Cultural Context

Cultural Context

After toying with a few different ideas (one day I swear I will fix the NHS from the ground up), I decided I want to centre my project on stand up comedy. My plan was to create some kind of service, a website or app, for comedians themselves to use. I have a bunch of ideas in this area.

  • Organise jokes
  • Write new jokes
  • Track own improvement (maybe some functionality for getting feedback)
  • Find gigs and get spots (connect bookers and comedians)

I decided that I would focus my research on trying to work out which of these services comedians would get the most use out of. I made plans to head to a very popular open mic in London at the Cavendish Arms to question the acts. I also created an online survey, and sent it out to a few comedian friends and I posted it on reddit.

Posted to /r/standupcomedy

Posted to /r/standupcomedy

Responses came in steadily and, in the end, 20 people responded which was pretty great.

Most respondents were pretty similar in that they’d mostly been doing comedy for under 3 years and considered themselves either a beginner or open micer. However, their habits were not similar at all! There is a huge range of behaviours across finding gigs, organising material, writing material and tracking progress. Some people claimed they kept all their material in their head. Some use Evernote. Some don’t evaluate themselves at all. Some obsess over their performance. A whole lot of people do everything on paper.

Organising Material

Organising Material

I pretty quickly disregarded my “write new jokes” idea. This was the least defined idea for me and I couldn’t pin down anything in people’s pain points that I felt I could solve. Most people complained of creative difficulties. Brainstorming apps exist and most people seem to use Evernote or paper for everyday note taking and those are already great solutions.

Sometimes the low-tech solution just works

A five min set list
on my hand –
Sometimes the low-tech
solution just works

In terms of the “organising material” idea, 11 out of 20 people said they had no problems with their current method. The only pain points mentioned were either unsolvable like “Sometimes it’s hard to have stuff with you at all times, since you don’t want to be on your phone on stage”, or they would require me to convince comedians to upgrade to an app all the way from keeping all their material in their head (where they admitted they were forgetting stuff, but didn’t seem to care).

The “tracking progress” idea remained possible. Comedians seemed really interested in this, and listed lots of pain points related to it. People raised issues like “I think it’s gradual and you don’t notice it as it’s happening” and “It’s hard to see yourself improving because sometimes you’ll just have an off night with material that usually kills”. I reckon some regular tracking stats and some useful graphs could really help comedians visualise how they’re doing. People also raised external markers (like getting recommended or getting better gigs) as a good way to track their progress. There was some mention of wanting more feedback – which was something I did want to implement into this idea, so that was encouraging.

The last idea was surrounding getting gigs. Here, the pain points really hit two main categories. One being that a lot of gigs are just a bit rubbish.

“The problem is finding gigs with an actual audience”

“Businesses feel that they are doing you a favor by letting you perform”

“They don’t advertise gigs”.

The other thing comedians disliked was the process of finding gigs, because of,

“Out of date information”

“Incomplete information.”

“Many times the listed open mics have been canceled.”

And here’s the thing, those problems are pretty much all the booker or promoter’s fault. Gigs don’t have audience because they’re not promoted properly. If the information provided to acts (who have a high incentive to hunt down gigs) is incorrect, how must it affect the punters (the potential audience) that shows are lacking?

Chatting to a comedian friend of mine, we realised that a major issue is that the people who are meant to push new acts out there just aren’t doing that. Looking back at the survey responses, when asked what they disliked in general about comedy, most answers were to do with progression and career. People complained: “It’s difficult to achieve success”, “Unfair / unclear paths to progression”, “The unfairness of competitions”, “It’s a long, long, LONG shot”.

So, a whole different idea started brewing in my head. I still had plans to head to The Cavendish, so I put together a completely new questionnaire, this time aimed at the audience members.

At the Cavendish

At the Cavendish

I interviewed 4 audience members at the Cavendish and the next day I set up another online survey. Ideally I’d have avoided surveys but time constraints meant I wanted to give it a try to make sure I got enough results. I had a couple of responses and then I realised that people weren’t really saying much. The comedians were a lot more talkative in their survey… shocker. So I came up with a new method. I chatted to comedy fans privately on IRC or Facebook chat, and copy pasted what they were saying into my survey – so I could probe them more as I went along.

