One of the resolutions I made on Twitter/X (so it is legally binding) on the eve of 2024 was to get back to blogging once a week. Though Saturday is not a business day (“every day is a business day” said the random bro influencer on Tik Tok with a million followers and an equally large number of aggressive, unverifiable platitudes), it is the last day of week 1 of 2024 so here I am maintaining one of my resolutions for at least a week. I think the reason I singled out my blog, amidst all of the things I do (or try to do) in comedy was because in a time when I was truly a nothing in comedy (versus a significant has been currently) was that the blog had a bigger reach than I did. Because I wrote honestly, and fairly well about many things, but most significantly, the struggles, hypocrisies, idiosyncrasies and (occasional) joys of stand-up comedy, the blog would sometimes generate broader mention than my early stand-up work. So after a nearly 4 year period that saw my comedy career resurrected like Lazarus and euthanized like Old Yeller (early in my unexpected rise in 2020 I presciently suggested that my comedy career might have a similar arc as the patients in the film Awakenings), I thought, why not get back to my basics, if only for comedic self-care. Or at this point, it might just be comedic palliative care.
This week, after a 26 month ordeal that has been the worst experience of my 20 years doing stand-up comedy, my special Half-Blackface, was released. I think, along with the companion album, which was released in August and differs in material by about 25 minutes, it is my finest work. After the stresses of 2020, as related to my comedy career (inability to get a manager or agent to even call me back or set up a meeting, seeing a brief resurgent respect for lip sync as an art form, fearing the loss of my day job as I tried to pull 15 hour days in my apartment balancing a law firm workload and the unexpected need to produce comedy work for a career that had seemed comatose at best), I wanted to expose all the people who had become fans of mine from my impressions to my voluminous stand up work and sketch video library. With SNL not calling, I believed that stand up comedy was still my future and with approximately 200,000 new fans across social media, I wanted to convert those people into fans of my stand up. After all, if stand up clubs have been the all purpose venue spaces that managers and agents dump their “influencers” on to get a paycheck, then certainly a viral social media entertainer with 20 years of actual stand up experience should be a cake walk, right?
It turned out that none of the daydreams I had, logical though they may have been, came to pass. In fact, the biggest break I received post 2020 had nothing to do with the stand up world or anything I was expecting. I was asked to audition for a role on Billions in 2021, got the part and had a nice guest role in an episode of season 6. It turned out that even without an agent, my social media reach was enough to create opportunities on its own.
But 2021 turned out to be the end of the ride up. After Donald Trump was kicked off of Twitter, my growth went from 10,000 followers a month for 7 straight months to zero. Not a few hundred a month. Zero. Mind you, this was 2 years before Elon Musk took over. And not only that, but engagement with the followers I had plummeted. I still get messages from followers telling me “I haven’t seen your stuff in months/years” (we will return to this point later).
But having learned hard lessons from a career of isolated successes that never snowballed into anything, I decided mid 2021, with Billions on the horizon and a great new hour of stand up that I had put together that perhaps, I could create one last gasp of social media buzz to turn my career from “what happened to that Trump guy?” to “Wow this guy was on Billions and has a killer new hour!” I will not bore you with the details, but when a special takes two tapings and over two years to come out, things have not gone well. In fact, the process was so long, that I wrote, filmed and (SELF-)produced a new album/special in the interim (Tall Boy on my YouTube channel and music streaming services).
But as I sit here typing today, in early 2024, I need to confront a sad truth. Barring a miracle, my comedy career has likely peaked. Every career has a peak. But you don’t know what your peak is until you start to fall from it and cannot regain it. I recently had to ask 3 MAJOR national headliners to write me recommendation letters to a booker. They all kindly did and it was a rare moment of feeling respected, or at least being treated kindly, in this business. But even with my credits, skills and those recommendations, I am still not as hopeful for bookings as many might assume I should be. At 44 I am not yet old enough to compete for the Lewis Black curmudgeon bookings, but I am certainly well outside the desired age range for Tik Tok Crowd Work Influencer-do you actually have any material? slots. Is this how actresses used to feel when they turned 30, before porn made it OK to be hot and in your 30s?
