“The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” – Samuel Johnson
I came across this quote on Twitter recently after having spent the whole night pacing and twitching and trying to come down off my meds – meds to help me sleep, I should add. I’ve had similar thoughts to Dr. Johnson, albeit not nearly as eloquent, very often while working in comedy. It is very difficult to find the someone he describes within the comedy industry; the industry is chock-full of people who indulge in what I call “shouldering”.
I should explain…
Imagine you’re at a festival – one of the biggest and most prestigious festivals in the world – for the second time. Last year you did well, for where you are in your career, and you’re excited, nervous, and a bit high from swanning around the hotel bar like your somebody. You’ve been rubbing shoulders with the chosen ones, even bumping into one of your heroes on your way back to your room, and it feels great. No-one’s talking to you, obviously. No-one knows who you are, save for the few people who work at your venue and the guy who’s job it is to make sure you’re on stage when you should be. No-one is struggling valiantly through the throng of hob-nobbers in order to shake your hand, tell you they love your act, and offer you a sitcom pilot on HBO. Everyone is oblivious to you and, at first, that’s cool. Your the outsider anyway, right? The maverick? You don’t need to toadie to execs and air-kiss with fellow comics. Fuck that. Not your style at all.
And then it happens: someone spots you.
Turns out, he’d seen you at a different festival the year before and really liked your act. He introduces you to his companion, a famous comedian whose work you’re not really familiar with, who exchanges the briefest of pleasantries before running off to talk to someone more important.
“What a cock,” you think to yourself. “Oh well. Fuck him. Plenty more schmoozing where THAT came from.” You turn back to your new companion to continue the conversation.
Then you notice something strange. The person you’re talking to is starting to get fidgety, like he needs the bathroom. The conversation becomes strained, forced, but neither of you have actually said anything worth saying yet. Then it happens. The shoulder.
The first time it happened you had dressed in black, as befits a dangerous, edgy comic like you and although this will sound silly, at first you actually thought that he was looking at dandruff. “Fair enough,” says you. “Spot of dandruff. Nae bother.”
But then you see that his gaze is not directed toward your shoulder at all. From what you can work out without the aid of a protractor, he’s looking higher than your shoulder. Oh fuck! Your ears! Are they red? Have you had one too many Vodka & Cokes? What the fuck? Is something hanging out of your ear like some ear-bogey? What in hell will he think?
As nonchalantly as possible, you reach to your ear and just give the lobe a light rub between thumb and forefinger, all the while desperate to get back to the conversation you were having, the question you were about to ask. Nothing. You ear is fine. You know your hair is ok because you can see yourself reflected in the mirror behi…
And then you see it, like you should have seen it all along. Gazing into the mirror you can see why this two-bit yuppie in a cheap suit is staring over your shoulder like some catatonic estate agent. You glance over your shoulder just to make sure you’re not going crazy and there, in the flesh, stands Eddie Izzard laughing and joking with some people in very expensive suits. You look back at your companion. He catches your gaze. He knows, you know, the whole fucking WORLD knows that he would rather be talking at Izzard than at you.
Briefly, awkwardly, he makes his excuses. You shake hands, all very polite, and he dashes off for pastures greener and there you are: the boy without a prom date. Nursing a battered ego and a vodka & coke. Alone.
So what do you do? Do you realise that this is the way of the world, learn the art of “shouldering”, and dive right in? Do you resolve to learn the tricks, the gimmicks, and the market and self-promotion that will allow you a seat at the top table?
No. You’re an edgy, dangerous comic, remember? A maverick who plays by no man’s rules? “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees” and all that?
You drink way too many vodkas while staring at the throng, hating each one of them more with every leap of the second hand. You decide you’ve had enough. You can’t be in this nest of vipers for a moment longer. You go to your room, drunk, complaining, shouting, throwing things. You’re wife is terrified. She shouts at you. You crumble, broken, into her arms and cry like you haven’t since you were a child.
Lesson one, grasshopper: there is no Santa Clause, there is no Tooth Fairy, we’re not all in this together, and the comedy industry is full of cunts.
Welcome to The Game.