Out of laughs? The future of comedy in a post-Covid society

Predictably, industries across the UK have been hit hard by the Coronavirus pandemic, but it is the comedy industry that is seemingly beyond the scope of government legislation. Joshua Bates reports.

In July 2020, Rishi Sunak announced the Cultural Recovery Fund, consisting of a £1.57 billion grant to cultural organisations across the UK. In a speech to the House of Commons, Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, claimed to have saved 135 music venues from “imminent collapse.” Despite this, and live comedy’s £500 million investment into the economy, government assistance has fallen short. The Live Comedy Association (LCA), a network of individuals lobbying for government intervention, has called for a slice of government funding in smaller venues who are facing threats of imminent closures. 

“My main worry in terms of how Covid will affect the future of the industry is the impact that it will have on venues, particularly the smaller arts centres around the country. As with many things during the pandemic, it feels as though there has been a lot of support for the centrepieces, and a willingness to ignore the supporting structures” says Ahir Shah, a stand-up comedian based in the UK. 

With local businesses being forced to shut during national lockdowns, it is clear that comedy venues are struggling without the financial support of the state. Whilst some comedians are receiving support, the industry itself is reliant on supporting structures such as management, production and venues, which have been ignored and left to collapse. 

Ahir Shah review — Lack of ideas allows for more fun | Times2 | The Times
Ahir Shah/ credit: The Times

However, the question remains: what will comedy look like in a post-Covid society? A July 2020 survey conducted by the Live Comedy Association concluded that a third of comedy venues will be forced to close within the next six months whilst 77.8% are expected to close within the next year. Speaking to Ahir Shah about the future of comedy, he says “I think people are desperate to go out again and performers are desperate to get back to work – I just hope that the third part of the equation, the room where it happens, isn’t overlooked to the point of disappearing.”

The venue, stage, microphone and audience are integral parts of the comedy industry.  As defined by British comedian Oliver Double, the brick wall and stage represented the classic image of stand up. However, with recent lockdown news and an emphasis on online communication, there has been a shift from in-person venues to Zoom calls. Comedy Virgins, an open mic comedy club in London, has followed the norm and transformed into an online business during the lockdown period. In an interview they responded: 

“Creatively, it has presented some amazing opportunities that we would never have explored before – and we have had a lot of fun whilst making new friends in the industry. Financially it is a challenge as the income stream is extremely low and doesn’t pay the overheads we have for our venue.”

comedy on zoom | Sammy Obeid
zoom comedy//credit: Sammy Obeid

Whilst the introduction of virtual comedy has opened up opportunities for new stand- up comedians to take the centre stand, does this equate to success? In the industry,  pacing and timing are key elements of a successful set. However, without the audience, feedback and the late responses which may arise in the virtual arena, some established comedians may find it difficult to translate their lockdown comedy to the venues once they have reopened. 

 Despite the many setbacks that the industry has faced, the spark that makes comedy so vital to our culture has remained in the hearts of many stand-up comedians around the world. Lockdown has forced comedians and the industry to adapt to fit the needs of a “virtual world.” Many comedians have taken up additional roles as “Twitch streamers” or writing television pieces as an alternative to stand-up. As said by industry professionals such as Comedy Virgins, “Things will evolve, things will change but comedy isn’t going anywhere.” 

Whilst the devastating effects of Covid will impact many venues across the country, many new ones will open up in their place. Comedians will soon take to the stage and a new age of comedy may be born. Whilst being stuck in what seems to be a never-ending lockdown, virtual comedy has been an important factor in keeping spirits high. For that reason, we must thank the comedians and the venues for working with very little revenue and experience in transforming the industry into a virtual one that has opened up many doors to aspiring comedians. 

So the question: Are we out of laughs? No. They have only just begun.

header image credit: comedy.com.au