Getting a comedy career: Should I go freelance?

If you're hoping for a career in comedy, deciding if and when to give up the day job and commit to comedy is one of the most difficult decisions you'll ever make. Freelance veteran Dave Cohen offers some helpful suggestions.

Dave Cohen. Copyright: The Writers Guild

I'm typing this a few feet from the kitchen, listening to the iPlayer. My journey from the bedroom took seconds and cost nothing, no one is telling me what to do, and I'm wearing baggy pants and trainers. ("Too much information," you say, which was originally a line from Friends so no, you can't use it in your script.) What am I? Unemployed? Nope, a freelancer.

I've been freelancing for 30 years, and seem to have a natural aptitude - or total inability to cope with offices, depending how you look at it. I still recall that day in August 1983 when, having failed my journalist training exams, my boss said, without a trace of irony: "I'll see to it that you never work in newspapers again." And his surprise when I replied: "Thanks."

One of the most difficult decisions you'll ever make, assuming you currently have a job, will be working out if and when you should give up, and concentrate on creating comedy full-time. If you think you have what it takes to make a living at comedy, the urge to jack everything in and start your new career must be very tempting.

People in jobs look on jealously at freelancers: we have no commute, and unlimited hours in the day to work up our sitcoms or practice learning those new gags for tomorrow's gig. Meanwhile we freelancers stare blankly at the script-looking thing on the screen, wondering if that last scene is remotely funny, checking the e-mail every 20 minutes just in case our agent has written telling us about a job that we need to start NOW (never, ever happens), obsessing about whether that long-awaited BACS payment will arrive in time to cover next month's overdraft limit.

This is the point where I look across my desk at you sternly, hand resting on my chin, and interview you for the job of freelance comedy person.

Are you ready to freelance? Here are my top 10 tips:

1. Don't

If you're currently working, are you happy to give up the weekly wage packet, pension, company of workmates and paid holiday leave? It's all very well getting up in the morning and only having to walk from the bed to the computer, but if you can't afford the electricity bill you're going to have to own a very powerful laptop battery.

If the answer to the above is still yes, and you're desperate to discover if comedy is for you, I'd say hang on in there for at least as long as you can lead the romantic double life of paid hand by day, professional-comedy-person-in-your-head by night. I would stick it out at least until your employer can give you a massive pay-off (assuming they still do that), or you really have the chance for proper earnings. If you can negotiate going part-time, that's perfect.

2. How suited is what you do for the market out there?

We don't try and second-guess what audiences want, but in terms of making money from comedy, do you have something that feels like what's already out there, but only you can do? You don't necessarily have to be the most original voice at this stage, that comes with experience. But can you write a lot of jokes on a single topic, quickly? Can you write topical sketches? Are you consistently going down well during your try-out spots on stage? These are the kind of things you need to be good at when you're starting out, jobs that will give you a small amount of income here and there, and which will allow you time to work in the other areas you're most interested in.

3. Join your union

Even in the cut-throat world of freelance you could use the kind of security offered by a trade union. They'll help with advice and contracts, plus it's lonely working on your own, and you can meet fellow strugglers. Also: get a pension. Is that stupid advice these days? The Writers' Guild have a fantastic pension scheme for sitcom writers, so it's worth joining them on the grounds of financial self-interest alone.

4. Beware the computer

You can run your entire business on a laptop now. Unfortunately it's the same place where you can tweet, read funny articles from The Onion, tell your Facebook mates what you ate for lunch, and become an expert at Spider Solitaire. Don't kid yourself that googling your name and looking up your favourite shows on is important research.

5. You are the company

These days you can outsource everything you're no good at, and there are lots of writers, performers and wannabe TV crew who'll be prepared to work with you in areas where you're lacking the knowledge. But whatever you do, you need to understand basic accounts, marketing, publicity and all the other tedious admin that you now have to deal with.

You will be negotiating how much money you'll be receiving for any work you do, and most of the time you'll agree a price based on hunches and guesswork. You are your own invoice department as well - make sure your employers remember they owe you money.

6. Learn to be American

Now you're no longer working for Giant Conglomerate International, you are almost certainly competing with Giant Conglomerate International, and many others, for work. So you have to do whatever it takes to get your name and business out there. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you about Facebook, Twitter and the rest, but because this is comedy and not double-glazing, you need to strike a balance somewhere between marketing yourself well, and being known as a talentless, over-self-publicising dick.

7. Don't get ill

You're no longer working for The Man, you are now He (or She). The Man never liked you taking the day off for that hangover from hell, and now you're Him, a day off is a day's lost pay. Seriously, if absenteeism is an important part of your work life, don't go freelance.

8. Bad day at the office?

Now that you're in charge, every bad day feels much worse. Learn to accept that we all have times like this, which brings me to...

9. Cliché Corner

You're only as good as your last gig, but tomorrow is another day. Every job is your calling card, every day is a new beginning, don't give up (unless you should).

10. Plan, plan, plan

Never mind work-life balance, first you must get the work-work balance right. You need to make money now, ideally you're spending two to three days a week doing that. But you also need to know where the work is coming from in six months, and a year's time. So you need to be aiming towards getting more work then. If the next few months are full of gaps where paid work should be, plan what to do with that time. Plan today, tomorrow, next week, month and year...

11. ...But be flexible

See what happened there? I was going to make this a 10-point plan but realised halfway through that there are more than 10 key points. So I changed my mind. Which as a freelance I am able to do. This is one of the great advantages you have over people who work in offices. You can change your mind on the spot, and not have to report back through a chain of command.

And finally, most important:

12. Have a life

Manage your time well, know when you're going to finish work today, and stop. As a freelance it's easy to be "on" all day and night, and it's especially annoying when you can't get back to sleep at 3am because your head is full of that dull e-mail you're composing in your head which you meant to send the previous day.

Switch off and do something completely unrelated to work, maybe read a book. Probably not a book about comedy, because that would be officially 'work'. Maybe watch a bit of TV. Unless it's a comedy show, which is bound to annoy you because all you'll be able to see on the screen is a bunch of self-employed freeelancers like you, except they're on TV earning money and you're merely watching. Maybe learn to knit. Except now you're thinking "if I could get a bunch of fellow comics in a room learning to knit we could develop a new TV strand, Knits And Pearlers".

Okay, accept it, you're never going to switch off.

This is an edited extract from How To Be Averagely Successful At Comedy by Dave Cohen, published in November 2013 by Acorn Publishing.

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