'Comedians have no choice but to slap on a smile if they wish to build a career in stand-up' | Nick Butler on his research into the stand-up circuit

'Comedians have no choice but to slap on a smile if they wish to build a career in stand-up'

Nick Butler on his research into the stand-up circuit

In the popular imagination, comedians live extreme and volatile lives. The biographies of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and John Belushi are enough to tell us that stand-up is a world where occupational success goes hand-in-hand with scandal, excess, and self-destructive behaviour.

But for most comedians, stand-up is extreme and volatile in another, more mundane sense: it involves insecure employment, short-term contracts, irregular patterns of work, and months or even years of unpaid labour.

 Like other kinds of creative workers, such as musicians or actors, comedians are prepared to tolerate low wages and uncertain career prospects because they view their occupation as a labour of love. Making audiences double-up with laughter every night is meant to be its own reward.

But, of course, stand-up is still a job, albeit one that is outside conventional 9-to-5 hours. So how do comedians earn a living on the stand-up circuit, especially when there are a hundred other gag merchants happy to work for free?

To find out the answer to this question, me and my colleague Dimitrinka Stoyanova Russell at Cardiff University interviewed 65 full-time comedians in the UK. We found that finding work in stand-up is a complex emotional process.

Comedians rely on comedy club promoters for work on the live circuit. Getting paid, moving up the bill, and performing at better venues are some of the areas that comedians have to negotiate with promoters on a one-to-one basis. This is not always a painless process. Consider this joke told to us by a comedian:

There are two comics in a car and one says, ‘Oh, I did a gig last night and the whole place just stank of shit and the audience were drunk and I was horribly heckled, three people attacked me with knives during it, there was no light in the dressing room, there was a broken toilet, the promoter pocketed £50 of my wages and he only paid me half what he was meant to’. And the other one goes, ‘Right, who books that?’.

The joke hinges on the idea that comedians are so desperate for work that they are willing to endure a host of indignities in their dealings with promoters. 

The joke contains a grain of truth: comedians need to cultivate professional relationships with those who can provide them employment, even when the pay and conditions are less than ideal. As another comic told us: ‘A promoter is your bread and butter…You should be friends with them even if you don’t like them because they’ll give you gigs’.

In her famous study The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild coined the term ‘emotional labour’ to describe how workers generate or suppress feelings in themselves, usually to serve some organisational goal. 

Hochschild developed this idea when she observed flight attendants putting nervous travellers at ease with a smile or by remaining calm when dealing with obnoxious customers. 

Of course, we all engage in emotional labour in our private lives – after all, who hasn’t feigned gratitude for an unwanted Christmas gift? But when emotions are commercialised, capitalist relations of exploitation extend into the most intimate sphere of life.

Our research found that the same is true for stand-up comedians. In the pursuit of work, comedians manage their emotions by projecting an image of affability and amenability to ingratiate themselves with promoters. 

For example, comedians often resist the urge to complain about poor pay for the sake of maintaining friendly relations with promoters, especially if they see higher paid gigs on the horizon. 

Similarly, comedians try to curry favour with powerful industry players by volunteering to perform at a reduced fee without so much as batting an eyelid, even though doing so goes against their short-term economic interests. As one comic lamented: ‘People are always cashing in on your vulnerability’.

Adopting a positive attitude thus comes at a price for comedians. On the one hand, emotional labour allows comedians to establish a network of professional contacts that will provide them with work. On the other hand, emotional labour – insofar as it involves stifling feelings of anxiety that arise from financial insecurity – reinforces exploitative employment practices on the live circuit. In the absence of trade union representation or collective wage bargaining, comedians have no choice but to slap on a smile if they wish to build a career in stand-up.

On the surface, stand-up comedy is such a non-typical occupation that it seems to have little relevance for understanding the wider world of work. But probe deeper and stand-up offers a taste of what future employment practices might look like – and how workers could be expected to manage their emotions in an increasingly competitive labour market. The kind of emotional labour required to pursue a career in comedy may also be needed in jobs beyond the performing arts, from casual labour in the on-demand economy to project-based work among itinerant consultants. And that prospect, to be sure, is no laughing matter.

Dr Nick Butler is an Assistant Professor at Stockholm University Business School, Sweden.  This article was originally published on the American Sociological Association’s Work In Progress blog. The research he conducted with Dimitrinka Stoyanova Russell was published in the social science journal Human Relations,

Published: 17 Oct 2018

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