You don't have to be paranoid to work here...

Dave Cohen on the curse of the comedian

If I had to describe the ten years I spent as a working stand-up in and around the Eighties using just one word, what would it be? An impossible task, but I reckon ‘paranoia’ would cover about 75 per cent of it. If you’d said it to me at the time I wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. Only now, dipping my toe back in to the world of gigging, I’m starting to realise that’s exactly what I was.

My paranoia began the minute I decided to be a stand-up, and I’m not sure it has gone away yet. If you’re a stand-up you’re probably paranoid too, though you may learn sooner than I did to live with it. My dictionary defines paranoia as ‘the projection of personal conflicts ascribed to the supposed hostility of others, a baseless or excessive suspicion of their motives.’ There are famous and hugely successful comics whose professional lives are still dictated to by this projection.

It’s the perfect job for paranoiacs. You stand alone, in a dark room, the only light a bright one shining on your face, looking out at a roomful of strangers, awaiting their judgement of your life’s work. Even if they love you, as soon as you walk off you want to know they laughed at you more than the other comics on the bill. Do all stand-ups still listen at the end of the night for who gets the biggest cheer when the compere roll-calls the acts? God I felt pathetic every time I did that, we all did, pretending to each other that we weren’t paying attention.

If it’s not you who gets the biggest laugh, it’s easy to blame the audience, or being on earlier, or knowing you always go down badly when you’re on with that smug bastard who got the audience laughed-out by the time you came on. A boxer, lying on the canvas beyond the count of ten in a pool of blood, won’t be thinking ‘well the crowd are giving him the biggest cheer but I was the better boxer on the night.’

At the time I was unable to see that all my anger, irritation, and ‘baseless and excessive suspicion of the motives of others’, were contributing to my demise. Now I hear it in conversations backstage, see it on Facebook, and read it online. No disrespect, but thank God there was no Chortle when I was a stand-up: how often would I have studied that front page and died inside when reading that someone I considered not as good as me had a pilot or a book deal or review?

I’ve read plenty of eloquent indignation here about open spots, comics nicking material, class discrimination. It’s all perfectly valid, stuff that would have got me angry before, but now I’ve (almost) learned to live with other people’s careers and tried not to concern myself with them.

Telling new stand-ups to give up before they’ve even started seems especially pointless. Stand-up comedy is popular. It’s everywhere on telly now, and every week someone opens a new club with dreams of a career in the business. You might as well go up to a ten-year-old kicking a football in a park and say ‘quit now son, you’re not as good as Walcott was at your age.’ Anyway, how do you know these new open spots are no good? It takes most acts at least two or three years to develop a solid 20 minute set. It was a fair while before comics like Paul Merton, Julian Clary, Al Murray and Matt Lucas worked out how to stand out from the crowd.

I have a lot of sympathy with comics who complain when their material is nicked. And it’s becoming harder to stop thanks to Twitter. The circuit is generally pretty good at policing this, but if Chegwin attempts to give himself a personality by repeating your jokes, or if someone in Southampton is spotted doing your act, there’s very little you can do about it. You can have the offender killed, but that’s messy, and it won’t help your immediate career prospects. (A comic who once saw an act doing someone else’s gag pinned the offender to the wall afterwards and said ‘I know people who’ll do you in for a hundred quid’.) You can accuse someone in a public forum like this, but even if they were caught on CCTV sitting in the front row of your gig with a pen and notebook while holding up a voice recorder, they’d still deny it.

You have two choices: stop writing gags, which is self-defeating, or write more. So many, that you won’t notice or care when the odd gem goes into the public domain. I honestly believe if you write and perform enough of them, you’ll soon start to receive the credit. And I’m talking to you, Dave, every time you see a joke of yours nicked and uncredited on Twitter. (The paranoia never goes away.)

Another familiar complaint, again equally valid, is that TV and radio comedy is over-represented by the middle-classes. Last month the BBC announced it was time to do something about it, just as every now and then they beat themselves up about lack of diversity and shout that ‘something must be done’.

It’s almost certainly true that a high proportion of comics receiving exposure are more middle-class, just as it’s true that the vast majority of wealthy people went to public school. One of the main points of entry into the wider comedy world is BBC Radio 4. They’re a touchy lot, Radio 4 listeners: they like to listen to Stephen Fry, and, when they’re not listening to Stephen Fry, they want to listen to people who sound like Stephen Fry. They don’t like being told what to put on their channel, and I suspect they’ll not be too happy if Radio 4’s comedy controllers tell them that as of now there’ll be more working class comics on the station. I’m not saying they’re right, I’m just not sure positive discrimination will have the desired effect.

Comics are, in my experience, generally a mess. We’re largely a collection of social misfits who struggle to do a normal job and eventually find our self-belief and strength through talking non-stop to a room full of strangers about stuff we wouldn’t dream of sharing with our closest family and friends.

I’m trying, second time around, to be more professional in my approach. Not to be emotionally involved. It’s easier now I have a life outside of performing, and being the best stand-up in the world (or even on the bill, tonight) is not my only goal in life. I’m not suggesting you all pack in performing after ten years, spend the rest of your lives trying to work out why you never got further than you did, then finally discover some sort of answer a mere 17 years later.

But next time you’re on the bill with that smug bastard you hate (who inexplicably always goes down better than you), or you get a bad review, or you don’t get a review, or that smug bastard you hate gets an inexplicably good review, just step back and think ‘is this really anything to do with me? Does it bear any relation to the single requirement that I go on stage and make an audience laugh?’

And if that fails, console yourself that the smug bastard you hate is probably far more paranoid than you. (Bastard, he’s even better at paranoia than I am – no, don’t go there.) Or you may be thinking ‘why is Dave Cohen saying all this? Is he playing with my mind?’ In which case – congratulations! In the paranoid world of stand-up comedy, you could go the whole way.

Published: 10 Feb 2011

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