Rocking the Boat

Comedian Tom Mayhew on his recent Edinburgh show and being a working-class artist

6th September 2019

“When you see someone do a joke about something serious, like a bereavement or depression, it makes you feel less alone,” says comedian Tom Mayhew. “I think working-class people making art like that is vital for other working-class people, having a sense of belonging in the world.”

Tom, 27, was nominated for the Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year in 2017, became a BBC New Comedy Award semi-finalist in 2018, has written for The News Quiz and runs The 18% Podcast where he interviews other working-class people in the arts.

On stage, he shares personal stories, spinning jokes about social anxiety, depression and unemployment. His 2019 Edinburgh show I, Tom Mayhew explored what it’s like to be working class in the UK. In a visceral hour, he bared his struggles with the much-maligned universal credit system and the impact its failings have had on his family. It was met by four-star reviews from The Scotsman and Chortle.

“If you’re saying something that makes you uncomfortable, the odds are it’s important for you to say and for people to hear,” he tells The Overtake. “My favourite pieces of art are very real, personal and based in truth. I’d rather go on stage and talk about things I really care about than just make jokes about Tinder. I find that all a bit tedious.”

Tom grew up in a working-class family in Tring, Hertfordshire. By the age of 12, he knew he wanted to be a comedian. YouTube videos of stand-ups like Russell Howard and Jon Richardson, comedy podcasts and the occasional live show kept his interest growing.

It made me feel like Edinburgh is not for comedians from my background

During GCSEs he started writing jokes of his own and just after his 18th birthday, performed his first gig. He carried on writing, but it wasn’t until the age of 23, after a spell of unemployment and time working in a supermarket, that Tom started gigging regularly.

For years Tom had been putting, he estimates, 90% of his small disposable income into performing comedy. But his first time in Edinburgh — where many performers make a loss — still felt brutal. “I left Edinburgh in 2017 and wasn’t sure if I was ever going to come back,” he says. “I’d lost about three grand at a time when I was earning about nine grand a year, so it was absolutely devastating.

“It made me feel like Edinburgh is not for comedians from my background –- people who couldn’t afford big posters, thousands on PR or the top venues.”

Back in Tring, Tom found himself selling possessions to pay off the Edinburgh debt and reflecting on his future in comedy. But he realised he had a crucial story to tell. “I used it as fuel to come back this year and be like, ‘Edinburgh is for us and I’m going to prove it’,” he says.

In the interim, Tom set up a podcast. Prompted by a 2018 study that found only 18% of people working in music, performing and visual arts come from a working-class background, he created a platform for conversations between working-class artists.

“It felt very important to have a space where people could talk about what it’s like for them,” he says. “I was sick of hearing podcasts where people would say, ‘My parents paid for me to go to Edinburgh’. I’m just like, ‘you have no idea how privileged you are’.”

If you talk about the issues you face as a working-class artist, some people think you’re rocking the boat

So far, guests have included fellow comic Sian Davies, who runs Best in Class, a gig that profiles working-class comedians; Bob Clarke CEO of the Mama Youth Project, which helps working-class BAME people enter the TV industry; and activist/writer Rebecca Winson. New episodes with comedian Chloe Green, director Deborah Haywood and writer Kate Copstick are coming soon.

The conversations have stimulated ideas around what could help working-class people enter the arts. Tom highlights that change is needed throughout the system — industry leaders that recognise the challenges, grants for underprivileged artists, and better representation to inspire would-be artists.

“If you talk about the issues you face as a working-class artist, some people think you’re rocking the boat,” Tom says. “It took a while for me to talk about it in the industry; it almost feels like a risk.”

Breaking that taboo was central to Tom’s 2019 Edinburgh Fringe show. He spoke about the barriers for people without money, the way society grinds down the confidence of working-class people, and why it’s crucial that people like him find ways to tell their stories.

As always, he was open and honest on stage, sharing sometimes-difficult memories with audiences: “It does take an emotional toll on you.” Fortunately, he had a strong support network for his second Edinburgh stint. His girlfriend Olivia Phipps directed the show, while mental health-focused comedy company Objectively Funny produced. “There’d always be someone there asking, ‘How are you?’ It sounds very simple, but in Edinburgh 99% of the time it is: ‘How’s the show going?’”

He said: ‘Thank you, you’re standing up for people like me.’ That meant the world to me

Positive audience feedback also helped. During one show, Tom noticed an older, skinhead man at the back of the room, who reminded him of his own dad. “I wasn’t sure if he was going to like me,” Tom says. “But when I finished that show, he was the first person who came up to me. He shook my hand and was clearly quite emotional. He said: ‘Thank you, you’re standing up for people like me.’ That meant the world to me.”

On the final night, Tom received his first-ever standing ovation: “It was the perfect end to the festival.

“I think people were grateful because it’s a story rarely told. And it’s very rarely told by someone saying: ‘I’m not a bad person. I’m not weak. I’m not stupid. It’s the system that’s wrong.’”

6th September 2019