100 ways to save the open-mic circuit

Bobby Carroll wants card-carrying new acts to learn the business first

Horrible open spots. Working for free. Paying to play. Making friends watch ‘em. What’s the solution?

If you are a new act in London you need the patience of a saint with a really, good long book to read while you wait. While there are a few well-run, no-strings-attached, new act nights in the capital – Downstairs at the King’s Head, Comedy Cafe, Pearshaped, Party Piece, Laughing Horse and probably a few more I have no idea about -  the waiting list for these are all very long. It is a bit like Nando’s but with a queue the goes out the door, along the street and past the next nearest Nando’s.

 Often you’ll be on with 10 plus acts where even people with potential can get lost in the shuffle of names and audience fatigue. Even if you did all of these 3 times a year – you’d be lucky to do 15 decent 5 spots in London a year.

The problem really is not with the new acts, as many as them are to be churned up and walk away from comedy very quickly. The Lion's Den, Comedy Virgins and Comedy Bins of this world are the first to give them instant spots and they get used to this. Used to paying for friends to come in. Used to being treated as the john rather than the trick. Why should they not be loyal to a system which fulfils their short-term need of getting stage time? And some great acts have emerged from this grind... but I shan’t name them as they are lovely, talented people who might be a little ashamed of where they started.

But I’ll let you into a little secret about those protected former new acts. By making it they just didn’t buy or barter their stage time at bringers. They hustled for good gigs too. Turning up on spec to better nights in the hope they could be squeezed on or another open spot might drop out. Travelling out of town to perform to real audiences while watching and meeting pro acts who eventually recommend them into better venues. Setting up their own nights with genuine USPs to attract audience or paying for closers whose names sell tickets.  They created their tunnel from open mic to represented new act.  So an abundance of new acts are not the real problem, if the cream still rises. And rises proactively.

A big part of the problem is that most London pro nights do not offer any kind of genuine progression-orientated open spot at all. First of all this is probably down to fact that the admin for dealing with open spots is now gargantuan. I've had 52 requests for open spots in the last week - some from acts also expecting paid work which really muddies the water. Even cut and pasting responses to these is still a few hours of admin to let people down that they are not going to get unpaid work.  Best not to offer any spots rather than invite the e-tsunami, hey?

Secondly, is just how variable the quality is. The bringer / pay-to-play open mic circuit does seem to encourage a certain type of nastiness in the jokes that does not work in the real world. Shock values rules. I like a good dark joke. When I started I had a fair few valueless cruel jokes. I even still run a dark and rude night . But I like a transgressive joke when it has a point or truth and I think audiences do too. So, why the fuck are acts starting out now still doing Maddie McCann one liners? It’s not topical. It has been done to death. It had been done to death six months after she went missing.  

The only reason I can see behind it is when performing to a room of mainly other new comics, the seated acts laugh at what they find the most extreme, rather than the most crafted or genuine. Which gives new acts an imbalanced view of what really works. Put them between a solid opener and a great headliner and more importantly a paying audience and this routine stinks the room out. Not just the nerves, not the inexperience but the fact they need to unlearn so much. What works on the open-mic circuit makes them a liability in a real gig.  A liability that might encourage refunds to be demanded.

This is why big clubs in London are only interested in cherry-picking competition winners, new acts with agents or ones recommended by their paid regulars for trial spots. It’s a bit like Nando’s where the restaurant expect the chickens to marinate themselves. This is why The Comedy Store has the Gong Show. Though whether the audience-expecting-a-freak-show element of King Gong helps stifle the decent acts rather than weed out the mentals is questionable. It’s a bit like Nando’s but for people who like to spit at their food rather than eat it.

Big clubs could go back to the old system of offering a genuine open five and a ten every show that they have to pay attention to. Do well in a five you get to do a ten next year. Do well in your ten you get to do a different ten the year after. Do well then... then paid work. That would be a clear, paced system of professional progression that creates a glut of useful stagetime for hopefuls. And if an act found they did not get past their 5 then they don’t come back. Cruel and harsh but it would declog the London circuit a lot quicker when opportunities dry up.

