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Bob Slayer on the rise of independent comedy

Stewart Lee quite rightly pointed out in his book How I Escaped My Certain Fate that in the Nineties when Janet Street-Porter said, ‘comedy is the new rock and roll’, what it really meant was that there was a lot of money being made – but very little of it was finding its way to the acts.

While this is still the case in many areas of comedy, music (with the exception of X-Factor) has thankfully evolved. Rock and roll has a new breed of manager and artist who recognise that the internet has changed everything. Channels of communication are no longer the exclusive domain of the industry and as more artists follow DIY routes, so people's perceptions of what is required to 'make it' have changed.

The smart music managers have seen that there is more to be made actually serving the interests of their artist and helping them build their own fan base rather than propping up an industry that is Losing It grip.

This may have been the case in the evil world of music but surely comedy agents and managers have always been working in the best interest of the artist? Are you sure? When your agent suggests that you put yourself into debt next Fringe or spend a huge chunk of your potential income on marketing, PR and posters (that could take you all of August to actually find), ask them “Why?” Ask them if there is a better and more creative way that the money could be spent?

The big agents tend to market all shows as if they are arena acts because that is all they are really interested in. But is that what you want? Is the mainstream interested? ‘We really like what you are doing... vut can you appeal to more people please?’As more comedians ask these questions and look for new answers then we will see more interesting changes and developments.

Stewart Lee, is not the only established act to go down a more independent route: Eddie Izzard, Ross Noble, Daniel Kitson, Richard Herring, Doug Stanhope, Paul Foot, Bo Burnham, Louis CK, all have one thing in common: they have found different ways to connect directly with their own audience. Once they have achieved that then the industry has happily marched to their tune.

Developing acts are following their lead and have found alternatives to always jumping through the hoops set by the comedy industry: In the last couple of years Imran Yusuf and Cariad Lloyd both achieved best newcomer nominations at the Edinburgh Fringe with free shows without spending a fortune on marketing.

After two years of free shows and touring open access festivals around the world, Dr Brown built a sufficient word of mouth following for his individual approach to comedy to be able to find a producer to help him take on the financial risk of the landlord promoters. Kunt & The Gang, who has packed out a small venue for the last two years stepped up to a150-capacity venue, which he filled every night off the back of little more than £100 of cock-shaped stickers and some cheeky word of mouth. East End Cabaret had a similar word of mouth success with lengthy queues every night for their free show.

Lewis Schaffer’s show Free Until Famous is the longest-running one-man off-West End show. Josie Long took her ‘guerilla’ comedytour around the UK popping up wherever they could find a space to perform. Sanderson Jones personally sold every ticket to his Fringe run and went on to sell out the Union Chapel in London in a similar fashion. He is now setting his sights on theatres around Australia culminating in Sydney Opera House. These are just some of the hugely varied acts who are developing their own voice in the underground and importantly having a lot of fun while doing it.

I think we will see more and more interesting independent projects like these because they are where the most exciting comedy is coming from.

  • BoBb Slayer is programming the Alternative Fringe at The Hive at next year's Edinburgh festival. Details.

Posted: 14 Dec 2011

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