The 'comedians' killing comedy

Bobby Carroll on the state of the stand-up circuit

With the boom in stand-up on TV, burgeoning DVD sales and increasing number of comedy tours, these are exciting times to be a comedian – but not on the London new act circuit.

In London two very distinct circuits are forming. A hobbyist/play-to-play new act circuit of poorly-run gigs where no one walks away satisfied and a professional circuit of the acts who, in the main, were lucky enough to establish themselves before the explosion of comedy courses and temporary rooms meant that most of big clubs closed their doors to new acts.

There is a problem with there being up to 1,000 new acts in London willing to work for free. It eats up audience as every function room in Zone 1 gets a comedy night, fragmenting the circuit into audiences that are so disparately small they become universally unworkable. The listing magazine Time Out has pulled out of listing every club, which means nights with decent, paid bills find themselves ghettoised with shows where the acts have to bring paying friends. And the poor punters who wander into these temporary accidental clubs rarely return, realising they won’t risk a fiver on up-and-coming acts again when they can pay £35 to be in the same auditorium as that bloke off the telly. Even if there are 7,000 people between them and the stage at least they won’t feel under pressure to laugh at desperate acts with sets generated and edited from whatever entertained the 15 other ‘comedians’ who comprised the audience a fortnight before.

The demand for comedy should be defined by whether there is an audience, not by whether there are acts willing to play. I recently pulled a night I was promoting as it showed no potential of being regularly full, even though the bar was happy to continue supplying a budget. There was always audience there but often palpably less than 20, an absolute minimum in most pro acts’ books. The pub were a little offended when I said it just wasn’t fair on their punters or my acts who did come.

This was me being responsible to comedy as an industry and as an art. I really don’t  understand how people who run shoddy nights perceive them having a future career if they don’t share the same values. Can you not see the damage you are causing? STOP IT! You are burning down the ladder you want to climb. If every comedian/promoter in London actually tried to create a circuit that was vibrant rather than teeming we wouldn’t be setting everyone back.

The big London clubs, the ones that will weather the storm, have long ago built up a long term relationship with their punters. They will always be listed and set the terms of who they book, and have responded to this cancerous competition. The legitimate well-run rooms that create audiences who want to see comedy, have almost all closed down their open-spot policy in the last five years. Most rooms in London that can seat more than 50 will only book comics who have won a respected competition, have an agent or (and this is most telling) come from out of town.

And here’s the rub, even those well attended pro-nights that do have audition spots and visible progression have waiting lists so long that breaking into the comedy circuit in London involves playing one decent sized room every three or four months. How can new acts in London, with genuine drive and talent, ever learn how to play big room crowds when they get to learn and practice at best 30 times in five years?

The answer obviously is either win a competition or to pass through the M25, build up a routine, persona and confidence that works in big rooms and come back to London as an comedian who has sevrved their apprenticeship. Out of town acts (sorry ‘out-of-town’ acts I know you hate the parochial term) rightly look down on new London acts as a bunch of chancers using ill-thought-out shock tactics to generate laughs rather than write a joke, or who are self consciously quirky and alienating.

I can see their point. Loads of acts who are Midlands or North based who started the same time as me earn boatloads more cash than me. Most are talented young comics who work hard, but the real difference is they’ve been raised on a circuit where an audition spot will get you paid work if you prove yourself. And they very aware that mentioning  rape or wanking is not going to get them propelled to headliner status unless the joke is very, very well crafted.

I always compare the like of gifted acts Ste Porter, Jonathon Elston, Andrew Ryan, Chris Stokes and Jarred Hardy as comedic talents who have been raised free range rather than battery farmed. The better conditions they have been allowed to develop in not only make em taste better but means they’ll cost you a lot more. Unfortunately I’m a born and raised Londoner, but why should I be tarnished with the same brush as those who’ve come hoping the streets of my hometown are paved with fame and TV presenting work?

