Opinion: Charity Begins On The Stage

lee mack tour 2014

Five stars to Lee Mack for being honest about his appearance at the Royal Free Rocks with Laughter benefit on Sunday night at the Adelphi. During his short set the cheeky chappie glanced at the banner behind him and said “Let’s not forget the real reason we’re here tonight. And that’s to try out new material for the tour.” 

Mack might have been being tongue in cheek when he said it and I'm sure he supports AIDS research, but maybe he wasn't so far from the truth. He does have a new tour in the pipeline and the only foolproof way to test out new material is to do it in front of an audience. Comedians also do warm-ups in clubs, but Mack is going to be playing massive theatres so a massive packed house in the West End is a pretty useful litmus test too.

This article is not accusing comedians of being cynical at all. Their appearance for free at these events helps to sell tickets and raise money for good causes. And they could always be doing a corporate gig and trousering a few grand. Or having a night off. And, lest we forget, mixed bills are a good deal for the audience too. 

Charity gigs are, however, also useful for raising your profile, even though that is not the reason that comedians do the gigs. Supporting a cause may not do you any harm either. If you appear on a big bill the punters might have paid to see someone else but may then decide that they actually rather like you after all and might buy tickets for your next show. Russell Brand won a lot of new fans when he appeared at the Amnesty International gig at the Royal Albert Hall in 2008. And going back further, Eddie Izzard got his first major exposure with a short set 22 years ago this month at the Hysteria Benefit alongside Stephen Fry, Rowan Atkinson and more.

The politics of the charity gig is still a bit of a mystery to me after all these years. Sometimes relatively unknown acts appear on a bill and one can't help wondering if a deal has been struck with a manager/promoter that the cause can only have a big star if they give someone less big a slot too. Then there are the comedians who cannot say no and seem to do every benefit going. Don't get me wrong, though. Comedians do care. A group including Janey Godley has quickly organised a benefit for the Clutha pub tragedy at the O2 in Glasgow on December 22.

Stewart Lee had a very good routine about the whole celebrity charity business in which he mocked - ironically, nothing personal - Russell Howard for not doing enough for charity. Lee claimed that, personally, he only really does benefits for the free crisps backstage. So that's the answer. A potato-based snack is the real attraction. Not the cause or the stage time. Don't be fooled by Mack's remarks, there are perks to these unpaid gigs after all apart from road testing material. I'm just not sure if they are cheese and onion or salt and vinegar flavoured.


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