How to tell if comedy is for you

Dave Cohen describes the giveaway signs

Comedy clubs in crisis, the BBC in crisis. If you’re thinking you would like a career in comedy, this is a very good moment to think again. And think hard. You could be saving yourself an enormous amount of time and effort, and pain.

There are probably around a thousand, maybe 1,500 people, who make a living writing and/or performing comedy in the entire country. If that sounds like a large number, think about this: the number of people who work at the very pinnacle of the NHS, the elite of specialists and consultants who diagnose complex illnesses and perform life-saving surgery every day, is around 30,000.

Unlike brain surgery and indeed, rocket science, there’s no organised academic training route to making a living in comedy. You can help yourself by seeing live shows, going on a course or reading lots of books. But the best way to learn how to write comedy is to create it in a room with people who already know what they’re doing, and the best way to learn how to perform comedy is to try your routines on a room full of strangers. If you’re lucky enough to be doing either of them at this early stage then you’ll almost certainly fail frequently, probably without knowing why.

So if you can’t come away from three to five years at college with a certificate that entitles you to become a qualified comedy writer or performer, how can you know if this is the right vocation for you to at least have a crack at? Well, here are ten possible clues. This is by no means an exhaustive list of qualifications, but how well any or all of the following resonate may help you come closer to deciding:

You don’t laugh much...

When you’re watching comedy on TV, and a comic or character says something you find funny, the comedy obsessive doesn’t necessarily laugh out loud, but say ‘that was funny’. If you live alone, you may not be aware of this one, but if you watch TV with a partner or a flatmate, at some point they’ll notice and question you. A comedy writing career awaits.

You’re not always facing the stage

When you go to a stand-up comedy show, do you spend less time watching the person performing on stage, and more watching the audience react to the person performing on stage?

I used to do this all the time when I was working as a stand-up four or five nights a week. And I was sure it was because I’d seen every comic dozens of times, so knew their acts word for word.

But even after I gave up performing and went to watch comics I’d never seen before, I found my gaze wandering to the row ahead or behind. It means you’re as interested in the mechanics of the delivery of comedy as you are in laughing at the jokes. Welcome to my world, comedy nerd.

You’re a great big extrovert show off. Or a painfully shy introvert. Or both.

It may sound ridiculous for these two seemingly contradictory personality traits to live side by side in one person, but many writers and performers are like that. When I was a teenager I struggled in small social groups, and didn’t always get what the social norms were. I was, I understand now, almost certainly a little on the autistic spectrum, although undiagnosed. Those feelings of painful shyness may have been a part of what drove me to perform. Standing on stage and hiding behind a guitar, singing silly songs felt like a much easier way of communicating. And people laughed!

You may be self-obsessed.

Bad things happen to all of us, and sometimes in the midst of a crisis a person will say: ‘Some time in the future I’ll look back on this moment and be able to laugh about it.’ You, however, will be applying that phrase to everything that happens to you. Which part of your wedding will you remember most clearly, the all-important exchange of vows or the embarrassing relative’s speech? Is that tiny, seconds-old bawling infant you are holding a miracle, or five minutes of new material?

You’re not the ’funny’ one in the pub.

‘What, you’re saying I’m not even the funniest person in my group of four or five workmates?’ Not necessarily a cause for concern: a lot of people who try stand-up think it’s a natural progression from making their mates laugh in the pub. It rarely is, though. Greg’s bladder issues may be the cause of much hilarity in the canteen, and you may be the one with the best take on it, but a roomful of strangers may struggle to see the funny side, and you may end up having to say the phrase that amounts to comic defeat: ‘You had to be there.’ I’ve an old mate back home called John, who makes me laugh harder than any professional comedian I’ve ever known. He’s an excellent solicitor. Good - this country needs excellent solicitors.

When you see a comedian dying, your first instinct is to analyse why.

When a comic dies on stage the audience divides roughly into those who enjoy the spectacle, those who didn’t and feel genuinely upset on the comic’s behalf, and those who didn’t join in but didn’t feel strongly enough about the act to care either way. The comedy pro, however, is dispassionately but genuinely interested in what happened to cause it – especially if they’re next on. In most cases onstage deaths are self-inflicted, and if comedy is in your blood you’ll want to know exactly what that performer did wrong and why. That you may also be slightly excited at the thought of recounting the death to the next comic you bump into merely confirms you were born to this life.

