Unpaid sets. No trade unions. Class inequalities. Even by the already difficult standards of the creative industries, stand-up comedy is a particularly hard industry in which to carve a career path. Dr Claire Sedgwick, an academic and stand-up comedian, explores how COVID-19 has only exacerbated those difficulties, and what the comedy scene is doing to keep the industry alive ...
At the tail end of my PhD, stressed about writing up and in need of a distraction I signed up to a stand-up comedy course. Over twelve weeks I learned how to engage with the audience, how to structure a joke and how to hold a microphone. All of this culminated in a graduation show for charity, and since I enjoyed it much more than I expected, I decided to keep going afterwards, performing to small crowds at open mic nights around the East Midlands.
One of the first reactions I had when telling people I’d started doing stand-up was: “So are you going to do this for a living now?” They were serious, but there is something comical about expecting to make a career in such a precarious industry. One of the first things I realised was that about half of the work you do as a comedian is admin, from getting in touch with promoters to get gigs, to arranging travel to gigs and invoicing for your expenses.
It became clear that this was a job that you had to really want and work really hard at to succeed, as well as being a job that is much easier if you already have money, a car and the leisure time to zip up and down the country to spend ten minutes hoping someone will laugh at you. Since I was already attempting to build an academic career, which is in its own way precarious, I decided to leave the stage behind and focus on researching the industry instead.
My British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant funded project explores how comedians in the East Midlands navigate the financial and employment insecurities of the industry. Despite the success of famous stand-up comedians who sell out arenas and have TV specials on Netflix, for the vast majority of performers stand-up is a precarious industry that has only become more precarious in the aftermath of COVID-19. With venues closing, there is a real risk that comedians from working class backgrounds in particular will struggle to remain in the industry.
However, while we are living in ‘unprecedented times’, the pandemic has exacerbated an existing issue, and there has been growing concern about inequalities within the creative industries. The Panic! Report which was commissioned by arts charity Arts Emergency highlighted the extent to which the creative industries are inaccessible to working class people due to low pay, lack of stable contracts and the proliferation of unpaid internships. Previous research has found that there is an acceptance of low pay and self-exploitation, especially at the beginning of a comedian’s career.
Most stand-ups begin on the circuit performing at comedy nights as ten minute unpaid ‘open spots’, sometimes leading to paid ‘middle spots’ in the middle of a comedy night, followed by more lucrative ‘open’ or ‘closer’ spots. However, pay varies widely and there has, up until now, been little appetite to bring in industry standards for pay and conditions. Meanwhile, while many comedians work in other jobs, those who can work in flexible nine-to-fives are more likely to find it easier to combine performing with work than those who are in less flexible or insecure work.
One of the first reactions that I had to telling people I’d started doing stand-up was: “So are you going to do this for a living now?” They were serious, but there is something comical about expecting to make a career in such a precarious industry
The result is that those from more privileged backgrounds are given a ‘leg-up’ in the industry. It’s important we also factor into this the exorbitant costs of attending and performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Over the last few decades, the Fringe has been a particularly important event for comedians to be seen by TV scouts, promoters and others who can develop their career further. However, putting on a show at the Fringe involves a potentially prohibitive investment if you consider the cost of hiring tech, renting somewhere in Edinburgh and potentially losing income from other work. It is not uncommon for performers to lose money once all associated costs are factored in. Of course, another consequence of the pandemic is that Edinburgh won’t go ahead at all this year, and it is unclear what impact this will have in the long-term.
Since the Government announced stricter measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 in March and clubs closed, there have been some indications that the issues of financial precarity will remain on the agenda after social distancing rules have been relaxed. There has been an acknowledgement of the inequality within the industry. Next up, a comedy streaming site created a fundraising campaign for comedians who have lost their income. Interestingly, while the campaign has raised nearly £100,000, there are still some who felt that the fundraising was misdirected – this demonstrates the extent to which people associate stand up performers with wealth and TV famei ignoring the fact that the industry is actually precarious for many.
The lockdown has also led to new innovations, with comedy club Just the Tonic creating Working from Home, a regular online comedy experience featuring headline names that costs £5. This suggests that there actually is willingness by the audience to pay for online comedy, and it may provide an accessible live event experience that continues post-pandemic.
However, the most interesting response to the crisis is the formation of the Live Comedy Association (LCA). On their website, they describe themselves as “Representing and connecting the UK Live Comedy Industry to ensure we survive and thrive in the face of COVID-19 and beyond”. Anyone working within the industry – from festival organisers, promoters, comedians and tech – are eligible to join. The LCA represents a desire for a more unified voice that has not been present before. It is not a trade union though, and this may make it difficult for stand-up comedians to take the lead and demand better working conditions.
However, having a unified voice that represents the industry may make it easier to lobby for changes. This may become especially significant when making the case that comedy should be understood as an art, and therefore eligible for Arts Council funding. Up until now, this has not been the case, meaning that many performers couldn’t access the emergency funding that has helped other creative industries.
Time will tell what effect the LCA will have on the industry. However, in the absence of a strong trade union presence, it will be important that the conditions of the lowest paid within the industry are taken into account. If there is to be real change, there needs to be some kind of industry standard for how comedians should expect to be remunerated, that takes into account how the tradition of low and no pay in the business creates unfair barriers for working class comedians.