Anyone who knows me knows that I love comedy. I’ve been to countless stand-up shows in Birmingham over the years and a fair few in Cardiff too since starting my degree. But one thing I have never done is see any form of live comedy at a venue in our country’s capital: London. No tour shows, no club nights, no previews in the back of a pub. Zilch. I could give you a whole bunch of reasons, from money considerations to the fact it’s just easier to wait for the comedians to come to me than to scout them out in London. I’ve always intended, one day, to go and experience London’s comedy scene first-hand. But why do I have this intention? What is it that makes the London comedy scene so unlike Birmingham, or Cardiff, and why do I feel like I need to go and experience it?
Suppose it’s a Friday night. You want to see some live comedy in central London, but where to go and who to see? A quick internet search provides a whole host of interesting events. On the night I’m looking at, Stewart Lee is performing his Content Provider show at the Leicester Square Theatre, and Geordie comedian Lauren Pattison is performing Lady Muck at the Soho Theatre (a show which saw her nominated for Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards in 2017). Both shows have completely sold out. There are also comedy club nights happening all over this part of the city, from the Comedy Store in Soho, to the 99 Club in Covent Garden. Some comics’ names are even appearing two or three times, as they perform a set at one club, then move straight on to the next (and sometimes the next). There are also shows that start as late as 10-11pm; closer to the finishing time of most comedy gigs across the country than the start.
There’s clearly a lot of comedy to cram in over the weekend, and certainly high demand for it too. London has a population of almost 9 million people, whereas Birmingham (my home city) comes in lower at around 1.1 million. Cardiff, at the other end of the scale, is home to just under 500,000. So we might assume that the demand for comedy is much lower in Cardiff than in London, but is this all there is to it? Are these comedians flocking in their hundreds just to perform to bigger, more frequent audiences? It may be true that other cities in the UK just don’t have the same demand for stand-up comedy, but I’m curious to find out if this is the main attraction for stand-up comics, or whether there are other factors that make this city such an appealing place to work.
Now, I’ve made it pretty clear that my knowledge of London’s comedy scene is limited. However, I have interviewed countless comedians about their theatre runs, new material nights and club nights in the city. And, after all, writing an article about stand-up comedians working in London, without speaking to any stand-up comedians who have worked in London, is about as useful as writing a dissertation on the social behaviours of ants but spending the whole time only speaking to toddlers about their verdicts on such ant behaviours. I need to ask some comedians first-hand about why they feel drawn to London’s comedy scene, because surely it can’t just be the size of the crowds.
Lauren Pattison moved to London in September 2016. She confided in me at the time: ‘I’m worried moving to London was the wrong thing to do; I’m worried that I’m never going to be in a position financially to leave my day job and just be a comedian.’ (See: ‘Seven Questions With Lauren Pattison’). But since this conversation, Lauren has skyrocketed into the public consciousness. She regularly performs as tour support for the quick-witted Katherine Ryan, and is currently touring her acclaimed show Lady Muck across Australia and New Zealand. It hasn’t been an easy ride, with financial worries understandably playing a big part in the comedian’s struggles to properly settle in London, but her success appears to be increasing by the day. I’m intrigued to know how Lauren is managing to make her move to London financially and creatively viable, so I started by asking her why she moved to London in the first place.
‘I moved to London because I felt a bit stuck in Newcastle,’ Lauren tells me, ‘I was doing alright for myself up North but felt like I didn’t really play anywhere down South – partly because I wasn’t known and partly because the expense of travelling and staying down there for a gig was so high that it would cost a week’s wage for me to go and do an unpaid gig. I had nothing to lose by moving to London (aside from my hopes and dreams).’ It seems that moving somewhere more central, like London, is a way of opening up other parts of the country for Britain’s commuting comics. ‘A lot of places seem to be a bit easier to get to from down here! Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Birmingham are all relatively easy to get to via train and being based down here means it’s much easier and cheaper to get to gigs down South.’
Stephen Bailey (a stand-up comedian from Manchester who also regularly supports Katherine Ryan on tour, it seems she has good taste) lives and works in London too: ‘I was living in London anyway because of my day job. Then, when I was in a position to leave the office, I kind of just stayed. For me, just breaking into TV, I feel like I need to be here for the meetings, the auditions, the showcases – as it would cost an arm and a leg for me to go back and forth to Manchester as a non-driver.’
Both Stephen and Lauren agree that London is a great place to develop yourself as a comic and potentially get noticed by important industry people. ‘The good thing,’ Stephen tells me, ‘is that you can perform several times, every night of the week, which can arguably help you get better. On the flip side, it’s so oversaturated… you could just be playing to other comics if you don’t know where to look.’ Lauren’s comments back this up: ‘Comics can literally do something every night of the week without having to leave London. It helps you hone your act and you can notch up a lot of gigs in a short space of time, but I think what made me the comic I am is by not just gigging in one place but gigging in different rooms, in different cities with different audiences.’ But just because there might be more opportunities in our capital for hopeful stand-ups, you can’t just move there and expect a career handed to you on a plate. The sheer number of comedians working in London goes to show how much effort needs to be put in to make sure you stand out from the crowd. Not only do you need a clear, original and genuine comic voice, but you need to be savvy about where and when you perform, otherwise you can find yourself out of pocket and performing to smaller crowds than you’d like.
