Stand Up Comedy – The Quintessential American Business

No other business in my opinion represents America like stand up comedy. I do not know where or how it exactly originated, but it is clear that America has the lion’s share of the top tier talent.  Comedy has been at the forefront of the 1st Amendment in entertainment.  It has produced cultural icons.  It has opened doors, pushed boundaries and offered Americans of all varieties windows into the worlds of people different than them in ways that social interaction may not have always allowed.  And like the American Dream – comedy was an art form where if you had a dream, a spark of talent and motivation you could become successful, albeit, moderately in many cases, if you just stuck with it and worked hard. People could make careers in stand-up comedy.

But just like the American Dream, which has basically died except for hard core Americans who believe more in the sanctity of platitudes than the reality of life, comedy has undergone a profound shift in recent history.  Just like an America where the rich have rigged the rules so that if you start ahead, you will most likely finish further ahead (while simultaneously lecturing the have-nots on the virtue of hard work and fair play), the comedy business has become an increasingly rigged business where the haves continue to grow in wealth and opportunity while instructing the have-nots (at least those rich in talent, lacking in most other things) of all the new ways they must work hard and build their brand – because their effort and skills are the only things holding them back.


The truth is America is rigged and you need to be an exception to make it by with hard work – the social contract of work hard, contribute to society and stay out of trouble is no longer enough for many people to have a successful life.  We are not all equal and we will not all live equally, but somehow a notion that permeated our country and thrived for decades, the idea that if you “work hard and play by the rules,” to quote Bill Clinton, is now not virtuous anymore.  You are either some wealthy kick ass person worthy of our admiration or someone who has fu*ked up or is not working hard enough – a janitor may not be a glamorous job, but if a guy puts in 40 hours a week cleaning toilets shouldn’t he be OK at least?  Now comedy is an art and by no means as important as basic life necessities.  And talent is necessary (and subjective).  But hard work, talent and staying out of trouble are no longer enough in comedy.  Because the game is increasingly rigged.

The “rich” in comedy have consolidated power by creating a near monopolistic control of the A comedy clubs in America, making it easier for their headlining clients to earn commissions for them.  So if you manage the talent and manage the venues that book the talent to perform, it seems fairly obvious who will perform there.  Now this monopolistic, incestuous booking/management/ownership practice may doom the comedy club business in the long run, but this apocalyptic future is of little consolation to comedians who have spent 10-20 years building a career only to see the equivalent of their factory close down or outsource or downsize in the last couple of years.

Now in many professions, a union used to be the way to even the score between undervalued workers and powerful owners and employers, but many decades removed from some of the worst worker abuses that made unions necessary in the first place, we now live in a society where more and more people belittle and denigrate the purpose of unions.  And a comedy union, which was tried a decade or so ago, has even less likely a chance of coming to fruition today than it did before.  Here is a comment I wrote about comedy unions on Facebook last week:

 It won’t work because only a small minority of comedians would actually benefit from a union. Assuming things like standard rates for showcase sets, emcee, feature and headlining gigs would be what a union would seek it would not work because headliners and stars would have little incentive to join, rising stars (MTV 2 and Comedy Central stables) would not want to harm their ascent, and local comedians around the country would not like it because they might and probably would suffer if more top flight features were sought out and guaranteed room and a decent week’s pay (since clubs abiding by union regulations would be paying more for talent they would be incentivized to guarantee customer satisfaction with the show). So the only people who would benefit would be the top tier feature level talent who would be able to stay afloat to possibly reach headline status and would have more opportunities if clubs no longer had a financial incentive to get emcees and features on the cheap.

In other words, just like in America – the rich workers have no incentive to support unions, employers have incentives NOT to support unions and the poorest and least skilled have little to benefit from joining them (local comedians in many cases being almost the equivalent of government assistance recipients) so the people who get squeezed and lose out on the would-be benefits of a comedy union are the middle class of comedy – hard working people who have the skills, but are no longer offered social mobility in the business.


Also, like in America, where the media has become a slave to the whims of the public and web traffic statistics instead of being solely concerned with valuable information (Lindsey Lohan “news” coverage ring a bell), the most popular sites for comedy news appear to be those dedicated to promoting the established stars and rare do-it-yourself tales of people making it from outside the industry – the kind of stories that are not as likely to enlighten or add weight to comedy criticism or information, but will boost Google Analytics for the provider of the story.  Stories of Bo Burnham are well known, as are Louis CK’s bucking the industry.  But these are exceptions – a kid becoming a star from his bedroom or a performer who spent decades within the industry finally accruing enough power to then buck the system.  However, just like reality television, which provides us with dozens of shows about “real Americans” to make us believe industry and working class people are still thriving and full of entertaining life, these comedic anecdotes are like opiates – making comedians believe that the business is more accessible than ever and not more rigged than ever.  The notion being f you just work hard and come up with something creative you will be rewarded. It was always a tough business, but every time you read a story of do-it-yourself successes in comedy, there are two more clubs being swallowed up into a monopoly that will not hire you unless you have made yourself a star already.  Then they will want your piece of your slice of the pie that you earned.  And the comedy sites will then be there to tell your story.


The brilliance of this new comedy business model is that comedy has never been as accessible and widespread as it is today.  Just as the general public is flooded with more information than ever before, breeding a level of apathy and cynicism in the general public (stories get bigger faster and become irrelevant faster from news fatigue), so too are people inundated with comedy all over their computers, phones and social media.  So it has never been easier to reach an audience, but simultaneously an audience has never had less monetary value.  As soon as YouTube fully grasped the success of YouTube they began promoting certain people and creating their own original content.  Comedy Clubs of the established variety are the last sort of seal of industry approval that audiences recognize.  But they are becoming more and more closed off to a lot of comedians.  And I am not just speaking of people in my position – there are a lot of experienced people beyond me who are feeling this pinch.

I wish I had a solution for this.  And maybe ten or twenty years from now the model will have exploded and things will reverse or get back to a little less Gilded Age approach to the comedy business.  But that won’t help people now – being historical footnotes during a Comedy Club oligarchy as the powers that be decided which headliners would survive and which up and coming acts they would try to make stars out of.

Instead of insuring the life blood of comedy, the powers that be seem like they want to suck it dry so it no longer exists when they leave.  That might explain why there is now Laughstub which is a Ticketmaster for comedy.  Because everyone loves Ticketmaster, right?  Just a few years ago, this did not exist at most clubs, but now people looking for a moderately priced evening of entertainment can tack on service charges that go to who – the employees of the clubs? I doubt it.

But the message sent to comedians – the working class soldiers in the comedy business?  Work harder – that is what is holding you back.  So while the haves keep increasing their share of the pie and inventing new slices to carve up, the blame is placed at the feet of the comedians just trying to work and earn a buck. The stand up comedy business is now so American that Ken Burns should make a documentary about it and Paul Krugman should write a column about how corrosive it is.

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