Phil Vinter looks at how the laughter business has fared in Birmingham during the recession.
High unemployment and slow spending levels are proving tough for businesses in Birmingham – but comedy clubs are still laughing all the way to the bank.
The £8 million proceeds from live shows and record-breaking DVD sales for comedian Michael McIntyre last year showed the Monty Python ‘always look on the bright side of life’ theory was in evidence in the UK.
And while businesses are going bust and unemployment remains high, comedy clubs in the city are confounding the gloom of the financial world.
In Birmingham the recent story of mainstream stand up in the city is a tale of two comedy clubs.
In the Arcadian corner is the Glee Club. When it opened in 1994 it was the first comedy club outside London. Since then it has grown in size and popularity and now diehard comedy lovers regularly flock to it.
During the recession the club has diversified and it now serves up music and comedy on all nights of the week not just the traditional Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Despite the dire economic situation, owner Mark Tughan is forecasting record profits for his next year end in June and he is planning to open at least two more UK venues in the next few months.
In the Broad Street corner stands the city’s other major comedy club.
For the last decade it has been known to everyone as Jongleurs but after parent company Regent Inns went into administration at the end of last year it became one of 10 Jongleurs venues to be taken over by newly formed company Intertain – which included members of the old management board.
The venue name has now changed to Highlight, but the selling point remains the same as it did when Jongleurs opened in Birmingham in the early noughties – a raucous atmosphere for 20-somethings and in particular for those in stag and hen parties.
Despite the recent collapse of the Jongleurs brand, Matt de Leon, spokesman for newly-formed Intertain, said the Birmingham venue was the most successful in the group and continued to turn over a healthy profit during the recession.
“Despite the tough economy, all the clubs in the Jongleurs chain have remained pretty popular,” Mr de Leon said. “The problems arose from very unfavourable lease agreements at some of the venues and unfortunately that impacted on the whole business.”
There has been a significant increase in the amount of comedy being shown on the box over the last two years as well. In addition to new comedy panel shows and sitcoms, stand up comedy in the shape of Live at the Apollo has also made a prime time return to television screens.
Research by online retailer Amazon shows that at the height of the recession in November 2008 sales of its top 20 comedy DVDs were 41 per cent higher than for the same month the previous year.
Last month’s best-selling comedy DVD, a recording of Lee Evans’ live show at the O2 stadium in London, sold 56 per cent more copies than last November’s most popular comedy DVD – Ricky Gervais’ live show.
But while viewing figures for comedy on TV and sales of DVDs show a thirst for comedy that demand has not affected numbers still keen to go out and enjoy comedy for themselves.
Glee Club owner and founder Mark Tughan said he believed live comedy was part of a small group of entertainment pleasures which people refused to relinquish even in times of economic difficulty.
“The public seem to ring-fence what they class as affordable treats,” he said. “Things like the cinema and West End theatre are all doing well in the recession and we fall into the same category as them. I think comedy is an antidote to the doom and gloom. Where there are arrogant bankers there are people who are willing to come out and slag them off and a lot of people like that.”
As well as large mainstream comedy clubs and popular independent venues there is also the grass roots venues – traditionally pubs and working men’s clubs where up and coming stand ups learn their craft.
Stand up and Glee Club compere Andy Robinson learned his trade in pubs across the West Midlands.
He said the picture was not so rosy at other clubs although he put failures down to other factors.
“Some clubs on the circuit have closed down,” he said. “It’s not just to do with the recession, I think it is also to do with the quality of the night, the cost to get in and the location.
“Comedy clubs and promoters are not all patting themselves on the back and lighting cigars although you could talk to some people within the industry who would say that it is working out well for them. Across the board I would not agree that comedy is doing really well.
“I think comedy is popular because it gives people the lift that they perhaps need when times are tough. They get a lot more laughter on a night out at a comedy club compared to what they would get at say a cinema. Psychologically in a recession people may want to laugh more.
“For me personally I have not noticed that I am any more or less busy. I have heard that some comics are getting less corporate gigs. They pick up ones that they would probably have given to other people for more money.”
Mr Tughan said he had certainly noticed a drop in corporate bookings – where a company books out the entire room – at the Glee Club since the start of the recession.
He said: “I suppose it has been a bit of a corporate recession for us. While we are set to make record profits this year there has been a definite drop in the number of bookings we’ve had for corporate events.
“Music was a key diversification for us, we knew a couple of years ago that we could be more than a one trick pony. We still want to stick comics on on Fridays and Saturdays, but we realised that there was a demand for something more.”
The Glee Club also serves up touring comics and comics previewing material ahead of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in its 440 seat capacity main room and Mr Tughan says a good e-marketing and tracking system which automatically sends an email to customers on its database whenever a new comic is booked has proved to be an excellent way of making revenue.
Mr de Leon says the re-branded Highlight venue on Broad Street will be adopting a similar strategy. “I can’t give away too much just yet, but we will certainly be offering much more on other nights of the week to try and bring in additional revenue.”
So the failing businesses plus high unemployment plus feeling of gloom equals let’s go to a comedy club equation seems to add up.
Laughter it would seem really is the best medicine for a poorly pay packet.