Coronavirus: Scotland’s comedy clubs fighting for survival

AN Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman walk into a comedy club, but because they’re not all from the same household they have to socially distance, keeping no less than one metre apart at all times.

All the punters in the club have to do the same, reducing the capacity of the venue from 250 to just 50.

That’s 200 fewer people buying tickets, pints and crisps. Given that those who are in the venue can’t queue at the bar, they need table service and that probably means more staff, most of whom will possibly need PPE.

The club can’t really get away with hiking the entry fee to cover these extra costs as there’s a recession on and everyone’s tightening their belts.

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So the Englishman, Irishman and the Scotsman – who are luckily not among the four million forecast to be unemployed because of the pandemic and the lockdown – pay their £15 and settle down for a night of laughs.

Because after months of lockdown, months of grim news, deaths, illness and uncertainty, we could all really do with a laugh.

The problem is that Scotland’s bustling, vibrant and busy stand-up comedy scene – one that has punched above its weight giving the world Billy Connolly, Frankie Boyle, Kevin Bridges, Janey Godley, and so many others – is on its knees.

Will there be any comedians left for the clubs? Will there be any clubs left for the comedians?

“I think I’ve got to Christmas before I’ll need to go and get a job somewhere else doing something else,” Jojo Sutherland, a stalwart of Scottish stand-up tells me. “And I’m not qualified for f****** anything. What am I going to do?”

Back in February she was looking forward to another busy year ahead, but her diary has been “driven off a cliff”. The money she takes home monthly is around 10% of what it was before the lockdown. There have been Zoom gigs, and online nights, and they’ve been well received, but they just don’t pay anything close to what the clubs pay.

Her diary is looking a little more positive towards the autumn, but, she warns, there are still many unknowns.

“I am actually booked the first weekend in September at the laughter lounge in Dublin, as it stands at the moment. They open officially on the 10th of August, and flights are going from the UK to Ireland with no quarantine. And so that’s in my diary and the Stand’s in my diary, but I don’t know if they’ll be open by September.

“And then I’m Jonathan Pie’s tour support and his tour was rescheduled because that was one of the things that was cancelled. So that’s rescheduled for October. Again, we don’t know if by October the theatres – I mean these are 2000 seat theatres –will they be open?”

“It’s Catch 22, they’re not going to cancel the date because of insurance. They’re just hanging on until they can say it’s legally not viable,” she adds.

It’s a similar situation for Scott Agnew. He flew home to Glasgow on March 10 after having performed at two comedy festivals in Australia, with the expectation of a busy run at the Glasgow Comedy Festival.

“I did three gigs over the course of that weekend, expecting to be working every night in March. And it was all shut down pretty much from the 15th, because they took precautions before the lockdown happened, and that’s been it. There’s been absolutely nothing.”

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Like many others on the circuit they’ve been helped by the UK government’s self-employed support scheme, though there’s only one more payment before that’s wound up altogether.

Not all comics have benefited from the Treasury’s assistance schemes. Many have fallen through the cracks of the support offered.

And now there’s a worry comedy as a whole might fall through the cracks. Last week the UK Government announced a £1.57 billion fund “to protect Britain’s world-class cultural, arts and heritage institutions”.

The investment is aimed, the Treasury said, at protecting the “future of Britain’s museums, galleries, theatres, independent cinemas, heritage sites and music venues”.

The new money will lead to Barnett consequentials of around £97 million for the Scottish Government.

But the fear from many in the comedy industry is that they’ll be left out because comedy isn’t seen as an art form by government and culture bodies.

While Creative Scotland and the Arts Council England regularly fund theatre, opera, and even storytelling, it’s rare that a stand-up show will get a subsidy.

Comedians can only work if they have venues to work in

Last week a group of Scottish comedians and promoters formed the Association of Scottish Comedic Arts (ASCA) to try and put pressure on the Government to help the sector. One of their central calls is that comedy should be recognised as an art. They pointed out that the Scottish Government’s new National Partnership for Culture – made up of “14 experts from across Scotland’s culture sector” to “advise on challenges facing the culture sector” – includes writers, musicians, theatre bosses, filmmakers, but no comics, no comedy promoters, no comedy venues.

