On last week’s Sitcom Geeks James and I spoke to Stuart Goldsmith. His acclaimed podcast The Comedian’s Comedian has featured nearly 400 of the most well-known stand-ups explaining their work processes.
But success is relative and Stuart told us one of the first questions he likes to ask comics is “why aren’t you more successful?”
No matter where you are on the career ladder, there’s always someone doing better than you. Even if you actually are doing the best by whatever metric you measure it, you’ll think there’s someone doing better. I mean even JK Rowling probably sold less books than Dan Brown last year. She must be furious.
Think of a writer who’s more successful than you. Not difficult is it?
I remember those feelings when starting out in comedy. It was even worse at the stand-up clubs. At the end of the gig the compere would roll call the names of the performers who had been on, and the volume of cheers from the audience confirmed what you already knew in your heart, that x went down loads better than you.
I’ve become aware of those feelings again.
In June I published my first novel. Still can’t quite come to terms with that last sentence. It manages to be significant and banal at the same time.
Writing my first novel felt like a massive achievement. Publishing it myself reminds me that I am in the same place as when I started in comedy: at the back of a very long queue.
I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was a teenager and it took more than 40 years as a comedian and writer-for-hire to discover the tools and drive required to write that book.
One of the main barriers was that publishing felt like an impenetrable world controlled by the English upper-classes. A northern Jew with no literary or showbiz connections didn’t stand a chance.
Unlike the BBC comedy department. Even though it was controlled by the same kind of people, they knew that the key to their survival was to open their doors to everyone. Now the world has turned upside down, as the BBC is forced by government diktat to pull back on diversity of class, race and gender, while the world of books has opened up to allow any shmuck with a laptop and an Amazon account to call themselves a published novelist.
Being a publisher has forced me to learn new skills I never imagined I’d have to grasp. Such as learning how to publish a book. And market it. The kind of thing you spend ten years in your 20s learning and improving at. Not quite what I had in mind for the age of 63.
Over the last few years I’ve worked with hundreds of new writers. Many have made inroads into the world of comedy writing. Two have become hugely successful, and I can guarantee both would have done so without my help.
But for most of you, success has been measured by that BBC payment for your one-line joke, you know, the one you’ve kept and framed all the paperwork for.
To which I say – congratulations. That’s fantastic. Seriously, how many people can say they have had their creative work broadcast on national TV or radio?
After the first couple of days though, it hardly ever feels like that. Chances are there were episodes, maybe whole series of the show between that and your next success. The little voices started to pipe up. The judgmental one that tells you it was beginner’s luck, what the hell makes you think you can write funny jokes for a living? Or the bitter one that listens to the show and says “how the hell did they allow that joke to go out? Mine were way funnier.”
Ignorance Is Gross
Recently I was emailing with some writers I’d worked with, who had had success writing for a show. They gave me some very helpful information about the process of getting work accepted, and while they were grateful for that success I still picked up a sense of slight confusion as to why the work they had submitted hadn’t quite turned out as they’d expected in the broadcast.
I wrote back and reminded them to concentrate on the achievement, which to be fair they had also been doing. But I was reminded of that time when I was starting out. The feeling, even as you are beginning to achieve some success, that you are so far removed from the process you have no idea how to push forward.
That’s exactly how I’m feeling now, as I stare at the balance sheet for my novel, my baby, the labour of love that was 40 years in the making.
I published the book in June and some people have bought it. Someone at a national level has paid me for my professional writing services.
I have done the equivalent of getting a joke on Breaking The News.
On the red side, ignoring the hundreds of hours writing and rewriting, downloading and registering and setting up accounting systems: I paid for two lots of professional editing, cover and book design plus various internet signing-on fees.
On the black side, I only have figures so far from Amazon. It’s on sale elsewhere but I won’t get those figures for a while. They’ll probably be about the same as Amazon, a bit less even.
In June I sold 34 copies, not bad for two weeks. That line across the middle, that represents 20 sales. July? Well it’s the summer, people are winding down for the holidays. Not many beaches to take my book to so only 12 sold then. August, well of course everyone knows August is the quietest month for everything except the Edinburgh Fringe, which is exactly what my book is about so I’m bound to sell loa… 6. Ah September, we’re all back in the swing of life, busy busy busy. September: not yet on this graph, but I can tell you, two copies sold.
So here we are, 54 sales in, I’ve had loads of lovely responses from people, a bunch of excellent reviews. Now what?
Like everyone starting out in comedy, I haven’t a clue. I have some advantages, people I know who I can get to read the book. And if they’re nice about it that might help a little.
But all I want to do is sell enough copies so I can keep writing books for the rest of my life.
What should I do then?
Which is the question I’m asked all the time by people who want to become comedy writers. What would Dave say? I know the answers, they’re in these countless blogs, my books on comedy writing and 175 plus episodes of Sitcom Geeks: keep going, don’t give up, if it was easy loads more people would be succeeding at it, you’re in competition with the biggest names in the business, don’t expect success overnight, don’t get angry, don’t be bitter, enjoy your successes, get to know people in similar situations to yourself, be proactive…
I’m aware those are the answers, even as I know they’re not the ones I want to hear. The sense – call it gut feeling, self-belief, instinct – that we are capable of doing this job sits uncomfortably with the fact that many others can too. At the back of my mind is the horrible truth that not everyone who starts out in this business succeeds. Like my inevitable death, I choose not to think about it too much.
But then I go back to Stuart’s question at the start, aware that even those we perceive of as the most successful wake up every morning and ask themselves “why aren’t I more successful”? I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was a teenager. Now I am one. Success!
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