Heard the one about the standup who built lift shafts? Comedians on their previous careers

Modelling bras for Asda, giving tours of parliament, proving yourself on a building site … top comics relive their old day jobs

‘Gigs let me escape from having to think about serious things’

Matt Winning.
Matt Winning, comedian and environmental policy researcher. Photograph: Jessica McDermott

Matt Winning has been performing standup since 2009. He has an agent, has taken two solo shows to the Edinburgh fringe and performs plenty of paid gigs. But he’s still in full-time employment – out of choice. Having a day job and an income means he can “afford to experiment with comedy and do what I want to do. It’s the best of both worlds.” But there is one drawback: “It takes twice as long to progress.”

Winning enjoys working as a research associate at the UCL Energy Institute in London, looking at the effects of environmental policies on the economy. This year, for the first time, he’s bringing a show to Edinburgh that’s based on his day job. “I spend all of my other time thinking about serious things. Standup has always been an escape, so I’ve tended to do obscure, silly stuff. But this year’s show is a lecture about climate change. And I’m trying to make it as heavy as possible.”

He’s only half-joking, but the show will be scientifically watertight. Until now, Winning didn’t feel capable enough as a comedian to make his environmental work funny. “With standup, you need to either take a very extreme view or a very flippant view. But because I’m so close to the subject, it’s a lot more nuanced.”

He reckons this cross-fertilisation also goes the other way: his standup sets have made speaking at conferences and teaching students less nerve-racking. “I try to throw some jokes into my lectures,” he says. “There’s a comedy rule: ‘Always open strongly.’ I probably follow that more in my lectures than I do with my comedy shows.”

‘I’d practise my routine out loud in the stock room’

Ellie Taylor.
Ellie Taylor, former model. Photograph: Karla Gowlett

Before she became a full-time comic, selling out tours and appearing on panel shows, Ellie Taylor had a job as a marketing assistant and fit gigging in after work. “I would finish at 6pm,” she says. “And there was no point going home. So I used to go into the stock room and practise my set, say it out loud. It was tiring and I didn’t really feel like traipsing somewhere to do a spot, but it was a good grounding.”

Office work isn’t that interesting, says Taylor, so she rarely talked about her job in her act. But she also had a modelling career, and that provided good material for her debut solo show, Elliementary. “It’s an unusual job so people are interested in it – and you end up being in bizarre situations.” Like modelling dressing gowns for Matalan or Asda’s own range of bras, while her fellow models were being sent to exotic locations around the world.

In 2011, not long after Taylor started doing standup, a TV opportunity came along: ITV’s Show Me the Funny, a short-lived X Factor for standups. She had to commit to six weeks of filming, which forced her to quit the day job. “It was a risk,” she says. “I could have been out of the show in the first week.” But she made it to the semi-finals. “Then suddenly I was a comedian, despite never having been paid for a gig.”

Being a full-time comic has changed her attitude to standup. “It’s your living now, so that takes the shine off it. And 50% of being a comedian is admin – filling in spreadsheets and chasing people. That’s not very funny. Admin is not funny.”

‘I was the only woman on a building site of 5,000 men’

Gina Yashere, comedian and former lift engineer.
Gina Yashere, former lift engineer. Photograph: Weston Wells for the Guardian

Gina Yashere doesn’t miss having a day job one bit. “I’m unemployable now,” she jokes, having been a professional comic for 20 years. Before comedy, she worked as an engineer for Otis, forming part of the team that built the lifts in London’s Canary Wharf tower. “I wanted to be outside and work with my hands,” she says. “I thought climbing up and down lift shafts sounded like fun.”

She loved the job, claiming to have been Otis’s first female engineer. “Oh yeah, they had me on all the brochures!” she says. “I was their poster girl, they loved to bring me out for PR opportunities.”

At Canary Wharf, Yashere was one of 5,000 people working for many building companies – and the only woman on site. “People ask, ‘Is it difficult being a woman in comedy, because it’s such a male-dominated industry?’ But the engineering industry was very white, very male-dominated. I had to put up with a lot of racism and sexism. In comparison, being a comedian is a walk in the park. Obviously they didn’t think, as a woman, I could do half the stuff they did, but I proved I was as strong and as good as any of them.”

Dealing with the racism required a different approach, says Yashere. She put up with one worker “dropping N-words” for six months. But then she pulled him aside. “I said, ‘If I ever hear you say that again I’m going to send two of my brothers round.’ And that was that, he never spoke to me again.”

Comedy was never a dream for Yashere. In fact, she’d barely had an interest in it. But after deciding to take redundancy, she took the summer off, did voluntary work and wrote a play for a charity fundraiser. “People pissed themselves laughing through the whole thing,” she says. “It turned out it was really a comedy sketch. Two friends performed it with me but they weren’t keen on carrying on, so standup was the only way – just doing it by myself. The plan was to try the comedy thing for six months then go back to work full-time. But it never happened.”

‘I made sure Italian tourists didn’t wander into the House of Lords’

John Kearns.
John Kearns, former Houses of Parliament tour guide. Photograph: Edward Moore

John Kearns spent four years working at the Houses of Parliament, “assisting visitors, giving tours and making sure an Italian tourist didn’t wander into the House of Lords”. He had one golden rule when applying for jobs: “Would it be a thrill to walk around the building alone after work, when it’s all shut up?” So, as well as parliament, there were jobs at the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum.

After Kearns won best newcomer at the 2013 Edinburgh fringe, he became a full-time comedian and starred in the BBC3 slapstick sitcom Top Coppers. But by quitting his day job, Kearns also gave up the framework that had enabled him to write standup. “I regret leaving work as quickly as I did,” he says. “For eight hours a day, I didn’t worry about comedy, whereas now it’s all I worry about. When I had a day job, I just wrote when it came to me because I was busy during the day. Now, I walk around thinking, ‘It will come.’Relying on ‘It will come’ to pay the rent, that’s not always creatively freeing.”

Kearns’s tour-guide experience began to shape his comedy. “I’ve always had jobs where I wore a uniform, where I clocked in and out,” he says. “There was a clear line between when work started and stopped. So when I wear a wig and false teeth on stage, it’s almost like my uniform for comedy.”

As much as Kearns struggles with the uncertainty of being a professional comedian, he realises he’s in a privileged position: hundreds of amateur comics would kill to reach his level. “When you’ve got a job, your worst-case scenario is losing your job. My worst-case scenario is I have to get a job. And that’s not a bad position to be in.”


Ben Williams

The GuardianTramp

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