Time Out Calls Time On London Comedy

By Ben Venables Last edited 29 months ago
Time Out Calls Time On London Comedy

Time Out is on a humourless mission.

Earlier this month, the magazine announced its intention to become a "global commerce platform in the key vertical categories."

We have no idea what this means, except it's the kind of lobotomised bullshit always correlated with news about job losses. As indeed was the case here: 40 redundancies across Time Out's UK and the US operations were announced in the statement. Yesterday, it emerged that London's comedy section has no part in this 'vertical' utopian vision, and is to be dropped from the Time Out 'platform' in the New Year.

Time Out's comedy section's importance to the capital can be traced right through the emergence of the Alternative Cabaret movement in the 1980s. Journalist Malcolm Hay's passion for the art of standup and his diligently accurate listings over his 20 year tenure, until 2007, meant the section was often referred to as a comedy fan's bible, with some comedians even using the magazine to find out where they were playing that evening.

Elspeth Millar is archivist at the British Stand-Up Archive at the University of Kent: "From the archives we have (donated from both comedians and promoters) publications like Time Out and City Limits played a really important role from the 1980s onwards in promoting initially cabaret and alternative comedy before focusing on comedy. The fact that comedians and promotors (including Linda Smith, Monika Bobinska, and Peter Grahame) retained these publications in the archives which they deposited show how important the cabaret section (called the comedy section, from 1992 onwards) was in supporting them as performers and promoters. We've also held events with comedians at the University and they've spoken about how they used Time Out (and other publications) early in their careers to get gigs by ringing up all the clubs listed and asking for an open spot; a vital directory for comedians seeking a break.

Time Out listings from 1986. Image of clipping from Monika Bobinska Collection.

"From a current perspective comedy is such an important part of culture and entertainment, accessible to everyone really, due to the range and variety of smaller clubs offering open slots, through to the touring stadium shows from well known comedy stars."

Dec Munro is founder, MC and promoter of the Test Tube comedy nights which used to run monthly at the Canal Cafe, and this year directed Sofie Hagen's Bubblewrap, winner of the best newcomer show in Edinburgh. He feels the section has been kept well intact by Time Out's current comedy editor Ben Williams: "When I started Test Tube it made a massive difference to be listed and recommended by Time Out. I don't know Ben personally, but he's done a great job of being supportive to many comedians as well as being fair and interesting to read. I read in Chortle today a quote about Time Out moving towards an 'online multi platform hub model', or something of the sort. I'm sceptical of such corporate-sounding bullshit. John Fleming is also quitting his daily comedy blog in the New Year, which I find very sad."

The news was met with dismay among comedians. Josie Long tweeted, "This is pretty devastating" and for John Robins: "It was vital in promoting interesting and alternative comedy." Joz Norris also singled out Ben Williams as, "by far one of the hardest-working and most supportive and nicest comedy journalists around and has done so much to help loads of great independent comedy reach a wider audience."

Williams has done a superbly stubborn job in keeping the section fresh, interesting and relevant while surrounded by the general magazine's evolution into whatever it is it's trying to morph into. He has a strong comedy background having founded the Long Paws Comedy Club in Somerset back in 2005, prior to moving to the capital. More recently he's been a scout and then judge on the main Edinburgh award panel. His interviews are notably full of life, always tailored to the idiosyncrasies of the artist and show. This year alone, his conversations with Kim Noble, Richard Gadd and the Weirdos Collective are stand out articles. In 2014, Williams picked up the Allen Wright Award at the Edinburgh Fringe, a prize given to the best arts writing from a journalist under 30.

Hopefully Williams will remain in comedy journalism and doesn't go the same way as his section. In the meantime he did receive a consoling message from Edinburgh award winner Sam Simmons: "Just heard your shitty news. Let's drink."

Last Updated 21 December 2015


Time Out just gets worse and worse every week. The New York issue has just gone free, following the same model as the London one, and it too has suddenly turned into a weak, waifer-thin, watered down, waste of paper. It used to be great...and the annoying thing is, in cities like London and New York, it still could be. But, as the public's interest in remotely cerebral culture dies...so do the titles that used to cover it.


Time Out stuffed itself years ago with a long, expensive legal battle for the right to preview TV programmes (at the time, BBC and ITV kept the copyright to themselves for the Radio Times and TV Times). Time Out eventually won - only to see every newspaper in the land begin running listing sections, thus undermining its own USP. Be careful what you wish for.

Phil Nightingale

I agree, I used to be happy to pay for Time Out, it was informative and the place to find out what's on and coming in London. Now I won't even take it for free.


I rarely take Time Out even when it's free. It's largely purile nonsense. Trying to be edgy while aiming at teenagers. I found Londonist a far better source. This isn't a case of the web displacing paper, it's just about quality.

Andrew Shields

I was sport and fitness editor of Time Out in the 'good old days' of 80,000+ weekly newsstand sales, no effective opposition and, crucially, no internet of any substance. My section - which had a strong niche following and a reasonable amount of influence - was also removed in one of the periodic culls of the mid to late 2000s, as the magazine gradually shed all the sections that contributed less financially but helped give a comprehensive view of what was going on in the capital. Time Out was like a phone directory for most of its life, but that was indeed its USP. The inevitable slimming down to the 'big four' subjects (aka those with advertisers) of film, music, theatre and art removed almost all its identity.
I felt the 40th anniversary special issue and associated events marked the effective end of Time Out as we'd all known and loved it. I admire the staff who've tried to keep something of the magazine's spirit during the move to free and omnipresent corporate influence (believe it or not, there was a time when major advertisers could receive a good review, a bad review or no review at all!) but I do now wonder whether it will survive in print to reach its half-century in 2018.
Like NME, it's a relic of another era.