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What The Wire can teach you about being a professional comedian

AdvicePosted by Bobby Carroll Wed, May 15, 2013 18:56:13

Do you love The Wire? Of course you do. Even though I’m a Deadwood man, I agree with the widely accepted view that The Wire is one of, if not the, greatest television shows ever made and by greatest, I mean; the most mature, insightful, intelligent, socially aware, humanistic, entertaining, well crafted, complicated, superbly acted, narratively ambitious pieces of television ever made. Funny too... with an ear for authentic dialogue and the absurdness of the day to day life from Baltimore’s dangerous streets for a gritty, harrowing and hard hitting crime drama The Wire has plenty of laugh out loud moments. Not least of which the infamous where Bunk and McNulty canvas an old crime scene using only the word “Fuck” to communicate their progress to each other http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtHetIaWZNc If you haven’t seen it and that clip whets your appetite go out and treat yourself to the entire £50 boxset. There’s nothing I like to do more after a late home gig than pop a couple of episodes and wind down before bed. Apart from being a good adrenaline comedown from performing, The Wire has quite a few unlikely parallels to professionalism in stand up comedy.

You might find the leap from what you do on and off stage day to day and the fictional travails of heroin dealers, frustrated cops and the politicians trying to stay in power too far a chasm but look closely and it’s all there. The young hoppers, slingers and soldiers whether working the corners or in charge have very short lived reigns and life expectancies what with a steady flow of people constantly ready to take their place – how many acts do you know who quit after a month, a year or three? And to take things further how many pro comics do you know who continue to make a living beyond a decade or more? The police have to tread a constant tightrope between doing meaningful case work and appeasing their bosses’ desire to meet stats and keeping costs down – do you struggle over art versus commerce, hack versus poverty? The politicians find themselves in a world where they are all so interconnected that it very hard to make individual change without compromising integrity – in the stand up world, where you need to network, get rebooked and move up the bill, understanding what everyone in the comedy food chain needs might help you become part of the circuit easier and higher up than where talent alone might take you.

With all this in mind here are ten snatches of dialogue from the entire series of The Wire which I think illuminate my thinking about the business attitude of a professional stand up comedian.

D'Angelo Barksdale: If anybody asks you if in you in this game, you tell 'em you in it for life, a'ight?. You play it hard, you play it tight, and you make sure niggas know you gonn' stand by your people.

I know a lot of people on the open mic circuit just do comedy as a hobby or a social thing, comedy courses and pay to play nights capitalise as much on these curious daydreaming many as the ambitious, determined few. I do think however if you are serious about being a professional stand-up you have to commit to it. You need lots of meaningful stagetime to build a payable 20 that can open rooms and to be gig hardened enough that you can utilise that 20 in whatever situation you are thrown into. Sorry, but you don’t get that experience or quality from doing comedy once a week, month or in the school holidays all you get is an interesting hobby to share with your friends. You cannot say “I’m a comedian” down the pub when what the truth is “I pop out and do a bit of stand up when it suits me.” You have to be out every night performing, travelling to where audiences are and progression be. If you have more than four evenings empty in your diary any calendar week you need to leave the house, taking the risk of turning up on spec and if you don’t get on then stay sitting, watching, learning and meeting. I’m not preaching financial martyrdom. Keep your day job for as long as you can, build up savings for those first few years of going pro and for Edinburgh but if that job is either A) too flexible that you cannot commit to bookings or B) has a schedule so rigid that you cannot humanly fit into the comedy industry’s late afternoon set offs and early morning bedtimes then you probably are not going to make it. You need to decide what is more important to you comedy or a normal career. Most of you will decide on career as you have lives, bills and a standard of living but once you make that (sensible, correct) decision you have to accept you are never going to be as good as the kid grinding it out every night, listening to their just recorded set on the National Express Night Coach home and who gets up and spends their days writing, editing, rehearsing, contacting promoters and is available for that last minute gig with the venue no one else can crack. Sound unfair? Sorry, it is just logic and reason. If your life is not comedy, there is only so far you’ll go in terms of career and in terms of funny. I know I’m more willing to give ACT A paid work than ACT B despite them being equally as funny. Why? ACT A needs the money as comedy is their only source of income while ACT B might pull out on me if their boss decides they need to work late.

Lester Freamon: Remember when I was a cadet, I was up here on a cadaver search. Instructor gets on the radio to say "We're looking for one body in particular. If you go grabbing every one you see, we'll be here all day."

