Wowzers, I did not expect We’re All In This Together: What Amy Schumer Gets Wrong About Clubs to have such a wide reach and spark such debate. I’ve sincerely enjoyed getting all the public, private and second hand responses to it. First, because I’m glad I wrote something that resonated so strongly and second, because I’m glad we’re all discussing these things together, because they are important.
For the most part, people whose responses started out as “I disagree with you because..” were making excellent points that I mostly or completely agree with but just hadn’t gone into in my article. In a lot of cases, it was because the person had read my piece out of context as a response to Amy Schumer’s recent statements and took is as some sweeping, flag-planting “Clubs are right, there are no bad clubs, comedians aren’t that important” type statement. And nothing could be further from how I feel. I even caveated myself within the article with:
I think it [comedy] 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.
But all this discussion leads me back to a point that has troubled me for years, every time we start talking about pay standards or bringer shows or clubs undercounting to screw the performer… How do we fix this?
Here’s the ideal world I wish we lived in, and probably isn’t too far from what you want either:
A club books the best performers they can find, first and foremost. They have a marketing machine in place to fill the room. They make the experience enjoyable for customers so they want to come back (food, drinks, seats, bathrooms, etc). They police the audience for cameras and hecklers. They pay a fair wage to everyone on the bill (including reasonable travel and lodgings) and pay a premium for performers whose name helps with the draw. They also provide opportunities for younger comics to develop, be it as opener, check spot (if you insist on dropping checks during the show), guest spots, weeknights or late nights. The staff are professional and courteous to both patrons and performers. Payment is made promptly in the form of a check that won’t bounce in the accurate amount by the end of the last show.
In return, the comedians are professional and courteous. They show up on time and do the best set they can, including things like not getting wasted beforehand and not walking the crowd (assuming the club is policing hecklers and other disruptions). They willingly plug themselves into that marketing machine, including local press and radio as well as promoting on their own podcast, website and social media. They don’t berate, belittle or hit on the staff.
And there are plenty of clubs and comedians that maybe don’t hit all those marks, but come pretty darn close and are at least trying. Aaand there are plenty that don’t at all.
So, there’s the first level question - how do you get bad clubs and bad performers to stop fucking it up for the rest of us? I don’t know. You can vote with your feet and stop performing at a club or booking a certain performer, but the supply and demand ratio in comedy is so out of whack that there’s always someone who will go work that shity club instead and there’s always a club that’ll book that performer who isn’t living up to their end of the bargain. Even the good clubs have more really great comedians that they could book than there are weekends in a year.
Then there’s the more positive and daunting question - how do we support each other to ensure the best venues and best performers are being treated fairly? How do we educate a populace with a thousand forms of entertainment at their fingertips that live comedy is not only a fantastic way to spend an evening, but an important art form? Because that’s the only way to really get us to a place where, if everyone on both sides is being a decent human being, the club is making enough money that it’s not a question of putting the talent up at the Sheraton and maybe not being able to pay their food provider or shoving you into a shitty condo and making rent.
I don’t know the answer. Like, at all.
But I have seen hope. When you look at folks like Ari Shaffir, Joe Rogan, Marc Maron or Pete Holmes, who used their podcast to not only find their own crowd, but get people excited about comedy and comedians in general. They have the power to help force clubs’ hands and both the talent and marketability to back it up. But think about how much time and effort it would take to go on a crusade policing clubs.. you couldn’t do that and have a successful stand-up career at the same time. So who does it?
I also see hope in the LA clubs that have learned to expand their programming and lineups to draw in better crowds (though you all still pay really shitty and should up your game). And I see hope in the NY clubs that have figured out how to leverage good marketing & street teams to fill their rooms without having to book entirely on credits. And I see hope in all the clubs across the country that I hear multiple comedians come back from and say “They’re doing it right.”
I do know what’s NOT the answer though. Everyone on both sides ignoring the realities of the other. I can’t stand a club justifying shitty pay with “this is a lot of money considering it’s only 20 minutes of work. As I said before, I understand all the expenses that go into getting to the point of being able to perform a good 20 minutes. But comedians can’t use that as the reason they should be paid more. That’s not how the economy works. I’m really good at writing. I can’t go to a publication I work for or Google AdSense and say “Hey, I want more money because I paid $120k to go to college and I wrote this on a laptop I bought and sent it to you via the internet service I pay for from my expensive apartment.”
Or, in an example that might make more sense if you’re a comic, I do a ton of unpaid or underpaid work for comedians all the time. And I do it for free, freeish, or at a loss because I know you don’t have the money to pay me to make that flyer or teach you how to update your laughstub profile or set up a podcast or get you in front of the right bookers or journalists. But I keep doing it because I care (and I’m not the only one by a long shot), the same way you keep on telling jokes even while grumbling about the pay and the condos. So, if you’ve ever done that with any of us comedy adjacent folks (and all of you have), you’re just as complicit in the system of exploitation as the club you’re railing against.
I called my last post We’re All In This Together because that’s the plain truth of it. It shouldn’t be a “sides” thing and everyone who feels like they are on a side should take some time to get educated about the other one. If you run a club, you should understand the road your talent took to get to a place where you get to make money off of them. And not exploit how shitty it’s been to be shitty to them now. And if you’re a comedian, you’re a fool if you just assume clubs are out to screw you and don’t stop to consider how much goes into creating and maintaining a space where you get to work and showing real appreciation and loyalty for the ones that are getting it right.
So, you know, if you know how to fix Comedy, please let me know.