(This was also published by the Indian news site WSN)
This morning, I was on a panel as part of Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival – ‘Dave’ being the UK TV channel which sponsors the festival.
Also on the panel were Don Ward of The Comedy Store, Kate Copstick doyenne of UK comedy critics and Nica Burns, founder of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, currently sponsored by Fosters, formerly sponsored by Perrier.
Copstick and I are both judges on the unsponsored yet increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards.
Towards the end of the two hour session, conversation got round to The Comedy Store: Raw and Uncut, due out in UK cinemas in a fortnight.
“Sony approached me,” explained Don this morning, “and said they would like to put the Comedy Store into cinemas as a feature film. We’ll make four of them and see what happens and we’ll show it as it is, warts and all.
“So we filmed it over four nights. We filmed digital and you should see it – it is The Store. It comes out on the 22nd of this month in around 160 cinemas. It’ll go out all over the country and it will go out as a stand-up show as you would experience it in London.”
“How much,” asked Nica Burns, “will people pay for their ticket?”
“Normal cinema prices,” replied Don.
“Less than at the Comedy Store?” asked Nica.
“Yes,” said Don.
“So,” said Nica, “You’re beaming out your extremely good stand-up evening to 160 cinemas for less than what people pay at your original Comedy Store. What is that going to do for every single small comedy club in Britain, every single little person who is trying to passionately be part of the comedy industry? What is that going to do to the rest of the comedy industry?”
“It interests me,” I said, “because, beyond the feature film, some high-quality club like the Comedy Store with high-quality acts will be able to live-stream for micro-payments. They can charge, say, 99 pence and they’ll make a fortune – 99 pence per view around the English-speaking world. If I’m going to pay 99 pence to see top quality acts in a top quality club, live-streamed. Why should I pay £5 or £10 to see less-good acts learning their craft in a real comedy club down the road?”
“But,” said Copstick, “there is something about the experience of going to a comedy club that is special and will always appeal to lovers of comedy and I don’t think what Don is doing is any different from… I honestly don’t think it’s going to be that destructive, because I don’t think that proper, core, real, comedy-loving audience is necessarily going to go and see that.”
“It’s the same as football, I suppose,” I said. “You can see football better, closer and faster edited on television, but people still go to football matches.”
“I think,” said Nica Burns,” this is a new development on a very large scale. I can’t recall the comedy industry having an experiment like this on this kind of scale. I think we’re looking at potentially enormous changes in how people watch their comedy, from what Don is doing to the live streaming that’s coming. And the ramifications of that, I think, is fewer people becoming more powerful.”
“You can’t stop change,” I said, “you can only adapt to it. In the mid-1990s, Malcolm Hardee said to me that the Edinburgh Fringe was getting very commercialised and he was like the small independent corner shop while the big supermarkets were coming in – agents/managers like Avalon and Off The Kerb.
“I think in the future, the big supermarkets are going to be big Don Wards doing live streaming of their shows around the country and the small corner shop will be YouTube, with individuals doing amateur comedy. But people will still go to big ‘events’ like arena tours.”
“I think the best is yet to come,” said Don Ward. “People want to go out. They will still go out to clubs for the foreseeable future. Comedy is a serious night out.”
“The internet,” said Copstick, “is, if nothing else, totally democratic. Maybe Don is leading live comedy into cyberspace. But, once he’s done that, any tiny comedy club – the smallest comedy club – has the technology to do that. Music has now created so many music stars online. In comedy, (Malcolm Hardee Award winner) Bo Burnham – utterly brilliant – nobody hired him, nobody did anything. He made himself online.
“I’m not 100% sure about the future of live comedy clubs,” she continued, “but I genuinely do believe and absolutely hope that real, core comedy fans will continue going to live comedy, continue having that whole experience and taking the rough with the smooth provided there’s some smooth. But, if actual live comedy withers, then I believe where it will migrate is online. And that is completely democratic. That is not like having to placate and show some muppet at Channel 4 that your idea can attract the ‘right demographic’.”
“But,” asked Nica, “how do they make their living? How will they feed their kids and pay their rents by being a comic on the internet?”
“Well,” said Copstick, “what you do is establish yourself online. If you’re shit, you don’t feed your kids. They starve and you wise up and get a proper job. If you’re good, marvellous. Bo Burnham’s not short of a bob or two.”
“But he makes his money live now,” suggested Nica.
“Then that’s where you migrate,” replied Copstick. “Maybe that’s what the circle’s doing. Maybe the feeder, the starter level is online, because anyone under the age of 20 is physically unable to leave their seat and the only fully-functioning bits of their anatomy are their mouths, their cocks and their thumbs. So maybe that’s where the ‘babies’ go: they go online, they find their audience – because everybody will find their audience online – The bad ones will wither, die and drop off and the good ones will go on. That’s not such a bad thing, is it?”
(A slightly edited podcast of the panel session is on the Demon FM website.)