How to organise a comedy competition without ever actually meeting people

...but nothing is funnier than organising in cyberspace

In 2005 or 2007 (it depends how you define it) I started the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe. So I am interested in how other people start such things.

Funny’s Funny, for example, is “an organisation run by comedians and promoters to provide links between funny people and the comedy industry” and, last year, they started the Female Comedian of the Year contest.

Last year, the Malcolm Hardee Awards were decided in Edinburgh with one of the judges, comedy critic Kate Copstick, on the end of a mobile phone in a train hurtling through some Godforsaken part of England.

So I was interested when Ashley Frieze told me the organisers of Funny’s Funny “manage to run it without ever being in the same room.”

Funny’s Funny started a year ago when news broke that the long-running Funny Women comedy contest was going to start charging £15 to entrants.

“As comedians,” says Ashley, “the idea of pay-to-play was abhorrent. I ended up in a Facebook discussion thread with comedians Okse and Jane Hill and we agreed something should be done about it. Okse set up a Facebook group. That’s activism in the modern age. Get some people to join a group and bitch about it.

“It didn’t really seem like we were changing anything, so I suggested that we should beat Funny Women at their own game – run a comedy competition without it being pay-to-play. I excitedly called up Okse and said: We really could do this and he seemed to believe me. After a handful of other phone calls to some people who immediately started talking about the subject in the ‘we’ person rather than the ‘you’, it became clear that we had plenty of people who could do a bit, but that nobody could do the whole thing.

“I took on the role of facilitator. I would enable the major organisers to work closely together, network-in our comedy club friends somehow and draw it all together via some sort of website.

“At that stage Bob Slayer‘s website WhatComedy was just starting out and they could nearly provide the infrastructure to run a competition, but it wasn’t there yet. So I decided that I’d have to use my real IT skills and build something. The Funny’s Funny website represents a few thousand lines of code that I rattled out in a hurry to ensure that our IT was always one step ahead of what we needed to do with it.

“As such, it enabled us to gather 250 entrants and spread them across 20 or so gigs that we were also providing listings for. Our ability to keep track of what we’d offered, who had accepted and who was going where was all done by using a website that the whole team could access.

“We had no opportunity to get into the same room as each other. Jane Hill was working as a newsreader as well as doing stand-up, so her day started at about 4.00am when she’d do some admin. Then she was out of touch except for a couple of hours at night when usually I was on the way to a gig. Her partner, comedian and promoter Rob Coleman, was working normal hours and he was coordinating with the venues. I was travelling a huge amount during the period and was in the States for a few days.

“I remember waking up one morning, checking the website and discovering that Jane and Rob had booked 50% of the entrants ‘overnight’. It was a real Elves and The Shoemaker feeling.

“Okse was producing artwork for the various show posters and these would be saved on his computer and get magically transported via a nifty technology called DropBox to mine. I would then click on a few buttons here and there to convert them for print using a Cloud-based printing service called FilePrint and they would magically appear on the doorstep of the recipient within a couple of days. I even produced a few posters myself this way, while sitting at the side of a
pool in Spain, where I was attending a family wedding.

“I think this is the magic of the internet, really. You don’t have to be in the same room as the action: you can bring it to you, wherever you are.

“After a while, the whole event took on a sort of surreal quality. It almost didn’t seem real. I couldn’t personally attend all of the shows – none of us could – but we got judging results in from them, via the Funny’s Funny website.

“I did start to wonder if the whole thing was real or if it was just an elaborate wind-up, born of about 250 people pretending they were doing a competition and sending me emails about it. Luckily, I managed to get to a few of the shows and see it happening for myself.

“The truth was that Funny’s Funny is really an ethos – We didn’t make it happen so much as define what was needed and get everyone to do it together through goodwill.

“You tell a bunch of people that it’s going to work and then it does.

“Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was unable to get to the final… but the others made it along. So we were nearly all in the same place at the same time – if it hadn’t been for my prior commitments, I would have been there.

“This year’s team is using the same technique – lots of emails, lots of documents shared via the Cloud – and the same ethos… We will make a network of people to enable a huge event that we all believe in.”

5 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Internet

5 responses to “How to organise a comedy competition without ever actually meeting people

  1. Regarding pay to play: Tell me, why should a punter have to pay to see someone learn to be a comic? You wouldn’t pay to have a dental student learn how to drill your teeth, would you?

    • It’s an interesting question, Lewis. One of the things we do in Funny’s Funny is keep the showcase ticket prices at £5 or below to avoid charging a premium to see some new acts cutting their teeth.

      On the other hand, it’s all shades of grey. All comedians are learning to some degree, and not all competition entrants are newbies. At one showcase last year we had Pam Ford and Annette Fagon, both of whom can command paid work. The MC and headliner of that showcase were both full time comics and so the small entry fee was more than justified.

      Lewis, I think your business model of charging the audience after a show works well, and I do it myself at the Free Festival. The pay to play question is more about which business people are exploiting which revenue streams.

      • lovely ashley. you told me why a punter should pay to get into your show. you didn’t answer why someone who wants to be a comic should expect to gain experience at the expense of the audience and the promoter. It costs time, energy and money to put on the shows, does it not? and that cost is not being met by ticket prices.

      • I’m not sure I agree with the last sentence – “the cost is not being met by ticket prices” – surely that depends entirely on your business model?

        I run a successful gig where I can put on an open spot, and the gig is profitable enough to pay all the people who need paying.

        Some people put on entirely open-mic nights for a small fee which does pay for their costs.

        Open mic nights are not necessarily run by clubs as a stand-alone venture, they can be a way for the clubs to find and develop acts that they can then use – look at how The Stand does this, for a good example.

        If an act is asked to pay for the right to go on stage, then the “economy” becomes driven by acts’ ability to pay, rather than their ability to perform.

  2. but would the dental student be required to pay you?

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