Tag Archives: money

Why the ‘free’ shows at the Edinburgh Fringe are not free and why I prefer to see cheap comedy shows by unknowns

The Royal Mile during Edinburgh Fringe, 2008

The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, where rambling rivals this blog

Yesterday, I talked to writer Nick Awde for my blog while he interviewed me for a book he is writing.

In lieu of anything better, here are some of the things I told him for his book. His book will be better. We started talking about the Free Fringe and the Free Festival at Edinburgh and the whole concept of ‘free’ and I started rambling…


I’m old enough to remember the 1960s and, as a callow youth, I worked in the Free Bookshop in Earls Court. It was just someone’s garage. You brought along your old unwanted books to the Free Bookshop; other people came along, picked them up and went away and everything was free.

You can’t do that on a large scale. It’s OK to do hippy-type free on a small scale or in a village atmosphere, but I don’t think it could work on a large scale in a large community.

I don’t know much about Saudi Arabia but I think it’s quite generous to its own citizens – not to immigrant workers, but to its own citizens – so, if you’re a Saudi Arabian, you get lots of things given to you by the government for free. But the reason they can do that is because they’re making squillions of dollars out of the oil. You need money to make it go round.

Without some form of money – or method of valuing things and exchanging things on the basis of value – ‘free’ will not work.

‘Free’ will only work if there is money involved in ‘free’ – or some other reward equivalent to money.

The Stones in the Park

1969: The Stones in the Park

I think. if it’s a free model – and if you are not making money out of it – then it has to be based on getting publicity from it. The free concerts I went to in Hyde Park in the 1960s had acts like Pink Floyd and Fairport Convention. They weren’t getting money, but they were getting publicity. And the free concerts only worked when they were on a small scale. After the Rolling Stones played one of the free concerts in Hyde Park, the gigs staggered on for a bit but soon ended.

‘Free’ works fine in a small village-type atmosphere but, once you hit mass volume, it can’t be sustained. The overheads of doing ‘free’ are too great.

In Edinburgh, the Free Fringe and the Free Festival are not actually free: you don’t pay in advance, you pay at the end of the performance if you want to.

Now Bob Slayer has come up with the phrase ‘Pay What You Want’ – which is a much better description of what is actually happening at the free shows in Edinburgh.

I don’t know the politics in detail but basically, as I see it, Peter Buckley Hill of the PBH Free Fringe is very idealistic and wants to be a hippy and everything is Hey-Hey Yo! Free, man! but, in fact, it isn’t free because there’s lots of fund-raising up-front from money-raising shows.

Alex Petty of the Free Festival, I think, wants to build his version as a more economically viable proposition – not making large profits, but being more business-like about it. So he charges small amounts to cover the cost of the production of the booklet, for example.

PBH says, Oh, no! Everything is free! but, in fact, he’s covering that cost up-front with fund-raising gigs before the Fringe starts. So they’re both covering their costs. They’re just covering them in different ways.

The ‘free’ show model is demonstrably exportable because Lewis Schaffer has been using the same principle for his Free Until Famous Soho shows in London over maybe the last three years. I don’t know how long he has been doing it, but he is performing his 400th ‘free’ Soho show tomorrow night. So the concept is economically sustainable. And other performers have been using the same format of the bucket-at-the-end.

But it is not a new idea: it is simply indoor busking. You attract an audience and you do your performance. At the end, you do a pitch of Hey! If you’ve liked the performance, give me some money. Outdoors, the audience throw money into the busker’s hat. At the ‘free’ shows, they throw money into a bucket at the end.

Edinburgh: pretty but with great big potential storm clouds

Edinburgh: only the weather is free in the Athens of the North

The Free Fringe and the Free Festival have been very good for the Edinburgh Fringe, because they are a throwback to the way the Fringe used to be: you can take a chance on seeing a show on a whim and if it’s rubbish it’s rubbish. You’ve wasted an hour of your time, but you haven’t wasted your money really because, at the end of a ‘free’ show, you can pay £5 or 20p or nothing, depending on what you thought the show was worth.

In olden days, you went along to the Edinburgh Fringe to see new, original, experimental performances which might or might not work and you would take a risk when choosing shows.

