Pros and cons

Norman Cho on why he'd rather stay a comedy hobbyist

My first inkling that becoming a professional stand-up might not be all that I wanted came during a seven-minute open spot I did for Mirth Control at the Alexander Theatre in Birmingham, in front of 1,000 people. I know I did well, but it was barely mentioned by the other acts, only by some members of the audience.

If I had done that well on an open mic night, people would be pumping my hand and slapping me on the back. But on a weekend gig, you had better be funny – that’s what you get paid for. That was when it started to dawn on me that the higher up the ladder you get, the more it becomes simply another job. And I already had one that would probably always pay better than my feeble efforts at stand-up.

The second inkling was when I was driving a professional act to a gig. He was telling me about a trip he made to South Africa. He was paid a substantial sum of money to do five gigs over the course of a weekend: one on Thursday, two on Friday and a further two on Saturday. Flights and accommodation paid for.

What he said really made a huge impact on me. He made it clear that when there is that much on the line, you had better be funny. There is no hiding place. Thousands of pounds are riding on your 45-minute performance. Failure really is not an option. If you bomb on Thursday night, then you are in for a very long and awkward weekend. Now that is pressure.

The third inkling was when I attended the New Year’s Day party at a house in North London shared by comedians including Nik Coppin and Henning Wehn. Being a hobbyist, I was quite excited to be hobnobbing with the pros. I think I was expecting something out of Scarface, with mountains of coke and scores of hot women.

But it was really like any other party except male-dominated – as stand-up is – t it was held on the wrong day. Everyone else had got smashed on New Year’s Eve but everyone here had been working that night.

When you are doing open spots, it’s just a game. When you are doing it for money on a weekend, you are paying the mortgage. That brings up the biggest problem with being a professional stand-up. Your biggest paying nights are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Everyone else is out having fun. You, on the other hand, are working and we all know what a lethal combination doing stand-up and alcohol is.

Relationships are the other problem. When you first meet the ladies, you are that very funny guy who made their night for them. You just sprinkled that comedy magic dust all over the audience and they are might just want a piece of you.

Once you’re in a relationship, you’re simply that guy who works odd hours and is never around for stuff because you’re doing a gig somewhere else… if you’re not banging someone else on the side because that’s how she met you, right?

That’s one of the reasons why I have always been ambivalent about stand-up as a career. A little reluctant to put in the hours you need to get really good at this game. The higher up you go, the better you get, the less of a game it becomes. The more there is at stake.

I am more than happy to apply for Mirth Control gigs Monday to Thursday. I will always do my best to deliver but I know that it’s the headliner who’s under the gun. I guess that I’m lucky that I am a freelance criminal lawyer in my day job. I guess that's part of the problem. I love my day job enough that it does not provide a spur to be a better comic.

Legal aid rates are not generous but you can pay the bills. I am that guy in a suit in the police station whose advice might make the difference between my client walking free or getting life. I have had shouting matches with detectives in the middle of a police interrogation. I have tried my best to steer frightened 13-year-olds away from a life of crime.

I once spoke to a new act who was clearly destined for the top. I asked him what the secret of his success was. His answer? He hated his day job. He had no bird. He gigged seven days a week.

According to Malcolm Gladwell, you need 10,000 hours of hard work to produce a genius. One very good headliner told me that he did 3,000 gigs in eight years. You do the maths. The bottom line is right now I am not sure I want it that badly. Be careful what you wish for – you might just get it.

Published: 30 Mar 2011

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