Stand up comedy has changed a lot over the years. I know this because when you are a comedian you will constantly hear about stand up comedy’s “heyday” and that heyday was the roaring 80s. From the way it’s been described to me, every comedian who is at my level (currently) – a feature or a headliner – was making a killing working the club scene. The money was pouring in. The kings – Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman, David Letterman, Wood Allen, etc, were all running around New York city playing show after show and doing line of cocaine after line of cocaine off of a showgirl’s breasts. It was high times, from what everybody says. I wouldn’t know since I was around ten in the 80s. I didn’t start comedy myself until the late 90s.
By then, comedy was dead. That’s what some people said.
In the 90s, into the new millennium, that’s how you often heard comedy described.
“It’s dead. Comedy’s dead. Television killed comedy.” The comedy market is saturated – too many comedians and too many clubs. The problem – not enough audience members to attend them. Plus, why would people even leave the house to see a show when they can watch as many comedians as they want on television in the very comfort of their own home?
When I was coming up (I guess I’m still coming up?) that’s what I was told again and again. Television was why comedians were making less and less money on the road.
Then came the internet and all hell broke loose.
Now, there are guys that are famous on the internet. If you only watch television, you don’t know who in the hell they are. It has changed the game. Prior, you worked your way up the comedy club ranks by becoming a “draw.”
A draw means that the club can put your name in the paper and your name is so recognizable that merely the mention of your name sells out all the shows within days. Usually, you had to be on television to become a draw and you had to be on television a lot. Typically that meant you had your own tv show like a Seinfeld or a Tim Allen. Not anymore. Now you can make thousands of youtube videos and “draw” at a comedy club.
It’s kind of amazing. And, quite frankly, I’m all for it.
Anything that kills the “gatekeepers” – the industry people, the casting types, who are often very nervous about “promoting” a comedian unless everyone else is promoting them, anything that kills that scenester/ popular among the very few / schmooze fest and puts the “burden” of choosing or “promoting” who is funny on the audience is a GOOD THING. The audience should be the final answer and not an executive who only likes white guys or Asian girls. That ain’t right.
There’s only one problem with the youtube and comedy linked tsunami that’s currently happening and that is the question of – is it killing live entertainment?
Let me explain.
Another way comedians make money is through the University circuit. Universities, unlike comedy clubs, have HUGE budgets for student affairs programs. More importantly, if they don’t use that money each year, they lose it. So, universities need to book acts – musicians, comedians, jugglers, hypnotists, speakers, etc. They need us to fill out a school’s programming calendar.
If you are a live act, you need an agent that specializes in the college market for this type of work. I have one of those. Now, truth be told, I find myself moving out of this market. I’m not sure I’ve had much success in it, to begin with, at all, to be quite frank. Sure, there have been years where I have booked a string of colleges and spent a couple of weeks driving from school to school making a decent amount of money. There were other years were I barely made a thing through the university channel.
There are a couple of reasons for this…
1) I just may not be the right act for that market.
2) (…and #2 is linked to #1) Colleges and universities have become too PC.
Let’s talk about #2 for a second. The PC nature of colleges, currently, disturbs me. In my mind, our schools of higher learning should be breeding grounds for radical thinking and new ideas. They are not. Often, our schools have become institutions of whining. Anything, even if it’s pro this or that thing, is automatically deemed offensive at the mere mention of the word. At the mention of the word!
For example, talking about any type of minority can often be misunderstood as “offensive.” Talking about sex, talking about drugs, talking about voting or political parties, talking about sexuality or gender, using colorful language – all of these things are now topics that can be considered atom bombs for comedians performing at universities. To be safe, we mostly just keep them out of our acts when doing a school.
So, what topics does that leave university-working comedians? Well, mostly we get to talk about highlighter pens and how shitty their dining hall food is. In my opinion, this type of performance also equals BOOOOORING!
The problem is that this type of watered-down comedy is, to me, the exact antithesis of what good comedy can be and that is – transformative, transcendent, and provocative.
Transformative, transcendent, and provocative is exactly why I got into comedy. Disarming someone on a thorny issue through the power of humor has always been a thrilling experience for me.
However, last night, I performed at a school and something new happened. Something all together different.
As I walked into the sparsely populated showroom, 12 students sat there holding out forms. The program director was signing them.
I asked what the forms were all about…
The students were in essence receiving “credit” for attending a comedy show.
As if seeing live entertainment and new ideas, is now a CHORE that must be forced upon people. As if seeing live comedy is now something that has to be stomached with a chaser to rid yourself of the taste like a bad medicine.
What the hell has happened to us?
To me, there is nothing more compelling than the tight rope experience of live performance. The exchange of emotion and ideas between a performer and a room full of strangers is a completely unique one, but NOT when you’ve been pulled away from your dysfunctional attachment to your tiny screens and forced to watch a tradesman (a craftsperson, quite literally) who has honed his or her skill over thousands of live performances, not when you’re FORCED to watch him or her. When you’re forced, if you don’t want to be there, in my opinion, the whole beauty of the thing dies.
Listen, my show last night was great. Those twelve kids had a good time AND received “credit” for attending. I’m not saying the credit kills the experience. It didn’t. But, I am saying the IDEA of having to exchange “credit” for attending a live performance, something which I think can be a life affirming moment, well, that just leaves me cold.
What do you think?
And be honest…
When was the last time you went out to see a live show?
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