A little less than a month removed from the viral success of the Louis C.K. parody video I have done it again (I think)! Alt Wolf is my new video and though it will not have the same reach as the CK video it is actually much better. A lot of people worked hard on this so be sure to watch the credits if you need music, make-up or video editing work. If you are a fan of comedy, alternative comedy, Bill Burr, or just want to see hipster culture brutally mocked then please enjoy this video. Like the CK video, which got 82 shares on Facebook in 36 hours, the power to spread the video is with you. Only you can prevent forest fires and J-L Cauvin obscurity. So watch it, tweet it, like it and share it if you do enjoy it. Thanks. I will now begin the process of annoying everyone who liked the CK video to give this one a chance. Now without further adieu here is… ALT WOLF!
If you are a comedian or friends with comedians on social media then you have probably read about the “controversy” involving the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB). By way of quick background, I believe the issue began when comedian Kurt Metzger commented on social media that the UCB was charging covers and not paying performers after he performed on a show at UCB. As a result, the entire show he had been booked on was kicked out of the UCB (whereas the more reasonable or at least understandable approach might have been to not allow Metzger to perform at their venues).
In full disclosure I just started co-producing an already existing show at UCB East called Unmanageable. In fuller disclosure I have been nothing on this blog (and on my podcast) if not willing to burn bridges in the furtherance of what I believe is in the good of the art and business of comedy. So feel free to question my integrity given my unpaid dog in the fight, but I think it would be foolish to think I am kissing ass.
What followed in the wake of the UCB “controversy” was (and is) one of the most myopic and self-congratulatory discussions I have seen in ten years doing comedy. I have spent considerable time on this site over the last 4 years writing about things I have observed first hand as problems with the business of comedy, on a national (or at least relatively large) scale, that I believe are hurting, or will hurt, the art of comedy. However, in the last couple of years in New York (and from what I have been told, but cannot speak to, Los Angeles) has become centered around alternative rooms that provide a nurturing clubhouse of comedy. The same comedians I used to see trashing new or weak comedians from the shadowy backs of comedy club basements are now the high priesthood of this alternative-dominant scene. Although some of these comedians are talented and working their craft all over, many of their acolytes are just people whose comedy is crafted for and supported by a very specific and unique scene. However these folks do not seem able to accept that with that nurturing, narrow environment comes some limitations. I really think that the UCB debate is truly a great example of losing the forest for the trees. Allow me to pause the UCB discussion for a different problem in comedy.
Feature work, as Atlanta’s Punchline Comedy Club owner recently said on one of the podcasts I operate, is the Triple A (baseball, not automotive analogy) of comedy. It is the best way to develop the next wave of headliners. You work with headliners, you work different parts of the country and you get exposed to different crowds and different styles. You become conditioned to work longer sets. You are the bridge between the emcee and the headliner. It is an integral part of both the comedy show and the comedy business. But there is a real problem here. Features are still being paid in 1988 money, and in some cases less. I once had a discussion with a comedy club manager on the road and we talked about what a good feature should be paid and he said $1000 plus a room (travel is on the comic). But what are comedians on the road being paid for feature work? Usually around $600 with a room, most of the time. When you factor in travel this is really not a livable wage, especially when most features are not working 40+ weeks a year. But where is the outcry from the comedy community? It is no where because most comedians are concerned about their local clubhouse because that is where they have friends and support and have no idea what is happening outside of their own backyards. Lots of the heroes of this scene are bypassing this middle stage of a comedy career because the business is currently enamored with this scene and elevating people to headliner status quickly (I am NOT saying undeservedly, so do not take quickly to be some comment of derision). So they report back to their admirers how great and wonderful comedy is and that bitterness and anger are not needed. The priests have spoken; the followers cheer and the tortoise-like middle group struggles to improve their craft the old-fashioned way.
