“Aren’t you too old for this?”
“What’s the point?”
“Have you put on weight?”
These are questions I was asked by comedian friends – and normal friends – when I said that I would be performing at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. To be fair only two people asked the last question but it still hurt.
Funnily enough, the last time I heard the question: “Aren’t you too old for this?” in relation to comedy was in 1997. I was in the final of the BBC New Comedy Awards alongside Justin Lee Collins and Peter Kay and we were all being interviewed by the Press. We were sat in a circle and the journalist went around asking everyone their age. I was going to be the last one to be asked. The journalist asked the person before me how old they were and when they said their age, the journalist said: “Oh. Aren’t you too old for this?” That person was a year younger than me. So when it came to me, I lied. I made myself 8 years younger. That was my first insight into the potential ageism in my newly chosen profession.
In most jobs, the more experience you have and the better you become, the more chance there is of advancement. Someone who starts off as a paralegal in a law firm, would hope to one day be an established lawyer and possibly a partner in a firm. A runner in a production company would hope to one day be a producer in their own right and possibly have their own company. These are seen as marks of success in one’s chosen field. This doesn’t always ring true for comedy. In comedy, it is generally considered that success relates to “being on the telly”. The number of promoters who now only book comedians with TV credits – even for low paid gigs – has gone up considerably. It seems that being good at your job, is not as important as having performed this job, however well or badly, on television.
The problem is, TV producers are constantly looking for the next new thing. “New” clearly equating to “young”. The problem is that “young” does not necessarily mean experienced. or good. In fact you generally can’t be good without being experienced.
When I was growing up my favourite comedians on TV were, what is considered, older: Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper, Dave Allen etc. There was something comforting and safe about them. And of course, funny. They had worked for years and years around the tough working men’s circuit and had earned their place. Hence their longevity.
This doesn’t happen so much nowadays. Of course there are exceptions; Micky Flanagan, John Bishop etc but these really are in the minority.
I was easily in the top 5% of older comedians in Edinburgh this year. One of the reasons I became aware of this was that, after my second show at 10pm, I would meet with some of these other older comedians for a drink. We would have a chat and a laugh and then leave by around 11:30pm – passing all the younger comedians who were now arriving!
This brings me to the second question: “What’s the point?”
In all honesty, I’m not sure. Maybe it was just to remind people I was still around. After all Edinburgh is a Trade Show whereby you set out your stall and show what you have for sale. The problem is, the people who DO know you think: “Oh they’ve been going a while, let’s see someone new instead” and the people who DON’T know you think “Well they’ve been going for a long time but hasn’t progressed to TV so they can’t be very good”.
I suppose one of the reasons I did the Festival is because I had shows I really liked. I thoroughly enjoyed performing them and the audiences’ reactions were the best I’ve had to any previous show. I’m a better comedian now than I have ever been before. Of course I am. I’ve had more experience than I’ve ever had before. The longer you do something the better you are at it. (Apart from singing. I’m still as bad at that as I ever have been. Maybe even worse.)
Oh, I say “shows” as I performed two separate hour long shows this year. That was never the intention. I was only going to perform the one: “I’ve Never Told Anyone This” but then another venue became available at a good time slot so I decided to perform the show “Heard the one about Identity Theft?”. I had performed a quarter of this show 10 years previously and this new show would be the consequences of that initial show – making a documentary, being arrested by Scotland Yard etc.
In addition to these two shows I performed at several other shows including twice at The Pick of the Fringe Show for the Stand and twice at the Best of Edinburgh Showcase all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was hoping to perform at another famous compilation show but sadly the young booker for that show didn’t find me funny. It happens. You can’t please everyone.
I was delighted to have received lovely comments from audience members as well as from people such as; Philip Schofield, Ian Rankin and Rory Bremner. There is nothing better than being told you’re good at what you do.
So now what?
Well, firstly I have to work hard to recoup my losses. Although the shows generally did well, and many sold out, the cost of taking two shows to Edinburgh for almost a month was phenomenal.
Then, I have to find a new agent. Sadly my previous one, who was lovely etc, more or less told me that she could potentially get me work – if I were a young female comedian. Sadly I’m neither of those things. Of course I understand that for far too long TV shows were full of middle aged men. Some still are. And it’s time for that to change. It’s just a shame I didn’t get on anything before the change!
I have many friends in the industry, male and female, who have been performing for over 20 years. And they are excellent. However it’s unlikely that they will get their chance to shine on a larger stage than comedy clubs. Which is sad. And the comedy circuit itself is in decline. Years ago I used to play the Jongleurs Comedy Clubs quite frequently. Whatever anyone thinks of them – and I’ve never quite understood the snobby attitude towards them from some comedians and reviewers – they provided a very good salary to many people. Comedians were treated well by staff, put up in lovely hotels and given free food and drink. Sadly those clubs have now been taken over and not only is there no hotel anymore, nor is there any free food and drink, the money has halved!
So, as I said, what now? Will an agent want to take me on? Even though I’ve been a professional comedian for 21 years, had over 30 sitcom scripts produced on TV, written for a number of BAFTA-winning programmes, written two books, starred in 3 of my own Radio Series – two of which were nominated for the Celtic Media Awards – am in a Radio 4 sitcom and presented two documentaries – BAFTA shortlisted as a Director for one of them – the fact that I am seen to be ‘past my prime’ does not give me much hope.
I still enjoy gigging around the country and there are some wonderful clubs and fantastic bookers, and I’m fortunate to perform at corporate events around the world, but making a living as a stand-up comedian is tough. I write material for famous comedians, which I love, but I have to say, sometimes, whilst hearing my lines being spoken on Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week etc is still exciting, there is always that little voice saying “It would be nice if you were saying them yourself.”
So what am I saying? Why have in written this? Is it a potential warning to new comedians? Is it a call of camaraderie to my comedian friends? Is it the ramblings of someone with dreadful insomnia? Yes. All those.
Anyway, I have to finish now as I apparently need to do some exercising…..