The state of the industry...

Comedy's in rude health, conference hears

Stand-up shows in arenas will continue to boom, after a ten-fold increase in the market in a decade, a comedy industry conference has heard.

Although frequently criticised for their lack of intimacy, vast gigs are here to stay, thanks to the growing number of acts who can command five-figure audiences – plus shows such as Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow bringing stand-up into the mainstream.

Kay Martin of Glasgow’s SECC venue said in 2004 fewer than 100,000 tickets were sold for comedy arena gigs – but that figure topped a million in 2009. Ticketmaster’s Andrew Parsons reported similar figures last year, though he expected 2010’s figure to be down on last year’s record, at around the 700,000 mark.

Mick Perrin, who promoted Eddie Izzard’s recent arena tour, told the Comedy International Conference: ‘I’d prefer to watch comedy in smaller venues, but the truth is these guys don’t have the time now to swan around the country for 20 weeks they have to get it done in three-and-a-half.’

He also admitted that arena gigs were often driven by a performer’s ego, too. ‘They get to play where the Stones played,’ he said. ‘They can be the gods for one night.’

Perrin is now tipping a toe into the water of outdoor comedy-only festivals, staging a weekend of gigs in Hertfordshire later this month featuring Eddie Izzard, Dylan Moran and Reginald D Hunter. ‘There’s not much cash in it for them after we’ve paid for the 66 trucks of gear needed to stage it,’ he says. ‘But again it’s ego. If you get it right, you can have a comedy-only festival.’

Perrin added that technical advances had also made arena gigs more ‘comfortable and intimate’ for audiences; thanks to high-definition big screens and improved sound technology compared to the days when David Baddiel and Rob Newman staged the first comedy gig in Wembley Arena in 1993.

Agent Hannah Chambers, who represents Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle and Flight Of The Conchords in the UK, added: ‘This is a lucrative business and on the up,’ but added that, where possible, she would rather her clients sell out theatres that are slightly too small for them than struggle to fill arenas.

However, fellow agent Hannah Oldman, whose clients include Will Smith and Sean Hughes, feared that the growth in mega-gigs might be affecting audiences for smaller tours. However, there are many more of arts-centre tours such as these than ever before, too.

Chambers contested that arena shows introduce people to live comedy, so will have a trickle-down effect on smaller shows.

And it’s not just live comedy that’s booming, the conference heard, with TV increasingly turning to stand-up as a relatively cheap ratings-winner in times when budgets are tight. That exposure has had a spin-off effect on the DVD market, too, with distributors engaged in a ‘feeding frenzy’ to snap up the next potential big stars.

Although McIntyre has been criticised for being bland, the expert panellists said his roadshow was groundbreaking in proving stand-up could work as mainstream entertainment.

‘The opinion from broadcasters was that stand-up didn’t work on TV,’ said Jim Reid of production house Channel X. ‘There had been a number of shows made cheaply for later-night, which did a decent job but never delivered great ratings.

‘Then Live At The Apollo and McIntrye’s Roadshow took stand-up and put it in a bigger setting, and proved that it could be done in a big, glamorous, entertaining way. Now every broadcaster wants to do it.

‘And compared to £600,000 to £800,000 for an hour of drama, stand-up is cheap to produce and can still get 5million viewers. Plus it has massive repeatability.’

Ian Wilson, who produced The World Stands Up and Live At Jongleurs, said stand-up had another appeal for risk-adverse broadcasters. ‘It’s a lower risk because you can see people performing in the clubs exactly what you want them to do on TV, rather than have them write something like a sitcom and not really knowing whether it works till you’ve done it.’

As for McIntyre’s own brand of comedy, Reid defended it by saying: ‘People want jokes, The BBC are clearly delivery something to a huge number of people who weren’t getting it before. But hopefully we'll now be able to make edgier stuff at the edges.’

Wilson also pointed out that McIntyre was the first comedian in a generation who TV had made famous purely for doing stand-up – not in a sitcom, as a chat-show host, fronting an advert, or being on panel shows.

Citing the likes of Jason Manford and John Bishop, as well as McIntyre, Reid added: ‘There is a new breed of big, mainstream acts who have real power and a future.’

He predicted more spin-off shows for the comics featured on such showcases. ‘As TV creates stars through stand-up, it will need a format for them,’ he said. ‘I’m not sure there are going to be more panel shows, there seems to be enough, but there will be other formats.’

Reid said there was a ‘feeding frenzy’ to sign comedians to DVD labels – but denied this was creating a bubble that could burst, as it was more about building relationships with the performers until they hit the big time.

Andy Townsend of independent DVD distributor PIAS was more cautious about how the market would sustain in the long-term, adding that there were 45 stand-up titles coming out for the Christmas gift market – and although a few acts would sell hundreds of thousands of copies, others would sink without trace.

However, he also pointed to the business model that sustains the career of comedians such as Stewart Lee, which do not rely on huge sales but having a dedicated fan base always prepared to buy his work.

‘If you have 20,000 fans prepared to spend £50 on you over a year – on tickets or DVDs – that’s enough,’ he said.

Other delegates at the conference at London’s Greenwich Comedy Festival, especially those with music industry backgrounds, citied author Kevin Kelly, who said an artist, especially a musician, might only need to nurture an army of 1,000 true fans to be able to financially sustain their artistic output.

Guy Stephens, who promotes live stand-up in Switzerland, also suggested that the current boom in comedy would not sustain, claiming the recession made people more interested in cheering themselves up than would be the case in a buoyant economy.

The conference also heard that as comedy was rising in popularity, companies were becoming keener to sponsor it.

Caroline Edwards of branded comedy specialists Sparkle said: ‘Comedy is an undsaturated area, compared to music or sport, which makes it attractive to sponsors.’

And David Atkinson of agency Space said: ‘The value of comedy with brands is exploding.’

He also said mid-level comedy events were most appealing, as ‘big name comics don’t want brand association, and at the bottom end the reach is too slim.’

The panel agreed there was more scope for sponsoring umbrella events, such as comedy festivals, than individual acts, one reason being the integrity of the comedian. However, brands who became too fretful about what might be said at comedy shows they sponsor were usually warned off the deal.

Atkinson said: ‘Being a sponsor is like being a punter in the front row, you have to expect to be the butt of some jokes, but if you can’t take it, you shouldn’t be there.’

Edwards agreed that she always stressed to corporate clients they couldn’t dictate what a comic could or couldn’t say – and wouldn’t sign deals with companies that weren’t happy with that.

< a href="">Click here for the conference website

Published: 13 Sep 2010

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