Comedy: A Love Story
I’m Mad As hell… And Will Probably Take It Some More
In what is becoming a tiresome ritual for even my mother to read about, last week I suffered another mild indignity at a comedy club. But this new one both angered me and perplexed me in equal measure and forced me to take a step back and look more globally at comedy. I wish I could say I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, but I love comedy (the performance and writing aspects) and know that I will endure the accompanying bullsh*t long after it is sensible to (are we there yet?).
It was the line outside for New York Funniest Comedian, a fraudulent open call to all comics in New York. Now most comics of any established reputation in NYC that wanted to compete called the club ahead of time and got a specific call time. This is allowed for a couple of reasons: comics that the club likes or respects (or are affiliated or managed with people the club respects) should not have to waste their time and/or suffer the indignity of waiting on line for hours to do two minutes of material. The other reason is that the club already knows who they want to put forward into the competition at least 99% of the time.
I chose not to call ahead because some self-righteous aspect of my personality wanted to be rejected from the line. I know that subconsciously I enjoy enduring the hypocrisy and lies of this business in some sort of self-righteous self-indulgence, even if it just for me and a few loyal readers (if Hunter S Thompson was a gonzo journalist, so maybe I have a future career as a depresso-journalist). So I waited on line for four and a half hours outside of Caroline’s on Broadway as I watched comic after comic that could be considered in my peer group in the business walk in for their “audition,” which, I learned later, just amounted to saying hello to the booker and being put on the list of those that are actually being considered for a spot in the semi-finals (taking place tonight and tomorrow night).
Well after waiting all that time I was spotted at the front of the line by a Caroline’s employee and was told, “Oh, J-L, you can go down (to audition right away).” I felt a little guilty, but that guilt was assuaged by the rationalization that I had waited the exact same amount of time as the rest of the comedy proletariat. When I got downstairs I went inside and was not required to do any stand up whatsoever. I was just told that I would be on one of the semi-finals shows on Tuesday or Wednesday. I left sort of relieved, but sort of disgusted. I had friends (or at least friendly acquaintances) waiting on line upstairs, with literally no chance at making it, no matter how good their audition. But we will get back to the story a bit later.
Believe (Almost) No One
“______ is looking for new talent to bring into the club for paid work. ________ will be watching these shows so definitely sign up.”
This was an excerpt from an e-mail I received about 6 months ago. I did one of these shows, a bringer (aka the crack cocaine of the comedy world where you are required to bring friends, family, co-workers) as a warm up for a television audition. I was well beyond the delusion that had plaguedme for years that anything career changing would happen from this bringer, but I wanted to do a show that would help me prepare for the audition. Well after the show, unsolicited, I received a glowing review from “______”.
So in a moment of temporary insanity I emailed that club’s booker and was told, “We like you, but right now we have too many comics for the spots open.” I accepted that as truthful words from people who had been nice to me for many years. However, kind words can best be summarized by Al Capone from the film The Untouchables: “You can get a lot further with a kind word and a gun, than you can with just a kind word.” In other words young comics, the only nice words you should fully trust from a manager or booker are “here’s you money.” This is not saying they are all liars or lie all the time, but to preserve your feelings in a business rife with disappointment, protect yourself first.
I looked on this club’s site a month after the “too many comics” e-mail and saw names on weekend shows (i.e. actually paid work, not the indentured servitude of unpaid “guest spots”) that I have never seen on those shows before. I then checked the management/representation of those names and saw that it was the same two agencies representing a large majority of the comics booked at that club. So while the nice answer may have eased my mind for a few weeks, the true answer, “we’re not booking you until you hook up with the right agency” or “we just don’t think you are good enough now” might have left me with a clearer plan and some dignity. However, it also may have meant that the $10,000+ that my friends and family have given to that club over the years would have dried up.
But that is the basis of the bringer system, which feeds money to clubs and producers on a weekly basis in NYC. You tell young comics how good they are when they suck because you know their friends are enthusiastic and will pay money to see their friend embark on a new and fun hobby. So to get money you encourage lots of performances of shi**y comedy because you do not care about exploiting the overgrown dreams of a new comic. I received just as many compliments from clubs when I was starting out as I do now. I know I am good now, but I have watched early tapes and I make myself cringe. But I could fill 3 bringers a month when I started doing comedy. So I got filled with lots of false compliments from clubs. Those compliments may have given me encouragement to continue and for that aspect I guess I should be thankful, but when my friend supply dried up no one came calling that “really good comic” named J-L anymore.
But don’t think that this is a club only issue. I have been told absolutely disgusting stories about bringers run out of lesser venues where comics who are lonely or friendless or just clueless are paying relatively exorbitant money just to get on shows based on promises that, even if true, do not warrant their expenses. Much like the U.S. Congress, once the money begins flowing in the bringer system, it creates a corrupt and result-less process.
What’s The Matter With Comics?
I read the book “What’s The Matter With Kansas” several years back and it explored why so many working class Republicans worked in favor of a party that did not have their interests at heart (or at least in practice). I think it is the same in comedy. Every comedian believes that they can make it. Last Comic Standing’s last two seasons had open casting calls in NYC. Of the many, many hundreds that lined up up outside those two years, one made it to the next round, where he was eliminated and did not even get a clip of his comedy on television. And I believe most people in line thought everyone else was wasting their time by showing up, except for themselves. But all you are when you show up for an open casting call is an extra in the movie “The American Entertainment Dream.” The stars are already cast and you are just there to make the stars look more heroic for standing out of the crowd.
