With several major projects this year, including AEG’s Just for Laughs London at The O2 and Peter Kay’s extraordinary 110-date tour, the live comedy sector is performing well despite the economic backdrop. Access investigates. 

Live comedy has been steadily growing in strength at traditional music festivals for several years. It has been a key component of major festivals such as Glastonbury, Latitude and Victorious for some time but is now creeping into the lineups of other outdoor events to play the side act to live music. 

Reginald D. Hunter at Latitude

While the increase in live comedy at festivals reflects the growing demand from punters for a high-quality choice of entertainment during the daytime before headline music acts take to the stage, comedy promoters are seeing increased demand at venues of all shapes and sizes – which is powering the sector’s post-pandemic rebuild. 

For an example of the growing focus on live comedy, look no further than AEG Presents appointing its first head of comedy in the UK. Georgie Donnelly, former agent at UTA who also established the comedy department at Kilimanjaro Live, joined AEG in November and has been tasked with exponentially growing the promoter’s live comedy market share. 

While AEG has dabbled in comedy in the UK, it is now establishing itself as a major player in the market with its first dedicated department, emulating its US-based set up. Donnelly’s first project is overseeing the UK debut of longstanding Canadian comedy festival Just For Laughs (JFL). Due to take place at the O2 Arena from 2-5 March, the pass-based festival will involve solo shows, live podcast recordings, in conversations and cast panels. The lineup includes Graham Norton, Ryan Reynolds, Katherine Ryan and Adam Buxton. 

Says Donnelly, “Comedy has been a strong sector for a long time. Covid or the economic crisis hasn’t dampened that. I think it’s fully recovered [from the pandemic]. The sales last year showed that everyone wanted to get out there. Artists from all genres, including comedians, wanted to get back out on the road and we didn’t see it struggling sales wise. There’s definitely a hunger from audiences, as well, to attend shows.” 

Georgie Donnelly

As for the launch of JFL in the UK, Donnelly says it began as an idea by Emma Bownes, The O2’s VP venue programming, who wanted to host a cross-campus event similar to the established European country festival C2C: Country to Country. 

She says one of JFL’s most popular projects is the Receipts Podcast – a live version of the popular podcast hosted by journalist Tolani (Tolly) Shoneye, PA Audrey Indome, and songwriter Milena Sanchez. 

“This reflects how well digital and podcast artists are doing at the moment. Traditional comedy is still doing well but I’m finding that podcast tours are really popular. It’s such a direct way to let fans know you’re on tour, and audiences feel this intimacy with the artists, perhaps more than traditional art forms.” 

Donnelly says she noticed last year that audiences wanted more diversity: “95% of the shows that I did were artists from a range of diverse backgrounds – whether that’s gender, race or sexuality, there’s strong representation and that’s what the audiences want.” 

Cass Randolph, director of 57 Festivals, which runs Greenwich Comedy Festival along with Bristol and Brighton Comedy Gardens, shares the view that podcasting has had a major impact on the scene, particularly after its success during the pandemic. 

Will Briggs and Cass Randolph

Balancing acts 

Randolph’s brother and 57 Festivals co-director Will Briggs, says he first noticed comedy coming to the forefront at festivals during the early days of Latitude: “I noticed that the comedy tent was rammed in the day and they had high profile people on. I think that changed people’s perceptions of comedy at festivals. It’s a really strong draw for them, rather than it just acting as a sideshow.” 

When comparing comedy with music at festivals, Randolph says the main difference is that audiences want to hear the same song repeatedly in a live format, but that is very rarely the case with jokes. 

“That’s the main balancing act with regards to all these platforms comedians are using, it’s so impressive they are churning out so much good content because they’re got their live audience as well as their constant social media audience.” 

Along with the Green Man festival, Briggs says the Victorious Festival is another strong supporter of live comedy. The Portsmouth festival, which celebrated its tenth anniversary last year, introduced its comedy tent in 2018 and co-founders Andy Marsh, James Ralls and Ben Miles have not looked back since. 

James Ralls

Ralls says the event has always had a strong local comedy presence but he wanted to increase its offering last year by adding a few household names – including Katherine Ryan, Joel Dommett, Russell Kane, Milton Jones, Suzi Ruffell and Rosie Jones. 

“This gave our festival-goers even more entertainment, and our more local comedians a chance to perform alongside some top talent,” he says. 

“Comedy is not necessarily right for every festival, but we think it can really add to the atmosphere and gives our festival-goers diversity and great value. When an event lasts three days, it’s nice to cater for people who may want to step away from the main stages for a moment. It’s also great to give people access to another type of entertainment they may not get the chance to see regularly outside of the festival.” 

Standout standup 

When looking at the comedy calendar this year, Peter Kay’s remarkable 110 date tour is undoubtedly one of the standout projects. 

Promoted by SJM Concerts, Kay’s tour began at Manchester’s AO Arena in December and will see him finish at Utilita Arena in Birmingham in December 2025. The comedian has become the first artist to hold a monthly residency at The O2 and he will be performing a show at the venue every month until April 2025. By the end of his run, Kay will have broken the record for the most shows played at The O2 arena by an artist, with an impressive 44 shows at the venue. Kay last performed at venue as part of his 2010 tour, which still stands as the biggest selling comedy tour of all time. 

Bownes says, “Being the first artist in the world to have a monthly residency at the venue, and to sell out every show, is an astonishing achievement, and something we’re really proud to have worked on with Peter and SJM Concerts.” 

It is not just the big name acts that people want to see this year. According to Leicester Comedy Festival founding director Geoff Rowe, who is to step down from his role later this year after 30 years at the helm, ticket sales are also strong for comedy club venues. 

Geoff Rowe

“A lot of smaller venues are selling really well across the UK,” he says. One of the interesting things Rowe says he has seen is growth in what he describes as rural comedy clubs: “There has been growth of comedy in communities rather than big city centres and towns. The shows are doing incredibly well because people want to stay local. They’ll go and see Peter Kay at arenas, but these are increasingly being seen as a treat. People are staying local and that’s a healthy thing which promoters are taking advantage of.” 

The comedy festival veteran says comedy clubs are continuing to provide vital pipelines for emerging talent: “From speaking to promoters, I know there’s a real appetite for people to pay a tenner to go and see four acts and a compere who they may not necessarily know. That is brilliant because it supports new and emerging talent and helps feed the bigger picture.”