I sit in my hotel writing this latest road recap from Hotel de Anza, a hotel in the shadow of Zoom’s headquarters (I think – or just a large building with Zoom all over it – if you do a live corporate gig at Zoom, is it still a Zoom show?) after a mostly fun night in San Jose and a 21 hour day. I hung out with some friends, met some of my most die hard fans, had some merch stolen at the show and accidentally fooled my Mom about the stains on my Greyhound bus seats. So without further adieu, and before I have to check out of my hotel let’s do this!
On Wednesday I woke up at 4am to get my 515am bus. Fortunately I had not yet modified my sleep schedule to the west coast so it was not as difficult to wake up at that hour (went to be at 10pm), but my buddy Nick, who is letting me crash with him in LA, apparently just pulled an all-nighter to take me to the bus. As my home away from home for almost a decade, Nick has been the unsung hero of all of my west coast trips. He got me to the station which at 445am was an interesting mix of exhausted immigrant families and Black dudes talking about YouTube fight videos. I hopped on my bus (silver lining to taking the early Greyhound – you don’t get shot on a Greyhound later that day in California) and grabbed the handicapped seat which provided more leg room than any first class flight accommodations. The bus never got too crowded – I had my own seat the entire 9 hour trip and the ride was absolutely beautiful. California really is a beautiful state, even when travelling on seats that looked like they are covered in semen.
Now as the bus got more crowded, a few people started coming on without masks. And in a weird move, the guy next to me had a KN95 mask that he wore on his chin for most of the ride. As I joked on stage in San Jose, “so you upgraded your mask, to protect your chin?” But I opted to fume silently at the selfish, rule breaking and I think I made the prudent decision (see article about deadly fight on bus above).
I arrived in San Jose, which was beautiful and sunny and windy AF. Northern California always seems super sneaky with the weather: “Oh look it’s beautiful… and 62 degrees and… holy shit that wind is making me cold AF!” My hotel was a quick 10 minute walk from the train/bus station. After checking in and mapping out my set I met up with my friend Hank from law school who made the drive from San Francisco and Brandon (no, not Joe Biden – a man actually named Brandon), a friend through my bff who went to college with him. We had dinner at a local food hall and then made out way to the Improv.
The club was great – it is sort of an old theater type space and thanks to some good fans (and good efforts by the club to fill seats) I ended with up with a pretty good crowd. In addition to bits from my (cursed) special – please go to the podcast tab and listen to the new bonus episode of Righteous Pk if you don’t know – I dropped some brand new, off the dome bits on Clarence Thomas, masks on Greyhound, how me and my Uncle looked like a Law & Order casting in the Bronx (this was just something I said to someone who worked at the Improv and then he said “do you do that on stage?” – WELL I WILL NOW!), the single best Trump impression I’ve ever done and some other shit I have already forgotten (but thankfully have on tape) that did well.
After the show I met some fans who are almost as well known to me as I am to them because of their strong engagement with me. It always feels good to meet fans like that (so that your comedy feels less like a distraction and more like *pretentious voice* appreciated art). But there was a blemish on an otherwise socially and comedically enjoyable night. A fan walked up to buy one of my USB cards (the $40 cards have all 6 of my stand up albums so it is a good deal). He asked if I took credit cards. I said that I did and I pulled out the square addition for my phone to swipe his credit card, but then realized I had left my phone in the showroom. I asked him to wait and ran, got my phone and made it back to the table within 15 seconds. When I returned he was gone and so was one of my album cards. Now the crazy thing about this is based on the interaction (he was ready to pay and could not have known I did not have my phone on me) he made the spur of the moment decision to steal from me. I hope he enjoys the albums.
Hank, Brandon and I went to a local pub for a beer with a fan who was effusive in his praise for my comedy and even more effusive in his praise for his Ivy League PhD and claim of having a large penis. After that was done, we made a run to the local Insomnia Cookies, which claimed to be open until midnight, but was already closed when we arrived at 1135pm. Instead we went to an ice cream shoppe and then said our goodbyes (PhDick had already made his way back home).
So today’s agenda is: do a Mike Lindell pillow review from my hotel before checkout, record a cameo for someone and then get on an Amtrak bus/train trip back to LA (9.5 hours for reading and watching some movies), and, if on time, perform around 1030pm at the Hollywood Improv. Every day in my comedy career is basically like an awful season of 24.
Thank you San Jose! You were great, except for the theft!
When I first started doing stand-up comedy I relied heavily on impressions (contrary to how many of you reading may have come to know me, impressions have largely been absent from my stand-act from 2007-present day). One impression I had (shocker) was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger impressions belong with Trump, DeNiro and DMX in the “not this again” impressions hall of fame. But I still had one and it was better than most. One of the frustrating things about impressions if one like an Arnold or a Trump become so ubiquitous, it almost does not matter if yours is great, accurate, etc. But I was new at stand up and had more voices than minutes of material.
One of my first bits that started doing really well for me in my first year in comedy in Washington D.C. (June 2003-June 2004) was an Arnold Schwarzenegger family reunion bit. But due to the length of the name, the family had an abbreviation for members of the family: “negger.” So Arnold would ask his son if he “wanted to be a big strong negger like his Dad or a lazy ass negger like Uncle Frank.” The bit almost always did really well because the impression was good and the concept was a little risque (like callbacks, being a little “naughty” is easy points with a comedy club audience). In fact, when Dave Chappelle debuted “The Niggar Family” sketch on Chappelle’s Show several months after I had been doing the bit around DC, three different comedians texted me their condolences, not because they thought it was stolen but because my station in comedy would make me look like a copycat if I ever did the bit again.
Now this is not totally a story about how even 17 years ago our comedy tastes were so much broader and less sensitive than they are today, though that is somewhat true (real comedy fans are no more sensitive, but the broader swath of society that consumes comedy through cell phones and the Internet is surely much larger and as I repeatedly say, if you are going to take the increased wealth that can come from increased exposure you need to accept some of the broader taste and sensitivity that come with it). The reason that the negger family also worked (and why this is not just a PC sucks screed) is because I built disclaimers about my racial background into my material. I had a bit in the beginning of every set where I planned to do “Negger Family Reunion” about being half Black. Therefore I had offered my proof of membership in the club where I could take more liberties with racially sensitive material. I was not saying the N word, but I was dancing on a line gleefully and realized that given my face and the city of my comedy birth, Washington D.C., I needed to offer some bona fides.
Several years later in my career, long after I had relegated my impressions to YouTube sketches and begun developing lots of stuff to say on stage in my own voice, I would encounter a different issue. Often when I spoke on racial issues, or made jokes about race I would make some audience members (not limited to one race of gender) uncomfortable if I did not offer my racial bona fides early on. To say nothing of white guys wanting to discuss my dick after shows or Black women (on much rarer occasions) wanting body hair proof of my half-Blackness, it seemed that I had to offer proof of my Blackness to joke about race. However, even after offering my biography and ethnicity CV in joke form, more frequently than I like, I am still not afforded basic respect for who I am. It is a small percentage of audience members, but it happens at most shows (perhaps being more well known will reduce awkward skepticism, but then it will just be transferred to the next Rashida Jones looking comedian down the road so that doesn’t really spell comedy progress) So as my comedy became more centered on my thoughts and experiences in life I became much more hostile to proving anything. The Schwarzenegger joke is really the only time, other than one bit on my first album, where I ever uttered something close to the N word in life or on stage. So I felt like I was not taking any liberties that a comedian should not be entitled to, let alone one with a Black father. And as my friend Josh Homer commented one night many years ago (and on a few social media posts during the years), if a crowd did not respect my jokes on their own merits, I would often not bail them out with an “hey folks, it’s ok – I am half-Black” permission slip to enjoy the material they were already anxious about.
