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Comedians move online as coronavirus cancels most live comedy

Wednesday 18th March 2020, 11:53am

  • The Government's coronavirus advice has resulted in the halt of almost all live comedy shows
  • Festivals, club nights, tour shows and theatre performances have been stopped nationwide
  • Comedians are now moving to online platforms as a way of performing and earning money
Empty seats.

Government advice that people should avoid social contact to stop the spread of covid-19 (coronavirus) has caused almost all live comedy in the UK to halt.

It is now expected that very little live comedy will be performed in the UK until May at the earliest. With their gig diaries now empty and earnings reduced to zero, many comedians are now looking to online avenues to perform.

Club nights

Comedy Club.

Almost all comedy nights across the UK have been cancelled until further notice.

Some small clubs using pub rooms continue at the time of writing, however almost all shows in rooms of a larger size have been forced to shut due to concerns about audience safety.

Club chains including Glee, The Comedy Store, Just The Tonic and The Stand are amongst those to have cancelled all their planned performances and shut their doors entirely.

A website post said: "The Comedy Store, sadly, has taken the decision to suspend its shows for four weeks whilst the government is currently urging people to avoid non-essential contact. The safety of our customers and staff is priority. We will be contacting customers who have tickets for shows booked in this period for a full refund or credit. We will hopefully be back very soon to deliver the laughter we all very much need. Please be safe and look after yourself and those that may not have others to help them."

There is a concern that some smaller venues may not be able to survive a long spell without any ticket income. The Government's phrasing that it is "very strong advice that public venues such as theatres should not be visited", rather than directly ordering the closure of venues, has meant the venues are not liable for insurance payouts.

In an attempt to support venues, comedy fans are being encouraged to pre-book tickets for later in the year, and to not request refunds for the shows that have been cancelled but to treat that money as a donation to the venue.

The Komedia chain told their visitors: "Anyone who wishes to do so can convert their ticket money into a donation to the venue and our staff at this difficult time. As an independent, unfunded arts venue these are unprecedented times and we appreciate your continued support in this difficult climate."

Stewart Lee.

Stewart Lee, who has had to reschedule his tour, said in his newsletter: "Boris Johnson wafflingly announced that people should avoid theatres, but didn't say that he would be closing them, like some kind of dick, which obviously led to a degree of confusion". Addressing his fans who had booked tickets, he said: "There is obviously a massive financial global arsequake in effect right now that means there are cash flow issues for venues, who have just seen a 93% drop in bookings nationwide. I will do the right thing by everyone in the end, obviously. You would also be helping the theatres to not go bust if you let them sit on the money you have given them for now, if you can afford to."

Soho Theatre - which puts on multiple comedy shows each day in London - has shut its doors. They say: "Soho Theatre is a registered charity and social enterprise. Like everyone, we are trying to find a way through these incredibly worrying and unprecedented times. While our venue is closed to the public, we are looking at alternative ways in which we can work with those in our industry, support their well-being and livelihood and share work with you, our audience. Our thoughts go out to all those are affected in London, around the UK and across the world."

The Stand comedy club live streamed their Saturday night show online for free, partly in an attempt to encourage their regulars to donate. They said: "by donating you will help ensure the survival of your favourite club, help pay staff and acts so we can return with the live shows you love ASAP."

Comedy festivals

Latitude 2018 comedy tent. Copyright: Jen O'Neill.

A number of comedy festivals due to take place in the coming months have cancelled. This includes Machynlleth Comedy Festival in Wales, Wells Comedy Festival at the end of May, and the new West Didsbury Comedy Festival in Manchester. Many comedians were due to appear at Glastonbury Festival, but that has also been cancelled.

Machynlleth Comedy Festival said: "We know this will be a huge disappointment for all those who were planning to attend, and we share in that disappointment. Please know that we have not taken this decision lightly, but under current guidance and information we felt we couldn't proceed in good conscience. We take our responsibilities to the town of Machynlleth, our audience, artists and crew very seriously, and therefore accept that bringing 8,000 people to the town would currently pose an unnecessary risk to public health."