I spent three years working the Cleveland Improv as an emcee. I was booked 3-4 weeks a year and despite featuring nationally at every other club I worked, I was not getting elevated. The Cleveland Improv is a generally urban crowd (not meaning “black,” though that is the main demographic of the audience members, but stylistically the headliners are often those most known for BET and Def Jam appearances) and it took me a while to work those crowds. But the club knew I was good so I kept getting booked to emcee (two weeks at a time which was a nice way to minimize travel hits) and I became better at working the crowds, until 2012 when I was really killing out of the emcee spot. So then I was set to feature. So thanks to the Cleveland Improv, although I was not always happy about it, I developed the skills to work urban rooms, honed emcee skills (you never know when you will need them) and developed a great relationship with a club and a small group of fans. And then I got the word this month – the Cleveland Improv would not be booking their own features any more (they were one of the few that still independently booked features). Instead the central booking office for many of the features of the Improvs and Funny Bones would take over.
I was passed to feature at the Improvs and Funny Bones in 2009 (after not being passed in 2007 – I agreed with both the 2007 and 2009 decisions). I was and have been treated fairly by the chains (and the central booking office) and received complimentary messages after 2010 and 2011 when I started to get feature work. And then in 2012 I received zero bookings. I do not think there was any personal reason for this I just think that between headliners bringing their own features and more clubs using local talent (for hotel costs) the amount of work for independent features trying to work the road is drying up. So now I look at the Cleveland Improv and realize one of the dozen or so A road clubs I’ve earned the hard way is no longer going to work me, at least not nearly with the consistency they had been.
This is only a theory on my part but as I see national clubs starting to charge ticket fees (because stand up was definitely missing a Ticketmaster feel), more and more of the feature booking taken out of the local hands and the consolidation of talent and clubs on Laughstub I feel like the national comedy scene is going to become more monolithic and closed to independent performers. Could I be wrong? Maybe, but when in our history has big business not passed on the opportunity to become bigger business without checks, balances and regulations?
But what’s that independent, alt rebels? Alternative venues and other such things are giving comedians a chance to bypass the traditional gatekeepers? Louis CK proved that right? No he didn’t. CK spent decades working WITH the gatekeepers until he could become the one man corporation that he is today. Clubs are still the gatekeepers for the vast majority of clubs. So maybe we can all boycott clubs and bring them to their knees, but there is no alternative to creating sustainable, successful careers in stand up comedy outside of the clubs. Please do not point to examples of people who used the clubs as their springboard. And do not give me examples like Rob Delaney, who may have gained notoriety through Twitter, but is now working the clubs just like every other headliner. So maybe in twenty years it will all be different, but I do not want my career and the careers of my peers to be martyred to a seismic change that may never occur, or to become a lost generation of headliners passed over because we were too young when we entered at the turn of the millennium and too old when Comedy Central and MTV decided that youth trumps all. And if you want UCB to pay you accordingly then they will have to start charging more money and instead of an alt-scene darling you will have what many of you have been avoiding: another comedy regular comedy club.
This UCB debate to me is about a nice venue that charges low or no cover for their shows and no drink requirements for its customers. They have made a business decision to sacrifice the level of talent they may attract for the chance of drawing larger audiences. I am not sure why this is such a tragedy. I am always looking for places to perform. Some open mics charge money. This may suck, but if a bar wants to be compensated for use of the space where they pay rent then they are not villains for doing so. Similarly, but to a greater extent, the UCB provides a very nice venue to work out material and expose your art to potential fans. They do not pay performers, but they also ask very little of the audience. It is a trade-off they made and I see no problem with it. But that may be because of my experiences as a comedian.
