A call for people to poke each other in the eyes at British comedy clubs

Lewis Schaffer – ever scandalous

Last night, I went to a meeting at the long-running Monkey Business comedy club about “the crisis in comedy” where a packed room of comedians, promoters and club owners discussed what most comedy club owners, it appeared to me, seemed to think was no crisis in comedy. But comedians like talking and they can talk entertainingly, so everyone was happy.

Sometimes I have seen comedian Bob Slayer pretend to be drunk on stage. Last night, when I arrived, he was pretending to be sober in the audience. He was very convincing, though he had spent the entire afternoon talking to a brewery about sponsorship.

The “crisis in comedy” seemed to boil down to the perceived fact that box office takings have dropped perhaps 10%-20%.

David Mulholland, who runs the Soho Comedy Club, said: “I read a report about seven months ago that the median household income – the segment of the household income that’s left over for arts and entertainment – had fallen by half. And I have noticed that the amount of effort that goes into getting each person in has doubled. It’s just harder to get people in.”

A former accountant who is now a stand-up comedian and who muttered his name inaudibly (perhaps a good thing for an accountant but certainly not for a stand-up) said wisely:

“I have two clients, fish & chip shops, opposite each other. One is making over £500,000 a year; the other, less than £80,000. One is providing good service and good food; the other is not. Comedy is a business like everything else.”

American comedian Lewis Schaffer’s opinion was:

“I think people can make a living at comedy here in London. But that’s not going to be the case much longer. When I started comedy in 1993 in New York, people were just beginning to not make a living. A few years before, it was a similar situation to this, where people could make a reasonable amount of money. But what happened was, basically, the quality of the performers increased to meet the level of demand from the clubs and then surpassed it. So, in New York, you got a huge number of comedians who were good enough to work in comedy clubs – as we have here.

“But there are too many OK comedians who can go and do any club’s show on a Saturday night. The problem is that the product being put out there is extremely dull and that is not attracting people to come: there’s nothing exciting going on because the quality is set at a certain level.

“Obviously, there’s a limit to what can happen in a comedy club. But I went to see Dr Brown and some punter poked the guy in his eyes. It was mental. But I thought Fuck it! I’ve seen something amazing! I’m not soon gonna forget that shit.

“At the end of the day, in a comedy club, if you don’t do well, you’re not invited back. But it should be something amazing, not just three guys or girls doing the same shit that they’ve done at other places.

“What’s happened is that club owners want repeatability. They should not want people coming out of shows and saying It’s always good. No, they should want ‘em to say Oh my god! Something fucking amazing happened there!”

The mumbling ex-accountant whom I mentioned at the beginning of this blog (actually Vahid Jahangard) had, perhaps, the most pertinent line of the evening.

“One of my clients” he said,” told me If you sell shit, somebody will buy it and, if you make a success of it, then other people will start selling shit.”

Walking back to the tube station after the meeting, I bumped into ever-analytical comedian Giacinto Palmieri.

“What did you think of it?” I asked.

“I think it was one of those occasions,” he told me, “when people get together and try to become a community. The last time I felt the same about the comedy community was, sadly, at a comedian’s funeral… Funerals sometimes do work in building new social bonds, to the point that some people go there to woo the widows.”

“Only you,” I told Giacinto. “Only you.”

8 Comments

Filed under Comedy

8 responses to “A call for people to poke each other in the eyes at British comedy clubs

  1. Andrula

    A room in a pub is not a comedy club. Most pubs are just happy to sell drinks, 15/25 people on a slow night £150.00 x 52=£6.300 @ year. The breweries don’t invest in the comedy because the standard is low.

  2. Mike Taylor

    I get the feeling that the ‘crisis in comedy’ is mainly a London thing. Yes everywhere in the UK there are gigs starting up that will never work for long, usually started by acts wanting stage time who have no idea how to run a gig. They are menace as they cock up venues for somebody who’d do it properly.
    I can’t agree with Lewis when he says “What’s happened is that club owners want repeatability. They should not want people coming out of shows and saying It’s always good. No, they should want ‘em to say Oh my god! Something fucking amazing happened there!” That seems to be another way of saying “Waow, it wasn’t shit this week”

  3. What we are witnessing is the death of “Alternative Comedy” yet I still think it’s far too early for this kind of post-mortem

  4. anna smith

    A few mouthy old whores leaning out from the windows near the Marx plaque in Soho would do more good than harm. Then resuscitate the Gargoyle Club, peel back a few decades of dark matter and Comedy will return of its own accord.

  5. Anon Regional Comedy promoter

    First of all, the first “alternative” stand up, Lenny Bruce said you can be amazing AND be consistent – the two are not mutually exclusive and this should be the aim of all performers in comedy – aiming for an 80% wow rate. Anything lower and you aren’t a pro standup.

    Anyhow – here’s the problem as I see it – as a promoter of regional comedy clubs that book big names as well as newcomers.

