Corporate gigs: Which comedians take the funny money?

Many comics pay their way with corporate gigs, says Veronica Lee. But they’re not for everyone...

The Edinburgh Fringe is nearly over for another year and the familiar cry of comics – that it’s only venues and promoters who make money there – will ring out once more. But stand-up comedians do have a nice little earner in the growing industry of corporate gigs.

Work nights-out used to be an evening down the pub but in the past 20 years there has been a huge growth in corporate entertainment, with companies rewarding staff and schmoozing contacts with glitzy awards ceremonies and black-tie dinners. The main clients are the financial and pharmaceutical sectors but now everybody – from hairdressers and bricklayers to lawyers and dentists – has an annual prize-giving with entertainment provided by a funny man or woman off the television.

Neil Martin, of NMP Live, one of the UK’s largest corporate talent agencies, says: “We have been in business for 18 years and we’ve seen continual growth [in comics being booked for corporate events]. It’s not just big names who are in demand; there are comics – some whom you may never have heard of because they don’t appear on TV – who make a very good living at it.

“The good ones, famous or not, who get asked for repeatedly, are the ones who do their research. They will make sure that they’re pronouncing people’s names correctly, for instance, and put in jokes about individuals working within that company.”

The financial attraction of corporates is simple; the going rate for a 20-minute spot in comedy clubs is £100 to £150 (considerably more if you are a marquee name). For a corporate gig – anything from 20 minutes of stand-up to hosting an evening of entertainment and prize-giving – even a jobbing comic will earn £1,000 to £1,500. Factor in TV fame and that rate can reach tens of thousands of pounds for an evening’s work.

Some comics are open to negotiation on their fee, which suggests some corporate gigs are more appealing than others, but surprisingly price doesn’t always reflect his or her level of fame. “People like Jimmy Carr and Dara Ó Briain really like doing corporates,” Martin says, “and price themselves so that more companies can afford them [£15,000 to £25,000 and £20,000-plus respectively]. Whereas somebody like Lee Mack, for example, isn’t keen and in effect prices himself out of the market [he’s listed on the NMP website as £50,000-plus].”

Television exposure can make a comic’s price rocket; just a few years ago, when he was on the club circuit, John Bishop used to earn about £2,000 for a corporate gig. He can now pocket 50 grand.

Even so, big bucks don’t always lure big names. “Comedy is such a huge industry now [with lucrative TV work and DVD sales] that some comics get to the point where they feel they don’t have to do corporates,” says Martin. “Just the other day I offered someone – a big name – £25,000 for an hour’s work and he turned it down because it meant travelling to Birmingham on a Monday evening.”

Despite the large sums involved, it’s not always money for old rope. Every comic who does corporate gigs has a story to tell about malfunctioning sound systems or boozed-up executives hogging the microphone in the mistaken belief they’re funnier than the turn.

And then there are gigs that are ill-fated from the start. A recent headline-grabbing one was when Reginald D Hunter, a black American comic who frequently uses the N-word in his act, performed at the annual awards dinner of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), an organisation making huge progress on combating racism. Several guests protested at Hunter’s material and the PFA reportedly asked for its money back – although one wonders if the PFA bothered even to Google the comic before booking him.

Corporate events aren’t just thankless money-spinners, though. Jo Brand, for example, who has described them as “high-end prostitution without the sex”, thinks they keep her on her toes.

Audiences often don’t know who has been booked and, says Brand: “Sometimes you sense there is a sigh of despair when I come on. Then it becomes a challenge and it really feels like a victory when you get them laughing despite themselves.”

Another comic who has grown to appreciate corporate gigs is Irish stand-up Ed Byrne of Mock the Week. “It used to  be that if ever I had a bad gig it would be a corporate,” he says. “People are not there to see you and if they don’t know who you are they talk over you. But now most people know me off the telly, or some will have come to my gigs.”

How does he respond to the suggestion that doing corporate gigs is selling out? “I can see how that argument could be applied to doing ads – being paid to say you like a product – but making people laugh for a fee? No. And I can’t see why entertaining a room full of people who happen to work in the same industry is any different from tellings gags in a theatre.

“But I understand why some comics don’t do them. If your material is political, anti-establishment or really saucy then it’s the wrong gig for you. But I don’t do stuff about the world’s ills, and me talking about getting married or being a dad in front of a group of insurance salesman isn’t going to upset anybody.”

Some performers, notably socialists such as Mark Thomas, Mark Steel and Jeremy Hardy, have a moral or political objection to taking a financial or pharmaceutical company’s shilling. Though for Stewart Lee, a left-wing comic who has famously never done a corporate gig, the reasons for avoiding them run even deeper.

“There are lots of ethical reasons for not doing corporate gigs, most of them valid,” he says. “But the main reason I don’t do them is because I can’t.

“The dynamic is all wrong. The attitude of a corporate audience is that the performer is their servant that they have paid for. My onstage persona is that I think I am better than the crowd and they have to earn my respect – and this would not play with business people, who just want a court jester to entertain them after dinner. It is not the right place for what I do.

“And also,” he adds drily, “I don’t have any jokes.”

Ed Byrne’s ‘Roaring Forties’ UK tour starts at Perth Concert Hall on 26 Sept; Stewart Lee’s ‘Much A-Stew About Nothing’ begins a UK tour at the Rose Theatre, Kingston on 10 Sept