As much as I complain about being a comedian (literally the lyrics of AC/DC’s “It’s A Long Way To The Top” feel like a diary of my comedy career), it is probably tougher being in musical theater. I mean, first there’s telling your parents that you are gay, so that is tough in many cases, but there is also an embarrassing lack of integrity. It seems, despite being a cherished art form in this country’s history, you can barely make a musical today unless it is based on a pre-existing work and/or if you have some marginal to well-known celebrity in at least one of the roles. I am sure if I were a talented singer/actor I’d be sort of disappointed that the only things available to me were Fast and Furious The Musical or South Pacific starring Lil’ Wayne. But Broadway musicals still have comedy beat in one aspect. Because they charge so much per ticket, they actually require people to laugh. At $10 a ticket, the joke is on us, at $150 a ticket the joke is on the audience if they don’t laugh. In a modification of the old saying about banks “If you pay $10 to watch a performance and you don’t like it the performer has the problem. If you pay $150 per ticket and you don’t like it, you have the problem.”
In comedy, we give our product away for free so often (often to no avail) that we have helped devalue it. Sort of like women’s vaginas this decade. A slightly revealed ankle in 1940 had more value than a fully exposed woman in 2011 because the market has been flooded with them (of course what I mean is that there has been a great advancement in the empowerment of women).
Part of the problem is that comedy shows can be very expensive with the drink minimums, but the percentage of the bill that goes to the comedy is the part that influences the crowd. If the bill were 100% toward the show, there might be a different mentality, but when you are being served overpriced drinks, which account for no less than 50% of your bill, the mindset is “Man, that $15 dollar show sucked, and $22 for two drinks!” There is no need for one to justify paying fifteen dollars by laughing extra, the way there is for a $100 ticket on Broadway. It should be noted here that The Book of Mormon, currently on Broadway is an exception to this, in that you are unlikely to find any stand up comedy in New York funnier than that musical.
So the comedy business in many ways has contributed to its own status as the second lowest art form, just ahead of poetry slamming. But I don’t think people realize how emblematic of America’s capitalistic society comedy is, at least in one significant aspect. The feature act, normally the middle act at clubs around the country, is like the middle class laborer in America. And it is a fading prospect for steady work in comedy.
If comedy were politics then presidential candidates would talk about supporting the feature acts. They are literally the middle class in comedy. And like the middle class in America, the feature is important to keep the machine going, but wholly irrelevant when it comes to actual business planning. For example, anecdotal evidence has revealed to me that 20 years ago feature acts were getting $100 per set (in many cases actually more than this during the comedy boom of the late 1980s). Guess what features get paid per set today – $100. Is there any job in America where making the same salary (not in adjusted dollars, but the actual same salary) for 20 years is acceptable?
Here is why feature work is important – it helps comedians get good the old-fashioned way – through experience at clubs in front of different crowds. It allows emerging comedians to get paid and continue to work and it ensures that comedy will have an ever ready supply of comedians who have honed their skills doing actual stand up comedy, rather than by being in movies or on reality television shows. I am only 8 years into comedy, so I have no illusions that I have enough experience to “tell it like it is” in comedy, but I have been travelling a fair amount and I am smart, so that is at least a start. Here are two stories that will help you realize what I am beginning to realize, that the feature act is merely the Wisconsin public school teacher of the comedy business.
A year ago I travelled to Detroit to feature at a club. The terms of the feature work were as follows: $300 for 5 shows, no hotel room provided. To translate for non-comedians this is like saying: “We can offer you the job you are looking for, but there will be no benefits, the salary is 40% lower than the industry base rate and you will have to lick my ball bag at least twice a week.” If an employer offered you those details you would infer that the job was not actually available and you were being pranked or messed with.
Well I took the job because (like Americans who believe in the reality of the American Dream) I have a foolishly optimistic side of me that believes that by meeting different club owners and performing all over the country, sometimes at a loss financially, I will eventually become a better comedian and gain networking opportunities in the business. So I went to Detroit by Amtrak (17 hours), stayed in a very cheap hotel and took Greyhound bus back to NYC (18 hours). For that trip I netted $13. It was one of the proudest moments of my career because I felt like I had just stuck it to the man. But in reality I had done nothing but waste my time. It felt like that moment when Jerry Maguire leaves his office and believes that many will follow him, only to find out that Renee Zellweger is the only one. The truth is I was never wanted at the club, nor is any other feature act worth his salt who does not live in that town. For the record, attendance for the weekend was well over 1000 people so I am pretty sure twenty cents per person would not have been a major business sacrifice to ensure the standard 1988 rate for a feature act (I just realized that my next sketch may have to be a UNICEF or ASPCA style ad for comedians – “For just twenty cents a customer, you too can ensure that this comedian will not have to be completely embarrassed at school alumni or family functions. In the arms ooooooof an aaaaangel…”
Another club experience demonstrates that sometimes a club will not even have the decency to tell you that they are screwing you when you take a job. I travelled to an audition at a club in Chicago on short notice on my own dime. It was a fairly expensive plane ride and I had to put myself up in a hotel, but I have enough experience and confidence in my material to do those sort of things. I performed for a half hour on the show and did very well. I was told that the booker enjoyed my set and I could expect work out of it as a feature at their clubs (I had already asked for this assurance before booking my flight). Well, after various immediate emails and prompt replies regarding payment for my performance at the audition, the line went silent. It has now been 9 months since I received a reply to an e-mail (which means approximately 15 unanswered booking inquiries – including – “Please save me the trouble of not e-mailing you if work is not available – no hard feelings, just want to know where I stand.” It is one thing if you do not think my comedy is worthy, but as someone who has worked the club, even if just for one show, I should be accorded the dignity and respect of a response. But the irony that this showed me is that to some clubs the most important person is the headliner and the least important person is any other comedian that is not headlining. This feels more like a story of a bitter Hollywood writer than a middle stand up comedian, but comedy is becoming more Hollywood anyway so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the shit-eating-grin has migrated to the heartland.
