Opinion: Work-in-Progress – What Is It Worth?

Russell Howard

I had an email yesterday from comedian Tiernan Douieb, telling me about the glittering line-up of the forthcoming Phoenix Fringe. The three-day laugh-in from February 20 includes the likes of Russell Howard, Hal Cruttenden and Katherine Ryan and tickets are around the £10 mark. Most of their tickets go for £8 in advance or a bargain £20 for 3 shows.

The big gigs at the Festival are quite clearly billed as works-in-progress. Or in the case of Katherine Ryan, “Work and Progress”. Who knows what state their new material will be in, though I imagine there are plenty of Russell Howard fans who would pay a tenner to see him doing his tax returns as long as he promises to wear a tight enough t-shirt.

By coincidence Irish comic Martin Mor said on Facebook yesterday that it seems wrong that some comedians charge full price for shows that are WIPs. He wasn’t having a go at the Phoenix and, as I’ve already said, a tenner is pretty good value for Howard and Hal.

But Mor did also mention that he was not happy that some comedians were using appearances at festivals early in the year to develop material for “their ‘real’ show in Edinburgh”. You can’t blame comedians for taking every possible opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. I wrote last year about a middle ranking comedian who said it was getting harder and harder to get Edinburgh preview slots because the big hitters – Pascoe, Christie, etc –  were bagging so many club spots. Though, of course, it is understandable that they want the slots and it is understandable that promoters want to book such good acts.

I personally don’t have a problem with comedians taking every opportunity they can to do warm-ups. In fact there is actually something particularly enjoyable about seeing shows in their embryonic form. You might, for instance, see Stewart Lee doing a routine that is destined to evolve into a TV classic, or, even better, get the Daily Mail’s knickers in a twist.

Also I quite like to see what gets binned and what gets refined. It’s a bit of a peep behind the curtains. As Ricky Gervais said during a Bloomsbury Theatre preview (money to Cancer Research - another way of justifying the ticket price), I’m paraphrasing here “if a joke is shit you are getting an exclusive because I won’t do it again.”

I think the question is whether a comedian/promoter is mis-selling. John Bishop’s warm-ups at The Stand last summer were clearly and correctly billed as try-outs for his arena tour at a relatively bargain basement price of £12. I doubt if any punter was disappointed.

Mor does have a point, however, when he objects to comics using weekend shows to try out material, but I’m not sure if that many do that apart from maybe slipping in the odd new gag. If clubs gigs are their bread and butter the last thing a smart comedian wants to do is lose them by dying on their arse. As Rob Deb pointed out in the FB thread, there are new material nights for that and as Toby Jones suggested on FB, maybe it is more permissable at a midweek gig. 

Clarity is the underlying issue. I recently wanted to review a big comedian’s show early in his UK tour, but was told that press aren’t invited until later in the run. But there is no indication to the public that this early show, in a major theatre, is a preview (or warm-up) and, as far as I can tell tickets are the normal price, whereas pre-press night previews of plays are usually cheaper.

It’s a difficult situation though. If comedians were doing their work-in-progress for free (which sometimes happens) I suspect there would be others up in arms about being undercut in a competitive market. Charge a reasonable price and they still get stick. The best solution is make it clear in advance what type of gig you are doing, make it clear if you are going to be faffing around with notes, and, most importantly of all, make it funny.

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