Without divulging anything beyond the title, my next album (or hopefully first special) is tentatively called Half Black Face. We are in this annoying time in comedy where so many of the free speech warriors in comedy veer into “offensive bigots just using comedy as a shield to protect indecency” and people who are so concerned with policing comedy appear to be people who don’t seem to either enjoy comedy or know anything about it. So if you want to be a decent person with free reign to be somewhat indecent in an art that is built partly on indecency then your creative space feels like it is shrinking. But what annoys me on a personal level is that too many people want to judge me by rules that I don’t think should apply to any comedians, but still have force because they are about “protecting” certain groups of people.
Over the last year I have picked up an exponentially larger following than I have ever had in my career and I am grateful for it. But I have also had too many “fans” (often, but not exclusively white progressives) inform me that because I am white (to their eyes… and let’s be honest for half of the year almost all eyes) my comedy did not hit as hard as someone who is not ostensibly white. While people fawn over clapter comedy or the latest Pet Rock of humor, I found myself forced to defend my material as both original and valid, despite appearing to come from a white person.
Beyond that I have been lectured about my own jokes. One joke I wrote said that London Breed, Keisha Lance Bottoms and Lori Lightfoot (all Black women mayors who were appearing jointly during Covid news appearances) sounded like the names of superheroes or porn stars. Multiple people informed me that mocking Black women names was problematic. I am fairly certain if I looked Black I would not have been lectured by a white progressive (because then they would likely view that as “violence towards me”) but I also believed the joke stood on its own, like I feel about most jokes. Other than “Keisha” there is nothing about those three names that screams “Black woman.” Follow that with me making a joke about Timothy Chalamet and JB Smoove looking like Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock and someone calling it racist (mind you, the Ossoff doppelganger was not racist, just the Warnock doppelganger). And then this morning, a joke I made a few months ago about Cornel West looking like an old Don Lemon (the joke was about the verbosity of West, not their appearances being similar, and was promptly met with some progressives denouncing my terrible comedy).
I am of the opinion that offensive comedians should be allowed more space because like speech in general, it is the ugly stuff that needs to be protected. No one is required to laugh, but condemning jokes seems to be happening too often, especially from people who don’t seem to know or enjoy most comedy. I am not a jazz fan (musically, we all know I love the basketball team) so I won’t buy tickets to a jazz concert, but I would never deign to lecture someone on what good jazz is or what jazz they should support. But everyone appears to want to be funny or be seen as having a great sense of humor, which seems to be the only qualification for dictating the terms and taste of comedy. This would not annoy me as much as it does (though it would annoy me), but for the racial angle, which I take personally. Some folks seem to think that even including a Black person in a joke as a white (looking) person is off limits.
It reminds me of the time a nice fan complimented me after a show, but told me I should stay away from jokes about trans people (the joke had been about wanting more diversity among serial killers – all the docs were about white killers, but what about women, POC and trans serial killers – the joke was literally about diversity, not attacking trans people, but the new wave of comedy fans truly seem to be triggered by words before they even interpret the context). That would be bad enough, but that sensitivity is coupled with an outspoken boldness. So in many cases you have people too sensitive to enjoy or understand comedy, but simultaneously emboldened enough to condemn it. This particular fan was nice and almost inquisitive so it was not a time for an argument but just an exchange of words, but many people come much more forcefully, despite being equally ignorant.
So when it comes to my own material I want to remain uncompromising, though I do believe I have probably missed out on some opportunities during my recent run because I am a comedian and not an actor or PR creation cosplaying as a comedian. I don’t need people to know my race and would prefer audiences that embrace the quality of my comedy on its merits without needing a demographic cosign. I am not comfortable being a spokesperson or representing something other than a true stand up comedian. That is because I am honest about my experiences in life. When I visited Ireland as a child many kids asked if I was North African. But as I grew older many people thought I was Italian, Jewish or occasionally Egyptian. I understand I have had in some ways the whitest (or at least lightest) of privilege – being a large, angry looking beige guy has not drawn the scrutiny that someone my size and disposition might have gotten if I had a different role of the genetic lottery between my parents. I respect that experience when compared to other POC, but it doesn’t fully strip me of my identity and my right to be who I am without having to constantly prove it.
I still think Billy Crystal’s Sammy Davis Jr is a great impression that poses no problem. Can I say this as a half-Black man who looks white or non-Black to most people? Who determines if I can say or feel that way? I am not trying to speak for others, but is my opinion not at least somewhat valid? I would love to live in a world where all jokes are ok if they are truly meant as jokes, but for every 50 audience members that are triggered, there is a comedian who probably uses comedy more as a weapon to vent hate than to explore ideas. But I think we need to protect that person as comedians and comedy fans, even if we don’t like it. But I don’t want to have to protect my own audiences from jokes anymore.
The most frustrating thing of the last month or so has been constant accusations of stealing my impression of Donald Trump. For the record, I have been impersonating Donald Trump since 2015 and my current crop of Twitter videos were started March 11th of this year. On April 23rd comedian Sarah Cooper began posting her lip sync videos of Trump and to her credit, the world seems to have redefined what the default assumption of what an impression is. Now instead of people being impressed with my impression many assume mine is also a lip sync (which is a compliment to its accuracy and plausibility, except when it comes with “stop stealing from Sarah” and the occasional, incorrect comment about my race, almost always from a progressive white woman, desperately guarding their new cyber connection to a black woman and viewing my work as an attack on her (once again – I was first, it’s an impression, not a lip sync and I am half-Haitian, half-Irish). But to be fair a conservative sent me a private racist message because he thought I was Mexican.
I never understood why so many got money making opportunities off of Trump during his first term and I couldn’t, but to blow up on the strength of my impression and then have the very definition of impression changed on me is a level of #JLJinx I could not have seen coming. But as a 17 year stand up comedian (June 2, 2003 being my first open mic), with hundreds of sketch and stand up videos, dozens of impressions and 8 albums (6 stand up and 2 as Trump) I would rather someone consume that content and then assess and compare what level of comedian I am. So here are some albums, impressions and sketches that I think will make you a real fan of mine (though if you are reading my blog perhaps I am already preaching to the choir) because when Trump is done I want and need real comedy fans in my corner to have the career that has eluded me for 17 years. The sooner I get out of the developing nation that is “Trump comedy” the better I think we will all be (but to be clear I am, or at least should be, the dictator running that nation 🙂 )
The Two Albums to Judge Me By: Keep My Enemies Closer (2013), Thots & Prayers (2018 – double album)
You can stream or buy these albums anywhere you listen to music. They are my two best and I think each should have made me a headliner. Neither did, but the best way to judge if you want to come see me do stand up when the pandemic passes is to listen to these. I have 6 in total and stand by all as quality works that also provide a sort of chronology of my life if you listen to them in order, but I know asking you to buy or listen to six stand up albums is probably a tall order (but feel free to do so).
