Monday, January 14th, 2013

Inside Britain's Growing Comedy Crisis

For the past few years, America has been experiencing a spectacularly creative comedy boom that continues to grow. But in the UK, the comedy scene may be heading in the other direction. For the past decade, live and televised comedy have been big business in Britain. Stand-up shows like Live at the Apollo and Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow brought rising talent to mainstream attention, and panel shows established a wide pool of popular comedians. This led to massive theatre tours and hundreds of standup DVDs released every Christmas. But like all bubbles, it was bound to burst, and the comedy community, particularly in London, is reeling as things cool down.

“There is a crisis in the live comedy business in the United Kingdom,” American ex-pat Lewis Schaffer recently wrote on his blog. “British comedy clubs are getting maybe half as many customers as they did a couple of years ago and are cutting back or closing down.” While megastars like Michael McIntyre and John Bishop are still flourishing (McIntyre grossed nearly $34 million from his arena tour in 2012), the clubs are struggling. It’s gotten so bad in London that a group of club owners, promoters, and comics assembled in November to debate the situation, a meeting Schaffer called “like a meeting of the British Zoo Association except instead of just the zookeepers the animals have been invited, too.”

For American comedy fans, this state of affairs sounds eerily familiar. The situation that British, and particularly London, comedy finds itself in right now echoes the state of American, especially New York, comedy in the early 1990s. The timelag makes sense. In the US in the late 1950s and early 60s, comics like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl replaced nightclub and Borscht Belt-type comics with topical, liberal material that excited and infuriated. In the UK in the late 70s and early 80s, Alexai Sayle, Malcolm Hardee, and others led the British alternative movement, a collection of left-wing, often bizarre comics that rejected the misogyny and racism that existed in the traditional working men’s club circuit. That alternative scene would eventually begat people like Eddie Izzard, just at the US scene gave way to the likes of George Carlin.

Later, the US comedy boom that sparked in the late 1970s spread like wildfire in the 80s as cable TV allowed standup to be seen by anyone and everyone. Similarly, the recent UK boom coincided with the proliferation of digital television in the ‘00s, with networks rerunning standup and panel shows ad nauseam.

And just as the bubble burst in the US in the early 90s, it is popping in the UK at this very moment. And once again, the reasons are similar. Much of the blame is directed at television, which over-popularized the genre. “In the big comedy boom of the 1980’s,” the New York Times wrote in 1996, “it was nearly impossible to channel surf without running into at least one average-looking man in an open-collar shirt talking about his mother-in-law, masturbation or Roman Catholicism.” In a recent column on popular British comedy news site Chortle, the site’s editor Steve Bennett wrote, “People now have their favourite comics from the box in a way they never used to[…]Panel shows are re-run so often, that those who regularly appear on them can have a fame that it would, in the past, have been near impossible to achieve.”

Television, then and now, is also blamed for producing generic, fame-seeking comics who see standup as an easy path to success. Estee Adoram, who has booked comics at the Comedy Cellar for decades, says that 90s shows like Evening at the Improv ruined standup for many people. "In their eyes, that's what standup comedy is. It was really mediocre-to-bad, and so they stopped coming." A Times article in 1989 noted that “many of today’s comedians hope that that hard work will pay off quickly. A major shift in the state of comedy has been that many people launch standup careers in the hopes that they will never have to do it again."

This past November at the comedy club debate in London, London-based Irish comic Brendan Dempsey said many comics “played it too safe because they were more interested in getting on TV than having a live career,” and promoter Pete Grahame said that “stand-up is seen as a springboard into a sitcom.” Alternative favorite Stewart Lee recently told British comedy news site Such Small Portions, “I don’t think the 16-year-old me now would want to be a comedian […] because, where stand-up is now on telly, the 16-year-old me would look and think, ‘What a boring, aspirational, conservative, safe thing that is. Why would you want to do that?’"

Meanwhile, a glut of comics didn’t increase the number of great ones. “’There’s more comedy than ever today,” Chris Albrecht of HBO told the Times in 1989, “but there still isn’t enough to go around. There’s a shortage of quality comedians.’” A recent article in The Guardian was subtitled, “The comedy boom of the last decade has created a demand that cannot be filled by intelligent acts.”

And clubs responded to the bursting bubble in similar ways. NYC clubs in the 90s resorted to heavy discounting and papering; British clubs now offer cut-rate deals and tickets on GroupOn. Even the ideas for redemption are similar. In 1989, American comic Adrianne Tolsch suggested comedy clubs might specialize, like doctors. ("You want to see a comic who screams and uses props – there'll be a club just for that. It'll be like going to see an obstetrician.") Bennett wrote, “Perhaps a better future model is the heavily themed nights, where depending on your inclination, you can go and see a selection of weird alternative acts; a line-up of bookish nerds celebrating curiosity; a night of puns; or even a bawdy night designed for the hens, stags and office parties.”

