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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.

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2015 Emmys: The Righteous Prick Reactions

Obviously you should have already listened to this week’s Righteous Prick Podcast thoroughly and hilariously making Emmy predictions, but if you have not now is the time to do it because the Emmy nominations are out and there are some successes (where they agreed with me) and some abject failures (where they disagreed).

The Good:

The usual suspects were nominated in drama, but good on AMC and the Emmys for getting Better Call Saul several significant nominations, including drama, actor and supporting actor.

In comedy, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt takes its rightful place among the nominees and Girls is nowhere to be found.

I am this excited about all the nominations for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

In best TV movie, I was beyond pleasantly surprised to see Hello Ladies: The Movie, get nominated, as it gave a beautiful and hilarious 90 minute finale to the most underrated and under-appreciated show of the previous nominating cycle.

Wil Forte for best actor in a comedy in The Last Man on Earth (see my blog praising Wil Forte HERE). The show was overlooked unjustly, but not its star

The Bad:

Netflix – shame on you. You almost certainly played politics (pun intended) and the Emmy voters fell for it. Both House of Cards and Orange is the New Black got best drama nominations after bad seasons.  Meanwhile, Daredevil, which ranks up there with Guardians of the Galaxy and The Dark Knight as the most inventive and surprisingly excellent comic book adaptations of my life is completely ignored (and I am not a comic book nerd type who thinks everything that is remotely enjoyable from a comic book deserves to be in the Library of Congress). Netflix clearly sold out Daredevil and is content to use it like a hot slutty escort that turns heads at a club, while taking House of Cards and OITNB to classy wife functions with dignitaries.

Possibly the best drama of the year gets zero major nominations.

Louie and Transparent – Granted I am biased because Louis CK killed a character that may have been more than loosely based on me, but neither of these shows has been particularly funny.  I think some Emmy voters just recycle their ballots from year to year.  I quit Louie a season ago, so I must admit ignorance, but it never struck me as very funny.  And Transparent is absolutely not funny (here is a post I wrote about “the rise of unfunny comedies” that got some traffic).  I cannot remember a show or movie winning such undeserved praise solely for the political and social climate but get ready for the least funny nominee by a wide margin to somehow walk away with best comedy, so Hollywood can pat itself on the back (I am left of center on most things, but with awards I am all about merit).

Key from Key & Peele for best supporting actor in a comedy?  How can your name be the show and then you sneak in with a “supporting” actor nod?  At least Peele didn’t get nominated (my east favorite of the two) – that should be awkward at the next writers’ meeting.

Based on nominees (and the seasons eligible) here is who I would pick:

Drama – Better Call Saul (Mad Men will win probably, for a subpar season)

Comedy – Kimmy Schmidt (Transparent will win, proving the best way to defeat a 5 time champ – Modern Family – is to have a comedy with no laughs – BOLD!)

For more opinions, comedy and bridge burning check out the Righteous Prick Podcast on iTunes and/or STITCHER. New Every Tuesday so subscribe for free!

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The Rise of the TV Comedy Without Laughter

Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I was very disappointed when I saw the almost entirely humorless Transparent won Best TV Comedy at this year’s Golden Globe Awards.  Anyone that I am friends with on Facebook know that I find the more bizzare-than-LOL homage to Woody Allen named Louie on FX to be more a testament to Louis CK’s work ethic and enjoyment of Allen’s films than actually funny.  And then there is HBO’s 800 lb Gorilla (no not Lena Dunham, but Girls, the show that generates more smirks and whimsy than laughter).  All that seems left for critics and comedy awards to gush over is if Wes Anderson decides to bring his quirky, critically acclaimed nonsense to a Showtime series before television comedy can finally usher in the apocalypse.  It is really time for some of these “comedies” to start getting a new category saved for people who are occasionally humorous, but cannot compete in the realm of full comedy: spoken word shows.

To put this in perspective, imagine that there were stand up comedy awards and the nominees were Bill Burr, Dave Chappelle, Henry Rollins and a Steve Martin art discussion.  Two of those are comedians. One is a guy who rants for an hour and occasionally throws in a joke to amuse a crowd while they are not in awe of his re-telling of adventures that show how open minded and worldly he is.  And the last is a comedian who is not doing comedic things.   Well this appears to be happening in TV, as shows that are not particularly funny (I deem funny by the ancient test of “does it generate laughter”), but clearly cannot compete in the age of incredibly great dramas, are being allowed to hog some of the spots for best comedies.

By Emmy and Golden Globe standards Henry Rollins would be a stand up comedian.

