The Silent Majority of Comedy (I hope)

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.

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

Essential J-L Reader

Missing the Forest for the UCB Tree

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.

For more opinions, comedy and bridge burning check out the Righteous Prick Podcast on Podomatic or iTunes.


My First Comedy Nightmare!

A couple of nights ago I had one of the most terrifying dreams I can remember having.  The most terrifying of my life was a recurring dream I had when I was about 7 or 8 years old (I had it about ten times) where my Mom gets in a cab to share it with someone and that person, a woman, stabs her to death.  And it happened the same way every time and yet I could never change it.  It got so bad I one time woke up to ask my brother, sleeping in the bed next to mine, if Mom was going to live a long time and what would we do if someone murdered her.  My brother reassured me that our Mother would be around for along time and much to my Mother’s chagrin she has lived long enough to see what her younger son has become.  I know nothing about dream interpretation, but perhaps after seeing my mother murdered by a woman in my dreams as a youth I would never be able to laugh at another woman again, no matter how many times the Huffington Post told me to follower her tweets.

I give you that tiny, disturbing glimpse into my youth for two reasons. One, it sets up how disturbing my dreams can be (pretty bad for a little kid I think, so imagine my adult dreams) so that when I tell you how frightening my recent nightmare was you will grasp the magnitude. The other reason is it gave me a roundabout way to mock female comedians. Sorry ladies. I am trying to get better.

Anyway, the dream began as follows:  I received some e-mails from NYC clubs telling me that their rosters were full, that there were not enough spots for passed comics so that an audition would not be happening or that I would get an audition in the future.  Fair enough. Then I checked and saw that all 40 of my road work e-mails had not been replied to.  Started to feel antsy, so I e-mailed a bunch of friends who run shows at bars and found out most of them had been cancelled.  I then sat down and decided that maybe I should look into auditioning for things, but that I did not know where to look for parts or work and would be lucky to just get extra work.  I then started thinking I should go back to the law and then went into a full blown panic attack when i realized I had been out of practice for almost 4 years which is practically a death sentence to my legal career.  And then I woke up sweating.

This may read like a dream sequence from a comedy about a struggling comedian, but in fact it is terrifying.  Here is why: other than the full blown panic attack, which only occurred when I woke up from the nightmare and could not go back to sleep, the dream was a recap of my previous 48 hours of comedy work search.  In other words, my subconscious went looking for deep darkness in me to haunt me with and it realized that the worst nightmare it could find was the comedy career I am actually living! through.

So thank you stand up comedy, you are officially my nightmare.  Now I have to get Leonardo DiCaprio or Dennis Quaid (Dreamscape people!) to pull me out of this.  Someone spin a microphone and let’s see if it falls.

I’ll be in Indianapolis next week and Syracuse the week after. For more cheer check out my weekly podcast which just cracked the top 40 on Podomatic’s comedy chart.

Merry Christmas.


Top 10 Working Titles For My Feature Act Comedy…

Everyone clamors for a book by star comedians who reflect on their rise to success. They usually sell well because they are funny and they give readers a latter-day Horatio Alger story: comedians always seem to start poor or at least unhappy and then rise to a position of fame and wealth and slightly less unhappiness.  But what about feature comedians – the stop on the way to headliner success for some, or the purgatory of comedy for many?  As a national feature act (meaning underpaid, underbooked and under the radar) I have thought about writing a book on the experience of travelling America and seeing the country through the lens of comedy’s middle class.  As I have written before, I think the feature act is an unexplored bellwether for (or at least a microcosm of) the disappearance of America’s middle class:

So as I explore ideas for a memoir here are the ten titles I am considering (I am far too lazy to follow through on an entire book). Keep in mind these are based on my own experiences.  Some comedians may feel the same, some may not.  I applaud those of you that feel the same because you are right. And a message to my civilian readers – I know I can sound bitter – think of my posts (sometimes) as a darkly humorous look at how the comedy sausage is made:

1) 25% Off a $4 Order of Mozzarella Sticks – Nothing feels quite like a kick to the balls than the food discount, especially when the food item is dirt cheap to begin with (not to mention seeing the headliner eat that $7 hamburger free of charge – why don’t you blow your nose with $100 bills while you are at it!).  $1 off a $4 order is not so much about savings as it is about sending a message. The message? “You ain’t sh*t” (another possible title). That is why I now travel with homemade coupons for free back rubs.  If I have to pay for appetizers then the club is going to have to earn my money… the hard way (Rodney Dangerfield blog voice).

2) Trying Not To Get Hit By A Car While Walking On The Side Of A Highway – For every four day trip on the road, I spend about 5 hours on stage and 20 hours walking around towns where the lack of sidewalks help to explain the high levels of obesity.  I am 6’7″ and anywhere between 240 and 290 pounds, depending on how despondent I am over my “career,” but even at my fittest I have this fear that a murder will occur in any number of the towns I perform in and witnesses will say “we saw a real big unhappy sombitch just walking along the highway. And we ain’t never seen him before.” And my only alibi will be “Google Maps told me there was an IHOP two miles down the road.”  Either that or a car will simply hit me as I dart across a highway to get to a Starbucks with WiFi. Headline the next day: “Tall Stranger Killed Trying to Check Facebook. No One Had Any Idea Why He Was Here Or Who He Was.”