Given the parallels, what happened next in the New York City comedy scene will likely cause the hearts of London club owners to sink. Of the dozen comedy clubs that existed in the city in the early 90s, only half still exist today.

But comedy fans know that wasn’t the end of comedy in the US. Our current comedy boom was being born at that time, in bars and alternative rooms by the now-deified likes of Janeane Garofalo and David Cross. As Andrew Clark wrote in the New York Times Magazine last spring, “It was a reaction by club comedians against club comedy; against the model in which comedy was important but the comedian was not.” In the 1996 article about the new “thinking-person’s stand-up comedy,” organizer Amanda Schatz explained that they “wanted to create comedy for people who loved it. We wanted to do comedy that was cool, and prove that all that television didn't kill it."

That spirit is reflected in Britain now, too. In an email, Chortle’s Bennett said that overall interest in comedy in the UK hasn’t diminished, just changed. “People are now seeking out the comics they like, who tend to play arts centre-style shows, and turning away from the clubs where comedy is a side-business to selling drink and nachos." UK comedy producer Colin Anderson argues the overall comedy boom in the UK isn’t fading, but that the clubs’ struggles are “more of a mainstream vs alternative comedy divide than anything else. While one really big reality TV hit could burst the mainstream TV bubble the alternative scene isn't going anywhere.”

Even though the roots of alternative comedy in the US were planted in the 90s, it was a long time before the comedy scene again experienced much mainstream or commercial success. But there’s no reason that the British comedy scene needs to suffer as badly as the American one did. Some amount of crash is inevitable, and that’s probably a good thing. “The shakeout we’re going through is very valuable,” Richard Fieldman, owner of NY club Catch a Rising Star, told the Times in 1992, “because it will drive the short-term player out of business, who shouldn’t have been here in the first place.” (Catch no longer has a club in New York City, though it does operate several others around the country.) Some of the young, unremarkable comics in the UK today will go onto great things. Many more will go nowhere fast, as it should be. A scene with a few great comics is infinitely preferable to one with a boatload of mediocre ones.

Comedians who do stick with it will have to adapt to the changing world. Schaffer and others in the UK lamented the cuts in pay and the difficulty making a living, a situation in which many American comics who began in the 80s found themselves in the early 90s. The answer was to evolve. It feels obvious to talk about new technology, but success requires embracing it an adventurous (dare I say, American) way. Projects like podcasts and web sites bring no money and little glory, but practice, freedom, and responsibility. And anyone who is comedically inclined can take advantage. It's clear that technology doesn’t favor any type or style of comedy when talents as diverse as Bill Burr, Matt Besser, and Julie Klausner can front successful comedy podcasts.

Though it was in London that Ricky Gervais created the first mega-popular comedy podcast, the independent podcasting scene in the UK is still much smaller than in the US, where we have developed not just shows but entire podcasting networks separate from established broadcasters. Anderson, who produces both BBC radio comedy and independent podcasts, argues that the comparatively small podcasting market is due the strength of BBC radio. “Our radio comedy landscape is so healthy. On BBC Radio 4 alone, there are three half-hour comedy slots every day each with an audience of between 500,000 – 1.5 million listeners […] while it isn’t TV-money, we do pay a decent rate to writers and performers. So I think there was a less obvious gap in the market in the UK.”

It was long time after the inception of alternative comedy here before the technology allowed comics to have so much control over their content, and that creativity eventually led to our current comedy boom. In that regard, the presence of BBC radio comedy could be a double-edged sword; it's great for those who are commissioned, but makes it that much harder for a independent podcast to gain traction. “Making independent podcasts, the BBC's predominance of the UK iTunes charts can be disheartening,” Anderson admitted. “I think there's an argument – in the UK at least – that podcasting is still in its early days.” Given the tradition of radio comedy in the UK, he says there is still room for podcasts that feature longer, more free-form comedy and ongoing weekly shows instead of short-run series, but may require British comics to adjust to the world of seeking donations, sponsorship, and advertising.

In the US, the go-it-alone ethos has been the key to our comedy boom. “The days about luck and being given are about to end,” Patton Oswalt said in his keynote speech at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival last summer. “Not being lucky and not being given are no longer going to define your career as a comedian and as an artist.”

