Is comedy a viable career option?

Alex Hylton wonders if it all stacks up

I had a lot to sympathise with the gay community when I sat my mother down and meekly came out and informed her of my aspiration to become a professional comedian, and not the Oxford-graduate entrepreneur she’d been holding out for.

Approaching 17 and my final year of sixth-form, the word ‘career’ seems to be mentioned even more frequently than ‘reem ‘ in a particularly vain installment of The Only Way is Essex. Unfortunately, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. One week I was going to study biology and cure cancer, the next I was going to set up a record label and get sucked off a lot.

From the age of 14, I was allowed to visit comedy at live venues, and ended up watching circuitomics week in, week out at the local venue, The MET Studio of Stafford. This would be where I fell in love with the circuit. I discovered the beauty of watching somebody you’d never heard of. You find yourself looking into the soul of a stranger as they pour the contents of their heart on to the stage and twist it into something vaguely resembling humour. I found it fascinating.

In the last two and a half years, I’ve collected more than 100 ticket stubs from my various trips to comedy clubs around the Midlands and feel I’ve earned comedy geek status. Despite all this, I’d never actually thought about having a go.

But in April somebody uttered those glorious words, ’You should be a comedian.’ I’d always enjoyed making people laugh. It’d been said before, but it was happening a lot in April, and a friend pretty much booked me for an open-mic night. I wrote a five-minute set, which felt like 30 seconds but was probably about 15 minutes. But when I walked on stage, muttered my first line, I realised this was what I wanted to do with my life.

Watching wasn’t enough any more, I had to be in the comedy CLUB. Sure, I want to study at university and provide some sort of value to my CV, but I’ve yet to find a course that quite sparks that indescribable yearning recognised only by those few who have experienced it.

I understand my mother’s disappointment. Comedy is hardly a career choice. There is no qualification, there is no defined skill-set, and there is very little safety net if you fall. Comedy gives you no transferable skills. Somehow ‘able to banter with the front-row’ just won’t fit anywhere on my work experience request letters.

Comedy does seem to have a clear-enough progression track however, you start out as a nervous trainee (or fretful open-spot, as they may be called) for a couple of years hard work, until you begin to get part-time, even harder work, warming-up for full-time staff. Maybe if you’re good enough you can achieve full-time status and go-on from there to the dream we all share.

Regardless of this, any student of the evening-class economics lessons more commonly known as the 10 O’clock News can tell us that boom is hastily followed by bust. Stand-up replaced rock ’n’ roll, and it may only be a matter of time before the mainstream masses are distracted by the next entertainment phenomenon.

I am aware I have wandered into territory unknown, and carry little mandate to discuss this subject, but I’ve heard lots of talk about an industry beginning to contract; something I sincerely hope to be a myth.

In any case, comedy is a financial drain on a new act. Even Stewart Lee struggled to meet running costs ten years after his first gig. For an upper-sixth student armed only with a railcard, travel costs are mountainous, and it’s a battle to get to a gig relying completely on public transport. And for what? A ten minute spot in Droitwich Spa in front of ten people and a hapless gig promoter who has humiliatingly although truthfully labelled you a ‘no fee comic’?

Sounds mad, but it doesn’t put me off.

One in three businesses fail in their first year. Stand-up is a business, after all. You sell your product to gig promoters. The only problem in the business model is that you spend your first two to ten years giving out free samples. There are no figures, but I would assume much more than one in three fail in their first year.

But that comes down to what you define as a successful comic. Someone who gets paid for laughs? Or is it someone who simply showcases their art? If the former, Peter Kay and Michael McIntyre top the charts. For me, a successful comic is somebody who can create a career from showcasing their art.

But it’s not clear-cut , and it seems idiotic to pursue something without a clear definition of what it is you want to achieve.

My long-suffering mother wants me to be successful in a respectable job, and comedy could be that. It’d just be a damn sight easier if I knew what that meant.

Published: 13 Aug 2012

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