For example HBO – Veep has lots of laughs and gets critical and award recognition.  But Hello Ladies or the 1st season of Eastbound and Down got nothing.  Can anyone reasonably tell me that they laugh more at an episode of Girls than at Hello Ladies or Eastbound and Down?  To say nothing of the fact that those shows are actually just better shows, they are certainly better at generating laughs.  I understand that there are reasons why Ace Ventura: Pet Detective did not get nominated for Golden Globes for Best Comedy – it is funny, but it is obviously not a “good” movie.  Tone Loc and Dan Marino are rarely going to have large speaking roles in high quality entertainment. So I understand that there needs to be a quality threshold to be considered.  But once a show meets that threshold then humor should be the deciding factor.

HBO is not alone.  I just recently mowed through 4 seasons of a long running comedy on FX It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  The show is absolutely hilarious.  Please correct me if I am wrong, but I do not think it has ever been nominated for a Best Comedy Emmy.  Perhaps the network is ignored?  Well, that is not true because Louie continues to compile nominations (as well as wins – hey if Louis CK can win for playing himself then why didn’t Eminem win for 8 Mile?) for best comedy even as the show continues to generate fewer and fewer laughs (and viewers).   But on a humor scale it is not even close as to which show is funnier.

Workaholics on Comedy Central also stands out for me.  Admittedly I have found the show inconsistently funny over the last 2.5 seasons, but when it hits, it hits huge, which you would think might generate a writing nomination (for an episode), but not when Girls is generating at least 4 smirks per episode!

Two episodes of Workaholics have more laughter than 4 seasons of Girls.

 

And then we arrive at Transparent, which may be the apex (or nadir) of this humorless comedy movement. The show is a critical (and I would say Hollywood liberal) darling because it stars a usually hilarious Jeffrey Tambour and is the first show to have a transgender character driving the narrative.  I laughed 3 times during the 10 episodes of Transparent‘s first season.  What makes it even more bizarre is that Transparent is the 3rd comedy on Amazon’s video service and it is overwhelmingly the least funny of the three (I strongly recommend Alpha House and also recommend Mozart in the Jungle).  Despite my critiques of stand up I am actually a relatively easy laugh, especially by the standard of stand up comics.  But that show, which I watched half of the weekend it went up on-line (so I was not biased by any awards) and found it annoying.  But even allowing for difference in tastes, it just was not very funny.  Even half of the people I have engaged with on social media over the show who like it admit that they don’t think it really qualifies as a comedy.  But once again, what is easier to challenge for awards – Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones or Girls and The Big Bang Theory?

So now we live in a world of comedies that don’t make people laugh, but rather think and smirk?  The question is why?  When did laughter, even in awards that have categories to honor comedy, become a handicap instead of a strength?  I would argue it is what happens when a culture begins to cater to hipsters and nerds. Comedy is not jazz!!!  It is not the laughter you cannot hear that makes it fun!  But I think the need to create your own sense of cool and to reject the mainstream and “know more” or have inside knowledge has given rise to these comedies that are the laughter equivalent of The Emperor’s New Clothes.  In an effort to cater to the cool kids of the day shows that are unfunny except to people who hate the sound of out loud laughter, these shows have cut a far too large slice of the comedy award pie.  So hopefully the pendulum swings back soon. It is bad enough the Oscars tend to not honor comedies (though seriously shut the fu*k up if you thought Bridesmaids deserved Oscar recognition) but in awards like the Emmys and Golden Globes it is time to give actual laughter more weight in determining what makes a worthy comedy.

For more opinions, comedy and bridge burning check out the Righteous Prick Podcast on iTunes and/or STITCHER. New Every Tuesday so subscribe for free!

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Comedy Feel Good Story (sarcasm alert): The Successful Failure…

If you do not listen to my podcast then the beginning of this blog will seem new, but if you do listen, then endure this paragraph before getting to the good stuff.  This year, feeling a sense of creative and economic depression (I have raised my debt ceiling for the last five years and I hate myself – I am like Obama and Ted Cruz in the same body – dear closeted gay Tea Partiers this is NOT a sexual image for you to flog yourself to), I embarked on a plan to raise my profile and when my name recognition was at its highest (at least relative to my own career) release my best album and hope for the best.  So the plan started off with a bang with “Louis CK Tells The Classics” the viral video of my Louis CK impression.  I then made subsequent videos (Alt Wolf, Scared Straight) that got spread all around and promoted within the comedy world.  I then had an album recording that went well, but not as well as I wanted (plus three critical bits were forgotten) so I recorded another set a month and half later and killed it to the point that instead of integrating the missing bits into the original recording I ended up integrating two bits from the original recording into the later show for the album.  I then got a PR person to book me on some podcasts, get the album reviewed (to some glowing reviews), was on Sirius XM as their Intergalactic Premiere album of the week, was 24-7’s guest comedian of the weekend said a couple of prayers.  I even got a retweet for my album from Amy Schumer (her half a million followers indicates a slightly larger reach than my 1200).  In other words, in a world without a manager or an agent or fame I sort of did all that could be done to produce and promote a good album and my name.

