Comedy needs a trade union – before it’s just independently wealthy men called Hugo

The burgeoning number of comedians in the UK has created a buyers market, in which there is always a comic who will do it cheaper or for free. 

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Most people hate their jobs these days, and with good reason: you have to get up at 6:30am, spend all day hammering on a keyboard, only to get paid a fraction of what your labour is worth, and you then have to spend most of it on rent anyway. Meanwhile Karen from accounts won’t stop talking to you about Celebrity Dancing with Wolves on Ice or whatever it is, and climate change will probably end civilisation before you can retire.

As a result, I think we can forgive the suspicion that people who work in the arts, who might like their jobs more or get greater fulfilment out of them, are not doing real jobs. The word “job” is so synonymous with the idea of endless suffering in our society, that it’s hard to imagine a job that isn’t an unpleasant means to the end of not starving to death. Except when you apply for jobs and you have to pretend that you’ve always, since birth, had a passion for mergers and acquisitions, a passion so fierce that you’d merge and acquire for free if you had to.

The fact is, though, that people in the arts – be it acting, music, visual arts or, in my case, comedy – are often expected to work for free despite putting in the hours.

Now, to be clear, this isn’t about doing things for free here and there, something which we’ve long accepted. I couldn’t name, for example, a comic who wouldn’t be happy to perform for free at a nearby gig to try out some new material. This is, to some extent, part and parcel of freelance work.

What I’m talking about here is when the labour of people in the arts is exploited for the profits of others. I can only speak as a comic, but on innumerable occasions I’ve found myself on the end of an explanation from a promoter in a dreary midlands town about how he can’t pay us because then he’d never make any money, and that if we keep doing work for him for free we might just break through to the rarefied position of making a living.

This speech always, curiously, overlooks the fact that the comics aren't making any money, but presumably that’s fine because they work in the arts, darling, they have a passion for driving to Wolverhampton on a Thursday night to do stand-up in a pub function room, to a crowd of around 50 people who have all paid £12-15 to get in, and yet mysteriously still go home unpaid thanks to the economics of running the night. These comics, though, surely understand that being £40 down on petrol is nothing compared to the artistic fulfilment they experience.

It wasn’t always this way. Speak to comedians who were around in the 90s, and they’ll tell you tales of people without TV credits making a good living on the club circuit from a fairly early stage – because, simply, there were less comics and if you wanted somebody good you had to pay a fair rate.

The burgeoning number of comics in the UK is great for comedy fans and the diversity of the scene. But it has created a buyers market for the less-scrupulous promoters, in which there is always a comic who will do it cheaper or for free. I recently spoke to a comic who has been performing for over 25 years, who remarked that it’s much harder for him to get paid work now, when young comics with full-time jobs, who have been taught not to see comedy as a profession but as a hobby, can undercut him with free or poverty-wage labour.

Contrast that with Russia, a country where everything is fine, and where I was fortunate to work as a TV comedian for a few years. There, people even at the lower end of the pro circuit are able to make good money from their performances: enough to pay their rent and even support a family. That’s not because the ticket prices are higher, or because the economy in Russia is better, but because there are fewer comics and promoters have to pay them their due to get good acts.

The end result of this problem in the UK is that comedy will increasingly become the preserve of those who can afford to work for free, many of whom will unfortunately be called Hugo. An industry closed off to talented young comics who aren’t either independently wealthy or willing to work a full time job on top of a demanding career as a performer – especially when you consider the huge costs of taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe, which for many comics remains a key path to success.

There are of course many good promoters in Britain who pay acts fairly for the work they do, but there still needs to be a structural change in the industry to produce a system which works for most acts.

For this, we need look no further than New Zealand, which is admittedly quite far, but which has dealt with this issue there rather neatly. Kiwi comics have a trade union, the Comedy Guild, which sets rates for different kinds of work, represents comics in disputes, and enables comics to support each other and build a cooperative industry that works for all of those who are a part of it.

This is not only possible in the UK, but essential, if comics are to be able to have greater stability and if the scene is to maintain its diversity. And maybe if we had a system like that, people’s nans up and down the country would stop asking them when they’re going to get a real job.

Milo Edwards is a comedian and one of the hosts of the Trashfuture podcast.