OK, this one is a little more obscure. It is about turning over material. When you start out you are going to try grabbing at a lot of different style of jokes, comedy and delivery. And there is nothing wrong with that but at some point you need to settle into a standard set so you can have a barometer of what is working and what is not. If you try to find every corpse you are never going to solve the case of what works for you. Once you have 5 minutes you are comfortable performing – confident that if you are on form and the crowd want you to be funny you’ll make them laugh – only change about 20 % of it any one time and work on finding new new nuances on those jokes rather new subjects. You need to develop new material but cushion it between a majority of stuff that is working. That way you’ll know if Mr New gets a better response than your most assured bits he is probably a keeper. If Mr New does not at least you gave him as good a chance to work rather than just blurting him out up front cold. This is a lesson even acts who are professional seem to forget when approaching Edinburgh. Suddenly for the sake of working towards that new hour in the gamble of finding new bookers, promoters, opportunities and audiences in August they’ll risk their standing with established venues in their desire to try out Mr New. Previews and unpaid new material slots are there and abundant for testing Mr New. I know the clock ticks from the start of September until next August but if you are being paid then at most you should be still only changing up 20% of your set. 20% at most, if any. Mr New ain’t being restricted by that 20% neither. That couple of minutes between club ready stuff each night still gives you a fair few hours of onstage experimentation....if you are gigging every night... over the 11 months of the year... that are also part of your career. The act who takes paid and try out spots to always exclusively do new and, most likely, unsuccessful ideas is an act who becomes a liability to book again. We pay you hoping to get your best 20, not your least thought out ideas.

Spiros: Now you wanna know what's in the cans? Before you wanted to know nothing. Now you ask. Guns, OK? Drugs, whore, vodka, BMWs. Beluga caviar, or bombs, maybe? Bad terrorists with big nuclear bombs. I'm kidding you, Frank, it's a joke. But you don't ask ... because you don't wanna know.

There’s nothing wrong with asking some questions and saying no to a gig. A promoter with no track record or a bad reputation unwilling to pay cash on the night or cancellation fees? Say no. A gig where the promoter cannot tell you specifically where the venue is or who the audience are until the last minute? Feel free to say no. Vague about the set up when asked? Just say no. It surprises me the amount of comedians who tell horror stories about bad gigs but did not ask basic questions before they took the booking. Don’t assume there is a secret agreement that all gigs will have made before the dawn of man over what you consider basic requirements of a comedy night are. Most comedy nights are negotiations between the varying needs and inconsistent effort of a promoter, venue and audience. To get all three of these ever changing groups to fulfill every part of the unwritten contract the performer expects are unlikely at best. But at least if you ask upfront about what you would expect to be there you have voiced any concerns before you take the booking rather than find yourself in a situation that is unplayable.

Dennis 'Cutty' Wise: The game done changed...

Slim Charles: Game's the same, just got more fierce.

Comedy has never been more competitive. There are a lot more ways into stand up now creating a surplus of new acts AND there is a whole other level in terms of theatre & arena tours and television and international work that was not quite so defined 5 years ago for the most successful few. In between there are still the same amount of pro gigs and slots out there but the leap to and from the mid-level has just gotten a bit harder is all. If you are a new act your slog to regular paid work is a lot more difficult than it was even 5 years ago. The more you perform at free entry nights where no one gets paid, pay to pay or bringer nights the more you are separating yourself off from the professional circuit. No contact with pro acts, no progression. Simple as that. Equally, well established pro acts without profile often rightly complain that fees have not gone up in line with real life costs like rent and petrol over the years. It is up to you to negotiate your payrise or move on to a more comfortable form of earning than live stand up as there is more than enough eager talent battle hardened and more than happy to take what you were earning for 20 minutes work in 1998. If you feel your talent is being underpaid go independent from bookers and promoters and do your own thing. Maybe cutting out the middle man will increase your fee, maybe it might give you a better insight into exactly how much risk, workload and money most promoters and bookers take home to guarantee you a fee. Whether you are new, pro or Peter Kay if you are not forcing yourself forward and growing then you’ll eventually find comedy is just too fast moving a landscape to rest on your laurels.

Avon Barksdale: I ain't no suit-wearin' businessman like you... you know I'm just a gangsta I suppose...

And coming back to that again. Your number one priority is being funny but that does not mean you should be naive about the business side of things. Live agents are a clear sign that a comedian has “made it”, will increase your income in all manners of way, handle a lot of the dull day to day admin but a bad one can have negative ramifications on your career. For every door an agent opens you might find they have a bad relationship with another booker that effects you behind the scenes. For every agent who is proactive, well liked by bookers and has a good eye for talent there are some who do fuck and all and yet still take 15% of whatever you would have brought in any way. Think about who you are being associated with, some agencies have a very poor stable of acts that might put a promoter off opening dialogue with them even if they’d be happy to take just you. No matter how good your current agent is you might not always be signed with them forever and ever and then you may find yourself without the right contacts to be rebooked by a chain of clubs that used to be your bread and butter. If you can get one of the best agents to take you on go for it. Even if you have an agent keep some control of your live diary and stay cc’d into any dialogue from promoters who approach you first rather than them.

