Stand up comedy is often described as one of the scariest jobs in the entertainment industry. Between you and the audience stand only a microphone. There is no where to hide and you very quickly find out what works and what doesn’t.
The audience either laugh or they don’t. There is very little middle ground when it comes to comedy.
But what is it like to have comedy as your career? We were incredibly interested in the creative process and the inner working of writing comedy so, we asked a professional comedian.
Chris Purchase is one of the elusive wizards of comedy and has been a professional comedian for six years. He has supported some of the top names in comedy and best of all, he is a great guy.
“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.” Robin Williams
I can remember the exact moment I wanted to be a standup comedian. I was 13 years old, Robin Williams at the Met was on TV and my mum saw no reason to censor the things we watched. I’d seen Jasper Carrott, Victoria Wood and Jack Dee but Robin was something else. Suddenly here was someone talking about important issues and seeing the funny in them, nothing was off limits to this man. He was unrestrained and honest. It seemed like no matter the subject, no matter how dark or personal, he could make a joke out of it and more importantly he could change your mind. I was a 13 year old boy listening to a recovering alcoholic and drug addict digging through his soul and it was hilarious all because this man refused to be a slave to his demons.
And at that point I wanted what he had, I wanted that power to bring light to the darkness.
It would take me 15 years to build up the courage to try it out and when I did I fell head over heels in love with it.
The first comedy gig
“You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love” – Jim Carrey 2014
I’ve been a comedian since August 2009. My first gig was actually one I’d organised myself with another budding comedian. We’d been doing a radio show for a local station, sketches and jokes on a Sunday morning mostly, when another presenter asked if we’d like to try stand up at a show he was organising for charity. It actually took some convincing to get us to agree but we were assured there’d be two pro comics and an MC (the other presenter) so if it went badly the show would still be great and it was all for a good cause.
At this point I had never written a standup set, I’d seen many of my heroes perform them on TV and it seemed like they always did an hour or more so I figured 20 minutes would be an average starting set for a new comic. Little did I know that your average new comic starts with 5 minutes so what comes next is even crazier. We had a month before the show so myself and my co host wrote our sets, recorded them so we could listen back and practised endlessly.
The week of the show and the presenter who booked us says the other comics have dropped out and so has he, it’s just myself and my co host who’ll be on the show. We know that there’s already nearly a hundred people signed up to come to this thing and we are terrified but not wanting to cut the show short or cancel we do the only thing we think we can do and write another 20 minutes each. Our plan is to do 20 minutes each in the first half then a second set of 20 minutes each in the second half. While this doesn’t sound like much this is insane, a good 20 minute set takes months if not years of practise and development and 40 minutes is a headline act in the biggest clubs not some radio host pretending to be a stand up for one night. So like children with a machine gun we pulled the trigger without knowing what was going to happen.
It was awful. It was so bad. I did jokes about eating hamsters…he did stuff about masturbating. It went down like a lead balloon while nearly 100 of our friends awkwardly laughed when they thought they should. But it was fun. I still remember the two of us backstage before the show singing “Bright Eyes” to calm ourselves down.
“The whole object of comedy is to be yourself and the closer you get to that, the funnier you will be.” – Jerry Seinfeld
I’ve always found it hard to just sit down and write. There’s no inspiration on a desk or in a blank notepad. Usually I’ll be doing something and an idea will form around it or I’ll read something in the news and want to emphasise it. Sometimes I’ll see something I’m interested in and get so excited about it I’ll want to share it with an audience, I’ve got a bit on how animals and humans have very different mating habits and I love doing it to a big room just because it’s fun and educational.
The more I take in the more likely I am to be inspired. I read everything, listen to as much as I can, watch anything from the Royal Shakespeare company performing The Taming of the Shrew to Celebrity Big Brother. It’s all part of what makes up society and as a comedian that’s what I feel the material should be focused on. Comedians get a free pass to talk about anything they want in any way they like to hundreds of people, with that kind of power I think you should be using it to change people’s minds.
I was recently in Newcastle doing a show. Afterwards a man came up to me. He shook my hand and said:
“you know that stuff you did about custody battles, you’re the first person I’ve heard talk about it like that. Thank you. I fought for my daughter and no one realises how hard it is for the men who want to see their children.”
He bought me a whiskey and we showed each other pictures of our children and talked about how fast they grow up and how glad we are that we aren’t missing any of it now. That’s what I think any comedian should be doing; making a difference so, my material reflects that. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a bunch of knob gags too, everyone thinks a penis is funny because it looks like your bald uncle Jim in a turtleneck.
Advice for new comedians
It’s been six years since I started in comedy, six long years filled with some lows and a lot of highs. The lessons I’ve learned have taught me that I still have so much more to discover. Also that people are like Rubik’s cubes, visually appealing but confusing.
