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Fanzines and Webpages: Rock Is Not Comedy, Comedy Is Not Rock
I've spent the past couple of years away from the world of indie gigs, playing Fringe theatre and comedy shows with my various Rock Operas. When I went into that world I assumed it would be work on pretty much the same principles as I was used to, but it turns out that the two are very different.
Comedy Has A Career Structure
The comedy scene has a clearly marked career structure whereby comedians gradually work their way up through longer and better gigs, improving their craft all the way. They start off doing Open Mic nights, where they get up for a minute or so to tell a couple of jokes, move on to short opening sets and then once they've got a "tight five minutes" of material they gradually expand that to a half hour. They take this up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and then do the same the next year with a full hour. Gig Promoters and booking agents are aware of this and keep an active eye out for who's doing well, and are in contact with TV people. I've seen several people progress through this system in the short time I've been around, and now spend many happy evening watching panel shows shouting "I met him once!"
When I first started doing comedy gigs I bridled against all this - it's hardly punk rock, is it? Then I realised that getting "discovered" in music is a matter of sheer luck and/or knowing the right people. The more I thought about it the more amazing bands I remembered seeing who never go anywhere simply because they never happened to do the "right" gig, and all the terrible ones who did well just because one of them used to work with a music journalist.
Comedians Always Get Paid
Anybody who's been in a band will have many many tales of rolling up to a gig miles from home and not even getting your bus fare back because not enough people came, but as far as I can see this does not happen at comedy gigs. It's expected that you pay the acts, so everybody does, even though I would argue that bands do more to earn the money. If somebody goes to a gig they're pretty much always going to see a specific band, but for comedy people often turn up with no idea about who's on.
The trouble for people in bands is that we love doing what we do and are often too polite to say otherwise, so carry on playing gigs just for the pleasure of doing so. Comedians would never do this - even when they play charity gigs they expect, and get, "expenses" and food, and they simply will not do a gig if there's no money. This also ties in to the next point -
Comedians Do A Lot Of Gigs
They really really do. Most comedians I've met are gigging at least once a week, every week, and aim to do more. At the Edinburgh Fringe they're forever dropping in and doing sets at other people's shows as well as their own, and they never stop. Compared to bands touring once or twice a year with occasionally gigs in between, comedians make us look lazy. On the other hand, the fact that we don't play as often means we value the gigs we do do a lot more, and we're not guilty of some of the downsides of comedy, such as -
Comedians Only Turn Up For Their Bits
Whenever I do a comedy gig I always end up arriving 90 minutes before anybody else. It's what I'm used to, I'm there for the soundcheck, but comedians think it's fine not only to miss the soundcheck but also huge chunks of the gig itself, often turning up just five minutes before their own set then clearing off straight after to go and play somewhere else. I know they have a lot to get to, but to be honest it always strikes me as rude when they leave during someone else's set. At least when bands do it they have the common decency to EITHER look horribly embarrassed and apologetic OR hide at the back for a bit then sneak out so nobody notices. Manners!
Comedians Treat The Audience Like A Commodity
Several times I've been at comedy gigs where the promoter has cancelled the night because not enough people have turned up. I'm not talking about no people turning up, I'm talking about "not enough", which has sometimes included in audiences well into double figures that I'd have been very glad to play for! I always think this is disgraceful behaviour - if somebody's turned up to see you then you should do the bloody gig - but it's part of the attitude that the audience is there for your benefit, not the other way round.
Similarly comedians view audiences as a source of material. They invariably spend the first ten minutes of their sets "interacting" with the audience by asking them where they come from and what they do for a living. Goodness knows why, it is NEVER INTERESTING but they all do it. I used to get annoyed when bands ignored the audience, nowadays I find it a blessed relief!
Comedians Don't Half Think They're Clever
Comedians seem to think it's terribly clever to point out that they're using rhetorical constructs invented thousands of years ago. If they do a joke which relies on the same idea being repeated three times they seem to have to say "Ooh! Rule of three there!" in case you missed it. If they tell a joke that relies on you remembering something they said earlier, they will say "Call-back!" and expect you to applaud their cunning. It's a chronic pain in the arse that makes me want to commit grisly murder upon them all - imagine if bands stopped after every chorus and said "That was a chorus!" and expected to be congratulated for it, or spent five minutes "discussing" whether or not they should have had that guitar solo in. You would wish death upon them, and you would be right to do so.
In conclusion then, and as you may have gathered, I'm very happy to be back at proper gigs again. There's a lot to admire about the organisation and "professional" attitude of comedy gigs, but at the end of the day it produces and atmosphere focussed more on work than fun, more on the needs of the performers than the people who've come to see them, and more on craft and technique than on actually saying something. Rule of three!
An Artists Against Success Presentation