Is breaking into the comedy industry really based on talent?
There is one thing in my life that causes more stress than any other; it’s the comedy industry (and how I break into it). Before I get started I’d like to prefix everything by saying; this is hardly a major problem in the world. Though as a young person with no dependents, no proper responsibilities and no significant financial hardships; I have nothing else to get worked up about, this is my life now. It’s silly really, I should just be grateful that I live in one of the few countries where being a full time comedian is an achievable aim. But, given that the UK has (arguably) the world’s best comedy scene, it is worth examining what’s going on in it.
One thing I always admired about comedy was that it seemed more like a meritocracy than other art forms. I’d always thought there was only one person who could do the job of Harry Hill, Victoria Wood or Billy Connolly. However, now I’ve delved someway into the industry, I’m starting to wonder if that’s still the case (or was ever the case). It seems comedy is primarily about determination and making a good impression on the right people; talent and originality are also important, but not necessarily as important.
This is partly because we’re going through a boom in comedy – these days it seems everyone and their dog wants to try their hand at stand-up. There are more courses than ever offering to teach you comedy, meaning the unpaid open mic gigs at the bottom of the ladder are all full of comedians with very little audience willing to watch them.
At the same time there is less paid work at the established comedy clubs. Comedy Cafe owner Noel Faulker blames this on the rise of ‘arena comedy’; more and more acts who have had some TV exposure are encouraged to tour the country. This affects the attitudes of the audience; why go to a local club every month to see some unrecognisable professional comedians when you could instead go once every few months to see that bloke off the panel show in a massive arena?
Less work at the top? Congestion at the bottom? Looks like comedy has a squeezed middle. What’s more, those from other fields, be it acting/presenting/modelling, increasingly occupy that middle rung. It’s a good idea, because if you have an agent from your previous work in show business then your rise up the ladder and onto TV tends to be much easier, so why wouldn’t you? Writing 10 or 20 minutes of funny material and performing it is not actually as hard as you might think.
So with less work on offer, and more competition than ever, how does one get noticed? Some try to maximise laughter by creating a slick, finely tuned, act that treads over the same old populous topics, which the mainstream audience will lap up. More and more you see very similar jokes, done by people with very similar stage personas.
Personally, I go in the other direction, trying to stand out from the crowd by being as interesting and original as possible. With more comics than ever, originality seems increasingly at a premium, though frustratingly many comedy connoisseurs have a bizarrely narrow minded view of originality. For instance a review of my colleague Ben Target cited that his “persistent invasion of personal space” was all too similar to the more established act Dr Brown. Does this reviewer really think that Dr Brown invented the concept of awkward audience interaction, and that anyone attempting it after him is therefore unoriginal?
I had a dilemma when I found out that Stewart Lee, in his latest tour, had a joke that was very similar to one of mine (there was no theft, after all he has no idea who I am). I contacted him, making a point along the lines of “isn’t it funny the way two people can come up with the same idea?”. However to my surprise he agreed to stop doing the joke “under the 1980s comedy rules of prior conception”. The problem is of course, that in just a few months far more people have seen Stew perform his joke than have seen me perform my joke in the years I’ve been doing it; I fear people will jump to the conclusion that I’ve stolen his idea.
Stew kindly offered to provide me a note that I could read on stage to vindicate me of any accusations of theft, but I’m not going to do that. Mainly because if I were to dissect my own material on stage by reading aloud a note (a relatively Stew-Lee-esquian thing to do) then a reviewer would probably accuse me of being derivative of Stewart Lee. Oh well, on the bright side I’m lucky enough to have time to waste worrying about these things.
Gareth Morinan will be performing his comedy show Truth Doodler at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 1-26 @ 13.30 at the UnderbellyTagged in: Arts, comedian, comedy, edinburgh festival
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