3) Why Do All These White People Find This Mediocre Black Comic Hilarious? – If anyone wants to know why large pockets of America think President Obama is a Muslim, just go to a comedy club across America.  This country, for all its progress and love of Denzel Washington, is still an incredibly segregated place, where people of color still possess an exotic aura for many white people.  And no job is easier in comedy, in my estimation, than to be a mediocre opener of color (the darker the better) in front of a white audience.  The white audience in America is often times self-selected (my native Bronx is by no means the only place that has experienced white flight) so no line ever does better (or is more repeated by black comics) than “I must be in the wrong club!”  The goobers in the audience are simultaneously thinking “That’s a funny joke!” and  “That’s true!!”  I was emceeing shows recently and a feature, who was black, told me after a show while we were chatting, “Every time I talk with white people from here after a show, they always want to tell me some ‘black sh*t,’ like some story about a black guy they met or a black person they hooked up with.  Maybe I just want to talk about some other sh*t!”  This is not even necessarily a mean thing (ignorance is not necessarily evil), but it does explain a high tolerance for bad comics of color in America (the gentleman I am speaking of was not in this category).  Now there are terrible comics of every race working out there, but the large parts of this segregated country that still think American black people only exist in prisons, rap videos and sporting arenas (because our president is Kenyan) are giving refuge to a lot of terrible comics of color.  I don’t know which came first, the sheltered/ignorant white crowd or the black comic with way too high a swagger-to-talent ratio, but both need to stop.

4) Why Do All These Black People Love This Asian/White Comic – The pendulum swings both ways and if there is something that annoys me it is when a member of a group gets respect from an audience comprised of a different group, simply having the guts to show up.  I have seen this in black rooms almost as often as I see it in white rooms. Now this is not to denigrate comics with real skill and talent who happen to be different. Rather it’s the ones who coast on their appearance as if that alone is a “voice” or “perspective” (often times these guys DON’T have a voice or perspective, which might make their job more difficult if they are not truly skilled). Of course #3 and #4 are just a prelude to my personal gripe…

5) Why Do White and Black People Judge My Biracial Ass For Making Humorous Commentary On Race – If you can tell from #3 and#4 this is personal.  I have the comedic misfortune of being opinionated and sharp on race in my material while looking like an Italian in the winter and an Egyptian in the Summer (my Dad is black and my mother is white). In other words, black rooms (not necessarily black people individually, but rather comedy clubs with a classic urban sensibility) require me to be more forceful in asserting my blackness before I am “allowed” to speak on it, while many whites don’t like being lectured to on race by some guy who looks mostly like them. In conclusion I hate you both.

6) Please Let It Be a Hotel… Dammit It’s a Comedy Condo – I would lick a Las Vegas Holiday Inn comforter with more mental peace than I have when I get into a comedy condo bed.  “Hey, I like your choice to go with a white comforter in the comedy condo – really brightens the room!”  “Huh, that comforter is navy blue.” Cue Jim Carrey crying in the shower in Ace Ventura.

7) Jack and Jill and Other Things I Am Ashamed Of On The Road – I love going to the movies, but it can reach the point on the road where I am seeing a movie just to avoid staring at a wall or becoming Jack Nicholson in The Shining.  That is my official explanation for why I saw Bucky Larson last year.

8 ) Why Am I Getting Paid The Same As A Feature in 1985?  From several accounts I hear the actual dollar amount is less (especially when considering that travel was sometimes included during the comedy boom), but the fact is that in adjusted dollars features are making far less than their counterparts 20+ years ago.  Any other profession work that way?  Is a partner at a law firm in NYC going home to his family saying, “I just made partner!  How does $50,000 a year sound? What? That is how much our daughter’s private school costs?  OK, well, let me get back to my managerial position at Best Buy where I can make some real cash.”

9) Dear Booker, It’s Me J-L, Please Read My E-Mail – Being a comedian without management is sort of like being Jodie Foster in the movie Contact. You are just sending messages out into space with the faint hope of receiving a reply. (My June and July are open – call me!)

10) Yes, I can Explain That 4 Year Gap on My Resume… I Was In Jail.  This is the excuse I have come up with if employers start asking me about my tweets or YouTube videos. “No, that is not me – my accounts were hacked. I was actually in prison for those four years, but in no way, shape or form was I performing stand up comedy.”


J-L’s New Stand-Up Album “Too Big To Fail” is Available at for FREE until April 30th. His weekly podcast “Righteous P***k” is available for free on iTunes with a new episode every Tuesday.