Great comedy often seems effortless on stage, but building a career requires reserves of perseverance and a capacity for hard work.
Cameron James, stand-up comedian and editor on SBS The flow, says there are plenty of unpaid gigs on the way to the top, even for seasoned, high-profile comics: “Almost your whole career is showing up somewhere with no money and no audience, trying new jokes and knowing that, on some level, it’s practice for when you can finally get the right gig.
Sydney comedian Alex Jae, whose writing room credits include Saturday night with Rove, also found that working for free comes with the territory. “It would be cool if it was all paid off, but that’s just not doable. There’s no getting around it; you have to do the little [gigs],’ she says.
Smaller line-up shows (usually featuring multiple comedians, each performing for a few minutes) can be unglamorous and often take place in venues ill-suited for comedy. But they play an invaluable role in helping comedians feel comfortable on stage and hone their work. While a writer or visual artist might get their 10,000 hours before entering the public sphere, comedians just have to do the work in public to get good at it.
Small gigs can also be a great way for comics coming onto the scene to talk shop and connect with their peers. ‘“Networking” is a dirty word but [the stand-up shows] are where you meet people who can give you opportunities in writers’ rooms or on podcasts,” Jae said.
Cameron James, from Newcastle, studied film production at university but found it got him nowhere in terms of screen work. “It’s all down to doing stand-up and having people like Wil Anderson see me and support me, or having Michael Hing see me and recommend me. It replaced my resume,” he said.
Podcasts and other opportunities
Podcasts have become increasingly crucial for anyone looking to make comedy their career.
For emerging comedian and filmmaker Bea Barbeau-Scurla, feelings are mixed about the ubiquity and quantity of comedy podcasts. “On the one hand, I don’t want to hear about another comedian starting a podcast. But on the other hand, I think it’s the only way to weasel [yourself] in the collective consciousness of who creates the content. When I got my podcast [Were You Hot in High School?]with Lauren Bonner, it opened up way more opportunities than I ever thought a podcast could,” Barbeau-Scurla said.
Both James and Jae believe most of the audience at their festival shows have become interested in their work via podcasts. James had a blast with the Finding Draco podcast with Alexei Toliopoulos and remains heavily involved in the scene. “I can’t stress enough how much I love the podcast community,” he said. “It changed my life.”
Look: Artists Essentials Toolkit #11: Create a Podcast
With almost no barrier to entry, podcasts allow comedians to create the type of content they want and see if it finds an audience. Likewise, if comedians can’t find the type of comedy venues they want to perform in, they can always create their own.
Daniel Muggleton has been doing stand-up since 2012 and presents his new show, White and fake (but mostly white), in Melbourne this year. He has also run a number of comedy venues in Australia, the UK and even online during lockdowns. “It’s always been pretty organic rather than a calculated effort,” Muggleton said of his hall runner looks. “It’s like ‘this is what I want there to be’, so instead of waiting for someone else to do it, I’m going to do it.”
Barbeau-Scurla organizes the inclusive comedy evening, rat club, and found it a tiring but worthwhile undertaking. While it might help get her name out there, she says it’s not her primary motivation. “I wanted to create a space to give young comedians an opportunity, especially after the pandemic…There aren’t a lot of opportunities for young comedians to make a fun and exciting room with an attentive audience. [Running a room] can help your career in some ways, but it’s more for the community aspect than leveling up,” she said.
Muggleton is an instantly recognizable figure to punters, thanks to his red Adidas tracksuit. He first started favoring tracksuits for comfort while traveling hours on trains to concerts far away in the UK. But it gave him a point of difference, a valuable (if initially inadvertent) career move in a scene where it’s hard to stand out among hundreds of comics at a festival the size of Melbourne: “In this country, it’s like a sea of six-foot-high white guys with collared shirts and mustaches – they’re everywhere!”
Versatility is also a must for any Aussie comedian looking to build a long-term career. With Australia’s relatively small population, few comics can live on stand-up alone, but there are opportunities to use comic writing or acting skills in other forums, explained Jae.
“People who sell theaters can make a living, but for everyone else, we have day jobs or gigs in the writers room or on radio or TV,” she said. ‘You must have your fingers in some pies.’
Read: How to Write a Comedy Show: 24 Comedians Reveal Their Secrets
Make the leap to a solo festival
One of the trickiest career phases for a young comedian is the question of when to start doing full festival shows. “This industry is really trying to push young people into the limelight as quickly as possible,” James said. “There’s something very attractive about new talent.” He now believes he was only ready for a full show when he already had four festival cycles under his belt.
Barbeau-Scurla is making her Melbourne debut this year, doing a split show with former RAW Comedy State Finalist Fiona Cox. “You cut the cost and emotional labor in half by doing a split bill, and I think I’ll have a better idea of when to do the solo show after this run,” she explained.
For Jae, doing her second solo show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year (titled Quite good otherwise), the cancellation of the 2020 iteration of the festival was a relief as it gave it more time to build up a full hour of material.
Jae said the move to one hour was daunting, but it also had a lot of creative benefits. “It’s scary because you’re used to doing ten minutes and then you do 50 or 60 minutes. But it was great at the same time because you can relax there; you have a lot more time to connect with the audience.
Read: A successful comedy overnight after nine years of work
Improving your work is a vital but complex part of any comedian’s career and, as Muggleton describes it, a kind of balance. ‘It’s so important to realize that you’re just shit [at comedy] for a certain time. It’s hard because it’s very important not to think you’re too shitty or you’ll give up. It’s also very important not to think you’re too good because you won’t improve and you won’t get anywhere,” he explained.
There are more down-to-earth elements to building a career in comedy, like learning to tolerate long stretches on the road. Does Muggleton enjoy being away from home so often?
“Enjoyment is a strong word,” he sighed. A veteran of week-long university orientation tours, he now finds the travel experience much more enjoyable. ‘My wife is coming down [to Melbourne] sometimes, and that’s the best. She forces me to live like a human being, as opposed to some weird cockroach that hides in the hotel and just goes to the concert.
Enjoy the ride
Ultimately, the best career advice may be counterintuitive: don’t be too careerist. The four actors who spoke to arts center saw immense value in watching other comics, supporting your peers, finding great collaborators, and creating your opportunities instead of waiting for them.
James said his best advice for those entering the industry is to simply make friends, a sentiment Jae agrees with. “Talk to as many comedians as you can,” she advised. “Most of them are really cool, and it’s a great community.”
Barbeau-Scurla jokes that the opening for stars like Wil Anderson and Geraldine Hickey has made his friends jealous, but says comparing your career progress to your peers is a trap. ‘No matter the level [you’re at], try to focus on yourself and make sure you have fun along the way. Success means nothing if you’re not having fun.
The Melbourne International Comedy Festival runs until April 24. The Sydney Comedy Festival runs from April 25 to May 22, the Brisbane Comedy Festival from April 29 to May 29 and the Perth Comedy Festival from April 29 to May 15.