The 10 Sketches of Mine That You Should Watch
These sketches are all written by me and feature me in some capacity, many as impressions. So watch, enjoy and share your favorite(s).
Biggie (2013) – a spoof on the Movie Big
Joel Osteen’s Early Sermon (2015)
Adam Carolla Show with Trump, Bernie and Matt Achity (2016) – my Carolla impression got me on the Adam Carolla Show as a repeat guest – the Trump was still in its infancy and many of you will not know that the Matt Achity is strong – Carolla Show fans the most likely to get this one to its core
This is Trump (2018) – my Trump centered parody of This Is Us (yes it is a Trump sketch, but more as a sample of parody writing of a popular show)
Ken Burns Comedy pt 1 (2015) – As a fan of Ken Burns’ documentaries I decided to do a 2 part series on stand up comedy as a send up of both comedy and Ken Burns. Trumpet, JB Smoove and narration by me.
Booty (2011) – a send up of the Kardashian Craze
The Punisher at Home (Jon Bernthal) ep 1 (2018) – An impression a lot of people like from me, just need Bernthal to become a certified A-lister so I can capitalize
Adam Sandler and Tyler Perry Make a Movie Together (2014)
If Bad Boy TV Heroes Were Black (2014) – the most relevant sketch I made that sadly stays relevant
Tout Bagay: A Half-Haitian Comedy Saga (2018) – a sample of my stand up that tells about my upbringing. The main part is not on any album, but this should entice you to check out the albums I hope
So if you made it through some or all of this thank you and hopefully you will continue to check out my stand up albums and my many other videos. When Trump is done there will be more and more content for you to still laugh at and hopefully fewer annoying comparisons and comments.
In a few weeks I will “celebrate” 17 years performing stand up comedy. After my second year at Georgetown University Law Center, a year that found me deeply depressed, so much so that my then-girlfriend called a priest from Georgetown to counsel me. Basically he showed up to my apartment like Father Merrin in The Exorcist, we had Chinese food and subsequently had a few months of therapeutic lunches. At the end of that I realized I needed a hobby and went to my first open mic in DC in June of 2003. And if law school was my heroin, for many years it seemed that stand up comedy became my methadone. It stopped me from being depressed about law school and later, about being a lawyer but then it became its own dependency. After a good show in 2006 I might feel high for three days. Six years later the buzz from even a great set would wear off by the time I descended the stairs of the stage. This is not some exaggeration – I remember the show at NYC’s Gotham Comedy Club in October 2012 when it happened.
Part of the problem was that my career, after a solid trajectory for a few years started to feel like treading water. One or two things might happen to give me hope that a career in comedy was in the offing only to realize that it was just a tease. In 2007 I made my national TV debut on The Late Late Show (a great debut set that I find hard to watch simply because I was in such great shape), but months later, when looking to make another appearance on TLLS two things happened: my manager (nothing in writing, but he was helping me immensely with an eye to the future) was let go and I made the rookie mistake of trying to stay with the agency. They officially dumped me months later after the heat of my appearance had died down and this occurred around the time of a writers’ strike in Hollywood. By the time things came back TLLS did not return emails from my manger-less ass.
I was then laid off from my law firm in 2009, but with savings and the money from a returned (snatched) engagement ring I felt like I was good enough to make that money last until I became a star. I ended up featuring around the country (one memorable gig in Detroit paid $300 for 5 shows – I took a train to Detroit… from NYC and a Greyhound back. Found a cheap hotel and managed to make $13 profit, which I considered a major accomplishment and why I have not stopped complaining about stagnant feature pay for years, despite the fact that the industry and almost no headliner care. I kept taking gigs that did not make financial sense because I though if I could keep writing and performing and rubbing elbows with headliners a combination of skill, luck and relationships would take me where I wanted to go.
Most headliners seemed to enjoy my presence and my material but none extended a hand other to say good job. And that’s OK. I think maybe my combination of NBA/NFL size, the “side gig” as an attorney and the fact that I was in my early 30s did not lend itself to a conventional mentoring relationship. I was not some young kid in need of guidance. I was a smart, grown ass man in need of work and a manager, not someone to “teach me the ropes.” But in 2010 I worked with a comedian who would be able to see me in a different light, because he seemed to think of almost every comedian as beneath him: Patrice O’Neal.
I only worked with Patrice twice, but you can hear me introducing him on his two big albums. I emceed for him the first time by luck. I did not take emcee work, not because I was above it but I refused to lose money on road gigs (e.g. you could have me for $13 profit). But my brother and his family lived in DC at the time that I was offered an emcee spot at the DC Improv so I would not have to pay for my own hotel if I took the emcee spot. So I took it. It was a few months before Patrice would record Elephant in the Room and it is one of the three biggest killer weeks of shows I have ever been part of. In terms of pure killing (strong audience reaction) the three guys who have destroyed crowds harder than anyone else I’ve worked with are Patrice, Sebastian Maniscalco in 2013 (another emcee shot I jumped at in DC) and Gary Owen. I watched every one of Patrice’s shows. Patrice did two things that week that made me think that perhaps I had made a potential friend. The first was that he told me one of the nights that he liked my Rocky bit (a bit I never performed in front of him, but that he had seen looking up my stuff – here is the updated version from Thots and Prayers) and the second was that he ripped me for about 10 minutes in front of the local comedians after the last show. It was more friendly roast and felt basically like he “fu*ked with me” as a comedian.
The great compliment came maybe 6 months or so later when he asked the DC Improv to have me emcee his next set of shows. I still feel like it is the single best compliment I have ever received in stand up. He valued the emcee spot, which he told me when I was trying to impress him that I “usually featured” (this is what he ripped me for in front of the comics the previous year). Now I have never asked a comedian “if I could open for them.” I am not super pushy to begin with, but I feel like that is like asking someone if you are invited to their wedding – let them invite you and if they don’t then you just keep working for the next opportunity. But once Patrice invited me back personally I thought that I might ask him if his feature could not make a gig, would he keep me in mind. Like I said, I only would have done this because I felt like he had asked for me first. But a few months later, Patrice would have the stroke that would take his life. I remember being 99% sad that a giant of stand up was gone, just a couple of years into me really delving into his work, but admittedly 1% of me was sad for me because the only headliner who had the physical and mental stature to see me as an inferior (in a good way) and might help me was now gone.
But I kept plugging away. In 2013, after ending a relationship in 2012 that had to suffer through the most disappointing stretch of my career I drank a lot, but also created my best work. In April 2013 I released a video that would be my first viral video – Louis CK Tells the Classics, where I mocked Louis CK’s writing and delivery style through knock knock jokes. This was CK at the height of his powers within and outside of the stand up world. Many people called me a hater, but most thought the impression and the content were A+. It got me a few meetings with managers that went nowhere. But in September of 2013 I released Keep My Enemies Closer, the best album of my career. I wrote and worked the 75 minutes of material in only 16 months (as I had released a very solid album Too Big To Fail in the beginning of 2012). It sold modestly, but almost every fan I have acknowledges that it is a superb stand up album (performed in front of about 30 people, because 10 years into your career your friends abandon your career because they have families and little of the “oh man you do comedy!” enthusiasm that overflowed when you were new and terrible. But you have not developed a large enough fan base of strangers because you are not very successful by the measure of the lay person who often assumes that 10 years without headlining or being on TV regularly means you are probably not that good. It is a terrible place to be in your comedy career, but I had dropped the two best pieces of content in my career at this nadir.
