Inside Britain’s Growing Comedy Crisis

For the past few years, America has been experiencing a spectacularly creative comedy boom that continues to grow. But in the UK, the comedy scene may be heading in the other direction. For the past decade, live and televised comedy have been big business in Britain. Stand-up shows like Live at the Apollo and Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow brought rising talent to mainstream attention, and panel shows established a wide pool of popular comedians. This led to massive theatre tours and hundreds of standup DVDs released every Christmas. But like all bubbles, it was bound to burst, and the comedy community, particularly in London, is reeling as things cool down.

“There is a crisis in the live comedy business in the United Kingdom,” American ex-pat Lewis Schaffer recently wrote on his blog. “British comedy clubs are getting maybe half as many customers as they did a couple of years ago and are cutting back or closing down.” While megastars like Michael McIntyre and John Bishop are still flourishing (McIntyre grossed nearly $34 million from his arena tour in 2012), the clubs are struggling. It’s gotten so bad in London that a group of club owners, promoters, and comics assembled in November to debate the situation, a meeting Schaffer called “like a meeting of the British Zoo Association except instead of just the zookeepers the animals have been invited, too.”

For American comedy fans, this state of affairs sounds eerily familiar. The situation that British, and particularly London, comedy finds itself in right now echoes the state of American, especially New York, comedy in the early 1990s. The timelag makes sense. In the US in the late 1950s and early 60s, comics like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl replaced nightclub and Borscht Belt-type comics with topical, liberal material that excited and infuriated. In the UK in the late 70s and early 80s, Alexai Sayle, Malcolm Hardee, and others led the British alternative movement, a collection of left-wing, often bizarre comics that rejected the misogyny and racism that existed in the traditional working men’s club circuit. That alternative scene would eventually begat people like Eddie Izzard, just at the US scene gave way to the likes of George Carlin.

Later, the US comedy boom that sparked in the late 1970s spread like wildfire in the 80s as cable TV allowed standup to be seen by anyone and everyone. Similarly, the recent UK boom coincided with the proliferation of digital television in the ‘00s, with networks rerunning standup and panel shows ad nauseam.

And just as the bubble burst in the US in the early 90s, it is popping in the UK at this very moment. And once again, the reasons are similar. Much of the blame is directed at television, which over-popularized the genre. “In the big comedy boom of the 1980’s,” the New York Times wrote in 1996, “it was nearly impossible to channel surf without running into at least one average-looking man in an open-collar shirt talking about his mother-in-law, masturbation or Roman Catholicism.” In a recent column on popular British comedy news site Chortle, the site’s editor Steve Bennett wrote, “People now have their favourite comics from the box in a way they never used to[…]Panel shows are re-run so often, that those who regularly appear on them can have a fame that it would, in the past, have been near impossible to achieve.”

Television, then and now, is also blamed for producing generic, fame-seeking comics who see standup as an easy path to success. Estee Adoram, who has booked comics at the Comedy Cellar for decades, says that 90s shows like Evening at the Improv ruined standup for many people. “In their eyes, that’s what standup comedy is. It was really mediocre-to-bad, and so they stopped coming.” A Times article in 1989 noted that “many of today’s comedians hope that that hard work will pay off quickly. A major shift in the state of comedy has been that many people launch standup careers in the hopes that they will never have to do it again.”

This past November at the comedy club debate in London, London-based Irish comic Brendan Dempsey said many comics “played it too safe because they were more interested in getting on TV than having a live career,” and promoter Pete Grahame said that “stand-up is seen as a springboard into a sitcom.” Alternative favorite Stewart Lee recently told British comedy news site Such Small Portions, “I don’t think the 16-year-old me now would want to be a comedian […] because, where stand-up is now on telly, the 16-year-old me would look and think, ‘What a boring, aspirational, conservative, safe thing that is. Why would you want to do that?’”

Meanwhile, a glut of comics didn’t increase the number of great ones. “’There’s more comedy than ever today,” Chris Albrecht of HBO told the Times in 1989, “but there still isn’t enough to go around. There’s a shortage of quality comedians.’” A recent article in The Guardian was subtitled, “The comedy boom of the last decade has created a demand that cannot be filled by intelligent acts.”

