Telly comics flourish, but not the grassroots

Conference hears the state of the industry

The boom in stand-up on TV has not had a trickle-down benefit for Britain’s grassroot comedy clubs, a meeting of industry insiders has heard.

Shows such as Michael McIntryre’s Comedy Roadshow and the ubiquity of comic-led panel shows such as Mock The Week or QI has not tempted viewers to seek out the comedy circuit where today’s stars come from.

It means arts centres and theatres are reluctant to book comedians who have not already been on TV, as they do not attract audiences; while recession-hit club owners are not witnessing increased interest even at well-established venues.

Mick Perrin, a promoter who works with the likes of Eddie Izzard, Tommy Tiernan and Reginald D Hunter, said: ‘As a nation, we’ve become so couch-potato led that it’s become very difficult to sell someone who’s not on TV.

‘People get so much comedy on TV, they don’t need to venture out. It’s great for some comedians, but for the majority, it’s not.’

And he told the Comedy International Conference at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington, North London: ‘I’m not knocking TV, but things have swung so far in TV’s favour [over live shows] that we need to swing it back the other way.

Perrin added TV could never hope to capture the excitement of the live comedy experience, and said the industry’s challenge was to encourage people out into venues.

In the audience, promoter Neil Masters echoed the point, saying TV had led to stand-up’s demise in his native America. ‘People thought stand-up was a TV product, not a live product,’ he said.

Grégoire Furrer, of Switzerland’s Montreux comedy festival, added: ‘To find an audience you need to be mediatised. But I hate it when TV people who have never been in a venue come up and say what’s funny and what’s not.’

Tommy Sheppard, who runs The Stand comedy clubs in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Newcastle, said: ‘These have been difficult times. Our numbers are down slightly, but bar spend is down 12 to 15 per cent.

‘The tickets pay for what’s on stage, but it’s the bar that pays the mortgage and lets us do things like doing shows on a Tuesday that’s an experimental sketch night.’

And Pete Grahame, who runs the 30-year-old Downstairs At The King’s Head in London, said: ‘People are struggling. It is going to affect clubs like mine where I don’t own the bricks and mortar and I don’t take the bar.’

Although the grassroots live scene is going through straitened times in the UK, the conference heard that business was booming in more emerging markets. Rabin Harduth from South Africa’s Hard Laughs said comedy audiences in home country had ballooned; with figures he had showing audiences rising from 70,000 last year to 170,000 this. ‘Consumption of comedy is at an all-time high and I don’t think it’s reached its peak yet. We always had an audience… only now do we have a product.’

Perrin added that we were experiencing an ‘international revolution’ in comedy. He has promoted overseas shows for Izzard abroad and has just worked on a tour for Dylan Moran in 400-or-so seater venues not usually considered part of the comedy touring schedule, including Kiev, Riga, St Petersburg, Amlaty in Kazakhstan and Moscow.

‘In the early days of comics going abroad, it’s not about money – there isn’t much – it’s about the art,’ he said. ‘But we created a scene and it’s growing and worth hundreds of thousands of pounds now. We didn’t do it to make money, but in the end it does.’

Perrin, who brought South African comic Trevor Noah and Germany’s Michael Mittermeir to the Edinburgh Fringe this year, also said that comedians crossing borders was good for the industry.

‘This cross-fertilisation is wonderful if you love comedy,’ he said. We’re not just looking at UK touring any more, we’re looking at world tours, including South Africa and beyond.

Furrer, who is based in Paris, said of French comedians: ‘The young people now do an English language version of their stand-up, and people well-established in France want to do stand-up outside of France. They don’t see the French market as a final goal, but as a starting point.’

And he claimed comedy was becoming so international that: ‘The next big worldwide stars will come out of the [live] comedy genre.’

Published: 5 Oct 2012

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