Are you experienced?
- Aren’t you too old for this?
- What’s the point?
- Have you put on weight?
These are questions I was asked by comedian friends
– and normal friends – when I said that I would be performing at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. To be fair only two people asked the last question, but it still hurt. Funnily enough, the last time I heard the question: ‘Aren’t you too old for this?’ in relation to comedy, was in 1997. I was in the final of the BBC New Comedy Awards alongside Justin Lee Collins and Peter Kay and we were all being interviewed by the Press. We were sat in a circle and the journalist went around asking everyone their age. I was the last one to be questioned. The journalist asked the person before me how old they were and when they said their age, the journalist said: ‘Oh. Aren’t you too old for this? That person was a year younger than I was. So when it came to me,I made myself eight years younger. And that age has stayed with me throughout my career. Of course some people know my real age-like school friends and one of my parents. But this was really my first insight into the potential ageism in my newly chosen profession.
n most jobs, the more experience you have and
the better you become, the more chance there is of advancement. Someone who starts off as a paralegal in a law firm, would hope to one day be an established lawyer and possibly a partner in a firm. A runner in a production company would hope to one day be a producer and possibly have their own company. These are seen as marks of success in one’s chosen field. is doesn’t always ring true for comedy. In comedy, success tends to relate to ‘being on the telly’. The number
of promoters who now only book comedians with
TV credits – even for low paid gigs – has increased considerably. It seems that being good at your job is not as important as having performed, however well or badly, on television.
The problem is, TV producers are constantly looking for the next new thing. ‘New’ clearly equates to ‘young’ of course. The problem is that ‘young’ does not necessarily mean experienced. Or good. In fact you generally can’t be good without being experienced. (I don’t think I need to give other examples, do I?)
When I was growing up my favourite comedians
on TV tended be the ones that people would have considered, ‘older’: Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper, Dave Allen. There was something comforting and safe about them. And of course, funny. they had worked for years around the tough working men’s circuit and had earned their place. Hence their longevity. But today, like your most comfortable underwear, they’d be considered a little too old and in need of some additional support.
Of course there are exceptions; Micky Flanagan, John Bishop and our own Rhod Gilbert. But these really are in the minority.
I was easily in the top five percent of older comedians in Edinburgh this year. One of the reasons I became aware of this was that, after my second show at 10pm, I would meet with some of these other older comedians for a drink. We would have a chat and a laugh and then leave by around 11:30pm – passing all the younger comedians who were now arriving!
This brings me to the second question: “What’s the point?”
In all honesty, I’m not sure. Maybe it was just to remind people I was still around. After all Edinburgh is a Trade Show. You set out your stall and show what you have for sale here. The problem is, the people who DO know you think: ‘Oh they’ve been going a while, let’s see someone new instead’ and the people who DON’T know you think ‘Well they’ve been going for a long time but haven’t progressed to TV so they can’t be very good.’
I suppose one of the reasons I did the Festival is because I had a show I really liked. The performances went well. I was delighted to receive lovely comments from audience members which included people like Philip Schofield, Ian Rankin and Rory Bremner. There is nothing better than being told you’re good at what you do.
So now what?
Even though I’ve been a professional comedian for
20 years, had over 30 sitcom scripts on TV, written books, starred in my own radio series, presented documentaries and am currently starring in a Radio 4 sitcom alongside Angus Deayton, it’s sad to think some might see me as past my prime. My Radio Wales series was not renewed even though it had huge listening figures and was nominated for a Celtic Media Award.
But I’m not ready to hang up my hat just yet...
I still enjoy gigging around the country and I’m fortunate to perform at corporate events around the world, but making a living as a stand-up comedian is tough. I write material for famous comedians, which I love, but I have to say, sometimes, whilst hearing my lines being spoken on Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week is still exciting, there is always that little voice saying ‘It would be nice if you were saying them yourself.’
Anyway, I have to finish now. Apparently I need to go to the gym.....
© Bennett Arron 2018
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