An article on 'making it' in comedy

Barry Ferns

Stand-up comedian and live comedy promoter Barry Ferns has some wise words on end goals...

So - I was asked to write an article about "Making it". I think about that a lot - and to be honest I'm less and less sure these days what "Making it" actually is...

It sounds a stupid thing to say because most people could give you a simple answer - individual to them, but of similar tones:

"Being on TV."
"Writing a sitcom that gets made."
"Selling out arenas."
"Writing for / with Charlie Brooker."

Barry Ferns

One of the things about how most people think about "making it" is almost exclusively to do with outcome - with end result. Whether that outcome is broad commercial success from their skill or talent (Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow), or earning a load of kudos and respect (Simon Munnery's Attention Scum)... or hopefully both (Charlie Brooker)...

But what I've found confusing over the last few years - meeting more and more people who have "made it" - is that their primary concern isn't actually with those outcomes, those end results; in fact often what you might consider "making it" is something that they actually actively avoid.

For example, I'm lucky enough know one lovely man who's world famous, instantly recognised, and his work has made him richer than most people you're ever likely to meet. He gets offered film work all the time... and mostly turns it down - and not just in favour of doing other film work - he recently turned down working with Tim Burton and Joss Whedon.

"WTF!" was my initial response - "Why?". "Because, to be honest, I don't much like spending 2-3 months sat in a trailer in make-up waiting to be called on to set. It's nice to be in movies and all, and the pay is great, of course, but it's not what I want to do. It's not what I ever wanted to do, it might seem it, but it's not creative."

Now this might sound like a simple case of someone complaining that 'My wallet is too small for 50 pound notes, poor me...' but his attitude doesn't really stem from that: "It's just much more interesting to be writing my own stuff, whether it gets made or not, or acting in a drama on location somewhere like Aberdeen in a show that's probably never going to get seen. In that place and for substantially less money, I actually get to create, to make creative decisions, to do what I would chose to do with my time and my life."

But surely it's lovely being lauded, and having the satisfaction of critical or cultural success?: "To be honest, once you've made something it's very difficult to take in any of the praise that people pour on you, or even take the criticism. Once it's left your hand / pen / lips, it doesn't really belong to you anymore - it's going to be interpreted in 100,000 different ways. So when someone says 'I loved that' or 'I hated that' it is just their response - it's not got much to do with me. Sometimes it feels nice to be validated, but really, once I've made something, I've made it, I'm on to the next thing - I constantly change my view and life and mind about things, so sometimes I'm even embarrassed about stuff I've made, and wouldn't like it if I watched it myself..."

Barry Ferns

I know someone else that has won four BAFTAs, has earnt hundreds of thousands working and writing on some of the most successful television shows from the last 15 years... and yet, when asked about her career, she reflects "Well the rise was a lot of fun, getting successful, and it all coming together, but once I was in the roles, once I was in the writing rooms and it was happening, it just became a job like any other. And after a year or so it became quite joyless. It was fun working with the people I worked with, but the whole process of making the shows was actually boring. I much prefer coming up with something new and trying it that evening, at an anonymous gig..."

Really? But what about the money and the acclaim? Being part of something so successful? "When you're stuck in a TV show, or a film, or a career, creating something within very specific parameters like you have to, it's like being stuck in a very comfortable prison of your own creating. In that place I don't have the freedom to create, to adapt, to grow, to work on what I want to work on - I know it sounds stupid, but because my 'creative career' is so successful I don't have time to be creative."

All this became relevant to me on a personal level recently when I found out a good friend of mine was writing on a high profile TV show (bastard), with a comedy writer who I would love to work - and, from what he said, the pay wasn't great and it was a miserable experience that no-one was enjoying in the writing room - even though the show they were working on is massively enjoyed by millions of people and is very funny.

In order to get into that writing room I would have happily worked for 5 years writing and honing and getting better at my craft, working for free (really!), probably not doing stuff I'd choose to do, but if I knew that that job was at the end of it, and I would have considered that a massive success too - so to discover that "making it" would have made me miserable and that I wouldn't have enjoyed or gotten much out of the experience at all was disorienting to say the least.

The point I suppose I'm circuitously getting around to realising, or beginning to realise here, is that "making it" is often my clueless idea of how I want things to be - things won't actually be like that - definitely not - and might even be the opposite of what I want.

That the only real way of "making it" is expressing something right here and right now - about how I feel right here and right now in whatever medium I work in (Comedy, Music, Mud), to just "do it" is where anyone who is rich and famous wants to be - and most of them aren't even able to be there as much as I can be right here, right now.

"Making it" is literally just that - "making it"! Whatever "it" is for you - a song, a story, joke, a show, a film, just make it - and you've "Made it".

Barry Ferns is a stand-up comedian, writer and live comedy promoter. Find out more via

Barry runs Angel Comedy, the popular free entry seven-nights-a-week comedy club in London. To find out more visit

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