The Business of Comedy in LA

I went to an open mic tonight with a couple of friends. I went to the same mic last week, but was too scared to get up. This week, one of my friends got there early and signed me and my other friend up. It seemed rude to decline.

I hadn’t done stand-up in over two years, and it went as well as could be expected. I used the same jokes I prepared for last week, more or less. I was super rusty but it was nice to get laughs when I expected them, and people didn’t hold their own conversations during my set. It went poorly enough that I definitely want to try to do better next time but not so well that nobody who saw me tonight would expect me to be great next time, which takes the pressure off.

After I calmed down, the mic was fun. I’m glad that my friends like to stay the whole time because I always felt bad leaving mics early back in the day just so that I wouldn’t have to worry about a ride home. Plus, I like comedy.

After the mic, one of my friends let the host know that I used to be a Booker. I don’t like being introduced that way but I’m not sure if it bothers me enough to bring it up. I’d rather just be a person, or, at a mic, a comedian, not a former Booker at a comedy club a lot of comedians have had bad experiences at.

I always feel like I need to explain that even if 80% of comedians have a good experience and 20% of comedians have a bad experience, if you’re talking to one of the 20% and none of the 80%, your perception is going to be skewed. And, although I believe that comedy as a business is exploitative, I don’t know that I would say that my club is more exploitative than any other club.

In fact, they go out of their way to book newer comedians — not for altruistic reasons, sure, but is that better than a club that uses a strong gatekeeper who operates on a system of favorites and favors, or clubs that don’t book bringer shows but will allow “independent producers” to book bringer shows? Oh, yeah, Big Boy, your hands are soooooo clean!

To be clear, I think those are both terrible options, but, maybe due to being part of the 80%, I appreciate a club that goes out of its way to make room for less experienced comedians. I also had a lot of amazing experiences there, despite my reservations regarding the business itself.

Still, I end up getting defensive about the club, and angry at the exploitative nature of the business, and those are two reasons I hadn’t touched a mic in two years. I have more reasons, but those are two of the biggest.

I think I might start blogging about comedy — not just my experiences, but also tips and tricks for newer comedians. I think if I could only say one thing about the business of comedy, it would be that it’s easy to take things personally, but it rarely is. Sometimes it is, but speaking from experience, there are about a million comedians to one Booker*.

All comedians want to be booked. All comedians want to be remembered, all comedians want to be special. And I’ll say this, not as a Booker, but as a Human — everyone IS special. One of my favorite things was watching an unwatchable baby comedian get funny. Every single person has a spark, an essence; something that they bring to the world that no one else does. Watching a comedian tap into that essence is one of the most joyful experiences ever, and not just as a Booker — otherwise comedy wouldn’t be a thing that regular people pay to see.

The sad thing is that people want to believe that comedy is a meritocracy. That those comedians who tap into that essence the best, connect to their audiences the best, will be the most successful. This is not necessarily true. If thousands of comedians are able to tap into their essences and connect to their local audiences, but the world only has room for, say, a hundred legends or superstars, what happens to the other thousands of comedians?

Generally, they tour or do corporate gigs or have side jobs. Not everyone is “destined” to be rich and famous. The reason that baby comedians are so desperate for money and fame is because when they’re starting out, they can’t even get by, no matter how hard they work at it. I’ve known comedians who lived in their cars or other peoples’ couches or floors, for years.

I’ve met comedians who have been doing stand-up for twenty-plus years and are still grateful for a 5-minute spot on any show, whether it be in a club, in a bar, or on a street corner. I’ll be going to a comedy show in someone’s backyard next week. For a couple of months, I hosted an open mic in my carport.

Comedians love doing comedy. They’ll do it for free — hell, they’ll pay to do comedy and subsidize that decision with a job that actually pays. This love of comedy is what is exploited. The fact that comedians will work for free translates into comedy club owners deciding that “comedians don’t care about getting paid”. This is inaccurate. Not caring about getting paid is not the same thing as accepting that your particular skill holds little to no monetary value.

