Comedians need to stop complaining that they can’t make a living. I am a professional comedy performer and I’ve seen comedy be devalued over the past 12 years that I’ve been full-time. Because it’s been slow, I’ve been able to see it happening and have had time to get over a lot of my initial anger or fear. I see the depreciation of funny-business as just one example of the evolution of commercial art. Here’s a list of a few things that help to take the monetary value out of comedy. I’ll try to not spout too much nostalgia.
#1 Comedy Clubs
Comedy clubs all across the country are great at what they do. Unfortunately, what they do is not promote comedy. They hide fees, they self-promote, they sell expensive drinks and participate in several other bad-for-the-customer biz practices. It works. For the sake of this post, I’m just covering one way that they let down customers and that is by making comedy worth less. Here are some ways…
Half priced / free tickets — Any middleschool marketing student can tell you ; lowering the price of something lowers the customer’s value of it.
Two drink minimum — Unbelievably, in most comedy clubs across the country, you are still required to buy two drinks for every show you see. Plus tips. So, you can see comedy for free, but booze and waitresses have value. A very high value. Of course money from alcohol sales go to pay the comic, but you’re not setting up a clear message to the customer.
Booking by promotion — Risk aversion is a tough thing in commercial art. I get it. You want to make sure your comics show up on time and verbally fellate you whenever possible. I get it. Many clubs pick comics to open and feature based on a corporate climbing type of model. Show up a lot for open mics, keep showing up. Sweetly nag the booker. Get several showcases. Move on to emceeing for several years. Possibly feature. As you can guess, this doesn’t incubate a frothing nursery of incredible talent. Imagine the guy that’s best in an office at getting promotions. Is he an interesting person? Does he have any creative perspective? No, he’s good at getting promotions.
Booking by fame — The second popular method of risk aversion is stocking your club with fame… Anyone who you think will draw in customers. There are a bunch of people who travel around from club to club who are not audience pleasers. They’re just audience bait.
Live comedy is unmatched. Seeing a good comedian live is one of the most memorable things you’ll ever experience. It can be transformative and fulfilling to the max. The result of all the stuff listed above; it usually makes me want to watch recorded or televised comedy. You go to see a show, pay too much for drinks, get pissed off about hidden fees and having to wait outside in line, see maybe one decent comedian and the performer you came to see doesn’t know how to write a joke. Why wouldn’t you want to stay at home where the drinks are cheap and the comedy is on demand?
Scarcity value is real. The rarer something is, the more it’s worth. Simple.
Television, now in it’s 75th season, is “better” than ever with 2bajillion channels and every single one of them has comedy. For example, here’s an ad during the “Comedy Boom” of the 80s with a famous comedy actress….
Now here’s one today… the first video that comes up on youtube when I search for “tampon commercial 2012” and it features a standup comedy routine.
It’s a stunning example, but there is comedy in our commercials many ways and in our dramas and in our news. It’s everywhere on TV. I think that’s great for viewers because I like it when people laugh. Laughs are common place and that means comedy has less value.
Amateurs are doing it big time! Who’s the girl that can show up to the comedy club every night for some face-time? Which dude can be emotionally stable enough to write jokes that are not offensive nor interesting in the name of the long game? Who will work for $10 for a week? People with jobs. Who can wear nice clothes to a gig? Who has a car to drive there? Who has a bunch of muggle friends to bring to shows to buy tickets? That’s right. Same answer.
All this stuff is great for bookers. The thing that’s great for amateurs is they can do two shows a year and stay in business because they’re not in business.
I mean no disrespect to part-time / seasonal / free entertainers. I’ve met a bunch who rip it up on stage and affect an audience. Because of technology and the aforementioned saturation, these folks can get tons of training from just living in society. They can submerse themselves in the talent pool of the last 100 years and can get a major education in the goofy arts.
#4 Professional Apathy
That leads to my last one. Professional performers who don’t care. This is the tradition. Work really hard to get into a comfortable position, then phone it in for the rest of your crappy career. Unfortunately, things are different now. Vaudeville jokers used to learn by being on stage and by seeing other shows live. After touring one year with a vaudeville company, a comic was more educated and enlightened than the average joe. That’s why when you see someone recreating a vaudeville act, it usually sucks. As popular knowledge grows on a topic, the gestation period for masters grows. Sophisticated audiences demand sophisticated performers.
I believe the art is only touching on what can be done with comedy. We get glimpses of undefinable brilliance which I think we should have already superseded. Comedy used to be constant undefinable brilliance. If our pros worked harder, I think we could find that sweet spot again.
I don’t have solutions to these things. Comedy clubs are successful enough. I think there is room for another type of club that features boutique talent for high-priced tickets and guarantees great quality. Of course people have been suggesting this for years and I don’t really know of any. The comedy clubs aren’t the only venue stifling creativity and making the customers pay for it. Comedians perform at casinos, cruise ships, corporate parties and colleges — all with their certain limitations. Television will keep using comedy because it’s disarming and trust-building — great for selling products. Amateurs will keep getting better and keep being great options for hire. Pros will keep getting beaten down by the industry to the point where either the great ones can’t rise to the top or they are too worn out to pursue higher plateaus of performance.
Those are my predictions, but I don’t know what will happen. Let’s all sit and watch the meta-show of showbiz unfold.