Then there is the hopelessness of my social media platforms, especially Twitter/X. Before 2020, when I had 4000 followers I would have one or two tweets a year that would explode and garner me some new followers. I now have 125K followers, but have not had one tweet in 3 years reach the level of explosion. In 2020, almost all my tweets and videos reached hundreds of thousands of people. But for the last 3 years, when trying to sell tickets, promote specials and other things of major significance to both a comedian, and presumable, a comedian’s fans, they get under 10% of that engagement, almost without exception. Several people will probably respond to this by doing the progressive, reflexive response of “Elon ruined it!” but the truth is, in an effort to purge right wing misinformation (or right wing view points), my account was destroyed.
So if you are still reading this, you might be wondering, what is your point J-L? My point, is that, even with all these things working against me, I still have a combined 90 thousand subscribers on YouTube and 125 thousand followers on X. These are people who chose to follow me based off of my comedic output. So even if social media is not showing them my stuff, certainly they will search me out for shows and new content, right? Wrong.
The harshest lesson from my rise in 2020 to where I am now (with a great new special that no one is seeing and a still prolific YouTube channel that has not lost subscribers, but has seen a 90% drop in views) is that the vast majority of people just want to be distracted. Mediocre crowd work clips do the job just as well as brilliantly crafted material. Most people, even self-proclaimed “fans” are willing to trust that the social media algorithms will show them what they want to see to an alarming degree (I had a fan tell me last year that “I haven’t seen your stuff in so long, I just assumed you quit” – which raises the concern that if having 6 social media accounts and a website are not convenient enough for a fan to look up if they don’t see your stuff, what the hell would be?). Clearly most comedy fans have put on mental autopilot and assume social media will curate what they have asked for and will just assume the comedian is retired or dead before going to their page to see.
I also observed that many friends, co-workers, comedy colleagues etc. expressed unending amazement and support once 2020 hit and in my exuberance I was too clouded with a feeling of “Finally!” to realize that so many acquaintances from various times and places in my life were simply excited about proximity to someone with some heat, and nothing more. Needless to say the only thing that has dropped off worse than my social media engagement is the emails and texts of impressed recognition. I was funny and talented before March 2020, but good experiences feel better when shared, so my normal cynicism was in snooze mode. A career in comedy has limited my social circles (I joke that if I get married my wedding party will be my brother, my best friend and three podcasts) so sometimes Johnny Come Lately still feels like good company when you want any company to celebrate with you.
When I first recorded Half-Blackface I said two things to my girlfriend, who has had to endure almost 4 years of mood swings as my comedy has put me through the ringer. I said to her, my worst nightmare, related to comedy, is that I will make something truly great and it will never be heard or seen. I also told her that if I could combine my best work (Half-Blackface) with my best entertainment opportunity (Billions) into one publicity chance then I could see if my career could continue. Because if my best did not do anything, then it was no longer worth enduring if it would make me miserable to the people who actually care about me. Ineptitude made the latter a moot point. Social media algorithms and indifference seem to have made the former a reality.
The last time I felt close to this in comedy was 2013. I quit a stand up troupe I was part of and really did not think there was much hope for my comedy career. I then made a video called Louis CK Tells The Classics, which went viral and recorded my best stand up album (until the aforementioned Half-Blackface). Both had more success than anything I have put out in the last 2 years, despite having a fan base 95% smaller. As down as I was at the time about my career, there was still a glimmer of hope. Even if small, I did not feel barred from the game. Social media still could blow up (which it did for me with that video) and the industry did not feel shut off from me (I had meetings with 2 reputable managers in 2013, zero in 2020-21). But now, based on being shut off from my fans and their collective indifference (I am surely not unique in this respect – it is simply how we are now conditioned), I think there is little hope for a breakout moment again. Without representation and without a way to correct or appeal social media throttling my accounts, all I can do is make good stuff for the few that see it. I promise that the blogs this year won’t be this morbid, but I have gone through the other 4 stages of grief (anger, denial bargaining, depression), so this is my attempt at acceptance.