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

Is it fair to ask the audience for donations at the end of a gig advertised as ‘free’?

Peter Grahame ‘It should be made clear. “Free” is not the same as “pay what you can”. Many theatres have operated “pay what you can” nights for years now. They do not call them “free”.’

Luisa Omielan ‘Absolutely! You must, and audiences need to learn to always bring cash to a free show. Comedy is a craft and if you have seen something funny and entertaining you should reward it. We are artists and comedy is our living. If you really don’t have the money, or hated the show, then don’t make a donation. But if you loved it and had a great night, put in what you think it’s worth.’

Harry Deansway ‘No! Passing a bucket around is not free. I think nights like this should be billed as “bucket clubs” or “pay what you want” or “cheap”. Definitely not “free”, as that is a lie.’

Barry Ferns ‘Yes, of course. That is why they are called “donations” and not “charges”, because you choose to donate! We never put pressure on people to pay. Hard up people deserve a laugh as well.’

Adam Larter ‘It’s fair to ask, as long as you’re not forcing anyone to pay. I personally don’t ask for donations, I’d rather people laughed. It’s much less of a crime than all the clubs in central london claiming to be the best club ever charging people £15 a ticket and being dreadful. That is not fair on an audience but it happens all the time.’

Nish Kumar ‘Yes, because there’s still no obligation to pay anything. I’ve never been at a night where you have not been allowed to leave without paying any money.’

Craig Beadle (regular comedy-goer) ‘I’d say it’s fair. I’d happily pay street performers I’ve watched in Covent Garden. As long as it’s not a compulsory donation, it can be a good way to reward talent.’

Emily Shipp (regular comedy-goer) ‘It isn’t unfair to ask, but it feels so awkward! You’re being asked to rate the performance based on whatever you have left in your wallet. When I’m asked for donations I start to worry about whether the comedians can afford to eat. It turns comedy into a charity case.’

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