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Kat Nugent: Comedy costs money too, but funding is scarce

Julian Barratt in The Mighty Boosh's stage show, which has required elaborate props since its inception. Photo: Ella Mullins Julian Barratt in The Mighty Boosh's stage show, which has required elaborate props since its inception. Photo: Ella Mullins
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Arts Council England recently stated that comedy shouldn’t be eligible for funding as it “tends to be a commercially self-sustaining performance form”, and that “most comedy” production costs “tend to be low” and technical time needed is “generally modest”. But this simplistic view impacts on job opportunities and production values backstage.

Firstly, the amount of work available is affected. Just as theatre is broader than the musical, comedy is broader than a man and a mic. The problem is that big promoters selling TV stand-up acts in arena tours are viewed as comedy. But they are just the visible face.

For those working with independent producers, there’s little support for design beyond the microphone from funding sources elsewhere. And not all comedians just want to get on TV or deliver conventional man-and-a-mic type stand-up. Some play with bold creative ideas through lighting, sound, AV, set, costume, props. (As we all know, the making and design of bizarre props is an essential part of the best comedy.) But they struggle to fulfil potential without cash. Consequently some exciting backstage work never materialises due to lack of funding and support.

Secondly, unless you happen to be one of the few recycled tour managers working on commercial tours, the work that does materialise is often poorly paid. Contrary to popular belief, lack of money is a big issue on most comedy shows outside of the clubs and arenas, even the brilliant ones. Fees and budget for any type of design can be practically non-existent. So there’s little scope for building a backstage career in comedy.

Plus, designers can’t afford the time. I’ve designed shows that fall into the bracket of comedy in Edinburgh, London and on tour for over the past decade. For some I’ve devised design over a six-month period, adapting environment as the show itself develops. Just as I have with some theatre companies. I believe it’s been some of my best work, but the financial hit means it’s not time I can regularly invest. Without designers, how do comedy productions progress beyond the mic?

Lastly, taking more than a mic on tour is near impossible. Often, the comedian is left carrying a few key props on the train – the production suffers without the proper financial support. No need to use the dock, the carefully designed set got scrapped back somewhere south of the Watford Gap.

If you’re a comedian on tour you don’t get a technical rehearsal, you get a mic check. You rarely get longer than a couple of hours to tech something that might have well over 100 cues. Yes, some comedy shows have as many cues as theatre. What does that tell you? Yet they aren’t eligible for funding because comedy ‘tends’ to be just a man and a mic.

Funding should be case by case no matter what the art form. To cut out a whole industry entirely prevents growth, change and devalues production backstage. Is that really a culture we want to live in?

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