Being funny? Please don’t try it at workBy Hazel Davis
It always helps to inject a little humour into a business presentation – but anyone who has tried it will know that being funny is not as easy as it looks.
While creating laughter in the workplace is an asset and learning how to tell a joke can be advantageous to a manager, to do it properly requires dedication and hard work: standing up in front of an audience promising to be funny is not something the average executive can “try their hand at”.
“It’s not paint-balling,” explains Andre Vincent, a stand-up comedian. “You don’t just pick up a microphone and fire off punchlines.”
Being a stand-up comic can take years of honing the craft: “It can be a long process of getting into open spots [unpaid short slots, usually in small venues] and doing stage time,” says Mr Vincent. “But once you’ve done enough of that, there are always gigs. Even during a recession laughter has not been hit.”
The need for humour during hard times has helped Mr Vincent make a career out of being funny. The 47-year-old from Penge in south-east London is one of the comedy circuit’s most successful acts.
But he reiterates that it’s not for everyone: “Sometimes the really funny kid in the office is dreadful on stage but the quiet one comes alive in front of a crowd. The only way you know you’re funny enough is if the crowd laughs enough.”
Is it possible to learn the skill of making people laugh? Mr Vincent believes the successful comic is born, rather than created: “I think you can teach people to be funny to a certain extent but there still has to be a part of you that thinks – ‘Yeah I can get up on stage and entertain these people’.
“But it’s not just one personality type. You see some comics who come out with the most perfect lines who do it just for the money and you see others who eat, sleep and breathe their work.”
The usual route to the spotlight is to try it part-time in the evenings while keeping up the day job. Unpaid stage time gives budding stand-ups a chance to hone their craft and then move on to asking promoters for paid spots – or even taking on an agent to handle the phone calls.
Levels of career management familiar to senior business executives are vital and diary management, travel arrangements, promotion and marketing can make the difference between success and failure.
Mr Vincent is one of the few stand-up comedians who has managed to work at a high level without an agent, despite offers. He says: “I have no agent because I see great comics being turned into mediocre comics just for the sake of getting ahead and I don’t want that.” Instead, he relies on his reputation and years of contacts.
He has opened a show for Bob Hope, written an award-nominated BBC TV show and sits on the board of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. He originally began training as an actor but left after a few months when he was offered a role in a repertory production.
He picked up circus skills in Paris and spent time on street performance around the world, before encountering stand-up comics in the US and joining their ranks. “The street performers always earned far more than stand-ups – but the stand-ups were inside,” he laughs. Performing in Florida and Louisiana was wonderful, he says: “I only had to open my mouth for them to laugh.”
When Mr Vincent returned to the UK, British troops were fighting in the Gulf. “I did a gig at the Woolwich Tram Shed and the squaddies in the club could be so rowdy. My street training meant I could handle them. I was in my element.” A stint at the Edinburgh Festival followed and stand-up became his main job.
In 2002, Mr Vincent was diagnosed with cancer in his kidney. He subsequently wrote a critically acclaimed show, Andre Vincent Is Unwell, about it, which he took to Edinburgh and which formed the basis of his BBC show Hurrah For Cancer.
Stand-up works for him as a career, says Mr Vincent: “It’s just me and my words.”
But there are sacrifices: it requires flexibility, the hours can be long, the travelling arduous and the financial rewards negligible. There can be years of hard slog for no obvious career progression. Writing and rehearsing also eat up time.
It also affects social life. Mr Vincent says: “It can be pretty hard. I’ve been in a relationship for 11 years but when I go away for long periods it is upsetting for both of us.”
Comedians’ earnings can vary wildly. Mr Vincent says he earns “between £45,000 and £55,000 – but you can earn a lot more”.
Mr Vincent does not own a house and has no pension. He could afford it, but says: “Squirrelling is not in my nature. I can’t see me ever retiring: performing is too much in my nature. My other half put £50,000 in some pension scheme 20 years ago and she recently found it was worth £8,000. I’d not be too happy about that.”
What was your big break?
Cancer. When I did the cancer show it was my trip. It got off my chest how I felt about how people reacted to my cancer.
Who has made the biggest difference to you?
My partner. We’ve been together for 11 years and she’s very intelligent and knows exactly when I am making good or bad decisions.
What else might you have done?
Nothing else. Or nothing without an audience.
How do you feel about the top rate of tax?
If I were in the top earner bracket, giving 50 per cent back is only fair. I believe in the NHS, schools and government so I have to contribute to make it the best it can be.
Best career advice to others?
Do what comes naturally. Go with what you want.