failure and the possibility of success.’
If there is a safe option with an almost certain outcome and a riskier option, my advice is always to take the riskier option. Not knowing if you might have succeeded is infinitely worse than having failed. Taking the risk will at least bring closure.
Mind you, this may not be good advice because it is what I have done throughout my life. Once, in a rare job interview (I have usually not gone through application processes), the prospective employer sitting across the desk from me said:
‘John, you seem to have an unfocussed CV.’
He took this as a negative factor; I have always taken it as a positive factor.
There is a Charles Dickens book (I can’t remember which – possibly David Copperfield) in which the central character, as a young man, stands outside a building and the narrative goes:
‘I looked at the premises which, for the next 50 years, would be my work place.’
Times have changed, of course. But the ‘safe option’ can drive a truly creative person potty with frustration. You’ll end up walking through Tesco shooting random people with an AK-47. Figuratively if not in reality – and don’t be too sure it won’t be in reality. Uncertainty and adrenaline are attractive, provided you can eat and (in rainy Britain) have a roof over your head.
‘But when will I know for certain if I have failed and when to give up?’ my twenty-something chum asked me.
‘Ah,’ I said, ‘I haven’t got the foggiest. I am making this up as I go along.’
There are no right decisions.
When nerds in the mists of time first tried to program a computer which could play chess, they found it was impossible because the computer was unable to make the first move. The number of potential ramifications of the first move were and are virtually limitless. The computer would have sat there calculating potential first moves for longer than Ken Dodd’s career.
You can’t tell the outcome of any move early-on in chess. Nor in showbusiness. Nor in life. The butterfly theory comes into play.
No choice is simply between Path A and Path B because each of those paths then has literally hundreds of potential avenues which may lead off them. And every one of those hundreds of avenues each has itself hundreds of other sidetracks leading off them which may lead to a dead end or to a sparkling idyllic end result. It’s not a single path you choose; it’s a spider’s web spanning the rest of your life.
The way they eventually programmed computers to play chess was to limit the number of moves ahead which the computer took into consideration. In effect, the computer makes the best bet it can on the limited evidence available.
Choosing a ‘safe’ option may lead unexpectedly to awful consequences. Choosing a ‘risky’ option may lead unexpectedly to unforeseen opportunities which then lead on to a sparkling idyllic outcome which you had never thought of aiming for.
Comedy and successful creative careers generally have a terrifyingly high percentage of luck about them; they are about being in the right place at the right time. You can’t know where/when that place/time might be. So keeping as many options as possible open is the wisest move. Being in as many places at as many times as possible is the best option.
‘Put yourself about a lot, love,’ is the best – indeed, only sensible – advice.
A risky proposition with an uncertain outcome may turn out to be a good idea further down the spider’s web of life.
So, if you are a girl in her twenties and I make a dodgy-sounding proposition to you, look on me kindly.
If you are an aspiring comedian, take my experienced opinion into consideration. You are almost certainly not as funny as you and your friends think you are. You will probably screw up your personal life and your mind by attempting to do comedy. And you will make no money out of it.
But I could be wrong.
To quote the often-misunderstood mantra of the great Hollywood scriptwriter William Goldman in his essential-to-read book Adventures in the Screen Trade: ‘Nobody knows anything’
He does not mean that people are equally ignorant. He means that no one, however experienced, can know for certain the outcome of a creative work – or, for that matter, a creative career. Because movies, writing – and, Yes, Comedy – are creative arts, not a science.
The other factor I think you have to take into consideration is that, if you want to be a successful comedian, your mind is probably screwed-up anyway. One of the dullest of all mainstream quotes is: ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps.’
To be a stand-up comedian, madness does not help.
It is essential.
All good comedians are barking mad and, when alone, howl at the moon and eat their own egos.
- John Fleming’s website is www.thejohnfleming.com
Posted: 23 Feb 2011