“Fuck me, this is a weird gig,” comedian Alex Perkes grins manically as laughter washes over the audience.
Welcome to the People’s Comedy. Out on Stokes Croft it’s a bright summer evening, but 60 people have chosen to enter a dark room and get lost in funny stories.
This flagship monthly night at the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC) recently won a Chortle award for best themed comedy night outside London.
But that’s not all that sets it apart.
Tickets are affordable. The lineup is always “as balanced as possible”. And beyond the laughs lies a mission to change things for the better.
Levelling the playing field
“There’s a pretty sinister tendency on the circuit for comedians to be quite ‘meritocratic’,” says Henry Palmer, who co-founded the People’s Comedy in 2018. “‘If you’re good enough you’ll get paid.’”
“It’s easy to say that, if you come from a place of privilege and have money to fall back on,” he adds.
All too often, headliners get paid, while everyone else performs for free. “We would never feel comfortable platforming comedians and not paying them for that work,” says Henry, who does not have headliners and ensures all acts are paid equally.
Henry, who is as Bristolian as ‘cheers, drive’, is a well-known local character who puts on silly voices a lot but has his head screwed on. In 2020 he stood as councillor for Hotwells and Harbourside, and he has written a well-received book about gentrification in Bristol.
“My mum was from the ironically named Kingswood, whereas my dad was from Clifton – which is where I get my side parting,” he says of his background. Henry didn’t get to know his dad, who came from a relatively privileged family and left when he was a baby, instead growing up in a single-parent family in social housing in Easton.
Only at 16 did he start to take education seriously, going on to study at the University of Kent. Following stints with Uber — “I didn’t know I needed a degree in philosophy and film studies [for that],” he says in another silly voice — parking cars at the airport and being a TV extra and runner – “also known as a servant” – he now works for a housing association.
While with Uber, Henry helped mobilise Bristol drivers, and was elected chair of Bristol’s IWGB gig economy private hire union in 2018. Thousands took part in the worker-led action across the country, which led to a law change that reclassified Uber drivers as workers.
“I think part of my sense for socioeconomic class equality comes from that experience of growing up quite poor, knowing my paternal side are quite wealthy and had just cast me astray,” he says.
Starting out in comedy, in 2016, Henry experienced another uneven playing field, with comedians having to drive across the country – to perform for nothing – if they wanted to reach an audience. “I decided I couldn’t carry on like that,” he says.
Luckily, while researching his book, Henry met Chris Chalkley, founder of PRSC, who asked if he wanted to host a comedy night there.
‘Mentally healthy comedians are a rare breed’
On the night the Cable visits the PRSC, Vix Leyton is one of the comedians on the bill. She funds her standup via her job in PR, and co-hosts a podcast False Economy.
“The beauty of comedy is, sometimes you can be the person you are in the shower later on, when you could have handled the situation better and say the zingy one-liner you didn’t say at the time,” she says. “Or, you can lean into the horror of it, and ham up your social awkwardness and weird behaviour for laughs in the hope that people resonate with it.”
Vix struggled with ‘disordered’ eating in the 90s “where it was very much fashionable to be as small as you could be”.
“Since comedy, I’ve been much more comfortable taking up the space that I take up,” she says. “You start to pick up other things about you, beyond what you look like, to love.”
Still, she adds, “I don’t think anybody who does comedy would tell you that they were [mentally healthy] – that is a rare breed of comedian.”
Also present is Alice India, a “solidly middle class”, bisexual, gender-fluid — “I like the colour pink and sometimes I like to throw on a little dress, but I also like to oppress women!” — comedian. She has just found out she has autism and ADHD, “which everyone in comedy does, frankly”.
“I think I used comedy basically just to work out who I am,” she says of how comedy helped her mentally, pre-diagnosis.
Candid talk about mental health diagnoses, gender identities, sexuality and experiences of stigmatisation is common among performers at the People’s Comedy.
Henry says comedians’ mental health problems, as well as making “beautiful comedy”, often go hand-in-hand with the issues of marginalisation he is trying to counter. “The mental health of comedians is absolutely in tatters, and a lot of that’s to do with the money,” he says.
‘I don’t normally find female comedians funny’
Comedy is not recognised as an art form by the Arts Council, meaning it does not enjoy the same access to funding as other art forms.
“If I was on a lower wage, it would feel insurmountable,” Vix says. “It’s one of those places where ‘exposure’ is still somehow currency – and we all hate it, but there’s no way around it.
“One week you might get loads of really good gigs, one week there might be none, and one week it might be Covid and you don’t work again for three years,” she adds. “So I think there’s a lot of nervousness financially, even for some bigger, more established names.”
Adding to their financial woes, aspiring comedians face pressure to perform at Edinburgh Fringe every year, to catch the eyes of agents. This means scraping together tens of thousands of pounds.
When only well-resourced people can afford to go, this inevitably limits the range of voices and comedy that gets platformed. This is why it’s so important comedians get paid, says Henry.
Overlapping financial issues of access are other barriers. Currently all but one of the highest-paid 10 comedians in the world are men.
“It’s a world that’s used to seeing one token woman on a panel show and has been forever – and that was a win for us,” says Vix. “Even when you absolutely smash it, people queue up at the end to tell you, ‘You were great, and you know what? I don’t normally find female comedians funny.’”
The People’s Comedy, which last year became a community interest company (CIC), aims for 50/50 lineups in terms of gender. Achieving balance is an ongoing challenge due to the existing imbalances in the circuit, Henry says.
Even so, Esme Roslin, Henry’s co-director, is pushing for more. She has introduced the concept of intersectionality into the People’s Comedy manifesto, factoring in overlapping forms of oppression and privilege when trying to balance lineups.
‘Comedy needs to hit up’
As the People’s Comedy grows in prestige, with more comedians knocking on the door, Henry is now “having to say no to a lot of commercial, [male], middle-class white British comedians.”
He says it’s important the comedy he platforms must “hit up”, as in challenge power.
Besides events at the PRSC, and monthly sessions at Britain’s ‘wokest pub’ the Red Lion, a new night will launch on 28 June at the Star in Fishponds. The People’s Comedy will also be opening on the Friday night for radical socialist festival Bristol Transformed, later this month.
Future plans include hosting a night in a venue not “centred around booze”, improving wheelchair accessibility to help foster a more diverse audience, and eventually finding a permanent venue.
The organisation is also seeking funding to launch a comedy school, where younger people can learn standup from comedians. For a 15-week course, the goal is to raise about £6,500, on top of the donations the People’s Comedy already raise to support performers.
As the laughter slips out of the PRSC door, there’s still a lot of work to do to achieve those noble ambitions and to fix what’s wrong with comedy. But Henry has the full support of his community.
“Comedy has the potential to be accessible to everyone – there is really, truly no reason that it can’t be,” says Alice India. “There are a lot of really good people out there at the moment who are working so hard to make that possible.”