And we can blame the comedians all we want to, for choosing to work for free, as though if they all went on strike, the business of comedy would change. That’s not true. First of all, the overwhelming number of hopefuls desperate for any kind of stage time will always undermine any attempt at a strike. Second, as headliners rarely get paid a living wage to perform, they wouldn’t lose any income from going on strike. All they’d do is lose the stage time they need to be polished enough to go on the road so that they can afford to pay for their time in LA.

We already know that a strike won’t work. We have an alternative comedy scene that was built up by comedians fed up with being censored, under-booked, and underpaid by clubs. They created shows in bars and backyards and in tents. Here, they still weren’t being paid, but at least they could perform, and their type of comedy wasn’t dictated to them by club bookers and owners. But that didn’t fix the system. As stated, there are too many aspiring comedians who are desperate for stage time, particularly in a club, that a club is never at a loss for comedians to book.

Clubs don’t lack their pick of super-talented comedians. Clubs need audiences. In this city in particular, there are a lot of options for entertainment. Headliners who can sell out clubs all over the country, unless they’re Jerry Seinfeld or Kevin Hart or Iliza Schlesinger, can’t pull in crowds in LA.

For me, the solution is obvious: build up a reputation, as a club, for nurturing and showcasing the next superstars. Have every show’s line-up stacked with people who are funny enough to be famous, but aren’t. Hire promoters to make sure that there are at least a few butts in seats so that word-of-mouth has a chance to grow.

Or, you could do what LA has chosen to do. Put on bringer shows. A budding comedian doesn’t have fans yet, but do you know what they do have? Friends and family. So, you can pack a lineup full of inexperienced comedians and they will help sell out your rooms. And the shows are terrible and nobody in the audience wants to go back. The comedians who purchased the tickets for their friends and family, and possibly their two-drink minimum, try to focus on the fact that they got to perform at a Real Life Club instead of on the fact that they were not only not paid, but they (in a lot of cases) lost money on the gig.

These comedians realize that they can’t afford to be amateurs for much longer, and feel urgency to move up to paid gigs. Unfortunately, paid gigs in LA are few, far between, are granted mostly to touring headliners, and don’t pay as much as you would think.

So, what happens? Budding comedians become more experienced and less bookable. Their friends and family lose interest in watching terrible shows, but these comedians aren’t skilled enough to be booked on better gigs. A kind Booker will try to find room for them, but there’s a prolonged period of limbo between bringing and featuring, unless you get very, very lucky.

This business model leaves clubs desperately clinging to whatever audience they can manage to trick into a show, and comedians being bitter about particular clubs or producers. Comedians who once found comedy freeing become disillusioned and doubt their self-worth.

The art of comedy edifies; the business of comedy exploits. If you want to maintain your sanity, surround yourself with decent human beings. Anyone can get funnier. Decency is a skill that takes a lot more time and dedication to develop. Be careful about the environments you let yourself become involved in. If you find yourself defensive, angry, or increasingly cynical, take a step back. Pinpoint the source of this poison and cut yourself off from it, whether it’s a person/people or location(s).

I promise, there are enough decent people to be around and enough decent places to be that you don’t need to subject yourself to any environment that brings out the worst in you. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that purposely dosing yourself with iocane powder will make you immune to it. That has only ever worked for the Dread Pirate Roberts.

*This might be slight hyperbole.

Stand-Up Sundays #8

Ironically, the last post that I made was on a Sunday and not only do I not do stand-up anymore, but I don’t work at a comedy club anymore. Today IS Sunday, though!

I left my job about 3 months ago. I went back to cashiering for a couple of months and now I’m doing customer support at an education software company. I’ve been yelled at a few times over the past couple of weeks since I got trained on phones but not as determinedly as today. This woman screamed at me for a full minute at the top of her lungs because she purchased a device that isn’t compatible with the app. Yeah, seriously.