I have travelled for a $400 gig on a $408 flight in the hopes of building a relationship with a club. I luckily sold 17 CDs at $10 a pop to clear some kind of profit, but I did it to work my comedy and to enhance my career for the long haul. I am working road gigs this year where I am not provided with rooms and in one case, am being paid well below the established market rate for feature work because I am working with quality headliners and hope to network and build a fan base. These are the choices I am making and I do not blame anyone but myself for the choices. But there are a lot of talented people who may not fit into the Comedy Central demographic who are trying to hone their skills in the trenches of road work and cannot afford to work for peanuts. And they cannot compete against managers and a system that have chosen to squeeze the feature class for cost cutting. And I believe THIS is a devastating problem for comedy. Feature work was never going to make anyone rich, but now for many talented people it is not even a viable or available option, which is a shame because of how vital quality features are to the future of comedy. Perhaps some comedy clubs are in trouble and really need to be careful, but there are many who treat comedians like the oil industry treats the Earth. “Sure, the next 30-40 years of comedy depend on a thriving and well-honed feature class of comedians, but the next 5-10 years of my bottom line will be better if I scorch the earth and only use lesser local talent and/or crush the livelihood, or at least incentive, of features.”
So while I appreciate the sentiments of some of the people who complained about UCB, because no one likes to feel ripped off, I feel like complaining about the UCB in spite of what is really happening to working comedians is like asking who left the TV on while the rest of the house is on fire. The UCB is providing a space for (local) people to perform in front of an audience that they cultivate through their marketing, the rent they pay and the cheap cover they charge. I do not see a problem with that. But outside the small world of alternative venues in NYC there is an entire country that is slowly, but surely, gutting the training grounds for tomorrow’s headliners. And that is something to be upset about.
Like many comedians operating in the 21st Century, I am constantly trying to figure out the “next big thing” to advance my career. Dane Cook helped his career by dominating MySpace quicker and more completely than any of his peers; Rob Delaney became a well known comedy name through Twitter; and Louis CK used his clout to completely buck the establishment and make additional millions through direct distribution. But, as many of my peers know, by the time you have learned about the successful strategies, everyone knows them and the advantage is gone. So as a service to today’s comedians looking for new insights into where comedy is going I am offering a comprehensive set of predictions for stand up comedy’s future so that they might prepare their careers best.
1. Memes of Bodily Sounds Will Revolutionize Internet Comedy. This may not make sense right now, but as technology grows and attention spans shrink there will be less demand for memes relying on a burdensome 10-12 words and more demand for memes featuring instantaneously humorous bodily sounds. “George Takei Fart” will be a trendsetter.
2. The Transgendered Fundamentalist Muslim Asian Comedy Tour Will Sell Out Arenas. In the long tradition of niche tours seeking out audiences comprised of their own group, or extremely sympathetic liberals, this tour will make a ton of money and will show that they are just like everyone else. Especially when they do their impressions of GPS devices with “black” voices.
3. Key and Peele Will Be Honored. After 12 successful seasons on Comedy Central, these two trailblazers of comedy will be honored at the Kennedy Center. In a tearful speech they will thank those that blazed their trail of sketch comedy glory – Carlos Mencia, Jeff Dunham and Clarence Thomas.
4. A New Alternative Comedy Will Arise. In two decades or so a guy who will have played high school sports, yet never have read a comic book will decide to craft his act around humorous, engaging stories, as well as several shorter sources of humor based upon the duality of set up lines and subsequent punchlines. He will rock the foundation of comedy.
5. “1800 Seconds of Quirky Speech” Will Be A Failure. In a constant effort to re-brand half hour specials, this will be the only title left to describe the new crop of half hour comedy specials.
6. Emcees and Features Will Be Known As Unpaid Guest Spots. Clubs will all use Ticketmaster-like services to make more money off of comedy fans, but to cut costs either they will offer professional comics unpaid guest spots or they will allow homeless locals to defecate on stage before the headliner.
7. Louis CK Will Reach A Historic Milestone – CK will have just completed his 44,000th new hour of comedy (having accelerated to producing a new hour-every-45-minute pace) when a civilian will be beaten to death by a group of comedians when one overhears the civilian say that “it just doesn’t feel as sharp as other specials I have seen.”
8. A Zygote Will Be Named Either A “Comic To Watch” Or A “Best Of Fest” Somewhere. In an ongoing effort to find younger and fresher faces unburdened by life experience or material, a fertilized human egg will provide a heretofore unknown level of fresh perspective. Its first album, “Jizz”, will be named a Top 10 album by most publications.
