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Why are most comedy groups white, middle class twenty/early thirty-somethings?

By • Scotland

First off, are most comedy groups white, middle class twenty/early thirty-somethings? I haven’t done a formal scientific investigation, so this blog could be based entirely on something that isn’t true. But from my random observations and general feelings based on four years at the Edinburgh Fringe, it does seem to be the case.

What’s more worrying though is that nobody seems to be asking the question here or discussing the topic at all. Maybe it is being discussed behind the scenes in various organizations, but at the front line of performance and venues it doesn’t seem to be covered at all and there seems to be more of an every man for himself attitude and no real discussion on where performers actually come from.

Added to this it still appears in many TV circles that TV comedy is largely produced by Oxbridge graduates. Do you have to be educated in classics to be funny? Not in my opinion, especially when compared to the hilarity I’ve seen when running improvisation workshops in Balham secondary schools.

I believe there are other factors that influence the demographic of people performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, and most of them accidentally come out from the presumed open access nature of the Fringe. The Fringe is structured on being open access, so that anyone can take a show to the fringe – but can everyone really take a show to the fringe?

These are the basic requirements in taking a show to the fringe in a standard paid venue, and this is for quite a small group (us) with a small budget (ours):

£3000 guarantee to secure venue
£400 programme entry
£400 printing costs
£1500 accommodation
£400 equipment
£300 costumes

So that’s a bare minimum of £6000, and that doesn’t include living expenses. Most groups in paid venues probably spend more than this too. On the Free Fringe the guarantee payment is removed, but then again so is the chance of making any major money back.

For comedy groups to start making a proper impact and get noticed in Edinburgh they usually have to come back at least three years in a row, for example Pappy’s Fun Club, Delete The Banjax and The Penny Dreadfuls. But behind the scenes you’ll usually find that the performers had already been performing at the festival with other groups for a few years before their better known group took off.

So that’s probably about five years of sourcing £6000 to make a serious impact on Edinburgh and the comedy industry. But in reality the costs each year actually go up, as groups tend to rise up to higher profile venues and bigger rooms.

Also remember the Edinburgh Fringe takes place over the whole month of August, so you need that time off any work and family commitments. If you’re doing a proper job you’re probably also going to need a few weeks off before, and most people are pretty dead to the world for a week after.

So to summarise the following is needed to launch a successful comedy group on the Fringe:
1. At least £6000 a year.
2. At least a month off from work and other major commitments.
3. Repeat for at least five years with no other ‘life things’ getting in the way.

I believe these requirements already cancel out huge sections of the population from doing the fringe. People who have £6000 outright to spend might tend to also be in ‘proper jobs’ that don’t allow the time off required, whereas those with easy time off might be in a life situations where it’s harder or riskier to find the money. Older people may have families that makes it harder to justify the repeated time away. Younger people just don’t yet have the money or organization skills to get a group there.

So it’s already self-selected a small fraction of the population. When you then multiply this over the repeat years needed you can see why a tiny percentage of “fringe types” remain.

In addition to this is the peer group effect. When I went the first time I came back home and reported to all my friends about it, and low and behold four years later they are all here with shows. This seems to be repeated for most people here, as they originally heard about it and were inspired to do it when someone from within their peer group took a show here.

There may be Edinburgh Fringe outreach programmes going on, I really hope there are as I think they are really needed. Otherwise it’s just like one internal slap on the back fest.

Also there seem to be large comedy organizations (BBC, Avalon, Comedy Central, Channel 4 etc etc) that have huge amounts of money and could make a massive difference to grass routes comedy but don’t. They seem to support the fringe by showcasing the best new talent, or supporting competitions, or swiping off the annual award winners into fame and fortune. But they seem to target people who have already gone through the five year cycle, so the self-selection process has already taken place.

Why aren’t the BBC sponsoring the Free Fringe? That’s the real grass routes here, that’s where the help is really needed. Why aren’t Channel 4 covering the fringe programme costs of new acts?

