Overnight success isn't the real story

Marc Blake on the reality of stand-up

A month ago I was approached by a PR company to ‘train’ five journalists who had never performed before to each do a five-minute set for the Dave channel at the Leicester Comedy Festival. Yes, it’s trite, crass and futile. Yes, they aren’t going to set the world alight and yes, it does belittle the business. A bit.

However, it does give more column inches to the craft, and only the craft. The basics of stand up comedy can be taught in 45 minutes, but it takes ten years to make one – and not necessarily a good one.

The Sunday Times piece by Stephen Armstrong (who only managed two sessions) laid out an anonymous agents’ ten-year plan for a comic, resulting in a putative stadium tour earning £15million. A more accurate account of the comedian’s struggle might be as follows.

Year 1: Open mike. No income.

Year 2: Employed as driver by comedy network chain – petrol paid. More open spots

Year 3: Running a struggling local club as MC. Some paid spots.

Year 4: Paid slots. Closing in smaller venues. Known as upcoming act. Placing in spurious competitions that serve to advertise the brand of clubs running them. Edinburgh first year – any profits drunk or swallowed up.

Year 5: Give up. Start again. Find ‘voice.’ Paid gigs. 10K after travel/accommodation.

Year 6:. Edinburgh Free fringe. Make money. No reviews. Try to break Store or Jongleurs –unsuccessful.

Year 7:. Taken up by agency. Break through to more clubs. Corporate gigs. Edinburgh funded – leaving you in hock to the tune of £13,000. TV warm up work.

Year 8: Best newcomer at Edinburgh. Leads nowhere. Regular around UK and Ireland and getting spots abroad. Income rises to 25K. Propose to partner.

Year 9: Dropped by agency. Do 350 + gigs to pay back monies from Edinburgh. Push TV ideas to disinterested producers. Get gig writing sketches and bits of stand up for others. Up for bits and pieces of TV but nothing of substance transpires.

Year 10: Partner dumps you because you cannot support a family and she wants someone at weekends. Move out of London, as it is easier for gigs. Keep gigging.

Stand-up is, for most practitioners, a job rather than a career. Having performed myself for more than 15 years I would say the net results are making a lot of people laugh, honing an act that becomes like playing an instrument and discovering the worst pub toilets across the length and breadth of the UK.

Hacks don’t write about the reality, they push the myth. I recently watched the film Chaplin in which his early years under the tutelage of Dan Leno were but a blur as the slapstick marriage magnet was swiftly dispatched to Mack Sennet in Hollywood.

It is the same myth that portrays the life of any writer: One minute she’s starving in the garret – the next she’s seeing her hardback in the window of her local bookshop. Myriad memoirs by our most successful comics (Peter Kay, Lee Evans, Frank Skinner) also skip over the years of struggle. It is to Stewart Lee, in his brilliant tome: How I Escaped My Certain Fate that we have to turn to get the true story.

But should the fledgling comic be expecting the stadium tours at all? The majority of circuit stand-ups are personable middle class white young men from the south. Their proper icons might be Russells Howard and Kane and perhaps Jack Whitehall. These three are through the portal and there isn’t room for another Michael McIntyre. Let’s look at the others who have been selected for fame, fortune and adulation. Peter Kay is a solid northerner from Bolton, John Bishop trades on his Scouse roots, then there’s Rhod Gilbert, Welsh, Sarah Millican from South Shields and Micky Flanagan – broad cockney, and for the camp brigade, Alan Carr.

Convention and easily definable regionalism are what the audience wants. It’s not about comedy doing well in crisis; it’s about familiarity and reliability. Thirty years ago this list would have included Les Dawson, Jimmy Tarbuck, Max Boyce, Victoria Wood, Jim Davidson and Frankie Howerd.

We have supposedly got rid of the sexism and racism in comedy, but it all boils down to the same thing: The comedian must be perceived to be ‘one of us’ not ‘one of them’ –unless he is playing the silly ass or upper class twit. This means working-class credibility and/or a clear regional bias and accent.

Right now, these hugely successful and talented megastar comics are ‘The new rock and roll’ but woe betide them if they become perceived as smug or arrogant, as seems to be happening to Ricky Gervais.

Comedy is about the little guy, the idiot savant, the boy who sees the Emperor’s nudity. I’m glad the gilded few are making so much out of stadium shows: it frees up spaces in the clubs, gives comedy a good name and lazy journalists an easy piece to write.

As for the rest of us, we will remain unsung and forgotten once the applause dies down, but we’re still out there, doing the best job in the world.

And we know where the toilets are. Because we’ve played them all.

Published: 23 Feb 2012

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