Alan Irwin

Alan Irwin

Date of birth: 13-08-1989
Finalist in the 2014 Chortle Student Comedy Award with ALCATEL ONETOUCH and Universal Pictures (UK)
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© Chortle/Ian Fox

We need to keep our comedy nights fresh

Alan Irwin offers his take on the tough times

I was interested in Chortle’s articles on the London comedy debate, not because I thought it was a great idea, but because the whole thing felt like a re-enactment of some sort of Middle East peace summit. The part of Ariel Sharon was played by the old guard of promoters, frantically defending their territory from the encroaching tide of the open mic Palestinian menace. The part of Bill Clinton, meanwhile, is still up for grabs – I've neglected to fully think through the metaphor.

The perspective of the promoters in London was fascinating to me because here in the Northern Irish comedy scene, London is viewed as some sort of comedy Mecca, where all true comedians will one day make a pilgrimage. It’s both worrying and reassuring to see that clubs there suffer from the same problems that ours do here, albeit on a smaller scale.

The Northern Irish comedy scene, aside from a few big clubs with a crowd of hundreds every time, is basically an infant, about four years old. In that time, it grew from a handful of comedians and even fewer gigs to a fairly sizeable community. The last 18 months were definitely a boom period, and now, as the recession finally hits Northern Ireland, the scene is probably on the decline in terms of audience numbers.

Although a much smaller pond, the Northern Irish comedy scene’s difficulties, and the apparent reasons behind it, are very much analogous to the issues that were discussed at the comedy debate. Over the last year or so, more and more free or cheap gigs have sprung up, some good, some a transparent attempt for a new act to get stage time or even a headline spot at their own gig. There’s less money to be made in the scene than there was 12 months ago, and there are numerous reasons why.

But onto the comedy debate. The idea that a comedy club doing well while charging £17 a ticket is evidence that the recession isn’t affecting business is nonsense. The amount of money people are spending on entertainment is down, there’s no doubting that, but they will still spend money – and this is the key point – if they feel it’s worth the price of admission. That’s why in Belfast, over the next few days, Rufus Wainwright will charge £36 a ticket and the Festival of Marching Bands, whatever that is, will charge £18.

A club that has the finance behind it to lose money for a while can establish itself, even with steep ticket prices, if it guarantees its audience a fun night every time. Consumers vote with their wallets, and if the night is crap, whether it’s £100 or £1, they won’t keep coming back.

I also don’t buy the notion that free nights steal audiences away from more professional nights. The average consumer is at least intelligent enough to know the difference between a new material night and a professional club. That’s like suggesting the great offers available in Iceland dissuade customers from having a steak dinner. One is cheaper, yes, but you’ll want to have the more expensive one as often as you can, because that’s how a real meal is supposed to taste.

I could comment on every point made, particularly the latent ‘Calm down, dear’ sexism that popped on a few occasions, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll look at it in broader terms. The Eighties are over; the old-school comedy clubs are going the way of the Berlin Wall and shoulder pads. Stand-up has to evolve with the times, and given that we’re into the era of social media and 24-hour on-demand access to entertainment, the old ways aren't going to work anymore.

It’s hard to ignore the effects of the recession, because they’re everywhere, and when it comes down to a month’s subscription to Netflix or taking a chance on a comedy club, I doubt the latter is the option chosen by many. Why take a chance when you can be sure of quality with the other choice?

It’ll be years before the country gets back on its feet, and in the meantime, most promoters – myself included – will have to adjust to the fact that there’s less money out there to take, especially when Michael McIntyre or Stewart Lee or Josie Long or any of the hundred others who tour a new show every year are coming to town on a regular basis.

Promoters will also have to sometimes bite the bullet and accept that some of the problems are generated by the way they run their night. It’s easy to become complacent, and difficult to try new things, but that might be the antidote. About a year ago, a local comedian who was MC at a regular night told me that he had suggested to the promoter that he’d best off finding a new compere; the comedian felt the regular audience was tired of him after a lengthy run as MC, and didn't want the club to suffer for it. A rare selfless decision in a fairly selfish business.

So when I suggest that shaking things up and taking chances might go some way to improving business for promoters, I don’t mean that they need to run a gig so alternative that it involves comedians cutting off their dick and having an audience member shit in their mouth while Captain Beefheart plays in the background. It can be as simple as playing around with the format, a new MC, giving some deserving hands a shot at headlining, or simply making the vibe more intimate and welcoming.

The Northern Irish scene has the same problems the London scene has, but I'm sure they also share a lot of the positives. We've got dependable and hilarious headliners like Micky Bartlett or Ruaidhri Ward, as well as others who are on the verge of it, such as Lauren Kerr, Ronan Linskey or Christian Talbot. There are fun and inventive nights like Marcus Keeley’s Voicebox Comedy, or Graeme Watson’s Mix-Up. There’s also, most importantly, a slow but steady increase of awareness that there even is a comedy scene amongst local media and the general public.

I've no doubt that the London scene has the same things in even greater abundance. For promoters who have noticed a measurable decline in their income, it’s easy to cry foul and blame others. What’s more difficult is to do something about it. I'm not going to claim that I know what the exact steps to take are for every – or indeed any – club in any part of the country, but I’ll simply suggest that it’s never too late to try to look at your night with fresh eyes, and see for yourself what you can do to shake it up and make it a better evening for your audience.

Especially since, in the end, that’s who it’s all about, really.

  • Alan Irwin is a comedian and promoter based in Belfast. His Twitter is @AlanSRIrwin.

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Published: 14 Nov 2012

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Past Shows

Edinburgh Fringe 2013

Alan Irwin: The Idiot Wind


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