(This was also published by the Indian news site WSN)
I was at London’s Comedy Cafe Theatre at the weekend, talking to outspoken owner Noel Faulkner and his business sidekick Neale Welch who, with a marketing background, perhaps promotes the club in less controversial style.
“Why is the Comedy Cafe moving to single-artist shows after August?” I asked Neale.
“Partly,” Neale explained, “because of a decline in the demand for mixed-bill shows – an MC and three acts. Plus increased competition. And it’s costing us more in marketing to get the same amount of people in for those shows. It costs more to get people in than it did previously.
“We’re also re-designing our logo, moving it from the smiley face of the 1990s and refurbishing the room again – we only did it 18 months ago… Lots of little tweaks to make a big over-all change.”
“Are comedy club audiences really declining?” I asked.
“If you look on Google Trends,” Neale told me, “at the graph of Google searches for comedy… live… stand-up between 2004 and 2012 it declines steadily. If you look at live… comedy… London it shows the same decline. So there’s less people searching for live stand-up comedy and, if that’s going down then, probably, the demand is going down too.”
“Did anything happen to the search graph in 2008 with the financial crash?” I asked.
“Not particularly,” said Neale. “It’s not a fiscal cliff. It’s a steady decline.”
“So,” I said, “you’re going to be changing the type of shows you put on.”
“At the end of this month,” Neale explained, “we’ll be booking acts up until August for normal club shows and then, after that, we’ll be booking single-artist shows to run on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays after August.”
“It was over a year ago,” Noel Faulkner reminded me, “that we decided to turn the old Comedy Cafe into more of a theatre-type venue – the Comedy Cafe Theatre – and attract a theatre-type audience and now that’s actually happening.”
“What’s the difference between the theatre audience and the comedy audience?” I asked.
“The theatre audience,” replied Noel, “can actually all read and write and they have an IQ of some level. The comedy audience are feckin’ brain dead and don’t know why we’re not giving them Michael McIntyre.”
“But this is the audience you’ve been catering to for years,” I prompted.
“Well,” said Noel, “we’ve all been catering to them for years. Poor old Jongleurs and the Comedy Store Late Show too. Of course you have to cater to the masses. We all have to suck the corporate cock, whether we’re gay or not.”
“So what different type of comedy will these theatrical comedians be doing in their one-person shows?” I asked Noel.
“It’s not a difference in comedy,” explained Noel. “Comics do what they do, but it’s better if you have a sophisticated audience. The other problem, though, is that sophisticated audiences don’t spend money. They have a couple of drinks and they’re happy. They don’t have to get shit-faced, because their lives aren’t horrible. Whereas your average comedy audience – their lives are so horrible that they go crazy at weekends and they feel they haven’t had a good night out unless they’ve thrown-up a few times, had a fight and punched their girlfriend.”
“In that case, surely,” I suggested, “as a businessman, you should be appealing to the drunken comedy audience who throw money around and not to the more sophisticated audience who don’t spend money.”
“If that’s what I wanted to do for a living,” said Noel, “but, if I just wanted to make a living, I could deal crystal meth or run a lap-dancing club.”
“So,” I asked, “the comedians are going to do the same things but longer in their one-person shows…?”
“Well,” said Noel. “Comedians doing these one-person shows are not compelled to come out with a gag every thirty seconds. It’s going the way I planned it. I want a theatre.”
“You always wanted a theatre?”
“I always wanted a feckin’ audience that would sit down and appreciate the effort that’s gone into it,” said Noel.
The Comedy Cafe is also expanding into producing comedy shows as downloadable MP3s. Soon they are going to release shows recorded at the Comedy Cafe Theatre by Steve N Allen, Anil Desai, Robin Ince, Michael Legge and Eric McElroy.
“When’s that happening?” I asked Neale Welch.
“It’s just being cut now,” he told me. “I’m sorting out the webpage, the hosting and the PayPal and the functionality, so I’m thinking in the next two weeks; something like that. They’ll be released under the individual artists’ names; there will be a standalone page linked-to from our website; the Comedy Cafe will just be a footnote; we’ve just facilitated it.”
“And the appeal of the audio recordings to you is…?” I asked.
“They give us interesting live shows,” Neale told me. “And a bit of legacy. They will still be there in a few years time. We can build the business into more than one arm. We already have the club, the talent agency, a casting agency. It just gives us another arm.”
“And it means you have content beyond live shows,” I suggested.
“Exactly,” agreed Neale. “And we are looking into other content formats.”
“And then,” Noel Faulkner told me, “we’ve another big production company coming in as well. I can’t name them yet. But they’ll come in weekly or monthly with their acts to prepare them for their TV programmes. A lot of people in the comedy business are suddenly realising there’s a small 120-seat space that is really keen to do good theatre. There’s room for three cameras. A tiny stage, but it works: it’s cosy, it’s intimate and it’s what I always wanted to do.”
“In a recent blog,” I said, “I mentioned how, in the future, streaming live club comedy on the internet might affect club business. And Don Ward’s Comedy Store is doing feature films of its shows.”
“It won’t work,” said Noel. “It’s a great idea and I asked him why the cinemas are doing it. He told me it’s on the slow movie nights and I thought Well, on the slow movie nights – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – people don’t want to go out. Why go see a movie on a Tuesday night when you can see it on a Friday or Saturday night? So it’s a Tuesday night and there are comics on the big screen? Well, first of all, you don’t need to see a comic on a big screen, because there’s not a lot to look at. And what? You’re going to go all the way down town to a movie theatre and pay top dollar when you can just nip over to the Comedy Store for the same price on a Tuesday night?”
“But punters can’t pop down to the Comedy Store if they live in Plymouth or Aberdeen,” I suggested.
“Well,” replied Noel, “all they have to do is flip over to YouTube or the Dave TV channel and they can see the exact same comedy on a screen.”
“I can’t see the feature film idea working,” I said, “but, in the future, if you did live streaming from the Comedy Store or the Comedy Cafe and it cost a punter only 99p to watch it in Norwich or Belfast or the Outer Hebrides instead of coming to London to see the same acts…”
“Yes,” said Noel. “If, for £5, you could catch the Late Show at the Comedy Store on the internet outside London, that would be great. But the Comedy Store isn’t doing that. They’re trying to fill a cinema. Also, if you’re in a cinema, are people really going to laugh? If there’s only 100 people spread out over 600 seats, you don’t get the atmosphere of a live club.”
“But what happens,” I asked, “when there is live streaming of good acts from a good club at a cheap price? Janey Godley looked into live-streaming her Edinburgh Fringe show from the Underbelly in, I think, 2005 and they couldn’t do it technically from that building at that time. I’ve never understood why no-one has live-streamed their Edinburgh shows so people can see them in Los Angeles and Adelaide. In a few years time, you could have the Comedy Cafe doing a live show to people in London and live-streaming it on a 99p pay-per view so people can see it in Newcastle or Cardiff.”
“Make it £1,” said Noel. “Don’t do this 99p shit.”