Lauren confirms my suspicions: ‘People tell you, “you can gig every night of the week!”. You soon find out that you can, but none of those gigs are paid and you’re on with twenty other comics and there’s no progression and you’re lucky to have an audience. For me it was about not just saying yes to everything (which is what I usually do) but sussing out which gigs were worth my time and effort. Focusing my energy on the gigs I knew would get me places or swing a tenner my way so I could cover my tube fare soon made me much happier.’
Money is, and I expect always will be, a massive obstacle for comedians working in London. Starting out in comedy is an expensive game anyway, with many continuing to work different jobs in the day and gigging during the evening. The financial aspect was an issue for Lauren (she continued to work as a waitress when she first moved to London), and I suspect she is just one of countless creatives who struggle to make living and working in London financially possible for themselves. ‘I was burning the candle at both ends, working a day job and going straight to a gig after. Yet at the end of the month I was still broke. All my wages were being pumped into affording travel to gigs and trying to cobble together rent.’
And it doesn’t help that some comedy clubs seem to be in no rush to pay comedians for their work. Lauren fills me in: ‘I’ve had nightmares before where I’ve had to chase promoters for months for £50 and you’ve got bills to pay and food to buy and travel to cover to get to another gig. If any other job didn’t pay on time you’d be straight to HR but there isn’t really an HR department in comedy and it’s not unusual to wait nearly two months to be paid.’ Stephen tells a similar story: ‘Good acts that are working the circuit have to quit because they can’t get their payments off promoters. You have to be good at budgeting as most places just pay you as and when they feel like it. I am owed money from December, I’m always chasing payments. The longest I ever had to wait was a year. Jongleurs didn’t pay for ages, kept booking in more gigs then went bust so most comics lost dollar for work done. Not cool.’
Jongleurs announced on the 17th of October 2017 that they were closing down. In a statement, the company said: ‘Every possible effort has been made to keep the company viable, including cash injections of over £200,000 from the director and shareholders since late 2014. Unfortunately there are now no more funds available to inject into the company.’ The closure left many comedians unpaid; some had even racked up a whole year’s worth of gigs that they hadn’t been paid for.
So maybe working in London as a stand-up comic isn’t a plausible reality for many comedians working today. But while working in London can help get you noticed by industry professionals and punters, and will thus inevitably help you to establish yourself as a comedian, it surely isn’t the be all and end all. There are other big cities with a large variety of people making up their comedy audiences. I asked Lauren what she thinks about this prospect, and she felt a similar way: ‘I don’t think London is necessarily the best place to be working as a stand-up comedian for everyone. I think it’s not necessary to move – for example, if I lived Manchester or Birmingham and could drive, I wouldn’t move. Everything would be more accessible via car and living costs would be lower.’ If you want to access areas aside from London, then any city that is relatively central could be a good place to set up camp, opening up cities in the North and the South, whilst avoiding the living costs of the capital.
You may have noticed whilst reading this article that Birmingham is where my heart lies. It’s where I’m from, where I spend the majority of my time, and my favourite city to go and see live comedy in. One quick search of comedy events next Friday night flags up lots of results. Though admittedly not as many as my search of London venues, I still find that Patrick Monahan is performing his show Rewind Selector 90s at Birmingham Glee Club, there’s a Machynlleth Comedy Festival Showcase at the MAC (Midlands Arts Centre), and Dane Baptiste is performing G.O.D. (Gold. Oil. Drugs.) not too far outside of Birmingham at the Leamington Spa Royal Spa Centre, plus more.
If you want to take advantage of the vast range of opportunities that working as a stand-up in London can bring, are prepared for the potential financial struggles and willing to put the work in, then I’m sure that London can be a wonderful, vibrant place to live and work. One final thing that Lauren says sticks with me, and proves to me once and for all why she has found such great success in recent years: ‘I am beyond pleased I gritted my teeth, kept my head down and ploughed on. Yeah, it can feel harder for sure if you’re less privileged, but rather than sulk about it I’ve always tried to find a way to still make it happen – even if it takes a bit longer and I have to eat noodles for weeks.’ This sums everything up for me: you can make your way in comedy, wherever you’re working, if you have passion and grit (and perhaps a day job on the side). Yes, being based in London can help you to reach more audiences in a shorter time frame, but if you’re not financially able to live in the capital, that’s not the end of your chances of making it big time. London is a place where comedians can gig as much as they like and develop their material and comic voice, but, at the end of the day, there are audiences in every town and city if you’re prepared to root them out. Comedians, the world is your oyster.
This article was originally published in Issue #167 of Quench Magazine, in March 2018.