Tomorrow, Paul B.Edwards’ Last Minute Comedy Club in Hitchin celebrates its 20th anniversary. He also runs comedy clubs in Letchworth, Luton and Baldock.
“People have been complaining about a ‘crisis’ in comedy,” I said to him yesterday, “with people not going to live clubs.”
“Well, my clubs are part of a huge squeezed middle,” he told me. “People at the very top are doing very well with their tours on the back of TV appearances. Michael McIntyre made more money than the Rolling Stones last year touring. But TV is making famous other people who aren’t ready.
“If people go and see ‘the funniest bloke they’ve ever seen on the telly’ live in a theatre and he actually isn’t very funny and he’s ‘the funniest person’ they’ve ever seen, what is the point of them going to a comedy club where they’ve never heard of anybody? It’s stopped new people coming to see live stand-up comedy.
“My single biggest problem is the falling number of people under the age of 30. Audiences are getting older, certainly in the sort of provincial clubs I’ve got.
“The comedy circuits are diverging. There’s a whole young Daniel Sloss audience who have never heard of Ian Cognito and vice versa. You’ve got kids going to see shows performed by kids. And adults seeing shows with adults in. And party types going to see Jongleurs-style shows. And people who really believe in stand-up comedy going to see shows in rooms in the back of pubs, like it always was and is supposed to be.
“You have five or six diverging circuits and very few people can work on all of them, which means all of our audiences have gone down as the number of clubs has expanded. There are more and more clubs around, but there are less and less people suitable for each type of club.
“Add to that an economic recession when existing audiences have tightened their belts and, instead of coming once-a-month or once-a-week, they come once-every-other-month or once-a-fortnight… You’ve halved the audience straight away and you’re not getting new people.
“It used to be that, when I got an article in the local Hitchin Comet newspaper, I would get 30 extra people at my club. Now it make no difference whatsoever unless the photograph is of someone people have seen on the telly.”
“So you have been affected by the economic recession?” I asked.
“My Hitchin show halved in numbers,” said Paul, “but I didn’t really know why. The audiences had always been great to the point they’d queue out into the car park to get in. Suddenly it was down to just over 100 people and I didn’t know why.”
“Did this happen in 2008 with the economic recession?” I asked.
“It took a little while to drop – maybe 2009,” replied Paul. “But now, to the current recession, you have to add the ‘Michael McIntyre’ effect, the big arena tours, the TV panel game effect. I think any one of those the comedy circuit would have survived but the fact they all happened at the same time halved audiences. Clubs shut. Anyone who says they didn’t suffer or aren’t suffering is a fucking liar.
“Every time one audience member doesn’t go to a comedy club, they may save themselves £10 but, collectively, if 100 people save themselves £10, the club loses £1,000.
“I didn’t know what to do until Peppa Pig showed up.”
“Peppa Pig?” I asked.
“Peppa Pig is this girl who came to my show in Letchworth. The audience there used to be 120; but it had dropped to 80. That was alright. I figured it was a newer club and a smaller drop – though still a 33% drop.
“At all my clubs, I always go down to the the pub afterwards with the audience – from the minute they get to the gig, I’m their mate as well as their host. She came up to me afterwards and we got talking. Peppa Pig said: Is there anything I can do to help? I market local events for people putting things on. At the weekend, she gets dressed up as Peppa Pig and goes round children’s parties. She works in schools, all sorts of things.
“I asked What do you want? She said: I don’t want anything at all. I want the club to keep going and I can help.
“I had no idea what she could do to help. But she has a database that I’ve never heard of and they’ve never heard of me – namely young parents… Young people who had not been to my comedy clubs, who don’t get out very often but who plan a babysitter for once a month and go out. She told them: Come to comedy.
“Overnight, Letchworth was sold out, Hitchin was selling out… This was in January.”
“Last year?” I asked.
“This year,” Paul said. “It’s only just happened. The numbers had dropped virtually overnight. Now they recovered virtually overnight – simply by someone reaching a group of people I couldn’t reach. Full houses. Paul’s happy again.”
And now Paul has expanded into Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
“I take two comics out there,” Paul told me yesterday. “It’s 100% English-speaking-as-a-first-language at the moment, but that may change as there are quite a lot of local comics who want to do comedy in English. At the moment, there’s quite an exciting comedy scene in Oslo of people who can’t get booked because the main club there has made themselves a sort-of closed shop. So there’s all these new comics coming through who have hit a glass ceiling and have nowhere to play.”
“Much the same thing happened in Scotland,” I said. “But making a career out of comedy has never been easy.”
“Do you know the Helsinki Bus Station Theory?” Paul asked me.
“No,” I said, mystified.
“If you want a successful creative career,” explained Paul, “you have to understand the timetabling and bus routes of Helsinki Bus Station.
“Helsinki Bus Station has about 25 or 26 different routes going to 25 or 26 different destinations, but there’s only one road into Helsinki Bus Station and only one road out. For the first kilometre, all the buses are on the same road.
“When you first start off, you start off thinking you’re having creatively original ideas, but you’re not having creatively original ideas because you don’t realise everyone’s having the same ideas as you. If you look out of the window, there are 25 other buses going along exactly the same road.
“But, after one kilometre, the buses start to move off in different directions. The the only way you can have a successful career is to Stay on the fucking bus. The longer you stay on the bus, the more likely you are to eventually reach that unique place that only you are going to.
“Other people are getting off the bus too early until, eventually, there’s only you and the driver.
“Stay on the fucking bus – That’s the Helsinki Bus Station Theory.
“As a stand-up comic, I’m not famous yet and I may never be famous, but I’m staying on the fucking bus.”