Can comedy learn from music?

London promoter Sophie Sweatman has some ideas...

In the 1990s Camden Town was buzzing with bands and music promoters with the Barfly, music’s version of Jongleurs, flapping its wings from the renowned Water Rats Splash Club in King’s Cross, after a fire, hovering down at the now derelict Falcon, and then, after another fire, taking root at the Monarch pub, where it remains today.

In 2010, the comedy scene has saturated Camden and has a little of The Apprentice or Big Brother about it, with individuals colluding and colliding off-stage for a perceived advantage with hard-won triumphs sometimes lasting less than Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes, especially when an unsuspecting individual gets lampooned in comedy’s ‘diary room’ or ‘board room’ by their adversaries. The less innocent lampoon back and it becomes a feud to make descendents of Scottish sheep farmers proud.

Now of course we have the likes of Facebook, a bubbling marketplace to target with invitations to yet another comedy night, mostly received by comedians.

Many acts play four or five times a week. Well, obviously acts who are booked that often must be good, but you could see many of them for free at least once a week.

How will the next generation of comic talent get through when most agents already have their books full of satisfying performers?

With bands in the Nineties, few used mobile phones or email, each act would send a demo tape usually of a studio recording. The few who sent CDs with a printed cover were suspected of having a well-paid job and trying to buy in to the scene, instead of showing talent.

At the time, most pubs in Camden hosted live music from many new bands, a majority of which would vanish as their following dwindled, with little to show for their efforts if they didn’t gather more new fans via their own mailing lists and their stage charisma.

In 1997, I began reviewing these venues for a local North London newspaper and get roped in to stage a new band night at the Laurel Tree, becoming a promoter. Today I help run a Thursday night open mic comedy night in Kentish Town which is free entry.

The type of music floating out of Camden in 1997 can be heard today on XFM, a uniquely English sound of indie-pop rock, mostly sidelined from the mainstream but still holds an audience.

Today it seems there is a wide spectrum of comedy styles from clean to dirty, tight to loose, character to raw and topical to the surreal. Lets not forget musical – although I haven't seen much mime.

Four bands were booked a night in the Nineties compared to up to 11 taking the stage today at music nights at the Enterprise. Each band was paid on how many audience members they brought with them, with out-of-town bands bringing coachloads to support their first well rehearsed stage appearance.

The live music scene has much higher stakes than comedy with overheads for equipment, demo recording, transport and rehearsal being invested with the hope of being seen by the swarm of Artist & Repertoire personnel from record companies Promoters would employ a sound engineer and hire a PA, print flyers, posters and buy advertising. But a comedian need only bring themselves to their gig.

Comedy promoters today dance gingerly around the protocols learning where we are allowed to flyer and when, deciding whether to ask acts to bring friends – or at least asking them not keep the gig secret gig – and choosing excellent comics who readers of the ‘ever there’ Time Out may never have heard of.

An established comedy venue in North London still books via the phone which would save the eight emails it requires to give out even an open slot. You know to turn up there, your name is in the listings but you don’t gain head by bringing friends, just a polished five minute set. Enough clues - you know where this is heading, don’t you?

Surely we all – promoters, acts, audience and media – want a vibrant scene where talent outs? Here are some ideas:

Could promoters agree a minimum door price so there are no free comedy gigs?

Could acts send a showreel?

Could try-out nights be left to promoters offering something to try out for?

Could there be rehearsal spaces to play to just other comedians (or a paid audience) until a promoter books you, where you could get a good video done?

Could promoters (as happened on the music scene) make compilation CDs of their frontrunners to send to scouts? This got so competitive and cost so much that bands bought in, so it didn’t work, but now it’d cost the price of a CDR!

Actually I should delete that last great idea, as I could do that! But I’m leaving it in as something tangible and worthy that may be just what our large, aspiring and undervalued comedy scene could do with.

Published: 20 Oct 2010

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