The Comdedy Bubble Has Already Burst
At the end of 2018 (way back then) I decided to ditch Facebook and Instagram. Aside from the negative psychological impacts of Facebook, their actions related to the 2016 Election, privacy and just their overall deplorable corporate conduct made me realize that I had to delete my accounts (Facebook owns Instagram for those that don’t know). And full disclosure, Facebook’s 5+ year saga to crush content that was either hosted on other sites (blogs, YouTube, etc.) through their constantly evolving greed algorithm made it easier to depart as my content was not even benefiting the way it did years before. So, as I told fans/friends/followers in a few posts in December that they could still follow my site, YouTube and Twitter for my content, a few of my 4000+ “friends” followed me, a majority didn’t see it (a vast majority thanks to Facebook’s work) and the rest offered something akin to obituary comments. Some explained that they hated Twitter (but were apparently OK with Facebook, a far more morally and psychologically corrupt company) and others just had no compelling interest to continue to consume my content (the overwhelming majority of which is free – only my 6 stand up albums cost money – my weekly podcast, blogs, videos and tweets are all free and occur with far more regularity than the roughly 2.5 years in between stand up album releases) despite near daily amusement (which I assume from the many likes compiled every day). It dawned on me that most of these people liked my comedy, but liked Convenience a lot more.
I live in NYC, a fairly liberal city at least in how it votes. But every time I see people from my midtown Manhattan building ordering Uber (a company I ditched much faster than Facebook for many of the same reasons), or see Starbucks recycling cans stuffed with non-recyclables (or recyclables in the garbage can right next to the recyclables can), or witness thousands of people shuffling along zombie like on crowded rush hour streets and subway stairwells or a thousand other things I realize, even in some of our most ostensibly progressive/liberal places, we are now in the era of Convenience. And I capitalize it, at the risk of appearing Tom Friedman-ish, because I think it is a social movement that trumps almost everything else (somewhere Progress was replaced by Convenience, but we never stopped calling it Progress). If a city with extensive public transportation and a fleet of yellow cabs cannot separate themselves from the convenience and control of hailing a cab to their door, even if they must wait longer and contribute to an epidemic of traffic and pollution in NYC, then what chance is there (let alone ethical right to moralize to) to get more conservative (individual liberty leaning) people in redder parts of the country to agree to give up their way of life, especially when the sacrifices they are asked to make often are part of a much more substantive change to their lives?
I am only examining the small microcosm of comedy in this obviously very large problem of Convenience. Our addiction to Convenience has already decimated lower-middle class and middle-class jobs (Amazon is at least 5 years past the point where they should have been broken up on Antitrust grounds… yes I quit Amazon/Amazon Prime/Whole Foods as well) and is still at least an equal force as the GOP in stopping our needed commitment to fight climate change – the metaphorical asteroid headed for Earth. However, I do think examining stand up comedy is instructive. Comedy is something most people enjoy on some level, but have come to expect it to be curated and delivered to them with the least amount of physical or intellectual effort (if clubs could book memes at this point I am sure they would). So as Comedy Central and HBO have abdicated their previously vital role of stand-up comedy cultivation, Netflix has entered to dominate the realm with a gluttonous oversaturation. They are in the business of eyeballs and will deliver more comedy than is necessary, good or wanted just to achieve more eyeballs. They are literally devaluing the concept of a special before our very eyes. Meanwhile, social media, especially Facebook, has given people loads of free content, while also cultivating an environment that makes the average person appear on par with comedians as algorithms cultivate feeds and motivate people to get thumbs, hearts and smiles. I learned this the hard way when I saw how many people were unwilling to either ditch Facebook (not really my point, but it would be nice to see) or add a less putrid social media site to their rotation to follow a comedian for whom they expressed enjoyment . In other words, the platform now trumps the content and eve more so, the content creator. And I think this is a clear sign that the Comedy Bubble is set to burst, if it hasn’t already.
Of course, I have other anecdotal evidence that suggests to me that the Comedy Bubble that has built up will burst and burst big. The Funny Bones – one of the big chains of comedy clubs has joined the Helium chain (a smaller, but prestigious collection of clubs) in only offering 5 show weeks (eliminating Thursday shows). Now if you are to ask and listen to comedians already in the money, they will tell you stand up comedy is fine and the only threat is “PC culture” or some other boogeyman. I will address that later, but when the biggest chain of clubs decides that a 17% reduction in shows is better for the bottom line it should be making more headlines for comedians than what a comic said at Columbia University. Mind you – middle acts are not getting an increase in pay (making it 30+ years at the $100 a show rate, but now with fewer shows and higher transportation costs than in 1988) but this also has not really registered for the “comedy community” either. Money in stand up is like the stock market at this point – those with the leverage, power, management and means to be at the Netflix special level or a similar perch see money and pilots being thrown around and think it’s a Bull Market for comedy. But to borrow an analogy from politics – Main Street comedians are making less than their counterparts in 1988 from club work. Not to mention the fact that many more headliners (both elites who sell out rooms and guys lucky enough to just have the spots) are bringing their own features which in many cases is elevating mediocre comics ahead of the once normal selection process because of… Convenience (multiple A Comedy Club bookers have told me this, though all you need is eyes and ears to know this). Some do it because they want a friend. Some do it because they want a shitty opener. Some may have another reason. But for a profession that often likes to proclaim itself as a meritocracy this is about as Un-Darwinian as it gets.
