Features

Comedy as a Workspace

We all occasionally grapple with the issue of imposter syndrome, particularly when it comes to our profession. However, in most professions there are certain pre-agreed office rules that we all abide by, whether or not we think we are doing a good job, and if we don’t behave there’s an awkward line-manager meeting in store for us, if not a P45. Likewise for our co-workers.

The profession of stand-up comedian is where we step into a grey area. There are several reasons for this. Due to various factors the world of live comedy is a bit of a wild west. It’s a law unto itself and a lot of comedians happen to like it that way, that’s why they’re on stage and not in an office. And there are plenty of upsides to this, but when the rules of your workplace aren’t so much rules as ‘Things The Community Collectively Frowns Upon Depending on Who’s Involved’ it can result in behaviour that in any other workplace would be unacceptable.

One issue with this profession is that people at any level can call themselves a comedian. Then, of course, there are people who make their living entirely from stand-up comedy, where there is no question whether or not they are a comedian but it seems there is a question as to whether and when they are working and what their workspace is.

I am positive plenty of comedians who make a living writing and performing comedy will happily say they can’t believe their luck, or that they enjoy their job, but I can assure you they are very clear, it is their job and to get to this level requires dedication and graft. It makes you realise this country’s attitude to what constitutes ‘hard’ work that if you’re visibly enjoying it, then it’s not proper work. If you aren’t making panicked phone calls to the office at 7am from your train carriage, sending frantic emails in CAPS to your co-workers at the weekend, or rushing round clipboard in hand are you even working, let alone working hard? So, to the audience, can someone on stage making jokes (whether or not you find them funny) possibly be working?

I wonder if this is why there have been mixed responses to the following recent incidents, firstly Nish Kumar getting booed off at a charity gig, secondly Bill Burr’s angry response to comedian Jena Friedman’s tweet: “Hey headlining comics, if you take a younger comic on the road with you, don’t try to fuck them… comedy clubs are work environments, extend an employment opportunity to that younger comic but don’t be creepy about it. Also, if you are, they will probably tell us. We all talk.” And thirdly Courtney Pong shutting down her own comedy show in response to the sexist material male comedians were performing.

Two of these comics were put in an unsafe situation at work and one was trying to create a healthier workspace environment for women who are effectively her co-workers. Kumar joked about the event on Twitter, however in spite of the naysayers on social media discussing where politics are appropriate, it is not host of satirical show The Mash Report Kumar failing to do his job properly but whoever booked him. It’s arguable that all comedians know there is a risk of booing at gigs, or (possibly worse) silence, but I think we can all agree that, unless you are in sport, the risk of having objects hurled at you is slim to none.

For plenty of women on the circuit an encounter with a bread product is the least of their worries, long car journeys, cramped backstage rooms and issues with ‘rank’ all heighten worry and risk over unwanted sexual attention. Comedian Jena Friedman has reached a certain stage in her career where she doesn’t have to just listen to horror stories from fellow women comedians on the circuit but try to change the world they work in. For some reason this angered headliner Bill Burr, who called the successful comedian “a hack”.  As Friedman pointed out in another tweet: “In comedy, there’s no HR department, so people who care about equitable work environments have to put pressure on people in power to care too… @billburr, if you disagree, feel free to tell me to my face.”

Similarly when at your place of work it’s not wildly entitled to request no misogyny or other slurs for that matter are bandied about your office, something Courtney Pong took seriously when, after one comedian made a joke about putting women in the boot of his car as an Uber driver, she rang a bell, stopped the show and offered all her customers refunds. You also deserve not to be subjected to gaslighting at work (or anywhere) and told abuse is banter.

Comedy is work, work that should be respected by audience, bookers and comedians alike. And unless you’re in a carb-loaded sketch, no bread needs to be involved.