Is the funny business in decline?

Promoters and comics discuss the 'crisis'

Comedy clubs are struggling to find audiences, despite the perception that Britain is enjoying is a boom time for stand-up, a meeting of London circuit luminaries heard last night.

Factors from unadventurous comedians, tough financial times, and audiences only willing to see famous faces were all cited as factors for a downturn in audience numbers.

The ‘debate’ was chaired by Pete Grahame, promoter of the long-running Downstairs At The Kings Heat. He said: ‘The general public’s view is that comedy is booming whereas insiders say the bubble has – or is about to – burst.

‘But does a bubble disappear as it bursts or just break into smaller, tauter bubbles? One certainty is that a popped bubble cannot be unpopped.’

A straw poll of the 70 of so comedy insiders at the meeting suggested most clubs were 10 to 20 per cent down in audience numbers on last year, with some being hit by slumps of up to 50 per cent.

Monkey Business promoter Martin Besserman, pictured, who organised the event, said his business was down up to a third on 2011 – and placed the blame squarely on rival clubs offering free admission Saturday nights.

He said he made around £250 on a Saturday night show, after paying £300 to acts and up to £80 in expenses, including his taxi home.

Amused Moose promoter Hils Jago said: ‘People see comedy as a cash cow taking all their money to Jersey offshore accounts, and the people who love comedy are finding it difficult.

‘There is competition from the top end and the bottom end of the market, so the mid sized clubs are stuck in the middle.’

Comedian Pete Jonas, who also promotes the Comedy Tree, said: ‘There is less income and more competition and you have to adapt.’

He said live entertainment was still thriving, with cabaret nights charing £30 a ticket and still selling out – proving that quality nights can be successful.

James Woroniecki of the 99 Club bucked the trend, saying ‘every year we have an increase in numbers’ – but admitted the marketing costs of getting people in the door to his club was high. ‘We pay around £8 to £12 to sell a single ticket,’ he said. ‘But then we give them a show that people will want to come back to.’

So what are the main factors affecting clubs?


David Mulholland, of the Soho Comedy Club, said ‘Income that people spend on going to live events has decreased by 50 per cent so our effort has had to double to get people in.’

But Besserman claimed: ‘The recession cannot be blamed as there is a club in Liverpool charging £17 a ticket and it is always sold out. The economy in Liverpool is worse than it is in London.’


Besserman was adamant that the spread of free clubs was responsible for decimating audiences at paid clubs, and accused them of ‘stealing’ his business

He claimed that ‘people who run free clubs haven't worked it out... if clubs like Adam’s [Adam Larter who runs the free Weirdos Comedy Clubs] keep on popping up. we become very vulnerable. If 80 people have a good time at a free gig and then tell another 80 people about it they have essentially stolen 160 people.

‘I need to make a living,’ he said. ‘I'm selfish, I'm Jewish."

But Larter said free open-mic nights were vital for the next wave of comedians to learn their craft. He said his Saturday night club holds a maximum of 50 people, and said: ‘I am not stealing all of London".’

Mandy Dassa, a new act, said she preferred to play Weirdos over Monkey Business new act night as the ‘atmosphere is more positive’. She said: ‘When I started to go into conventional clubs they are not as nice; free gigs are more artistically satisfying as you play to a comedy savvy audience.’

Besserman responded that she was ‘a very sweet girl but she wasn't looking at the bigger picture’. Woroniecki added ‘audiences can make a distinction in their minds between a new act night and a professional night’.

Another new act added: ‘Free nights are great for new acts but some free nights are just public masturbation. People want stage time so they put on a night.’

Emma Emslie from ED Comedy at the Hob said that she was opposed in principle to free nights in which audiences have no investment in the comedy. She added: ‘We should always charge our audience even if it is just a pound. We need to have a contract with the audience.’

Besserman suggested that professional comics should never play free gigs, but Grahame said that would never work.


Besserman criticised the heavy discounting of tickets at Highlight clubs, which meant some punters were paying as little as a pound – or even a penny – for a comedy night.

A woman soley introduced as Elsie said we need to provide a premium product to charge a premium price she also stated 'Groupon is the way thing will happen from now on, move with the market" She said promoters should invest in doing up their venues as people want to feel like they are on a night out.

Gary Jackets, who runs Joker comedy club in Southend, echoed the point of many when he said: ‘Groupon is killing business.’ Besserman added: ‘If you want to lower your prices, lower your prices – don't use Groupon.’

Grahame said the website, which offers heavy discount to audiences who might not otherwise go to comedy clubs, was a ‘relevant point of a digital age and none of us can legislate against it’.


Echoing his recent Correspondents piece on the subject Lewis Schaffer said: ‘The booker is at odds with the needs of the comedian. Comedians want to work for as much money as we can as often as we can. Promoters make a business out of paying comedians as little as you can.’

This brought an eruption of protest from the promoters who shouted that was absolutely not the case. Woroniecki said: You run a club because you like comedy and like comedians, not because you want to rip them off.’


Brendan Dempsey stated that many of his fellow comics played it too safe because they were more interested in getting on TV than having a live career,

Grahame agreed, saying: ‘Stand-up is seen as a springboard into a sitcom. We should be proud of the form. When it’s done well then there's nothing better.’

But he admitted audiences would often only see famous names, conceding: “Provincial theatres can't sell a show without an act with the billing 'as seen on TV.’ Yet he said that was not a consideration when booking his gigs: ‘Agents at Avalon telling me their act has done 5 minutes on Russell Howard makes no difference for me. The excitement of this medium is standing entertaining people in a room, no different from Eric and Ernie, its sharing laugher".

Schaffer added that clubs should be bolder in booking acts, as there was a plentiful supply of more interesting comics – even if that meant promoters having to take a risk that a comedian might fail. ‘Right now what you're looking for is not someone who stinks up your show, but the only way people will go to these shows is if something amazing happens,’ he said.

Mulholland said that the quality of stand-ups on the circuit was going down, and Grahame stated: ‘most new acts don't understand the difference between entertainment and talking.’ Emslie blamed comedy courses for churning out bland comedians.

However Larter disagreed, saying increasingly strong acts were coming through his open-mic nights.


Comedian Iszi Lawrence said that one problem was that too few clubs booked women to headline – but the point was shouted down by promoters, who protested loudly


Emslie said comedy clubs have lost the younger market to TV, while Larter said clubs and performers are not just competing with themselves. ‘We are also competing with Mamma Mia, Indian takeaways and Orange Wednesdays.’


Besserman criticised the media for listing free and discounted gigs – implying they should only list ‘full-price’ clubs.

One established act, who did not want to go on the record, said the press will now only recommend a night that has an act from the TV on the bill, rather than supporting individual club.


Finally, it was suggested that the extent of the problem had been exaggerated.

Comic and promoter Bob Slayer said: ‘Only Monkey Business clubs are in crisis, comedians are not, we can always find a way. I take something to gigs to sell.’

Dempsey said that the clubs that valued the art would thrive. He named The Stand, The Comedy Store, The Glees and The Last Laugh as clubs that respect their acts and audiences and seem to be doing well. ‘If you put value on your club, respect your acts, respect the majority of the audience…they come back’

And in conclusion, Grahame said: ‘We will always find our level, as it's always been. We can die or survive by our own efforts. Look after your audience and they'll come with you.’

Published: 13 Nov 2012

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