Comedy Road Work: Fool’s Bronze

One of the things I hear from younger comics, the ones not afraid to speak to me, in conversation is the following: “I need to get on the road.”  A much more accurate derivation of this that I hear is “I want to get out on the road.”  That one word change makes all the difference and it took me several years of ongoing frustration to learn the difference.   Many comics want to get on the road – it is fun, you feel like you are earning your keep (travel, receiving a check, filling out a tax form – it almost feels like a job!) and you gain experience and stories.  But the idea of “needing” to get on the road is really nonsense.  Now, of course I am speaking to a majority of comedians, but excluding some: headliners and their personal opening acts, this does not apply to you.

As one of the last of a generation of comedians raised early on advice like “write… perform… repeat” as the key to becoming a good comedian (back then becoming a “good comedian” implied that the quality would render you a  “working comedian”). Internet and television opportunities may be plentiful, but with the industry prioritizing different metrics beyond (or above) the actual quality of stand-up comedy, working on your stand up act has never been more irrelevant to being a working comedian (better to be “decent” with additional factors in your favor, than just a great stand up). But the mythology surrounding road work still persists: the idea that working the road is necessary in light of tremendous evidence that it cannot help you build your career or your bank account.  I have said it many times before, but like America in general, stand up comedy is becoming a business where the middle class is being squeezed out. It is not financially viable for up and comers (without management or heat or other entertainment income) to work full time at their stand up so the only people incentivized to dedicate themselves to comedy are locals who are increasingly employed by penny pinching clubs (don’t cut the headliner’s $20,000 pay check; instead, cut the feature pay/value from $900 total dollars to $500) or headliners who continue to be more central to the club’s bottom line.

So why are comedians still drawn to the road? Ego. That is the main reason. It serves no real financial purpose. And no matter how many emails you collect as a feature act or a low level headliner, without a massive Internet or television presence (or industry/management backing willing to leverage their more famous clients to benefit your budding career – very common) you are not going to build the kind of fan base that will elevate you to the level you want or need (or by the time you collect 15 years of e-mails we will be on to the next tech thing you “must do” to advance.  But you feel like a real comedian on the road – if you are coming from NYC, LA or Chicago club audiences treat you like a D-list celebrity if they like you, drinks are cheap, laughs are plentiful and you might even sell some merchandise.  But at the end of the day, the dwindling quantity of road work that pays a decent week’s wage is not worth the ego boost.  And many of the clubs (not all, there are still some good managers and owners still treating their comedians like professionals) are nickel and diming comedians more and more so that it sometimes is not even worth missing a week of work back home.  Think of it this way, to be available to even do 20 weeks of road work in a year you cannot really have a full time job.  But to become great at stand up you need the freedom to work at least that much.  It is a real Catch 22 – if you have the time to work on your act you will almost likely get too poor to continue that lifestyle, but if you work a full time job to pay your bills your opportunities for stage time, road work and crafting longer sets will be greatly diminished.

And then there is my personal favorite that deserves a small note – the road booker’s “last minute replacement” list.

Several years ago I received a few bookings from a prominent club booker.  I did very well with the clubs I work, as evidenced by the unsolicited e-mail I received from the booker saying “I have heard great things about you. I am moving you up my list.” I assumed this meant I would receive more bookings. Since that e-mail I have not worked any of his rooms.  I did not realize that I was moved “up” from the “sometimes booked” to the “fu*k this guy” portion of his list.  I would think that would be a step down, but clearly I don’t get the industry.  But then I realized that I had actually been moved to the “last minute replacement” list for this booker, as well as another unrelated booker.  This list is the “Oh no someone cancelled and I need someone within 1-7 days.”  Now, obviously some of the people receiving these e-mails may be within driving distance to these clubs, but for many these e-mails come off as borderline insulting.  If you are paying me $600 and the flight I must now book costs $500, what is the incentive?  Or is this just a half-acknowledgement that the booker knows the desperate environment they have helped cultivate among comedians that someone will grab it just for the chance to ply their trade for a week?