And clubs responded to the bursting bubble in similar ways. NYC clubs in the 90s resorted to heavy discounting and papering; British clubs now offer cut-rate deals and tickets on GroupOn. Even the ideas for redemption are similar. In 1989, American comic Adrianne Tolsch suggested comedy clubs might specialize, like doctors. (”You want to see a comic who screams and uses props - there’ll be a club just for that. It’ll be like going to see an obstetrician.”) Bennett wrote, “Perhaps a better future model is the heavily themed nights, where depending on your inclination, you can go and see a selection of weird alternative acts; a line-up of bookish nerds celebrating curiosity; a night of puns; or even a bawdy night designed for the hens, stags and office parties.”

Given the parallels, what happened next in the New York City comedy scene will likely cause the hearts of London club owners to sink. Of the dozen comedy clubs that existed in the city in the early 90s, only half still exist today.

But comedy fans know that wasn’t the end of comedy in the US. Our current comedy boom was being born at that time, in bars and alternative rooms by the now-deified likes of Janeane Garofalo and David Cross. As Andrew Clark wrote in the New York Times Magazine last spring, “It was a reaction by club comedians against club comedy; against the model in which comedy was important but the comedian was not.” In the 1996 article about the new “thinking-person’s stand-up comedy,” organizer Amanda Schatz explained that they “wanted to create comedy for people who loved it. We wanted to do comedy that was cool, and prove that all that television didn’t kill it.”

That spirit is reflected in Britain now, too. In an email, Chortle’s Bennett said that overall interest in comedy in the UK hasn’t diminished, just changed. “People are now seeking out the comics they like, who tend to play arts centre-style shows, and turning away from the clubs where comedy is a side-business to selling drink and nachos.” UK comedy producer Colin Anderson argues the overall comedy boom in the UK isn’t fading, but that the clubs’ struggles are “more of a mainstream vs alternative comedy divide than anything else. While one really big reality TV hit could burst the mainstream TV bubble the alternative scene isn’t going anywhere.”

Even though the roots of alternative comedy in the US were planted in the 90s, it was a long time before the comedy scene again experienced much mainstream or commercial success. But there’s no reason that the British comedy scene needs to suffer as badly as the American one did. Some amount of crash is inevitable, and that’s probably a good thing. “The shakeout we’re going through is very valuable,” Richard Fieldman, owner of NY club Catch a Rising Star, told the Times in 1992, “because it will drive the short-term player out of business, who shouldn’t have been here in the first place.” (Catch no longer has a club in New York City, though it does operate several others around the country.) Some of the young, unremarkable comics in the UK today will go onto great things. Many more will go nowhere fast, as it should be. A scene with a few great comics is infinitely preferable to one with a boatload of mediocre ones.

Comedians who do stick with it will have to adapt to the changing world. Schaffer and others in the UK lamented the cuts in pay and the difficulty making a living, a situation in which many American comics who began in the 80s found themselves in the early 90s. The answer was to evolve. It feels obvious to talk about new technology, but success requires embracing it an adventurous (dare I say, American) way. Projects like podcasts and web sites bring no money and little glory, but practice, freedom, and responsibility. And anyone who is comedically inclined can take advantage. It’s clear that technology doesn’t favor any type or style of comedy when talents as diverse as Bill Burr, Matt Besser, and Julie Klausner can front successful comedy podcasts.

Though it was in London that Ricky Gervais created the first mega-popular comedy podcast, the independent podcasting scene in the UK is still much smaller than in the US, where we have developed not just shows but entire podcasting networks separate from established broadcasters. Anderson, who produces both BBC radio comedy and independent podcasts, argues that the comparatively small podcasting market is due the strength of BBC radio. “Our radio comedy landscape is so healthy. On BBC Radio 4 alone, there are three half-hour comedy slots every day each with an audience of between 500,000 – 1.5 million listeners […] while it isn’t TV-money, we do pay a decent rate to writers and performers. So I think there was a less obvious gap in the market in the UK.”

