Pecking Order

There are so many wonderful things about comedy. The watching it, the performing, the writing, the joy and pain, the highs and lows associated with the whole shooting match. There are also many unexpected things about comedy (stand up in particular) – aspects of the art/business which I didn’t know, and certainly didn’t anticipate.

For one thing, I didn’t know that the world of stand up is rather a microcosm, with its own (unwritten) rules, codes of conduct and hierarchy (or pecking order, if you will).
As I’ve mentioned in this column before, I performed improv & sketch for many years before starting stand up, and I can tell you, this structural phenomenon is really unique to stand up. Sure, there’s some of it everywhere; in the workplace, in families, on the playground etc. – but the sheer breadth of it in stand up is remarkable.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean vis-à-vis, the pecking order. Very soon after starting to perform, one learns just how low on the pecking order one falls. I can’t even remember how I first found out about it, I think it was comments by other comics, which were mostly harmless, but usually sounded something like this: “Not too bad for your first/tenth/twentieth time…”; “Well, your improv background doesn’t count when you’re talking about stand up”; “It takes two years of solid performing just to find your voice!”. And while all these may be true or not, it surprised me just how many times I’d hear this same party line.

Then there’s your progression up the pecking order. I’ve never seen it spelt out, but everyone just seems to know how it goes. So I’m going to spell it out, the way I see it. I may well miss stages, and of course, there are always exceptions to the rule but here’s how I see the progression of a comic’s career:

Step 1 – The Wannabe – this is usually someone who finds out you’re a comic, or comes up to you after a show and says they want to try out stand up, because their friends/co-workers/parents think they’re hilarious or they wrote all this stuff in high school, but never had the chance to try it out. The only response I’ve been able to come up with for these folks is, well, do it then. Stop friggin’ talking about it.

Step 2 – The Newbie – self-explanatory, really – someone with only a couple of sets under their belt. But at least they’ve gotten up there.

Step 3 – The Dabbler – somewhat more experienced than a newbie, but only does a few sets here and there. Could remain in this slot forever, though would never be truly considered a comic.

Step 4 – The Open Mic-er – still unsure how long someone remains an open mic-er, usually 6 months to a year. But that is only after proving their commitment by performing on as many stages as possible and being seen everywhere. Usually the less-than-talented and the lunatics* stall at this level.

*I was shocked at how many delusional folks are out their performing regularly at open mics. Scary. Nothing to do with this particular column, but still…

Step 5 – The Producer – usually an open-mic-er eager to progress, get even more stage time, be taken more seriously and/or perhaps make some money. Producers will, either alone or with other Producer friends, book out space and put up their own shows. Or open a room of their own (guilty), or tour with other like-minded folks – i.e. create their own performance opportunities. Of course, many of the following categories can be Producers.

Step 6 – The Semi-Pro – this is someone who now has a good 10-20 mins, a fair few contacts and friends in the comedy community, who can, some of the time, be booked into paid gigs; though they’re still regularly working the open mic circuit. At this point, he/she is pretty much recognized as a (capital C) “Comic”. Usually an opener, then a middle.

Step 7 – The Pro – at last! You’ve reached the place where you get paid almost every time you get on stage. Except for working out new stuff at the open mics – that never stops, methinks.

Step 8 – The Headliner – I’ve put the Headliner after the Pro, though one has to go with the other. But I’m willing to bet there are a number Pros out there who don’t really have a headlining set yet. The Headliner, to me, is a Pro who is well enough established to carry a show on their own. They’re funny enough, well-liked enough, and perhaps canny enough to book a show. They have usually have done TV spots (or their own shows), have won awards (or at least received nominations), had decent press coverage, and if they’re very lucky, are earning enough to quit their day job. Sad statement, but that’s Canadian comedy for ya.

Step 9 – The Huge Success – of late, Russell Peters…and um, Russell Peters.

Step 10 – The Vet – a still working comic/headliner/pro, who has been doing it so long that they possess a certain celebrity amongst the less experienced comics. If not celebrity, then a level of respect for their talent and staying power. If not celebrity or respect, then they’re certainly older than the others. That’s something.

Well, now that I’ve opened this can of worms, find that I could go on and on. There are so many off-shoots of each category that this article could look like my own personal Joshua tree. So I’ll wrap it up here. But know that this is merely how I see things and the path that lies ahead (and behind). I’ll admit that stand up, for me, was originally just a fun endeavour, and am surprised that it has turned into such a complicated road, but those of us who do it, don’t really mind at all – because it’s not about the getting there, it’s the thrill of the journey. Of course, bags and bags of money would be nice, too.

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