'I'd love to see their parents' bank accounts': corona and comedy's class divide

Rachael Healy
Photograph: Joseph Okpako/WireImage

On 16 March, when Boris Johnson advised people to avoid pubs and theatres, the effect on live comedy was instant. “That night was like Take Me Out when all the lights go off, but with my diary,” says standup Lauren Pattison. “The first month of work went in the space of a couple of days.”

In 2017, Pattison finally became a full-time comedian after years of working in restaurants, shops and bars to support her standup career. Soon after, she was nominated for best newcomer at the Edinburgh Comedy awards. Now, she’s working in a supermarket. Pattison had moved back to Newcastle upon Tyne a few weeks before lockdown to save money for the Edinburgh fringe while living with her parents. Like many standups, she relies on live comedy for the bulk of her income, gigging most nights of the week. Some gigs are rescheduled for later this year, but, says Pattison, “I’ve got to mentally and financially prepare for the fact they might get pulled.”

People assume I’m gutted that I’ve had to get a job but to me it’s the most sensible thing to do

Lauren Pattison

For those without savings or familial financial support, the sudden closure of comedy clubs was troubling. Like Pattison, some already have new jobs. Pope Lonergan has returned to care work, a job he did for eight years until becoming a full-time comedian in 2019.

In lockdown, Lonergan started doing livestreams where audience members could pay through tips, but it became clear he needed reliable paid work. After waiting weeks for a new DBS check, he’s now signed up with a care work agency where you can pick shifts at the start of each week. “That will be really good going back into comedy,” he says. “I think a lot of comedians will be going back with secondary jobs.”

Although Lonergan and Pattison miss being on stage, they’re staying positive. “I find it weird that people assume I’m gutted that I’ve had to get a job,” Pattison says. “To me, it’s the most sensible thing to do.”

So far, she’s done stints on the shop floor and customer service helpline and found unexpected upsides. “At a time when everything is so chaotic,” she says, “having a set day where I get paid is lovely.”

Lonergan, meanwhile, is looking forward to spending time with the care home residents: “I enjoy having a purpose that helps improve the lives of others. And I like to chit-chat the elderly because they always tell me I’m a handsome boy!”

Jacob Hawley has been a comedian for six years and went full-time – his “dream life” – a year ago. During lockdown, he’s been recording a new BBC podcast, Jacob Hawley’s Job Centre, in which comedians Richard Gadd, Mark Olver and Nish Kumar discuss how work has changed during the pandemic.

With two-thirds of his income coming from live work and a baby on the way, Hawley says: “This podcast came about through necessity – I had driving job applications up on my browser.”

The conversations Hawley is having with guests haven’t always been open subjects between comedians. Who is paying your rent and who has an additional, non-comedy job are often shrouded in secrecy.

“When I started doing standup, I was working in retail, and all I ever wanted to do was stop, because I didn’t feel like a real comedian,” Hawley says. “There’s a massive amount of shame around that in comedy. That will have to change, because it’s going to be a long time until people can make a living out of live performance again.”

Meanwhile, secrecy leaves many wondering why they’re falling behind their peers. Pattison says: “It’s easy to think, ‘How did they climb the ladder so quickly?’ Maybe they didn’t have to work a day job, so of course they’re going to get seen more and get better quicker. If more people were transparent about help they’ve had, it would take the pressure off everybody.”

Lonergan agrees: “I would love to look at every comedian’s parents’ bank account. Privilege is a huge thing in comedy. It creates a two-tier system – the ones who have financial resources can get ahead.”

Some comics can’t view their secondary job as a temporary lockdown measure. Sikisa Bostwick-Barnes has always juggled multiple jobs, at times doing 50-plus hours a week as a solicitor, pub worker and comedian, so she could pay student loans and support her parents. This hiatus feels like a step back, with Comedy Store and tour support gigs cancelled. “I had a plan for my career and it all went up in the air,” she says. “My day job is intense – I work for a domestic violence charity – and having something that was creative, fun and social helped my mental health.”

Not everyone is able to work now. Tom Mayhew would like to return to his supermarket job but doesn’t want to risk bringing the virus into the home he shares with his dad, who recently had radiotherapy. Instead, he’s enrolled on universal credit, but, with a six-week wait, had to use money saved for the Edinburgh festival for essentials.

“I need to get money so my parents can afford rent,” he says. “It’s very tough not being able to do live work. I miss the financial side and feeling like I’ve got a purpose.”

There’s concern that the loss of live comedy could also mean the loss of working-class comics. “There are more working-class voices on the live circuit than in writers’ rooms or on television,” says Hawley. “Live work was a genuine meritocracy – anyone could get on stage. It’s not perfect, but it was a more even playing field. That drawbridge has been pulled up.”

Yet, says Pattison, working-class comics are used to putting in the extra work that will be needed to make up for lost time. “My first fringe, I saved every penny of my tips to pay for it,” she says. “I would turn up to gigs still in my uniform. I’ve always taken pride in that – what choice do I have, I’m going to work for it.”

There are more working-class voices on the live circuit than in writers’ rooms or on TV

Jacob Hawley

Hawley agrees: “I can’t fall back on my parents, so you do have that fear, but you’re used to grafting. I’m going to do this podcast, but then maybe I’ll be in a Tesco van, and gigging in the evening. I hope working-class people won’t be pushed away, because they’ve got the grit to do it. It’s not fair that they should have to, but that’s the world we live in.”

It’s unclear when live comedy will return, and whether comedy venues will survive. Pattison says: “There’s a lot of places saying they’re not going to open until next year. In coming months more people will turn to other jobs, which is why I wanted to get in straight away.”

With such a long hiatus, this could be a chance for industry-wide change. The recently established Live Comedy Association is a source of hope. Lonergan has been elected to its steering group. “I want to fight for live comedy and its preservation,” he says. “I want to push to make it more egalitarian.”

Related: Seriously funny: political comedians on humour in horrific times

The way we value comedy could change, too. During the pandemic, it’s lifted moods and offered escapism. Many comedians making new things are empowered to request reimbursement. “People before might’ve been shy asking for money,” says Mayhew. “Now, they’re more likely to say, ‘I need money to produce this thing.’”

Hawley explores this idea in his podcast: “[Covid-19] is going to grab the world and shake it up like a snowglobe. I don’t think it’s going to settle the way it was. People who are in underappreciated jobs are finally getting appreciation they deserve, but comedy is still needed. We just have to keep finding ways to make it.”