Professional misconduct

It's not just getting paid that makes a comic a pro, says Tony Cowards

‘Don’t give up the day job!’ In popular legend this is the heckle aimed at comics who are dying on their arse, implying that they are mere amateurs. But what really is the difference between the pros and the ams in stand up?

Unlike most ‘normal’ jobs, being a stand-up doesn’t have a clearly defined career structure, and often it’s hard to tell, on a mixed bill, who are the professionals and who are talented amateurs at the start of their career.

The American writer, Richard Bach, said that a professional is ‘an amateur who didn’t quit’, a definition that probably works as well as any other for comedians. But what truly makes a stand-up a ‘professional’?

The obvious and logical answer is whether the comic earns the bulk of their money from stand up. But does the fact that someone is being paid for something necessarily make them a ‘professional’? Surely there is more to it than that, otherwise manual labourers and other unskilled workers would be included when we talk about ‘professional people’?

According to the dictionary definition, professional also means to display a high level of competence or skill which, with regard to comedy, surely means making the majority of the crowd laugh and ensuring that they have an enjoyable evening – something which I have often recently found not to be the case.

I’ve been a ‘professional’ comic for barely four months now and, as you can imagine, I can’t always afford to be particularly choosy about some of the gigs I play.

However, no matter what I am presented with when I turn up for a gig, as a professional, I will perform to the best of my ability, even if sometimes it means trying to organise the venue into something resembling a ‘proper’ comedy club before we start.

I’ve been surprised to find though that some, so-called, ‘professionals’ will throw a hissy fit and treat the audience with utter contempt, as if it’s their fault that they’ve decided to spend their hard earned cash on a night out at a comedy club that perhaps doesn’t have a proper PA system or has an angle-poise lamp for a spotlight.

I can understand that ideally all comics want to play venues that are set up perfectly for comedy, but surely one aspect of being a professional is the ability to be adaptable and able to make the best of a bad situation?

There also seems to be a strange snobbery in comedy, especially when you read a lot of reviews, which implies that being a crowd pleaser is a bad thing and often obscure, fairly non-populist comics are given the, probably unwanted, sobriquet of being a comedian’s comedian. But surely pleasing the crowd, rather than the comics and reviewers gathered at the back of the room is the point of the job?

Ultimately it is the audience who pay everyone’s wages and so it is they who need to be entertained and treated with respect. This means being funny but also being professional whatever the circumstances. It means not, for example, reading from notes at nights not advertised as new material or new act nights or angrily berating punters for minor indiscretions that they are unaware of – both occurrences I have recently been shocked to witness from ‘professionals’.

It also means treating your peers, promoters and employees of the venue like fellow human beings rather than an inconvenience or hindrance to you.

This is not to say that every comic should be an Identikit hack – I think we should all give audiences a bit more credit than that. There is always room for acts that are challenging or cutting edge, but venues need to get bums on seats. This means we all, from Comedy Store headliner to newbie open spot, need to be professional.

Published: 18 Jun 2008

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