Comedy Road Work: Fool’s Bronze
One of the things I hear from younger comics, the ones not afraid to speak to me, in conversation is the following: “I need to get on the road.” A much more accurate derivation of this that I hear is “I want to get out on the road.” That one word change makes all the difference and it took me several years of ongoing frustration to learn the difference. Many comics want to get on the road – it is fun, you feel like you are earning your keep (travel, receiving a check, filling out a tax form – it almost feels like a job!) and you gain experience and stories. But the idea of “needing” to get on the road is really nonsense. Now, of course I am speaking to a majority of comedians, but excluding some: headliners and their personal opening acts, this does not apply to you.
As one of the last of a generation of comedians raised early on advice like “write… perform… repeat” as the key to becoming a good comedian (back then becoming a “good comedian” implied that the quality would render you a “working comedian”). Internet and television opportunities may be plentiful, but with the industry prioritizing different metrics beyond (or above) the actual quality of stand-up comedy, working on your stand up act has never been more irrelevant to being a working comedian (better to be “decent” with additional factors in your favor, than just a great stand up). But the mythology surrounding road work still persists: the idea that working the road is necessary in light of tremendous evidence that it cannot help you build your career or your bank account. I have said it many times before, but like America in general, stand up comedy is becoming a business where the middle class is being squeezed out. It is not financially viable for up and comers (without management or heat or other entertainment income) to work full time at their stand up so the only people incentivized to dedicate themselves to comedy are locals who are increasingly employed by penny pinching clubs (don’t cut the headliner’s $20,000 pay check; instead, cut the feature pay/value from $900 total dollars to $500) or headliners who continue to be more central to the club’s bottom line.
So why are comedians still drawn to the road? Ego. That is the main reason. It serves no real financial purpose. And no matter how many emails you collect as a feature act or a low level headliner, without a massive Internet or television presence (or industry/management backing willing to leverage their more famous clients to benefit your budding career – very common) you are not going to build the kind of fan base that will elevate you to the level you want or need (or by the time you collect 15 years of e-mails we will be on to the next tech thing you “must do” to advance. But you feel like a real comedian on the road – if you are coming from NYC, LA or Chicago club audiences treat you like a D-list celebrity if they like you, drinks are cheap, laughs are plentiful and you might even sell some merchandise. But at the end of the day, the dwindling quantity of road work that pays a decent week’s wage is not worth the ego boost. And many of the clubs (not all, there are still some good managers and owners still treating their comedians like professionals) are nickel and diming comedians more and more so that it sometimes is not even worth missing a week of work back home. Think of it this way, to be available to even do 20 weeks of road work in a year you cannot really have a full time job. But to become great at stand up you need the freedom to work at least that much. It is a real Catch 22 – if you have the time to work on your act you will almost likely get too poor to continue that lifestyle, but if you work a full time job to pay your bills your opportunities for stage time, road work and crafting longer sets will be greatly diminished.
And then there is my personal favorite that deserves a small note – the road booker’s “last minute replacement” list.
Several years ago I received a few bookings from a prominent club booker. I did very well with the clubs I work, as evidenced by the unsolicited e-mail I received from the booker saying “I have heard great things about you. I am moving you up my list.” I assumed this meant I would receive more bookings. Since that e-mail I have not worked any of his rooms. I did not realize that I was moved “up” from the “sometimes booked” to the “fu*k this guy” portion of his list. I would think that would be a step down, but clearly I don’t get the industry. But then I realized that I had actually been moved to the “last minute replacement” list for this booker, as well as another unrelated booker. This list is the “Oh no someone cancelled and I need someone within 1-7 days.” Now, obviously some of the people receiving these e-mails may be within driving distance to these clubs, but for many these e-mails come off as borderline insulting. If you are paying me $600 and the flight I must now book costs $500, what is the incentive? Or is this just a half-acknowledgement that the booker knows the desperate environment they have helped cultivate among comedians that someone will grab it just for the chance to ply their trade for a week?
Of course when I sent a professionally worded email to a booker concerning my lack of opportunities I was told by a third party that my email may have been received poorly (this was an inference, not direct knowledge). In other words, simply corresponding like a regular person may rub these fief lords the wrong way. So my advice to young comedians would be to leave the road alone, no matter how tempting it is, unless you fall into small exceptions (and on a side note – if you are going to do festivals – treat them more like vacations to meet and talk with other comeidans – if you treat them like realistic opportunities for career advancement, odds are you will leave disappointed, or at least eventually become dissatisfied with them). Everyone knows the “chicken or egg” dilemma, but what came first, the nickel and dime booker or the headliner who decided to bring their own feature? Now I have seen some headliners bring their own feature, driven mostly by insecurity, but many others want someone who will work well with them personally and on stage. Totally understandable. One would think this would be the job of the booker to coordinate good talent that has general chops and also works well with the headliner. Some bookers take this responsibility seriously. Others don’t give a fu*k because booking good mid-level acts (both as individual performers and in coordination with headlining acts) takes giving a damn about comedy and not just the bottom line.
Comedy bookers (to reiterate, not all, but enough to shape the industry) have further driven a scab mentality into working comedians, so a union will never be possible (how do you form a union when the labor force is replete with scab-mentality workers?). So I think my advice to up and coming comedians is to forego the road. It will do nothing concrete for your career. Now if you are working with a headliner and have a personal relationship that can drive you forward professionally then embrace it. Or are you someone with management and road middle work is just a truck stop on your way to headlining and more heat then ignore this as well. But to everyone else, the road has nothing to offer you. Perhaps a decade ago it was fool’s gold, but the economics of stand up comedy now have rendered it fool’s bronze – not even worth the foolhardy chase on which you want to embark. If you think me hypocritical for pursuing road work, understand that my carer has his an all-time high for notoriety, which is a good thing, and a credit to the products I have worked hard to put out, but also near a low point economically because of several of the factors I have included above, so any opportunity to make money from comedy is one I cannot pass up. Is this where you want your career to be? Pursuing any and all work, out of equal parts desire and necessity? Play the long game, not the short game and your comedy career and life will be much better off. In the age of Facebook and Twitter every comedian’s insecure need (or perhaps to show to fans and industry that they are working and relevant) to post messages of false humility and blatant braggadocio of the clubs they are going to work or have just worked can get any comedian seeking opportunities to feel jealous. That is the short game. Remember – getting on the road in many cases now is not a necessity, but a desire. Unless you fit into exceptions I have written steer clear of the temptation.
So my advice is to work locally on your act. Work on your YouTube channel. Work on your Twitter account. If this sounds cynical, it is. But it is also true. I have reluctantly, but fully embraced this. It is simply reality at this point. I know that I will have to become a headliner for many of these clubs to employ me again, but my stand up skills are not a well known enough draw to make it happen (yet?). Comedy works less like General Motors and more like Silicon Valley now. So work on your act and comedy portfolio in a way that benefits you, because I assure you, many club owners’ agendas are in direct opposition to the advancement of your career and bank account. Don’t let them throw you scraps in the dumpster and act like they are feeding you dinner.
If this concerns any of you it should. It means there are fewer and fewer careers possible in stand up comedy. But if you are willing to go for it – the way to do it is to either connect with connected people, or become a headliner – in talent or, more beneficial, in fame/reach. So get cracking on all things that are not stand up comedy if you want to be a working stand up comedian.
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