But, predictably, 2013 yielded nothing except all my money had run out, I was a feature of great skill, but little renown and I had put on 50 lbs since my Late Late Show debut. So I started doing part time legal work. Living month to month for the next 5 years. Dependent more on the godsend of Sound Exchange, which paid out streaming and satellite radio royalties (one of the fortunate moves of mine in not believing in the shady comedy labels that dominate the stand up album world and believing in myself, no matter how foolhardy, was that I owned the rights to every stand up album I self produced. So from 2015-2018 the vast majority of my comedy earnings came from those albums, not the 1988 wages clubs were/are still paying middle acts (features, if I did not explain earlier)).
So I went from being a prosecutor and a big firm associate to a meagerly-paid document reviewing attorney, simply to have the flexibility to do road gigs that would most of the time net me less money than clicking on emails for large corporations as a “contract attorney.” I had fun runs on The Adam Carolla Show as a resident impersonator and video maker (videos that cost me as much to make as a weekend of feature work), flying myself to LA on my own dime just trying to boost my Twitter and YouTube numbers by appearing on a big podcast (see how much my Trump has improved by watching a sample video below – which will mostly only make sense to Carolla Show fans). I made around 15 appearances on ESPN radio as a Trump impersonator, but could never convince the show to make a guest, despite being a huge sports fan and a popular segment on the show.
In 2018 I recorded Thots and Prayers, for me the only album of mine at the level of Keep My Enemies Closer, at Helium in Philly. I remember when the set was done I felt a complete exhaustion and sense of relief. I had cranked out 6 stand up albums, all an hour or more in 15 years (at the time) as a stand up. I was proud of every one. I had produced every one. I had been a road warrior. I had cost myself relationships, financial stability, physical health and happiness in pursuit of making myself a real stand up comedian. I had made podcasts and videos and was proud of that work too, but a headlining stand up comedian was the goal for me. A real popular headliner. Special event on my poster outside the clubs level comedian. And I had maintained an elite headliner level of output, all while only featuring and doing bar shows in NYC because no club had yet passed me after all that time and all those seemingly important accomplishments. But after that 2018 recording I felt done. I felt like I had done all that I could, had become a great stand up, but the career wasn’t going to happen for me.
On a related note from 2016 to today I believed I had the best Trump impression (though it clearly has improved “tremendously” since my early assumptions about its quality), but I was seeing everyone from comedians to sketch guys to famous actors getting paid well to play Trump and I couldn’t even propel ESPN radio and Adam Carolla appearances into anything even decent as far as a payday. So combined with exhaustion from stand up I felt like, “If my best pitch (Trump) is not getting me a sniff then it really is not going to happen.”
The final straw was 2019 – I had only received 3 gigs after March – a headlining gig in Ann Arbor (lots of fun) and two feature spots in Baltimore (fun) and Long Island (some fun and an awkward racial conversation after one show). That was it. So when I received a call out of the blue from a legal staffing agency offering me a position at a big firm I took it. I also moved to NJ, away from the hustle and convenience of NYC, because I figured if I was not working as a comedian and work was no longer coming to me, why not get 2 bedrooms for the price of the studio I was living in. When I left my apartment in midtown in August 2019 it was a happy day for many reasons, but it also felt like the saddest day of my life. I was leaving the only home I’d really had as a non-student since my childhood home. It also felt like my stand up career was staying there while I went to start a new life.
I have messed up relationships. I have hurt people. I have been hurt. I have not been the perfect Catholic I sought to be in my youth and adulthood and I am not the Daniel Caffey/Atticus Finch lawyer I thought I could be when I enrolled in law school. But comedy was the thing that I had done perfectly. Not successfully, but perfectly. I worked hard at it. I had multi-faceted talents within it. I had received unsolicited praise from big time comedians. I had achieved some rewards and opportunities, with the exception of The Late Late Show, all on my own. I have a track record of videos and albums to prove I was here and I produced. And I did it the right way. I stuck true to my voice. I didn’t violate any personal rules I had set for myself in my personal or professional conduct. I wanted my comedy career to be pure, in the sense that if and when I reached where I wanted to get it would be an unassailable journey that others could look at with admiration and for which I could feel an unblemished pride. I did all of that and it did not happen. Until March 2020.
The Covid-to-Riches story of my career is probably the best known thing about me because it what I have discussed on TV and podcasts for the last month. The Covid hit and thanks to a text from a friend I decided to make a selfie video as Trump. It was my 4th or 5th video in the last week and a half, but this one went off like a fire. Within a week I was already Twitter famous. All of my social media metrics skyrocketed and the irony is that I am now famous and have fans with nowhere to perform. And the undeniable flip side of this is that if the world was not in a health and economic crisis I would have been in an office and not posting an off the cuff Trump impression video on March 24th. And my career would likely have been done.
But as I was enjoying recognition and increased opportunities to entertain, a comedian posted a video lip syncing Trump that caught fire in a way that literally doubled, if not tripled the viral impact of my big video a month after mine. I remember laughing at the video and thinking “wow that is blowing up.” But unlike most comedians who will not acknowledge their competitiveness I will admit that I did not feel threatened because I thought, “That is not even my lane. I am free styling A+ material in the best Trump voice people have heard. Hers is a fun Tik Tok.” But then people began @-ing me telling me she was better and/or that we should collaborate. I would be lying if I said it did not bother me on an artistic level to have what I do compared, or equated to a lip sync, but these are tough times and anyone who can make people laugh (including myself) deserve respect and positive vibes. So I just liked the comments or ignored them. Lot of people just want to laugh and equate big belly laughs with big belly laughs no matter how they get them.
But over the last few days I have gotten several messages accusing me of stealing this comedian’s successful act. Never mind that I predated the comedian’s video by a month or that I am improvising a great impression that has been 5 years in the making. They are not merely dismissing that. They are accusing me of theft of something that I take the highest pride in (ironically it is because they think my impression is a lip sync, which is an accidental compliment, but I truly don’t care). For many years, all I had in comedy was pride in that I was doing it the right way because I did not have any other marker of success or progress. To quote Scarface, “All I ha[d] [wa]s my word and my ballssss.” It was like being on a hamster wheel and having to tell yourself, “well I haven’t gone anywhere, but I am really running with good form.” But accusing me of stealing will not be tolerated. I don’t know if you are ignorant of comedy, stupid or just an aggressive on-line presence. I do not give a shit. You put that out there I will stomp it. And if you among the people questioning why I have reacted so strongly to those accusations it is simple. I am not a Twitter comedian. I am a stand up comedian and impersonator that you discovered on Twitter. Please, enjoy my work, but do not confuse my work as a quirky diversion. It is born of many years of hard work and sacrifice. I will not surrender pride in my work and how I got here to be more palatable for Twitter. I hope you understand that. I am not diminishing others. I am defending what I am doing, which I did not think would be necessary. My blog and my podcast were often places where I would write and speak truths (and a lot of humor) about life, politics, art and most of all, stand up. The things I wrote, in some cases, could have been detrimental to my career, but they were always honest words from a frustrated comedian who wanted to see the business work better for himself and others similarly situated. So forgive me if you did not expect this level of honesty from someone you may know as a “Twitter” comedian. Diminish my work and I may be able to bite my tongue. But call me a thief, after all this and how I have tried to pursue it in as pure a way as possible, then all I can say to you is fuck you.
