Are you experienced?

Nicola Vaughan De'Wheel on comedy's cult of youth

I have just read a biography of a comedian on a comedy club website which wrote of his meteoric rise from nervous open spot to headliner of major comedy clubs in just under four years. Very impressive. It’s good that there is genuine talent out there capable of rising through the ranks with such vigour. The only detail that might hinder this claim to his stratospheric rise is that I remember seeing this act almost 12 years ago headlining a rather well-known comedy club.

It is possible, I suppose, that this encounter was a fluke, a one-off meeting where a pliable and affable comedy promoter met a naturally gifted and enthusiastic punter and decided to just let him ‘have a go’ in front of 300 paying customers. Maybe that night the stars were aligned and we all witnessed that rare phenomena of the pikey chancer with impeccable comic timing, audience patter and 35 minutes of material presumably delivered to him from a higher force.

Of course the other, simpler, explanation is that the bio was telling a big fat wobbly lie. It is a constant confusion to me why this industry is continually battling to promote the illusion of the ‘new’. Why in comedy must there be a desperate need to cut down the number of years in either age or experience? The profile of Rhod Gilbert on FHM, for example, states he is only 32, although I’m sure Rhod, who talks freely in his act of passing 40, was probably unaware of the cull.

Comedians aren’t like batteries or yoghurt, they’re not going to run down on stage in the middle of a joke or make your fridge smell like a dirty washing basket. Comics don’t have a sell-by date and shouldn’t be considered more appealing just because they are ‘fresh’. Good comedians ripen with age and experience, they adapt to new audiences and remove outmoded ideas, they write with a deft, honed skill and then make an audience laugh.

Being a comedian is a vocation – it’s a great vocation, but a job nonetheless – and in this job you are being entrusted with the task of amusing a group of strangers. To do this well needs skill and practice and that experience should be celebrated. It’s the same reasoning I use for not wanting to visit the doctor only to be confronted by what looks like a 12-year-old boy wearing an ironic T-shirt who starts my consultation with: ‘So, mate, what seems to be the problem today?’

To some extent the comedy industry is becoming more and more like its media compadre, you can almost smell the desperation in the air as more and more executives start to panic, ‘Is this going to be popular with the young people?’ ‘Will this give us the right image?’ ‘If we drop 9 years from his actual age will that sell more merchandise?’

We are comedians not film stars from the Forties forced to have a “film age” in order to keep our appeal with the fans. You don’t see the National Trust advertising noteworthy buildings with the phrase, ‘Built in the late 1990s’ and for good reason.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking young comedy or having a go at those genuinely talented individuals that are capable of climbing the comedy ladder quickly. I’m just saying that surely the industry can see that there is room for both. Stop worrying about the image and get to the content, be proud that in an industry with a bigger staff turnover than an insurance call centre some people have gone the distance and are still successful. We should be proud of the comedians who can run the marathon and not just concentrate on those who are good at the sprint.

So let’s all just start being honest shall we? Some of us are old and some of us are young but as long as we can still make people laugh then, surely, that’s all that matters.

  • Nicola is one half of the double act Nicko & Joe

Published: 5 May 2009

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