Also giving me hope was the fact that my previous album was downloaded 1000 times (granted it was a free download) and received 70+ ratings/reviews on iTunes. So the only barrier to reaching that level (if not beyond) was the price tag on iTunes of $9.99 (or $8.99 on Amazon).  I figured that might create a dip from 1000, but at the same time I thought it might not be as big a dip because I am more well known in October 2013 than I was in February 2012 when Too Big To Fail was released.

Well the results are in (at least on iTunes) and downloads dipped a whopping 90% for Keep My Enemies Closer compared to Too Big To Fail.

Huh?

I have been wondering how this happened.  Obviously people like free stuff, but at least for me I would not download a free album from someone whose comedy I did not care about and by the same token I would absolutely purchase the album of a comedian whose work I like.   So the question is how does someone go from 1000 downloads and then produce a better album, with an upgrade in publicity and name recognition and then dip 90%?

The album did its best work on day one when it peaked at #12 on iTunes, but because it is not attached to any label or manager it failed to get into the new and noteworthy category.  So now it just hangs out on iTunes telling my other albums that it peaked at 12 as they go “bulllsh*t – you are just another J-L anonymous album – you are not better than us so shut the fu*k up.”

Now I know this blog can sometimes read like a comedy career suicide note, but this is really an open question (feel free to leave comments in the blog’s comment section) – is there something in the comedy world (the deluge of free content, the ever increasing importance of managers and power brokers in comedy to raise the profile of comics to the larger public, etc.) to explain this?  This is not me wondering why KMEC is not above Eminem and Pearl Jam on the iTunes chart, but rather how a better product (even if you think I suck at comedy (i.e. idiots), this album sucks least of anything I have produced) with better name recognition and better promotion can fare so much worse all for adding an $8.99/$9.99 price tag?  This year has sort of been an experiment by me – if I offer quality products (blogs, videos, podcast appearances, podcasts, etc.) for free and then ask for people to pay for one comedy thing (the album), then all the free stuff and the effort would pay off with one nice pay day.  But it did not really pan out. 

So what I am asking or saying is that like the American Dream is sort of a myth that very rich and fortunate people tell the masses (the increasing poor and the decreasing middle class) so that they continue to grind away in the myth machinery, is the do-it-yourself concept the same for entertainment?  Then you become a vilified as lazy or unworthy if you are not making ends meet.  The story America tells you is that hard work is the respected value, but in reality success, regardless of how attained, is the value of the day.  Plenty of wealthy people work hard for sure, but we now value results or “winning,” rather than how you play the game (but how many people would really work as hard if they knew the game was rigged?)  Similarly, I feel like the comedy industry loves telling people that it is a great time to be a comedian and that you can make your own success.  Then they point to the 1-2 examples in existence of people without connections who made it big on their own (and just like tax schemes and campaign finance law that help ensure that the rich shall continue to increase their share of power and influence – places like YouTube have changed over the last year or so to reduce the power of the random video at the expense of promoting preferred content providers) and therefore it is possible and all fault for lack of success lies with the comedian/content provider.

But using my own career over the last decade (but especially over the last 20 months) this is sort of debunked, isn’t it?  All things equal I have had 50,000 unique visitors to my website in 2013, had my podcast listener average increase from 200 to about 400+ people per week, gained over 310,000 YouTube views to name a few metrics, which were huge increases from 2012 and yet by charging $9.99 for an album instead of free, led to a massive drop off in downloads.  I know this sounds like complaining, but it is really more confusion than anything else.  I long ago gave up on getting rich from comedy, but this year has taught me that producing high quality content, building your circle of fans/viewers/listeners means little in increasing your bottom line, if you are truly a do-it-yourself artist.  I am a sample size of one so take it for what it is worth, but the very fact that all things were equal because it was me.  The only variables were I was a lot more well known in 2013 (a good thing), had a lot more PR (a good thing) but I charged $9.99 instead of free (death).  The question is then how can you make money off of your art if without fame or industry backing people will consume your free content, but not pay for even a small amount of it?

So if you have not, please check out Keep My Enemies Closer on iTunes or Amazon and join with me in being confused why it has been less successful than Too Big To Fail.   Have a nice week.

For more opinions, comedy and bridge burning check out the Righteous Prick Podcast on Podomatic, iTunes and NOW on STICHER. New Every Tuesday so subscribe on one or more platforms today – all for free!