In the last thirty years the live comedy industry has changed almost beyond recognition. A world that started off as one night stands in smokey rooms in tiny pubs and clubs has now grown into a huge business, with acts such as Michael McIntyre, Peter Kay and Lee Evans taking up residency in arenas more used to staging rock concerts. Comedians have become household names on a par with those rock stars, adored by men and women of all ages. Smoking inside venues may have been banned, but the inexorable rise of stand-up demonstrates that you can never ban laughter.
Ticketmaster’s State of Play report accurately reflects this seismic entertainment shift in a number of ways. From the growth in popularity of comedy as a mainstream leisure activity to, most strikingly, the increasing number of female comedians now taking increasingly large shows on tour around the UK. It used to be said that women were not funny and that comedy fans only wanted to see men onstage. The likes of Miranda Hart, Sarah Millican and many more have disproved that thesis in recent years.
In the 21st Century going to a comedy show is no longer a minority activity, it is an extremely popular lifestyle choice. The rise of stand-up on television has helped to spark this modern boom, with fans seeing comedians on TV programmes such as Live at the Apollo, Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow and countless panel shows and then deciding to have a night out to see their favourites in the flesh.
The State of Play results also confirmed what I had always suspected, that live comedy is very much a social experience. While we might watch comedy on our own at home on one of our various screens, we go out to comedy events with partners and friends and laugh together. A comedy gig can unite people. There is no sound quite like the sound of a room of people roaring with laughter in unison. Comedy also has an escapist appeal. In hard times we go to comedy to forget about our troubles and cheer ourselves up. In good times we still go to comedy simply because it is a fantastically enjoyable thing to do.
Some cynics have suggested that the comedy boom is a bubble and it has to burst at some point. But it does not feel like that when you are seated at London’s O2 Arena surrounded by over 15,000 eager Lee Evans fans. The appetite feels insatiable. Live comedy is here to stay. It may even get bigger. When comedians started playing large theatres regularly in the early 1990s people wondered if it had peaked. Now arena tours have become the norm. It may be only a matter of time before we see the first stand-up gig in a stadium in the UK.
I started this foreword by saying that the live comedy industry has changed almost beyond recognition. One thing has certainly not changed. From the moment they walk or skip onstage stand-up comedians still set out to put smiles on the faces of their fans. The only real difference today is that they do it in front of many more fans. As comedy continues to evolve that desire to make audiences grin from ear-to-ear will never change.
The State of Play: Comedy UK report (PDF) is available to download here.