9. Comedians Will Have To Do Chores For Fans. The “what do you give your fans for their support” (besides talent and hard work, which by 2012 are no longer enough for many comedians to gain traction) will reach unprecedented new levels as comedians will begin doing chores just to pick up twitter followers and fan support. This will be after the trend of free downloads of albums and comping tickets is no longer good enough for the emboldened fans of stand up.
10. Everyone Will Consider Themselves A Comedian. Up from today’s reasonable 70% rate, by 2032 everyone in America will declare themselves a comedian and open mics will resemble bread lines from the Great Depression.
So don’t just sit there! Get going before everyone is in on these things!
I have not been blogging with nearly the same regularity as I have in the past. There are several reasons for this (fewer funny road stories, over-saturation in the marketplace with blogs about everything, lack of motivation, etc.). Now I have recommitted to writing a little more frequently, but one of the things I probably won’t be writing about nearly as much is the thing that has gotten me the most readers: the stand up comedy business. It is because I believe that stand up comedy, as we knew it or like to think of it, is dying. There is such an overwhelming perfect storm of factors that are contributing to destroying the prominence and art of stand up comedy that I no longer view it as a viable career option for myself, nor a community or industry for which I have much remaining passion. Naturally I still get great pleasure from writing, working out material and then seeing it work in front of “regular people,” but that feeling is the lone positive swimming against a tsunami of negatives. So let’s go through all the reasons why stand up is on life support:
1. Crushing The Middle Class of Comedy. As I have written before (please read this one as well – https://jlcauvin.com/?p=2304), just as the middle class of America is being left behind in an increasingly unequal society, feature work – the best way to become a competent and skilled comedian, is no longer a viable way of making a living. For those of you that do not understand the industry lingo – the feature act is the comedian that goes between the emcee and the person you are there to see. They receive about a half hour to get the audience drunk and really ready for a long set of comedy. The fact is that feature work used to be a way to make a modest living if you were good enough (features in the 1980s were being paid as much or more in actual dollars, not adjusted, than features in 2012). I had an old school booker tell me a couple of years ago that it would take ten years to become an excellent feature. His timetable feels about right. Of course for most people in the YouTube/Twitter/Tumblr world this is far too long a time table. So now, more than ever it is difficult to make your focus and goal to be a great comedian, unless you are doing things other than comedy. Then, if you are doing enough you will leapfrog the process and become a headliner, but not necessarily because your stand up chops are undeniable or even ready. So instead of nurturing good comedians, good comedians must develop in spite of the lack of incentives and opportunities.
2. Everyone Wants To Be Heard. The last year of stand up “scandals” have proven how self-absorbed the comedy community has become with its own news. The competition to be the first to weigh in on any little blip on the comedy scene is pretty fierce. Every comedian with six month’s or more of experience has begun to weigh in on every issue that arises. I have certainly done my share, but usually in the context of not liking the general trajectory of the comedy business, not for just a gut reaction response to an isolated incident. Every one of these incidents gets play in the national media as the chatter builds up (the New York Times covered the Daniel Tosh incident close to a week after it had achieved viral status). For me the Tosh incident should have been a non-issue. Instead we collectively raised it to the level of a national conversation. The short summary of this is that comedy is becoming a bunch of people cyber shouting and offering their input (regardless of writing talent or experience in comedy) and not spending time trying to be funny. Not the best way for talent to develop, but of course the name of the game is to get noticed and worry about being funny later. As an example – watch the inevitable next time some man makes a comment about gender and humor. The uproar will be fast and furious from many people you have never heard of, while those who have made it or are on their way will be too busy writing new material and working to weigh in.
