I am a stand-up comedian you've never heard of, and in all likeliness will never hear from again. I've been performing on the "circuit" for more than four years, and in that time I have probably made a grand total of 12 free pints of beer and once a night's stay in the Peterborough Travelodge.
This is not uncommon. In the beginning, earning any money from stand-up is impossible, so for many advertising is an obvious choice for a way to make ends meet. There's a lot of crossover of skills: in particular the need to churn out material even if you think some of it is terrible. Everyone from Jimmy Carr to Noel Fielding started their careers in advertising before they made it big and never had to get up before 2pm again.
But advertising has changed. These days most people sell things to you via viral marketing and social media, so the jobs that the next generation of comics are doing to make ends meet are also changing. Now, if you tweet your favourite burrito manufacturer about how farty their product made you, it could be a future star of Live at the Apollo writing back.
In my case, I spent two years running the social media accounts for KFC. If anyone from the UK or Ireland wanted to rant about their cold chicken or send Colonel Sanders a picture of their cat (one man did this everyday for 6 months) then I was the man who replied.
Running the social media account of a brand like that is essentially catfishing the world. People would log on and think they were chatting to a smiling, southern Colonel, when in actual fact it was just me on Tweetdeck trying to find new ways to say, "I'm sorry to hear that". When a 12-year-old child was DMing me about how excited they were to come and visit me later, it was hard not to feel like an online predator.
Mostly though, people just care way too much about fried chicken. I once received tweet that read, "what I got from KFC last night wasn't chicken, it was a fucking disgrace. #cunts #wankers #neveragain #motherfuckers." I was hired to to write witty responses to things that people wrote, but it's very hard to find something humorous to say to that.
More often than not I would just end up getting in trouble for anything I wrote back. One woman complained, "the food I got in KFC last night was so disgusting even my daughter wouldn't eat it." Which, if you think about it, is kind of implying that her daughter must be some sort gluttonous monster who would eat anything. So I replied, "if your daughter wouldn't eat it then it must have been bad!" She put in an official complaint to head office saying I'd implied her daughter was an animal.
"You have to be very careful with what you post," Joe Jacobs, another comedian who runs the social media for household brands like Dominos, Durex and Cathedral City, tells me. "One day we got sent a load of stock images by our client. I picked one with some barbed wire in the shape of music notes and quickly posted it because I was on my way to lunch. I came back after and realised, after looking at the comments, that I'd posted a picture of Auschwitz. To make matters worse I'd used the slogan 'music sets you free'. It was the worst day of my life."
Corporations often think they want someone funny, but once you get the job there's not a lot of room for boundary-breaking comedy. "They quite often went for the more pedestrian ideas. I suggested one Mother's Day campaign for Domino's called MILFs," says Jacobs, "it was supposed to stand for 'mother I'd like to feed,' but they didn't got for it."
Award-winning comedian Liam Williams, who has since been on BBC Three, also cut his teeth tweeting for the man. "A friend of mine said on Facebook that they were looking for a social media expert and I thought, well I'm on Facebook all the time. I'm on it right now. How hard can it be?" He was put in charge of growing the online presence of phone recycling company Envirofone, after their ad went viral because it had a man that said "wonga!" in a funny way.
"Luckily they didn't really have any idea about social media. Each day they'd expect to have 10,000 more followers and I'd have to explain why we only had 20. Eventually I just stopped going into the office, but they kept sending me pay cheques. Then those stopped too..."
Despite his lack of success he managed to get another job posting on Facebook on behalf of Captain Morgan. "That was a lot more corporate and serious. I had to go to a huge dystopian tower and slide my posts across a table to the suits who would look them over. They always spoke about the Captain as if he were a real person, he was all about sport, girls, banter and energy, so I had to make sure that's what I wrote about."
A big part of being a comedian is having to deal with mad members of the general public, which is a skill that is very useful in social media. James Loveridge is a favourite on the circuit, who during the day manages social media accounts for various TV shows like Robot Chicken, The Jonathon Ross Show, Fifth Gear, Balls of Steel and others. "I've had to stop reading the direct messages on a lot of them, because it's just desperate pleas from people trying to get in touch with the talent," he told me, "as if these celebrities are managing their own Facebook pages. That's like going on the Peep Show page and expecting to be messaging one on one with David Mitchell. We manage the account for a celebrity chef show, and a woman sent us a message everyday about how horny she was and wanted to get in touch with him. I've also seen hundreds of pizzas with celebrities faces in the toppings. People like to say how much they enjoyed eating so and so's face."
The hardest part my job at KFC consisted of arguing with racist people online. It's hard to remember you're there to sell people chicken when the righteous spirit of a leftie-liberal keyboard warrior courses through your veins. A small number of KFCs are now halal, which makes some people extremely unhappy. The chicken is reared and killed in exactly the same way, but a prayer is said over it as it's killed to make it edible for Muslims. Islamophobes would disguise their prejudice as concern for animal welfare. "For it to be halal, they kill the chickens while they're still alive!" They would tell me. Yes, yes they do.
When I explained that it's no more cruel to the animal than normal chicken they would say that the bible banned them from eating it. When I explained that the bible also bans eating shellfish, pork and wearing clothes made from two different materials they would tell me that they didn't want chicken that had been prepared by terrorists. When I started to berate them for being a horrible racist the phone would ring and my manager would tell that I should let it go, this wasn't going to sell anyone any chicken.
So now you know a little more about the people behind these faceless corporations. This is not intended to make you feel any sympathy for the comedians who have to do these jobs, trust me, I know us, we certainly don't deserve your sympathy. Just remember that next time you see an online campaign that you think is terrible, or a corporate hashtag that goes spectacularly long and you think, "take that, you stupid corporations", just know that the person on the other end probably agrees with you, and they're dying inside.
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