Opinion: What Is A Comedian?

Elliott Spencer

I wouldn’t claim to know every gigging comedian by any means. But when it was announced in the press that Stephen Fry was to marry stand-up comedian Elliott Spencer my ears pricked up. I’d not come across Spencer and couldn’t find any mention of him on any reputable comedy websites. Is it possible that he had slipped under my radar?

I asked about him on Facebook and various comedians told me they hadn’t encountered him either, although apparently there is a reference to him doing a gig on Stephen Fry’s Twitter feed from last year. The conclusion was that he was probably more of a writer than a stand-up, but it did prompt an interesting spin-off mini-debate on FB about what constitutes being a comedian and I thought it might be worth running edited highlights here.

Northern Irish Comedian Martin Mor was the first to chip in: “The title of 'comedian' is given/taken very easily these days. Even people who have just done a couple of open spots seem to feel they have earned that title. If someone was at the same standard in another art form I doubt that they would call themselves a ballerina, guitarist, etc. (This is not a comment on Elliott Spencer as I know nothing about him. He could be fantastic. In fact I hope he is fantastic, and that he and Mr Fry are lovely, and happy, and fantastic together).”

I think Mor has a point. Up to a point. Obviously you can't call yourself a comedian without something to back it up. I can totally see that there is a world of difference between what Mor does and what an open mic-er does, but on the other hand I think if you do gig reasonably regularly you are entitled to call yourself a comedian even if you are a totally unfunny comedian. Maybe even if you don't get paid.

American comic Steven Alan Green, however, disagreed with Mor. He doesn’t even think you have to gig or perform in public to be a comedian: “A comedian is a funny person full stop. I've worked with many horribly unfunny so-called comedians. My grandmother was a comedian.”

Marc Blake took the Martin Mor position: “I'd say you can call yourself a comedian if you have had paid gigs - or have been doing it for ten years. Either way.” But Marc himself is an interesting case - his biog says that after two decades he retired from performing in 2012 and concentrates on comedy writing these days, so can he currently call himself a comedian? Can you be a comedian and then later not be a comedian? (yes, we can all think of comedians who stopped being funny but still gigged – that's another blog...)

Angela Barnes had an interesting perspective too: “I always equate it to being a musician. Someone who plays the guitar relatively badly in a pub band is still entitled to call him/herself a musician. Having said that, I found it very difficult to start calling myself a comedian. I still cringe if I say it, despite it being the sole way I earn a living. I feel like I'm being a fraud/lying/bigging myself up. But I think that probably says more about me than anything else…" 

And then Dave Fulton chipped in with some clarification: “Also no one seems to see any difference between 'comedian' and that of a 'stand-up comedian'. A comedian could cover almost all the other forms of comedy like acting, sketch groups, panel shows and presenting. Whereas a stand-up comedian works alone with their own material (hopefully) anywhere, anytime to anyone and for whatever's being paid no matter how long that takes.”

Mor brought things back to the original issue: “My question is when do you earn the title of comedian. Fixing my broken toilet does not allow me to call myself a plumber.”

Steve Alan Green might disagree, but there is some consensus that maybe it is partly down to whether you stand on a stage and whether you get a wad of cash at the end of the night. Alaric Dynevor said: “Well, I did around fifty open-spots and I've run a club for 21 years. I have never referred to myself as a comedian simply because I was never paid to be one.”

Newcomer Sam Potter drew some interesting semantic distinctions: “I'm an open mic'er in my first year. I tell people I 'do' stand up comedy. If I ever start getting paid I will think of myself as a part time comedian. If it ever becomes my main job I'll drop the 'part time' bit.” 

The trouble is that it is getting more complicated all the time with new places to be funny. When did Bo Burnham become a comedian? When he was putting things on YouTube watched by millions or when he first did gigs? And what about Vloggers that make their fans laugh? 

Maybe the only hard fact is that you can call yourself what you like, it’s what you do that counts. Martin Mor seemed to clear the matter up, courtesy of Peter Cook: “This reminds me of a Peter Cook joke that appeared as a cartoon in Private Eye, drawn by Willie Rushton.”

Two guys are at a cocktail party, one says to the other;

"I'm writing a novel"

The other replies;

"Neither am I"

If you want to chip in you can comment on my Facebook page here.


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