Tag Archives: career advice

How to build a career in comedy (and other industries)… maybe or maybe not

Part of Tabula Peutingeriana, a Roman road map

Someone once said to me that he thought most criminals were doomed to fail and jail because they had no plan.

He was a criminal himself.

Had been.

He had stopped.

“If you gamble and flounder around and you have no plan,” he said, “you’re a mug.”

I paraphrase the words. But the thoughts are his.

“Most criminals,” he told me, “don’t have an aim. They don’t have a specific number they want to reach. If you want to make a million quid or half a million, you can very possibly do that. It’s like gambling. If you are determined and you take enough risks, you may well do it. But, once you get there, you should stop.

“There’s the risk of getting caught, the risk of going to prison, the risk of losing the gamble. And the longer you go on, the more the odds are against you. Most criminals don’t put a number on what they want, so they can never reach it.

“If you have no aim – if you just keep doing the same thing over and over again and don’t have no exit strategy, you’re a mug. You are treading water and you will run out of luck. It will all come crashing down on your head.”

I think you probably stand a greater chance of making a million from crime than from gambling with the odds in Las Vegas but, that aside, he has a point.

Without an aim, you go off in all directions and get nowhere.

And, of course, once you have achieved your aim, you need to know what your next aim is.

What brought this to mind was someone at The Grouchy Club this week who asked for tips about getting on in the comedy business.

I think one thing is to have a very specific three-year or five-year aim. And, indeed, ten and twenty year aim. Have a specific aim. You do not want to start by thinking about what your first Edinburgh Fringe show is going to be next year. You want to think where you want to be in three or five years time. And then in ten. And then in twenty. Then work backwards and figure out a roadmap for getting there, starting with wherever you are now.

Today is ground zero.

Whatever happened in the past has been passed. You can’t change the past.

Today is ground zero.

You do not just take a first step without knowing exactly where you want to end up.

If you want to get from London to Aberdeen, you should not just go into the first railway station you find and get onto the first train that leaves and focus your entire mind on which chocolate bar you are going to buy for the journey. You should be thinking about how to get to Aberdeen; not taking a random step and focusing on the detail without knowing where you are going.

If you don’t know the longer-term aims of your short-term actions, you risk just floundering around from random pillar to random post.

You have to be able to take advantage of accident and happenstance and side-turnings along the way of course but, again, without knowing the ultimate destination you want to reach in three, five, ten and twenty years, you risk not going or getting anywhere.

It is like writing a comedy show. If you don’t know what your show is about, you will be adrift in a sea of good ideas, unable to decide which ones to choose, unable to fit them all into an ever-changing shape that doesn’t exist. You should – in my easily-ignored opinion – not start with 1,001 amorphous good ideas and then try to figure out how to fit them all into some unknown shape illustrating nothing. You should start with the shape, then work back to the details you need to complete the shape.

You may have lots of colourful, differently-shaped pieces which individually look interesting but, if they don’t fit together, you ain’t got a jigsaw. You need to know the picture on the jigsaw you are making, then find the pieces that will fit together to create it.

With a show, in your own mind, you should have an elevator pitch. Decide what you want to create the show about. Then describe it in 10 or 12 words. Then, when writing the show, use only anecdotes, gags and thoughts that illustrate or illuminate those 10 or 12 words. Throw out anything else.

If you have some startlingly original, stunningly funny story – the most brilliant story or thought in the entire history of the world – which does not fit into that 10 or 12 word description, DO NOT use it. It will distract the audience, screw-up the flow and fuck-up your show. You can use this item of sheer genius on another occasion. The number of waffly, amorphous, don’t-hold-together hours of meandering shows I have sat through at the Edinburgh Fringe doesn’t bear thinking about.

If you cannot think of a 10 or 12 word description of the show you are obsessed by and keen to do, then you don’t have a show. You just want to be acclaimed for being yourself, not for creating something. DO NOT imagine you have a show. DO NOT throw your money away waffling at the Edinburgh Fringe. The funniest 3 or 6 minute story in the world, if irrelevant, will screw-up a show not make it better. Ten stories are not a show. Not ten random 6-minute unconnected shows with no flow. If it don’t flow, it ain’t a show. Ten stories all illustrating a single elevator pitch point ARE a show.

Of course – of course – of course – the irony is that I never had a plan in my career(s) or in my life. But that is because I am and always have been a nihilist. All of the above is just filling in time. It all ends when the Sun expands and explodes and takes everything with it – our long-forgotten skeletons or ashes or worm-excreta and everything else. It all becomes space dust floating in infinity.

So it goes.

When, at last, you are unable to close your eyes and all you hear is the sound of your own death rattle… all that matters is memories of love and/or genuine friendship.

But – hey! – if you are a performer, ego and acclaim are what really matter.

So have a plan for success. A very well-worked-out plan. Work out what you want in the long term, then work backwards to what you should be doing in the short and medium term to achieve that.

Have an elevator pitch of 10 or 12 words about what you want to achieve in life as well as what your show will be about. Don’t flounder. Follow the plan. Though allow for advantageous side roads.

Have a 10 or 12 word outline for your show.

Have a 10 or 12 word outline for your life.

And don’t blame me when it all goes arse-over-tits.

I know nothing.

I have never claimed I did.

I am just filling in time.

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