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

Do free gigs cheapen the image of live comedy?

Barry Ferns ‘No, not in our experience. Most art galleries are free, does that devalue art? Just because we make good comedy accessible, we don’t devalue it. You will always pay a lot of money to see the Michael McIntyres of the world.’

Lewis Schaffer ‘Well, yes, but whose fault is that? Comedians are willing to work for nothing and the quality of comedy is basically the same from free gigs all the way up to the Comedy Store. Too many people can be funny in front of 100 people. Stage time has a value, both in practising the stand-up “craft” and in building an audience. A comic cannot get an audience unless he performs to an audience. And most new comics should have to pay to get people to listen to them. Sometimes I feel I should pay my audience!’

Sara Pascoe ‘Comedy is cheap. It’s one person and their stupid limited brain. There’s nothing classy or cool about it and I think it should look as grubby as possible. That’s why all the truly great comedy is live and stuff on telly feels so wrong. The best gigs are in cellars, which gives you an idea of how mucky a craft it is. The audience should feel anonymous and disembodied, not concerned with what they are wearing at the disco afterwards.’

Julia Chamberlain ‘It varies from gig to gig. Some fully paid gigs cheapen the image of live comedy, let’s face it. There are some excellently run free gigs, and some just chancing it.’

Luisa Omielan ‘No, badly run clubs cheapen the image of live comedy. Put on quality and you’ll only be associated with quality.’

Adam Larter ‘Possibly. It probably needs cheapening, though. Comedy works best when the comic has a status below the audience. “Live at the Apollo” rockstar comedy gives people the wrong idea of stand-up. Real comedy should be flawed, it’s great to see the edges and it’s great to feel that the comedy is a relationship and not a service.’

Peter Grahame ‘What about free music gigs, exhibitions, theatre shows? There has always been a culture of free entry in the arts, whether state or independently promoted.’

Nish Kumar ‘Any gig that is poorly organised can do that. I’d argue that paid gigs that are badly put together are worse for the image of live comedy. If people pay money for a bad experience, then they are understandably going to be more upset than if they have paid nothing.’

Harry Deansway ‘There is a real danger that we are conditioning audiences to not pay for live comedy. We are saying what we are doing is not worth paying for. We’ve already seen how people no longer want to pay for magazines or music. We are all artists doing it for love and passion, but that doesn’t pay the rent and, believe me, I’ve tried to pay my rent with love and passion many times. What we have to ask is: is the club circuit worth keeping? And instead of making a few hundred people a living, do we just make it all free and a hobby instead of an industry?’

Latest comedy features

London Punderground: comedian Darren Walsh puns the tube map

‘They want to extend the Northern line, but I think this is Morden adequate.’

Jessie Cave shares some exclusive doodles

The twee comedian and ‘Harry Potter’ star draws Time Out a few London-themed drawings

Doug Stanhope’s top ten stand-ups

The hellraising US stand-up and Time Out favourite picks his favourite fellow comics

Joseph Morpurgo: on the record

The Foster’s Award nominee talks us through some hidden gems from his record collection

See more comedy features