Panic on the streets of London

Laughing Horse boss Alex Petty's take on the state of the comedy club business

The seeds of failure in any business are most often sown when a business is at its most successful. This is the time when businesses management becomes the most inflexible to change. Decision makers’ self-belief turns into arrogance, innovative products become mundane, unique selling points are copied, and intelligent strategies are eroded. 

A once-healthy company is wrong-footed by competitors, or even worse it has to try to come to terms with the entire industry it is part of changing, not having to just cope with a change of rules, but an entirely new game to play.

And much like the natural cycle of the bush-fire burning the old trees that lets new shoots grow, the creative destruction of the economic cycle is a force of nature that will always continue, no matter how much some businesses believe that the flames will never reach them, they always do. They refuse to believe they can fail, or even worse do not even conceive the idea of failure, so when they are consumed, then new shoots can grow to replace them.

Be it the belief that investments will always continue rising, that the bubble will never burst, that business will always keep growing: there is always the hard boot of history to stamp down on these visionaries, proving that there will always be a trough after a peak - and this will most likely happen when the belief of continued success is at its highest. 
Welcome to the London comedy circuit.

After many years of boom, and an ever-expanding comedy bubble, is it really a surprise that a downturn or a bust would eventually happen? That after the boom years comedy clubs are now feeling the pinch? The natural progression of an economic cycle has combined with the fact that the innovative thinkers, the enthusiastic creatives and enlightened developers have crossed over to become the resolute establishment. That the London comedy boom is slowly letting go of its grip on the edge of the abyss should be something to be expected, rather than a shock mentioned at first hesitantly by promoters in whispers, which is now starting to crescendo.

The once great London institution, Time Out magazine, whose readership figures have been dwindling at an even greater rate than the number of pages in its comedy section in recent years, has had to radically change its business model to survive by becoming free and reliant on advertisers, much like the Evening Standard.

Whether this is successful, only time will tell, but it takes bold moves to try to survive in the print industry these days, an industry which is threatened in such a potentially catastrophic way by digital media. And the fact that these plentiful advertisers can only support a two-page comedy section now, something that once ran in to double figures, says all the more about the state of comedy in London as a business. 

The roots of the London comedy circuit, and indeed the UK comedy circuit, started in the late Seventies as the young upstart thumping its petulant fists against the increasingly sickly carcass of mainstream comedy: The sexism, the misogyny, the racism. Taboos where broken, attitudes changed, and Malcolm Hardee got his cock out. 

In the intervening years this attitude has gradually diminished with this alternative becoming the mainstream. This is what has made the stand-up comedy industry the huge success it is today, from TV shows to UK tours – but it is this success at the top end of the industry that is also a major contributor to the decline in live comedy audiences, particularly in London.

There is no longer an alternative to the mainstream that is seen on television to encourage audiences to do something different, comedy clubs are stale and offering the same product in greater quantity – and where alternative shows have sprung up it has been outside of the traditional comedy circuit or in very small scale one-offs.

It’s been the same old, same old for the live comedy circuit for a long time, and this is now in a digital age where more comedy than ever can be consumed at home, rather than in a West End comedy club – something that is a particularly good proposition for comedy audiences considering this has come at a time where we are in the biggest global economic downturn in living memory – another big factor in the decline of audiences. People are now more concerned about paying their bills than going to a comedy night. What was once an affordable and different night out, is now an increasingly expensive luxury item – not just because of ticket prices, but the cost of alcohol, travel and all of the other incidental expenses of a night-out. Comedy is now beluga caviar, not fish ’n’ chips.

At the same time as all of this is happening, the third issue of the London circuit raises its head: The once thriving open-mic circuit is also battering the London comedy scene from the other end, and where once cheap-and-cheerful comedy nights could flourish, and help the development of performers through to the middle level and eventual top level of comedy clubs, failing nights have become the equivalent of modern day Fagins, and new venues have copied these practices to make a quick buck. These nights prey on the naïvety and often desperation of the increasing influx of newcomers, fuelled by the TV comedy boom, by introducing pay-to-play schemes, bringer shows and other Arthur Daly-inspired business opportunities for themselves, to the determent of the comedy scene for both performers and any audiences mistakenly making their way to one of these events. Once reasonably successful promoters are prepared to argue that this is only way that these nights can survive, when the reality is if the night cannot survive, it should die. All they are doing is continuing to support themselves and the ailing brewing industry, rather than London’s ailing live comedy club industry.

There certainly seems to be a fire raging through the trees of the London comedy circuit at the moment, or at very best a contraction – and what size this contraction will be is yet to be seen. What has always been a niche business is becoming even more so: Venues are closing, downsizing, poaching, and becoming increasingly aggressive with their practices.

Businesses that have been at their most successful need to change before it is too late, as the industry and landscape is changing around them, and how they will manage this will be up to the creativity and imagination of those people running them, with some promoters needing to think like Time Out magazine has done in the print industry. There is a debate being held later this month between comedy industry people about what can be done to halt declining audiences, if anything – and a healthy dose of realism about the shift in the live comedy landscape may now be the only answer.

Published: 4 Nov 2012

Live comedy picks

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.