By Steve Jelbert
The corporate show is scorned by some comedians, who feel that it is compromising their “artistic integrity”. But others embrace it, seeing it as a way of subsidising their careers.
CORPORATE SHOWS are the hidden ginger stepchild of comedy. No one really likes to talk about them, save the ubiquitous Jonathan Ross on his radio show. Yet they take place all the time, those after-dinner shows at which comedians are brought in to amuse dozens of post-prandial businessmen, comforted only by the fact that the huge fees they command effectively subsidise their more prominent — and less well paid — work.
Many of us will have been to such an event, in a group of several hundred drunks, heckling Gary Wilmot with an obscene chant which wouldn’t have disgraced the rowdiest of football crowds. Legend has it that David Baddiel once finished a set to a boozy crowd of City yobs with the words “You’ve been a s**t audience and thanks for the twelve grand”, before wisely fleeing, presumably aware that he would never again be as funny.
“It is a world of whispers. People don’t usually talk about it,” concedes Dara O’Briain, a stand-up comedian experienced at such events. “I think there’s an element of ‘artistic integrity’ involved, something which is massively overstated in the comedy industry, given that we’d hit ourselves on the head with a frying pan to get a laugh when it isn’t going well. It doesn’t make us whores. It’s not like you’re endorsing a product.”
Jimmy Carr, another comic familiar on this shadow circuit, has no illusions about the nature of the work. “I’m about as important as the starter in the run of things, and that’s always salmon or chicken,” he says. But he rather likes doing them. “If you get booked for the right thing they can be great. It’s like the whole audience are one gang, so if you hit it right it’s a brilliant gig, because it’s like a private party.”
O’Briain concurs. “I enjoy them, I have to say. Comedy is something where people don’t usually come to you, Edinburgh excepted. The other 11 months of the year, you’re trying to find their level. But with these gigs you’re not struggling to find it, because if you hit one of them, you’ve hit the whole lot of them.”
There are perks, too. Carr was flown to a company jolly in Mexico. “It was an absolute joy, because obviously everyone there had been flown to Acapulco. If you want to play to an audience in a good mood, that’s the environment. ‘There’s a comedian? Great! We’ll laugh at anything now’.”
But even corporate entertainment has its pecking order. The two best known firms dealing with the talent are the unlikely sounding Jillie Bushell Associates and the speakers’ bureau Jeremy Lee Associates, whose brochure is something of a comedy barometer, and features a code system which gives a rough guide to the fees involved.
“It always excites comedians because it has grades which go up and down, depending on how you stand in the industry,” O’Briain explains. “There is A to E, and the prestigious ‘double A’ for Bill Clinton and the like.” That represents the “price on application” level, though their website actually gives price bands for Category E as under £1,000, D as £1,000-£2,500, and so on, up to A at £10,000-£25,000, which includes well known names such as Frank Skinner and Victoria Wood. Nice work if you can get it.
It’s not all about glamour, of course. The winners of the Perrier newcomer award in 2002, The Consultants, Justin Edwards, James Rawlings and Neil Edmond, have worked at both ends of the scale.
“You’re just exercising crowd control over 50 people who throw rolls at you for three minutes,” says Edwards, though he has a few tricks up his sleeve. “I get the name of the boss and the name of some bloke from accounts who’s always drunk, so all I have to do is find the drunkest man in the room and go, ‘You must be Dave!’ Even if he’s not, it’s usually still funny.”
Rawlings goes on: “There’s a sense of trepidation about going on at nine in the morning to open a conference. But we make more for doing ten minutes than waiting tables for three weeks.”
Corporate shows are really about displaying corporate muscle, at whatever level. “Unlike any other gig you’ll do, there’ll be one person that you’ll meet at the start of the night who’ll look worried, and keep asking if you’re all right,” O’Briain says. “That’s the person who said, ‘I saw this guy at The Comedy Store and he was really good’, and they’ll lose their job, or at least their standing, if I mess up. If you do well, the handshake you get off that person is phenomenal. When you don’t work in that corporate world, you don’t realise that these people are walking on eggshells all the time.”
Sometimes the boss’s idea of a joke proves downright peculiar. Rawlings recalls a curious role-playing day. “A property firm had arranged for four of us to play people working at this hotel. Justin was the maitre d’, I was dressed as a waiter, another actor was supposedly putting together a PA for the speeches, and we gave the worst service imaginable, clearing plates while people were still eating, that sort of thing.”
“All the way through this lovely dinner. They really weren’t enjoying it,” Edwards says. “At the end they announced, ‘Thanks to the cast for amusing us all.’ But nobody got it.”
Who loses out here? “Every stand-up gig is about tailoring your stuff to the crowd and this is more honest,” says O’Briain. “I’m young and hungry and I have a tuxedo, so I’m happy to do them.”
HECKLES AND JIBES
SOME years ago a friend of mine was employed by one of Britain’s largest companies, and one of the perks was the annual Christmas bash, held in a London hotel. Rumours circulated that this year’s event would feature a comedian. Names such as Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle were bandied around.
So groans broke out when the warm-up act turned out to be a cosy veteran song-and-dance man. Still, surely the corporate giant in question would be aware of the tastes of its young folk. Sadly not. Instead one of the best known of Britain’s golf/ comedy performers leapt on to the stage.
But the star is the star after all, and free booze is free booze, so the crowd settled. Yet spewing forth some racially-charged material was hardly a wise move in front of a mixed audience typical of the capital. Some brisk heckling kicked off, until the white performer turned on one accuser and suggested that if he had anything to say, he could say it to his face.
Emboldened by liquor, the critic accused the star of racism. “Racist! Me! I’m no racist, son, and I’ll prove it,” the comic exclaimed, and called upon his black support act from the wings to join him in a number about their chumship.
Chastened, the heckler returned to his seat, only to be stopped by another punter. “Look what you’ve done, you stupid bastard!” the interloper shrieked. “He’s singing now!”
THE A-TO-E OF COMICS
THE STAR ratings for corporate speakers and comedians:
AA (over £25,000): Ant and Dec, Clive James
A (£10,000-£25,000): David Baddiel, Angus Deayton, Jack Dee, Cat Deeley, Rory Bremner, Jasper Carrott, Bob Monkhouse, Lenny Henry, Phill Jupitus, Mark Lamarr, Patrick Kielty, Alistair McGowan, Frank Skinner, Victoria Wood, Jonathan Ross
B (£5,000-£10,000): Sanjeev Bhaskar, Ed Byrne, Jimmy Carr, Bobby Davro, Omid Djalili, Jeremy Hardy, Lee Hurst, Ross Noble, Emo Philips
C (£2,500-£5,000): Jeff Green, Rich Hall, Kit and the Widow, Derren Brown, Terry Alderton
D (£1,000-£2,500): Simon Evans, Sean Lock, Men In Coats, Sean Meo, Julia Morris, Colin Murphy, Dara O’Briain, Tim Vine, Jason Wood, Consultants, Rhys Darby
E (up to £1,000): Shazia Mirza, Ian Stone, Otiz Cannelloni