They added: "The arts is one of many sectors that are going to be hit particularly hard in the coming months, and while cancelling the festival is a devastating blow for us, we know that there are also knock-on effects for everyone we work with to put on the festival. If you value the arts then please try to find ways to support them throughout this period."

An Alan Partridge fan festival which was due to take place in Norwich this weekend has been postponed until 26th September. Concerns over coronavirus meant a "properly policed event" could not be held. Looking ahead to the new date, organiser Paul Wassell says: "Hopefully by then this evil, evil virus will have mostly gone away and we can all have a ruddy good time."

Glasgow Comedy Festival - which is currently taking place - has seen some of its larger venues shut, but other shows there are still going ahead [update: these have now been cancelled too]. However - as British Comedy Guide witnessed last weekend - some of the continuing performances have been suffering from low audience numbers.

The Brighton Fringe - which had over 5000 performances scheduled - has also been cancelled, whilst organisers of the Bath Comedy Festival have suspended the event and hope to name new dates later this year.

At the time of writing The Edinburgh Fringe in August is still going ahead though, but deadlines for registrations have been extended.

Shona McCarthy, Chief Executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, has said: "The Fringe Society continue with optimism to work towards the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2020. We are living through strange and unprecedented times and trying to find our way, keep people safe and do the right thing with the resources we have on a daily basis. Amidst it all, it gives heart and hope to see companies and artists and venues continue to register their shows and plan for another joyous creative gathering in August. I completely understand and feel the uncertainties of the current situation for artists and audiences alike. We want to give reassurance to participants that the Fringe Society will do everything in its power to support those that help make the Fringe happen each year."

Comedy shows and tours

Shagged Married Annoyed. Image shows from L to R: Rosie Ramsey, Chris Ramsey.

The closure of theatres and clubs has meant that comedy tours have been suspended too. Jimmy Carr has postponed a tranche of planned dates. Alex Edelman, Joel Dommett, Tom Rosenthal, Geoff Norcott, Arabella Weir, Nick Helm, John Shuttleworth, Andrew Lawrence, Ed Byrne, Josie Long, Mark Thomas, Shazia Mirza, Andy Hamilton and Milton Jones are also amongst those who have either postponed or cancelled tours.

Chris Ramsey and Rosie Ramsey (pictured) had been due to perform a sell-out run of live dates of their podcast soon - one of which would have set a new audience record, but they have been forced to postpone.

Russell Howard, who has cancelled the majority of the European leg of his world tour, commented: "It's completely out of my hands but we're gonna reschedule them for later in the year. I'm so gutted that this has happened."

The closure of London's West End has also disrupted comedies The Upstart Crow and Magic Goes Wrong, whilst touring plays Bang Bang! and Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em have been suspended.

Individual shows are also cancelled. For example, The Teenage Cancer Trust shows - which involved comedians including John Bishop, Alan Carr and Suzi Ruffell - have been pulled. The charity said: "We are, obviously, very disappointed that we have had to announce this."

Peter Kay's Dance For Life. Peter Kay.

Peter Kay's long-awaited return to live performance with his Dance For Life disco shows has been further postponed, with a string of dates in April and May now cancelled and pending rescheduling later this year.

Kay said: "Obviously this is disappointing news but well and truly justified given the circumstances. We'll get through this, together and then we'll all have a great big dance for life. Stay safe and look after yourselves and the people around you."

The big gig that was set to commemorate the life of Jeremy Hardy on 25th March has now been postponed by a full year.

The Musical Comedy Awards final has been postponed until the winter, and the Funny Women Awards are planning a back-up strategy of being online-only if their final rounds in the summer can't go ahead.

Meanwhile Russell Brand, who was forced to cancel his remaining Australia and New Zealand shows, says he is "stranded" in the Australian town of Mullumbimby. He said in a video: "'I happen to be in Australia at the moment and one of the biggest questions I'm confronting... is, 'Oh wow, do we go back to the UK now? Or when?' Where you're from is where you're from; it's a tricky one isn't it."

TV and radio recordings

QI. Sandi Toksvig. Copyright: TalkbackThames.

