Can you make a business from the open-mic circuit?

David Allison thinks he can...

During these tough economic times, we all need to find somewhere to go, somewhere to forget our woes… I chose the London open mic comedy circuit. Apart from being a free night out (almost) it means that instead of my own woes, I hear and experience the woes of others. Not only that, I am encouraged to laugh at them. Brilliant.

Sure, not all open mic sets are sob stories, but most are some form of grumble.

Soon I became more aware of the true stories behind the open-mic comics and the life they had chosen. Many are just doing it every now and then, quite literally for a laugh, a hobby, an escape from the day-to-day drudgery of life. Others are maybe more masochistic, like self-harming teens, trying to remember how to feel.

But for those comics who are serious about forging a career, it is clearly a life less ordinary, but more difficult, than most. The commitment required starts with the hours they put in. When mere mortals are slouching in front of the TV after a day’s work, open mic comics are hammering their Oyster cards to find a five-minute spot, surfing sofas to face the rejection of their material from ungrateful audiences that could fit in the ashtray of a Mini Cooper.

And for what? Money? No. Practice of the craft and their material? Absolutely.

This is not to discount the nights where jokes do hit the spot, the audiences are kind and full. These are obviously the occasions where it is all made worth it.

I admire this work ethic, even if I don’t always appreciate all the jokes.

There is nowhere like an open mic night where you can get so much value from a night’s entertainment. A troupe of entertainers, metaphorically naked before you, baring their heart and soul to make you laugh and have a good time.

I wish they could all get paid for their trouble. They don’t.

This made me consider how I might find a way to reinvent the art form. Could there be a new package to generate some paid work for these harder working comedians who are not yet established on the stand-up scene.

My concept was based on a number of ideas. I could see that some comics have distinct personalities, characters they play. Others have particular audience skills. These attributes are often more developed than their stand-up material. I wondered if I could make use of this.

I have an ego that needs feeding. I love to get involved with a live comedy show. Not by heckling. I don’t have any jokes. But akin to the self-harmers, I jump at any opportunity to become the butt of any jokes. So one night at the Camden Head, on my birthday last year, when Sara Pascoe was seeking volunteers to be part of a sketch, my hand went straight up. It really made my night. That personalised experience gave me a story to tell my mates. Comedians probably understand that urge more than most.

Next, I decided to employ my (not altogether successful) experience of devising TV formats and see if I could put these comics to a different purpose. A personalised comedy show.

Borrowing ideas from comedy roasts, the old ITV show This Is Your Life, together with my background in legal education (that will make sense later), I came up with a format for a live comedy show. I created This Is Your Laugh.

It was to be a personalised show for a private audience. The simple concept was to put the person whose birthday, stag party or retirement it was, right at the centre of the show. They would be the material comedians had to work with, the catalyst to improvised humour.

We’ve developed a number of formats, the most successful of which was a trial, in which three comedians play judge, prosecutor and defence lawyer. The birthday subject and two friends are facing charges. Through elaborate planning and research into the subjects, the cases are heard before the jury, the friends in the audience. And the friends are involved too, providing witness statements and evidence for the comics to explore and have fun with.

So far we have done six shows. Three of them birthdays, one stag party, another a small charity fundraiser and the most recent, for a group of lawyers who tweet.

With the hard work, commitment and undoubted talent of some brilliant undiscovered open mic comedians, we have created a new way to bring live comedy to new audiences. Each one has been a raging success.

I’ve even been able to start charging fees to organise the events, which in turn has enabled me to pay open mic comedians. Yes, pay comedians! Who’d a thunk it?

  • Click here for more details of This Is Your Laugh. And here is a clip of them in action:

Published: 25 Jul 2012

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