No funny business

24 October 2018

Stand up mic

Life as a stand-up might seem like a bit of a laugh, but working conditions on the comedy circuit are no joke, according to researchers at Cardiff and Stockholm Universities.

Feelings of worry, anxiety and frustration are commonplace and arise from unpredictable working conditions and financial insecurity, the study found.

Over a period of two years, Drs Dimitrinka Stoyanova Russell and Nick Butler interviewed 64 full-time UK-based stand-up comedians about their experiences.

The findings reveal that performers don’t just put on an act while on stage. Many admitted to projecting an image of positivity, showing they were willing to work for little or no pay in order to curry favour with comedy club promoters.

Researchers discovered comedians commonly hid feelings of anxiety and frustration arising from this financial insecurity in order to keep their relationships with promotors on an even keel. Few were willing to confront their employers about inadequate wages or late payments.

These strategies of “emotion management” only serve to exacerbate the prevalence of unfair employment practices, it was concluded. But there was a recognition among comedians that maintaining a wide network of relationships within the industry was vital to success.

Dr Russell, Lecturer in Human Resource Management at Cardiff Business School, said: “Freelance creative work is a labour of love where opportunities for self-expression are combined with exploitative working conditions."

By projecting an image of positivity, comedians inadvertently reinforce the prevalence of free labour on the live circuit. The uncomplaining acceptance of free labour is used not only as a means to enter the occupation but also as a bargaining device for future employment in later stages of a comedians’ career.

Dr Dimitrinka Stoyanova Russell, Lecturer

“As a result, comedians find themselves accepting gigs without proper remuneration well into their careers.”

While the study focuses on work in the creative industries, the team argues that their findings might inform further research on wider employment practices.

Dr Butler, Assistant Professor at Stockholm Business School, said: “This task is all the more necessary since employment conditions in the creative industries are mimicked beyond the performing arts, with casual labour in the fledgling ‘gig economy’ and other occupational fields where informality is the norm.

“Research like this might show how freelance workers in these economies use forms of emotion management in order to establish relationships with multiple employers. And, as it has in our study, describe what happens when workers feel compelled to endure uncertainty with a smile.”

The study ‘No funny business: Precarious work and emotional labour in stand-up comedy’ was funded by the British Academy and published in Human Relations.

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