I have to admit that the first time I heard a comedian refer to anywhere that wasn't London as ‘out of town’ it grated. It seemed arrogant. London isn't really a town. Even if it is referred to affectionately as London town, this doesn't make it the only town. Do people in Manchester or Glasgow refer to London as town? Do the comics there secretly wish that they had hilarious routines about Oyster cards and how nobody makes eye contact on the Tube? The more I heard people say it, the more it grated.
I lived in Cardiff for many years and as a jobbing comic I have worked everywhere from my native Cornwall to Dubai. London comics would ask me: ‘Are you going back to Cardiff tonight?’ I would reply: ‘Yes.’ They would look at me as though I had just announced that I was going to break the world record for the number of times I could hear someone say town without self harming. How are you getting back? The one occasion that I replied, ‘by horse’ the conversation came to an abrupt end.
In September 2009, I moved to Bethnal Green for a few months and loved it there. I could buy coriander 24/7 and there were loads of gigs. I mean what more could I want? When I finally had to move out and was considering Wimbledon as my base, the person I lived with said, ‘It’s nice. But it's a long way out of town.’ I stayed in King’s Cross for a few weeks – a rough part of town I was told – before settling in Wimbledon which is a 45 minute journey to pretty much anywhere in London.
Comics who don't live in London ask me what it’s like. Is it really the land of opportunity? Are the comics really that much better? Are there loads of gigs? If I come to do a gig in London how do I get back to Cardiff? Those who have been around a bit will assert that there are a lot more gigs in London, but a lot more bad gigs. Some claim that London comics are all very similar and that the (grits teeth while typing this) provincial comics are more individual.
Those who live in London strike back and say that they play to a more comedy literate audience which makes it harder; the audiences in London have seen so much comedy that they are jaded. They also claim that going outside of London is easier, as though the audiences are somehow, between rubbing sticks together to generate fire and drinking real ale, more grateful for entertainment. On the other hand, it doesn't matter how comedy literate an audience is, if there are fewer than ten people in the room.
In my experience, there are good and bad nights of comedy everywhere. If the bad nights could be confined to one part of the country, then the solution would be simple. I moved to London for practical reasons. For example, there is always someone who is driving. It cuts down on travel costs and it means that unless I am spending the weekend somewhere that I can get home to my own bed. Public transport goes from London to just about everywhere and back too. The cheapest tickets also tend to be to and from London.
There are lots of new material nights in town. Some of them are very well attended. It is also useful to be able to gig every night of the week to try out new material and die (where necessary) or at least experiment, without anyone really caring. The big guns of the comedy industry and the media are mainly based in London (this is another debate I know) as are some of the most famous clubs in the world.
A lot of audiences respond well to a bit of local. In other words, when a comic does their research and finds out about the area that they are playing in. It includes the audience and makes them feel, I think, that the comic is performing for and tailoring their material for them. I would say that this also applies to wherever you are in the country. At some level, we all like to relate to the person that we are communicating with or listening too.
There also appear to be a lot more casual comedy-goers in London from what I can see, so it could be argued that a regular provincial audience have expectations that are as high as comedy literate Londoners. University gigs have audiences that have been thrown together from all over the country and so in that respect they can't be readily defined as from one area or even of being entirely predictable. As a comic, your job is to play the room in front of you.
I want to stick my neck out and say that the best open mic scene that I have seen is in Belfast. There are only a handful of nights, but the standard from what I've seen is incredibly high. As for professional nights, you might be wondering, town or out of town? My answer is that really it depends on the comic. The household names tour all over the UK and seem to manage. I would hope that most professional comics will tell you that when you are performing and in the moment, that it doesn't matter where you are so long as the audience are enjoying it.