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.
One of the keys to success in stand up comedy, after having management, having lots of followers on social media, being under 30, projecting a false air of confidence, having other talents and avenues to success besides stand up comedy and talent, is having meaningful engagement with your fans. I was in Hartford this weekend (technically I am still in Hartford awaiting Sunday’s final show, but with day job work looming tomorrow morning I wanted to get this written now so that the 80-200 readers I have would not be deprived of a prompt recap) where I have a solid and loyal fan base of 5-9 people. But these are album recording attending, ticket purchasing, movie review watching, podcast listening sons of guns and I am having a hard time convincing them my career is a complete dead end – WOOOOOO! (Ric Flair for those who have no idea why I wrote this sentence like this) so I must keep them (they are basically the Rod Tidwells to my Jerry Maguire – “SHOW ME THE PUNCHLINES! Congratulations J-L we will continue to be your fans”). Before a breakdown of the weekend specifics here is what I gave to my 3 fans +1 spouse that showed up this weekend:
Thursday – gave Jacquelyn a hug though she bolted to allow me to (try to) sell merch. She came with her sister to my last album recording.
Thursday – Jon also shows up – he has been a fan since my 1st appearance in Hartford in 2010 (I had a 5 year stint in Funny Bone prison when I was not given a week of work from April 2011 until mid 2016 (basically this will go down as the Ted Williams going to WWII or the Ali getting stripped of his belt in his prime of stand up comedy – 5 years of being exiled from the largest chain of clubs when I could still have been considered a “young comic” for part of it and networked and met dozens of headliners all while getting money and stage time) because a few morons in Des Moines gave me bad reviews (even though it was still one of my best weeks of CD sales – perhaps it was my 10 minute story about the woman who kept calling me a fa**ot via email because I wouldn’t invite her to my hotel and was still emailing me during the show because she was at a bar next to the club story that did it #ComedySexSymbol #FunnyBone #PsychoSkank). Well Jon is a huge movie fan so I went with him after the show to see Deadpool 2 (enjoyed it and was thrilled to see the Freddie Mercury trailer – I would give the trailer a best pic nomination).
Saturday – Keith (and his wife, +1) came to the early show and I forgot to call a buddy of mine in LA because we talked for about an hour (sorry Nick, but 4 comedy fans are more rare than my 9 comedy friends, but you are still a valued member of my failing comedy career team #SquadGoals). I brought Keith a hard copy of Keep My Enemies Closer because the last time he saw me at the Hartford Funny Bone he said he had lost his copy – it was the only CD stolen from his car! #ComedyKnowledgeableCarThief
The lesson of this long preamble is that it pays to be a comedy fan of mine – you get hugs, movie dates and albums just for prolonging the ebola riddled corpse I call a comedy career. Ok, let’s do the more specific breakdown.
Travel & Accommodations
I took Amtrak up to Hartford on Thursday and immediately found myself enraged. I got on the train, secured a seat and got up to put my bag above me. Just then, the man sitting across from me jumped up and put his suitcase above my seat as I was preparing to put mine up there. Most people, including me, have tics and weird things they do. But like religion, masturbation and bare feet, I prefer to keep those things outside of the public accommodations of travel. So I looked at the guy and asked “Is there something wrong with your luggage space?” and he replied that he “can keep an eye on his bag better if it is there.” Does this assume Tom Cruise is going to Mission Impossible your suitcase by hovering above you? And even if he did that you would know because I would be screaming “G.O.A.T.!!!” at the sight of TC. I was very tempted to pull a TJ Miller and call in the bag and behavior as suspicious, but instead I just sat and steamed. And then, despite 20% of the car still being open a woman asked if she could sit next to me, the largest human in the car. Of course she was a white woman over 70, which if you have read my long distance travel blogs you know that I could probably become the Jon Voigt of an Amtrak-Midnight Cowboy if I wanted to with how many of these old ladies like to chat me up. I think some people claim to have old souls, but I have an old, crotchety and bitter soul so I think it comes off more attractive and authentic to these golden girls.
The club manager piced me up at the train and drove me to my hotel motel, America’s Best Value Inn. From the exterior I thought “well if it is any more than free there is no way it is the ‘best value.'” However, my room was actually quite solid and a great flat screen tv, that had a remote that worked like a real remote and not a “20 seconds of ‘did I turn it on’ delay for no reason” hotel motel remote. The hotel motel manager told me at check-in that if I wanted service I needed to open the shade so they knew to help me. As Ben Franklin once said “Those willing to give up room service for security deserve neither.” If you can’t tell from my Midnight Cowboy and Ben Franklin references I am slowly morphing into a real-life version of my new Righteous Prick Podcast character “Beige Dennis Miller” and when I tried to recall the room service story Thursday night it fell flatter than a Larry Nasser patient cha cha cha (damn it STOP Beige Dennis Miller!). “Can they not invest in three cent placards that say ‘do not disturb?’ Instead I have to resort to old time spy tradecraft to get my towels changed?” I think it was the general silence and realizing I had said “tradecraft” when I realized I was finally becoming Beige Dennis Miller. But to be fair – to the average comedy club audience these days anything beyond weed and jerking off starts to feel high brow.
Merchandise Is Dead… Almost
Only Friday’s late show seemed openly hostile to me, but CD sales basically reflected 5 (and counting) audiences that hated my existence. Now my post-show handshake game was on point, but I only made one sale Thursday and 5 on Saturday (between the 2 shows). And all joking aside – these were from crowds that liked me! A few factors affect this – the headliner, Chris Porter, was selling his DVDs, so naturally that will eat into the merch sales of “the middle guy.” And most people will say “no one buys CDs anymore.” That is true generally, but up until late 2017 I was selling really well so something else feels afoot. I don’t know what it is other than God’s 988th sign that I “should quit while I am behind” (credit for this quote belongs to Coach Kreso – football coach and high school gym teacher at my high school.
Another feature of my road work is my weekly journey to America’s Catholic Churches. The closest one to my hotel motel was St. James (#Lebron), which was 3.1 miles away. And as fate would have it, Sunday was, by far, the hottest day of the week so I ended up sweating substantially by the time I arrived on time for 11am Mass. I looked like a black Baptist preacher when I walked in because of both the sweat and the fact that I looked like the only person in attendance who wouldn’t turn into a lobster in the Sun (actually there were 3 black people and 4 Indian people giving the Church a 3.5 black, 4 Indian and 277 bleach ethnic breakdown). Mass was good, though nothing compared to the Voice of God in Tampa (though the Choir was very good and they even had a horn player, which I consider acceptable, unlike Church bands with full on rock band components). It is OK to have a little Chicago in your Church band, but you cant go full Journey.