Now, if you are paying £10-£12 per ticket at the ‘paid’ venues, you don’t want to see experimental things – and the performers can’t risk doing experimental things if the punters are paying for £10-£12 tickets.

If you are playing the Pleasance Grand – a 700 seater – at £10 per ticket, neither the audience nor the performer can take a risk.

On the other hand, it is a free show, the need to justify the cost of the ticket doesn’t exist, the expectations of the audience are lower and the restrictions on the performers are less… so there’s more chance of something original coming out of it.

Even if you are a fairly high-profile comedian performing at a ‘paid’ venue, you may well lose £10,000 because of the cost of accommodation, the PR, the print and publicity, the cost of the venue and your manager and agent probably screwing you rigid on the profit and the VAT.

Whereas, if you play ‘free’ shows, you can live in a scummy flat or hostel and don’t even necessarily need to print flyers though you do still have to pay £400 to be listed in the main Fringe Programme. If you’re lucky, you may get £3 per head from your audience of ten or twenty punters each day for maybe 26 days. You might make a slight profit at the end whereas, if you were playing the ‘real’ Fringe, you might lose £8,000.

For audiences watching free shows, the attraction is being the first. You may see a brilliant act two years before he or she appears on TV and becomes famous. You get the thrill of ‘discovering’ that performer, which boosts your self-esteem.

But both sides – audience and performer – accept it might be shit.

Michael McIntyre, much-admired

My much admired Michael McIntyre

I admire Michael McIntyre. He is absolutely brilliant. I was watching him on TV last night. Absolutely brilliant. But, if it’s a choice between me seeing a costly Michael McIntyre type stage show at the Fringe and a show by someone who’s not famous who might be original and funny, I would choose to see the unknown person, because I know that Michael McIntyre will deliver a 100% flawless, homogenous show.

I’m more interested in Alpine-like comics performing a show with troughs and peaks.

There was a now well-known comic whose act used to be 40% rubbish, 40% passably OK, 15% good and 5% genius. He was worth sitting through the 95% of other stuff to see the 5% of genius, because those performing peaks were wonderful.

If you see a brilliant, top-of-the-range TV name who’s made millions, he (or she) is not going to have peaks like that. It’s all going to be beautifully slick and professional but have no unexpected creative peaks.

The more expensive a show is, the more likely it is to be homogenous – or, to use another word ‘bland’.

I suppose the difference between ‘free’ and ‘paid’ at the Fringe is that ‘paid’ is always going to tend towards the bland, whereas ‘free’ very often will tend towards the interesting.

Might be good; might be shit; but, even if it’s shit, it might be interesting.

Also, in free shows, you are more likely to get knob gags, which is always a good thing.


Filed under 1960s, Comedy, Edinburgh

Money in comedy: Mr Methane’s problem; critic Kate Copstick’s rant

mrmethanebendsYesterday, I blogged about a discussion at Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival about whether the future of British comedy lies online instead of in live comedy clubs.

After he read my blog, Mr Methane, the world’s only professionally-performing flatulist – he’s farted around the showbiz world for years – told me this:


I think its already happening, at least in the case of acts like mine.

People no longer have to go out to see some weird stuff anymore. They get sent it over the net by their mates seven days of the week and so, when they go out, they don’t go out to see something bizarre or different. Also the smoking ban has played its part as has the price of beer compared to Bargain Booze & Aldi for example.

All in all, people who want to see bizarre stuff nowadays are used to getting it for free on YouTube and the like: they don’t want to pay for it.

This means I get more exposure than I’ve ever had in the 23 years I’ve been farting around – just one YouTube vid of me has over 28 million views – but it doesn’t translate into more paid gigs.

If anything, it is a declining scale and you have to look to other revenue streams and opportunities the net presents which, when you’re not a Freemason or related to someone high up in the BBC, requires all your ingenuity and a good dose of good luck – This you can only make by doing even more free, web-based, social media publicity.

Possibly I and others like me are in a slow downward spiral. But, all this said, now I’ve had a moan, these are potentially more exciting times – or is that just another word for changing times? Either way, what is happening is a doubled-edged sword.

With regard to the Comedy Store Raw & Uncut film… Remember what happened to the acts that were on The Comedians on ITV. Big exposure but, when they came to do their next gig at a working men’s club, the audience had already seen their act.

