Stop this monkey business!

Comics protest at 'bring-a-buddy' club

Comedians are up in arms that an established London club is insisting that new acts bring their own, paying audience if they want the chance to perform.

Monkey Business insists that rookie performers on its Thursday night new act night bring at least two friends – paying £6.50 each – if they want the stage time.

With up to 20 new acts on the bill, that means the comedians’ friends are paying as much as £260 to support each week’s show.

But promoter Martin Besserman insists the new comedians are getting value for money by ensuring they play to a sizeable audience.

The club’s website boasts pictures of such famous comics as Harry Hill, Lee Mack, Noel Fielding, Stewart Lee and Russell Howard performing at the venue, but on a page headlined ‘new acts info’ Besserman writes: ‘We are happy to offer stage time to new acts, but we really need you to support the club by bringing some friends along (at least two friends) but more is even better.

‘It’s a very small price to pay when you think about the benefits to you.’

Those benefits, according to Besserman, include the comic’s name being seen by 13,000 people through listings and his website, a guaranteed crowd – and help towards his costs.

However, comics are incensed that any performer should be asked to use their friends subsidise a club, posting a series of messages on Chortle’s forum.

Former Perrier best newcomer Wil Hodgson said: ‘This “pay to play”/”bring a buddy” nonsense should be nipped firmly in the bud before it gets anywhere near the point of being standard practice.

‘I've never heard of this shit happening in any other part of the country and it's the kind of thing that makes the London scene look shark infested.

‘There’s a real danger with this “bring a buddy” bollocks of nights full of people showboating to their chums at the expense of those who want a real go at being a comic.’

Comic Bethany Black added: ‘Pay to play, like a succession of open mic nights with no chance of progression does nothing but hurt the industry. Bring a friend nights are even worse.

‘I would openly discourage any open spot from ever taking a bunch of friends to a gig, they totally misunderstand what stand-up comedy is and see it as a competition where their friend should be the best on the bill and therefore often refuse to laugh at the other acts or heckle them.’

Anthony Miller, who helps run the Pear-Shaped new act night in Central London, was the most vocal critic of the practice. He said: ‘Can anyone else just not believe that a promoter would not only do this but do it openly and with no shame!

‘I think that many of the established acts that Besserman is fond of being photographed with would not play his club if they were aware of his policy.’

Alan Sharp, who runs the Absolute Beginners night in Edinburgh, added: ‘Pay to play in any form is bollocks. We’ve had some nights when acts have brought friends and I've seriously wished they hadn’t.’ He added that the acts he books ‘won’t have to pay a penny, they won't have to bring a mate – all we ask is that they turn up on the night and be funny.’

Besserman said he was ‘providing a fantastic service’ in ensuring an audience for the newcomers.

He said that before he implemented his new policy, he would often end up with no audience, just ‘six or seven acts performing to each other, ordering mainly water at the bar. That is not helpful to anyone.

‘These days the acts who play at my open mic night understand that the joint effort pays off. Monkey Business’s new act night these days has healthy audience figures, and everybody gains – including the acts.

‘A few weeks ago, a new club nearby me had five people in attendance… we had approximately 60.

‘I really think it is totally acceptable to make an income out of comedy if you are able to do so. I do pay tax on my earnings so I don't understand the problem.’

He accused some of the rival promoters criticising his scheme of being driven by ‘jealousy’, adding: ‘It is just a few comics who are annoyed by it. There are 15 odd acts each week delighted to bring a couple of friends.’

‘Bring a buddy’, and similar ‘pay to play’ set-ups are largely blamed for decimating New York’s once-vibrant comedy scene. With the number of would-be performers outstripping audiences, promoters hit on the idea of giving stage time to those acts who could muster the most friends – no matter what the quality of the act.

Published: 5 Jan 2010

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