This afternoon it was announced by organisers that the 2020 NZ International Comedy Festival would be cancelled, due to concerns around the novel Covid-19 coronavirus. Comedian Tim Batt explains why this is not only financially, but emotionally devastating news.
[in SNL voice] Coming to you from beneath a glass of whiskey, it’s midday Wednesday! [desperately making saxophone noises through tears]
Choosing a career in comedy is stupid. In terms of logic, it probably sits between taking health advice from the leader of a cult who hates punctuation and investing in Sky TV. The road is paved with devastating reviews, disappointing audience numbers and an all-time low in physical health - and that’s a description of our single happiest time of year; Festival Season.
For comedians, the festival process starts in October - a full seven months before the NZ International Comedy Festival, which is in May. Famed more for our humourous takes on human genitals than our paperwork/planning skills, we try to pull it together and nervously submit lengthy applications before the deadline for consideration to the NZ fest. Shortly thereafter, we submit again to Melbourne and Sydney, and then again for those performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Over the following months, we perform dozens of gigs to fives of audience goers and are sometimes rewarded with upwards of an entire free beer (nothing crafty mind you, green bottles only). We work on our shit new material about dating apps and Kiwi celebrities that will eventually wind up in our polished and not shit festival shows that Kiwi punters get to enjoy in May.
We pay professional photographers for embarrassing photoshoots, take their great images along with a cheque to designers who make our posters, pay incredible amounts of money to advertise the shows and then crack open a beer as we watch our bank accounts go further into red. We pay for festival registrations, flights, accomodation, venue fees and technical staff who run our show, while now searching for a bottle of cut price vodka we’re sure was in the cupboard.
Usually, we then perform our festival seasons. It’s a stressful, drunken, emotional, amazing comedy Christmas. We hang out with comedy friends from near and far, perform our hearts out night after night for weeks, lose our voices and croak to the finish line. All the while we slowly watch our ticket sales (hopefully) overtake our outlay.
Today, we got the news today that the NZ International Festival cannot happen. This is after the cancellation of Melbourne’s festival (the largest in the southern hemisphere) which was due to start this month. I expect Sydney and Edinburgh won’t be far behind.
We are devastated. Emotionally and financially. Most by thousands of dollars, some by tens of thousands. So much work has been done by comedians and staff to prepare a festival that will no longer happen.
The hubris (and perhaps plain idiocy) of declaring you’ll make a living by standing on stage telling jokes is felt by comedians at the best of times. Stand up comedy is a ridiculous and self-involved endeavour. It’s also not a hotbed of mental and emotional stability. But especially over the last few years, New Zealand has delivered a truly world-class comedy festival that is jealousy eyed by international comedians from much larger countries.
A minority of keyboard jockeys will sound off a variant of ‘Well, you should’ve got into a trade instead of farting about on stage then’. Yup. We know, Steve. We tell ourselves often enough.
Right now I am drunk, sad and trying to figure out where to throw the time and emotional energy I had reserved for performing across Australasia the next few months.
Grant Robertson’s massive package made headlines yesterday for all the right reasons. It’s a hopeful sign that this government is trying to do the right thing but currently, we just don’t have a clear picture of financial support for the self-employed and contract workers operating in performing arts. We’re a vulnerable group (just call one of us fat and watch how we react) and right now, we’re not sure how we’ll be keeping our head above water. Comedy festivals are where we make a significant proportion of our yearly income. Not only has that income been fully removed but we’re already on the hook for a huge amount of expenses.
Comedians obviously aren’t alone in this crisis. It’s touching every single part of our society. Health workers, those in hospitality and anyone even remotely connected to Air NZ will already have war stories to tell from COVID-19’s economic fallout. But if you encounter a comedian sometime soon and they’re not in the most hilarious (or sober) mood, this is the reason why.
Note: Tim Batt is a board member of the New Zealand Comedy Trust.