Magazine article Management Today

Being a Stand-Up Guy

Magazine article Management Today

Being a Stand-Up Guy

Article excerpt

Like everything else, comedy has grown up and become more professional.

While life at the bottom is as tough as ever, top pros like Michael McIntyre and Russell Howard make millions a year. Edinburgh fringe performer Dave Waller turns a spotlight on the business of comedy.

There's no escaping the floppy-haired comedian Michael McIntyre. He seems to spend all his time prancing around the stage, sweating and bellowing at a stadium packed full of adoring fans. You'd think he was a rock star, but he's just a middle-class man-child in a shiny suit, saying things we already know about bad breath and traffic.

McIntyre's mainstream shtick makes him an easy target for comedy snobs, but he's the one having the last laugh. Deep in the recession, with punters in need of a giggle and promoters desperate to put on cheap productions (just a bloke and a mic), McIntyre played to 500,000 people on his tour. He pulled in an estimated pounds 8m last year, helping to create the image of modern comedy as a stairway to cash heaven.

Not to be outdone, veteran Peter Kay then took up residency in Manchester's MEN stadium for 35 nights of gigs, waiting, like Elvis clutching a brew and a rich tea biscuit, for the masses to come to him And now for the punchline: his sit-down comedy experiment grossed a hot pounds 26m.

But what about the thousands of comics hauling themselves and their material round the circuit and waiting for the big break? As their experience shows, it isn't just a matter of turning up, cracking a funny, and then running off with a massive cheque.

Comedians certainly haven't always laughed all the way to the bank. In the 1980s, when the alternative comedy scene was blooming, the game was very different. In his memoir, How I Escaped My Certain Fate, veteran stand-up Stewart Lee paints a vivid picture of driving round Edinburgh all night in a Ford Fiesta with his manager in clandestine raids to paste Lee's image over posters for the festival's highbrow stars.

But the turning point came in the 1990s, as comedy struck a chord with the music crowd. Even David Baddiel had his turn as a rock god, when the Mary Whitehouse Experience played Wembley Arena - the first comics to do so. Observing the comics' brief spell suspended on wires over the crowd, ACDC-style, Janet Street-Porter declared in The Face magazine that comedy had become 'the new rock 'n' roll'.

And the cottage industry mobilised accordingly. 'Suddenly, stand-up looked like a career option for ambitious young people,' writes Lee. 'By the late 1990s my management company had grown from a two-man operation into a massive conglomerate, with dozens of subdivisions staffed by hopeful serfs ...

The days of acts and management out in the van behind enemy lines on flyposting missions were long gone.'

These days, comedy is a different beast. It's all about massive mainstream tours and lucrative DVD sales. Earnings figures are tough to come by, but McIntyre topped the list in 2009, according to calculations by the News of the World. He was followed by Jimmy Carr (pounds 5m) and Russell Howard (pounds 4m). Each made a fortune from tickets and DVDs, TV and commercial work, after everyone else took their cut.

'If you sell DVDs, you're looking at making pounds 1 to pounds 2 a copy,' says Justin Gayner, former commercial director of QI Productions, the team behind the Stephen Fry panel show. 'Shift a million copies and that's a lot of money coming your way. Fill the 20,000-seat O2 at pounds 50 a ticket and you could pocket pounds 500,000 in a night. Most of the large stand-ups could make a million with a tour and a DVD.'

But if you're looking for the route to real riches, you want to move from stage to script and write a TV show that gets picked up and widely syndicated. Just look at The Office, which has been remade in seven countries, including Chile and Israel. More than 100 episodes of the show have been made and broadcast in America. …

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