So why isn’t there an uprising among comedians? Some form of concerted action? A guild? People simply giving a shit? One easy reason is that like country bumpkin Republicans who vote against most of their own interests, rank and file comedians often think they are going to be the next elite comedian and want all the riches and privileges that come with it, so why change it? But a more widespread reason, in my opinion is that Facebook is now the nation’s comedy club and the majority of comedians (the comedy proletariat) who make nowhere close to a living are content to thrive on social media and people are content to absorb tons of humor (and try their hand at it) from Facebook. My new album was the worst selling of my career, despite me having my largest social media reach to date and it being my best album. I think it is because the idea of paying for comedy (especially from a *gulp* “nobody”) has never been a tougher sell. If you don’t have a streaming subscription already to a Spotify or Apple you just are no longer programmed to pay for content that way.
Sidebar – I wrote many years ago that Louis CK selling his special for $5 set a bad marker. He had the power to cut out the middle man and as someone who has self-produced every one of my stand-up albums, I respect it. But by creating a new expectation that the best in the business only asks for $5 I thought it might have had an Amazon-like psychological effect on the comedy market. If a comedy star places that price on their work, why would the standard $10 from me or someone in my position be enticing? As it turns out sites like Apple and Spotify one upped him with a “How about all the comedy AND music for $10 a month?” But I digress.
If I cannot get fans to sign up to Twitter to follow me, what the hell chance is there of them opening a wallet? And this is all fine, except how can the stand-up comedy art expect to grow in a substantive way when it is borderline impossible to make a living at it (as in survive without a day job – I am not expecting to be rich, or even thrive at the middle level), except at the highest level?
I know this is just my own experience, but I am smart enough and more than experienced enough in this business to see that these are not isolated experiences that I am having. A population programmed to value the convenience of content over the provider of the content thanks mainly to Facebook, a workforce that largely doesn’t actually work at any level where labor issues might concern them (sort of the Uberfication of stand-up comedians – treat an art like a side hustle and you’ll never be motivated to join forces or value the art) and a streaming platform that cheapens the special-ness of live stand-up comedy is a toxic combination that has brought stand-up comedy to a brink. Combine that with a powerful class of comedians blinded by riches at the top and a mentality that is unfiltered Paul Ryan – an almost absurd, self-serving belief that those at the top are simply more meritorious than some of those stalled on the way up and you have a recipe for a massive decline in stand-up comedy.
So while Facebook, whose likes, if not the new opiate of the masses, certainly are the opiate of the comedians, joins forces with Netflix (both metaphorically and in stolen data) to drive comedy this way we also have a cultural civil war going on in stand up comedy. We are starting to see the results of when stand up comedy, overexposed and overinflated through the Internet smashes up against the scrutiny of the Internet, the very means of much of its exponential, short cut growth. It is very much the chickens coming home to roost. And I for one welcome it. I am not saying I agree with all the arguments on either the left or the right (though the Kumia Kompound Krowd tends to scream bloody murder whenever one of their favorites is called out for offensive content or slurs, but responds with a chorus of “shut the fu*k ups” to those who voice disagreement, unable to see the irony through their MAGA hoods apparently). But as the traditional path to stand up quality and success (writing and performing and travelling – the path I have taken that has made me an excellent comedian and an economic failure) has faltered and been replaced with an Internet and social media warp speed path, weaker comedy and bigger opinions have filled the void. This has led to failure. Certainly not economic failure (I’m sure the mean income of comedians is fine, but the median income is undoubtedly dogshit), but a larger failure for the quality and stature of stand up. Just because it suddenly got easier to be booked as a headliner for a select few, did not suddenly make the process of creating good stand up any easier. And the cultural battle within stand up that has spilled into the public square has problems on both sides. I see the right-wing folks demanding that their preferred voices not be diminished at all, as if benefitting from the greater and accelerated exposure should not or cannot come with anyone validly objecting. And on the other side I see left wing voices willing to throw away context and respect for an art embraced for pushing envelopes to satisfy their day job. human resources department concept of right and wrong. And often both sides are expressed with an aim of accumulating responses on social media.
I will tell you my two favorite specials this year were from a woman who hadn’t done stand up in 15 years (If I need to tell you who then why are you even reading a long essay on stand-up comedy?) and a Showtime special (Erik Griffin) that most of my contemporaries (let alone non-comedian friends) hadn’t watched. I saw HBO hit new lows, numerically and qualitatively. with stand up and I watched Netflix present a veritable parade of mediocrity (I cannot and did not watch everything, but I found myself largely unimpressed). There is no incentive or for the public to buy/support unknown comedians thanks to social media. There is no incentive for the business to develop or rigorously scrutinize specials and acts because Netflix is basically a blank check. And there is no incentive for comedians to stand up for what’s right because a majority don’t make enough, don’t expect to make enough, or just don’t plain care to treat it like a real job (you know, when they aren’t “Roast Battling”). So instead overly sensitive stand-up comedy neophytes, who have been convinced that their social media reach has magically enhanced the quality and importance of their opinions (and in some cases their stand-up), do battle with crude morons cloaking themselves in “free speech” while the foundations of the art and business crumble beneath them.
So in 2019 I think the Comedy Bubble will burst more. I say more because every time I see a club advertising a YouTuber, a WWE wrestler or a washed-up actor I realize it already has burst. It’s just time for it to continue leaking until enough people notice. “The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan and I think it applies perfectly to comedy in 2019. Facebook and social media ARE the comedy. Comedians are the only ones who still seem to think they are important to the process.