15 Jun Interview: Jess Jewell on Comedy after COVID
Comedy is a part of our wonderful sector that I know absolutely nothing about. Jess Jewell was recently on a radio show that Supporting Your Art helps out with over at Project Headphones. Jess spoke about her work across the comedy scene and how it has been effected by COVID-19 and the lockdown. She is an incredible speaker and entertaining beyond belief. It was a simple decision to interview her for this blog about her work, comedy after COVID-19 and also some amazing suggestions for Artists looking to create new revenue streams in this difficult time.
What kind of work do you do?
At the moment, I’m a creative writer and researcher for online publications and YouTube channels: this entails anything from finding secrets of old english towns to ’15 fiSh yOu wOnT beLiEvE’ – not a joke, I definitely wrote that. I also provide marketing and social media consultancy to live comedy agencies. So basically, I’m in charge of the anti-fun section of the fun section.
How have you been affected by the lockdown?
As a freelancer, I’ve actually found a lot more opportunities online, but not in a good way. Comedians who would otherwise be busy working a crowd and fending off hecklers have had the stages ripped out from under their feet. Live comedy and theatre venues were some of the first services to close their doors when COVID made its debut in the UK, and for the comedy scene that was game over. There was no plan, no contingency, no nothing. Overnight, the livelihoods of thousands of people disappeared before their very eyes. This meant a lot of people were figuring out how to make the most of their online presence very quickly. Twitch became the new Broadway, Patreon became the new ticketing system, and Facebook… basically stayed the same. I got a lot of questions, helped with a lot of budgets, and nagged a lot of people to UPDATE THEIR WEBSITES. My god, if I see one more Live Tour Date list that hasn’t been updated since 2015, I might blow a fuse.
But it’s not just people on stage. Technicians, stage managers, venue staff, producers, directors, event planners, and many more were suddenly staring down the barrel of total uncertainty. And the worst part? Many still are. I got a lot of messages from people I once worked with, award winning artists and high-ranking directors saying that to make ends meet they had put in their CV’s at Tesco or Sainsburys. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with that. If anything, it’s bloody heroic. But from signing contracts worth thousands of pounds per-show to stacking shelves is a huge, horrible and sudden drop. And I say that having stacked my fair share of shelves. Do you ever question what they do with gone off milk or meat? Fun fact, you don’t want to know.
What has been the most frustrating part of this lockdown?
When you see a live show, the price you pay for the whole experience of going out to a venue, sitting in an audience, having the lights dim, the curtain drawn and being actively entertained feels justified to a lot of people. This probably isn’t news, but that’s how acts get paid. It’s also how they lose money if they don’t sell enough tickets to their show, but let’s focus on the getting paid part. Without that kind of regulation, comedians and acting types are starting podcasts and doing their best to put something out into the digital space without any thought of getting paid. Because the internet is historically a place for ‘exposure’, which is a word I utterly despise. If you’re creating anything, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask to be paid. Does Netflix ‘suggest’ you pay for their content? Hell no. Should you put your stuff out there for free if it’s costing you time to make? HELL NO. Anyone creating anything can have a payment channel – Patreon, OnlyFans, Paypal, a PO box, an Amazon Wishlist, Kofi, whatever it may be. Because all work has worth. If you’re making anything for the digital space, and people are enjoying it, KNOW YOUR WORTH. Don’t be afraid to be honest and ask for donations. No one will ever think less of someone who asks to be supported for creating a thing they enjoy! Because that’s how jobs work.
Have there been any upsides?
Well, one of my biggest frustrations prior to lockdown was people playing down the importance of online interactions. Since then, as you can probably tell, that opinion has been turned on its head. People are making the most of the presence they have online, and actively trying to build on it. And yes, many people are using terrible WordPress plug-ins and sites that aren’t mobile adaptive, so you have to pinch your fingers to zoom in and see anything, but it’s a start! And I’ll take a client who’s had a stab at trying to put together an online profile over the idiot who doesn’t think it’s important (spoiler alert, nine times out of ten it’s a big company or an established agency who’s ‘just been fine until now’). We’re living in 2020, you can’t escape the internet anymore. Stop pretending it can’t see you. It can definitely see you. But if you and your business can’t be found, you will be replaced with someone who has made more of an impact. Sad truth, but real truth.
How do you see the comedy sector changing as a result of this?
The biggest changes I’m already seeing are the dents COVID has knocked in big events. Things like the Edinburgh Arts Festival, regional comedy festivals, press get-togethers, meet and greet events, corporate events – these things aren’t happening, and this is usually where big money is signed or made. Without these, the pool of working comedians is probably going to stagnate a little, and the producers at places like the BBC will fall back on ‘comfortable comedy’, which is the stuff that has worked well for them in the past. So, lots of white men on panel shows. It’s not necessarily bad comedy, I’m just wondering if anyone else has noticed that there are an awful lot of white men on panel shows…
But from where I’m sitting at the moment, I think people are becoming more insular, so I think a lot of comedy will look more introspective – the topics it surrounds are much more likely to revolve around Zoom calls, haircuts and massive anxiety. There won’t be as many new acts emerging, as a whole year will have passed without any outlets for new, upcoming comics to flex their creative muscles to crowds. Never underestimate the power of a crowd – without a standing ovation, or dying on stage, how do inexperienced comics know what’s good and what’s bad material? When this is all over, we’re going to see a lot of bad shows. And a lot of incredibly good ones as well!