There are some things that no one tells you when you do comedy. Things that everyone in the industry eventually learns but if you got told early on might help you out. I thought I’d share some of those things here.
BE FUNNY – You’d think this was an obvious one but there’s a trend to think saying random stuff on stage and hoping the audience thinks you’re quirky is enough, it’s not. Knuckle down, write some decent stuff, test it and then try and turn it into a full set.
Be professional – It’s great to work in comedy, you can be yourself and you work with fantastic people (sometimes famous), however it is work. Show up on time, be nice and friendly, don’t overrun on your time and thank the promoter for putting you on. You’ll get a lot more gigs if you do AND you’ll get a lot higher profile work as well. Trust me it’s important.
Dress well – Again it’s been the trend recently to dress like you just got out of a university lecture still smelling of vodka and shameful sex from the night before but unless you’re playing a character act this is going to go against you. When you get up on stage people expect you to know what you’re doing and if you’re dressed well they’ll assume you’ve done well before and will give them a great show. There’s a lot more room for error and people are a lot more willing to forgive someone dressed in a suit.
Confidence – When a new comic asks me for advice this is the first thing I tell them: Be confident. When an audience feels like you’re confident they relax, if they feel like you’re nervous they switch off assuming you’re crap. However this isn’t just about the audience in shows, the world is your audience. Positivity will make promoters book you more than bitching about people on internet forums. Tell people you’re doing well, be proud of your achievements and congratulate others on theirs. Being confident in yourself is about recognising that other people can succeed and you have nothing to be jealous about.
Make friends – In comedy it’s about who you know. You don’t know day to day who is going to achieve massive success or who is going to end up running 30 well paid gigs in the South West. Make sure you’re not calling the next Eddie Izzard a massive cock and definitely make sure you’re not telling everyone how shit a promoter is. Of course privately feel free to warn comedians off a promoter who screws them out of money but publicly be all smiles and roses. Other promoters will be hesitant to book you if they think you’ll criticise their gig afterwards.
Keep writing – As a comedian you’re supposed to be at the cutting edge of artistic expression. If you’re still doing the same set from two years ago with jokes in it about hurricane Katrina or the miner’s strike you’re not going to be marketable for promoters. Comedians who constantly come up with a new, well made, set are rebooked more regularly as they can appeal to a show’s regulars as well as any newcomers.
Promote yourself – TELL EVERYONE WHAT YOU DO. You never know who is going to need a performer. I have got corporate work for massive multinational companies just by meeting someone at a friend’s birthday and them asking for my business card. Be proud of it you’re doing one of the hardest things to do in the world.
Know your level – Put your ego aside and take a long hard look at yourself. How do you compare to other acts on the circuit? Are you getting a better reaction than them or a worse one? You should be able to look at a line-up and know who you’re better than. That way you can contact promoters and know what slot/fee you should be asking for, you’re more likely to get work if you’re applying for gigs at the right level rather than annoying the promoter by constantly applying for gigs offering £500 headline slots with TV experience.
Choose criticism – You’re putting yourself out there with the view to making people react to you. Some people will hate you and some people will love you. You have to be sensible about what you take personally and what you ignore. If an exceedingly experienced comedian is telling you you’re not funny but you just smashed a gig he died at you might want to look at that objectively and see that their ego has been bruised. If an exceedingly experienced comedian talks to you after the show and says “I liked this bit but I don’t think this bit works” and you got a mediocre reception you should probably listen to them. In the end the only people that really matter are your audience.
Never give up – Comedy is a long race, it’s only the lucky few who succeed quickly and really it will have been years for them rather than a perceived “overnight” success. The longer you perform for, the more you’ll learn and the better you’ll be. I’ve seen lots of amazing comics give up because they weren’t immediately famous and I’ve seen mediocre comics become TV superstars because they put the work in and bettered themselves. In the end it’s a marathon not a sprint.
In the end
Being a comedian is the most fantastic job in the world. I love being able to meet the people I do, say the things I want to say and the only person I have to answer to is myself. It’s been six years now and only recently have I started to feel like I’m getting to the place I wanted to be. If you’re reading this and thinking:
“I’d like to be a comedian but it looks hard”
I’m going to say go do it, do it over and over. Do it for years and don’t give up because when you’re up on that stage hearing hundreds of people laugh at one of your own ideas, one you may have only just thought up in the car on the way to the show, there’s just nothing in the world that can compare to that feeling.
George Orwell – 1984 – To get an idea of what society could be like without someone constantly reminding everyone how ridiculous it could be.
Aldous Huxley – Brave New World – Again a look at what society would be like without the ability to see itself from an outside perspective.
Grant Naylor – Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers – The Red Dwarf books are an important part of how I developed as a writer.
Literally anything by Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman both of whom were/are incredible visionaries. Reading them challenges your natural viewpoint on things and anything that does that is great for getting creative juices flowing.
Watchmen by Alan Moore – Read it, Read it and then read it again.