How to make comedy in the time of Corona

Comedian Elf Lyons discusses creative innovation and rebellion in a dystopian age

June 16, 2020 · 7 min read
Photo by Markus Winkler

Lockdown has meant that the only two people I have seen face to face are my parents. My only place of privacy is the bathroom. More than ever, I long to do my job, write jokes and communicate with people I am not biologically obliged to love, not only for my mental health but to stop me turning into Jack Nicholson from The Shining and chasing my parents around with an axe.

Due to Covid-19, along with most people in the performing arts, I have lost almost all income and work for the next six months. The Edinburgh Fringe, the largest trade fair for comedians, has been cancelled. Festivals, venues and recording studios have been shut down. Despite the chancellor’s support for the self-employed, like many other performers, I don’t qualify for help, so it’s back to the phone queue for universal credit. Due to the stress induced by the pandemic I am this close to starting a podcast. That is worrying.

The crisis has, however, catalysed one major response in creative workers in the UK: high creative turnout. We housebound have taken advantage of two components of the British psyche: neuroticism and entrepreneurship. Like colleagues currently trapped at home with incomes frozen, all contemplating future career changes to ease their mental and financial health, I am working non-stop to create free online comedy content from my bedroom most nights. I perform on Twitch and other platforms I can find –desperately encouraging fans with disposable income to give me £3 on my Ko-Fi page. I now work the comedy equivalent of BabeStation from the family bathroom, thriving on encouraging online philanthropy from people I don’t know.

Risks of exposure

Philanthropy is what many comics are living on, in the forms of Patreon, Ko-Fi or GoFundMe pages set up by organisations such as NextUp. The Arts Council does not support comedy and we are thinking strategically how we can get our next financial ‘hit’ if we want to keep making work for people to watch. For years creative artists have been applauded for their innovation in times of disaster. This pandemic has glared a light on the exhausting lengths that artists are going to in order to monetise themselves– capitalising on the cult of their personalities.

Most creative artists do not get sick pay, holiday leave, a daily minimum wage from their agents or TV companies for generating content, or cancellation fees. Despite many positive changes in recent years, we are still expected to be ‘grateful’ for doing our job, flattered for being asked to work. I see this most clearly from those in other professions who hire us and yet don’t understand the value of the creative industries, who see it as a hobby, forgetting how much money this pumps into the UK economy, forgetting there is more to our industry than a stint on Live at the Apollo.

However, after this crisis, companies and promoters will face a wake-up call. Why? Because artists will demand more than they previously received. Yes, the endorphin hit from our job is addictive and we love what we do, but no-one can live off adrenaline and ‘exposure’ any longer. A global pandemic has made that clear. Like a natural forest fire, which despite all its destruction revitalises the soil for future growth, the optimist in me believes Covid-19 could do the same thing for the UK gig economy. Once we come out of lockdown, I predict new and radical ways of thinking will emerge, evolving how artists, promoters and venues co-operate to make it function.

Comedian Elf Lyons

I have already come to a few conclusions. Most importantly, no more free gigs. Stop expecting us to work for free. ‘Exposure’ is not a fee. Neither is, ‘free food and drink’. ‘Doing a good cause for charity’ is not a fee. There is a reason Pagliacci the famous clown was depressed. He was probably a functioning alcoholic from all the free booze he was given at the gigs he wasn’t being paid for.

Recently I was asked to do a charity gig. The fee was good and I was told before I even confirmed that my ‘fee’ would be donated to the charity in question. In thanks, I would be sent a complimentary pillow and free food. I did the gig because of the ‘exposure’ it promised and because it was for a good cause. When I turned up and saw the hundreds of staff who were all being paid to do their jobs, I felt frustrated that I was treated like it was an honour on my part to do mine. My job is not a hobby. A gig for your company is not ‘work experience’ for me – it is my profession. Charities and those that deem themselves progressive need to evolve.

Fringe benefits

I am devastated that the Edinburgh Fringe is cancelled. But it had to be. Hopefully the large absence it leaves will be filled by epiphanies about the inadequacies and faults within the comedy industry and our system of labour and work. Each year the increasing pressure to compete for ticket sales has not been emotionally stabilising or conducive to the liberal, left-leaning and punk ethos of our industry. The strains induced by the financial burden on the artists, due to high hire rates, impossible venue agreements and extortionate renting costs do not need to be there, and perhaps a year without the Fringe will make people realise that unless this changes, artists will go elsewhere.

Comedy is a resilient industry, formed of the most defiant and stubborn scavengers. We are used to being overlooked in comparison with our other creative peers with regards to funding and respect. Comedy is the Fantastic Mr Fox of the creative sector. One visceral positive: Covid has levelled the playing field. The technological revolution will work hand-in-hand with comedians to make the terrain more equal and stable for everyone to get involved. Online makes the terrain accessible for those with disabilities, physical limitations and financial ones to get involved and showcase their work to large audiences. Hopefully this new advancing boom and investment in home-made creativity will stay after the crisis and comics won’t need to create work out of stress, but out of a freedom to.

Elf Lyons is a comedian and writer – This article is from our Climate Revolutions Summer 2020 issue – out now! Subscribe here

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