A comedians' union would hit new talent

It's all about market forces, argues Ray Davis

I read with interest Dave Cohen’s latest contribution to Chortle about comedians joining a union, and while I respect his years of experience within the business (I would have said ‘industry’ but to do so would undermine the very argument I plan to make) I think he’s missing the point.

The debate goes that that there’s an awful lot of work that comedians and comedy writers do for free, and that if comedian’s were unionised this situation would not exist to the same degree – comedians would be better compensated for their labours and their children would not go hungry.

This is my second journey around this hamster wheel called stand-up – I’ve been back in the game for around nine months now so of course I know everything. I first graced the stages of London and beyond in the Nineties which was to lead to the heady heights of door splits, bucket gigs, fixed fee gigs (that sometimes were not always that fixed), ‘expenses only’ gigs, ‘beer and bun’ gigs, as well as the occasional sniff at proper wedged nights.

So let’s look at this logically. Comedians at an ‘established’ level are self-employed freelancers, and generally more than willing to whore themselves out to whichever booker dangles the most generous fee. Promoters want full clubs so they can raise enough revenue to pay the acts and service their own lifestyles. It’s a symbiotic relationship where bookers exploit the talent of the acts, and the acts exploit the wallets of the bookers.

I hate to be the one to point it out, but this is straight forward capitalism in a comedy world dominated by socialist commentators. Promoters will pay what they have to, to attract the acts who will put bums on seats so they can pay what they have to at the next event and onwards and onwards until the pub burns down.

It’s not an industry, there’s no board of directors. Neither is it a democracy. Right now there’s some snot-nosed teenager yet to do his or her first five-minute open mic who’ll be selling out arenas in two years’ time while most of us will still working for beer money or less. It’s a meritocracy and the money goes where the booker/promoter considers the greatest return will be.

The model of live comedy at the pub and club circuit level is one of a plethora of small businesses and independent contractors. It truly is the perfect example of Thatcherism in action.

You want to get paid up front for your written work? Then only work when commissioned to do so – and who’s going to commission you if you haven’t got a track record?

Unionisation? Nope, market forces. The comedy world we inhabit launched about the same time as Thatcher, thanks to Don Ward and a Soho strip club, so the comparison is begging to be made.

When there are a greater number of comedians of noteworthy talent and a receding audience, then the available funding shrinks. When there is a shortage of talent and a greater demand then the balance of power, and the fees, tips the other way. 

Unionisation would not protect the comedian but simply prevent new talent from climbing the success ladder, which is damn slippery enough already. I would not expect to command a fee commensurate with a tried and tested performer (and for the most part probably not get one at all) in the same way as most comedians who read this would not expect to attract the same income as a Jack Dee or dare I say it, Michael McIntyre.

A little story to finish with… back in the Nineties before I launched myself onto an unexpected world I undertook a couple of the ubiquitous stand-up courses. The first and by far and away the better was, coincidentally, run by Dave Cohen.

Soon after, Dave was asked to take part in the TV show Dani Dares, where minor celebrity Dani Behr learnt a new skill each week. In this episode she was going to learn to be a stand up culminating in an open spot at the Comedy Store. Dave was hired to run a one-day class. He invited some of his ‘better’ ex-students to participate to make it look like a full class and as such he asked me. I did the day because Dave was a nice guy, a good teacher and I respected him and wanted to help. Did I get paid even a single solitary coin? Go on, have a guess…

Maybe if I had just had the foresight to get union representation…

  • Read Ray Davis's tweets for free because he respects you and recognises market forces –  at @bongomondo. And you can also watch that episode of Dani Dares here

Published: 18 Apr 2013

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