The geeks shall inherit the mirth

Ashley Frieze looks at how technology has changed the comedy business

The stand-up world seems to grow larger every year with more and more acts looking for an in-road into this highly competitive business. To get ahead you need a combination of talent, hard work and good luck, but there is more. You need to be a master of social networking.

I was recently listening to the brilliant Comedian's Comedian Podcast (note: a good podcast can really connect you with potential fans, admirers, comedy people) where Ben Norris was recounting an encounter with Noel James in the mid-Nineties. Noel sent him the contact details of the main acts performing on the circuit as a photocopied sheet of paper. The whole circuit on a single sheet of paper. With people's landline numbers, probably.

The alternative comedy circuit, of which our current fairly mainstream offering seems to be the progeny, isn't all that old, but the technology has moved on hugely since its founding and comedy can be a remarkably fast-moving business. Despite technology enabling such fast connections to be made between acts and clubs, it is probably still a ten-year apprenticeship to get from open spot to national headliner unless you possess an extremely rare talent. However, if you are not on top of the communications side of things, you can easily remain at the bottom of the heap, in a perpetuity of obscurity.

The increase in speed of communications has increased people's expectations over how quickly gigs can be assembled, and perhaps rightly so. Recently, Mitch Benn pulled together a flash mob style gig within a few hours because he happened to be tweeting about where he was playing that night, and the magic of the internet and his loyal supporters made the rest happen. Josie Long has put together a whole mini-tour that way. It's all pretty special, and it's truly in keeping with the soul of stand-up comedy which is the instant gratification of immediate audience feedback. Twitter can be an instant high if you do it right.

Improvements in technology have enabled comedians to share gigs wanted and offered via online forums, though they usually use those forums for more mundane purposes such as winding each other up, or trying to swing their dick (or equivalent) the most vigorously (assumingly to replace feelings of inadequacy they feel for not having developed their act much recently). Facebook makes it even easier for clubs to keep connected with audiences and performers, and the ubiquity of smartphones means that most people have, or at least should have, their email sitting close by at all times.

Despite all of this, the process of booking comedians is still pretty clunky, and some agents are less geared up towards providing a quick commitment than others. It seems that the majority of gig booking is still done by email over a long period of days, within which the promoter probably has to wade through several thousand lines of applications to find out exactly who is available for what. It is a nightmare. Bear in mind that in this chaos, the comedian who is slow to apply, or doesn't reply in the right format, is at an instant disadvantage, no matter how funny they are.

Automated booking systems are around. Mirth Control have a web based form which has put some rigour into their booking process. WhatComedy.com attempted to do online dating between comedians and gigs, as did TheGigMarket.com, though I am unsure that either has quite become the standard solution for the large numbers of clubs as perhaps they intended to reach.

To manage 245 acts across 22 gigs in the Funny's Funny Female Comedian of the Year Competition, we use a large online system so that no detail is forgotten and yet there is still a lot of work to do to ensure that everyone involved gets the right bookings and the personal touch they all deserve. In short, the technology still needs to develop and will never be the whole answer.

Given the number of comedians out there, and the way that we're moving towards technology to manage contact between clubs and comics, it is clear that that the modern comedian needs to be a lot more technologically savvy to stay ahead of the game. The curiosity and commitment to find opportunties via cyberspace could give stand-ups the edge.

On the other hand, you get an agent and PR team to do all of that and go and sit somewhere and write and rehearse something funny.

  • Ashley Frieze is coordinating Funny's Funny. Showcases are on nationwide between now and the end of June with the final at Soho Comedy at the Empire Casino on July 20.

  • One of the sessions at the Chortle Comedy Conference next week will cover the ways to harness the power of the internet to build an audience. Click here for tickets.

Published: 8 Jun 2012

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