We caught up with Glaswegian stand-up comedian Susan Calman for an exclusive interview for our NMP Live Meets... series. Susan, who gave up a lucrative career in corporate law to become a comedian, talks about how she got into comedy, what is was like to come out in the 90's, as well as the challenges with corporate bookings. Watch the full interview or read the transcript below.
In conversation with Susan Calman
How did you start out on the comedy circuit?
I started doing comedy just after my thirtieth birthday. It was what has been described as an ‘early mid-life crisis’, and I think that’s probably right. I thought, if I don’t do something now, I will end up probably being a partner in a law firm. I’d be earning a lot of money, but unable to get out of that situation, because you tend to live within your financial means; so I will have bought a big house and… and I thought, well, lets just try it.
I did my first ever stand-up gig, five minutes, at The Stand Comedy Club in Glasgow. It was awful, but it felt amazing, and I thought, this is what I want to do! Then six months later, I resigned.
Now, that was quite soon to leave your job. The problem was, I was in a shiny corporate firm and clients were coming to see me doing comedy – and it was very difficult to combine being paid £400 an hour by a client, and then them coming to see me. So I thought, lets go for it, and I resigned my job and I went to the fringe; and ten years later it’s starting to go quite well! It’s taken about that long!
It was the best decision I ever made. Even in times where I’ve earned no money and it has been difficult and horrible, it is absolutely the best thing I have ever done, to give up my job to be a comedian.
Were your family supportive of your move from law to comedy?
My family were very supportive. I suspect privately, my mother in particular would have been distressed. I went to a good school, a good university, I was a lawyer, she was delighted – I was set for life! Then I suddenly went, “oh no, I want to be a clown”. I think they were quite annoyed.
A lot of my friends in law thought I was absolutely mad, a lot of friends thought I was absolutely mad, people genuinely did. My wife was very supportive and she probably thought it was mad, but people were okay about it because I think they knew it was something I either had to get out of my system and come back to law, or it would be a success.
My wife said I had two years, and then I had to go back to being a lawyer, and luckily she held off a bit longer. It was about four years in to doing comedy, four or five years of slogging away, when I started appearing on Radio 4, and that’s when things started changing in terms of audiences and what I could do.
So it was about five years ago that I thought maybe this is something I could earn a decent living at, but it took a long time, and a lot of very bad gigs.
I’ve still got my first cheque I was paid as a stand-up, my first ever paid gig, it was £10. The promoter wrote it in pencil so I couldn’t cash it, and I’ve got it framed on my wall as my first ever payment, that I couldn’t even cash!
Where did you ‘cut your teeth’ on the comedy circuit?
I cut my teeth mostly at The Stand Comedy Clubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh, but also at the Frog and Bucket in Manchester, and clubs like that, north of England, Scotland, sometimes in London; but the comedy market is quite crowded in London anyway and London audiences can be quite different.
So actually, it is quite good to learn in Manchester, or Glasgow, or Aberdeen, and I learnt by watching other people. That’s the only way to learn. Not on television but actually in comedy clubs.
I was very lucky; I started off at the same time as Sarah Millican and Kevin Bridges. When I was at The Stand Frankie Boyle was a regular compere, there were some really amazing comedians. I worked with Jason Manford in a pub in Paisley. Watching other comedians and what they do is absolutely the best way to learn. I was lucky that I started at a time with some absolutely incredible comics that I could learn from.
When I did something like The News Quiz with Sandi Toksvig when she was hosting, there's no better way to learn than sitting beside a woman like that. And Jeremy Hardy! I have been very lucky to meet some of my heroes like Jo Brand, and French and Saunders, and watch them work. That’s how you learn as well as by doing it! So I did hundreds and hundreds of gigs, awful gigs, terrible gigs, but they’re still gigs.
Was it difficult to come out as gay in the ‘90s?
I think coming out at that time wasn’t the easiest because I grew up during Clause 28 / Section 28 times, where there was a lot of negativity around, and even the most welcoming of people could be tainted by some of the propaganda that was about.
I had to come out because I was about twenty and things were getting quite awkward about constantly using non-determined gender pronouns to discuss what I was doing at the weekend. I had to kind of say, “I’m going out with someone and they’re really lovely”; and so, I thought I have to do it. It was very nerve-wracking, but again, much like giving up my job as a lawyer, if my parents were in anyway concerned about it they never, ever said anything, which… good for them! Even if they hated it, they were very supportive at the time and it is one of the most important things that you can do, and important to do.