So that is all I have for you this week. I am taking Greyhound home after the show tonight, so really the only possible news from this point on relative to this road work would be some sort of horrific incident on the bus or at NY Port Authoirty at 1am. I will give my girlfriend my wordpress password so she can amend the blog in that event. Otherwise, just enjoy this new clip from Hartford and have a good week!
Wednesday I was headlining a one-night show at the Albany Funny Bone in New York. I won’t bore you with all the details, but it was a great show and thanks to the great crowd I have three new bits to share with you as I prep for a new album later this year. So enjoy the new stuff (and please tweet or FB share if you like any of them a lot)
As 2016 rapidly approaches its conclusion I am reflecting on a year that has been by far my most successful financially as a comedian and also in some ways the most frustrating. I have made the most money of any year, in part thanks to royalty payments for my albums, in part thanks to President-Elect Donald Trump and in part thanks to 13 years of diligence in trying to get booked as a feature at as many comedy clubs as I am able. I had an album reach #1 on iTunes and have made repeated performances on the top podcasts in the country. All done on my own with no representation. However beneath the veneer of budding success lie harsh truths. I have been unable to build an infrastructure for my career. Unlike a regular job, having a good year does not guarantee anything of the sort next year. There are no linear promotions in stand up comedy, at least not for the unrepresented among us. Having a good year in 2016 simply means I will have to redouble efforts in 2017 just to maintain the level I achieved this year and hope for recognition, notice and/or opportunity in 2017 that may allow me to surpass where I am currently. But the difficulty is that even if you double the money I made in comedy this year I would still need another source of income to continue living the pleasant, but month-to-month existence I have had for the last several years. So what that amounts to is that as I approach my 14th year in comedy (and look up the lyrics to Guns N Roses’14 years for a solid description) in what at times feels more like compulsion than enjoyment, I will have to work at a pace that didn’t fatigue me when I was working as a full time attorney and open mic comedian 10 years ago, but now exhausts me. And unlike the comedian I was in 2006 a lot has changed since then. In 2006 I had to worry about stage time, writing and getting clips to bookers. Today there are a dozen social media platforms, YouTube videos and podcasts all of which help you expand a fan base, but all of which take time and energy (in some cases money) and are not stand up comedy. And without a larger platform, media presence, or gatekeeper, you are only likely to expand linearly (my podcast has grown from 200 to 1000 listeners a week since I started it over 4 years ago, which is nice and from a larger comedy business perspective, completely irrelevant) and in this business exponential growth is needed and is still almost always controlled by powerful players in the business. However, just like state lotteries, the powerful in and around comedy have no qualm feeding the myth that the average guy with some pluck and a $1 can be the next success. So as we approach the conclusion of my most successful year as a comedian I offer some words of how comedians can help themselves and how the business can help comedians. Do I expect any of these to take hold? No. But I need this Starbucks coffee to cool off so might as well write.
Comedians Need a Guild
Having attended law school and practiced as an attorney I wish I were more well versed in labor law, but I am not. But I do know that stand up comedy needs a guild. Now I would not expect it to wield as much power or prestige as the Screen Actors Guild, nor provide certain things like health insurance because the economies of comedy clubs are not what they are for film studios, but certain protections and rights need to be enshrined for comedians at some point. For example – the fact that feature acts continue to be the most squeezed of the three comedian levels (emcees – often locals, entry level, middle acts – who have to do the travelling of headliners and perform more time than emcees for a fraction of the money headliners get). The pay per show of feature comedians has not gone up in 30 years. Half the clubs now do not provide lodging for feature acts. That means a feature act, who presumably is the next decade’s headliner (after he or she waits for the Vine stars, Instagram stars and MTV2 stars to leapfrog him or her) must find a way to travel and lodge themselves and hope that frugality and merchandise sales can help them make a little money. And of course the real reason to do it for net gain of maybe a few hundred dollars is to make contacts, hone your act and possible make some fans. But this is no longer really a viable path for people to earn a living and become great comedians. Therefore a Guild should guarantee lodging and/or increased pay for features. Now clubs can be organized by levels (colloquially we call them A or B (or C) rooms – based on crowds, location, prestige, etc. and those levels can be required to pay features a certain level. For example if no lodging is provided then an A room would have to pay a feature $150 per show instead of the standard $100 per show. These are just figures meant to illustrate my point as several clubs already do pay $100 per show plus room, but obviously there is something wrong with a job that is paying the same or less than the same job in 1986 (in real dollars, not adjusted for inflation). Like America, the Middle Class of comedy has been the one most decimated by cutbacks at clubs. In fact, I would argue that they are the only ones paying.
Another issue I would want a comedy guild to address is an outright ban on clubs managing talent. SAG for many years (I could not find out if the rule was lifted recently) banned talent agencies from producing content because of the obvious conflict of interest. I manage you; I make a movie; I cast you ahead of other talent and then I collect 10% of the salary I pay you for being in the movie. However, there are clubs that manage talent, allow that talent to monopolize spots at their club or clubs and then force feed their talent on showcases for networks under the guise of presenting a cream of the crop of talent for networks to select from. In this age of everyone telling comedians that gatekeepers don’t matter – they still matter a lot. We can keep producing free content while being sold a false dream or we can wake up and realize that for every Bo Burnham there are 10,000 people producing free content, some of it good, with no shot of breaking through without an established entity or gate keeper paving the way.
These are just two ideas I have regarding a comedy guild, and I realize they, along with other ideas, would require a collective action that the comedy community may not be capable of. I have said this with some scorn and also some self-blame, but it is hard to organize a labor force when the majority already act and think of themselves as scabs. New comics are afraid of ruffling feathers, comics with some heat and opportunity are afraid of squandering what feels like a shot at the dream and big time comics are too removed from their struggling days to relate or care about the diminished outlook for comedians today. Of course, nothing is guaranteed, but with the Internet demanding more of comedians than ever, having a business that is increasingly stacked against the middle class of comedy cannot and should not be tolerated by comedians at any level.
Facebook is not Your Friend
I have a buddy who is a comedian, but also owns and operates a hugely successful non-comedy Internet company. He has over 2 million fans on his business Facebook page. And over the last couple of years, as Facebook has approached 2 billion users worldwide it has become more and more difficult for him to reach his fans with posts because of the algorithms Facebook has instituted. Facebook has become immensely profitable and their answer to that has been to squeeze the people, business and creators that have helped make it successful. Google pays successful video makers and Twitter does not hide posts – there is still an egalitarian spirit in their business model, unlike Facebook, which basically holds its creators hostage. Facebook, as many of you know, discourages YouTube videos from being seen. As an example, 3 years ago I had a YouTube video link go viral. It had 81 shares and 200,000 views in 3 days. Last year I had a video get 80 shares and it had 5,000 views. There are other factors to explain some disparity, but none to explain that large a disparity other than Facebook’s algorithm. Now Facebook wants its users to directly upload through Facebook and your reward is the ego boost of more views, but nothing else. No compensation, no credits for ads. Nothing.
