Let My Jokes Sell You These Durables You Desire

You don’t know what your ethics are until you are offered money for them.

It is easy to be idealistic and morally pure as snow (which rarely seems to be that pure anyway, you should see the snow I’ve seen), when you are comfortable and not in the hands of a manipulative psychologist bossing you into electrocuting quiz failures. 

It always becomes problematic when fear of authority, comfort of cash or the mania of a sudden genocidal spree takes hold.

Everyone is  a commodity, we’re all for sale – that’s the dystopian or utopian future we’ve read in storybooks. With so many things to buy, when do you have enough stability that a casket of cash won’t veer you from the righteous you you wish to be?

Adverts are seen as the golden cow and the great taboo of stand up comedians.

No other artists seem to be scrutinised so closely on one issue of “selling out”, especially amongst their own. Why is the stand up’s autonomy seen as sacrosanct, while poets, actors, artists, even art critics, are happily permitted to sell lollies, chips, supermarkets, banks and laptops. 

It is a case of “are you with Bill Hicks or are you not?”

During my hungry days, though I was never too hungry as for much of that time Somerfield did a low cost pizza pack and I like carrots, I did go to audition for an advert once.

I gave being a talking, abusive and pugnacious giant Twiglet a go. That job went to Justin Lee Collins. I also have a vague recollection of doing something with a Pot Noodle. I remember the waiting room of comedians for that one, each looking vaguely embarrassed and with the same cover story that their agent was very pushy about this one and they wouldn’t do it if they got it and anyway they know the director who they are hoping to do a film with and…

In the 80s, I don’t remember being cross that Ade Edmondson was telling me to go to the Midland bank or Fry and Laurie were the honey trap for the Alliance and Leicester. Sometime in the mid 90s, by then a stand up myself, I started to feel uneasy about comedians selling financial services and soap. A few years later, I made the definite decision that I would not do adverts. I have had it tested by being offered money to do them and, with little internal debate, I was successful in turning them down.

I was lucky, I could turn them down. I am paying my mortgage, I sometimes have three cheeses in the fridge, and I can run free in any Oxfam bookshop. 

And I am not sure that the extra money I had would have had to fritter would have given me the same satisfaction as turning it down did. There is a sense of minor victory each time you’re not bought by something that requires you to do what you really know you shouldn’t. 

Of course, when no one wants to see me jumping out shouting about Darwin on stage and I find myself living in a hollowed out marrow in the corner of an allotment, then my chums who were the friendly faces of mortgage providers and supermarkets can come and laugh in my face before crushing my roof with a trowel. 

When I see someone rich and successful pitching product from late night screens, I just wonder why they would want to do it. Partly we have grown to find money terrifying, we fear it so much that each time it gets offered to us, we must take it in case it is the last time. the logic of careers evaporates, the paranoia of the 21st century kicks in. The paranoia of penury is how they get us. I remember my agent once trying to persuade me to do something that sounded like it would stick in my craw, but that would supply me with enough money for expensive salve to ease the craw pain as the odd oyster slid down whatever was stuck there. “It pays the mortage”, he said. “But I am paying the mortgage anyway”, I replied, and that was that. I am a difficult client. 

Some teenage idealist is within me, that has a deluded image of comedians as outsider fools, though history has many examples that show a flaw in my imagery. 

Personally, I think the reason I turn down money to be the face of hair replacement therapy (I imagine I would be on their list for possible billboard faces), is uncomfortable sense that if I am going to stand on stage and be furiously or absurdly opinionated, then I shouldn’t take money to pretend I have an opinion on a consumer durable. 

I find there are so many times that ethical lines blur, or I buy something from a company that I shouldn’t because I am lazy or it’s bargain, that to have some small amount of control, some line that cannot be crossed, may give me the illusion of an ethical existence. 

I don’t sell stuff, because I don’t have to. 

Perhaps it’s because I see something as frequently preposterous as the advertising industry as something for mockery rather than cuddling up to. It may just be that having failed to win the part of a belligerent Twiglet, I have covered up my failure and shame with the pretence of a standpoint. 

In writing this, I hoped it would work out why I’m not keen as the comedian as snake oil salesman, and 800 words later, I am still not sure. Some hotch potch of idealism and politics that can’t find the words needed to explain (a week of insomnia doesn’t help). 

Maybe there is some kind of pill available that helps blood to the brain and improves arguing skills, I haven’t seen it advertised, maybe they need a figurehead front man? See you in the Holland and Barrett magazine advertorial.

now let me sell you my tour – I am in Newbury, Croydon, Shoreham and Aldershot next, plus 50 more dates from Edinburgh to Exeter via Manchester etc all details HERE

Here is comedian Chris Coltrane’s post on this sort of thing too http://chris-coltrane.livejournal.com/409117.html

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18 Responses to Let My Jokes Sell You These Durables You Desire

  1. awdawd says:

    Selling yourself for money – regrettable for the poor, pathetic for the rich?