I was at the Edinburgh International Television Festival last year, which occurs over the last weekend of the Edinburgh Fringe. The general attitude of many producers I met there seemed to be looking at who had won awards at the end, going to see them, and then maybe arranging a meeting. This is so lazy it makes me feel physically sick. Again the self-selection process of who can afford the time and money to do the fringe for five years has already happened, and they can swoop in like vultures at the end of this process claiming they ‘discovered new talent’. Idiots.

So the closest we’ve got to any kind of open access point to the Edinburgh Fringe is the fantastic Free Fringe, with Peter Buckley-Hill genuinely caring about new performers and doing an amazing job of keeping the fringe alive. Without him the cycle would break down.

How does the fringe as a whole treat this amazing gift of a Free Fringe? Terribly.

Last week there was a horrendous mail out from Three Weeks, one of the largest reviewers at the fringe. They seemed to have taken it upon themselves to spend an entire issue slating off the Free Fringe, with one star reviews for multiple acts. Furthermore the writing was far from objective, with idiotic reviewers gleefully insulting acts personally just to prove how jolly clever their writing was. Even worse was that simultaneously some of the higher profile groups seem to have such great press people that their reviews now read like a verbatim copy of their press release.

The message to new acts was clear: DON’T BOTHER, WE DON’T WANT YOU.

But we do want you, and more than that, we need you. Without these new acts trying new things the fringe will freeze up and die and just become a massive orgy of men who have been on Live at the Apollo or Mock the Week.

Why are the reviewers even marking new acts on the same scale as groups who are professionally managed with over a decade of experience? By all means point out the great things on the Free Fringe (Cariad Lloyd, Phil Kaye, Four Screws Loose etc) but why on Earth bother to kill off everything else from this amazing melting pot?

Reviewers don’t do that for TV.  They should. “X factor. Shit bog standard talent show of people that can’t sing. 1 star.” Three Weeks. I don’t understand why hours of awful TV manages to avoid being reviewed at all while a group of sixth formers missing a beat in sketch show on the free fringe results in such a barrage of poison pen reviews.

The Free Fringe is more creative than the entire Edinburgh Television Festival. In the Free Fringe there is no money and yet every year there is a never ending world of imaginative new ideas and life. At the Edinburgh Television Festival there was loads of money flying around, men in suits drinking free champagne in the museum, and multiple lectures on creative strategy. Over the same year the entire multi-million television industry seemed to spawn Geordie Shore, Made in Essex, and Made in Chelsea. Well done TV.

On top of all this in The Scotsman recently there was an article that seemed to suggest that The Free Fringe would be the death of the Edinburgh Fringe. What??? It’s the only thing that’s keeping it alive long term. This is because the Free Fringe’s Peter Buckley-Hill suggests a sliding scale for the programme entry, which I think is a fantastic idea.

At the moment all groups/shows pay the same amount to be in the Edinburgh Fringe programme. So if you are a multi-millionaire Mock the Week comedian, with a full production team behind you, performing to 500 people every night at 20 quid a pop OR a new to the fringe performer with a free show in a small room behind the pub – you pay the same to be in the programme. Seems fair? No!

So many Free Fringe people, and others, are suggesting that maybe the people performing in bigger venues with more money should pay more to the infrastructure of the fringe than the people playing in smaller venues with no money.

This is such an obviously good idea to me that I can’t believe it’s not the case already.

Yet it appears to be blocked by everyone. One of the major arguments seems to be “It’s only 400 quid or whatever, it’s such a small amount and it’s good value.” Which is quite frankly pathetic. Of course it’s a small amount to the huge acts, that’s the whole point. But to the 17 year old doing comedy for the first time in drafty church hall in Balham, it could be the deciding factor between going to the fringe or not, and unfortunately at the moment the answer is “not”.

So all in all, yes the Fringe is open access, but hidden rules and patterns pop up that make it anything but. When we have a chance to attack these factors head on, we should be open to change. Listen to Peter Buckley-Hill.


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