Facebook is a media giant. Make no mistake about it. They deserve to be treated like CBS, ABC and NBC and I hope the criticism from fake news stories being spread finally gets them to wield the power they cultivated with more responsibility. And as their ads continue to cost more and more money it will reach a point where your feed will be flooded by only the companies and entities that can afford to advertise on radio and television. So like many things in this country, they are driving their success on the backs of content creators, but making it unaffordable for those creators to get exposure (get exposure and make no money or upload a YouTube clip and get no views). Once again, at least Google pays people (there are plenty of issues with Google as well, but trying to keep this under 3000 words). My solution, as unrealistic as it is, would be for comedians to not upload any content directly to Facebook. Once again, this would have to be some sort of hashtaggy moment to draw attention, but we are now addicted to likes and clicks like a digital heroin, so I know it is unlikely. Facebook is just another big, bad company, except they actually don’t make anything. They steal ideas from other apps and they use free content from its users. And comedians should consider themselves one of the main foods on the plate of the social media parasite.
Do Not Use a Label to Produce Your Album(s)
I have self produced 5 albums and self producing has had real financial benefits. This year I will make a little over $15,000 in royalties because I am both the artist AND owner of my material. I have produced good content, but I have never been able to get a label to produce any of my albums. Now this comes with a caveat before I continue. If you are a major artist you can negotiate a deal that works for you. Like most things in comedy (and America) if you come into a deal with power you will leave with power and lots of money. Or if you are an up and coming artist and Comedy Central wants to work with you and produce your album that relationship has immense value for your career because of their reach and their numerous platforms. However, if you don’t fit into these categories I would advise you to take to heart what you half-heatedly tell yourself when trying to justify continuing a rocky career path: do it yourself.
This is one of the few areas where there is an ability to do it yourself (this assumes you are at a level of skill and talent where your material is at a point where it is worth putting down in an album and can find, if not an audience, at least respect, if people hear it). I get the breakdown of my royalties each month and it is roughly 47% to the artist and 53% to the rights owner. Now I probably make a decent amount relative to most no name comedians, but let’s say you are a comedian with one kick ass album. Maybe your label even negotiated a good deal for you, but bottom line is they will make half of your money in perpetuity of your album(s). Why? Because they put up the up front costs for you and got you a nice venue – it may not be a deal with the Devil, but I assure you it is not angelic either. Once again the lure of a top notch production and immediate gratification lures comedians to wager their long term benefits. These labels aggregate albums from big time people and dozens if not hundreds of no-namers like myself. So while you make $500 a month they may make $550 a month x 100 (or more) comedians. Individually, like class action lawsuits, you have no reason to really challenge, but as a collective comedians could change this industry.
If you look at the iTunes comedy charts you will usually see albums from 5 labels dominating and they will also occupy the “New and Noteworthy” spots with high profile placement. My album Israeli Tortoise hit #1 on the comedy charts in August, but it had no backing, no label and never got placement as new and noteworthy, even though one might think reaching #1 in its first week might make it both new and noteworthy. The point is that the only way to change the business is to practice what we preach, or at least pretend to believe. In an era where music labels, television studios and movie studios face increasing competition, comedians continue to be a reliable source of entertainment slave labor where large companies feed the narrative that “gatekeepers are not necessary” to encourage free content, while simultaneously benefiting from their monopoly on real and concrete opportunity as… gatekeepers.
Of course I must admit that I do not know how each of the major labels operate or the nature of the deals they sign with comedians. I can only extrapolate what I know from my payment breakdown, how I see working no name comics treated by the business and the general lessons of history when powerful interests and business operate without restriction or restraint.
And In Conclusion…
America recently elected Donald Trump president. This was the insane result of many things and one of them was working class people willing to buy a lie wrapped in a fairy tale because they were desperate to believe something that catered to their anger and diminished clout. In comedy there is no need for a Trump because it is already run as if Trump is in charge. Contradictory policies, false promises and the middle men and no-namers buy in against their own interests. As my friend Mike Payne said perfectly (and hopefully now famously?) “Comedians talk about the world like Karl Marx and then become Paul Ryan when speaking about comedy.” I am not here to say that I am going to burn myself in front of a comedy club like a monk during Vietnam, either literally or metaphorically (though some might say this blog is doing just that), but there is no better industry more emblematic of income inequality and a rigged system than the broken backs of the middle class of comedy. The question is – will comedians ever band together and do anything about it because it is only getting worse.
Get J-L’s new stand up albums KEEP MY ENEMIES CLOSER & ISRAELI TORTOISE on iTunes, Amazon & Google.
The last week has been a great microcosm of my career. My latest album, Israeli Tortoise, with no industry, label, management or iTunes support hit #1 on the comedy charts for a day and stayed in the top 10 for 4 days (as I type this it currently sits at 110, so basically my album has had the same arc as the movie Awakenings – a miracle occurred and everyone became happy only to see it quickly fall back into a Robert DeNiro stupor by the end of its run. The album also received a Twitter endorsement from Jim Gaffigan, the Pope of iTunes album sales. And to kill time on the road I saw 4 movies, 3 of which I enjoyed. That’s the good news. But like any comedy adventure it also featured the usual assortment of low lights – a 15 hour train ride with 20 minutes sleep and then having to wait 4 hours before checking into the hotel, being avoided like a leper by 99.9% of the audiences of the shows after performing, despite crushing 4 of the shows and only having one stinker (LATE SHOW FRIDAY – I AM TALKING TO YOU). Fitting that during the week where I hit #1 on iTunes I have my worst week of merch sales on the road ever (I am averaging 1 CD sold per show with one show to go – the good news is I will get an unsuspecting workout dragging 90% of my albums home on Monday morning) . Here is my truth (hand to the chest) in more expansive details:
If Eli Roth is looking for a new movie idea for one of his awful torture porn films, perhaps “Cross Country Amtrak” could make a compelling subject. I have taken the Lakeshore Limited (the one that goes from NYC to Chicago by way of Greenland) well over a dozen times in my comedy career as it hits Cleveland, upstate NY and Chicago, all places I have performed in many times. But perhaps it is my increasing #ComedyMogul status or just getting more uncomfortable as I get older, but the train is rough. Especially to Toledo. It was an hour late and arrived in Toledo at 7am and let me tell you, there is nothing more refreshing than getting off a train filled with the obese, the “I need to avoid TSA” and bare feet crowd of an Amtrak after 15 hours (and kudos to the two separate people who took powerful shits in our car during the Odyssey) and only 20 minutes sleep.
Due to inconsistent Internet in the room and the fact that the gym in the mall closed 2 years ago, movies ended up being my main time killer. I saw 4 movies, one each day. I loved Sausage Party (see the review here), was more than pleasantly surprised by Bad Moms, found a lump in my throat during Pete’s Dragon and wanted to murder every critic on Rotten Tomatoes who gave the atrocious Lights Out a positive review. Also one of the great benefits of the Toledo Funny Bone, besides the excellent hotel across the street (not withstanding the Internet, it is pretty swanky) from the club, is the fact that food and the mall (not a great mall, but better than nothing) are within walking distance and involve no crossing or walking along the side of any highways – always a plus in the life of the car-less feature).