Of course when I sent a professionally worded email to a booker concerning my lack of opportunities I was told by a third party that my email may have been received poorly (this was an inference, not direct knowledge). In other words, simply corresponding like a regular person may rub these fief lords the wrong way.   So my advice to young comedians would be to leave the road alone, no matter how tempting it is, unless you fall into small exceptions (and on a side note – if you are going to do festivals – treat them more like vacations to meet and talk with other comeidans – if you treat them like realistic opportunities for career advancement, odds are you will leave disappointed, or at least eventually become dissatisfied with them).  Everyone knows the “chicken or egg” dilemma, but what came first, the nickel and dime booker or the headliner who decided to bring their own feature?  Now I have seen some headliners bring their own feature, driven mostly by insecurity, but many others want someone who will work well with them personally and on stage. Totally understandable.  One would think this would be the job of the booker to coordinate good talent that has general chops and also works well with the headliner.  Some bookers take this responsibility seriously. Others don’t give a fu*k because booking good mid-level acts (both as individual performers and in coordination with headlining acts) takes giving a damn about comedy and not just the bottom line.

Comedy bookers (to reiterate, not all, but enough to shape the industry) have further driven a scab mentality into working comedians, so a union will never be possible (how do you form a union when the labor force is replete with scab-mentality workers?).  So I think my advice to up and coming comedians is to forego the road.  It will do nothing concrete for your career.  Now if you are working with a headliner and have a personal relationship that can drive you forward professionally then embrace it. Or are you someone with management and road middle work is just a truck stop on your way to headlining and more heat then ignore this as well.  But to everyone else, the road has nothing to offer you. Perhaps a decade ago it was fool’s gold, but the economics of stand up comedy now have rendered it fool’s bronze – not even worth the foolhardy chase on which you want to embark.  If you think me hypocritical for pursuing road work, understand that my carer has his an all-time high for notoriety, which is a good thing, and a credit to the products I have worked hard to put out, but also near a low point economically because of several of the factors I have included above, so any opportunity to make money from comedy is one I cannot pass up.  Is this where you want your career to be?  Pursuing any and all work, out of equal parts desire and necessity?  Play the long game, not the short game and your comedy career and life will be much better off.  In the age of Facebook and Twitter every comedian’s insecure need (or perhaps to show to fans and industry that they are working and relevant) to post messages of false humility and blatant braggadocio of the clubs they are going to work or have just worked can get any comedian seeking opportunities to feel jealous. That is the short game.  Remember – getting on the road in many cases now is not a necessity, but a desire.  Unless you fit into exceptions I have written steer clear of the temptation.

So my advice is to work locally on your act.  Work on your YouTube channel. Work on your Twitter account. If this sounds cynical, it is.  But it is also true.  I have reluctantly, but fully embraced this.  It is simply reality at this point.  I know that I will have to become a headliner for many of these clubs to employ me again, but my stand up skills are not a well known enough draw to make it happen (yet?).  Comedy works less like General Motors and more like Silicon Valley now.  So work on your act and comedy portfolio in a way that benefits you, because I assure you, many club owners’ agendas are in direct opposition to the advancement of your career and bank account. Don’t let them throw you scraps in the dumpster and act like they are feeding you dinner.

If this concerns any of you it should. It means there are fewer and fewer careers possible in stand up comedy.  But if you are willing to go for it – the way to do it is to either connect with connected people, or become a headliner – in talent or, more beneficial, in fame/reach.  So get cracking on all things that are not stand up comedy if you want to be a working stand up comedian.

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! COMING THIS WEEK – WHO SHOULD REPLACE DAVID LETTERMAN. 

Essential J-L Reader

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!


Wintersville Is Coming and My Potential Political Career: Weekend…

Last Thursday I was doing Jimmy Failla’s radio show and at the end he asked me if I was performing anywhere this weekend and out of instinct I said, “nope.”  But then I quickly realized, “Wait, yes I am!”  At this point, bookings feel more like Christmas miracles, so I hope it is understandable that I forgot.  This gig was particularly interesting since it was for a show in my girlfriend’s hometown (Wintersville, the town next to Steubenville, the town made famous for its high school football rape case/tweets earlier this year, which of course made Wintersville’s new welcome sign of “The Small Town that Doesn’t Rape” quite sensible).  I was featuring for her, but given our respective heights and levels of cheeriness, I went Drago before my set and told her “I must break you.”