  2. Dean says:

    I think you’re totally right. But, there’s also a ton of comics that do comedy which doesn’t involve ” “standing on stage and being furiously or absurdly opinionated”. If you or Mark Steel or Mark Thomas did an advert, it would compromise your acts. If Tim Vine or Harry Hill or Ross Noble did then it wouldn’t. And then there’s a big gray area in between that somewhat depends on the exact nature of the act and the exact nature of the advert.

    • robinince says:

      I agree with that. It is quite a personal take and in the past I have said that it doesn’t really count if you are like Tim Vine or Harry Hill and I should have remembered to put that in

      • simon says:

        Do you mean you should only do adverts for someone else’s brand if it doesn’t compromise the image of your own brand?

      • robinince says:

        no, i mean if you stand on stage and say “I believe this, here are my opinions on the world” then say in an advert “I believe this bank is super” , there is, to me at least, a difficult compromise. The clash of mocking the powers then selling them too.

  3. rose says:

    Ever been on Johnny Carson,then I could look you up on youtube.Your probably not old enough right.

  4. celkali says:

    This must be a British thing. Commercials with comedians over here are actually well received, and can be pretty decent; I’ve never heard anyone getting slack for it from their colleagues. Like the Snickers ones, or Bill Hader’s recent T-Mobile stuff ( http://youtu.be/EPTQ9Xt6nXI ). I suppose it’s because they’re more main stream comedians, and the other ones are pretty much reserved for Youtube or they make them themselves, like Nathan Barnatt ( http://youtu.be/JsKUkNZM53M ). Hell, we have a whole day dedicated to the ‘funniest commercial’ that takes place during something called the Super Bowl. Or! You get a team like Tim&Eric to write their own commercials (the real ones, not the ones from the show obviously), which I understand is a rare privilege.

    Also, I was curious- do you know what causes your insomnia? Or is it kind of like depression, where it’s just ‘there’? I don’t have any advice or anything, because I’ve already been made to try it all, except for don’t take sleeping pills. Those things will give you the worst hangover in your life. Aaand it’s 6 AM, I should probably try to sleep.

  5. Neil says:

    The 57 year old who amazingly looks only 35 and has a tip to share with me that will really annoy dermatologists takes something of the gloss off the otherwise thoughtful piece on the ethics of advertising by comics. Are you passively endorsing that product by allowing the product to be displayed on your blog, rather an actively having an opinion, and is there an ethical difference?

    • robinince says:

      argh, I didn’t think WordPress had ads, oh dear

      • billthomuk says:

        It doesn’t have ads – at least not on the main site. ‘Neil’ may be using a reader that inserts them. No need to worry 🙂

      • Neil says:

        billthomuk may well have a point, I was using the browser built into the ipad twitter client. All very official as it were. Now a different question poses itself. Who is placing ads on your posts without, presumably from your response, you being lucratis as a result? The plot thickens.

  6. Garry says:

    Would you ever do an advert for a large amount of money so you could donate it to a charity you loved? Like, would Josie Long get the same stick from other comedians for doing an advert if she got to donate a large five figure sum to UK Uncut for her efforts?

  7. John Peat says:

    Alan Davies famously shunned ads until his agent told him that he had to look at the figure on the offer from Abbey National – which he described as an obscene amount of money.

    I suspect he realised that Jonathan Creek had already done some damage to his ‘street cred’ and that Abbey National were only trying to hire Jonathan Creek anyway!?

    He since as-much-as admitted those 2 things killed his stand-up career tho – so I hope it was obscene enough…

    As for Bill Hicks – in many ways it’s a shame he didn’t do cigarette ads, isn’t it?

  8. toffer99 says:

    I quite enjoy trying to recognise comedians doing voiceovers on TV ads. I don’t get upset about it. Just one has recently raised my eyebrows and thats a well-known veteran radio quizmaster doing voiceovers for Wonga.

  9. I know you are a little further away from 50 than I am (4 years I believe) but if you can hold out till then, you can wait for the over 50s advertising brigade to approach you…turn them down but send them a free pen just for enquiring!

  10. sam says:

    I don’t blame performers for taking the money. I do feel there’s been a sea change in the way people get status, it seems pride in doing a job well is no longer good enough, money has become our main measure of status.

  11. It was bizarre to hear Simon Munnery doing a voice over for an ad recently, but to me it didn’t seem like a moral compromise. I appreciate that folk need to eat, many comedians are also jobbing actors…. However, it still jars to think of Billy Connolly doing the adverts for the national lottery. The lottery has also seemed to me to be a tax on the poor and I’m surprised that he didn’t think the same.

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