It’s not that Britain is lacking in exciting, non-traditional comedians who are experimenting with the form. As Lee wrote a few months ago in the Guardian, “British comedy is much healthier than TV and radio output suggests. But more interesting talents desert its traditional spawning ground, broke, as promoters and performers replicate familiar marketable models.” Bennett agrees, adding that “savvy comics are working out ways to exist outside the circuit of clubs, and build their own fan base, even if it's more difficult and unpredictable for income.”

For clubs and promoters, tough times need not lead to total collapse. Today, New York clubs like the Comedy Cellar are thriving. "I've been doing it 30 years, and it's never been as good as it is right now," Adoram says. She says the key is to "be consistent, be alert, just keep your fingers on the pulse, don't get lazy about it." And while she declined to speculate on why so many clubs in the 90s folded while the Cellar remained, she stressed the importance of maintaing good relationships with comics. "They trust us," she said of big names like Louis CK and Aziz Ansari, who still call her to submit avails when they're in town. "I am loyal to them, and a lot of them are loyal to us. We genuinely love the comics. We take care of them. We have a comedian table where they can hang out and exchange ideas. Chris Rock, after his sets, will come up and sit and argue politics or pop culture or whatever. They love it."

Since TV inevitably lags slightly behind live trends, TV comedy in Britain is still booming. Popular standups are branching out into their own shows and excelling. But the crash will inevitably catch up to television as well, as it did in the US. Early-to-mid 90s, US TV boasted the best years of Seinfeld, Roseanne, and The Simpsons; in 1999, Entertainment Weekly mourned the “death of the sitcom,” blaming it on homogenization.

In the same speech in Montreal, Oswalt addressed the industry and it’s role in the current comedy boom. “You guys need to stop thinking like gatekeepers. You need to do it for the sake of your own survival.” He added, “I want you, all of the gatekeepers, to become fans. I want you to become true enthusiasts like me. I want you to become thrill-seekers."

While there are still plenty of boring network sitcoms in the US, its undeniable that the trend in television comedy in the US is towards less regulation, with networks taking a hands-off approach to comedy. As a public broadcaster, the BBC is in a particularly difficult spot when it comes to more adventurous comedy – stuck between the rock of producing quality material and the hard place of pleasing everybody. Though the BBC, in TV, radio and online content, as has made an effort to feature more creative and odd-ball material than the big networks in the US every did, they don’t have the flexibility to relinquish control over material in the way that an FX or IFC can. Commercial networks in Britain, who are still riding high on safe TV material, may do well to cultivate interesting talent now as the mainstream boom burns out.

Recently, Jason Zinoman at the Times wrote about the new wave of comedy clubs in New York, which are booming but wary of another bust. “Will the comedy club go the way of print media?” he posited. “There have long been and always will be people onstage telling jokes, but the comedy club as we know it is relatively new. Before clubs, comedians performed in theaters, hotels, coffeehouses. The fragmentation of the live comedy scene is in some ways a return to the past.”

Perhaps remembering this idea, on both sides of the pond, can help avoid the uncertainty of comedy booms and busts. Comedy has never been characterized by one style, format, or venue, and trying to rigidly define it isn't helpful. Club comics now have an infinite number of ways to perform and get their material out there; club owners and promoters have equally infinite ways to be involved in a rapidly evolving industry. As long as producing the best possible comedy is the end goal, there are a million ways to succeed.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. Feel free to argue with her on Twitter.

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  • Clayton

    Fantastic article, wish I knew more about UK stand-ups.

  • http://twitter.com/greg_sheppard Greg Sheppard

    I kind of disagree with this a bit,

    On 2 points. One being the patriarchal tone kind of suggesting we have a lot to learn, I'd disagree I think US comedy has a lot to learn from the UK scene and over the past 5 or 10 years has been learning and developing and still has some way to go, prior to that one way the US influenced UK comedy was simply showing that having some professionalism and getting your act together was worth doing and UK acts did take that on board to an extent.

    Until recently American comedians didn't write enough and didn't write shows nearly enough and you'll still see occasional interviews where they are flabberghasted UK stand ups write an hour of new material a year minimum (which considering your job is to write and perform this you'd think wouldn't be that astounding).

    Two while a lot of the clubs aren't getting the number the vitality of the acts and particularly the viability of the more alternative comedy or touring comedy has only increased and the comedy nights by great promoters in various venues around London and the rest of the country are as good or better than they've ever been. It also ignores that we had a comedy boom in the 90s as well. Clubs have been important to the scene in that people make a living from them but not the extent of it, or even vital for acts to make livings in any more. There are quite a lot of pro british comedians who simply do not work normal jongleurs style clubs, often never did or give up on them as soon as they can.