Going by all anecdotal evidence from interviews and autobiographies, the last three decades were a time when you didn’t have to be slick or universal to make a career, Until the recent boom, nobody really knew anything, and no model for the perfect act had been set in stone. Going by things said by Eddie Izzard, Jack Dee, Richard Herring, Stewart Lee, Frank Skinner, Mark Thomas and even Peter Kay, back in the comedy-is-the-new-rock-and-roll era, you were allowed to die and get rebooked, allowed to be indulgent for five of your 20 minutes and still get picked up by agents.

No act who has started in the last five years has had this luxury. These days you get one, maybe two, chances to impress and you have to write certain clubs off as rooms you learnt in rather than rooms that you'll have a career with. I find it an interesting anomaly that all the paid MCs of the Comedy Store’s King Gong who whip the audience into a booing frenzy on a Monday night came up in a period when the Store had temporarily abandone the gong show format and just offered genuine audition spots.

Stewart Lee got his Jongleurs audition in 1989 by making 90 phone calls. These days acts would be blacklisted if they showed that much determination and if they did get through they’d be told: ‘Once you are getting paid work at The Glee, The Bearcat, The Stand, Highlight, Up the Creek and the Hyena then we’ll have a look at you.’ But in a Catch-22 situation half the bookers for those other rooms have a very similar requirement. Old timers could build a CV appropriate to dedication in a way that my generation can’t. Comics were once allowed to get their inexperienced fingers on the keys, we are now just shown the locks.

And I can be anecdotally cuntish about this. There are plenty of acts with over a decade under their belt onstage who I’ve regularly seen at the big rooms who aren’t actually that funny. I’m not even suggesting my opinion of what is funny. I mean literally get paid not to get many laughs. Sure they say certain key words; dogging, Fritzl, hummus, iPhone, 72 virgins, colonoscopy… that seem to trigger responses in undemanding rooms through a form of punchline indoctrination but they never tell a joke that make you go ‘Wow! I wish I thought of that.’

You see these acts perform to relative silence a lot of the time but they seem so confident, unflappable in their dusty well-rehearsed sets that audience doesn’t see a flicker on their face that they patently are dying on their arse. And in some of those big rooms it proves you can be paid to be a comedian by appearing to be like a comedian without actually inducing that much laughter. Certain chains know how tough their clientele can be and would rather have a reciter rather than a comedian who’ll battle to win the room over, as the former is less of a corporate risk. The confidence in that tried-and-tested 20 minutes, unchanged since the late 90s (I’ve seen one acts whose set list still reads Buffy, Teletubbies, Diana) sickens me. It is equally harmful to comedy as pay to play.

I’ve previously argued that comedy works best if it is programmed to attract return business, not if it is booked to minimise walk-outs and refunds.  Giving the audience something with no flavour or fibre will not make them a better comedy audience. Bland ‘going through the motion’ acts make it hard for new comedians trying to carve their own original stage presence.

There is a reason why they don’t programme Two Pints Of Lager next to The Office even though both are comedies and equally as popular. Two Pints Of Larger works best for people who want their own values unchallenged, The Office invented a unique experience. Which will be remembered more? Workmanlike journeymen create an environment where Two Pints of Lager is encouraged. And surely no one thinks that is a good thing?

Financial success is no measure of how funny a comedian is. I’ve seen well-paid acts behave incredibly unprofessionally both on and off stage. Turning up unforgivably late or not at all, losing rooms that were clearly up for it through spiteful aggression. If after all your years on the circuit you hate and disrespect comedy so much, why not make room for us newer acts who fuck up as often as you, but at least feel it when we do. Sure new acts die, lose rooms by lack of confidence or ill-judged jokes but that has to be more exciting to watch than a human dictaphone being left play for 20 minutes only pausing to deal with a heckle with an ‘After you finish your helicopter whispering course I’ll come down to the brothel and remember my first beer’ putdown. Especially not after Hack McStandard opened with it while you were using it at the other club down the road.

‘Amateur’ is the best term for the best comedians, in the true sense of doing it for love. I love big room comedy, I want to be part of it. And now it has started paying, after four years, I love it even more. People who are bad at it – both the new chancers and the old hacks – need to look into their hearts and realise they generally do not have that love and therefore are not true comedians.

Published: 16 Dec 2010

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.