Opinion: What Is The Future for Live Comedy After Lockdown?

Opinion: See It, Say It, Shut Up! By Brandon Robshaw

This is the piece I was hoping I wouldn’t have to write. Until recently I was clinging to the hope that there might be a sign of the UK lockdown being lifted imminently and life starting to return to some kind of normality in about a month or so.

With the lockdown now extended, normality seems further away again. And not just for popping to the shops or visiting friends. But for the live comedy industry. Comedy as a live art form fell off a cliff in the middle of March and now, like most of the people reading this, I don’t know when it is going to return. 

It was no surprise when this year’s Edinburgh Fringe was put on ice. But what about the Edinburgh Fringe 2021? This might be the most extremely pessimistic prognosis but one story from America this week suggested that concerts and festivals may not return until the autumn of 2021. The report was referring mainly to music festivals but it must have an impact on comedy festivals – or anywhere where large crowds gather – too.

And it is not just the big gigs. It’s the comedy clubs I’m most concerned for. The grass roots where new talent is nurtured. I think there are two schools of thought about life after lockdown. One is that once movement is free again we will be so desperate to make up for lost time we will be cramming into comedy clubs. The other theory is that even after lockdown will people want to squeeze up together in a sweaty, basement? And this is assuming people have any money to spend on going out.

We have to hope that they will want to squeeze together for the sake of the industry. But will they even be allowed? Further reports have suggested that some kind of social distancing regulations could continue for some time. I’ve variously read “until the end of this year” “until 2021” “until 2022” or until a vaccine is available. None of these options, however, are good news for comedy.

It is not just comedy of course. The theatre world is nervously thinking along the same lines. In The Times playwright James Graham compared the current scenario to an earlier plague: “As in 1592, so in 2020, it is the playhouses that are the first to close. They’ll probably be the very last buildings to reopen.”

Maybe the most forward-looking theory is that clubs will be able to adapt in some way in the same way that they adapted to the smoking ban (though this is much bigger). The way comedians have swiftly migrated online shows how flexible the industry is (as well as showing how needy-for-attention-and-validation comedians are). Perhaps clubs will rearrange seating to keep people apart. Maybe capacities will have to be lowered. If there are measures that can be taken I’m sure clubs will take them.

This is a nervous time all round. Some clubs may not even return when the lockdown is over. Even experienced promoters will not have seen anything like this. The last gig I reviewed, in mid-March, was Romesh Ranganathan, who was starting an 11-night run at the Eventim Apollo. Shortly after my review was published the rest of the run was postponed. It was rescheduled shortly afterwards and two of the dates are now due to take place in September (the rest in April 2021). I’m wondering now if September was optimistic.  

I did some further research for this think-piece. There is a theory that the virus cycle is three months, based on what has happened in China where it started. I’ve seen reports that life is returning to normal there, with shops and bars re-opening. So just out of curiosity I googled “comedy clubs Wuhan”. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there is a well-established Wuhan Comedy Club.

So how are things going there? The last gig mentioned on their site was on November 30, 2019. There are no new gigs listed. I’ve contacted the club to see when they plan to reopen. I haven’t heard back from them yet and I hope they are all OK, but the fact that they have nothing advertised in a city where things are supposed to be returning to normal does not exactly bode well for UK comedy.*

Will the comedy scene ever be the same again after this enforced sabbatical? I think it will recover, but it could take a very long time. I'm trying to be optimistic. But it's not easy.

23/4/20 Update: Slightly more optimistic news from China. The Wuhan Comedy Club has been in touch to say they plan to open again after the quarantine is over and hope to be operating by the end of May. 


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