A career in comedy is no laughing matter. By the time an audience gets to see a comedian perform live at a comedy club or arts venue, the comic in question has almost certainly put in hundreds of hours writing and trying out material.
Just getting your act – sometimes as short as five minutes – from the thoughts racing in your head, down on paper and then onto a stage can be a gruelling, patience-testing and demoralising experience. A comedian has nobody to hide behind. Nobody to blame when it goes wrong and when an audience doesn’t like what they’re hearing they know exactly where and how to lodge the complaint: directly with the comedian.
It’s clear that while comedy is the cause of many a chuckle, the journey to becoming recognised for your work, thus making it a viable career option, is far from funny. Yet the undeniable national enthusiasm for comedy as an art form is not reflected in how aspiring comedians are supported by public funding. A fact which has become a bit of a running joke on the comedy circuit.
Comedy is one of the few art forms with which working class people consistently engage. At least more so than many of the others, like theatre or dance, which are traditionally associated with public funding. It’s arguable that this interest is rooted in the fact that artists from similar backgrounds, who have ascended in comedy, reflect the experiences of people from those communities. You just have to look at how quickly Frankie Boyle, Limmy or Kevin Bridges – all
beginning their careers in working class communities – sell out Scotland’s biggest venues.
Yet, despite this popularity and commercial viability, many aspiring comics, hailing from the same working class backgrounds as their potential audiences, will receive little or no support from an arts body.
With diversity and inclusion ever present in the new agenda, how does this play out in comedy? And what are the barriers to getting involved if you are a woman? Complicating the debate on gender equality is also the thorny issue of class, as evidenced by BBC presenter Steph McGovern’s recent comments that “posh” women are paid more. Class, by its very nature, is difficult to quantify but no less a potential barrier in the arts and society more generally.
How tough must it be for a female comedian, hailing from a deprived community, to get a foot on the comedy ladder? Might they find themselves at a multiple disadvantage? Their art form is under-invested in, their background less than affluent, and both problems are compounded by the fact they’re attempting to enter another industry which just happens to be dominated by a certain type of guy.
How many more people, due to personal circumstances, cannot find the time to pursue their aspirations in comedy due to other commitments such as work, education or preoccupation with health problems or learning difficulties? Public bodies must invest more in comedy, especially for those just starting out. It can often cost more to do the gig than it would to just stay at home. Aspiring artists need help to cover the costs of earning their stripes, but funding bodies have yet to throw their full weight behind the art form.
Comedy clubs are commercial entities and it’s a commercial transaction for both parties. Touring and creation costs for most comedy tend to be low, technical requirements and consequent production time are generally modest, audiences for established stars are healthy, ticket prices strong and routines usually portable. But comedians just starting out are struggling artists just like actors, writers, dancers and others.
Where do you find the time to write material when you are raising children? How easy is it to agree to last-minute gigs when you have childcare to think about?
Levelling the playing field would also release some fresh new blood into the genre. When it comes to pressing and sensitive social issues, comedy has always been the first line of attack and defence.
As the vital issue of social inequality, in all its manifestations, races to the top of the news agenda across the world, it strikes me that the artists who may be best equipped to distil the discussion into language men and women of all classes can understand and interact with have fallen to the bottom of the cultural pile. Not just because their art form is under-appreciated, but also because they have to face down even more barriers to progress than many of the successful working class men that got them interested in comedy.
This is not to say that women, or indeed people of colour, LGBT or disabled people are obligated to address social inequality in their work. Nor is it to assume, if they did, that they’d conform to the established parameters of the debate itself; a comedian’s impulse is often to subvert expectation.
But it seems like a wasted opportunity not to regard comedy as an art form like all the others. Not least, because of the level of interest in it from working class people, many of whom – though certainly not all – tend to be less interested in other art forms with which arts funding is associated. Creative Scotland, in its period of reflection following the recent controversy around funding for theatre, is reconsidering both its funding process and general cultural priorities. They might consider not only throwing their weight behind aspiring comics, in recognition of the role comedy plays in culture and individual well-being, but also seeking to level the comedy playing field where the thorny issue of gender, compounded by class, is concerned.
And if we all learned one thing from the recent backlash against the nation’s arts body, it’s that they tend to respond favourably when they are heckled – aggressively.