Go on, take the plunge!

Susan Calman's letter to new comedians

Dear new comedians,

Let me start this letter with two important caveats. One, I address this letter to ‘new comedians’ not in a patronising way. If I had said ‘young’ comedians it may not have addressed the many older people who start comedy later in life and would also have had the effect of patting you on the head and ruffling your hair. Also by being more generic I hope to avoid the many posts and letters (many of which are entirely necessary) which are entitled ‘Hhey stupid open spots listen to this you morons!.

The second caveat is that I don’t write this as some sort of ego trip regarding how successful I am, it’s more of a tribute to how stupid I am. Read on and agree.

This is a letter for those of you thinking ‘what am I doing?’, ‘will I ever do this full time?’, ‘when should I go for it?’. Well I have the answer if you are inclined to abandon all reason.

I am fortunate enough to have a study in my flat (thanks Glasgow for low property prices), but since I moved in six years ago I have never really sorted all my stuff out. There were boxes lying around the room that I have no idea what was in them, all taunting me with their potential treasures.

Among the personal stuff which I was new was there, there were a few boxes from the last firm of solicitors I worked in which remained sealed, like the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yesterday me and the better half decided enough was enough and resolved to clean out the room and ascertain what was in the secret boxes.

At this point it is worth repeating my story in case you don’t know it. I used to be a highly-paid lawyer. I gave it all up in 2006 to do comedy. My recollection of the whole affair is that it was a perfectly logical thing to do and than there was no other option as I was so busy with comedy that any other route would have been, quite frankly stupid. I talk about it almost flippantly now as if it was the most normal thing to do in the world and that anyone would have done the same thing. So remember as you are reading this, ‘I was so busy with comedy that there was no other option.’

I was trawling through boxes. I found the usual nonsense, unflattering family photographs, birthday cards which for some reason I decided to keep and most excitingly a ticket stub from Gracelands (I kept that). Then I got onto the ‘work’ boxes. I had no real idea of what they contained as when I finished work at my last firm I just emptied the drawers, sealed it up and sent it home.

As I started sifting through I found the expected stuff, a few folders, some work stuff I took in case I ever went back to law (ha ha ha ha) but also some fabulous stuff from when I first started comedy. For example the CD of the BBC New Comedy Awards semi final I took part in 2005. Me, Barry Dodds, Danny Deegan, Bruce Fummey and James Branch. My recollection is that Kevin Bridges was in that semi-final as well but he doesn’t appear in the credits. It’s not important, he never made anything of his career anyway.

I kept my first ever appearance in the List magazine, my first mention in a national newspaper (Scotland on Sunday, promo for Funny Women tour with someone called Sarah Millican, again shame she never made a decent fist of it) and my first six months of material on a floppy disk. Yes young people, a floppy disk. Although to be fair I am surprised I needed a disk as my recollection is that you could write the actual jokes I had on the back of a fag packet and still have room to spare.

The most interesting artifact however is as a result of my constant paranoia. You see I am always frightened I will break the law in some way, so as soon as I was paid for any gigs I declared myself self-employed. It turns out not everyone does that and I could have had two years of non payment of tax. Never mind. But what I found though was my list of gigs in 2006 for my accountant. The list detailed the venue, promoter and payment (if any) of my first year of gigging.

I was hugely excited to reminisce on such matters but it was only when I read the list that I realised just what a stupid decision I had made giving up my job. I was earning on average £20 a gig, working mostly for the Stand but also Ha Ha comedy and Mac Star’s Capital Comedy. Those gigs were paying me £35 if I was lucky most of which I was spending on travel. My recollection is that I was doing much better than that! For example, I remember doing a ‘corporate’ at Parkhead Mecca bingo with Barbara Nice which, in my head, sealed the deal that I could do comedy as a profession. I recalled that I had earned £500 or so. Looking at my list it was a measly £100. What the hell was I thinking? Yes I was busy occasionally, in March of 2006 I did lots of gigs (because of the Glasgow comedy festival) but in October 2005 I did five gigs. Five! Nothing says give up your job like five whole gigs earning you a total of £125 pounds does it?

Maybe the fact that I travelled a lot gave me a false sense of how busy I was. Gala, Edinburgh, Lanark, Forfar, South Queensferry, Sheffield, I spent every waking moment that I could gigging (but not as much as I thought, it appears). In the same box I also found a helpful list someone had sent me (possibly the Stand?) with all of the gigs in Scotland. They include such, sadly now defunct, gigs as Belushi’s (run by Xavier Toby), Reg Anderson’s night at a pub in Tollcross and Madcap Comedy in Glasgow (now saner with the departure of Billy Bonkers).

Many are still going in various forms, Oban, Largs etc etc. But in total there are 13 potential promoters. Wow. At no point in my head did I go, only 13? Thats not enough! How could anyone earn a living with 13 promoters and only five gigs a month!

But I decided it was enough. For some unknown reason I decided it was the time. And so this blog has two messages. You can wait and wait and wait until you think you are gigging enough and earning enough to sensibly give up your full time job to be a comedian. Or you can do it the Calman way, the stupid way, the full throttle way.

Ask yourself the questions I did. Do you love comedy? Do you want to do more of it? Is your full time job getting in the way? Will you always regret it if you don’t give it a go? If the answers are yes then you may well be in the same boat as I was, and if you go my way it may be a disaster or it could be the best thing you have ever done.

The second message is one I can’t help you with on a personal level. Today is my seven-year anniversary with my girlfriend. She is the one, despite knowing how much I was earning through comedy and how little I was working, who said to go for it. She supported me financially and emotionally, has put up with the tantrums and the insecurity and most importantly she makes sure to never laugh at my jokes in case I get a big head. At least that’s why I think she doesn’t laugh at my jokes.

Anyway, if you are going to go for it make sure you have someone to talk to about it. Comedy can be lonely, bitchy and downright awful and I am lucky to have found someone who puts up with it.

Anyway, I have kept the rest of the stuff for the autobiography. Turns out I have a brilliant habit of printing out e-mails I got from people. There are some cracking stories to tell and they are all neatly filed away under ‘potentially defamatory but I have the evidence’. Once a lawyer, always a lawyer.

One small plug for you. I am doing lots of previews down south for the new Edinburgh show, which is called Constantly Seeking Susan. If you fancy coming have a look here and come along.

Published: 4 May 2010

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