What is success? Global fame, Simon Cowell or a big fish in a small pond?

Yesterday, 20-year-old American comedian Bo Burnham started a two-week tour of England. He has his first album out, has been commissioned to write a movie, MTV recently ordered a television pilot from him and, in January this year, he finished Number One in Comedy Central’s Stand-up Showdown in the US – a public vote on the twenty greatest Comedy Central performances. But he is still mostly unknown in the UK, despite being that new phenomenon ‘an internet sensation’ and winning the much-publicised Malcolm Hardee ‘Act Most Likely to Make a Million Quid’ Award at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe.

I wrote a blog a while ago about Ken Dodd which started off “Morecambe and Wise were not famous” and mentioned, as an aside, that “fame is relative and mostly regional

One response was from Mr Methane, the world’s only professionally performing farter. He has performed all over the place and, at various times, been fairly famous in Sweden and in Japan because of his television appearances there. Far more famous than in Britain, where farting in peaktime is still frowned on.

He responded to my blog by saying: “I always find it interesting when I go abroad and do a TV show with a person who is that country’s Steve Wright or Jonathan Woss – a big fish in a small pond but none-the-less raking it in. My problem has always been that awareness of Mr Methane is spread globally rather than condensed in a certain geographical area which makes it harder to get bums on seats and make some serious money.”

The Scots comedienne Janey Godley has had a Top Ten bestselling hardback and paperback book in the UK and regularly (I have seen the figures) gets over 500,000 worldwide hits per week on her widely-posted blog. But if she were to play a theatre in, say, Cleethorpes in England or Peoria in the US, she would not necessarily sell out the venue’s tickets in the first half hour they went on sale, because she has had relatively little English TV exposure and her fame and fanbase is spread worldwide not concentrated locally.

To be a big ‘live’ star in a country, you still have to be on that country’s television screens fairly regularly. A massive internet following may not be enough for you to make shedloads of money on tour. I would lay bets that some amiable but relatively talentless British stand-up comedian who appears on a BBC3 panel show will make better box office money on a UK tour than the equally amiable and immeasurably more talented Bo Burnham who is, indeed, that legendary beast ‘an internet sensation’.

In 2009, Mr Methane was on Britain’s Got Talent. Several clips of that appearance have been posted on YouTube and, at the time of writing, one of those clips

has had over ten million hits. But those ten million plus people are spread across the globe, so how does Mr Methane, in that awful American phrase, ‘monetise’ the awareness of his existence? He can market products online, which I know he does very successfully but, if he were playing a live venue in Peoria, would he fill the auditorium?

The result is that, as Mr Methane observes, you can often make more money and be more ‘successful’ by being a big fish in a small pond rather than being an internationally recognised performer. Financially, it is usually still better to have 10 million fans in the UK than 30 million fans worldwide.

iTunes, YouTube and other online phenomena are still in their infancy and may well change all that and Bo Burnham may be one of the trailblazers.

The now-dying record business created international stars selling millions of discs worldwide who could tour on the back of that success. But without television exposure and with only a few exceptions, that has not yet happened for comedy acts. You still need local TV exposure.


Filed under Books, Comedy, Internet, Television, Theatre

3 responses to “What is success? Global fame, Simon Cowell or a big fish in a small pond?

  1. Hell Mr John
    I totally agree with the principals – however there are a couple of points

    It is perfectly possible to have localised support through the internet – I manage internet phenomenon Devvo – who at his height was achieving over a million views on each youtube clip that went out. Devvo isn’t really understood outside the UK so that following came largely from the UK and predominantly in the north. So back then he could easily sell out medium sized venues anywhere north of Birmingham and also in Wales but we struggled twice in say Brighton.

    Another point is that it at worst a myth and at best very misleading to say that the record industry is dying – there is more demand for music then ever – what has happened over the last 10 years is that the music industry has completely reinvented itself. XFactor and a smaller number of pop artists selling a high number of records still operate in a similar way to the traditional industry… and then everywhere else has radically changed so that the artist or management can play a much more hands on role in controlling their career…

  2. John, another plug people are going to start thinking I pay you.

    I tend to agree & disagree with Bob as the traditional music industry model as we knew it is dying but he’s right to say that there is more music out there being consumed. Its interesting that x factor music has a big following but when do you hear it on the radio or on a jukebox down the pub? as a rule you dont, its just a merchandise spin off from a tv show with a few exceptions – Leona Lewis for one and then only for one single. Large record labels no longer have the money to keep well known acts on retainers or publishing contracts like they used to and have pressed the ejector seat. New & well known acts arent as a rule getting huge piles of money thrown at them to go away and make an album, the Stone Roses great Rock N Roll heist where they made one decent album then got a shed load of money advanced to make another and did sweet fa just wouldnt happen in todays climate or at least it would be highly unlikely. What we are seeing now is old 80’s & 90’s band members mending fences with each other and going out on the road, why? because their PRS royalaties for those 4 classic hits that we hear all the time have gone through the floor and live gigs are the only way to keep up with the nose food budget, two jags, a Lexus, the swimming pool gas bill, etc, etc.

    One thing that is worth considering here above all other considerations is that Comedy hasnt, isnt and never will be on a par with Rock N Roll stardom. You dont wake up in the morning humming a joke you heard 15 years ago, the joke doesnt take you back in your mind those 15 years, – unless you a comedy Train Spotter that is. Music finds pathways into the nations soul and gets very deeply rooted there, it is valued as a great work of art by those to listen to it while comedy though a very serious business and labour of love for the artist is generally seen as nothing more than a throw away laugh by the consumer in most cases. Ringo Star wasnt the only drummer in the Beatles and according to a joke by John Lennon he wasnt the best either but lets just say we have a choice between say Richard Starkey and someone currently at the very top of the comedy tree – maybe that Michael McIntyre bloke – coming round for dinner, Its Ringo Star everytime for 90% of the British population, sorry fellow comedians and variety acts that is just how it is. We aint Rock Stars, we are the Comedy Arsholes of Entertainment, Literally in my case.

  3. Ian

    I had heard of Mr Methane before his X Factor appearance. I had seen his videos in the bargain bin at HMV and once while organising entertainment for a university shindig his name was mentioned among a list of other entertainers for hire…and the suggestion was swiftly dismissed. John Otway spent many years building a cult following, making jokes about his number 47 hit, but carefully avoiding becoming a household name. A friend of mine worked for Weetabix when he was hired for a series of TV commercials and complained that he messed up or missed every photo opportunity. This level of fame seemed to work for him.

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