The last live comedy gig I saw before Covid-19 took over the earth and the country went into lockdown was the majestic Sara Barron on Wednesday 11th March at Soho Theatre. A phenomenally gifted comic, I left absolutely buzzing, quoting favourite jokes, my face aching from laughing and desperate for the loo.
A few days after that, my bosses told us to work from home. A week later and the whole country went into lockdown and the term ‘social distancing’ would become something we’d say about 900 times a day. Life as we knew it had changed for good.
Live comedy has been dark for 113 (at time of writing) days and counting. I say and counting because no-one actually knows when it will be back. A terrifying thought for all the performers who rely on gigs for income, for career progression, for sanity. And a heartbreaking thought for the audiences who love it.
Audience members like me.
Watching a live comedy gig is a unique experience. It’s intimate. It’s thought provoking. It’s unpredictable. It teaches you something about the world. It’s an escape from the world. It’s a white-knuckle ride of emotions. Even the decision on where to sit is an emotional minefield.
If you choose the front row, you must prepare yourself for the possibility you might be ‘picked on’. Full disclosure, the front row is always my first choice – to become part of the show always my goal. And yet strangely, I’m never picked on. It must be something to do with my intense stare longing them to choose me… just like when I’m on a date. Or hungry.
Many a night live comedy has saved my life. I’ve walked down the stairs to countless basements, or up the stairs to countless lofts, with a tear stained face from a broken heart, or a rough day, the weight of the world on my shoulders. Only to leave with a tear stained face from laughing so hard, my heart a little bit healed. My mind a little bit lighter.
But make no mistake, it’s hard work being a stand up comedian. I know from experience. I tried it once. Kind of… I was awful. Like, really awful. And the worst part about it was, no-one asked me to do it. It was all my own choice.
The fateful error in judgement occurred, as I muttered the immortal words “how hard can it be?” with a shrug when the warm-up was running late for a show I was working on, and I ‘heroically’ decided to step in. Two minutes in, with a sea of blank faces in front of me, I very quickly learnt “how hard it can be”.
Because here’s the thing, comedy is an art form. A carefully crafted joke is a hard won thing, with time, love and patience poured into it. It’s a thing of beauty.
Jerry Seinfeld once said he looks for the ‘connective tissue’ that allows jokes to fit together. Joke writing is forensic. It’s complex. It’s brave. It’s the comedian, a stage, a mic, and weeks and weeks of work behind them, and in front of them. Just like performing a play, putting on an opera, or writing a musical.
But here’s the stark truth, the £1.57 billion government investment to protect the arts, at this point in time, does not include live comedy. This means, based on the Live Comedy Association’s industry survey conducted in June 2020, a third of comedy venues believe they’ll be forced to close within the next 6 months, with 77.8% facing closure within the next year.
The live comedy industry is on its knees. The stand-up comedians of today on indefinite hold. The comedians of tomorrow silenced, and that breaks my heart.
I’m proud to be part of the audience of every single comedy gig I’ve ever been to, and if you are too then we need to take action. We need to get loud. We need to make sure we support the industry, just like it supports us on our worst days. Even on our best days.
So for all the times live comedy saved our lives, it’s paramount that we return the favour.
Please follow the brilliant and necessary Live Comedy Association for ways to help. You can start by adding your name to this open letter, found here: savelivecomedy.co.uk