    Firstly, talent oversupply. Acts are produced at an alarming rate by agencies/management companies. I see this as the main structural problem in the comedy market – agencies have a stranglehold on both live comedy and TV and as such, they rig it to their requirements and they have distorted the market with an oversupply of mediocre talent – ensuring that we have lots of identikit comedians, and very little originality or individuality. I sometimes struggle to recognize acts who do my middle spots and opens because they all LOOK THE SAME. And if I hear one more open spot use the words “pedo” or “rapey”, my hamster eats lead…

    Along with talent oversupply, there are still acts playing the bigger clubs who were doing those clubs back in 1995 or 1996 (use the internet wayback machine check out bills from the bigger clubs in say, 2001 and now – very little change) and what you have is no movement at the top and a massive pressure build-up at the bottom. Comedy courses make the problem worse because they convey the impression to new entrants there is a living to be had out there and that anyone can be a comedian. This is simply not true. Traditionally over history, this kind of economic impasse leads to protectionism of some sort, so don’t be surprised if someone suggest either a club owners confederation or a comedians “union”!

    As a medium sized promoter running a number of clubs outside London, it seems the most pertinent comment in this debate last night was that comedy is a business. Like any other, it works on business lines and conforms to the rules of economics. There is an oversupply of talent and there is an oversupply of clubs (in London) and a seeming decline in demand/less customers to go round, so the customer will seek a USP which make them go out and spend their declining leisure dollar – in most businesses that is price, quality OR service or all three. There are clubs – no names no pack drill – who are charging £15 for a seriously average night in a backroom of a pub, with no decent compere, crap mike and crap lights. These will be the first casualties in the coming comedy shakedown. If they want to save themselves the answer is simple – up your game, lower your price and vary your talent menu a bit more.

    One major creative step you could take is investing in pro MCs and having a few more women on your bill – the audience is 50% women, so why oh why oh why do some promoters fail to put on female acts? Giving new talent a platform is a very good way of doing this from a business point of view because it forces promoters to seek talent themselves (rather than being spoon fed it by agencies) and it brings down your overheads. Martin Besserman, ironically is one of the few promoters who has a very good track record in this department, even though IMHO, his price point is a little too high..hence decline in sales/bums on seats. He really does encourage new talent and that is both laudable and good business. He just needs to lower his ticket price a little to get those bums back on the seats.

    Outside London (where I run several comedy clubs), I see no problem. We regularly pack out because a) we focus on quality b) we charge a reasonable amount c) we offer more than other clubs – good food, cheap booze and a consistent and good value offering – have a great night out for less than £25pp.

    There is something also to be said about the role of competitions – the main agencies seem to be picking up talent via competitions at a very early age and most of these acts are just simply incapable of creating anything spectacular, mainly because they are produced by agencies desperate to create identikit money-making machines. These kids are dumped onto the comedy market, with no real experience of working a room or doing a consistent performance with massively overblown expectations of what their “career” will entail. Agencies are far too cosy and are simply not chasing down real talent but going for those acts which look good or who are young enough to have an alternative career as a pop performer. I have seen too many acts punted my way by agencies who just don’t have the creative cohones to create anything worth watching over the longer term.

    Before I was in comedy, I worked in marketing and my advice to the industry would be this:

    Lower your price and raise your game – offer things that other clubs do not offer and if you can’t do this, offer better service
    Seek talent out and nurture it
    Avoid agencies – like all middlemen, they add little value
    Make new talent tread the boards for a while and avoid competition winners – with a few exceptions competitions do not a good stand up make

    Lastly – and this is something beyond my control, TV comedy needs to change. TV is way too safe in what it puts on TV and in my experience, TV producers are about 6-18 months behind the zeitgeist – they are booking acts and following trends that were happening on the circuit in 2009/2010 and TV puts NOTHING back into the circuit that it exploits. Its about time that the TV people really started to engage with the live circuit..much like they used to do before alternative comedy.

    Someone said a few years back that comedy is the new rock and roll. Comedy is not the new rock and roll…it’s the new karaoke…and a really bad karaoke night at that. Everyone wants their turn on their mike to sound like Robbie Williams. And as we know there is only one Robbie….

    Regional Club Owner

  6. Very good points Mr Anon – especially the Karaoke remark

    I believe it was Janet Street Porter who coined the phrase ‘new rock and roll’ in response to Newman and Baddiel selling out Wembley Arena. The irony is that once you get out of the small clubs music ceases to be true rock and roll which is dirty and immediate and under produced, instead it becomes a different stadium sound, What I think she inadvertently indicated was that as soon as Comedy hit Arenas it was on a commercial path that would mean it was going to become as fucked as the music industry!

    (Anyway Mr Anon if you dont book me already then I want to come and gig for you!)

    • Anon Regional Comedy promoter

      As I’m “anon” you won’t know when I book you, but I shall book you! maybe we need a secret codeword or something……

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