A lot of acts would fall by the wayside but club bookers would regain power by making the decision to progress the best new acts before they get an agent and before TV becomes a focus. TV level acts are loyal to those who spotted them and pushed them forward. They are less so to those who want to jump on the bandwagon after the first Live At The Apollo appearance.  So clubs should return to being about forging links with the actual ‘stars of the future’ by having their direct number as it’s the same one that called them asking for a gfive spot years earlier. It’s a bit like opening a Nando’s franchise before the brand name became too expensive and there are already 10 peri peri chicken shops on that high street.  

If professional promoters are seen taking an active interest in new acts, encouraging the best and politely letting down the worst the supply of acts will decrease and the need for bringers would hopefully fade away. I run a new act competition on a Monday which is pretty much a one shot deal. You either progress to the quarter final and then onwards and then onward again to the final with a prize and the promise of paid work. And if you don’t then you might at least catch my eye and I’ll offer you a spot at my pro nights. And if neither of those things happen that’ll be the end of our working relationship until you prove me wrong, make it on TV and I’m desperate to throw cash at you to play my room while I eat humble pie.  Or you quit.

OK... so maybe it is a three shot deal but no one I intend never to offer paid work to is strung along. On Sundays I run a new material night (with some paid acts too) so that acts who are semi-pro or working towards next Edinburgh do not take up the genuine new act slots. Surely this system with an inbuilt ‘no’ and unblurred distinction between a paid act and a new act is fairer and more sustainable?

The main problem is audiences do not care for new act nights any more and this is the hardest problem to solve. Fifteen years ago new act nights were the real alternative, a cheap weekday night out compared to the pro bill. I used to regularly attend the Cosmic in Fulham on a Tuesday and watch the likes of Jimmy Carr do early gigs among other fresh comics for a couple of quid. And it was packed to the rafters.  I still paid to see Al Murray on a weekend at the same club or went to Ha Bloody Ha or the Chuckle Club all of which offered middle spots to newer acts too. And when I finally bit the bullet and started gigging I still paid to go see comedy on nights off in my first few years.

Yet I talk to a lot of new acts and all they know of is the dross bringer nights. They do not really go to comedy live. They see it on TV, sign up for a course and then find themselves thrust on the London circuit where the only venues allowing them to do their course-approved ‘I know what you thinking...’ opener and their rape gags are the bringers.

Which makes me rethink that maybe new acts are still to blame... I cannot think of any successful musician who was not immersed in the back catalogue of their heroes before they took up their instrument. Nor any writer who was illiterate. New acts need to spend time watching comedy, learning the landscape and adjusting their expectations before they inflict themselves onto real audiences. And maybe some would realise they would be better off as audience members before they lose their love of comedy on the cruel and predatory London open mic circuit.

So here’s my final solution to the problem of too many new acts, plus poorly run nights with no audiences plus professional promoters ignoring new talent. It should be taken as tongue in cheek or even as a Modest Proposal.

New acts are not allowed to set a foot onstage nor utter a word into a microphone until they have watched 100 live gigs. Any potential new act requests a card from their nearest comedy venue. A card which is like the Nando’s loyalty card but without the free chicken and a fair size bigger. Every gig they attend as a paying audience member the promoter (who will not book any acts without a 100 stamps) stamps and dates. Once they have a 100 official stamps they get to perform.

Some will watch a hundred gigs, learn and support the industry they hope to join. Other will see it as way too much effort and give up at the first hurdle. Most will start with best intentions and go to the Stores and Bananas and Creeks to begin with but soon realise this is not cost effective. They’ll have to start attending cheaper or free entry new act nights to get to their 100 stamps. They supply an audience for the very gigs they hope to play eventually until they make it or give up.

They learn stagecraft, joke-writing, what gigs are worth doing and have a good night out. They also witness the harsh realities of being a new act over a series of months so if they do still want to go ahead after that eye opener they must at least be worth giving a five to.

Sure there’d still be Lion’s Dens or Comedy Virgins who do not want anything to do with the 100 gig scheme and will book uncarded acts but those acts will have nowhere to progress to. Once an acts gets to about 90 stamps they start emailling or ringing around to hit the ground running. And here's the thing they'll already know the promoter rather than cold calling as they'll have already met them a few times while collecting their stamps.

It would create paying audience for all levels of comedy, weed out the chancers and act as a more useful education into stand-up than a £400 course to the hopefuls.

I realise it is also completely unworkable in reality. So I’ll stick to running my gig and competition in a fair, progressive way and cross my fingers the rest of the London circuit doesn’t get worse for new acts.

Published: 6 Sep 2012

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