'There are a lot of reasons to be bitter as a working-class comic' | Lee Kyle on his jealously of the middle-class safety net, and how he's trying to redress the balance

'There are a lot of reasons to be bitter as a working-class comic'

Lee Kyle on his jealously of the middle-class safety net, and how he's trying to redress the balance

Every year, when I turn up at the Edinburgh Fringe, I see massive posters for shows by comedians that I, nor anyone else I encounter, has ever done a gig with, or seen, or heard of.

They seem to have come from nowhere (or Oxford or Cambridge...) but they’re hotly tipped and they look very healthy and well connected and they’ll definitely only do stand up for a couple of years before they either become huge or get a job at the BBC or something.

I hate them for a couple of seconds but then I try to stop.  Annoyingly, quite a lot of them turn out to be really good and perfectly decent people.  It turns out that there is more than one route into stand-up comedy and why shouldn’t they use whatever route is available to them?

And maybe they aren’t from rich families anyway, like I said, I don’t know them.  The working-class chip on my shoulder can be a bit of a dick sometimes.

I bet they are though.

It’s not the money I envy really, it’s the safety net.  It’s the knowing that if comedy doesn’t work out, there is the trust fund to fall back on, or the connections, or, and this is often the killer, the fact that I, and a lot of working-class comics I know, face a constant fight against the fact they’re a bit of a fuck-up.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, a lot of middle-class acts I know are fuck-ups, too, but in a slightly different way.  

Quick pause here to say that I’m aware that class distinctions are quite vague, I know it’s not as binary as 'working, middle and upper’ and so on and I’m probably not able to perfectly define the difference and I also am aware that someone can be working class and have more money than someone who isn’t.

I suppose I should quickly spell out some of my working-class credentials.  I’ve lived most of my life in council estates in Jarrow in South Tyneside, a town most famous for a massive march for jobs that didn’t work.  Three years ago, I moved to South Shields, the next town along, where we were lucky enough to find a surprisingly nice council flat in a pleasant area after our last flat was rendered uninhabitable by damp.

I did a gig in Oxfordshire a couple of years ago, with an act from the South West.  He assumed I was joking about living in a council flat, he was confused why I would live like that.  I’m not going to name him, he seemed nice and he wasn’t trying to be a dick, he just didn’t come across people who not only live in social housing but seem to quite like it.

Oh, I don’t like it all the time, I’ve been robbed for fish and chips at knifepoint and a decade ago someone was murdered in the gateway of our old flat but, well, I’m not from a family or place that cares about property ownership, it just never seemed important to me.  Like I say, people from working-class backgrounds aren’t trained to plan for the future I suppose.  Often because we can’t but often because we are fuck-ups.

We’ll probably buy somewhere at some point I suppose, my wife has a new job that’s pretty decent and comedy is going okay (South Shields okay I mean, in London I’d struggle to get a room in an asbestos-ridden flat with 17 other comedians) and I make a living. I’m really not moaning, I’m aware that the reason I do what I do is because, ultimately, I want to not work too hard.  Ironically, this ‘skive’ has led to me working way harder than I have in any of the soul-destroying jobs I used to have.

I hope I’m not coming across as bitter, because I don’t feel it. I’m also hoping I don’t come across as claiming that being working-class is somehow better or more worthy because I don’t believe that either, I mean, I definitely have some middle-class pretensions, I work in the arts for God’s sake! I had people round for a cheeseboard the other day.

At the same time though, I would never castigate anyone who is working-class in the arts who was bitter. There are a lot of reasons to be so.  

Mostly, for me though, I’d bloody love a safety net.

By the way, I’m fully aware that despite all this, South Tyneside is, rather ludicrously, a bit of a comedy hotbed. Sarah Millican, Chris Ramsey, Jason Cook, Seymour Mace and Carl Hutchinson are from here (As is Eric Idle but he left as a baby never to return) as are the likes of John Whale, Nicola Mantalios and Andy Fury who, despite not being as well known, do brilliant work a bit more under the radar.

Not all of these acts are working class (though most are), but all are consistently referred to by where they’re from, or have their accent referred to, or are assumed to be working-class by virtue of where they are from.  But that’s a different point for a different time!

So, yes, working-class acts can do very well in comedy, I’ve never denied this, I’m actually pretty happy with my lot, I make a living, albeit not a spectacular one, and I get to be creative both by myself but also with people from all walks of life.  I also get to travel a lot.  On the Megabus mostly.

But I, and many acts like me who go to the Edinburgh Fringe each year, can definitely have the wind taken out of us by the sheer costs of things like advertising and PR.  Ultimately, even if I could afford to pay thousands of pounds for PR (which I can’t) I couldn’t justify it to myself.

So, I’ve started a thing that will help, albeit in a pretty small way.  I’ve set up a crowdfunding campaign to finance a brochure highlighting working-class fringe acts.  We’ve already raised enough so that it will happen but we want to raise as much as possible so that it can grow to include more acts and so that we can get even more copies made.  There is absolutely no charge to any act for this.

We’ve had volunteers come forward to design an app and website too, as well as to design the brochure. It’s also looking like we’ll have banners and posters donated. Who knows, maybe we’ll even get some of those massive posters made so people can look at them and think: Who the hell are they?’

•  To be included in the brochure, website and app, email your show details to wcfringebrochure@gmail.com this also applies to anyone wanting to volunteer or for anyone wishing to buy advertising space. Click here to donate to the gofundme campaign.

Published: 5 Apr 2018

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