Did you hear what happened at the Comedy Store last night?

No? Well, that's the problem with live comedy, says Lewis Schaffer

Back in New York in the mid-Nineties, a TV producer asked me to test an idea he had. He had seen me host shows in Greenwich Village and wanted me to trial a new kind of  comedy-talk TV show.

I had been doing comedy for maybe two years.

I went to the Kaufmann or the Silvercup Studios in Queens – I don’t remember which. It was a proper TV studio with a sets, cameras, and a camera crew. It probably cost him a pretty penny, and an ugly penny, too, to arrange this, even though he was using the crew from an earlier show. Unions don’t do favours.

His idea was for me to do only the ‘funny bits’ of my act. Make it fast – superfast. And cut out all the dull bits. Jokes without setups. Interviews at the speed of sound.

You cannot do only punchlines. I know that now. And ‘one-liners’ really have two lines. I know that now. And if a joke is just two words then one of them is the set up and the other is punchline and you can’t be sure which is which. I know that now.

It was a failure. I was a failure. He never called me again or came to see me in the Village.

There is a crisis in the live comedy business in the United Kingdom.

British comedy clubs are getting maybe half as many customers as they did a couple of years ago and are cutting back or closing down.

At the same time, the comedians, who used to make a decent living from these clubs  are struggling to get paid work as more clubs close or cut down and more and more comics come into the business.

My friend Martin Besserman runs the Monkey Businsess Comedy Club in north London He has called a meeting of the comedy community for this Monday. Comics and club promoters are coming. I’ll be there.

The comics have different needs from the club owners.

The comics want to work for the highest possible wage and they want to work. The club owners would be happy to put on a show without comics if they could get away with it. If they have to hire comics they strive to pay them as little as possible. That’s just business.

The gathering will be like a meeting of the British Zoo Association except instead of just the zookeepers the animals have been invited, too. The crocodiles and the stingrays in the same room with the Steve Irwins.

Martin’s main gripe is that other club owners are either putting on free admission shows or heavily discounting admission and it’s killing his business. And that comics are undercutting their value by working shows for less or even for free.

He’s right.

He charges ten or twelve pounds at Monkey Business – I don’t know exactly how much as he refuses to book me for Saturday nights because he thinks I’m unreliable. He is not alone in thinking this.

But other clubs can put on free shows as they get the money from the bar or if they don’t pay the comics very much, or pay the comics at all.

Martin pays his comics. But there are now many more good comics than there are spots and comics want to work. What comedy-goer would pay ten quid when right down the road is a free show, with comics seemingly just as good? 

Did you hear what happened last night Comedy Store in London?

Of course not.

Nothing ever happens at the Comedy Store in London.

In my 12 years in this country I haven’t heard a live comedy-goer or comic tell me of amazing goings on at the most successful comedy club in Britain. Not even once.

No amazing new jokes. No amazing revelations. No trauma or drama or theatre. Nothing unreliable at the Comedy Store.

I’m having a dig at the Comedy Store but it’s the same at almost every club and show in the UK. And I mention the Comedy Store because they’re the most successful comedy club in the country, they don’t book me, and owner Don Ward had a pop at me a few years back.

He once asked me, at a party in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival, “Which Lewis Schaffer do we have tonight? The funny Lewis Schaffer or the not funny Lewis Schaffer.”

‘At least I am funny half the time’ I answered.

And though I didn’t know it at the time, that’s the point

Brilliant comedy is funny only part of the time. Daniel Kitson. Clown Doctor Brown. The other half is panic, insecurity, boredom, introspection, insight, education…

Great comedy, and I AM saying that sometimes I am a great comic, though not always or not often enough, involves a lot of the non-funny. It demands pathos, crisises, chaos and breakdowns. True anger and true sadness. And risk.

There is no risk at the Comedy Store in London only a couple of hours of funny.

I needed to be not funny half the time in that Queens studio. And we as comics need to be not funny half the time at Monkey Business and the Comedy Store. Okay, maybe a quarter not funny. But the clubs demand funny all the time. 

That is why my show, Lewis Schaffer is Free until Famous, is drawing twice as many people as it did last year. It isn’t completely funny.

Live British comedy today is all funny all the time. Until that changes comedy clubs will continue to die.  

I’m not worried about live British comedy because it will change.

Read about the blind soldier who came to my show. I am proud of what I did that night and proud of this post.

  • Lewis Schaffer’s Twitter feed is @lewisschaffer. His show Lewis Schaffer is Free until Famous, The Source Below,Soho, every Tuesday and Wednesday.

Published: 11 Nov 2012

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