Funny for not much money

Tiernan Douieb on the recession in comedy

So you’re thinking of becoming a comedian? Well welcome to the best job in the whole world.

I assume you’re doing it because you have this weird need to shout at strangers in a room above a pub in an obscure area on a night of the week you could be seeing your friends or loved ones who you’re happily neglecting until they forget about you and just stop inviting you to things?

No?

Oh, you’re doing it for money and an exciting career like you saw on the telly? Oh I see. Well welcome to the industry where wages have been in a pay freeze since the early Nineties and are now even starting to decline.

You may have heard that phrase that comedy is ‘recession-proof’ several times. I may have even said it to you. Perhaps commented on how music hall survived the Great Depression with little research to back that theory up, or the often heard ‘people always need to laugh’ which is a personal favourite of mine. Recently though, these have started to disappear and instead quite a bit of backstage chat has been that even us indomitable clowns are feeling the pinch too.

For the first time in a few years I’ve found weekends empty when they haven’t been before, certain gigs I always used to do are now no longer existent. Sure this could easily be blamed on many factors like me and the quality of my comedy, or how good my agents are, but fact is, it seems a lot of comedians of all different abilities and agents are having the very same problem.

But there’s little sympathy for the problem. From the public point of view, what a professional comic gets paid for a 20 minute set on a Saturday night at a decent gig is more than some people get over several hours of working in an office. You can also question that we have chosen to do this job and as someone on Twitter said unfairly to an act I like recently: ‘Why don’t you get a proper job you lazy prick?’

Fair point I guess. I mean at least with a proper job I’d get holiday and sick pay and wouldn’t have to work all hours of all days writing things, or travelling places or doing a ton of work for free. That 20 minute set alone sometimes comes after a two or three hour drive there, several months or even years or planning and suddenly when you divide that money into that time, the wages seem a lot less plush. If only everyone had proper jobs eh? Then telly would be really interesting and nights out much fun.

I should say, I’m not begging for pity by any means. I do this because I don’t want to do anything else. I’m just putting things into context that the showbiz magic often happily passes by.

Things like many gigs suddenly paying less than they used to. A show I hosted recently, for the first time in a few years, was now suddenly £50 less to do so. Despite it being sold out and as compere I was getting the same as all the acts who were able to double up elsewhere in the area, whereas I had to stay in one place. Though to be fair, many didn’t have gigs to double up with anymore.

Things like many of those gigs that used to pay cash now paying in BACS to follow many months after all your bills have bounced.

Things like the increase in petrol and train fares now make travelling around the country to do shows much less feasible with the wages as they are.

Things like a well known act recently pointing out to me that the wages people still get for certain gigs now are the same as when they started in 1990, even if the company booking them is hugely successful.

Things like the Edinburgh Fringe causing August to be a month where you work harder than ever before in order to lose more money than is reasonable. My deal in 2011 meant I’d lose £4,500 if I sold 100 per cent of my tickets. I didn’t. Hence I’m not returning anytime soon, despite wanting to do another show.

Maybe we should have a union? That’s a conversation that’s popped up in many car journeys. Except some acts would always take the work everyone else was shunning for not paying the correct fees. Then we’d have people fearing being barred from gigs for complaining about them. That and someone would have to chair meetings which every comedian would want to do, and whoever didn’t get to would have smart replies for whoever did. Trying to think of a name for the union alone would take years.

So I suppose in a way comedy is recession proof. But it was also boom proof and generally economy proof, whatever it’s doing. It just sort of stays where it is, letting us acts deal with the consequences we deserve for doing our stupid non-proper jobs while the rest of the world moves on.

So, if you are thinking of becoming a comedian you’d better want to do it for the love of it and get replacing those loved ones with service stations pretty quickly.

Published: 4 Apr 2013

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