The future of UK comedy – and a comic threatens to sue me for defamation

There has been some reaction to my blog of yesterday about the comedy industry “crisis meeting” at the Monkey Business club two nights ago.

Bob Slayer (left) naked & drunk at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe

Comedian Bob Slayer took exception to the fact I said he sometimes pretended to be drunk on stage. He threatened to sue me for defamation and damage to his professional image over the use of the word “pretended”. He also told me soberly – or not – his view of the alleged comedy business crisis:

“The alchopop crowd that traditionally fill mainstream gigs are losing interest in live comedy. They can probably get all they want on TV. When they go out they will go see one of their TV stars at an arena and the only way to get them to go to a club is to heavily discount. Groupon!

“However, there are plenty of other audiences out there and it is a simple fact that comedy clubs which don’t adapt will struggle to find those audiences.”

Bob argues that those who survive will be those who “put something interesting on in interesting settings” like Pull The Other One, Knock2Bag, the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society and his own Heroes of Fringe gigs. He tells me “gigs in breweries are doing really well” and “maybe the 99 Clubs can be added to that list, but James doesn’t book me so I don’t know his gigs!”

He adds: “It’s interesting to note that our current gold medal winning comedian Dr Brown rarely played clubs over the past few years – although he did do the ones mentioned above. He prefered to tour around Fringe festivals and now he can do a month at Soho Theatre. He is not the only one.

“Are traditional comedy club nights going to become less and less relevant or worthwhile for comedians? Maybe. Acts will find a way to keep busy and develop their own audience, running their own nights, free nights, cabaret and variety gigs, gigs in odd places and so on. There is not a crisis but there is a change… and now I’m off to another brewery to set up some gigs and drink a lot.”

I also got a reaction to yesterday’s blog from a regional comedy club promoter who prefers (I think wrongly) to remain anonymous.

“Here’s the problem as I see it,” he says, adding “and I 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 ‘paedo’ 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 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 that there is a living to be had out there and that anyone can be a comedian. This is simply not true. Traditionally, 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’!”

Reacting to Lewis Schaffer’s comments quoted in my blog yesterday, this club owner continues:

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.

“As a medium-sized promoter running a number of clubs outside London, it seems the most pertinent comment in this debate is 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 makes 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 back room of a pub with no decent compere, a 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 they could take is investing in pro MCs and having a few more women on their bill. The audience is 50% women, so why oh why oh why do some promoters fail to put on female acts?”

He also sees a problem with the comedy agencies.

“The main agencies,” he says, “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 and with massively overblown expectations of what their ‘career’ will entail. Agencies 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 cojones 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 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. It’s about time that the TV people really started to engage with the live circuit… much like they used to do before alternative comedy.”

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