    Also while the most famous are arguably in a few cases bland, the comedy boom has allowed more brilliant and original comedians to work who wouldn;t have been able to get gigs 12 years ago and even gain great success (for every michael macintyre pile of crap there is a rhod gilbert, greg davies, russell kane etc who also gains legitimate success) than any time previously and the wildly original still have the chance to shine. Particularly when you count edinburgh. It also ignores the much more interesting role of radio 4 etc which has made a name for a lot of more esoteric comedians nationally.

    All I say if some tv producers were a bit more daring and stopped repeating the same old guests on stand up and panel shows, took a little risk we could have a dozen or two really successful comedians that are quality and the public will like (Ray Peacock I think has been sorely snubbed because I think he, a successful comedian, has real appeal and if he got on live at the apollo would be an instant hit).

    All I really think it means is it shows comedy is really mass market, but that will come and go as it has before, and it's not that surprising some of the most mass market stuff becomes most popular, but under that there is the most interesting comedy scene in the world in the uk without a doubt.

    I follow the UK and US comedy scenes and the UK is easily the most diverse and interesting (and thanks to the ability to tour much more easily, access to the global circuit, and Edinburgh) scene and far more developed as a scene. The US is catching up, although I still don't see much sketch and other non-stand up live comedy (discounting improv cause despite being a key aspect of US comedy it's shit and you know that whole thinking of clever and funny ideas and lines and sketches in advance and carefully crafting a show surprisingly seems to have better results) coming from there.

    There is a reason some of the most interesting comedians from Canada and the US come to work in the UK and it's because what they do is financially viable here in a way it isn't in the US.

    Also arguing podcasting here is still in its infancy is wrong. British comedians have been on the cutting edge of podcasting from the start, people like Peacock and Gamble (who did the first ever live podcast show with The Ray Peacock Podcast), Richard Herring, sort of The Bugle as it is 2/3rds British, AMT, loads and loads of independent comedy podcasts that do well. Particularly things hosted by comedy.co.uk as well.

    The BBC domination is an issue but independent podcasts regularly chart and do better There aren't the networks but that kind of fits the more ramshakle, independent and experimental nature of british podcasts.

    Would Pappy's Bangers and Mash get on one of those networks? Would the (now defunct) absolutely unedited 2 people chatting Collins and Herrin, what about Me1 vs Me2 Snooker (which is either the most experimental comedy podcast ever conceived or a Herring's mental breakdown) or Peacock and Gamble (whose content was occasionally very controversial)?

    I've listened to a lot of these and frankly they often lack something that makes them anything more than vaguely ok if you have nothing better to listen to (well basically everything on the one that does the Judge John Hodgman podcasts is terribly variable) and seem to promote doing a podcast for the sake of doing it rather than having a good idea and putting it out there. It might be unfair but I've listened to lots of American comedy podcasts from these podcast networks and they rarely have that killer edge that makes you excited when a new episode comes out. They are less professional and organised so make less of a splash but British comedy podcasts have edged out nearly all the American ones in my playlist as they just tend to be funnier.

    There are things like Flatshare Slamdown or Do the Right Thing that do this well produced radio like show stuff but I'm happy that the same people who do Flatslam (Pappy's) also do Bangers and Mash.

    Also the UK produced Daniel Kitson, basically the greatest stand up ever and also a man who shuns tv radio and the limelight yet is immensely successful (when he choses to actually do gigs) so we have that as well.

    • http://twitter.com/FirasAlexander Firas Alexander

      "Discounting improv cause despite being a key aspect of US comedy it's shit and you know that whole thinking of clever and funny ideas and lines and sketches in advance and carefully crafting a show surprisingly seems to have better results."

      I was following along with your argument until you made the above point about American improv. I'm going to have to strongly disagree with you. I can get behind comedians preparing material beforehand (after all you're right that a well crafted joke or a tight sketch is very enjoyable) but judging improv for not doing so seems to be missing the point entirely.

      Just as it's natural for us to appreciate the perfect distillation of humor into a well thought out set-up and punchline, its fantastic watching the high-wire act of a group of comedians getting on the stage without the slightest idea what they will do that night. Just as in stand-up or devised sketch there is a lot of skill and talent involved.

      Also, just as how you point out that the alternative comedy scene in the U.K. is doing well, the improv scene in the U.S. has really been taking off recently. Some of the highest paid/most respected/hardest working/well-liked comedians came up through improv (I'm thinking about the hilarious Tina Fey and Amy Pohler, Will Ferrel, up and coming comedians like Donald Glover and Casey Wilson).

