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 £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 £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 (£5m) and Russell Howard (£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 £1 to £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 £50 a ticket and you could pocket £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.
'I reckon Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have made £20m to £30m out of The Office in the States,' says Gayner. Gervais remains tight-lipped about just how much he has made, but that high-pitched gibbon laugh of his must have rung out when he made Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people this year.
From the bottom of the ladder, it must seem as if Gervais is on another planet entirely. Far more common are the thousands of circuit comics hauling their gags around the country, being sent from Bristol to Berwick to perform the same shtick to an often indifferent, but never less than boozy, clientele, working their comedy chops until that big break comes.
Everyone starts the same way, doing five minutes of hack material in an open spot in ramshackle rooms above pubs, desperate for laughs and a shot at a second gig. They hone a solid five minutes of material, build that to a cast-iron 10, and then to 20 minutes - at which point they may even start getting paid. But it'll take a year or two before they see a penny. And all the while they've still got to hold down the day job.
McIntyre and Carr may be raking it in, but they began at the bottom too. Carr was a marketer at Shell, who'd go out doing two gigs a night. McIntyre struggled with debt before his break. It's a gruelling life - the travel, the hotels, the isolation. Lee describes how a diet of motorway dining gave him diverticulitis. 'My diet from 1991 to 2004 consisted mainly of Diet Coke, beans on toast, crisps, Wheat Crunchies, margarine, lager and curries,' he writes. Comedy can't seem as funny when your bowels blow up.
So why do it? Why put yourself through this if the chance of real stardom is so slight? Gayner reckons there are only about 100 comics making a half-decent living from stand-up in the UK. By half-decent he means £40,000-plus. But for many it's a lifestyle choice - a chance to avoid the desk job.
'You can get £150 to £200 for a 20-minute headline slot in central London,' says Christian Knowles, who runs the Boat Show on London's floating Tattershall Castle and who booked McIntyre many times on his way to superstardom. 'People can do two or three gigs in a night and a jobbing circuit comic can earn £1,000 a week. But there's a lot of petrol involved and a lot of hours. It's not just a matter of those 20 minutes on stage. If you're doing a gig in King's Lynn, that's a bitch of a drive.'
Jools Constant, a former builder and classic car dealer turned stand-up, says he has performed nearly 900 gigs in less than four years. He is now living full-time from his act. To him, comedy success means considering it a business, just like any other.
'You have to separate yourself from your product,' he says. 'Jools the comic is a separate entity and that's what I have to market. It's just like selling classic cars - understand the clients' needs and market the product accordingly.'
It must feel like an extreme exercise in delayed gratification, working in the vague hope that it'll all be worth it in the end. And for some it is. Bill Bailey slogged away doing both music and comedy for 15 years with nothing to show for either. 'Now he's getting £5,000 for an hour on stage,' says Constant.
So what separates the jobbing comics from the big earners like Bailey, McIntyre and Carr? As any comedy snob will tell you, McIntyre's success proves it doesn't just come down to better jokes.
Knowles believes out that McIntyre was simply more hungry than everyone else - every bill he'd go on he'd ensure he was bigger, faster, sharper than the other comics, stealing the limelight first in live gigs and then on panel shows. Not everyone liked it and he's trodden on his share of toes, but it worked.
'He's got talent,' says Knowles. 'He has massive self-belief, which has been nurtured by his management. And he's not scared. He has the healthy selfishness that any stand-up needs.' And there's one other key lesson to all this: no matter how much talent you have, any progress comes down to working hard. It's the only way to develop that instinctive knack for the art, of dealing with crowds and adjusting your material to suit. It's no coincidence that Carr is known as one of the circuit's hardest-working, most disciplined performers. He tours year-round, giving himself only five weeks off.
These days, there is another way to get spotted. This year's Spirit of the Fringe award at Edinburgh went to 20-year-old American YouTube sensation Bo Burnham, who built an international buzz by sitting at his bedroom piano, recording himself playing comedy rap songs to amuse his brother. Millions of hits later, he's on the way to global stardom.
This is a taste of things to come. With money draining out of TV, producers are looking to the net as a place to develop comedy. It's uniquely democratic - the viewers tell you directly what's good. It's also a way to reach a global audience at virtually no cost, and, increasingly, how to get an agent. 'It's way easier than having to drag them to a shitty pub in east London to watch you perform,' says Gayner, who left TV to set up ChannelFlip, the online production company behind David Mitchell's Soap Box.
Burnham's success highlights the comedy industry's key strength: it's a meritocracy. You won't get anywhere just because daddy runs a comedy club. But if you're funny, you'll fly.
Lee, meanwhile, has followed a more grounded business model: all he needs are a couple of thousand dedicated followers willing to spend £20 a year on him - and he can remain pure enough to please those comedy snobs. It may be a harder road than attacking the mainstream, but the laughs must surely come that much sweeter.
Sadly, that's all the time we have. You've been a wonderful audience. Good night. Now where's that cheque?
THE LIFE OF A CIRCUIT COMIC: KATE SMURTHWAITE
I'm a political act and my brand of comedy appeals to a very specific group - my aim is to build up my fan base and produce more for them.
I do sometimes perform with big-name acts (I did warm-up for Omid Djalili earlier this year) but it's not really a career goal. I'd love to sell as many DVDs as Jimmy Carr or Michael McIntyre, but I wouldn't want to do the bland lowest-common-denominator stuff they do.
All I want is for the stuff I do to reach the widest possible audience. This year, I'd like to make £15,000 to £20,000 from gigs. You can do lots of low-paid gigs and then suddenly land a TV spot that pays really well. It's very patchy. But I would never go back to my job in the City.
Comedy is an industry where you need friends. It's a lonely, lonely business to be in on your own. About one week per month I gig out of town, which means writing on trains and staying in cheap hotels. It does get depressing when each town you play has the same chain stores.
I certainly have ambitions to reach a bigger audience. It's just plain harder to do this job as a woman - there's a lot of prejudice out there. Promoters limit female acts to one per show, or to special patronising all-female nights. I've even had big groups of audiences simply get up and walk out when the compere says the next act is female - before they've actually heard my name. So I have to be faster and better than the guys to get the same reaction.
Setting out to be the new Eddie Izzard is probably the worst approach, as it won't be genuine and people will see through it. But if you set out to do what you think is good, people will like it.