Filming has disrupted a number of TV productions, with studio shows like Joe Lycett's Got Your Back and Celebrity Juice now unable to be filmed in front of a live audience. QI has also been disrupted. Researcher James Harkin tweeted:

Have I Got News For You returns to BBC One on Friday 3rd April, and will also go ahead without a studio audience until the current situation changes.

The Graham Norton Show is scheduled to return to screens in April, but has already seen many high-profile guests cancel their appearances amidst the rescheduling of film releases. Again, at least the first few episodes in the series will be recorded without an audience.

The final episode in the series of The Last Leg, due to be broadcast on Friday [20th March], will be recorded without an audience. The hosts will be encouraging their audience at home to tune-in and get involved all the more using their Twitter hashtag #isitok.

Meanwhile John Bishop At The Weekend, ITV's new chat show which had been scheduled to record in front of a studio audience over March, April and May, appears to have been delayed.

The News Quiz. Angela Barnes.

Radio 4, meanwhile, has announced that topical comedies The Now Show, The News Quiz (with new host Angela Barnes, pictured) and Newsjack will continue, but behind closed doors. BBC Radio Scotland's Breaking The News is mid-way through a new run, and will now continue without an audience.

The BBC said: "In light of current events, we have decided to cancel the audience for these recordings. We're sorry for the short notice and for the disappointment caused by this."

Whilst some productions continue, and facilities such as Pinewood Studios remain fully operational, location filming for The Witchfinder and Scot Squad has also been suspended.

Production on Channel 4's Derry Girls has also been disrupted. A Channel 4 spokesperson said: "Following advice from Public Health England, production on Derry Girls has halted temporarily and filming will be rescheduled as soon as the situation has stabilised."

DAB station Union JACK Radio has announced a new nightly show called #StandUpToCorona, described as "a daily commitment to play more comedy than anywhere else in British radio". They are currently seeking comedians to submit material to be broadcast.

Meanwhile UKTV is releasing self-isolation specials of its Conversations Against Living Miserably podcast

Online comedy

Robin Ince. Copyright: Natalie Shaw.

Comedians are now turning to online platforms as an alternative way of performing and showcasing their work.

Family-friendly improv group ComedySportz are now streaming several shows during the daytime via their Facebook page. Player Brainne Edge says: "Shows will be great fun for the whole family, and a welcome distraction from everything that's going on. We'll be crowd sourcing suggestions so audiences can still be involved like they would at a live show."

The Cosmic Shambles Network and Robin Ince have planned The Stay At Home Festival. From Monday 23rd March comedy shows will be streamed online via cosmicshambles.com/stayathome

Each show will be free to watch but with a 'pay what you can' option available to go towards helping "performers and venues that are in the most need in these difficult times".

Robin Ince says: "It is stating the obvious to say that strange days have got a hell of a lot stranger with many people facing confusion and anxiety. Artists have nowhere to play and audiences have nowhere to go to be distracted. Trent Burton, Cosmic Shambles Network producer, is a bit of a technical whizz, so he has managed to work out a way that we can do shows from our home and people can watch them in theirs as they wipe their brows in their toilet paper castles."

Those set to take part include Mark Gatiss, Jo Brand and Sara Pascoe.

Elsewhere, Tiffany Stevenson, compere and curator of the weekly Old Rope comedy night for comics to try new material, has started streaming an online version through her Instagram account.

Sooz Kempner.

Since their diaries have emptied, a number of other comedians have set up Patreon accounts or asked their fans to purchase merchandise from their back catalogue. Sooz Kempner is currently offering recordings of her previous stand-up shows via Patreon, which can be joined for $2 a month.

Comedians have also joined live streaming video platform Twitch, where creators can earn money. A Twitter thread has collected up some of the activity.

Marek Larwood. Copyright: The Writers Guild / Matt Writtle.

An example of the new online entrepreneurial spirit, comedian Marek Larwood has started a new web series linked to his eBay account. He explains: "I am going to be making an art show - Marek's Mediocre Masterpieces - in which I'll be trying to paint a masterpiece in just 15 minutes then flog it on eBay. The videos will go out on my YouTube channel every week day at 11am. In this first episode I attempt the Mona Lisa, I have valued it at 17p. Tomorrow I will be painting American Gothic. People can tweet me their own versions of these 15 minute masterpieces and I will include them in the gallery at the end."

