'It's better NOT to get discovered early' | Comics share their experience in exclusive book extract

'It's better NOT to get discovered early'

Comics share their experience in exclusive book extract

For their new book, Off The Mic, Deborah Frances-White and Marsha Shandur interviewed scores of comedians including Eddie Izzard, Sarah Millican, Jim Jeffreies, Stewart Lee and Greg Davies to explore their secrets, insecurities and successes. Here Chortle offers an exclusive extract from the book, which is published today.

A lot of comedians we spoke to talked about how their perception of comedy as a career has changed from when they started, and many offered advice for new comedians just starting out.


Don't just start and say, 'I'm going to do stand-up.' Look down the road before you start. Look to the horizon line and go, 'That's where I want to end up. This is how I want to get there and that's what I want to be.' Because you're going to leave something for the world. I think it's smart for you to know what it is you want to leave and don't just go into it blindly at the beginning, thinking, 'I'm going to get on stage and tell jokes and be a stand-up.'

Have a vision for what that whole thing looks like and where it ends. Not that you definitely will get there or you definitely have to go that way but I think it helps a lot if you can envision where it's all going and what you're doing.

My vision was just… it was like I had a road and I could see where I wanted to go and the style that I wanted to present and I knew where I wanted to end up. So all the things that I envisioned on my road have been happening or have happened to me. And I think it had a lot to do with having it mapped out in my head when I started or before I started.

Jim Jefferies looks back on his early career with some affection, but also some regrets.


My career's pretty much gone better than I thought it would, so I guess I've made some right moves. I wish was perceived as being a lot nicer than I acted when I was young. A lot less cocky. I think I'm a lot less cocky now, but I don't think it matters. I think the damage is already done in many regards.

I try to write as much as possible. I try to write an hour of comedy a year. Otherwise, there's no point and you're only trying to get an occupation to pay the bills.

If you want to have people look at you on DVD and on TV and go on about what a great comic you are, you need to produce at least 40 minutes a year, hopefully an hour a year. There are too many guys who think, 'I don't know what happened to my career.' You're doing the same 40 minutes for every year. They think, 'I kill wherever I go.' They are. They're ripping the shit out of it every night, but these are new audiences each night. [Building your career] is all about repeat customers.

Go to festivals because that's where you get noticed by the media. This might sound terrible but this is how you gauge how much better or worse you are than everybody else. You can tell by ticket sales. You can tell by reviews. You can tell by who everyone is talking about. The only way you get really good is by playing with the good guys.

Richard Herring believes that early success isn't necessarily a good thing for a career.


When you're a new comedian, you think, 'When can I be on TV? When is this going to happen for me? I'm amazing. Why hasn't anyone realised it?' Even after 25 years, I still feel the same sometimes about that and you get anxious – but it's much better not to get discovered early. It's much better just to bide your time and work your way up. I think a lot of people wonder, 'Well, how do I get going?' and, 'I don't really want to do stand-up and I don't want to do this. I just want to kind of get going.' You've just got to get on with this. There are so many opportunities to do comedy and you can write whenever you want. You can do podcasts whenever you want if you don't want to actually go to stand-up clubs, but you can also do both.

There is a strong work-ethic among comedians. People who have success 'too early' are often scorned, but those who slowly work their way up tend to win the admiration of their peers. And there is a certain sense to that. Stand-up comedy is such a complex blend of writing, performing, improvising and relating – equal parts instinct, craft, inspiration and diligence, that its almost impossible to master all aspects of it at once. Repetition breeds success.


My advice to young comics is to just keep doing it. Don't annoy people. Don't ask for a lot of favours. Don't write to comedians who you don't know and say, 'Can I be on your show?' Don't write and say, 'Will you watch my set? Will you look at my tape? Will you look at my clip?' Don't do that. Just write and don't think about money and agents and shit like that because you don't know what you're doing yet. Just write material and go onstage every time you can and make that your social life and your life.

For some people it's important for comedians to 'pay your dues' but this doesn't just mean suffering for no reason


I think people make this mistake where they think that paying your dues means you have to deal with a lot of shit. That's a side-effect. Really, it's a layman's term for developing as an artist. It means refining your style, finding what works for you, honing your voice.

You need experience producing something that you're willing to put out in front of people and have them judge you for it. That's the only prerequisite. It's about putting time in, not about shovelling dirt. Nobody wants you to only have to do it in the shit venues – but the reason shit venues are the best is because you're putting yourself out there for judgement but you're not really being seen yet.

Zoe Lyons has a different point of view.


Don't take yourself too seriously. Therein madness lies. Keep yourself grounded. I watch a lot of news and I look at trees. Genuinely, it makes me happy. I love a tree.

I see a lot of comedians who could do with a bit more fresh air. It's not the healthiest of careers. 'Just go outside and look at a tree. Have a bit of sunshine.' My girlfriend's always saying to me, 'Don't forget to have fun.' There have been long periods where I forgot to have fun.

Don't forget to have fun. Don't take yourself too seriously and for God's sakes, look at a tree.

• Off The Mic: The World's Best Stand-Up Comedians Get Serious About Comedy by Deborah Frances-White and Marsha Shandur is published today by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, priced £14.99. Click here to buy it for £13.49 – plus an additional 20 per cent off if you use the code STANDUP at the checkout.

Published: 27 Aug 2015

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