3. The Anti-Bullying Culture Joins Forces With Political Correctness. Our society has become semi-obsessed with eradicating bullying. I suppose in a post 9/11 world we need to get terror, wherever it lies, including 5th grade classrooms. I would not want my kids to be bullied, but if a few taunts got my 12 year old to jump off a bridge I would also have to examine my own parenting and whether I had missed signs of severe depression, not just if kids teased him. Perhaps if we gave 8 year olds fewer participation trophies and stopped making sure every kid at a birthday party, not just the birthday boy or girl, got a present, then maybe kids wouldn’t be so frail by the time they hit 15. I am not saying there are not cases of individual torment that go into the Stephen King level of bullying, but why have we reached this alleged epidemic/crisis of bullying today?
Along those lines, comedy, once the bastion of free speech like no other art form, is now under attack. Daniel Tosh makes a rape joke. Tracy Morgan makes a homophobic joke in reference to his son. Dane Cook talks about fu*king a woman with a chain saw. I did not even bother to look at what George Lopez said on his special because I no longer cared what the protesters had to say. I am a big believer that discrimination is still rampant in this country. As a half-black man who looks Egyptian or Italian, depending on the season, I hear far too many comments that make me sad and frustrated (because the Italian looking dude is probably down with racist stuff too, right?). But have things gotten so good in America that now stand up comedy has to be sanitized? People have lost sight of what kind of art form comedy was and now think they can place their agenda on it because they were offended. It is an art form built, in part, on pushing boundaries and language. More so, I was particularly disappointed with comedian/actor TJ Miller’s response to Dane Cook’s joke because it meant that not only were ignorant comedy fans treating stand up comedy like school plays, but comics themselves were adding their inside-the-business opinions, thus giving credence to the idea that comedy and speech on stage should be curtailed, or at least making a big show of their disapproval when it did not meet their ethical standards. In no way does this mean that I approve or like any of the material in question. But I do believe that outside of incidents like Michael Richards’ Kramer’s infamous N-bomb parade, which was not comedy in any way, anything said on stage is fair game.
So I will ignore these stories from now on. They simply reflect a society that is growing out of touch with comedy (and thanks to social media – every perceived transgression can now have the effect of an atom bomb on-line) and a growing cadre of comedians who want aggression they disagree with taken out of comedy (e.g. there will be no uproar from the comedy community about jokes insulting faith and religion, but God forbid a joke on gender or race gets too edgy).
4. Not Everything is Stand Up Comedy, Nor Should It Be. Bill Burr stirred another “comedy controversy” with his comments about alternative comedy earlier this year. Here is what I think alternative comedy has done. On the plus side it has allowed everyone with any voice to be considered comedy. Some are very funny. Most are not. If I had my druthers I would take everyone with an instrument or a puppet operating as comedians and ban them from anything where stand up is performed (of course this is an aside, as no one considers these performers “alt.”). But stand up has become very inclusive. Too inclusive if you ask me, which you didn’t. I would compare alternative comedy to Amazon’s publishing business. They are making it easier for authors to self-publish, cut out the middle man and reach audiences they otherwise wouldn’t have. However, the vetting process and the machinery of publishing still give a book a certain seal of approval, as if an official vetting has occurred and it is worth considering. Now, as I already said, the clubs and the club system have failed as well, but that does not mean that every non sequitur spewing, act out champion needs to be considered the torch bearer for Pryor, Rock, Carlin, Giraldo just because there is a niche following for it in dank basements. One of the things that made stand up comedy hard, even before the current difficulties, is that it was hard to do. But it now feels like there is a moral relativism in comedy where nothing can be judged, everything can be funny and just as valid a form of stand up. So what if you cannot write jokes as well or deliver as compelling a performance – just do something weird with a weird look or fashion sense and there is a place for you! There have always been character based comedians or off-beat comedians, but with one Late Night Show basically dedicated to alternative comedy and a powerful presence on both coasts, they now have a platform bigger than their quantity of quality can bear. Sure, you can say that people “don’t get it,” but maybe some of the comedians performing this stuff don’t get it either.
