Laughs in the Time of Corona

This afternoon, the promoter of a gig that me and my husband are lined up to do in a couple of weeks’s time emailed us the poster, which brightened my day, as I’ve really missed performing. It’s all outdoors, so if the rain is pouring, the gig will be cancelled, he warned. There will be extra precautions for the sake of social distancing and each comedian will be given a fresh mic. It’s a small gig anyway, so us comics will be locally sourced and so will the audience, which will be bijou by probability as well as necessity. Risk has been weighed up besides financial viability. We can do this, but only because it is so small, and we are not depending on it. And neither is the promoter depending on us. We are not famous, so it’s likely no one will be too disappointed if we need to be swapped with other acts, which is a grim thought. If we are, it will be because we are on local lockdown; or because one of us is ill.

For weeks now as we have eased back into the working economy of life, a few of us have been pondering what it means to be a performer in plague times. My last gig was March 14th, with a lively audience of young kids, back when all we thought we needed to do was not shake hands, and to wash the hands we weren’t shaking a lot. Social distancing was not well understood. After my gig, I chatted with fellow performers and discussed whether we were going to go to the pub before they all got shut, as the PM was making (very quiet wuffly) noises that we should maybe cut down on going to the pub a bit. I said I had plans to go out that night, but my friend Alice said there was no way she would be. I made the journey home on the train; the first few carriages were rammed. Then, I got the bus back to my home town and sat upstairs away from people. Workers from the Amazon and Clipper warehouses got on the bus. Someone coughed. A small chip of panic appeared on the edge of my brain.

Beware the Ides of March, eh? I had so many gigs booked in. After my run of deaths, grief, stress, broken brains, broken limbs and all the way back round to very nearly death again, I thought 2020 might be the year I finally got to have a decent crack at comedy. Of course it won’t. This won’t be a decent year for anyone. But then again…

At the beginning of Lockdown, full-time comedians Scott Bennett, Jon Pearson and Chris Purchase seemed to go head-on into the world of online comedy where comics like Rob Mulholland and Russell Kane were already making their mark. On the other hand, a few of us who had been regular podcasters started doing a lot less online content; we were just frazzled and worn-out with the day-to-day. I recently took another look at what I could do and I have started adding things to YouTube, and I’m hopefully gonna get better at that as I go. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking, well, this is probably it for now, might as well make the most of things. Sarah Johnson, for one has made me laugh so hard today with her latest character, Crafts with Carol. You may know Sarah from Fit to Drop, her mini sketch series with Lindsey Santoro. And I got a mention on Radio Derby thanks to the awesome Elizabeth Vaanta Black of Her Dark Materials plugging my channel. I’m still learning as I go as this is a very different medium to live gigging, but I am pretty pleased with my output. I feel creative, and a bit more energised by the world of comedy.

Being a bit higher up in the comedy tree than me, the lads have gone for the big push, looking to monetise what they do, and absolutely they should – go big and stay home, lads! They can, plus they are likely to miss out on a bigger chunk of their income than me. As for me? I am made of side hustle. There are many strings to my bow, and I am the only one who can play the violin right now. Yes, that means it is a good job I am so super talented as I am the only one earning money in my house. No, it does not mean super tiny sympathy violin. I am doing okay. I’m very busy, but at the same time I’ve gained 4 hours in the day from not travelling.

I can’t say I haven’t been a little envious of my more successful friends in the past. If they have been financially and emotionally better placed to take their obvious and amazing talent forward; find a special place in their cold, dead heart to bury their shit review (women get: “she was a woman!!!”; men get: “he wore a shirt!!!”) and just get on with it. But here we all are. This virus hasn’t been a ‘great leveller’ in a privilege-blind-Gal-Gadot-singing-“Imagine”-kind of way. But it has cut a horrible great swathe through the comedy circuit now, and everyone’s dream is ruined.

Before I continue, I should point out for context that you really have to earn your dues to get on in comedy, so there’s a flip-side of a bit of snobbery that you don’t seem to get in other disciplines. Open-Mic is amateur, but you can still be that when you start earning, and then gradually you become a Semi-Pro when it becomes paid more often than not, but you can’t be a Professional unless it’s your full-time and only job. You don’t get ‘semi-professional writers’; you don’t get ‘semi-professional painters’; you rarely get paid in poetry at all! Actors say they are ‘resting’ while they serve you coffee. Yet, some comedians who are struggling to pay the rent or feed themselves properly, but whose only income comes from comedy can look down on people who just can’t do that. Yeah, and some say comedy isn’t an Art? With that kind of pretentious attitude around? Come on! Of course, It’s only a very few people who voice this opinion, but you can see the thinking affect the self-esteem of a lot of acts who do comedy+side-hustle, or comedy-as-a-side-hustle, or Portfolio Careerist, as I call myself. Because I am also pretentious.

It doesn’t actually give me any joy to see everyone brought so low. In fact, it breaks my heart. Of course, there are things that break my heart even more – the fact I haven’t been able to see my Dad in his care home since March; people I know who have had multiple deaths in their family; so many people have lost their jobs. But I want to say to everyone who has tried to keep us smiling, and those who have found their other CV skills and gone to working in their old day jobs, you are my heroes. But I still find it shattering that there are only a handful of outdoor gigs right now, and thousands of frustrated comedian and fans of comedy. In fact, this week in my now very much main hustle, I got to virtually meet a female comedian we all know well who has changed her career. This is the way it is. But you know, she’s got the talent. She’ll do well, and probably like me, comedy will have to be a side-hustle for now, but it’s better than the alternative. So many comedians have said this is the end for them. They won’t be back.

This last weekend I had two gigs booked at Manchester’s Frog and Bucket. I had masochistically kept it in my Google Calendar, so I could see the notification every time I logged on to my laptop last weekend, which I was doing a fair bit because of building this website. I had been really looking forward to playing the venue this year as I had been meant to play it last year. Instead, I had a video message from my pals Nig Lovell and Will Seaward at the venue telling me they hoped I would bounce back to comedy soon and Eric ( my tumour) was a prick! It was with a bittersweet joy then that I saw that the venue has just been trialled for the UK’s first socially distanced indoor gig. Joy in my heart that there was a gig, that it was Kiri and Sian and Ola, and Janice and Shazia! Woe in my heart that it should have been meeeeeeeeeee. But also 🙁 because I don’t think I’d be a draw for 80 punters.

I have already seen a few comments that this proves we cannot sustain live comedy. I think we can, but we are going to have to be patient, with social distancing and with ourselves. I’ve seen promoter emails saying they will book comedians on half fees to account for half-capacity when indoor-gigging comes back. Not all venues will be able to do even this. A lot fewer gigs, a lot lower fees mean that it may well be that everyone has to become a bit ‘semi-pro’; a bit portfolio.

One thing we can say for certain is we still need to find things to laugh at, and we all need different things to laugh at too. I mean, Corona Virus might be a very topical act right now, but he’s a bit up himself, blagging his way all over the circuit, accountable for way too many deaths, and edging out more talented comedians. And what an absolute hack. Hack. Hack, hack, hack…. oh no…

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