I’ve written before about how comedians and comedy business folk should try to walk a mile in each other’s shoes, so this is a little redundant, but let’s all get some things clear…
Nobody’s trying to screw you. Okay, actually lots of people are trying to screw you - bringer show promoters, shady PR firms, bottom feeder managers and agents, garbage club owners - but not everybody is trying to screw you. This is in response to Amy Schumer’s recent rant on The Moment podcast (excellently summed up at The Comic’s Comic) that takes the stance that clubs are constantly cutting corners at comedians’ expense and treating them like serfs and they should instead both bow down before the allmighty performers they are leeching off of an, oh yeah “stop trying to be my friend.”
Now before I say the next really strong sentence, let me buffer it by saying a few things.
- Anyone who knows me knows I have a deep, passionate and often pretentious love of comedy. I think it truly is an art form and one that is vital to our society’s health.
- I also think comedians should be paid more and I should be paid more, we should all be able to make living wages and not constantly be living in some couchsurfing, bartering-editing-work-for-a-ride-to-a-show universe.
- And I’m a fan of Schumer for a lot of reasons related to that, she’s parlayed her rapid, precocious rise to fame into more opportunities for other comedians than I could begin to list. I think she genuinely has other comic’s backs and that’s where this came from, and that’s noble. But it’s also deeply rooted in the la la land fantasy many comedians have about how the business of entertainment and a capitalist economy in general works and therefore what’s fair.
So here goes:
You are being paid to tell jokes. You’re not saving lives and you’re being spared a life of serving coffee, working in an office or digging ditches. You’ve got it better than most, spiritually if not materially. Most other people's lives are way more unfair than yours.
And the real point is this, sure, there wouldn’t be a business opportunity to sell 300 people watered down cocktails twice a night without the performers. But there also wouldn’t be an opportunity for the performer to make anything close to a living wage without the club to perform in. A club that has to pay a lease or mortgage, electric bills, water bills, pay the servers, door staff, phone staff, management and marketing staff that make sure your door split is more than $20; purchase, maintain and clean chairs, tables, carpets, curtains, stage lighting and a sound system; pay for food and drinks to be available and whatever else goes into making it an experience that customers are willing to pay for.
And though we’re in a new comedy boom, it comes at a time when the economy is still terrible and people have to choose where to put their leisure dollars. Not to mention these new fans were raised on FREE - free shows in bars, coffee shops, rock clubs and cemeteries that even served free drinks, free content online and on their phones, and free direct access to performers via social media.
All of which is to say, running a comedy club isn’t some kind of lucrative endeavor. Some people who enter into it are shady, because there’s shady people everywhere. But a lot of them are lunatics who love the art so much that they’ll mortgage their own financial security to make sure Akron has a Yuk Yuk Hut.
They aren’t laughing all the way to the bank with the $200 they saved by sending a phone guy in a hyundai instead of a towncar to the airport, they’re sighing with relief that they can use that $200 to pay the plumber to keep the bathrooms working.
Schumer is someone who should be getting some cushy perks at this point. She’s a major draw. Most of the people at any of her club shows around the country have come to see her not just go out and see comedy. That counts for something.
But to be brutally honest, most weekend headliners in most cities across the country are completely interchangeable as far as the crowd is concerned.
They came out to see comedy and trust that the venue is going to give them a good show, even if they don’t recognize the performer’s name or face. The equation’s much different there. You’re both getting something from each other, probably of about equal value, but in many cases the balance is tipped a little more toward the club doing you a favor.
And as many horror stories as I’ve heard, I’ve also heard plenty where the club owners/management went out of their way to make life easy for the performers - brought them around to great local haunts, made sure they had a decent meal that wasn’t from the club’s kitchen, even talked the local sheriff out of pressing charges. So be nice. The club owner’s not some schlub who’s “trying to be your friend” he’s your boss for the weekend who's trying to make you feel welcome. And the staff aren't some annoying hangers on standing between you and your tinder date back at the grubby condo bed, they're the ones who have been working to make sure the crowd is fed & watered and happy enough to pay attention to you all night. You can spare 15 minutes for some photos.
So don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, bite the hand that feeds you or any of the other cliches that fit with my stern by gentle motherly advice. Be glad there’s an army of people out there making it possible for you to make a living doing what you love.
PS About those gross comedy condos. I was describing some particularly icky ones to some musician friends and their jaws dropped. Not because of my vivid description of how cum and tears smell when mingled together on a couch for a decade, but because the venue was actually providing any kind of lodging at all. Bands sleep in their vans, which btw, they drove to the gig because the club isn’t paying for them to fly there either.
PPS I’m not ignorant of the other side of it, that while you’re being paid to do “only” 2 hours of work a night, it took hours and hours of sets (many likely unpaid) to get the jokes you tell today ready, and years and years of that to get to the point of being able to write these jokes. Years when you had to buy drinks to get up on a mic, pay for your own show flyers, PA systems and a ton of gas, destroy every friendship and job you had along the way but not before begging all your friends and coworkers to come to terrible bringer shows, be called too fat, too skinny, too good looking, too ugly, too white, too black, too dirty, not funny, not marketable, hopefully pay for some therapy in there (even though you didn’t have insurance), pay your own way to small festivals and mediocre club feature gigs. I get it. You’ve been shit on left and right all the way here and you want some kind of reward for that. Just be realistic about what that reward really is.