Stand-up comedy is not considered an art, so the circuit is being left to die

I wish I could at least say that we were at the bottom of the food chain, but our industry is getting zero government money. We aren’t on the agenda at all

Shaparak Khorsandi
Friday 10 July 2020 16:35
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Last night, I and several other stand up comedians performed at the first “drive-in” live comedy event at Bath Racecourse. You wouldn’t think the art of stand-up comedy, which relies so heavily on the energy between the performer and the audience, would work in high winds and heavy rain to a bunch of people sitting in cars but where there’s a global pandemic, and where there are comics, there’s a way.

Each car had a device which streamed what was happening on stage. Knowing we cannot hear them laughing, the audience honked their horns and clapped out of the windows when our jokes and stories landed. The punters came, and us comedians, myself, Mark Watson, Ed Byrne, Ed Gamble and Jess Fostekew batted out our sets to the beeping car horns and cheery waves from the audience. It worked. It was weird, but it worked. Seasoned comedians are wired to make a gig happen in the most unusual circumstance. We are the foot soldiers of the entertainment industry.

Ever done stand-up on a plinth in a shopping centre to passers-by? I’ve been booked to perform in a municipal workplace where bewildered council employees were ushered into a small office “to listen to the comedian’s speech”; I’ve performed in the deep end of a drained swimming pool in the Hague; I’ve performed at a rock concert as the “filler” while roadies prepared the stage for Paul Weller (I can attest that a rock concert audience waiting for a legend, aren’t all that into an excitable woman telling pithy stories about moving to the UK from Iran. “Fuck off about Iran and bring Weller on” may be one of the more niche heckles I have had).

Stand-up comedians are trained on the vast UK comedy circuit. Comedians from every other English-speaking country come here to live because we are the only country to have a comedy circuit you can make a living from. Do you imagine some of our beloved comedians, Australian Adam Hills or Canadian Katherine Ryan, rocked up and said: “Hello, UK! I’d like to be all over your television networks please!” Of course not. They pounded the circuit like the rest of us. For years. I’ve gigged with Ryan and Hills and McIntyre and Flanagan and both Carrs all over the country in the comedy clubs.

And let me tell you something else, some of this country’s finest comedians are the ones you might never have heard off. Only a minuscule percentage of our vast comic talent is what you see and hear on TV and radio. The rest are on the circuit.

These clubs are getting zero per cent of Rishi Sunak’s £1.57bn lifeline to the arts. Nearly 80 per cent of live comedy venues are facing closure in the next year. Also, half of comedians are giving serious thought to leaving the industry. If you know comedians like I do, you’ll know that most are pretty unemployable. We are nothing if not a resourceful bunch however, a comedian has been tutoring my daughter in maths during lockdown and another has been making jewellery out of forks. Where they belong though, is on the circuit with all the other misfits.

We don’t do this job for any reason other than we can’t not do it. We have sacrificed social lives, relationships, missed the weddings of friends and family, slept on sofas and in cars to save money on the road; we miss out on so many other kinds of ways to make a “living” because that 20 minutes on the stage is where we know our arse from our elbow. Everything else has to fit around it. Many people who have considered me a dipstick see me on stage and comment: “I see, that’s where your focus goes”. Yup. It’s not high art, but it’s art.

A stand-up comedian learns to find a way to make people from wildly different backgrounds laugh. I have nothing but respect for ballerinas, but if you want to make a room full of rambunctious stags and hens howl, a circuit comedian is a safer bet. If you want a night out that won’t batter your bank balance, there is no finer place to be than your local comedy club with a bunch of mates.

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I wish I could at least say that we were bottom of the food chain, but our industry is getting zero government money, we are not on the food chain at all. Why is our industry being dismissed? Because it’s meant for the masses. The working classes go to the traditional comedy clubs, just as they did in the days of vaudeville. Festival audiences and theatre-goers tend to be middle-class, but those who used to fill the comedy clubs all over the country before the pandemic, were not.

Stand-up comedy can be shouty and sweary and unpredictable... it’s the closest we have to vaudeville tradition and all the comedians we love have come out of it.

Even before the pandemic, theatres under this government were woefully underfunded, often being run almost entirely by volunteers. Panto and touring comedy shows have become the bread and butter of many of these theatres; they bring in the punters, fund the theatre shows. You can’t be a touring comedian without learning the craft in the clubs. Every megastar comedian tests their material in clubs. I was compering The Glee in Birmingham one year and in walked Lee Evans to try out 20 minutes of new material ahead of his O2 tour.

That’s why I’m urging people to sign the Live Comedy Associations open letter. We can’t let the government leave our circuit to die.

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