“It feels like a slightly elitist snobbery,” Agnew says. “Creative Scotland regularly fund storytelling, and there’s a fag paper of a difference between what storytelling and comedy is,” he added.

FELLOW stand-up comedian Eleanor Morton agrees: “I don’t think comedy’s a meritocracy but I think it’s the closest we come in the arts. It’s a truly unique art form and it will impact so much of the UK’s culture and identity if it’s allowed to disappear.”

The most pressing priority for all the comics featured in this article was ensuring there are clubs to go back to once the pandemic is over.

READ MORE: Scottish Government throws theatres £10 million lifeline

“Comedians can only work if they have venues to work in,” Morton says. “Like most comics, my start in stand-up was crucial in helping me get other work in writing and performing, as well as getting an agent, and there’s just no replacing it.”

Like ASCA, the UK-wide Local Comedy Association (LCA) also emerged from the lockdown and a fear of being forgotten. For the last few weeks they’ve been surveying the sector, trying to get a better understanding of what the future looks like.

The results make for grim reading, with a third of comedy venues believing they’ll be forced to close within the next six months, and 77.8% facing closure within the next year. Only 17.1% of promoters expect that after coronavirus they’ll be running 100% of the regular events they promoted before lockdown.

Mike Jones, the managing director of The Stand says it’s a “worrying time” for the sector.

“The income’s dried up but we still need to pay the rent and utility costs and crucially try and keep our staff team intact.”

Most of the workers at the club’s three venues in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Newcastle – the bar staff, technicians and chefs – have been on furlough these last four months. That scheme starts to wind-up in the next couple of weeks before disappearing altogether in October.

“If at that point we’re not up and opening with full capacity, which we think is unlikely to be the case, then that presents us with an issue.”

Jones warns that there might be difficult times ahead: “We’re still crunching the numbers and obviously we’ve taken steps to try and reduce our costs, where we can. The big issue for us is around our payroll. Obviously our total payroll is slightly inflated by the number of people will take on during the Fringe, that’s not happening but it’s still, in terms of our regular staff, a million pounds a year.

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“And at the point at which we’re not getting supported by the Government then we probably will need to make some changes there, which is what’s happening across every business sector at the moment.”

Jones says that “every natural instinct” of those involved with the club is to reopen as soon as possible, but coronavirus makes bringing together “a whole bunch of people in a small room to enjoy live comedy” difficult. At the moment they’re hoping to have the clubs opened up again “soon-ish, maybe September.”

On Friday, the Scottish Government announced a £2.2m lifeline for Scotland’s grassroots music venues. While a similar fund would be welcomed by the LCA and ASCA, it may not be so simple.

“The majority of comedy venues are not like music clubs,” Alan Anderson, the artistic director of the Rotunda Comedy Club said. There are only five full-time comedy clubs in Scotland. Given that the bare minimum for a successful comedy club is a microphone and a speaker, the large majority of Scotland’s comedy nights are held in function suits in pubs, or in nightclubs, or restaurants.

Anderson – a serial entrepreneur – recently invested in a massive screen truck and a stage truck to try and get gigs up and running as quickly as possible. It’s not been plain sailing.

“We have attempted three times to open up driving outdoor comedy gigs and we have had contradictory advice from local government, from national government, from police – every single time.”

Though outdoor events aren’t permitted yet – and won’t be until phase four of the Scottish Government’s route-map out of lockdown – he has plans for a comedy night in the Rotunda’s car park on Wednesday. Because the comics on the stage truck will be streamed live on the nearby screen truck, he’s hoping it qualifies as a drive-in cinema.

But what Anderson really wants is to get the club back open and back to normal.

“If we are not open by the Christmas comedy season then we’re done.”

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