Column: Who’s laughing now?

Originally published at

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic was felt across the cultural industries as soon as talk of a lockdown began. Gigs, exhibitions, festivals and live events beyond the summer – in some cases into 2021 – were swiftly cancelled. A few independent venues tried to hold out by running ‘reduced capacity’ events but ticket sales plummeted even before doors were ordered closed. The public is wiser than the government.

Some culture sector workers have been furloughed; many more are without work or pay. Short-term, project-based jobs and seasonal employment are industry standards. Freelancers are falling through countless cracks and loopholes in Treasury emergency measures. Public pressure has prevented massive entertainment corporations, like Disney or Warner Bros, from simply terminating contracts (while paying executives).

Small institutions have been scrambling desperately to make savings and stem near-total revenue drops. Despite contributing an estimated £112 billion to the national economy in 2018, UK cultural industries have been chronically over-stretched and under-funded for years. Sets and studios have fallen silent, galleries and auditoriums emptied out. We already know that some will not reopen. The aim now is damage limitation.

In April, the Creative Industries Federation (CIF) surveyed 2,000 creative organisations and freelancers. One in seven respondents said that existing financial reserves would keep them afloat only until the end of the month. Half said reserves would run dry by June. The National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England have made £210 million available in emergency funds. The sum barely scratches the surface of need. With summer festivals annulled, expected revenues will be decimated even once the lockdown is lifted. CIF has called on the government for urgent support to prevent the UK fast becoming a ‘cultural wasteland’.

Where and how any support might be distributed – especially by this government and, almost certainly, in the midst of recession – is another cause for concern. Playwright James Graham noted in April: ‘I’m worried… what kind of artists, in a more dangerous climate, will be allowed to make the work. The default naturally goes to safety, rather than invention.’ He added that working-class actors and artists especially will struggle to get back onto the stage.

Comedians rank high among the risk-takers. They are also under-paid and often exploited, as Elf Lyons highlights (page 48). Pub, as much as palladium, closures will cut deep – but only the latter are likely to be insured. The comedy circuit, like the acting world, already feels dominated by middle-class voices – financial independence is a prerequisite for survival as much as it limits an act’s range. A scene populated exclusively by Oxford Revue/ Cambridge Footlights alumni will not propel us into the new era of incisive political satire this moment demands (page 50).

Stand-up Usman Khalid explains that the best comedy is embedded in and touches on our sense of shared humanity (page 46). Living in the world at two metres removed, we need to feel that humanity now – and to allow ourselves to laugh, engage with new ideas, escape to different worlds. In these exhausting times of social distance, comedians, artists, musicians, performers and institutions are creating and virtually sharing – usually for free – an incredible array of work (page 65). They are supporting us. We need to do the same in return.

Citation: S. McGuirk (2019) “The uses of laughter” Red Pepper Issue 229 (Summer 2020), p.44.

Red Pepper Issue 229 examines the efforts already underway to kick-start our transition to a carbon neutral future and features an in-depth look at prisons. The culture section focuses comedy, from stand-up to satire, and as a trojan horse for right-wing ideologies. This column introduced the section.