Book Review: How to Be Averagely Successful At Comedy by Dave Cohen

Dave Cohen

So you want to be a comedian? The chances are that if you have landed on my website you are thinking about dipping a toe in the shark-infested waters of comedy. Then take a leaf out of Dave Cohen's book about the industry and his life in it. No, don't just take a leaf, go out and bloody well buy the whole book. If it doesn't put you off a lifelong slog trying to making people laugh and getting a lot of rejection along the way, it might just help you out.

Cohen has certainly been involved in comedy long enough to know what he is talking about. This mix of advice and autobiography takes us from his teens trying to be funny as a seventies schoolboy in Leeds to the present day, being a veteran gag writer who has penned pithy puns for shows such as Have I Got News For You and Not Going Out. Along the way he is also an Edinburgh veteran and was a founding member of the Comedy Store Players alongside Paul Merton, Neil Mullarkey and some bloke called Mike Myers (whatever happened to him?).

Before I read Cohen's book I had been reading Stand-Up Or Die by his contemporary Andy De La Tour and there is a degree of overlap in their colourful memories of the early Alternative Comedy days. In fact De La Tour has a brief cameo in Cohen's book when he talks about legendary lefty gigs at venues such as the Elgin in West London. Cohen himself missed those very early days by a whisker however. He had met Mayall and Edmondson pre-Comedy Store in Edinburgh but then got a job as a reporter in Wales and took a few years to reach the bright lights of London.

For comedy nerds (count me in) Cohen's book is worth buying just to get a history of Alternative Comedy from someone that was – almost - there. And then on top of that there is the selling point of advice about all areas of working on the creative side of comedy. One bit of advice is buy Logan Murray's book on stand-up, but alternatively read the shorter Aristotle's Poetics which tells you all you need to know about the three-act structure which Cohen says applies to sketches and gags as much as drama. 

Cohen also advises aspiring comics not to bother with Edinburgh, which is a moot point. He is slightly jesting, of course - he did it for over a decade from the mid-eighties and couldn't resist a mid-life comeback a few years ago (in the same way De La Tour couldn't resist a sort-of comeback either, but chose to do it away from he glare of critics by starting from scratch in clubs in New York, as he recounts in his book). But Cohen is understandably wary of whether the advantages of Edinburgh are worth the damage to one's psyche and bank balance.

Elsewhere he looks at writing comedy. One of his messages here is fiendishly simple. Just persevere. Others with less stamina and commitment will drop out so the longer you fire off snappy quips to shows such as Newsjack the more likely it is that you will get one in. I'm not so sure - as people drop out better people might come along and you will stay firmly at the bottom of the heap.

So, you've lost all your money in Edinburgh. Your gags still keep getting ignored by  the BBC? If you still want a career in comedy the definitely read Cohen's book. It doesn't contain the magic formula that will make you a major star because between you and me there probably isn't one. But read it, work hard and you might just end up as averagely successful as the author. And even if you don't, your money is well-spent - the book is still a gag-packed insight into the inner workings of the comedy world.

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