Before the show I went to my girlfriend’s childhood home and given that the tallest person in her family is about 5’11”, it was not surprising that I was bumping my shoulder on some of the light fixtures (lesser men might bump their head, but as a member of the Mensa-esque division of the overactive pituitary club I can sometimes bump my shoulder into low hanging lights. Basically, I looked like Gandalf visiting Bilbo Baggins.

Side note – the Keystone train of Amtrak does not have a snack car.  We took the train from NYC to Harrisburg, PA and then drove from Harrisburg to Wintersville and I was very disappointed that the Keystone has no snack car.  I assume it was Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station that lobbied for this.  There is a 20 minute stop in Philly before moving on to the rest of Pennsylvania so it turns all the passengers on the train into post-Apocalypse scavengers looking to build up supplies for the journey into Tea Party regions of Pennsylvania.

OK – back to the show.  When we arrived at the restaurant that has weekly (I think it’s weekly, maybe monthly, I have no idea) comedy I saw that the average color was bleach, the average age was life support and the average political leaning felt like “Ted Cruz is a liberal traitor.”  And yet, to quote the sports cliché, this is why you play the game.  They turned out to be a great comedy crowd.  Laughed a lot, minimal crowd input unless explicitly asked or spoken too, and just a pleasure to perform for.  Gigs like this make me feel good as a comedian, because even four years ago I could have easily bombed in front of a crowd like this. Just proves that the more you write and the more experience you gain performing for and learning from different crowds, the fewer crowds you cannot win over.  I am now certain that my skills and volume of material put me in position to win over any crowd in America, other than television executives and NYC club bookers.

One of the highlights of the show was an audience member, “John,” who looked like Barry Melrose, if he was raised in Texas instead of Canada.  This guy was a phenomenal audience member, a good sport and an anthropologist/archaeologist (hence my nickname of Indiana Melrose for him).  What fascinated me (pardon me if this sounds too much like a sheltered Yankee) was that he was a gun carrier, but did not seem like an unreasonable nut job (I am exaggerating for effect).  We did not have time to discuss gun rights, though it was sort of a novel feeling to meet a guy who liked carrying a gun, but who did not scare me for wanting to carry a gun.  I would have liked to ask him if he was for more background checks, etc., but he was an interesting contradiction of assumptions – a gun toting academic from a small town who looked like a young villainous Gary Oldman.


This may have seemed like all superfluous information, but when people wonder why I hate not getting more road work it I because I love everything about the road. I like travelling (reading time not distracted by TV, games, etc), I like hotels (except for the blood stained sheets at the New Haven La Quinta Inn) and I have enjoyed travelling to different cities in America and seeing stereotypes confirmed and refuted.  Maybe one day I will run for political office and be able to say:

“A lot of politicians say they understand you, but a comedian can honestly make that claim.  I have travelled to cities all over this country by plane, train, bus and car.  I have been to your stores, your malls, your tourist attractions, your Churches, your strip clubs and your comedy clubs.  I know our differences, but also our similarities.  I have had a lot of money and I have also struggled.  All this has been made possible by my career in stand up comedy. And I would have not understood and experienced financial struggles and dream crushing frustrations without one group of American heroes. God Bless the comedy club bookers!”

But seriously, I was a former ADA (“tough on crime, just ask Craig’s List prostitutes”), worked in the private sector (“may not have understood all the he did, but did understand how to bill clients”) and charismatic on the stump “engaging and funny on stage, sort of hard to believe clubs never paid him”. This is a great combination of experience and skills for political office.  Cauvin 2028 – get those bumper stickers ready!  I am already thinking a good slogan will be “Cauvin – Do Not Be Offended By His Old Tweets Please.”

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


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.