The saying Swings & Roundabouts comes to mind.


davesleicester_logoMaking money from a comedy act was also something discussed by the panel yesterday at Dave’s Comedy Festival (Dave being the TV channel which sponsors the festival).

“I think something ghastly and toxic happened round about the early to mid 2000s,” said comedy critic Kate Copstick.

“In the 1990s, there really wasn’t very much available for comics on television. So, before they all hurtled lemming-like to the nearest 12-year-old commissioning editor with half a Media Studies degree from a jumped-up Polytechnic, they at least had a chance to develop who they were and they had something to sell.

“Then we got the industrialisation of comedy which happened in the 2000s. All of a sudden there were more TV channels and…”

“There were more opportunities,” interrupted Nica Burns, organiser of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards. “There were more opportunities for comedians to get on television. There were all these channels and comedy is very cheap. A half hour of stand-up comedy is much cheaper than a half hour of sitcom and a fraction of the cost of an hour of drama. And that is the critical thing because underlying all this is money. They needed to fill up their hours, comedy was a very cheap way of doing it and the comedians were desperate to get a wider audience.”

“It took a long time for that to come around,” said Kate Copstick, “and, in one way it was wonderful when it did. I produced a TV show called The Warehouse and comics were gagging then to get a chance to do stand-up. There were very few places to go on television. Tiny bits-and-bobs. And then, all-of-a-sudden, there was a rush. It think it was something to do with (agent/management companies) Avalon and Off The Kerb not only having a foothold as managers but also as producers.”

“There were a lot of things coming together,” agreed Nica Burns, “in terms of the growth of managers who had career visions for their clients.”

“And none of that,” said Kate Copstick, “was bad until it all kind of turned toxic. Comedy is not a nice business and it’s not got nice people in it. Really, genuinely nice people don’t go into comedy. Comedy always had a career ladder. Now it’s got a bloody express elevator.

“Like I’m 18-year-old. I’m a student comic. I look right. I sound right. I’m fucking lucky. I’m possibly connected. Look! I’ve got five minutes. Good grief – I’ve won a student comedy competition! Crikey – now I’m at the Edinburgh Fringe! Woo – now someone’s picked me up and stuck me on a Stand-Up For The Pointless Pre-Written Gag of The Month TV show. Great! Now I’m back with my own one-hour show with a strap on the poster that says STAR OF the Stand-Up For The Pointless Pre-Written Gag of The Month TV show. Now I’ve won the Best Newcomer or the Panel prize because nobody can think of anybody else to give it to. Next thing you know, I’ve done five heavily-edited minutes of Michael McIntyre’s Roadshow and now I’ve got my own telly series!… and I didn’t ever actually want to be a stand-up comic. I just wanted to be rich and famous and wey-hey! Thanks to luck, ego and Addison Cresswell (of Off The Kerb) and lots of stupid audiences out there, now I am!

“What then happens is that the decent stand-up comics, the ones who do want to be stand-up comics and who want to play the clubs, aren’t getting audiences, because the audiences only go – like a comedic Pavlov’s dog – where there’s a TV sticker on the poster… STAR OF MUFFIN THE COMEDY MULE – Oh wow! That must be good!

“I could shit into a bag and, if some high-powered PR person stuck an As Seen on Mock The Week sticker on it, people would come and see it. They genuinely would! This is not good for comedy.”

(A slightly edited podcast of the panel session is on the Demon FM website.)


Filed under Comedy, Television

American comedian Lewis Schaffer gets unexpected $10 billion windfall

Lewis Schaffer smiles broadly after receiving the $10 billion

British-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer had a smile on his face last night, after he was given $10 billion.

I was there when the paperwork was handed over at the Source Below club in London’s Soho.

The money was given to him by two grateful ladies who had seen his twice-weekly Free Until Famous show. The ladies were from Zimbabwe. So was the $10 billion note they gave him at the end of his show.

Lewis Schaffer told me: “John… It’s not going to change me one little bit. Zimbabwe is a great country and I love the picture of the balancing rocks. I feel very humble.”

A close-up of the note is below.

The paperwork for Lewis Schaffer’s $10 billion windfall


Filed under Comedy, Economics, Finance, Zimbabwe