On May 11th 2018 I will be 40 years old.
There’s a tendency amongst stand-up comedians (in fact, entertainers in general) to either be ambiguous about their age or to shave a few years off. I’ve been told a few times that I could lie about my age if I wanted to, although the harsh reality is that it only takes you removing my hat and looking at my thinning hair or seeing the wrinkles around my eyes to see through any hollow attempt at me trying to claim I’m as old as I dress. One day I'll grow up.
This week I found out that I am, at the grand old age of 38, three years OVER the threshold to enter a competition called “Old Comedian of the Year”. Of course, I’m not entering it, for two reasons:
1: I don’t do competitions. I get asked most years to enter Britain’s Got Talent and always refuse. Whilst competitions were super important to my career when I was new over a decade ago, I feel now that unless I win them (and I wouldn’t) that all they would do is make me miserable.
2: If being over the age of 35 is old, then what’s the bloody point in living?
Currently, the comedy industry is incredibly ageist. I’m not exactly at the sharp end of it, but I’ve experienced ageism this year already, being told in no uncertain terms that I was “too old” for a couple of things. AT THIRTY-EIGHT YEARS OLD.
I love comedy. I’ve got a list of comedians as long as my arm who are absolutely brilliant, and I don’t ever consider their ages. On one end of the spectrum you have whippersnappers like Ivo Graham and Tom Lucy, both of whom I think I’m old enough to have fathered. Then on the other end you have Eddie Izzard (55 years old) and Frank Skinner (just turned 60).
Age shouldn’t matter. I couldn’t do comedy when I was 18 years old as I had nothing whatsoever to say. But at that age I adored comedy and obsessively watched videos (yes, I’m old enough to pre-date DVDs) and worshipped the ground that my comedy heroes walked on. I don’t recall at any point worrying about how old they were and if I could relate to them or not. I just found them lung-burstingly funny.
For example, when I was 18: Frank Skinner was 39. I didn’t care. He’d lived a life and showed comedic inventiveness that you can still hear now, every week on his podcast and if you are lucky enough to see him live. There’s genius like that in circuit acts all around the UK and beyond, but how old they are doesn’t matter one bit. I’ve never once done a gig anywhere and worried that the audience can’t relate to me. I’m not trying to be their friend, I’m trying to make them laugh. We’re not all adding each other on Snapchat afterwards.
I totally understand that elements of television and radio must appeal to certain demographics. But competitions like this exist because we are being told, more and more, that the only way to succeed in comedy is to either be lucky enough to have the talent and confidence as a youngster, or to somehow bend the space-time continuum and mess with the entire ageing process. And believe me, if I had a DeLorean and could travel back in time, I’d be taking blueprints for an iPod back with me rather than concentrating on my stand-up career.
BBC Three was aimed at the “youth” market and it failed, whether you like to face up to that or not. I’m not in any way pleased about that; it meant that many people that I adore from the comedy world lost out on chances to be on television. Whilst it produced some utterly fantastic shows such as Uncle, it was mainly the place where we all watched episodes of Family Guy without the annoyance of ad breaks. Incidentally, that show was created by 43 year old Seth MacFarlane, and when I worked in a school it was pretty much the only comedy show on TV that the kids I taught quoted ad nauseum.
At the age of 38 I have a lot to talk about. I’m married, have two children, have travelled the world, beaten addiction, conquered mental illness, experienced triumphs and made many, many mistakes. I do as many shows at universities as I did at the age of 30, if not more. I run a wrestling company with my two best friends (both of whom are younger than me) where our core group of fans are mainly aged between 20 and 30. Like every other comedian I know, I’m finding more to say and I’m getting better at my craft every single day. I don’t feel old, that’s for sure.
Whilst I’m sure the aforementioned competition is intended to come from a good place, making anyone over the age of 35 appear to be a marginalised minority within the comedy world (when we clearly aren’t) is only perpetuating the mistaken belief that our industry is only for the young. Age doesn’t matter one bit, in the same way that a comic’s sex, sexuality, race or religion shouldn’t either. I got into doing this because I love making people laugh, plain and simple. If you’re doing that, you’re doing it right.
If our industry is obsessed with ensnaring the precious 18-25 age group anyway, they’re going about it wrong. My daughter is nearly 14 and doesn’t watch hardly any television. The only comedians that she knows are Paul Sinha (because she likes the Chase) and Joel Dommett (because she likes his abs, presumably). They’re both excellent comedians, but all of her favourite “celebrities” are YouTube personalities who speak directly to her. She’s not interested in watching stand-up comics, be they 20 years old or 70. It’s not a form of entertainment that she enjoys. That’s probably my fault. She’s equally not bothered about any sitcoms that may be aimed at her – I was certainly sitcom obsessed at her age – no matter how lovingly crafted and brilliantly performed they may be.
When you do this job you can’t help feeling that much of the trends and themes are controlled by some media-types in an office in Shoreditch, much in the same way that I am convinced that music in the 1990s was just a succession of bands that the NME put on their front cover just to see if people would latch onto them, no matter how rubbish they were (I give you Bis and Gay Dad, everyone). I’m at the coal-face of comedy three or four times a week, performing in actual clubs for very real punters. Outside of university gigs I’ve never done shows where I feel old. If you love comedy, age doesn’t matter. You go to a club, you pay your money and whoever is on the show tries their best to make you laugh. We entertain every age group every weekend.
Consider this: If you worked in an office and gave out an award to the best staff member over 35 and called it “old worker of the year” you would end up on the pages of a newspaper, belittled by everyone for bringing up something so ridiculous. If you turned down a perfectly good employee for a role because they happened to be 38 rather than 23, you’d be daft. All that should matter is if you can do the job.
I’m aware that I’m a comedian who actively doesn’t want to be on television, so little of what I’m speaking about affects me. I’m not just saying that because it’s unlikely to happen either, that is just a happy coincidence that ensures I’m never too disappointed. But with the various things I’ve experienced so far this year, how many more years do I have until the clubs I work for stop employing me? If it’s because they’ve found better acts then I am totally on board; nobody should rest on their laurels and every single comedian should strive constantly to be better and create new material. But if it’s because I’ve reached an arbitrary upper age limit, Logans Run style, despite me trying my very best, then I’ll feel incredibly cheated by an industry that I have loved for my entire adult life and put an obscene amount of work and effort into.
Terrifyingly, this is the only thing I can do now. And thanks to the inherent ageism of the working world in general, in a decade’s time – unless we address this issue and just appreciate that funny is funny, age isn’t important – I might not be standing on stage in a comedy club on a Friday night. I’ll be the guy who is too old to get a job anywhere else, greeting you as you walk into your local Asda.
For the record, in the course of my near twelve year career in comedy I’ve been turned down for various things with the following reasons given:
Too old – seven times
Too fat – four times
Too common – three times
Not common enough – twice
Having the crooked teeth of a Jeremy Kyle guest – once
Thank god you can’t tell my age, weight or dental records when I’m doing voiceover. I’ll be 33 and acceptably working class on the radio forever.
This rant isn't powered by bitterness. It comes from adoring my job and wanting to be part of an industry that I love for the rest of my life. I don't want something as trivial and unimportant as my age to affect that.
Either that or I bite the bullet and start lying.
Jim Smallman, age 28.