Comedy and Covid 19: the lessons for investors

As Covid-19 drives everyone indoors, live comedy is turning to technology to solve the problem of performing in a lockdown. It’s just one sector among many redefining the way we live and work, says Dominic Frisby.

Woman laughin in a comedy audience © Felix Kunze/Redferns
Will comedy ever be the same again? © Getty
(Image credit: Woman laughin in a comedy audience © Felix Kunze/Redferns)

An economy is not some electrical gadget that you can switch off, then switch back on a few months later, and expect to pick up exactly where you left off.

Rightly or wrongly, lockdown has done untold damage to so many industries. Travel, hotels, cruise ships, pubs, clubs, entertainment, sports theatres, concerts, shopping malls… There is still a school of thought that thinks Covid will pass and we can go back to where we were. It ain’t going to happen, even if a cure is found tomorrow.

I see two huge winners in this new Covid world. The first, as I have mentioned before, is gold and bitcoin – money or stores of wealth that are immune to all the debasement that is taking place. The second, I am going to look at today.

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Covid 19 is a trend accelerant

Numerous trends were already in place before the virus took hold. Covid accelerated them. More and more of us were starting to work remotely, for example, and doing it more often. Remote healthcare – where consultations with your doctor were held over the phone – were already a thing. The same goes for education. Remote universities and schooling, for example, already existed. The tech was in place.

In many cases a better service can be delivered at a cheaper price, and so their adoption was inevitable. Covid just accelerated the process.

Will we go back to doing things as we did before, once the virus passes (assuming it passes – it may well not)? In many cases we will. But in many we will not. Where these new ways of operating prove more convenient or efficient, they will become our new reality.

Before February, many people had never heard of Zoom or Google Meets, let alone used them. Now they are a daily feature of our lives. There are even comedy nights on Zoom.

In fact, comedy is a good example. Until February, the UK had a buoyant live comedy scene. Lots of comedians you’ve never heard of, and plenty you have, were plying their trade, travelling up and down the country, bringing joy and laughter with them. Big names were performing in thousand-seater theatres, while the tiny names were in rooms above pubs that might seat only 50.

It wasn’t perfect. Most comedians wanted better-paid work than they had. Many were moaning about their lot. Many felt underappreciated. But now we look back on it like some golden age.

On 17 March, lockdown came and live comedy ended. Diaries that were full were suddenly empty. Nobody had any work.

But comedy is full of creative, energetic people. It is full of self-reliance – you live or die by your act. It is full of risk-takers. Whether it’s the one-man band taking his act up and down the country and hoping to get noticed or the big impresario, the industry is full of entrepreneurs.

And so the lockdown has ignited a huge creative force. Comedians, promoters, club owners, agents and producers are all now looking at ways to make live comedy work without an audience. It’s a near-impossible task. Live comedy needs an audience. It’s an essential ingredient. An audience is part of the music of an act.

And yet the problem is slowly being solved.

What the future of comedy can tell us about investing

At first comedians started to try and do their acts over Zoom. But stand-up without an audience over Zoom is, to put it mildly, clunky. To compensate for the clunk, comedians started heckling each other and a sort of banter emerged. The repartee became funnier than the acts. Now all sorts of unscripted panel-type shows are coming up.

Other comedians have started podcasts, chat shows, Facebook streams, all sorts of new formats are being investigated. There’s a kind of gold rush going on to get first-mover advantage and occupy the space. All sorts of opportunities are arising.

The tech-savvy have a definite advantage. But those who perhaps felt overlooked by the circuit suddenly have a chance to build up their own audiences and shine.

On the other hand, many great acts are falling by the wayside, unable or unwilling to move with the times. This is the cruel side of a ruthless industry.

You might look at some live Facebook stream and see that a show only had 100 views. You might turn your nose up at that paltry figure. But it’s not so different to a hundred bums on seats at a comedy club. Any Edinburgh fringe veteran will tell you that a hundred bums on seats is like selling out the Albert Hall.

Will live comedy ever go back to what it was? Probably. Eventually. Sort of. But in the meantime a whole new live comedy industry is quickly and organically growing on the internet.

The need for laughter has not gone away. In fact, the need for it is probably greater than ever. Comedy has a long-track record of thriving during economic hard times. Think of silent comedy in the 1930s or what many see as the Golden Age of British Sitcom in the 1970s.

But do you know who the biggest winner in all of this is? It isn’t comedy. It’s tech. Like the guys who sell picks and shovels to prospectors in mining booms, the tech companies who are providing the platforms will be the big winners. It might be Zoom or Google or Facebook, or Amazon (or some other e-retailer) providing the kit, or Netflix being the eventual goal.

Live comedy is just one industry in the UK. There are many others that are, no doubt, dramatically reshaping themselves for this new reality. But as work gets more remote, tech wins. As education gets more remote, tech wins. As healthcare gets more remote, tech wins.

Real world industries remain essential. But the phenomenal scalability of the internet and digital world, which has, it seems, so easily met the new demands placed on it over the last two months, means it must have a significant place in your portfolio.

The easiest way to play this theme is simply to own the Nasdaq. In the event of another liquidity crisis, it will sell off. But it will sell off by less and rebound by more.

The ETF Nasdaq-100 UCITS (LSE: EQQQ) provides exposure for UK investors.

Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future is available at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere. If you want a signed copy, you can order one here

Dominic Frisby

Dominic Frisby (“mercurially witty” – the Spectator) is as far as we know the world’s only financial writer and comedian. He is the author of the popular newsletter the Flying Frisby and is MoneyWeek’s main commentator on gold, commodities, currencies and cryptocurrencies. He has also taken several of his shows to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

His books are Daylight Robbery - How Tax Changed our Past and Will Shape our Future; Bitcoin: the Future of Money? and Life After the State - Why We Don't Need Government

Dominic was educated at St Paul's School, Manchester University and the Webber-Douglas Academy Of Dramatic Art. You can follow him on X @dominicfrisby