Funny Money

7th December 2018

The life of a professional comedian, says one in the know, is ‘unpredictable, financially unstable and socially inactive’. Why would anyone do it? Tiernan Douieb explains his reasons – and offers some tips for anyone who thinks they might like to try it too…

A career as a professional comedian is mostly a response to being driven by an innate – albeit odd – compulsion to get onstage and make people laugh. There’s the small matter of needing an income too; I have an 8-month-old baby so, for me, it’s about supporting my wonderful wife and providing for our family. Whatever the motivation, though, the challenge is the same: to earn enough to carry on doing what you love while getting on with your life.

In a world of free online content and panel show cliques, earning money as a stand-up comedian is easier said than done. Believe me: I speak from experience. Back in 2003, fresh out of university with all the confidence that comes with being 22, I started gigging. I took every gig on offer and entered every comedy competition going, sure of my own talent and skill, even though both, at that point, were completely untested.

My first gig was above a pub in Greenwich. I was nervous and spoke so fast that almost no one heard my punchlines. After I rushed off, the compère took me to one side and said, ‘you’ve got some good jokes… but nobody heard them. You spoke like a machine gun’. Despite that, I was hooked.

You need to love it, because lucrative it is not. For comedians just starting out, the typical pay for a 20 minute set hasn’t really gone up since the mid-90s, yet the cost of living has increased considerably. The first few years working the comedy circuit I earned no more than £8-9,000; barely enough for a sandwich and a pint in London these days, let alone for paying rent.

Being a comic takes huge amounts of time and money: travel, accommodation, admin, taxes, networking and, most importantly, finding time to write your material.

Fortunately, I managed to land an advert for Carlsberg at the time which allowed me to hone my skills, paid for the travel to more gigs – and gave me the boost that I needed to get going. Does that count as selling out? Absolutely not. My first piece of advice to anyone starting out is ‘take what you can in order to live’. I once asked the brilliant political comedian Mark Thomas for his opinion on a job I wasn’t sure about, and his answer was unequivocal: ‘you have to do whatever you can that’s within the realms of your skills as a comedian, and that helps you get money and an audience to be able to have the career you want.’ Once you can live, then you can find time to travel, write and do everything else.

I’m still waiting for my ‘big break’ – but I’ve had a number of mini-breaks – often from unexpected sources. A few years ago I got a message out of the blue on Twitter from one Mr Frankie Boyle. He’d heard me on a podcast and said he enjoyed my set so much, that he wondered if I’d like to support him on tour. I jumped at the chance to work with a comedian I respected so much and the tour helped to rapidly grow my fan base.

And I started a podcast called Partly Political Broadcast. I did it mostly for fun but also to make more timely jokes without them going to waste. With such a short news cycle and the ongoing sagas of Trump and Brexit, it’s hard to write jokes based on current affairs without them getting old very quickly. The podcast allowed me to riff about all kinds of current topics. It now gets thousands of listeners every week.

By doing it – and I love doing it – I get to unleash my creative spirit, which is what good comedy is all about. It’s a creative endeavour that takes you to some weird and wonderful places. So, my next piece of advice would be ‘do what you enjoy’.

There’s no set pattern for comedy success. Some people will tell you that you must do the Edinburgh Fringe or that you’ll only find success via competitions. But really, if you’re doing what makes you happy, you’ll be at your most imaginative and inspired. People will recognise this… and offer to pay you for it.

Set aside a bit of money and get yourself a good video and/or microphone setup. If you’ve got talent you’ll get attention. Some amazing comedians got started by filming their own clips and putting them on YouTube: a fast and relatively cheap way of gaining fans. For me, it was my podcast, which I started with just a microphone and some editing software. You don’t need to spend big money putting on a big show at the Fringe anymore.

But even having thousands of fans of your YouTube series or podcast doesn’t guarantee you’ll earn much. And waiting around for a call from the BBC won’t enhance your career. So how do you make a living?

The answer, for me, lies in doing lots of different things. I co-run Comedy Club 4 Kids where we do stand-up for children aged 6 plus and their families, and alongside that we teach children how to become comedians in our workshops. I also write for other comedians for their tour and TV shows. I’ve recently been writing for adverts too, as well as earning money from my podcast and participating in radio shows.

Then there are new online streaming services, like NextUp – a platform specifically for stand-up. I had a couple of my shows filmed and put them on their platform, gaining me new fans who now come to my live shows, as well as a regular income for views. In fact, NextUp just sold one of my shows to Audible, sending me a chunk of money I wasn’t expecting!

So, my final word of advice is ‘look at all the options and do a mix of work’. That way you don’t end up with all your eggs in one basket but you will gain enough income to live off and acquire fans from all walks of life.

None of these projects bring in enough for me to live on their own, but put them all together and I earn a reasonable salary. For me, the joy is in doing something I love, working with people I admire and making memories I’ll never forget. That’s no joke.

Tiernan Douieb has been doing stand-up in the UK and internationally for over a decade. In the last two years he has been supporting Frankie Boyle on tour; writing and producing his weekly podcast ‘Partly Political Broadcast’ (named one of The Observer’s Top Ten Political Podcasts); organising a series of shows in aid of Help Refugees; and
co-running Comedy Club 4 Kids where he is resident MC. He has over 16.6k followers on Twitter and his tweets are regularly included in online sites such as The Poke, Buzzfeed and Twitter Moments, as well as newspapers such as The Times Diary, The Independent, The i, The Metro and more. 

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