5. Comedy Central. Imagine if there was a channel called Broadway Live. And on it you could watch every play on Broadway on basic cable. More people would get exposed to the theater and this would be great until the theater began to lose its cache. Then it would be a disaster. There would be a demand for content that Broadway Live would have to churn out which would dilute the quality of content as well as people’s perception of theater as something t partake in live as a cultural experience. Watching Comedy Central these days feels the same way. They had to change the name of “Comedy Central Presents” to “The Half Hour” a not-so subtle suggestion that the signature stand up show on the network had lost its cache and power. Just as The Tonight Show is no longer a kingmaker for a comedian (the loss of Johnny Carson and the advent of Comedy Central probably played a role in that), Comedy Central Presents does not seem to have the power it once did. Unlike the first several seasons where every comedian performing on them was either a phenom or a veteran with chops, now it feels very hit and miss. The benefits of Comedy Central to comedians cannot be understated, but the pendulum feels like it may have swung into over-saturation and under-delivering in quality. It is the same reason why CNN has to show Lindsay Lohan stories – because they have too much time and not enough news for the time. This may sound like I have an ax to grind, but I don’t. This perspective was really informed by all the older comics I worked with on the road who noticed a real difference pre and post-Comedy Central. Once again, as I stated in item #1, Comedy Central is a great platform for the rich to get richer, but the business for many comedians has also probably been hurt long term by Comedy Central’s existence.
6. Social Media. I am including YouTube, Twitter and Facebook in this. Now do not get confused. Social media is a great way for people to see your material and learn about you, if you are both lucky and savvy with the tools it provides. But it has also cheapened comedy to be some sort of instantaneous short attention span exercise on par with a page a day calendar (remember those things?). Now every comedian has to have some kind of Internet presence and there is both an embarrassment of riches and a rich number of embarrassments on social media pushing comedy content. The market is so flooded that at the end of a work day people have probably gotten their fill of comedy. And then people not only devalue the work of stand up comedians, but because of their proximity to them on social media can see themselves on the same level as some comedians. When comedians lose both their cache and their perception of humor superiority over regular folk, it is not a good recipe for stand up.
7. Youth Over Talent. In breaking news a sperm was picked for the Just For Laughs Festival because they wanted someone young and fresh with 5 minutes of material. I remember being told early in the last decade, along with other friends who have achieved small amounts of success, that the key to making it in comedy was to write, perform, gain experience, find your voice and have something to say to people. Now that some of my friends and I have wrapped up a decade in comedy and have developed voices and material, the comedy business has made a marked shift to youth being the paramount factor. It seems comedians are being vetted like old Hollywood starlets – give me a face I can market (slightly different criteria for comedians than starlets), hopefully they have a little bit of something to work with and then we will get them on television, then they can headline clubs and hopefully along the way they develop an act. And maybe this is a good business model (and of course I am not saying that there are not very talented young comics out there), but when the top criterion on many comedy booker/manager/festival producers list is “young,” can that really be in the best long term interests of stand up comedy? Perhaps we have already reached the point of no return where stand up is now closer to def poetry slamming,
8. Celebrity Culture. Comedy, like a lot of our culture, is now, more than ever, driven by fame. Here is a piece I wrote last year about Charlie Sheen’s comedy tour and I think it holds up today (https://jlcauvin.com/?p=2254). I have placed a lot of blame on the inner workings and failures of people within comedy, but we are now living in a Real Housewives/Kardashian world of entertainment. Celebrity is enough to warrant entertainment empires. So although #1-#7 are hurtful, they probably are less damaging to stand up combined than the culture shift in general. Everyone thinks they can be a celebrity because they can be. So why would they even care about people with talent? Stand Up comedy is becoming to entertainment was print is to journalism and what manufacturing is to the United States, a relic growing more irrelevant or at least less powerful every year. Sure there are examples like Louis CK, but the New York Times is doing well, does that not mean that journalism is still in trouble?
As is clear from what I wrote, many of these factors are affecting other walks of life, but comedy is getting hit with most of our culture’s bad trends all at once in heavy doses. So hopefully some of these things are cyclical, but sadly I think many of them are here to stay and will only get worse.
I’m off to watch Batman die now (allegedly?). Maybe that will cheer me up.