It was long time after the inception of alternative comedy here before the technology allowed comics to have so much control over their content, and that creativity eventually led to our current comedy boom. In that regard, the presence of BBC radio comedy could be a double-edged sword; it’s great for those who are commissioned, but makes it that much harder for a independent podcast to gain traction. “Making independent podcasts, the BBC’s predominance of the UK iTunes charts can be disheartening,” Anderson admitted. “I think there’s an argument - in the UK at least - that podcasting is still in its early days.” Given the tradition of radio comedy in the UK, he says there is still room for podcasts that feature longer, more free-form comedy and ongoing weekly shows instead of short-run series, but may require British comics to adjust to the world of seeking donations, sponsorship, and advertising.

In the US, the go-it-alone ethos has been the key to our comedy boom. “The days about luck and being given are about to end,” Patton Oswalt said in his keynote speech at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival last summer. “Not being lucky and not being given are no longer going to define your career as a comedian and as an artist.”

It’s not that Britain is lacking in exciting, non-traditional comedians who are experimenting with the form. As Lee wrote a few months ago in the Guardian, “British comedy is much healthier than TV and radio output suggests. But more interesting talents desert its traditional spawning ground, broke, as promoters and performers replicate familiar marketable models.” Bennett agrees, adding that “savvy comics are working out ways to exist outside the circuit of clubs, and build their own fan base, even if it’s more difficult and unpredictable for income.”

For clubs and promoters, tough times need not lead to total collapse. Today, New York clubs like the Comedy Cellar are thriving. “I’ve been doing it 30 years, and it’s never been as good as it is right now,” Adoram says. She says the key is to “be consistent, be alert, just keep your fingers on the pulse, don’t get lazy about it.” And while she declined to speculate on why so many clubs in the 90s folded while the Cellar remained, she stressed the importance of maintaing good relationships with comics. “They trust us,” she said of big names like Louis CK and Aziz Ansari, who still call her to submit avails when they’re in town. “I am loyal to them, and a lot of them are loyal to us. We genuinely love the comics. We take care of them. We have a comedian table where they can hang out and exchange ideas. Chris Rock, after his sets, will come up and sit and argue politics or pop culture or whatever. They love it.”

Since TV inevitably lags slightly behind live trends, TV comedy in Britain is still booming. Popular standups are branching out into their own shows and excelling. But the crash will inevitably catch up to television as well, as it did in the US. Early-to-mid 90s, US TV boasted the best years of Seinfeld, Roseanne, and The Simpsons; in 1999, Entertainment Weekly mourned the “death of the sitcom,” blaming it on homogenization.

In the same speech in Montreal, Oswalt addressed the industry and it’s role in the current comedy boom. “You guys need to stop thinking like gatekeepers. You need to do it for the sake of your own survival.” He added, “I want you, all of the gatekeepers, to become fans. I want you to become true enthusiasts like me. I want you to become thrill-seekers.”

While there are still plenty of boring network sitcoms in the US, its undeniable that the trend in television comedy in the US is towards less regulation, with networks taking a hands-off approach to comedy. As a public broadcaster, the BBC is in a particularly difficult spot when it comes to more adventurous comedy – stuck between the rock of producing quality material and the hard place of pleasing everybody. Though the BBC, in TV, radio and online content, as has made an effort to feature more creative and odd-ball material than the big networks in the US every did, they don’t have the flexibility to relinquish control over material in the way that an FX or IFC can. Commercial networks in Britain, who are still riding high on safe TV material, may do well to cultivate interesting talent now as the mainstream boom burns out.

Recently, Jason Zinoman at the Times wrote about the new wave of comedy clubs in New York, which are booming but wary of another bust. “Will the comedy club go the way of print media?” he posited. “There have long been and always will be people onstage telling jokes, but the comedy club as we know it is relatively new. Before clubs, comedians performed in theaters, hotels, coffeehouses. The fragmentation of the live comedy scene is in some ways a return to the past.”

Perhaps remembering this idea, on both sides of the pond, can help avoid the uncertainty of comedy booms and busts. Comedy has never been characterized by one style, format, or venue, and trying to rigidly define it isn’t helpful. Club comics now have an infinite number of ways to perform and get their material out there; club owners and promoters have equally infinite ways to be involved in a rapidly evolving industry. As long as producing the best possible comedy is the end goal, there are a million ways to succeed.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. Feel free to argue with her on Twitter.

Inside Britain’s Growing Comedy Crisis