This worked amazingly well for me, and it also meant that the entire chat was already logged. For a lot of projects this wouldn’t be an option but the demographic I was looking for is internet savvy and used to chatting over text. I jumped around the survey quite a lot so it was more conversational, and I had to add extra fields to my Google Form so I could add in clarifications to what people were telling me.

After interviewing 10 people in total, I found that universally, people had no solid method of finding new acts or gigs to go to. People ranged from those who liked comedy but hadn’t seen any live for at least six months, to people who had seen over 10 gigs in the past six months and they all had similar issues.

“I am out of loop of smaller gigs”.

“With music, if i like artist A and artist B is similar, chances are i’ll enjoy artist B. I don’t often see comedians bill themselves as “like bill bailey, but from south london”

“It’s hard to find a frame of reference for whether i’ll enjoy myself or not”

One of the most comedy-engaged people I talked to (who had seen 8 gigs in 6 months) said he used the listings in the Metro to find gigs to go to. The Metro. The actual newspaper. It’s not searchable and there’s no way to quickly get more information, users have to independently research the acts. That same person also pointed out that a lot of the existing sites have a very similar look and feel, which I would call “Geocities chic”. They’re not just bad visually though; he said it was “hard to understand the information” and the sites are “hard to digest”.

The person who’d seen 10+ gigs in six months, said he gets “Facebook invites from acts or venues I have been to before.” He’s keeping in touch with people and places he’s already been.

I started to imagine a site or app that would help fans discover new acts and gigs to go to, and this is what I’m now planning to design. I’m super excited about how people responded and the things they said.

Here is the ultimate glorious board of posts its.



One really interesting thing, which I had not anticipated at all, was that a massive 50% of my 10 respondents brought up, completely unprompted, the fact that they want more female acts (and nope, it wasn’t just the girls that asked for this). One person said, “No women, not going. One woman, not going. 3:4 is fine, 2:5 is not.” Another mentioned that she would be put off going to a gig without an equal line up:

“If they don’t make me laugh, that’s fine. But I have a hard time enjoying myself if the comedian focuses on things like “oh lol women”, or rape jokes, or queer jokes basically. Sitting in a room full of people laughing at how ~irrational~ women are would just upset me.”

I had dared to hope in my wildest of dreams that actual audiences want to hear from more women and are as bored of “lol women” jokes as I am (no more open mics, please, no more), but here it is… I’m honestly amazed. One person did clarify that he’d like to hear more from women about real issues, and he’s equally as put off by “female bodily function” jokes as by the male equivalent dick jokes or toilet humour. We came to an agreement/realisation that female comedy in London has moved on from that, I think we’re just waiting for the stereotypes (and the dick jokes) to catch up.

Overall, people were frustrated that gigs were being listed poorly and they couldn’t find new acts. One comedy enthusiast complained:

“It’s not that easy to find new acts I like, certainly not spotify easy“.

Those who were casual comedy goers felt put off by the potential for a crap comedian wasting their precious free time, and they had no idea where to go to look for gigs in general. They either stuck to big names, like Jimmy Carr, or they visited the same free open mics over and over. A lot of people relied on recommendations or invites from friends. Even the more comedy-engaged people were unsure where to find gigs.

“I don’t like big arena gigs. I’d rather go to those pre-festival warm up gigs, in small venues, and I don’t hear about them so can’t go”.

“Often you don’t know the comedians, so the names are basically useless information. It would be good to be able to be more selective about your comedy night – often the info is only available as a simple listing”

People mentioned services that exist in other markets, like for finding new books, and Spotify or for finding music and gigs. There isn’t an equivalent service for comedy as far as I’m aware. A bit of googling reveals that Comedy Central released an app in 2013 that contains short clips from acts, and has some “discover” functionality. I can’t easily check it out properly because it’s Apple only (guh) but it doesn’t seem to encourage people towards seeing comedy live, or taking a chance on unknown acts, and it’s very america-centric. Looking at the reviews, people are using it to watch comedy rather than find new acts. There’s certainly no ubiquitous comedy discover service.

I still think there are some legs in the original four ideas I had, but I’m convinced a service for comedy and gig discovery will be a much better fit for the scale of this project, and I think it has more potential as a fully rounded service.