There’s a cartoon by comedian Damian Clark which pinpoints perfectly how comedians tend to look at things. First, he shows what the audience looks like from the stage when the gig is going well. Here the frame is full of a sea of laughing faces. Underneath this drawing is what the comic sees – every single laughing face has now disappeared from sight. The view is simply a black void with the exception of the one person in the audience the comic has focused on: a man, clearly not enjoying himself and scowling in utter contempt at the comic.
It’s a great cartoon because it so neatly encapsulates a lot of comedians’ mind sets. For a job which involves making people laugh we comedians are very rarely happy with our own careers. In fact, with the exception of one rather unusually Zen like comedian I chatted to recently, I don’t think I know any comedian who is content with his lot.
And it’s irrelevant how far up the comedy ladder comedians tend to be. There are comics whose careers I think are going great guns, only to find out when you talk to them, they seem just as frustrated as everyone else. It’s at times like that when they are bemoaning their lot, you have to restrain yourself from telling them to get stuffed. (A temptation I have sometimes succumbed to nevertheless).
The life of a comic starts off as an open spot – meaning you do numerous short spots and generally you don’t get paid. Then with a bit of luck and a lot of persistence you progress to becoming a semi-professional comedian, picking up paid work here and there. If, after several years of all this, and provided that you haven’t lost the will to live in the meantime, you finally become a bona fide professional comedian, travelling round the country getting paid to do gigs.
Of course, once you’ve done this for a while, it is then incumbent on your average comic to moan about being on the road all the time and that what you really want to do is something else: tour, get on telly, write a book, get a panel show, end up on Radio 4. (By the way, I’m no exception to this rule).
Needless to say (admittedly I’m guessing this part as I haven’t reached these heady heights myself yet) once you start touring, get on telly, have written a book, get on a panel show, end up on Radio 4, you may well want to stop touring and get a Netflix/HBO special instead, do some more telly, do presenting, write another book or get onto a different panel show and/or become a team captain. Become big in the States. Have a movie career. Have someone else’s career.
It’s the same with gigs. You can spend years trying to get into certain clubs. In the back of your mind you somehow think that once you do, this will be a game-changer. You steadfastly believe this despite the fact that common sense and experience dictate otherwise. The big weekend comes: you’re playing this gig you’ve fought tooth and nail to get into. (OK, you’ve bugged them with emails and phone calls and done several open spots for them but you know what I mean). And then you realise: it’s just another gig. It might be a nice gig. It might be well-paid and you’re on with great comics, and you have some more dates in your diary but at the end of the day it’s just another gig. And I think that’s one of the reasons why comedians are never satisfied as our whole career is a series of anti-climaxes.
This is true also when it comes to performing stand up and not just when you’ve had a bad gig. Yes, it is excruciating when you’ve died a death on stage, especially on returning to the green room to be surrounded by your fellow comics, each one desperate to avoid eye contact. (That’s always a particularly bad sign).
But even after you’ve had a brilliant gig, you can also feel down. I remember the first time I was asked to do a 25 minute theatre set. At the time I was a semi-professional act and had never been offered so much money or asked to do such a long set. It was also my first gig on the urban comedy circuit for a well-respected promoter: so in my mind, at least, there was a lot riding on the gig.
As it happens, I had a great time, got great feedback from audience members and the late and great Felix Dexter who’d been headlining. I was buzzing. And then I was on the bus home via the local kebab shop (what can I say, I’m a classy woman), then home and watching late night TV. The adrenaline buzz by then had gone and instead I was filled with a kind of void.
This is because in stand up it might take a lot of graft to be funny for 25 minutes but the actual artistic act is ephemeral. You might have had the audience in stitches but after the gig it is done and dusted and you have nothing to show for it. (Apart from the cash and the remnants of a kebab. Anyone who’s witnessed my eating habits will know what I mean).
There’s also that thing that comics do (myself included) where you’ve had a great gig but you insist on concentrating on that one joke that didn’t get the laugh you feel it should. It’s annoying when you hear fellow comics do it, particularly when you’ve seen them just have a great gig. (It’s even more annoying, if they’ve had a much better gig than you).
Of course, when you do it yourself, you feel you’re being totally rational. I remember I closed a gig one night at one of the loveliest gigs in Europe. I’d had a blistering gig that evening in Antwerp but nonetheless I started dissecting my set afterwards to fellow comedian Adam Fields and banging on about two jokes I felt I hadn’t delivered as well as I could have. Adam looked at me with complete disdain and simply replied: I couldn’t bear to watch. Then saw my crestfallen expression and just broke out in peals of laughter. I had to admit he was totally justified in taking the mick. After all, what more did I want? I’d stormed the gig and was now being a self-indulgent idiot.
So what to do? Well maybe it’s the fact that comics are never satisfied that is also one of our strengths. Maybe this is what drives us on to write more, to perfect our comedy persona and to get better. Perhaps never being satisfied is all part of the creative process. Even if, at times, it may drive ourselves and our loved ones round the bend.
The trick is not to let it make you bitter. And on no account fall into the trap of comparing yourself to other comics and their careers. Therein lies madness. Of course in the era of social media that’s easier said than done. My tip: unfollow anyone on Facebook or Twitter who is doing better than you. Though depending on how well or not your career is going, you may be in danger, like me, of just following yourself!