Pull the other one

Performance assessment of stand-up comedians is swift and can be harsh. You have to want to do it.

In a moment of madness, I once signed up for a part-time course to learn to be a comedienne. As I paid for the course I felt slightly nauseous. It wasn’t that it was very expensive, rather that, having paid, I knew I would have to go through with it and this was going to take me into a painful place, optimistically called the “stretch zone”. The gods smiled on me when the course was cancelled. They probably smiled on the many who were saved my future performances! I smiled back.  

Nevertheless, at the end of 2018, with family and friends, we paused to consider what we were most grateful for in the year. It was skilful, sharp-witted, satirical, edgy and sometimes rude comedians. Shining lights on the dark places and the taboos, comedians challenge our assumptions and distract our troubled minds from our daily worries. In making us laugh they release endorphins and reduce our stress. We raised our glasses and said thank you!

Stand-Up comedian Nish Kumar in a recent BBC Front Row reflected on the harsh apprenticeship towards fully functioning stand up. He described 5 or 6 years of grim exposure in front of often deeply unforgiving audiences. This is a brutal form of performance management that is a far cry from what most of us experience. The success indicators are uncomplicated: keep their attention; make them laugh; deal with the odd moron effectively; get asked back; get new venues. Like a ski jumper – definitely a question for another blog – you know pretty quickly if you have what it takes.

And, in spite of the brutality, it is a growing sector. There is no shortage of new talent emerging, fuelled from the new hopefuls applying to take to the free slots at comedy clubs and pub venues. What is the attraction? Perhaps for some it is exactly the ‘lion’s pit’ feel that is attractive. For others perhaps it’s a strong vision of the role of comedy in society to make a difference to be used at the edge of political activism. Still others may be doing it for fun and take no heed of whether they are profitable as a result. Except for a wealthy few, it cannot be the money that attracts them as there are surely easier ways to make a living. 

All these brave men and women of stand-up have made an explicit and personal choice to do this work and succeed at it. It is a personal choice and the immediacy of the feedback on the performance is part of the gig. Seems more liberating than the placid annual reviews and unclear messaging that many attempt to improve their performance against.

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