Scotland's comedians improvising through the crisis
Most comedians are used to not knowing where their next paycheck is coming from, but today they don’t know when they’ll next perform at all
Just as Glasgow International Comedy Festival kicked off in early March, the COVID-19 outbreak started to rip through the programme. Performers made difficult decisions about cancelling the shows they’d invested so much in, becoming an omen that the next few months would be full of challenges for the community.
Richard Brown, a member of Glasgow comedy collective Chunks, was one of many affected by GICF’s sudden halt. “I programme a venue and gig a lot over March, but over the course of about 12 hours I saw every source of income I have disappear”. One comedian to cancel his show because of self-isolation was Christopher Macarthur-Boyd, who reflected: “If I knew that it was possible to ban physical gatherings of people, I would not have spent my entire adult learning to make physical gatherings of people laugh. I’ve lost a lot of money.”
With last week’s announcement that the Edinburgh Fringe won’t be going ahead in 2020, the comedy community has been dealt a much bigger blow. Freelancers working in the arts have been hit hard by the impact of the virus, but there’s still an element of snobbery within arts organisations that excludes live comedy. GICF Director Sarah Watson has been frustrated by the lack of recognition comedy gets from big public funders. “Comedy reaches a huge and diverse audience in all its many forms and is relatively accessible in terms of people being able to have a go at performing without training", Watson says. "Unfortunately, the situation doesn't look like it's changing any time soon.”
Macarthur-Boyd has also criticised the alienation of comedy as an artform, as Creative Scotland refuses to acknowledge the artistic merit that comedy has in Scotland despite its popularity. “Figures like Billy Connolly, Frankie Boyle, Kevin Bridges and Limmy are innately tied to Scottish identity, whereas you’ll probably struggle to think of your favourite Scottish opera singer or ballet dancer. Nobody in the Scottish comedy scene will see a penny from them, unless their day job is securing funding for Gaelic one-man interpretive puppeteering workshops.”
Without a venue to make strangers laugh, many comics have turned to making each other laugh on social media. Amelia Bayler has been transitioning her brand of musical comedy online from home, producing a wide range of media and utilising Patreon to offer exclusive rewards such as personalised jingles. “I recorded my podcast about what comedians wear on stage called Funny Looks remotely today with Paul McDaniel. My mum came into the room and she met him over Skype and it made her day – she’s such a fan!”
One thing that Bayler notes is the outpouring of positivity and support that has come from the community. “I was part of a livestream with my friends who run a gig called Lightbulb and it just made me realise how many close friends I’ve made doing comedy. “ Brown says that he’s had a lot of interaction with the community that he wouldn’t have otherwise. “I can only speak for myself but I feel simultaneously closer to and more distant from my friends. It's a very strange feeling and I'm finding it very hard to level off.”
Both stand-ups and comedy clubs haven’t let a lockdown get in their way of what they love doing, with The Stand adapting their Edinburgh venue into a livestreaming studio, showcasing some of Scotland’s top acts performing to an empty crowd. Their first few shows drew over 100,000 people to the stream, showing that even when stand-up is pushed into a corner, fans still want to show support.
Stand-up comedy can bring joy to so many people, but the crisis has shown that so many of the best comedians in this country are living on a knife’s edge, with only the support of each other when their mic is taken away. As with every comic, Macarthur-Boyd has been daydreaming about what it’s going to be like when it comes back. “If the coronavirus is good for anything, it’s made me grateful to have the best job in the world.”
The Stand Comedy Club stream live shows on Saturday nights via YouTube; watch stand-up and sketch comedy from Monkey Barrel via YouTube; follow Gilded Balloon on Twitter for details of upcoming streams