Life's no joke for London's Comedy Festival. It's going broke

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The Independent Online

The London Comedy Festival website says: "When a man is tired of London he is tired of laughing", paraphrasing Samuel Johnson. But no one is laughing on the eve of one of the most important events of the British comedy calendar, bec-ause the festival, which attracts 100,000 paying customers, is on the verge of going belly up.

The London Comedy Festival website says: "When a man is tired of London he is tired of laughing", paraphrasing Samuel Johnson. But no one is laughing on the eve of one of the most important events of the British comedy calendar, bec-ause the festival, which attracts 100,000 paying customers, is on the verge of going belly up.

Although this year's event - featuring the likes of Jo Brand, Dave Gorman, Arthur Brown and Rhona Cameron - will proceed, a decision by the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) not to pursue its interest in sponsorship has left the future of the festival in grave doubt. If they do not have funding in place by the end of next month, it will die.

Organisers said last night that they did not expect the event to survive. Mick Bateman, director of the festival, said: "It's not viable in its present form. It costs money to put on, and unless people are willing to put their hands in their pockets and fund it, it won't go on. These things cannot exist on goodwill alone."

Mr Bateman said this year's festival, which starts today, had been saved "by calling in a few favours" but said the much-praised event was in "a make or break situation".

RBS had decided against backing this year's festival, after reviewing its sponsorship policies, he said. Last year's festival was successfully sponsored by the Britvic drink, J20.

Mr Bateman said part of the problem in attracting commercial backing was that companies were wary of the unpredictability of some of the comedy material. "Comedy is a risky one for many brands, he said. "Comedians take the piss out of everything. If you are going to sponsor comedy you have to go along with that."

Mr Bateman said that the London event faced high levels of competition from other forms of entertainment, which put it at a disadvantage to other leading comedy festivals such as those staged in Brighton and Leicester.

"It is difficult to establish yourself as something indispensable in London," he said. "Brighton and Leicester have compact communities and if something is happening in those cities then everyone knows about it. In London, you can be doing something in Trafalgar Square and the people in Leicester Square don't know about it."

He also said that sponsors sometimes preferred to back events outside London because of the high level of brand awareness among people living in the capital. There was also a cost implication to covering an event that stretched from its hub at the Soho Theatre in central London to the M25.

Sources close to the London festival suggested last night that if the festival was to continue it might have to be reconfigured as a charity, seeking funding from the Mayor of London and other public sources. The London Comedy Festival was launched in 2001 by the Jongleurs comedy clubs and Noel Edmonds' media company Unique and was intended to become a self-funding venture. "They cannot lose money on it in perpetuity," Mr Bateman said. "It has to stand on its own two feet."

Other partners who give support in kind to the event include Borders bookshops, UGC cinemas (which are running a series of comedy films) and London Underground (which runs a poster campaign called Mind The Gag).

The festival finale on 23 May features Jenny Eclair, Rich Hall and Ed Byrne at the Piccadilly Theatre and raises money for Great Ormond Street children's hospital in London. A spokeswoman for RBS said: "We have to look at options and find a sponsorship programme that best suits our needs."

CORPORATE-UNFRIENDLY COMEDIANS

Bill Hicks

The anti-war, pro-smoking, corporate-bashing American comedian, died 10 years ago this week. Hicks, a star turn at the Comedy Workshop in Houston at 17, became familiar on television shows in the late 1980s but refused to alter his material.

"A lot of Christians wear crosses around their necks. Do you think when Jesus comes back he ever wants to see a fucking cross? It's kind of like going up to Jackie Onassis with a rifle pendant on."

He revelled in being a chain-smoker and when an audience member said he smoked a pack and half a day, Hicks replied: "Why don't you just put on a dress and swish around. I go through two lighters a day."

Brendon Burns

The Australian stand-up comic litters his act with swear words and has performed many times at the Festival, in Edinburgh, London, and all over Britain.

Burns, 33, has been compared to Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce and even Eminem, because of his controversial style. Has opened a show with: "Fuck you, my name's on the door. You knew I was coming. If you were expecting a juggler, you're in the wrong room."

Famous for being politically incorrect, he has been known to make fun of the disabled, dwarves and lesbians.

The BBC had to censor a scene on the Live Floor Show in which he simulated sex with a goat.

Aaron Barschak

Also known as the Comedy Terrorist, 37-year-old Barschak this year announced he was retiring from stunts.

He is hoping to reappear at the Edinburgh Festival despite adverse reviews last year. Barschak's gatecrashing of Prince William's 21st birthday at Windsor Castle caused a widespread review of royal security.

He said: "It was unbelievably simple. I'm amazed I got in. Royal security is not at all what I expected. But Prince William is a lovely boy."

Last year he was jailed for 28 days for throwing paint over Turner-nominated artist Jake Chapman, insisting he was "creating a work of art". As he was to the cells he said: ìWe shall not go to Colossa.î

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