Stand-up comedy is in big trouble just when we need it most – Ayesha Hazarika

The coronavirus pandemic is killing off live comedy and we simply cannot let this happen to one of the most democratic and unpretentious art forms, warns Ayesha Hazarika.

Will Chancellor Rishi Sunak help save stand-up comedy in the UK? (Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire)
Will Chancellor Rishi Sunak help save stand-up comedy in the UK? (Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire)

My first-ever stand-up gig was almost 20 years ago in a basement bar in Soho as part of a comedy course run by the Amused Moose and legendary tutor Logan Murray. It was one of the first of its kind to help people give stand-up a go. I was sick with nerves, as were my fellow first-timers, who included Greg Davies and Rhod Gilbert, both now household names. I ended up working for the Labour party.

That first gig was a triumph mainly because it was our graduation night, so was full of supportive friends and family. It was an adult version of a Nativity play. I was the donkey. Again. Everyone laughed at our rather lame jokes but filled our wee hearts with enough joy and confidence to take our next baby steps on the comedy circuit.

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The next gigs were much tougher, playing in small rooms to an audience of, often, fewer than ten, which could include the other acts. But I fell in love with it. Out of all the things I’ve been lucky enough to have done in my life, from working in Downing Street to hosting radio shows, nothing gives you the same terror and thrill. I owe so much of my career to stand-up because you have to be brave. And kind of funny.

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The circuit is not well-paid or glamorous (let’s not talk about the loos) but is full of the most talented, hardworking, whip-smart performers from all walks of life who are passionate about what they do. As a circuit comic, you travel the length and breadth of the country for very little money to entertain. You also learn your craft on stage. Even if it’s a death in front of one man and his dog. Or my favourite one, where my gig was going so badly the barman cut the sound, lighting and blared out death metal while I was still on stage. It’s part of the journey. There’s no substitute for standing up with just a microphone and trying to make actual human beings laugh. And there’s no substitute for how glorious and life-enhancing that moment feels when you do. But it’s not just about the individual performers, live comedy is a serious business.

It has been dormant for the last four months and is now in a critical condition. The Live Comedy Association has published a sobering report saying 78 per cent of venues fear they will have to close within the year. The survey also showed three-quarters of performers had seen earnings all but disappear and that their mental health was suffering. It takes great courage and a leap of faith to become a full-time comic and to hear so many of my talented friends talk of walking away is a travesty. This isn’t just a job, it’s a vocation.

The government needs to step in, and fast. Last week’s announcement for the arts was welcome, especially for theatres, but was not designed to help the live comedy scene, which is also populated by so many freelancers. There’s a political snobbery about the industry. Ministers just about register the big traditional arts institutions but are clearly blind to the live comedy scene as a sector which should be valued and fought for. It’s ironic we have a ruling political class who take such pride in saying they’re against “elitism” and stand for “real people”. Well, now is a chance to prove it. Live comedy is one of the most democratic, accessible, affordable and unpretentious art forms. A night out in a comedy club above a pub is also one of the most quintessentially British things you can do. And with all the doom coming down the track, we could do with a good, but safe, night out.

Come on Rishi. Do us a favour. Make stand-up great again.

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