Eating costs, heating costs. Regrettably, we all have to pay the bills, though our solutions to this problem vary according to how much power over our lives we want – and how much responsibility we are prepared to accept.
As an employee you have to show up for work every day and do your job to an agreed standard, or you get fired. If you are self-employed you do not have to show up for work every day and there is nobody to fire you – but you have to assess demand and provide what the market wants, essentially applying for a job with every one of your clients. This is harder than employment initially, then easier if you are successful, when reputation starts working for you.
If you want to live as an artist, you will not have to show up for work every day and you will not have to give the market what it wants – which sounds like freedom, although if you are to continue eating and heating you may eventually have to adapt your art to the market, or adapt the market to your art, which can be done but takes a lot longer.
“The more abstract the truth you wish to teach,” said the humourist Fred Nietzsche, “the more you need to seduce the senses to it.” As a stand-up I attempted in the early years to communicate my taste in particular little abstractions to audiences variously older and younger and richer and poorer than myself – and my successes and failures hinged indeed on my seduction of the audiences’ senses.
Where I communicated an enjoyable foolishness they would willingly picture my hypoglycaemic horses and strain to parse my perversely dislocated grammar. Where I was visibly bummed out by the improbability of building a bridge between us, they would lose faith and I would die.
To protect my freedom to do quite good work which people hate – and postpone the day when I have to adapt my art to the market, I have had to do some questionable things compatible with my skillset: adverts, even acting. These activities are of course not real work but a necessary, minimal participation in the stupid game of capitalism we are playing at the moment.
In my experience, the more moronic and distant from creative responsibility something is, the better paid it is. My biggest payday as a performer was when my mate Karl and I voiced a pair of computer-animated bees for a mobile network campaign. They paid us so much money. They could have paid us a lot less and we would still have pretended to be bees. We didn’t even have to pretend to be bees that much, as the characters we portrayed spoke excellent English. Not only all that, but we could order anything for lunch.
These activities are of course not real work but a necessary, minimal participation in the stupid game of capitalism we are playing at the moment
Occasionally comedians will get asked to audition for acting roles, I don’t know why. The castings are almost always awful. They dangle a very useful sum of money in front of you and you have kids so you go along to the casting office above a shop in the West End of London and sit with other blokes in a cattle pen, your man-about-town bonhomie ebbing until there is none left, at which point they call you in to show them your magic.
A stand-up gig, even if it ends with a whimper, always starts with a bang: you are introduced, as yourself, to a round of applause – a fair wind. A casting, by contrast, is a performance of someone else’s material, usually s**t, to a seated, bored audience of one, plus a silent camcorder operator, at midday. I am not conditioned for it, it just doesn’t feel like performance at all without the pressure of the crowd’s expectations. Like Bruce Banner jumping out of a plane and hoping he will transform into the Hulk before he hits the ground, I wait for my irritability to kick in and somehow intensify me telegenically. Occasionally it does and I get the gig.
One of these acting jobs was more shameful than all the others, though it remains compelling as a name-drop. In 2006, I appeared as Jesus Christ in the movie The Da Vinci Code, directed by Ron Howard, whose filmography includes Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon and A Beautiful Mind. The Da Vinci Code is an exciting departure from this illustrious canon, being virtually unwatchable. Blame for this can hardly be laid at the feet of the filmmakers though; the source novel is the single worst piece of published fiction ever to be read on trains.
Look – I was happy to get this part because even though my fee was unspectacular, it was fun to be in a big thing, plus I knew I would make out like a bandit from the royalties. The production flew me out to Malta, which is full of stone buildings both intact and ruined, and accordingly provides locations for all those ancient world blockbusters: most Maltese of working age were extras in Troy or Alexander.
The blasphemous wedding of Jesus and Mary Magdalene was filmed on a huge outdoor set with many costumed extras and an enormous crane rig – and then cut from the film because, I was told, the lives of the production team had been threatened by religious zealots with a blind spot for the fifth commandment.
But do not worry. I do remain in the film, in a fuzzy dream sequence, for half a second, about twenty minutes in. And I still receive handsome residuals from this appearance, which was the whole point after all – being briefly demeaned in the service of long-term financial freedom. I know you will want to know how much whoring oneself out to Hollywood pays, and I will tell you.
My last royalty was in the amount of 13p, which means that by the time an industrial chain of salaried accountants, distributors and agents have ferried it to me, it will have cost quite a lot more to pay me than the payment itself. We’ve all learned something there. The question is, what I am going to do with all the money?