I always support other people’s decisions about whether or not they want to, but for me it was absolutely the most important thing to do. And immediately as soon as I did it I started to feel like myself, because you aren’t hiding who you are any longer. And now I’m just banging on about it all the time.
What can organisations do to support diversity and inclusion?
I think there is a lot they can do, and I have been asked to speak for a number of organisations, on both mental health and diversity, in terms of what can be done.
One of the things is having an open discussion if anyone has any questions. This is a really important thing that sometimes people don’t ask questions, and everyone’s frightened and no one talks to each other. One of the things to do is to have a discussion and say, “right, does anyone have any questions about what’s going on here?”; with gender-neutral bathrooms, with all of those kind of things, especially in terms of LGBTQ and transgender rights.
You know, sometimes you have to ask a question, and it’s okay to ask questions, but also to be really positively inclusive. So, if you’re having a corporate away day, this used to always quite annoy me, that the women would go to a beauty spa and the men would play golf. And those times are possibly gone in terms of diversity, in terms of what people want to do.
So it’s just about opening your mind. I think organisations like Stonewall are fantastic if you have any questions. Stonewall run some fantastic away days for employers about diversity, but the main thing is to open the conversation.
Would you consider yourself a stand-up comedian or an after-dinner speaker?
I think you can be both. I’m actually, in many ways, more comfortable at a corporate event doing a speech, than I am doing stand-up. I enjoy writing a bespoke speech for a group; I think that’s a nice thing to do if you find out what they like doing. Whereas stand-up is – and this is the problem – people perceive stand-up as jokes, jokes, jokes… your kind of lovely Jimmy Carr.
My stand-up isn’t necessarily ‘joke’ jokes. It’s funny, believe me it’s funny, but it’s story. The storytelling is much more like a Billy Connolly observational thing. Sometimes when people talk about stand-up, ‘stand-up’ means so many different things; there is no such thing as a stand-up.
In the old days, it was a guy on the television telling mother-in-law jokes. Stand-up now is hundreds of things. So, if people are looking for a stand-up, they have to be quite careful they are booking the right kind of stand-up.
I may not be the right type of stand-up for some things, but I am absolutely perfect for others; and so it’s just about finding out, is it eleven o’clock at night and full of guys who just want blue jokes? If that’s the case, I am probably not the correct stand-up for you, because I don’t do blue jokes – because my mother would be disgusted with me if I did, for goodness sake, I have got a law degree!
What is the biggest challenge with a corporate booking?
I think the biggest single challenge in terms of corporate bookings is that because I used to be a lawyer, I am obsessed with ensuring that I have fulfilled the contract, and the brief from the client, and often this is my downfall.
Sometimes I’m booked because the speaker they had last year was offensive to everyone, and then they go, “let’s get that nice lady from Radio 4”. But the audience still actually want the offensive comedian. So, the biggest challenge for me is fulfilling the brief for the person who has booked me, and making sure the audience are happy at the same time; because sometimes the person who books the comedy isn’t really booking it for the audience and that’s a difficulty.
So a nice person says, “we just want some lovely stories”, and then you go out and everyone’s drunk and they just want some rude stories. To me, that is the biggest problem; making sure I don’t disappoint anyone by doing what I’ve been booked to do, but not having the audience hate what it is that I’m doing. And there can sometimes be a real difficulty in terms of those two aspects.
You want your company to be a lovely forward-facing diverse company booking a diverse comedian to do nice stories for you, and that is not what your sales team want, and then everyone feels very uncomfortable – especially me!
Does your corporate background help when performing at business events?
I think it does help, because I have been to these dinners as a guest, so I have been to all these corporate events. In that way it’s helped, in that I understand that there is a certain process to it; there is a decorum to it, there is a certain order to the whole situation. It makes it worse because I have been to these events, and I know what happens at these events.
I think in terms of exploring a client’s needs, what I found is that when I speak to clients for the briefing call, I completely get it; I understand what they want from me. The briefing calls are always very very business like, because that’s what I used to do.
The difficulty can sometimes be when I get there and there is a little bit of a problem there. So, it does help; but it also helps frighten me. And I think it is helpful, especially if you have to sit at the tables and talk to people, that I have experience of making small-talk, in a positive way – I don’t mean that in a negative way – when I was a lawyer. I know what these dinners are about; they are about networking; they’re about all of those kinds of aspects.
And I think that having a broader view of the world – often when I do company gigs or legal gigs or whatever – I actually often know what they are talking about, because I used to be a corporate lawyer. So, if they want to talk about their share buyouts I can talk about it with them, I find it quite interesting.
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