Free comedy gigs: free for all?

With free clubs gaining popularity, are they putting other clubs out of business or introducing a new audience to live stand-up? We feed back some opinions

The best things in life are free, so they say. But then, ‘they’ also say you get what you pay for. A few years ago, the free comedy circuit was just a handful of open mic nights. Now, there are slickly run shows featuring line-ups of very good quality, where donations are often encouraged at the end of the gig.

Some industry members are worried about the impact of free shows on entry-charging clubs. We asked a variety of promoters, comedians and regular comedy-goers for their opinions. Click on the questions below for their answers.


© Nathan James Page

Are free gigs putting other clubs out of business?

Julia Chamberlain ‘I suspect they’re not helping. Ticket prices are being driven down relentlessly – thanks Groupon, thanks LastMinute – so people often pay more for the tube journey to a gig than they do to gain entry. But there’s not a massive overlap in acts, so it’s horses for courses.’

Nish Kumar (comedian, plays both free and entry-charging gigs) ‘I don’t think that’s the case. You would hope that seeing good quality free comedy would encourage audiences to go out to more comedy, and pay to see people they have enjoyed for free. But maybe I’m being naive…’

Peter Grahame ‘It’s a free market. It’s a tough time for people and their money. I don’t, yet, see any direct link. Good clubs will hopefully survive, bad ones may suffer, as ever.’

Adam Larter ‘Yes, every time someone goes to a free club they decide they will never pay for comedy again. Much in the same way that buskers stop people going to see live music. Only an idiot would think that these two are connected.’

Lewis Schaffer (comedian, plays both free and entry-charging gigs, and his own free solo show ‘Lewis Schaffer is Free Until Famous’ twice per week) ‘Yes, probably. But free web browsers put Netscape out of business, and free sat navs on phones are putting TomTom out of business. Free drives out pricey. I should be an economist.’

James Woroniecki ‘In general, my own gigs are doing really well. But I sympathise with the smaller and mid-sized clubs that say they are affected, and the long-running wage-paying clubs that have free gigs open on the same night virtually next door.’

Harry Deansway ‘There are loads of mixed bill nights on the London circuit, all pretty much of the same standard and format, some are free, some are paid in. Why would you pay to see one of these when you can get almost the same product for free? If the free craze continues then, long term, it might actually be a good thing, forcing promoters and comedians to work harder to put together nights that are worth paying for.’

Luisa Omielan (comedian, plays both free and entry-charging gigs) ‘I don’t see how. It’s giving people choice. If audiences want comedy they will go see it where they can. A little competition is a good thing. Well run clubs aren’t losing business because of any free nights. There are some amazing clubs out there, paid and unpaid. Put on quality shows and people will come. I haven’t seen any clubs go out of business because of a free show. There is so much choice now, and clubs need to keep updated and feed the demand, make comedy more accessible.’

Barry Ferns ‘Angel’s success is not because we are free. If that was the case, we would have been successful from the beginning, and every free club in London would attract the same crowds that we do. It took us a year to build up a following. Our success is simply due to the fact that we put on a great show. The excellent paid gigs in London have nothing to worry about because they are worth the money they are charging.’

Sara Pascoe ‘I think the audiences are made up of completely different demographics. People who go in a big group to an expensive comedy club wouldn’t be seen dead standing at the back of a 30-seater where none of the comics wear suits. This may be controversial, but I sincerely believe that live comedy is a meritocracy and that if you put on the acts that people want to see, then the people come to see them. Whenever I hear about a club “suffering” I look at their line-up and I understand why. There are a lot of places still booking aggressive, nasty, misogynist and uninteresting acts, who may seem to be doing well in the room, who get big laughs, but create a sour atmosphere, and students and a younger generation of comedy- goer will be put off and never return. It’s not free venues fault. It is the badly run, but expensively ticketed clubs own responsibility that they aren’t flourishing. Comedy is changing and promoters must be sensitive and flexible to that.’

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