Opinion: Is The Comedy Bubble Bursting?

comedy bubble

If you slavishly follow social media like I do you would usually think that the comedy world is in absolute rude health. Every night my Twitter and Facebook feeds are clogged up with comics who have just got home after having smashed it, stormed it or nailed it. And we aren’t just talking about Kyle Wallace last week, who ended up in Newham Hospital after impaling his hand on a spike onstage.

But recently I’ve noticed a different tone creeping in. Clubs struggling, established acts complaining about rates of pay and overdue payments. Then earlier this week Mick Ferry cancelled a gig at the Nottingham Comedy Festival and was brutally honest about the reason on Facebook: “I could lie and say its ill health. Truth is, no fecker has bought a ticket.”

Ferry is no novice. He’s a seasoned, award-winning comic in his own right and was also part of Foster’s Panel Prize winners Funz and Gamez. He has even appeared in a Ken Loach movie. What he doesn’t have is much mainstream TV exposure under his belt. This is a perennial problem. Promoters want TV names. Punters want TV names. What happens if you are brilliant but not a TV name? In this case no fecker buys a ticket.

In fairness his gig was part of a comedy festival so there was lots of competition. As Jo Caulfield suggested on FB, maybe it's a simple case of "too many shows not enough punters". Comedian JoJo Smith also thinks the festivals market might be flooded. "There's not the finances or the numbers of bodies needed to fill all those empty seats," says Smith on FB. Times seem to be getting tougher out there. A TV name commented on FB that even his show at the Festival was not doing so well. As someone else suggested about Ferry's situation, it may be a sign of the times, so don't blame the comic.

I had my own canary-in-the-coalmine moment a few weeks ago. A promoter in London had been keen for me to plug his benefit gig in my Evening Standard column. It was a good cause and a strong line-up of established, seasoned circuit names with a few TV credits under their belt so I said I’d write a preview but it might not run if space was tight. Unfortunately when the paper came out the preview had been dropped and shortly afterwards the gig was dropped as well. Ticket sales had been sluggish and they were hoping my publicity might give them the push to go ahead. Instead they cut their losses.

So how bad are things out there? It has been suggested it is the touring fringe festival shows that struggle the most, while club gigs are OK as people see them as ideal for a night out with mates. I saw Alfie Brown’s Edinburgh show at the Soho Theatre last week and that seemed to bear this out. Most shows at the Soho Theatre attract decent crowds, but even in the small studio room there was plenty of legroom for Brown's set. People, well not many, didn’t seem to want to take a punt on a comic without TV credits (or awards) to his name.

On television things are not currently quite as healthy for stand-up as they were. Sitcoms seem to be flavour of the month at the moment. Even Live at the Apollo has been moved from BBC1 to BBC2. The BBC has put a positive spin on this, but one can assume that if the show was capable of getting big BBC1 audiences it would still be on BBC1.

Could this be the beginning of the end of the comedy boom? I don’t mean that comedy is doomed or about to collapse spectacularly as it did in America in the 1980s. And I do know that a number of clubs have been struggling for a while and that this problem is not entirely new. But maybe it's a tipping point and the explosion in popularity that saw stand-up filling arenas night after night and primetime TV slots is coming to an end.

Maybe now it's time for a reality check. Maybe the market is saturated with too many moderately talented hopefuls dreaming of being the new McIntyre. Good, talented comedians like Mick Ferry will surely always thrive. Let’s just hope that when the dust settles there are still plenty of clubs for them to thrive in. And still some feckers out there to buy some tickets.



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