Want to get ahead in comedy? Don't be in London | Aaron Twitchen says moving out of the capital made him a better comic

Want to get ahead in comedy? Don't be in London

Aaron Twitchen says moving out of the capital made him a better comic

For too long, London has been seen as the centre of the comedy industry. Acts feel a pressure to move to the capital in order to be taken seriously. But, actually, the north offers far more opportunity to develop your craft.

I began my comedy career in Birmingham, which, during the 2010s, hosted a vibrant amateur circuit. There was opportunity to try out your unsuccessful ideas (a rapper called Quentin and a psychic cowboy among others) without the humiliation of bringing a drink-buying friend as a trade-off for stage time. 

London was seen as the glistening holy land of comedy. We were sold a dream of being able to gig every night. Twice a night. Three times a night if you so desired. We would cram into car shares, thighs wedged tight in the back, plotting our moves to the Big Smoke where we would undoubtedly be discovered by these mysterious industry insiders who were ‘At every gig. Just there. Hidden in the audience.’

Like so many, I made that pilgrimage to London. Moved into a squalid little hovel, ground my way through the gigs, got an agent and played the game. Yet, even while I was there, I found myself gigging outside London far more than within it. The money was better, the opportunities were more frequent and, honestly, the non-London gigs were better. I spent so much time still in Birmingham, I considered myself bi-placial (the only thing about me that is bi!)

After a nasty break up, I decided to move to Leeds (I didn’t think I’d suffered enough). I tried to stay in London, chasing that dream, but logistically it seemed impossible. I hustled to Zone 4 viewings in bedsits created from a garage, an Ikea gift card and a dream. I saw second floor ‘balcony’ bedrooms with a glass fences overlooking kitchens instead of walls; studio apartments with beds built as shelves in the wall to save space, creating bijou little wooden coffins; and house shares in six-bed flats with rooftop hot tubs that required ‘nudity only – as clothing interferes with the cleaning process. Got to protect the filter’. All of these options stretched my budget more than they would have stretched my sanity.

Yet the choice to move to Leeds, a city I didn’t know, surprised people. They doubted I could be thinking straight. People didn’t see how I could be taking comedy seriously if I’d moved so far away from the imagined centre of it but - actually - I think it’s made me a better comic.

Up North there is space to grow. There are regular new material nights with actual audiences - of more than 40 each night! Real people; not just six disgruntled artists hustled into the back of a bringer gig. There are economically viable houses that allow you to rent, eat and still invest in an Edinburgh show (who knew!). Best still, there are roads - empty roads - roads that allow you to get to gigs in other cities without a two-hour congest-a-thon to get to the M25.

As well as saving money, you can earn it. There is a huge raft of paid gigs like Hilarity Bites, Manford’s, Peter Vincent and Funhouse that not only pay their main acts but offer the potential for real progression through the line-up.  This is a place to incubate. To develop what a show might be, getting paid for your efforts and saving enough to invest in yourself.

Yet, I think regional gigs are unkindly judged. I recall overhearing a conversation in a Greenwich green room with two local acts explaining they were no longer gigging outside the capital because ‘those audiences are too unaccepting. You just can’t gig there if you’re not white, male or straight. They won’t accept you.’

I was honestly quite surprised. Sure, London is definitely more progressive but that doesn’t mean anyone beyond the North Circular is a prehistoric neanderthal, with a skull bone through their nose.

As acts, we need to learn to connect with different types of audiences, which you can do in the North. From small village halls to large city theatres. Maybe you can’t gig three times a night. But is that worth it? Sure, it gives you maximum stage time, but can we not learn as much from observing others and building local networks.

While so many acts will be considering their next steps, as they work towards the Fringe and look at life beyond it, may I recommend to you: The North

A bounty of comedy slots, cheap house prices and a nearly progressive tolerable audience. Just please bring the industry up with you.

• Aaron Twitchen will be at the Gilded Balloon Patter House during the Edinburgh Fringe with his show Himbo. Details

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Published: 1 Jul 2024

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