What do 'bringer' shows REALLY bring to the circuit?

Angus Dunican is unsure...

There’s something in the air at the moment – although it’s been an abiding concern for some time truth be told: the ongoing discrepancy between standards in professional gigs and the open-mic circuit. Go on any thread in the Chortle forums and, sooner or later, you’ll read some complaints along the line of: ‘Half-hearted open-mic nights, populated by a wearisome number of would-be and workshopping comedians – playing to an audience almost entirely composed of other comics. There they sit, either waiting for their spot or until a decent amount of time has elapsed after they’ve been on - whereby they can slope off without causing excessive offence to the remaining acts or the organisers.’

While one’s initial response to this sort of thing may well be ‘suck it up – that’s comedy’, it’s a fly in the ointment of the London scene that has been compounded by the sudden boom in new comics.

I’m not just talking about the open-mic kids either (and lord knows there are A LOT of them) comedy also has a very swollen middle-class on its hands. A legion of the really-very-quite-good-indeed, who are well beyond doing gigs for free but should, equally, be able to enjoy a good working relationship with the open-mic circuit. It is this relationship that is in turmoil, as evidenced by the recent incident when Matthew Crosby was refused stage time at an open-mic gig.

The gig is in Stockwell, called Comedy Virgins, and has been around for quite some time. It’s free entry and numerous free drinks are distributed to acts based upon audience appreciation, bolstered by healthy cries of: ‘Buy him/her a drink!’ So far – so groovy!

The particular rub here is that the gig is a ‘bringer’; a gig that insists that stage time is only given to those acts that bring a friend with them. As such, it gets tarred with the brush of new-act exploitation and lumped in with less scrupulous nights and the insidious blight of pay-to-play.

Whatever the arguments, I, personally, have found it to be a very nice room. The atmosphere was friendly and there’s an interesting range of super-green to fairly well worn comics trying stuff out. It also enjoys a band of loyal regulars who have had their careers actively championed by the couple who run the night.

Said endorsement and support has even led to a few of these acts finding the momentum to make their way up to Edinburgh and actually progress professionally.  In short – while it is still a ‘bringer’, it is exceptional in terms of the commitment the organisers demonstrates.

Now, obviously, some of these ideas may clash, philosophically, with those of other comics. Is ‘warm and supportive’ necessarily a helpful thing for new comics? Dos this set a dangerous precedent in a rapidly mutating market place? We’ll get onto that a bit later

So the story goes that Matt asked for spot, needing to work on some stuff for a TV recording. However, when he told them that he wouldn’t be able to bring a friend, he was informed that his spot would have to be given away. Needless to say, Matt was rather put out by this and took his ire to Twitter, prompting a discussion between him, Richard Herring and Tom Clutterbuck about whether or not this development was indicative of a worrisome trend.

Crosby being a conscientious sort, stated that what concerned him most was the thought of how difficult it must be for ‘newbies’ if this is the state of play Conversely, Tom, having had many a good gig under the auspices of this particular night, championed their stance as being emblematic of a commitment to equality and that ‘true equality means rules’.

Of course equality is an extremely elusive thing - especially in the selfish, jostling world of stand-up comedy, so any night that attempts to foster it is always going to be swimming up-stream.

Siding with the venue for a moment (in part, academically) I found myself considering the value of such hardline policies. Perhaps they are a sign of evolution within the open-mic circuit? Certainly there has been a marked increase, of late, in the number of nights that have an acute specificity to their brief or USP.

All the new topical and theme nights that HandJester have been running for example or the sketch and plagiarism nights that Jonathan Hearn has been holding at the Plum Tree... perhaps this is part of an organic process by which the glut of new performers is being sorted into the weekenders and those with the higher ambition? Of course just having to bring a friend along with you is not really an example of ‘raising the bar’.  Nonetheless, a night holding fast to its brief and insisting upon the pre-established rules sends a clear message that comedy is a community and self -governing one at that.

However what emerged ion the ensuing debate on the Chortle forums were some very legitimate concerns about the harm that nights such and their apologists (namely me) could be doing to comedy in the capital.

One concern is that the cheapness of nights like Comedy Virgins will lessen the incentive of pubs and various other venues. Anthony Miller wrote: ‘There is always an audience - it is provided by indentured labour. And when they pass on the message to the pub industry as a whole that this behaviour is okay and there's no price to pay for it we'll all be fucked’

While I’m not entirely convinced in the Dutch Elm disease-like quality of cheaper than cheap open-mic, I do see that Anthony has a particular stake in ensuring that the circuit continues to offer a mixture of the established and the new. Pearshaped, of which Anthony is the administrator, positions itself precariously close to the entry level of the open-mic circuit but has the rare distinction of being drop-in venue for the far more established, which goes towards the justification of its entry fee.

So the worry appears to be that the time-honoured meshing of amateur and professional – the reputable ‘Pro-Am’ dynamic is going to be eroded from beneath by new acts not being exposed to those more hierarchy-evident performance conditions. The new acts will come to expect gig conditions that are almost entirely divorced from professional practice.

It’s a common joke made by comperes of thinly attended new material nights that they more resemble group-therapy than entertainment, and this aspect of the comedy-course graduate experience is also troubling to some. One online poster commented ‘They're an audience, your job is to make them laugh, not to get cuddles off them, that will not make you a better comic.’

Again, while I feel that this is too cut-and-dry, I have noticed that the gladiatorial element of the business has defiantly become unfashionable. Perhaps this has bread a streak of indulgence and lack of ‘audience-centricity’ in many newer comics.

At one new act night Jeff Innocent, who was hosting, told me: ‘This is really lovely but I’m not sure that it’s all that helpful. Once upon a time, this room was a proving ground.’

Here, once again, it comes to a clash of differing philosophies. I think the discrepancy arises when people want comedy to be recognised as an art form and thus elevate the status of what they do to becoming an inclusive form of personal expression. Yet this somewhat selfless approach is increasingly incompatible with the financial end of what is, ultimately, show business.

For myself, I find it far more difficult to differentiate between the charmingly ramshackle and the outright unprofessional. I’ve knocked around various echelons of the open-mic circuit for so long that I find myself feeling unduly affectionate even to those gigs that constrain or limit my personal progress and I suspect that there are many acts out there who feel similarly.

It’s a sort of comedy Stockholm syndrome… Stockwell Syndrome perhaps?

Published: 10 Sep 2012

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