Oh Brother Where Art Thou?
Much like capitalism, the big villain in Michael Moore’s new film, comedy capitalism forces comics into being relatively selfish and dog eat dog. Three years ago I had a pre-arranged audition for Last Comic Standing, meaning I was one of the many comics who bypassed the cattle call with a legit shot at getting on the show. I did not get it, but I did not feel ashamed at the time for trying to “get mine.” And many comics would not begrudge me for doing so, but then I must begrudge myself, if one can do such a thing. I do feel guilty about that. At some point, like in America, I think that the “haves” of comedy must stand up for the “have nots.” If I named the best comics in NYC in my opinion, I am sure there would be at least an 85-90% correlation with who the clubs and industry think are the best. But to sustain the venues of those talented comedians, the comedy clubs, owners, bookers and industry place an unfair and unwarranted burden on the nobodies of comedy. They have them line up outside of comedy clubs, not for a chance to achieve success themselves, but to artificially exalt those who are already having success. They entice you with misleading promises and compliments so you will bring friends on a Tuesday, just so they can pay the electric bill and the rent for the “real comics” on a Saturday. This is not about giving spots or work to lesser or newer comics; it is simply about respecting all comics as people.
People look at Goldman Sachs as emblematic of what is wrong with capitalism and how the rich get richer. This is no less true of the comedy business. Dreams are exploited (The American Dream of a house, car and good education versus your name in lights and artistic sacrifice paying off). But comedy, like capitalism, has no end game except for the Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfelds of their respective arenas. And because of that, no one speaks up because everyone is too buried in their own quest for success in the rat race to stand up and say, “Hey club or TV show – it is not okay to exploit my fellow comedians. Even if they suck at comedy, their hope and dream is not something that you should be able to exploit. Whether their comedy is good, great or terrible, their dream and desire is real.” No one says that. I did not say that three years ago and am not happy with myself. I told myself last week, that no matter the result of the NY Funniest Comedian competition I would write this, because unlike a lot of my contemporaries I did stand on that line and the whole experience did not feel right.
New York’s Funniest Reject?
On Sunday I learned that I did not make the cut for the 30 semi finalists, which perplexed me and angered me. I was fully prepared to go along with the charade and do two minutes of material, but was told not to. Much like my status in the comedy world right now I was too qualified to audition, but not good enough to get the part. So I had neither the satisfaction of performing, nor the gratification of advancing. I have e-mailed politely requesting an explanation, but have not received it yet.
The names were a who’s who of up and coming comics in NYC. Perhaps some of them were on line, but I do know that most walked right by. I do not blame the comics for this because this is the system that dangles success carrots in front of them so that they have blinders to the exploitation of their less experienced or talented brethren. Or maybe some of them laugh and don’t care because some of those comics on line do in fact suck at comedy (possibly because they are new, possibly because they are not funny). Who knows, but I think if asked to think about it manyestablished comics would acknowledge that it is not right, but would also shrug their shoulders and say, “what the fu-k can I do about it?”
Because the plain truth is that from bringers to cattle call lines, the clubs know deep down that barring a comedy miracle, nothing is going to happen for these people that they entice to their clubs. So I think if I ruled the comedy world this is the short wish list I’d have for comedians:
1) Boycott bringers in 2010 (unless you are doing it with a clear head to get a good tape AND THAT’S ALL)
2) Clubs would have no more open calls. I would have no problem with the NY Funniest Comedian competition if it was submission or invitation only – this would be honest and that is all that I think comics are entitled to. Honesty does not guarantee any success, but it does guarantee that the comedians get to keep more of their integrity. There is one NYC club I would like to work at eventually if I ever attain the success I hope for, simply because they’ve never lied to me. That is it. I was never given excessive compliments, never given excuses or half-truths and that is really all any comic should want or feel entitled to.
3) Comedy shows would book based on stand-up and not as if they were casting a cooky CBS sitcom. Otherwise I am just going to grow out a huge fro, wear glasses and not stop eating cupcakes until a heart attack or a development deal is mine. (This one is a little more selfish on my part).
I understand that comedy is a business, but I think comics need to stand up for the integrity of the business for their fellow comics. In the 1970s comics went on strike to get paid. That is a much more concrete demand than what I am writing about (PETC – People for The Ethical Treatment of Comics?), but integrity is still important. I know this won’t change anything substantively (I am under no delusion that 30 comics will pull a Rudy tonight and hand in their microphones so that someone like Mick DiFlo, one of the most respected, but anonymous comics in NYC, can perform), but perhaps it will make some comics take a moment and think about what’s going on in comedy.
I know some may dismiss this as the sour grapes of an increasingly bitter comic, but I really would like to see the culture change and not just for me. The only way I can see this helping is maybe if you know a new comic with some potential, or at least some enthusiasm you can tell them to approach the business more practically and avoid some of the things that will hurt them so that they can look at the business honestly, even if it won’t be honest with them.
I remember two very well established comedians saying to me about 4 years ago: don’t do bringers. Just write and perform over and over again. Like anyone young, either in life or career, I did not listen until I was knee deep in regrets. Maybe more young comics will be wiser than me. Maybe not.
If this is my Jerry Maguire Mission Statement then I can expect my career to go further South, but I having already had a legal career and a girlfriend with a son during my comedy career (check my 2 CDs for details), so I am in uncharted territory for Jerry Maguire. Wish me luck.