There is a saying in stand-up comedy, “it takes ten years to find your voice.” I don’t know who invented this saying. Perhaps it was a club owner running bringer shows wanting to postpone frustrations of the semi-slave labor being manipulated with tapes and compliments. Perhaps it was a well-meaning veteran comedian trying to encourage a frustrated, younger comedian. Or maybe it is just true. After all I feel like around 5 years in is when my comedy started to shift to the more personal and opinionated and around 8 years in when it merged with my sense of frustration and injustice with the way the comedy business worked, both as a business and as an art. After all, it may take 10 years to find your voice, but from half of the casting and showcase lists you see from major comedy players, it can sometimes appear that you find your manager and your opportunity after your first pubic or facial hair sprouts, “voice” development be damned. But in my 10th year is when all the things I had been writing, performing and producing hit a new stride and grew my audience. So now I have, for better or worse, carved out a niche in the business through my videos, podcasts, blogs and stand up as sort of a guy who at best, offers funny and unflinching shots at anything I see wrong, even if it is with the business that I am trying to succeed in, or, at worst, is committing career suicide for his peers’ enjoyment.
What has perplexed me is that on a weekly basis I get messages, e-mails and texts from fellow comedians, many of who are friends or at least people with whom I am friendly, pointing me in the direction of some comedy news/blog/practice/etc or something they at least think will anger me into producing new content making their argument for them. I don’t mind it, and am certainly not calling out any friend or acquaintance in particular. But I have gotten suggestions for podcasts, blogs and videos from numerous people over the last few months and the question I want to ask is “You are a comedian, why don’t you do something with it?”
Some of the examples that come to mind include a blog last year, made as humorous and as complimentary as I could about an experience I had at a club (fun club, great staff) where the condo was infested with roaches in a pretty shitty building. And the blog may have gotten me banned at that club. But since then I have had private communications with several comedians about those accommodations and how terrible it was and other comedians cancelling gigs there. But I am on the hook as the person who made a public stink of conditions that the department of health would take issue with, let alone hard working entertainers. When the comedy business (or just a comedy business) treats performers poorly they should be ashamed and crawl into hiding, not the comedian who has a legitimate gripe about maltreatment. And my post was only meant to be my personal humorous experience, until I heard at least a dozen comedians describe a similar experience.
There was Comedy Academy, my web series, which has passed 26,000 views total in a month and the most private messages of congratulations I have received in the last year but, per video, the fewest public shares on social media of all my videos, in the last year. The people who were most likely to share the videos were people at the lower rung of comedy or people located in the untouchable upper rung of comedy, like Adam Carolla and Sebastian Maniscalco. And while I deeply appreciate every share and post, I was disappointed by the fact that more of the videos were not shared. It reminds me of how so many lower class and middle class Republicans in America vote against their interest. They believe the American Dream so hard they ignore things right in front of their face. Similarly, in comedy whether it be manipulation, poor payment (forget $5 spots at UCB when features on the road are getting paid the same (or less when you factor in the disappearance of paid-for lodging on the road at many places) as comedians 25 years ago, or just calling out bullshit professionally or artistically, so many up and comers are about “playing the game,” which most of them cannot win. Just like the economic ladder in America, the comedic ladder, towards a career in comedy, especially stand-up is more difficult than ever.
Then there was my Facebook post about the Laughing Devil in Long Island City being booked by the people at The Stand. People were nervous about what that post implicated because it looked like a shot at The Stand, which is the rising challenger in the NYC club scene with great buzz. But what I was actually questioning, which was missed by most people who were afraid I was taking a shot at The Stand, was why did a cozy club in Long Island City, which was providing paid spots to comics like me, that are not getting them elsewhere in the city (it was nice to have a club not directly tied to talent management in the way some of the bigger clubs in NYC are) and free spots to comics that were not getting many elsewhere in NYC, switch booking practices… and not tell their roster of comics? I know this because I was fortunate to at least be on the list for avails that The Stand sent out, but I know several people who were only on the Laughing Devil roster who knew nothing about a change and just assumed they needed to submit more avails for spots. I don’t know why the change was made to different bookings on weekends because the last three weekend shows I did at the Laughing Devil were all packed, but that was a business deal/transaction to which I am not privy. I feel like it is going to eventually become The Stand East (I don’t actually know that, but as an up and coming neighborhood with a built in audience it would make sense to get a foothold in it, especially since it was close to being sold last year) and can now be a workout room for spillover from The Stand’s roster. Why am I saying all this? Because clubs and comics like to speak of “community””, but unless I am completely off base this flies in the face of that. And yes, having recorded an album and my biggest YouTube video at that club I feel particularly annoyed by the change, but that is business. But individual comedy club ownership is a small business and should treat their comedians like part of a small business, not like a cog at Wal-Mart.
My point with a few of these examples is that if comedians are only speaking up or being bold about the business or art of stand up when they have the cover of industry or fame or are taking generally accepted “bold stance”” topics within the comedy world (like scoring tried and true points attacking conservative politics as an example), then how can it actually stand for anything anymore? If everyone in stand up spoke out on bullsh*t, demanded more equitable treatment on the road (why does $200-$300 have to come out of the feature worker, when you can afford to pay a headliner anywhere from $2-$20K per week? It is the same “job creator” argument we hear in politics, except in this case it is the “seat fillers.” Will your audience stop coming if every food item is raised 25-50 cents to pay a decent week’s wage and accommodation to a hard working middle class (literally) comedian?
These are just some of the things I try to attack with serious writing, but also with humorous personal stories (self-deprecating to depressing) and funny sketches. I guess I should be thankful that not many people, if any, take this sort of approach to the comedy business because it has allowed my name and reputation to rise slightly higher than where my actual career is right now financially. But it also makes me wonder what happened that comedy because so full of cowards or at least people too afraid of repercussions for doing or saying the right thing (honesty is the right thing and what I believed was the hallmark of comedy versus other arts with more sullied reputations in the popular culture). This is what confuses me above all: if comedians don’t treat stand up as a profession and an art on its own (and not just a pit stop on their way to television deals) then how can the industry possibly do better. As philosopher Katt Williams once said (and he could have been making a decent defense for the comedy industry), “How can I ruin your self-esteem? It’s esteem of yo muthafuckin self!” I think there is a lot of shabbiness by the industry, but there seems to be little push back or standing up for oneself in the comedy world (UCB “controversy” aside, which still led to no pay). I want to believe that there could be a strike or a union or improved work for comedians, especially on the road, but comedians are almost conditioned at this point to think and act like desperate scabs – so how do unionize workers when the work force already consists of scab mentality?
Just under a year ago, when I made my Louis CK Tells The Classics video I remember one of the very first YouTube comments I got was “This would have been funny if you were making fun of Dane Cook, but not Louis.” And I feel like that all the time in comedy now. Like there is an acceptable way to question or challenge things in comedy. I don’t think there is, as long as it is either valid or funny. Or ideally, both.
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