Stop whining - comedy is the best job in the world!

James Mullinger counts his blessings

I’ll tell you what the real problem with the comedy industry right now is. What’s really wrong with the comedy industry right now is everyone complaining about what’s wrong with the comedy industry right now. The industry itself is booming so that’s not the problem. The problem is that those lucky enough to work in comedy just won’t stop complaining.

Promoters blame acts. Acts blame promoters. Stand-ups blame other stand-ups. Journalists blame the uninventiveness of stand-ups. Acts blame the reviewers for the lack of inventiveness when picking shows to review, and on and on it goes…

And where does it get us? Nowhere. It achieves nothing except for distracting from one thing.

That all of the above people who earn their living from comedy in one way or another (whether it be performing stand up, promoting clubs, watching shows to review, writing comedy, managing acts, promoting tours…) are the luckiest damn people on earth.

You work in comedy. You are the luckiest people on the planet. You – like me – probably spent your childhood listening to comedy records of Woody Allen, Derek and Clive and Not The Nine O’Clock News then later watching VHS videos of Bill Hicks, Steve Martin and Frank Skinner dreaming of how amazing it would be to work in comedy in one way or another. Now you do! Can you believe it? And what would that 12-year old you laughing to a Comic Relief tape on your Walkman in your back of your parents’ car have said if you told them that once you were living this dream you’d be moaning about it all the damn time in dressing rooms, on Twitter, on Chortle forums, on Facebook or anywhere else you care to mention.

After asking what the hell Twitter, Facebook and Chortle are, the 12-year-old you would have thought you a fool. And you are.

What about when you were at university at 19 years young and walking around Kingston and you spotted Dominic Holland walking over a bridge. What’s he doing, a real bona fide circuit comedian ambling near my halls of residence? Why is he just walking around? Why isn’t he basking in the glory from last night’s gig? Maybe he is doing that internally. Wow, what a cool life, you think. To have done not just one stand-up gig but loads. How does he do that, you wonder? So you follow him. You follow this lucky genius and admire the way he walks. You even try to replicate his pace to see if that will help some of his genius rub off on you.

Granted, that last one is possibly quite specific to the teenage me but I think you get the point. This job is a blessing. I honestly feel overjoyed that I get to earn part of my living from stand-up. That I get to travel the country performing to people just like that brilliant curly-haired man I followed fifteen years ago.

What I have always loved about all comedians is their passion for their craft. No one could go through what we go through as open spots for years unless we have a genuine desire to do the job. You don’t last long unless you really want to do it. I hate these final weeks of The X Factor when contestants say, ‘If I go out this week, my singing career is over.’

No, it’s not. You’ve been an X Factor finalist. You can find musical work in one way or another for the rest of your life. But you don’t want that do you? You want to be famous. You don’t actually want to just sing. Because if you did, there’d be a Pizza Express in Slough or a cruise ship or a pub somewhere in the country that would pay you £50 to £100 to perform every night of the week. You’d make a living from it. So if you want to sing for the rest of your life, it’s not all over.

My dream would be to do nothing but stand-up. I wish I could do two gigs every single night. I could live on that. But I don’t, so I can’t. I have only been a finalist in one big talent contest. And that was not on ITV1 so no one knows about it and no one cares.

The stand-ups who are lucky enough to make a living simply from gigging are my heroes. Most know how lucky they are. Some don’t and proceed to moan about every facet of the industry. If you don’t like how promoters work, or agents work, or managers work or PRs work, then do it yourself. That’s what I do. Do it all myself. I should be clear, this is not by choice. No agent or manager wants me. I can’t afford a PR. But rather than moan. Or complain. Or give up. I do it myself. I know I can offer a small theatre or arts centre full of people a damn good night of stand up. A 70-minute show that they will enjoy.

I don’t have anyone to organise this for me, so I do everything myself. I book the venues myself, negotiate the deal myself, deal with the staff there myself, have the posters designed myself, have them printed myself, book my own support act and director and then personally go and buy the sandwiches for the dressing room and the water for the stage.

I have sold out many venues doing my solo show this way. Sometimes it’s a 50-seater; at most it will be a 300-seater. Many times I am at these venues the week after other acts who have way more TV exposure than me who have failed to sell out. In some cases they have sold a handful of seats. They have friends in the right places, expensive PRs, are signed to big agencies, have done Roadshows, Comedy Rocking, Week Mocking so why the disparity?

It’s not because I have a bigger following on the live circuit. I don’t. It’s not because I am better than them. I’m not. It’s because they pay someone else a lot of money to organise their tour, PR their tour, advertise their tour. I do it myself. All of it. After all, no one wants a tour date to go better than the person who will be standing on that stage that very night.

It’s not easy. My wife and I cannot go on holiday ever because I use my holiday time touring and gigging. I often have to take a day off work to take the train to a town or city I have a tour date in and put up posters myself, popping into the local newspaper or radio station myself, going to the venue myself to see if the posters are up prominently enough, that the flyers aren’t sitting in a storeroom somewhere. I personally go around newsagents, post offices, and local businesses and ask them to put up posters. Most oblige. It’s the guy from the poster asking after all. Not just someone who has been bunged a tenner to illegally fly poster.

I then know all of the above has been done. And because it’s been done, it pays off. The venue sells out, we have a great evening, then we move on to the next town never taking our eye off the ball. And each year it gets easier. Because if you put on an awesome show, the following year they come back without being coaxed.

In short, I just love stand-up. Always have. Always wanted to do it. I’m not saying I don’t moan. I do. I’m just saying we should stop. The shy kid who marvelled at the craft of Ben Elton 25 years ago can’t believe his luck that he is doing this now.

After a typically lovely gig at The Glee Club in Birmingham a few weeks ago, Martin Mor and I sat excitedly analysing what had made that night’s show go so well. Was it the strange guy in the audience that we had bantered with? Was it the mis-matched couple in the front row? Did you see how I did this? Or that? I haven’t done that before on stage…

After a bit Martin sat back, exhaled and said ever so wisely and beautifully: ‘That’s what’s so great about this job. You don’t hear anyone else talking like this about what they do. Comics get to be this thrilled by what we do every single night.’

And he’s right. He’s been entertaining for more than 20 years and still recognises what an honour it is. We are blessed that we get to do this. Many would kill to do this.

So stop bloody complaining. And go watch the scene in Comedian when Orny Adams tells Jerry Seinfeld he sometimes wonders if he should get a ‘proper job like his friends’. Jerry looks at him like he just said he likes eating penguins. He is incredulous that someone being paid to stand up on stage every night could ever consider walking away. Jerry then tells him the most beautiful story about show business you’ll ever hear and Orny leaves a changed man.

You don’t like how the industry is? Then get out. Millions would kill to take your place. You have problems how certain things work? Do it yourself. It works for me. And it means I can’t complain about lack of punters or promotion or the travel or the dressing room snacks. Because I was responsible for every single one of them. And I have more than enough negative shit in my mind to beat myself up about with adding that to the mix.

You can read James resisting the urge to complain in 140 characters or less on Twitter @Jamesmullinger. Or see him live his dream on stage at his website.

Published: 6 Dec 2012

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