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.”