      So I think its unfair to just write-off improv as shit. Anyways, I love British comedy and I feel like I don't know enough about it, so I'll certainly check out some of those podcasts you mentioned as I loved Richard Herring (from This Morning with Richard Not Judy with Stewart Lee).

  • lady cakes

    This article kind of ignores the fact that the UK is going through the worst recession since the Great Depression, and it's not looking to get better any time soon. People simply don't have the money to spend on a night out at comedy club.

    Comedy isn't the only one suffering – all live performance is suffering.

  • P

    Brendan Dempsey is an Irish comic, not a British one.

  • Teah

    Not sure about not producing that many intelligent acts in British comedy these days, just that the intelligent acts quite often refuse television appearances. Josie Long is a great comedian who puts out incredible shows, but she quite often inform of the sad situation of how panel shows would prefer to get female talk show hosts instead of female comedians. There are a lot of others refusing to make television appearances like panel shows, Tim Key being one of them, and he really breaks out of the comedy norm.

    Plus, more innovate shows tend to sell out really quickly. Alternative Comedy Memorial Society and the deceased Karaoke Circus being such examples, compared to regular stand-ups that has mainstream, tries-to-be-edgy kind. Comedy nerds will always, always fuel the alternative comedy scene in the UK.

  • Lazy Scribble

    Good article. I think a problem with comedy here in the UK is that it's become big business. It's too mainstream. There are have been a lot of news stories over the past three or four years regarding comedians going too far and causing offence. The UK comedy scene hasn't got darker and edgier in that period (actually, I think the opposite is true) but more people are now exposed to it. 25 years ago, Jerry Sadowitz could say the most appalling things and get away with it as his audience was small and away from the main comedy centres (London, Edinburgh in August) he was virtually unknown. Today, comedians sell out the big arenas in the way that rock stars used to and audiences are now more diluted. As a result, less risks are being taken. TV comedy in particular has become a lot less experimental in the last 10 years.

    I suppose it goes in cycles though. There is an increasing trend for non-mainstream comics to break away from the existing club circuits and TV panel game appearances. My visit to the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe was probably my favourite visit in 20 years of attending. Lots of exciting stuff going, lots of new ideas being tried out, which can only be a good thing. So, the future is not looking too bad. I hope.

    As for the other side of the pond, I can only speak from fairly limited knowledge, but I do feel that over the past few years in particular, US TV comedy has been leaping ahead of what we're producing.

  • http://twitter.com/_Ben_Walker Ben Walker

    I produce three UK comedy podcasts – Richard Herring's Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, Pappy's Flatshare Slamdown and Do The Right Thing and so am very interested in the success of US comedy podcasting networks. I suspect part of the reason the UK comedy podcasting scene hasn't developed anything similar is a simple question of numbers. If I make a podcast in the UK that appeals to 0.0005% of the population that means about 30000 people. In the US that means 156000. If you charge everyone a little per episode that equates to a much more viable business model in the US than the UK (a model that will much more quickly justify the costs involved in setting up and marketing such a network). Likewise, sponsors are going to be much more interested in the bigger numbers – so unless you come up with a podcast that catches fire like the original Ricky Gervais podcasts, it will be hard to find a company willing to give you the money you require to make it worthwhile.

  • ToddDeModd

    Wait wut? They have comedy in the UK? Really?


  • Alison Pritchard

    I see signs that the independent comedy podcasting scene in the UK is beginning to flourish. And moreover doesn't have to be in competition with BBC radio but can be a means of development for performers and writers who are "coming up the ranks". I am the producer and one of the writers of Live from Kirrin Island -KirrinIslandPodcast.com – which was born out of collaboration between UK comedy writers, all of whom were having emerging success writing for BBC radio shows but were keen to hone skills and reach wider audiences on a regular basis in the hope of having talent more widely spotted. Publishing a podcast with near professional production values is not difficult, it requires a modicum of basic technical skill but mostly just time and effort. Several of the writing team have already picked up BBC commissions. What we lack in the UK is means for listeners to easily identify good quality podcasts. The iTunes ranking is swayed towards the big promotors who have existing reach – there is yet to be a reliable vibrant independent review process that helps signpost for the average listener, and not just for the comedy aficionado, where to find excellent and FREE comedy. With the current financial climate this should continue be a great attraction.

  • wonderbrawl

    Agree with lady cakes. People aren't less interested in comedy. It's just that spending £10 for a ticket before you have a drink to see performers you've never heard of isn't that appealing when you're struggling to pay the bills.