Comedy can definitely be a career. Ironically, almost anybody who goes into it with success as their goal is unlikely to stick with it long enough to have a career. Most of us try stand-up because we’re funny and it’s the most accessible entrée to a public forum. Is our sense of humour funny to more than just our friends? Turning it into a career tends to happen after a long period of just enjoying comedy for its own sake.
Like all arts, comedy is a hard way to make a living, let alone a fortune. There are no guarantees and passion does not necessarily lead to success. Everyone who fancies themselves an entertainer would rather do their act than have a regular job so the competition is fierce and there is only room for the small number in the professional ranks. Smarts and business acumen can definitely help but they mean nothing if you cannot deliver onstage. In the end, a career in the arts is a game of attrition. Of those who try stand-up, most will fail immediately, discovering that there is a lot more to it than it appears to from the audience. Of those who have the talent, most will quit when they realize that there is no regular salary or security guaranteed. Generally speaking, a person who is smart enough to be a good comic is smart enough to make a good living in the real world. Most comics who stick around do it because it is all they want to do and the slings and arrows are worth suffering to keep getting that sweet sweet hit of laughs to which we become so attached. The fact that it is a calling as strong as sports to an athlete or the cloth to a cleric means that business concerns are often overlooked. We would do it for free and have so many times that the notion of being paid can feel like an added bonus instead of a deserved remuneration.
Something that differentiates comedy from other art forms is that it cannot really be worked on without an audience. Visual artists, obviously, finish a piece before displaying it. Even other performers rehearse and polish their work in private before exposing it to an audience but comedy requires the feedback of the listener to know if it’s comedy. Without the laugh, it’s just words, not an act. From a business point of view that means it can be difficult to discern the difference between a show that is ready for consumption and a night where material is being worked on. Because there is a need to draw a crowd for development purposes, comedians will promote what is essentially a night at the gym as an actual fight. That creates a problem in that an audience can be turned off of the whole idea of seeing stand-up because they have no idea that what they are seeing is not a consumer ready product. They also wonder why they would pay a cover at a legitimate club when there is free “comedy” at the bar nearby. Those of us in the industry know the difference but the audience has no way to distinguish what is and isn’t professional unless we make it clear.
Thing is, there is money being made, quite a lot actually. Plenty of people make a good and steady income from comedy. They tend to be producers, bookers and club owners. Comedians do not generally make as much or as steady money as those people. True, we get the applause and laughs but that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that there is no money at all without what we provide. Nobody is going to the clubs or festivals because of the lighting, sound or drinks; they are going for the laughs and only we can provide that. The fact that so many people want to perform is used by the bookers in their negotiations with the talent. There is always somebody who wants the gig. No individual performer makes or stops the show. By making comics see one another as competition, the people who control the purse strings can keep the pay low. Everybody knows that comics are not interchangeable. Each of us brings different strengths and appeals to different audiences. It only benefits the booker to view us as a product instead of unique artists.
Canada has unique problems not faced by other country’s comics. Our small population is spread out over an immense territory. The costs of traveling to many population centers are prohibitive. It costs as much to fly to the coast as the gigs pay. We also live in the shadow of the American entertainment juggernaut. The whole world is second to the US in terms of cultural influence. We sit right next door and speak the same language. This means that we have virtually no star system. It has always been a problem that many of our talents leave for the States or Europe to pursue bigger opportunities. There is also a tendency of our media to ignore the talent that stays. The feeling seems to be that if we were good, we would not stay in Canada. That attitude transfers to the bookers as well. We are seen and promoted as generic comedy without any differentiation between acts. This helps keep the price low. Then again, if names were promoted, the audience might be willing to pay more to see us and that would translate to more money for the promoters and the performers. There is a lot of room for improvement. Seeing ourselves as a community with shared interests instead of competitors scrapping for the few available dollars would certainly be a start. The reason TV and radio pays reasonably well is that the artists formed an association to negotiate decent rates and conditions. Like us, there are many actors who would do it for free. Only by working together were they able to improve their situation. It can seem that any chance to perform is better than not performing but if you will work for nothing, what impetus is there for anyone to pay you? It is up to us to decide what we are worth.
Written by Simon Rakoff