You can have 20 minutes of Ricky Gervais’s time for about £25,000, but Michael Mansfield is going to cost you a bit more – up to £40,000, according to Funny Business, Richard Marson’s intriguing series about the economics of the comedy boom.
These figures, as Ricky Gervais would probably be quick to point out, should not be taken as a simple measure of comic genius. They represent what corporate clients – very keen on mainstream telly celebrity, less keen on edgy affront – are willing to pay to sugar-coat their sales conference or annual general meeting. And not every comedian thinks it’s a good idea to ply for hire in this market: “It’s a kind of high-end prostitution without the sex,” said Jo Brand, one of those who is actually prepared to whore out her talent for the corporate client.
That’s a prejudicial way of putting it, of course, and much of the tension in Funny Business, between comics who do and comics who don’t, arose from the ambiguous status of the stand-up comedian, who occupies a position somewhere on a spectrum running from end-of-pier entertainer to priestly social commentator. Some practitioners think that comedy is show business and have no problem going where the big fees are. Others think that it has a duty to show up business, so that to do a corporate gig is selling your soul. To further complicate matters, several contributors suggested that the abasement involved in this particular line of work was actually good for their comedy and their soul, though it presumably helps that it’s the kind of therapy in which they pay you rather than the other way round.
It’s big business anyway, fed by talent-bookers like Jeremy Lee, a big hitter in the field, and Geoff Whiting, who started from a Bath phone-box and does a bit of stand-up himself. Rather poignantly, his account of his career trajectory mostly consisted of recalling the household names who got their very first booking through him and then sailed past to celebrity. Appearing for the refuseniks were comics like Rhod Gilbert (who became visibly distressed as he recalled a traumatic set he’d done for a Professional Footballers’ Association junket) and Mark Thomas, neither of whom could be accused of scorning the work only because they were never likely to be offered it in the first place. It was fascinating, though it rather lost focus towards the end as the documentary meandered into the realm of corporate-video production and then concluded in complete enigma. “Wherever you look now money’s spoiled it,” grumbled John Cleese. After which we got a shot of Monaco harbour. An arch comment? An illustration? A hint of what’s to come? I’m still not sure.