This has been a strange few years for Stand-Up comedy. Big clubs are doing poorly while smaller venues (“alt” venues) are thriving. The distinct path to stand-up fame is changing as major comedians can self-release albums to epic results (Louis CK, for example) and major labels struggle to find sales (take your pick). The 80’s were a comedy boom and this is… well it’s just not. Don’t get me wrong, some of the greatest comedians who ever lived are out there on stages right now, but they have more problems getting a connection with you, the audience, than ever before…and this is the age of Twitter. What you are about to read is the first in a three part series of Op-Ed pieces about what is causing the death of Stand-Up as we know it. In fairness the issues tackled here may not actually be killing comedy, but they aren’t helping it either. I think these issues should be discussed amongst the comedians, comedy fans, and artists everywhere. So lets begin:
Nothing is doing more damage to the world of Stand-Up comedy then “Bringer Shows”. This lousy money making choice by big clubs looking to recapture their former glory and unscrupulous promoters looking for a quick buck is trading the short term gain of cash for the long term sustainability of Stand-Up performed live. “Bringers,” as they are sometimes called, cheapen the art form and exploit the good nature (and social capital) of eager young comedians who may unknowingly kick the foundation out from under their favorite art form.
Bringer Shows Did This…
For the lay person, a Bring show works like this: a comedian is allowed to perform on a stage if, and only if, he will Bring to the show a specific number of audience members who pay full price and often a drink minimum. It’s a the window dressing of “crowd building” on what is essentially “pay to play” as the comedian exchanges his friends’ money ($10 cover times say 10 audience members plus $20 in drinks each or $300 not including parking) for five to seven minutes on a stage. In the worst of these shows, the venue (often a bar or coffee shop) doesn’t even take the money but the promoter takes the comedian’s friends’ cash simply for organizing a room for everyone to meet in. Still, this is is not the biggest reason Bringers are killing comedy. For that plague, let’s look at the history of live comedy money making:
If we go back to the comedy boom of the 80’s. things were very different. There were a huge number of eager comedy fans looking to go out and see shows. In any given city the big clubs and fifteen or twenty smaller rooms would be full every night (or at least on the weekends). The big selling point of a particular comedy stage was the buzz about the comedians who were playing it. This is the day when Carlin, Dangerfield, Pryor, and Robin Williams would all be up someplace in town on a given night, and if they hit the same stage, that was where you wanted to spend your comedy dollar. The rooms with the most buzz also attracted scouts from TV shows (like Carson’s Tonight Show or HBO) and development executives always looking to give someone a guest spot or even a show of their own. For the club, the goal was the put on the best possible show, and for the comedian the goal was to get good enough to be on that lineup.
A “Bring show” doesn’t need talent or buzz to monetize its audience. In fact, the better a comedian gets, the less he’s willing to ask his friends to pay to see him on stage. So a Bringer makes the venue the same amount of money without having to attract talented comedians. Suddenly, the goal of the best show in town is scrapped for the fullest room. I can’t be mad at clubs for looking to make money in a troubled economy but the cost is actually greater then they think. As the rooms get “colder” the scouts stopped coming out. The big comedians stayed away. Audiences, too, started shying away from shows after a few Bringers with talentless (and laughless) lineups taught them that live comedy wasn’t fun anymore. Bring shows also tend to have very long lists of comedians (more comedians = more audience = more money) and so the eager audience has its back broken by a horrible show that lasts THREE HOURS LONG.
Bring shows sell the comedian on having a built-in audience and a well-known stage, but the very act of performing on that show there invalidates both. If anyone can play the local Improv on a Bring night, then who cares if you have the credit? If the audience that showed up is too sick of horrible comedy to remember the names of anyone on the show, who cares if they saw you? Bring shows scam the comedians as well as the audience and everyone walks away a little smaller for having participated. The promoters of Bring shows walk away with the money. I can’t put too fine a point on that. It is not the comedian, nor often the club, that get the money.
So who are the proponents of Bring shows? Well the promoter who uses the Bringer to pay his or her bills (or sometimes to get stage time themselves) is all for it. The club that’s making money without having to pay out to advertisers or cater to the whims of big names is for it too. Even young comedians who have been taught this is the only way to be seen are supporting it. So how can this change?
Comedians are really the ones left to change the system back to the pro-talent and not pro-friends-who-have-money dynamic. This means reinvesting in the ways young comedians worked their way up the ladder. The same amount of effort it takes to drag ten of your friends out to see you at a Bring show (and pay $30 each) can be spent on asking your friends to attend a free show at a venue you secured yourself. Smaller shows for smaller crowds may not seem as glorious as playing a 200 seat famous club, but if the Bringer show has made that stage meaningless then go rock a crowd of 20. Independent comedy rooms that put on good comedians every time are still building followings that created better environments to ply the trade of Stand-Up. These rooms (like Hollywood’s venerated “What’s Up Tiger Lily,” now in its SIXTH year) won’t just let anyone on stage, but that means when you do play them it means something in a way a Bringer never will.
Sidenote: a lot of big clubs force Bringer shows to cover the clubs name on stage… yes even the big club is embarrassed to have you play there.
For young comedians it can be hard to invest the time it takes to get good and win your way onto stages that matter. It was for me, it was for my partner Tim Powers, and it will be for every comedian that picks up a microphone. The cost of Bringers is just too high. There used to be rooms that madecomedians (which is why the major clubs still “pass” comedians into their stable) and this used to mean open doors to bigger and better things. Now the system is turning around. Comedians are being made on TV or YouTube or Facebook, not made on stage. Audiences don’t know what room is hot anymore so they stay home and let the comedy come to THEM.
Comedians who play Bringers (either by Bringing audience or being good enough to “guest” and not Bring) are helping to turn the tide from talent to exposure. You can make the choice of getting on a good stage now, but not having that ever mean something, or working hard and earning stages that come with the potential promise of getting on TV.
You can’t buy your way into real artistic success. Making your friends pay to see you doesn’t make you good, any more than an art museum would let you hang your painting because you promised to have ten friends pay to see it. It’s confusing because the best comedians do seem to “Bring” their audience, but those aren’t friends, they are FANS.
The people who love Bring shows and the people who hate them are always fighting on the ideological lines of “Get rich quick” schemes vs. “slow and steady win the race” idealism. For some comedians they simply can’t wait. Nothing opens doors like being funny on stage and no amount of full famous rooms (created by what is essentially trickery) will match it. The end of Bringers may mean the end of some small venues and perhaps the weeding out of some comedians who have a tenuous reason to be here (which is a gift to all of us). I think it’s a sacrifice we need to be willing to make, because the other option may be the death of Stand-Up comedy.
Tune in tomorrow for part 2 of “Stop Killing Comedy!” which explores false contests and bulls@#t comedy festivals. FUN!