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Comedy - the new stadium rocker

Grim up north - but one industry is laughing all the way to the bank, says Will Melvin

Published on January 10th 2011.

Comedy - the new stadium rocker

IT IS a modern truism that the economy's difficulty is comedy's opportunity. As financial times get tougher, punters flock to clubs, theatres and DVD shops to get their escape in laughter.

Bishop sold out more than 60,000 tickets in six nights at the Arena before Christmas and has another pencilled in for June

Just look at the legions of TV comics hawking DVDs at Christmas to see what a competitive market it is. John Bishop's head is decorating the front of the Liverpool One HMV, and even Glaswegian Kevin Bridges, a relative newcomer on the scene, has been able to shift more than 20,000 DVDs this festive period.

But the real boom in comedy audiences has come in the 10,000-seat plus arenas where hundreds of thousands of people are flocking to see comedians where once they would never have dreamed of doing so, and Liverpool’s Arena is at the forefront of the biggest seismic shift in British comedy's audience behaviour.

During the recession of the early 1990s, David Baddiel and Rob Newman became the first British comedians to play a big arena when they sold out Wembley, but in the intervening time precious few have tried to repeat the feat.

However, now thanks to the influence of rolling comedy on satellite and cable channels, and the ubiquity of comedians on mainstream television, acts like Frankie Boyle, Russell Howard and Bishop can sell out the big rooms emulating the success of Peter Kay, the godfather of Arena comedy.

Jimmy CarrJimmy CarrAs you'd expect in Liverpool, Bishop sold out more than 60,000 tickets in six nights at the Arena before Christmas and has another pencilled in for June, but he started the tour at Wembley has taken in a few other arenas, and his elevation to this stage is thanks in no small part to his hard work and ambition to stretch himself beyond mere stand-up - his roles in C4's Skins and the soon to be released Ken Loach movie, Route Irish, are a testament to his work ethic.

But the real changes to the stand-up economy, and the influence of TV, is noticeable when one looks at the ticket sales of Howard, Jason Manford and Alan Carr, all of whom play the Arena in 2011.

Howard has made the leap from the club circuit to arenas in little more than five years and that must, in some part, be down to his regular presence as a panellist on Mock The Week - on some incessant loop on Dave - while his BBC appearances on Live at the Apollo and his own BBC3 shows also get regular airing.

Ian Christie, marketing manager at the Royal Court and the Liverpool Comedy Festival says that often there are two different audiences for comedy now, 'The people who go and see Russell Howard are people who might not necessarily come to Rawhide Comedy Club or a show at the festival.

'They are probably more likely to watch comedy on DVDs and TV and the arena shows are a lot like the DVD experience with big screens allowing people to see the comic from anywhere they are sitting. It's a lot different to the traditional club environment.'

And although it might be easy to sniff at Jason Manford, Alan Carr or Jimmy Carr and point to TV being the reason so many come out to see them, Christie says their 'sudden' elevation to the arenas often masks time spent building an audience and developing the kind of TV and live profile that gets people buying tickets in their thousands.

'If you look at Jimmy Carr, right from the start when he played the Rawhide, he was ambitious enough to want to make it right to the very top and had the work ethic to go after it,' says Christie. 'Since then, he has written a brand new show every year when most comics are happy doing the same 40 minutes they have had for years, and he has toured continuously to build his audience.'

However, TV does play its part in this boom – in Newman and Baddiel's era, satellite and cable were in their infancy and terrestrial TV was king and it naturally only had space for one or two big acts – now with multiple channels and endless repeats, lots of comedians get a shot at the big time with even with one or two well received bits on panel shows.

Canadian Tom Stade, best known for Frankie Boyle's Tramadol Nights helped sell out the Laughterhouse's two Liverpool clubs in November thanks largely to one very well received performance on Mock the Week. Many people booked just to see him rather than come for the normal four comic bill.

The club's resident compere, Chris Cairns, says it can be infuriating to see people turn up to see a comic simply because they have seen them on TV.

He says, 'Russell Howard, Andy Parsons (MTW) and Tom Stade have been playing Liverpool for years, especially during the festival, and sometimes struggled to sell tickets, then when they have been on the TV, bingo - people will come out for them.

'They are no better now than they were then, I just wish sometimes that people would take a chance and support comedy a bit more.'

But, that's not been a problem in Liverpool recently. Laughterhouse promoter Paula Harrington can't sell tickets quickly enough for her venues, while Christie is hopeful that Rawhide's move away from the Royal Court basement and back into big premises again (at the Contemporary Urban Centre on Jamaica Street) will see it sell close to 1,000 tickets most weekends.

Harrington says, 'With the numbers of people coming to comedy in Liverpool, either locals or weekend break people, we know there is room for lots of different comedy in Liverpool every weekend - that's a sign of a boom in the industry.

'We can put on a one-off Reg D Hunter visit and easily sell out three or four shows – comics like him are much more likely to come out and do shows now as they know the audience is ready willing and able,' says Harrington.

Christie is more bullish and brings it right back to the recession and hard times, 'When times are tough, you want to be able to know you are not wasting your money when you go for a night out. You might not want to spend £80 on a ticket for a band who may not put in the effort or not play all the hits.

'But for £25 you know John Bishop or Jimmy Carr are going to put on a great show and it'll still feel quite intimate and personal in an arena. But equally they know there is quality comedy on our bills week-in-week-out.'

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AnonymousJanuary 7th 2011.

Say what you like but I am never going to the arena to watch a convert by any of these people and especially not Jimmy Carr. Loathsome man who was voted the Daily Mail's comic of the year. Sez it all really.

AnonymousJanuary 7th 2011.

Sorry. That should say concert, not convert

AnonymousJanuary 5th 2012.

Depends which way you look at it, really...

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