You only want to watch comedy on TV.

I was very lucky when I was a kid in the late 60s and early 70s because there was a brilliant comedy show on the telly twice a week, every week, called Coronation Street. It also had drama but unlike the show as it is today, and all the other TV soaps, comedy was at the heart of Coronation Street.

What this meant to me as a child was that, on top of my favourite comedy shows, like Dad’s Army and Morecambe and Wise and Steptoe and Love Lucy and Tommy Cooper, I was also seeing real comedy being performed in a north of England that vaguely resembled where I was growing up.

Do soaps still have overarching themes? Or are they simply obsessed with carrying stories through and keeping you hooked with drama? Because one of the great themes of Corrie was ‘you need to have a sense of humour to survive in this world’.

It’s no surprise that two of the country’s finest writers of the last 50 years, Paul Abbott and Jack Rosenthal, began their careers on Corrie. What did surprise and depress me slightly was when someone who came to my sitcom writing class in 2007 said his ‘only’ experience of being a writer had been creating more than a hundred episodes of ‘Coronation Street’.

You can live with being hated

The more successful you are, the more people will hear about you, and the more forums there will be for people to let you know how unfunny they think you are. Whether it’s someone in the dark at the back of the gig shouting abuse, or a teenage troll from Wisconsin wishing a painful death on you and your close family, you will be abused.

There are people reading this now through gritted teeth, hating every word and wishing I would shut up. And there’s no point hating them back I find, it’s a waste of time and energy and best ignored. But you still have to live with it.

You had a difficult relationship with one or more parent.

I’m not saying this is a prerequisite for a life in comedy. I’m sure there are comedians and writers who had a lovely, loving time growing up, and maybe one day I’ll meet one. I’ve heard famous comedy people with huge personalities talk about growing up as part of a big happy loving family, but I’d be interested to know if the siblings and parents felt the same way, or if they simply trod warily around the comedy monster in their home.

A sort of mocking tone takes over the comedy world round about every April, when comedians announce the titles of their new shows for the next August’s Edinburgh Festival, and so many male comics decide to deal with their difficult relationships with their fathers. ‘Oh no’, we groan collectively, ‘not another male stand-up purveyor of knob gags trying to spend a month of his working life showing his sensitive side, in order to win some comedy award that will elevate him to TV panel shows where he can go and perform his knob gags?’

And yet, isn’t the relationship with our parents behind so much of the greatest art? Think of Hamlet, or King Lear or the great Biblical stories. Father-son relationships don’t get much more complicated than the one between God and Jesus. (‘Oh yeah?’ – Oedipus)

And you’ll ruthlessly use the supporting cast from your life for material. We all have tales about our family that resonate with others, but no-one can tell that story about your Aunty Barbara’s Christmas present as well as you. Are you planning to consult Aunty Barbara before you write the story up as an episode of your sitcom, or a five-minute stand-up routine? Do you feel guilty using family and friends to keep your career going? I do, but I doubt if I’ll stop just yet.

And finally:

You love the BBC. Unconditionally.

You must think of the BBC as another member of your family, for better or worse. They are with you at the birth of your career, they nurture you and teach you, they don’t expect you to stick around, especially when the flashy uncle from Sky or ITV offers you untold riches, or the trendy cousin with the earring from Channel 4 drops by. They’re not perfect, and like all family members they can drive you mad, but when Uncle Sky moves on and trendy Channel 4 cousin gets bored with you there’ll always be someone at the BBC ready to give you another chance.

The people who create and produce BBC comedy shows are not in it for the money, or for a small group of moneyed shareholders: they’re not in it for the glory, although every time the corporation irritates you with another self-congratulatory trailer, remind yourself how much they keep paying in the non-stop grief thrown at them by their commercial detractors and soundbite-obsessed politicians.

These people are in the job because they love comedy, they grew up with the genuine if now much-mocked ethos of wanting to perform a public service by helping others, and they want you to succeed because they remember when you were merely promising, and it gives them great pleasure to see you do well.

If you want a career in comedy, or if you already have one, then you must fight for the BBC’s survival, because if the BBC goes you might as well forget it, and choose something you’re more likely to find work in. Like brain surgery.

  • A Living And A-Dying: How To Survive In Comedy by Dave Cohen will be published in March 2013.

Published: 14 Nov 2012

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