The main event for every trip are the shows and I have been very happy with my performances. But to be honest, I have eaten it on stage (Birmingham, AL 2009 comes to mind as an overall week that was a struggle) and still came away still selling decently. However, the Toledo crowds have been a perfect storm of people who don’t want to buy AND don’t particularly want to make eye contact with you after a show. I did get a handful of “are you really half black”‘s – slightly fewer than the “good show”‘s I got, but a lot closer than I would have liked. The main thing I have judged from the crowd is that a lot of them seem like stand up novices – those who may not be comedy savants so they simply know by the end of the show “the guy who went last and did the most is the only human being that counts on the lineup!” I have opened for some of the biggest names in comedy and although never overshadowing them – if you hold your own as a feature, good crowds can recognize the talent and promise in all the acts. These crowds laugh their asses off (EXCEPT YOU LATE FRIDAY SHOW), but then walk by you like you were the 25 minute mic stand repair guy. Very weird and frustrating, but that’s the deal sometimes.
The worst though, was the guy who came out after my set with his wife or girlfriend to specifically tell me that he thought I was really great and that my set blew him away. He asked for a picture, I obliged and he and his lady went back in for the rest of the show. I went to the emcee and said, “Well, at least I will get one sale after the show.” Fast forward 245 minutes (black headliner) and the same dude might have been able to challenge Usain Bolt for the 100m. I kept thinking – don’t you at least want my website info?”
Usually merch money pays for all my food and movies for a weekend and then some. Now I am going to have to hit an ATM to tip out the bartenders after the last show. This is my 9/11 (which if I had sold between 9 and 11 CDs I would not have to go to the ATM).
One other thing I have learned about myself being on the road for the last few years is my ability to depress emcees. It is admittedly cool that because of my videos and impressions my reputation and skills have outpaced my actual career within stand up comedy (which is sort of counter-intuitive – “Hey people know and like your work – of course we can’t book/represent you!). On top of that my exposure on podcasts like Carolla and TBGWT have made more people on the road familiar with my work. But it is sort of a bizarre compliment seeing comedians getting sort of depressed about the business when realizing that I am still a nobody (implying that they think I should be further along – hence the compliment). Not to mention I get slightly aroused seeing comedians become more aware of what a shameful joke this industry is. Quick teaching moment – kiss the ass of a headliner, get a manger or be under 30 with a pinch of talent (but not too much so that they don’t think they can mold you into what they need at their agency) – these are the ways to “make it.” All other methods are red herrings.
So as I gear up for the finals show of the week (and a 3:20 am Amtrak back to NYC – SEE AT THE BOTTOM FOR SUNDAY EPILOGUE) I leave you with some bits from the weekend and a reminder to go buy Israeli Tortoise on iTunes (or other digital platforms), Enjoy – and pray that I don’t get Zika, Ebola or Bird Flu on my way home.
Play Station Banged My Ex
The Problem With Ocean’s 8 in 1 Minute
I sold 1 CD on Sunday night after a very strong set, which helped complete my 1.0 sales per show rate – the lowest of my career for any road weekend. However, group of older black people came up to me at the club after the show and said the following (for ease of writing I have turned all of their voices into one speaker):
OBP: We were on your Amtrak coming here. We sat next to you and in front of you (there were 4 of them total)!
J-L: Oh yeah, I remember you!
OBP: Yes, you were very funny tonight. And we commented on the train how often you got up to go to the bathroom.
J-L: Yeah, I didn’t sleep for the whole trip so my body kept having to pee.
OBP: Will you be going back on the train tonight?
OBP: Then we will see you there. We will get a picture with you there!
So look for a pic of me and 4 older black people at the Toledo Amtrak station coming to the Internet soon!
With Veep‘s season over (please Silicon Valley people be quiet – SV is a very good comedy, but it is not in Veep‘s league), my binging of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt long over, no more OJ-themed TV shows on the horizon and Game of Thrones 10-500 months away from its seventh season, there was a major hole in my TV roster for great comedy and/or must-watch-TV. However, those vacancies have been filled admirably and surprisingly by the 2nd season of The Jim Gaffigan Show, which to me, is the best and most satisfying depiction of stand up comedy that I have ever seen.
As far as depictions of stand up comedy (calm down Seinfeld people – that show featured a stand up comedian, but was famously a “show about nothing”) in my memory I can think of Louie, which before I gave up on it had glimpses of greatness (the episode featuring Dane Cook still stands out as the best one and his season 1 episode going to Birmingham was incredibly authentic and funny, and not just because I too got heckled at a large room in Birmingham) and Funny People – the bait and switch 4 hour movie by Judd Apatow that was “about stand up comedy,” but turned out to be another rom com that was too long that happened to have some scenes at stand up comedy clubs. I may be forgetting other things, but for me that is irrelevant because TJGS has been brilliant in its humor this season and specifically in its simultaneous depiction and parodying of stand up comedy in 2016.
Season 1 of The Jim Gaffigan Show was very good, but it felt like more of a focus on the family and personal life of Gaffigan. It made me laugh and was a pleasant diversion from life, exactly what most would want from a 30 minute sitcom. The cast was excellent, especially a longtime favorite of mine, Adam Goldberg, in what I think must be some sort of amalgamation of different comedians Gaffigan has been friends with (I always thought it might have been Greg Giraldo, but the character, Dave Marks, is too much of a quasi-loser, underground figure to be an exact parallel). At the end of season 1 I thought, “I hope that show gets renewed.” And it did. And even though Gaffigan and Louis CK have different sensibilities and styles, I thought TJGS was more of what I hoped Louie would be. Instead, Louie morphed into a largely unfunny (to me) homage to Woody Allen movies. Fortunately, season 2 of TJGS is not a Kubrick-esque exploration of art and family, but instead has turned into a brilliant depiction of stand up comedy that combines accuracy and parody seamlessly.
Whether the show found its voice more clearly, hired additional writers or if simply this was its natural progression, season 2 has been one of the 3 or 4 best comedies I have watched on TV all year (I would have to imagine ABC which, given Gaffigan’s clean and widespread appeal and well known family of 7, would have seemed to have been the ideal landing spot for TJGS. Instead it is on TV Land). And the main reason to me is the brilliant direction the show has gone with stand up comedy in particular. The last two episodes (pardon the recency bias) have mocked the alternative scene (“Union Hall is actually a mainstream alternative room”), the idea of road comedy (“I do theaters, I don’t know if that makes me a ‘road comic'”), the obligations to your friends in comedy (“You gotta have your buddy open for you”), seeing your friends not help you out in comedy (“Oh THAT Q.E.D”) and portrayed the struggles of a non star comedian with tremendous humor and accuracy (“I might have to get a day job”). What makes this more impressive is that Gaffigan’s actual career is far removed from the professional struggles he portrays. That is either a credit to his mind and memory, a credit to the writing staff, or both.
There are literally too many moments from the last two episodes for me to recall all of the jokes that hit so well on truths in stand up comedy, but the tight rope of parodying something, while still accurately depicting it is really impressive. Perhaps stand up in 2016 has already become a parody of itself and TJGS is merely reflecting it, but to anyone out there who wants to laugh and wants to see something that really and truly depicts the world of stand up comedy, set your DVR to The Jim Gaffigan Show.
For more opinions, comedy and bridge burning check out the Righteous Prick Podcast oniTunes and/or STITCHER. New Every Tuesday so subscribe for free! And look for J-L’s new stand up album ISRAELI TORTOISE in August 2016.