It’s also going to have some trying to capitalise on the fear of the current climate. You know them; the right – wing, alternative ‘comedians’ who think they’re ‘brave’ poking fun at feminism, or ANTIFA, or whatever their kick bag flavour of the month is. Fun fact: every single topic can be made funny. If people aren’t laughing, it’s because what you’re doing isn’t satire, it’s just bad. Basically – don’t give these people the time of day, and post COVID the comedy scene may actually look better than it did before we hit lockdown!
What can people do right now to support the comedy scene?
Take a look at comedy centric platforms like Next Up. It’s the Spotify answer to the ‘How do we put live comedy online and pay comedians for it’ that no one asked for. But here it is regardless. You can stream the old live shows of plenty of comics, and cash will go directly to them. And if you do end up liking their stuff, consider subscribing to their Patreon or Kofi. Trust me, most comedians have one. And if they don’t, push them in my direction. We’ll have a nice looooong chat.
Another really great thing you can do is help the venues that give these artists a place to perform. Look up your local comedy clubs, theatre spaces and see if they have charity links to ways you can support them. God knows their insurance companies will be finding every excuse not to. And when they do open again, buy their booze – as expensive and terrible as it may be, because that’s how those venues really make their money. Buy the merch, don’t pirate the shows, and most importantly, buy a ticket. When all this is over, go check out something and take a risk on a show you normally wouldn’t. You might just like it. Or hate it. Which’ll give you a better idea of what you actually like! Win-win situation.
What can people do as things begin to open up?
So, here’s the not great news. Big venues, and some smaller venues as well, aren’t likely to re-open to capacity until 2021. It’ll be the same for music venues and theatres alike, meaning the struggle is going to continue to be real. The best thing you can do is continue to support the people you like – wanna one up that? Get on twitter and suggest things you’d love to see them do. Think they’d be good at DnD? Suggest they join a live stream! Wanna see them play video games? Suggest they get on Twitch and do it! Tabletop simulator stream? Collaboration? Singalong? There’s no wrong answer because, like most of us, they’re probably going out of their minds with boredom. God knows I am, and I’m not the one that bases their self-esteem off the applause of total strangers.
Anything dodgy happening as a result of lockdown in these spaces?
Funny you should ask (Fun fact, Becky did not ask this, I 100% found something out as I was writing this and included it as a question because it’s incredibly important and people should be aware). The closure of local theatres has resulted in the spaces closing without refunding any of the tickets of shows booked before lockdown hit. Artists have also lost their hire fee, and the venues; despite folding, they won’t reimburse them. However, the companies running these spaces have plans to simply re-open them under a different name once lockdown is lifted but have offered to re-host the artists shows. So: The venue closes, reopens, and keeps the patrons money, requesting them to buy new tickets and cheating many artists out of thousands of pounds of show fees. Needless to say, that’s insanely unfair. Councils should be liable for money lost to the patrons and performers of the venue if they’ve licensed the running of the venue and then plan to re-open under a different name. Check that your local theatre spaces aren’t doing this. If they are, lobby them! It’s things like this that keep a foot on artists’ necks, because it really isn’t something they can control, and their livelihoods depend on it. Don’t let the artists you love suffer at the hands of these absolute cowards – call, write, enquire and act.
Do you have anything else you want to add?
Trans women are women. Black Lives Matter. Don’t just say it, act on it. Donate, and be actively anti-racist:
Oh, and don’t vote tory.
Do you have anything you want to plug?
If you like DnD, and enjoy the basic human emotion of joy, check out Questing Time! It’s Comedians playing DnD, badly. But in a good way. https://www.twitch.tv/questingtime
Check out Tom Scott if you enjoy good quality facts, he runs a YouTube channel that has legitimately brilliant, perspective changing videos that are smart and funny. Just listen to his voice! Big wow. https://www.youtube.com/user/enyay
And if you know of anyone that needs writing or researching work done for whatever reason, literally whatever reason (I refer you back to the ‘15 fish you won’t believe’ example because YOU KNOW I GENUINELY WROTE THAT) hit me up on the twitterverse: @doctorbees
Stay safe, and wash your hands x
Thank you to Jess for her important insights and advice. Make sure you check Jess out on Twitter. Find below a list of all of the platforms she discusses throughout the post for your audiences to pay for your work. If you make anything creative for the world – please set something up for yourself and encourage those who enjoy your work to contribute. What you do is important and valued – this should be reflected in what you get paid.
You can do this through:
Speaking of which – Supporting Your Art has a Kofi, if you feel like contributing. It helps me do interviews like this and spend time creating my own projects from scratch.
If you would like to share your thoughts about your sector after lockdown then please get in contact.
Make sure you check Jess out on Twitter.