With no live work, many comics now have a large amount of spare time on their hands. Video producers Turtle Canyon Comedy last night published a live stream titled Watched pot, does it boil water?. They say: "We've all heard the rumours but we're testing it, will this watched pot boil?"

Alison Spittle is organising a #CovideoParty every night at 9pm on her social media accounts. The format sees her pick a movie, dress up in theme of the movie and watch it live - streaming with her fans/followers/other comics who are doing the same.

Meanwhile Noel Fielding has started an online art gallery to pass the time:

And Alex Horne has launched #HomeTasking, a series of Taskmaster-style tasks.

Other comedy-related coronavirus news

Mark Thomas.

Mark Thomas has teamed up with Go Faster Stripe founder Chris Evans to launch Comedy Download Benefit. The idea is that, each week, a comic will put one of their shows on the Go Faster Stripe website as a free download on the condition that people who download it make a donation to the Trussell Trust, a charity that provides emergency food and support to people in crisis.

Thomas says: "You know the score. It's always those with the least who need most help, especially in times of crisis, and food banks need support NOW. So here's a way of helping out. You make a donation to the Trussell Trust and you get to download my show Check Up: Our NHS@70 for FREE! You can donate anything from a quid to a million and still download the show. This will run for a week, from the 19th to the 26th of March. The show details my month residency with the Imperial Group of NHS hospitals in West London in 2018 following surgeons, doctors and nurses. It won some awards. It is good. Please donate to the Trussell Trust even if you think the show is shit... which it isn't."

NextUp.

NextUp, the stand-up streaming service has announced hecklethevirus.com, a series of initiatives, including a virtual comedy venue (allowing comedians to earn revenue during lockdown).

The founders at NextUp say "It's not going to be an easy few months, and because of that, comedy is more necessary than ever. We hope these initiatives will help support the comics who usually give so much, and also brighten the lives of those who are isolated at home."

The Just Giving crowdfunding page setup as part of the initiative, which aims to raise £100,000 to help help comedians stay afloat during the pandemic, has raised over £80,000 at the time of writing.

Dawn French, Jimmy Carr, Richard Herring, Adam Kay, Sara Pascoe, Robert Webb, Susan Calman, Al Murray and Lee Mack are amongst those to have made donations.

Herring, who was amongst the first to donate, comments: "We need to raise a lot more to keep live comedy in business through this difficult time. Any working TV comics please consider giving a large amount to help our industry. Everyone else, every penny counts."

Sarah Henley, NextUp co-founder, comments: "Comedians across the UK have lost their primary source of income due to the impact of the Coronavirus. It's devastating to see venues closing down and live events being cancelled. If you value live comedy as much as we do at NextUp and respect the performer who dedicate their lives to bringing us laughter - let's band together and #hecklethevirus."

This Country. Image shows from L to R: Lee 'Kurtan' Mucklowe (Charlie Cooper), Kerry Mucklowe (Daisy May Cooper).

This Country star Charlie Cooper has revealed via his Instagram account that he believes he has the virus. He posted: "Felt awful yesterday but a bit better today thankfully. Seems to come and go in waves. Incredibly grateful for paracetamol and @footballmanager right now."

Paul Sinha has revealed on Twitter: "It seems likely I have Coronavirus", and Simon Brodkin said: "So yesterday I moved all my tour dates. What I didn't tell you was that I have been holed up in bed for the last couple of days with something called coronavirus."

French And Saunders. Image shows from L to R: Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders.

The BBC has also published an outline of plans to keep "the nation informed, educated, and entertained in unprecedented times".

Whilst full and specific details have yet to be confirmed, they say: "We will keep people entertained, providing laughter, escapism, companionship, shared experiences and a sense of connection to the outside world."

Initial plans include bringing new complete archive box sets to iPlayer, including French & Saunders; and running repeat broadcasts, and re-publishing on BBC Sounds "classic editions of I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue and Just A Minute".


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