What’s the Difference Between UK and US Comedy?

In the couple of years that I have been working as a London comic, this question has been asked of me several times. Many UK comics want to cross over into the US, or at least keep themselves growing with gigs when they go to visit. I think there are lots of fantasies about comics in New York doing regular nights at the Comedy Cellar, when Dave Chappelle and Louis CK just happen to stop in, and that there are producers with huge offers constantly approaching you. While I am sure these things have happened to someone, those kinds of opportunities never really happened for me—until I came to the UK.

Okay, I didn’t meet Chappelle or anything, but I will say that my comedy career in the UK has gone a lot further, with a lot more highlights. I like comedy a lot better in the UK. Here are a few reasons why:

You pay

While I did occasionally get paid to do stand up in NYC, it was the exception rather than the rule. As an comic who did mainly alternative rooms, pay was something that happened on the odd gig that was well-produced and had bigger names on it. I feel like the thinking is… ‘Well, they’re comics. They’re going to do comedy anyway, why should we pay? If they were famous they’d be on TV, and then we’d pay.’ The clubs do pay a bit better, but most working comics in the states are touring outside of New York, which is a whole different lifestyle.

You guys are drunks

Clearly I haven’t flooded the knowledge pool with this observation, but it’s true. Brits like to go out for a drink as soon as they have a chance. Usually with your mates, who you’ve probably known since day two of primary school. Consequently, you’ve heard all their stories, and have frankly, started to like them a lot less than you did when you were five. But rules are rules, and friends are friends. So you go out, you have a drink, and so you don’t have to hear any more of their same four stories, you go out and you see something. Comedy allows you to continue to drink, and perhaps provides the opportunity that someone is going to make fun of your mate, and then she’ll finally have more stories.

Every American comic who has performed over here is astounded by you, because you’ll go down the pub, see an hour of show, have a 15 minute interval (that really lasts 25 minutes) and then COME BACK!!! All NYers would have left by now, except for the ones who had come to see their friends who are on in the second half.

They have item minimums in clubs in the US because they don’t trust you to drink, and alcohol is how all venues really make their money. The strength of the drinking culture here—like it or not—does support the live arts culture in general.

You can drive across the country in a day.

If I drove for eight hours in my home state of California, I would still be in California, not in an entirely different country with a different accent and a different version of the aforementioned alcoholism. The fact that you can get to any place in the UK in a matter of hours rather than days means something different about your life as a touring comedian here. It means not necessarily having to put off/ give up on having a spouse, a family, a regular bed because you’ve chosen to be a comedian. It can just be because of your shitty personality, like it is for other people.

It means you can live in a suburb, on a farm, whatever, and not have to move to London to work. It means that people who live in towns with no cell reception can host a night in a barn between two farms, have a show with top-notch acts from all over the country, and have the entire town turn out, because what the hell were they going to do tonight anyway?

It just radically changes your ability to make money from live comedy, especially if you don’t have to spend everything you make on a hotel because your country is several thousands of miles wide.

US comedy clubs are just too damn expensive.

If you got to a comedy club in the states, you are likely paying something like $20 for the show, PLUS a two-item minimum (where a cranberry juice is five dollars). So by the time you’ve bought your ticket and two vodka tonics, you can have easily spent $50. And then suddenly no one is happy. When you walk out on stage to entertain these people, they are just irritated and entitled. And expecting you not to say the F-word for some reason.

Outside of major cities in the US, there aren’t a lot of alternative comedy scenes, with rooms run by other comics who might use PWYW or free models, or might just be able to charge a much lower cover because they trust you will drink yourselves into your beds that night. And alternative rooms mean lots of different kinds of comedians getting to perform to audiences that want to see them, rather than a handful of board-approved comedians performing to hostages. 

‘US comics are dropouts. UK Comics went to Oxford and Cambridge.’

So this is a limiting and false stereotype on both sides, it’s true, but it seems to stem from some precedent. It didn’t occur to me until living here that, until recently, there had been a predominance of Oxbridge-educated white men who went into comedy writing/stand-up/performance, etc. In the US, the comedian was the socially disadvantaged, poor, POC, LGBTQ, etc. person who entertains the people with the normal jobs. She was the class clown rather than valedictorian, and is lucky she is talented cause she probably got fired from every other job. I realise that caricature isn’t exclusive to the US, and that not every comedian in the UK went to university, but I think the stereotype is somewhat indicative how the two countries view comedy and other forms of performance. I feel like there is more of a respect for comedy here. With all the works-in-progress, hour-long shows and festivals for comedy in the UK, people can be exposed to the inner workings of the craft, the skill and dedication it takes to be funny and insightful for people night after night. In a country where everyone is clever, it takes something extra to be a comedian. I realise I am romanticising here, but just let me have this.

The UK has some crucial opportunities for comics to advance. 

So I am about to extol the virtues of some things I find annoying but also totally necessary. Panel shows and Awards.

‘Uh, Desiree—you WON one of those awards

Yes, and I would certainly never bite the hand that has fed my career so well. Seriously, winning the Funny Women Stage Award in 2015 changed everything for me in the UK. Aside from getting some cosmetics I would never buy for myself, meeting some incredible women and getting some cash that I desperately needed to turn over to my landlord, it became my foot in the door. It exposed me to other comics, bookers and producers. And while those opportunities don’t immediately mean you are going to be rich and on TV, they do start to build the impressions of you that you need damn near everywhere in order for butts to start showing up in seats at your next solo show.

Comedy awards don’t really exist in the States like they do here. I mean, comedy reviews really don’t exist either, unless they are for a someone famous or an album. People just go out and ‘see comedy’ not knowing what they are going to get or who you even are unless you have a podcast or get famous some other way. So, while I find all of these institutions irritating because comedy is SO subjective (and what qualifies a few people to judge for everyone else?), they are important in lending a sense of legitimacy and progression to the whole institution. They help consumers choose to consume you, and help build your livelihood.

And as much as it feels like panel shows are the entire primetime line up, they are also providing comics a chance for the kind of TV exposure that pays the rent and makes more gigs happen.  Because they are relatively cheap to make (no location shoots and all the rest), they can take a chance on the comics they have heard are good or seen building a profile. You don’t have to be Hollywood bankable in order to do a panel show once or twice. And there is so much you can only learn about the experience of doing TV by actually doing it.   

When Sky offered me the chance to do one of their Valentine’s Day Comedy Shorts, I was honoured to be considered and thought, that will be cool! I had no idea how demanding and engaging the task would be to actually write a short script, go through meetings of notes and revision, go through something like eight drafts of it, learn to hate it, and writing, and life altogether, go through casting, and finally get to the shoot and have to act in it. These are skills that I wanted to develop, but the only way to do that is to do it. It felt like having an apprenticeship in TV writing that taught me so much I would have been too lazy to read about in a book.

So I guess what I am saying is, for all of the dreaming that the grass is greener on the other side of the pond, it’s really only because of the stage lighting that it looks that way, from what I can tell. I can’t speak for everyone on anything at all, but as far as this is concerned, I feel like the comedy machine works a lot better here, if comedy is what you actually want to do.

Desiree’s debut stand up hour This is Evolution premieres at Soho Theatre on Monday 20th and runs till Thursday 23rd March. Get your tickets here!