One Saturday in my late teens I went to the Glee Club in my home town of Birmingham to see a mixed bill of standup with my friends. On the bill that night was the great Canadian comic Tom Stade and we watched as he turned us – essentially a room of drunks – into willing puppets, intoxicated by the pure and human pleasure of shared laughter. From that point on I didn’t want to be anywhere else but in a comedy club.
I went to Manchester University and got a job selling ice-creams in a theatre on the weekends. Most Saturdays after my shift I’d walk to the Comedy Store to get my standup hit. Thanks to the generosity of Gareth the soundman I would sit at the back of the late show for free, watching sharp minds cajole and amaze their audiences, engaging with them in a way that was raw and human and true.
The best comics sculpt with swear words, they colour with candour, they dance with bluntness
I was and still am in love with live standup comedy, which I suppose is a way of saying I’m in love with the truth. I love hearing it and I love speaking it. The best comics sculpt with swear words, they colour with candour, they dance with bluntness. They are our inelegant philosophers. As he accepted the Mark Twain prize last year, Dave Chappelle said in his acceptance speech: “I love my art form because I understand that every practitioner of it, whether I agree with them or not, they want to be heard, they’ve got something to say, there’s something they noticed – they just want to be understood. I love this genre, it saved my life.”
Arts Council England doesn’t provide funding to comedy. I’ve never understood why. Maybe because some of us use swear words and talk about our genitals? Or maybe it’s because, until corona clipped our wings, we could sustain ourselves quite well? Whereas serious theatre and opera and museums needed subsidy before lockdown, most cities in the UK had a thriving and profitable comedy club. Don’t get me wrong, I love the theatre, but the price and content too often shuts out the masses and appeals only to a small and fortunate few.
Even if you’ve never been to a comedy club, you’ve probably benefited from its effects. Every comedian you’ve ever laughed at on TV, or funny clip you’ve shared online, or classic joke you’ve heard – all of them almost certainly began in one. We offer a platform for diversity too, in a way that the loftier arts still struggle. We’ve still got a long way to go of course, but over 10 years ago it embraced a daft little queer like me with open arms. One of my first mentors who gave me one of my earliest gigs was the brilliant lesbian trans comic Bethany Black. She had an amazing joke: “How can I be lesbian and trans? I just really hate cock.” The last time I played the little room at the Glee in Birmingham, the main room was hosting a regular comedy night with an entirely black lineup, which was totally packed with an audience who were loving it. Which other industry is providing a similar service?
Our comedy clubs are in very serious danger. According to a study conducted by the Live Comedy Association, more than 75% risk permanent closure. There is no guarantee the government bailout or the Arts Council England will help. Many of the absolute weirdos and misfits who made their living from these spaces will lose their livelihoods. But society will lose something much more important. We will lose a deep cultural root from which stems much rich foliage. Without that night at the Glee all those years ago who knows what I’d be doing now? Almost certainly selling spice.
Early in my career, I found out that the best thing I could say on stage was the first thing that came to my mind. It was rarely elegant and often offensive, but it was always honest. The first and only thing that comes to mind today: save live comedy.