Stringer Bell: That's good. That's like a forty degree day. Ain't nobody got nuttin to say about a forty degree day. Fifty? Bring a smile to your face. Sixty? Shit, niggas are damn near barbecuing that mothafucka. Go down to twenty? Niggas get they bitch on. Get they blood complainin... but forty? Nobody give a FUCK about forty. Nobody remember forty, and ya'll niggas is giving me way too many forty degree days. What the fuck?!

Consistent is good. Promoters and bookers like consistent. I know I do. But if you want to make that leap to stardom we talked about (TV, tours, awards) take risk at Edinburgh to be spectacular. Note that word “risk” though. It is there for a reason. Comedians who earn a salary are consistent. Comedian who make net millions (or starve) are doing something no one else can.

Bunk: Better to be lucky than to be good.

Being spectacular or consistent are the only ways to do this full time but there still are no guarantees. There are very few unfunny comedians who find a home on the pro circuit, there are thousands of funny ones who don’t. Don’t think for a second of the comedy circuit as a queue. Whether you have created something unique or bulletproof comedy is not a queue. Being good enough and waiting your turn is the slowest route to the bar for “good enough” to be raised again out of your reach. All that being a funny comedian buys you is a lottery ticket to full time success, a lottery ticket that chance are won’t win. Even with a great set, a strong work ethic and funnybones more people quit comedy than make a long term career out of it. Comedy is only a meritocracy in that having talent opens doors, working hard opens more doors but luck is still needed to open enough doors to survive and flourish.

Norman Wilson: A wise man does not burn his bridges until he first knows he can part the waters.

Comedy involves a lot of egos on and off stage. There are bound to be some people you don’t get along with but know once you are rude, disrespectful or unprofessional with them you have no right to another gig. Pull out on a promoter for any reason at any time and they do not have to book you... again... ever. So before cancelling a gig (whether it be for family reasons / illness / financial / laziness / even a better offer) consider whether you are happy to close off all potential future work from that source too. You have called your word and reliability into question, changed a bill a venue and an audience has invested in and created extra work for that person. Sure, their job might be booking acts but they did their job when they agreed a date and fee with you. Now they have to do that again with the clock ticking louder. If you die that might burn a bridge too but there is not anything anyone can do about that. Showing up and being easy to work with is in everyone’s wheelhouse so work on being perfect at those.

Michael: “Y’all taught me to get there early”

A lot of people in comedy moan about acts overrunning as if this is the cardinal sin of unprofessionalism, whereas I’m always of the line of it is going well and no-one needs a specific stagetime to double up then I don’t see the harm in the audience and me getting an extra 5 or 10 minutes of good value out of a comedian who is funny and willing. What does however get my back up is comedians who leave it to the very last minute to get to a gig. Suddenly the line up is inflexible, if an emergency happens on the way you have given yourself no wriggle room and you also have no idea of what has happened or been said in the room. The best headliners are not the ones who moan that a middle spot has overrun but the ones who have been there for the gig and paid attention to all that has happened. Or to put it back into the vernacular of The Wire “Staked it out before and gets the drop on anyone.”

Lester Freamon: A life, Jimmy, you know what that is? It's the shit that happens while you're waiting for moments that never come.

None of the above is a marvelous medicine recipe to success but it sure ain’t gonna hurt. But if any of the above reads like too much hard work then once again I‘d suggest being funny for a living is not for you. I do not know anyone who does “being a comedian” well who does not find it an all encompassing part of their life. Fully committing to comedy, as I suggest you have to near the top, is not just a career decision it is almost definitely a lifestyle choice. You can still keep a social life, relationship and other interests but be in no doubt the time constraints and mindset of being a full time comic really do not lend you to integrating with civilians. You work at the wrong time, on the wrong days, interacting with the wrong people. Some comedians like living the myth of the lone wolf closed off from society with no real ties. I’d argue against that. Find time to meet your partner for lunch, cherish nights off with old friends, make space in your diary for birthdays, weddings and christenings of those you care for. Save money for Christmas and holidays with the same determination as you do for the Fringe. At worst these people will be there when comedy spits you out with no transferable skills and pension plan or you walk away victorious, at best they give you a link to reality as to what real people care about. Too many young acts seem only able to talk on and off stage about gigs; the circuit, nightclubs, self service stations, public transport, who overran. Keep it real don’t become an old circuit warhorse by your mid 20s. Comedians are great company but real people will care about more than who books what room and who stole what joke. They’ll probably care about you.

Omar Little: “It's all in the game though, right?”