Now don’t get me wrong there are definitelty some club that get good comedians booked for shows and take an interest in the overally quality of the show, not just the headliner. But there are still a lot of terrible emcees and features out there for sure – and the message is “who cares?” The same way a majority of Americans vote with their wallets when push comes to shove, clubs and audiences vote with the headliner
But this post is not without a slightly positive story. I was booked to emcee shows for Patrice O’Neal at the DC Improv, which I just finished up Sunday. It turns out he had requested me. That felt great, to have one of the current giants of stand up comedy request me because he liked the job I did last August when I opened for him. But despite my high opinion of my own comedy (and it is substantial) I might not have stood out or have been as memorable as an emcee if other clubs around the country were lining up solid emcees for their shows. This exchange solidified to me that clubs are not putting a premium on developing emcees and features (if I were making an American analogy – this is the outsourcing of products to China or India, based solely on cost, regardless of quality or customer satisfaction, i.e. even Apple might not use China if every fifth iPod were broken). I have travelled many clubs and I have seen a good share of awful emcees and features. This is a travesty. There are a lot of talented comedians out there who are not given financial incentive to travel by clubs, and many clubs have no desire to book quality out-of-town comedians because it might cost $100-$200 more per week than the local guy they have do jokes (when he is not making the mozzarella sticks in the back).
The people who suffer are audiences who want to see good comedy and are not, much like my observation in my recent Charlie Sheen post, just the fame hungry buffoons that are multiplying like Gremlins. The good fans then learn to pursue only well-established comedians they like or ignore the club when they book famous people who are not funny. But the no name people, trying to make a name for themselves through old fashioned stand up are not bookable acts because the club has established a tradition of not consistently booking funny people for the “no name” spots. It is sort of a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, did clubs get lazy or did people get stupid first, but either way, it is hurting the grass roots of comedy. Specific comedians will always have fans, but the business will only truly thrive if clubs foster fans of comedy, not just comedians.
The other people who suffer are comedians. It is becoming harder, both due to volume of comedians and lack of nurturing on the part of the establishment to make a living being a feature act. In fact it is actually impossible. So, instead of creating a new class of headliners through old fashioned work and opportunity you have comedians trying to become YouTube sensations or focus more on acting (www.YouTube.com/JLCauvin). That way, when they have the fame, it won’t matter how good their stand up actually is – they will be headliners. Simultaneously more and more headliners bring their own opening act, which further cuts down on opportunities for “freelance” comedians if you will. Now I have seen a couple of comedians bring their own feature because they are dominated by insecurities and want to know the level of the feature so they can assure themselves that they can surpass it, but a majority bring their own feature because they do not seem to trust the clubs to book solid people in front of them. And why should they?
I have been told that a few years ago some comedians in NYC tried to start a Union for comedians. I guess it failed because you would need to have exactly the things that are lacking in America today:
1) The upper class would have to give a shit. Bill Burr, Chris Rock, Dave Attell, etc. would have to be on the picket lines along with everyone else. But they, rightfully so, would feel that they have paid their dues (some in a much more encouraging time for stand up) and would probably not.
2) People outside of the industry would have to give a shit. Probably wouldn’t happen. Not while Adam Sandler and Tyler Perry are still successful filmmakers.
3) Comedians would have to accept that the America Dream is a fantasy and not a blueprint of success. Better pay and a higher standard of quality for emcee and feature performers would have a good impact because for a majority of comedians this is as high as they should aspire to. It is not mathematically possible for all features to become headliners. But if people continue to think that the corner office and the Greenwich house will be theirs eventually then they will never fight the fight that they are currently losing. That is why so many blue collar people seem to be anti-Union and why so many comedians don’t seem to give a shit about the highway robbery that is occurring.
We have a society now where news organizations care about ratings above information, where companies care more about sotck prices than workers and products and a comedy business that only cares about comedy when it is convenient. Hopefully some of these things change. This just in – I was just told that for my upcoming gigs in New Haven, CT I will be receiving a hotel room. That was fast.