It obviously wasn’t my fault but I ended the phone call nearly in tears and it exhausted me for the rest of the day. Because of that, I don’t see myself in this job for very long, which is a shame because the company is great. I have actual health care and the pay is decent. And mostly, the job is cool.

But I left my last job because I was so stressed out that I was constantly battling suicidal thoughts, and I’m not looking to bring that mentality back into my life. Seriously, I thought that I was mentally ill for a long time. I was considering counseling and medication, and three months out of that job, I don’t feel the need for either of those things anymore.

I’m still not the picture of mental health, but I mostly don’t want to kill myself anymore, which is something I haven’t been able to say since I was 8 years old. I think the good thing about being around comedians for the past 5 years is that I was given permission to not be a cartoonishly happy person all of the time. I got to be cynical and nihilistic and the people around me got it because they were, too.

That said, now that I’m okay with not being happy all of the time, I am starting to look at how to be happy some of the time. I’m not sure if stepping away from stand-up is causal or coincidental to that shift, but either way, I feel okay.

Leaving the club was hard. It hurt. I put my notice in and then came home and cried for three hours — not exaggerating. And I cried every day for three weeks after I left. And then I stopped crying every day. And not crying isn’t necessarily a sign of mental health but crying every day with the suicide hotline open in one browser while I’m booking a show in another definitely isn’t.

So, I don’t miss it. I think I will, at some point. Eventually, all of the jagged edges will be sanded off of my memories and my brain will only hold onto the brightest, shiniest stuff. Right now, I don’t feel much. I’m not sure if I’m numb or if it’s just that I went from feeling everything to the ultimate intensity all of the time to feeling things at a regular human intensity and the contrast makes me think I’m numb.

I do know that I’m very mindful of not getting myself riled up. Any time I start to feel anything intensely, I pull back and re-evaluate. Not sure if this is that whole boundaries thing people are always talking about or what. But it’s nice to not care too much, for once.

I’m trying to not get too involved in this new job, in case I need to leave. I still want to get out of LA, although my finances with this new job don’t make this as pressing a necessity as it was 3 months ago. So I don’t decorate my desk and I don’t participate in office festivities and I’m trying not to make any lasting friendships.

My goal is to like everyone a little and love no one at all. At least, for now. That looks like a super grim statement, written out like that, but there’s more hope in it than you’d think.

Stand-Up Sundays #7

God, I’m tired. I keep vacillating between actively wanting to kill myself and being terrified that I have like two weeks left to live because I have a tumor or an aneurysm that’s about to explode or something. There are so many things I should be doing, and I’m not doing any of them, because why should I?

Alright, this is Stand-Up Sundays, so enough whining. Let’s talk about comedy. First, why do people INSIST on messaging me on Facebook about work stuff? I mean I get why, it just drives me insane.

Next, I missed all of the shows this past weekend and I’m still bummed about that. I went home early on Friday because I wasn’t feeling well, and I missed this show that I had been looking forward to for WEEKS. And then I was trying to catch up on Saturday so I stayed in the office for the most part and there’s something wrong with the EMS, so it literally took me a full minute to add a single person to a show, but I’m so behind on booking that I couldn’t just come back to it later and working on something else.

Fortunately, I have some people who are going to be helping me run shows, so that means I won’t be covering showrunning instead of booking — hopefully. Although, I’ve lost two interns because they were hired, so that is great and terrible at the same time.

Did anything good happen in comedy this week? Yeah, Kuddelmuddel was super fun. That’s my monthly variety show. I have a dude named Goat vs. Fish hosting it and the show had like 35 audience in it (capacity is 50) on a Thursday at 9:30 and it was a fun show. I need to book comedians who don’t take it personally that the host is so weird, but other than that (and it running 15 minutes over despite it starting on time and even with a 10-minute no-show), it was a great show.

I got annoyed with someone last night for trying to get a drop-in spot, and it hurt his feelings, so now I get to feel like a monster until — who am I kidding? I’ll never forgive myself. I did apologize, but he didn’t really accept it, and I can never tell with comedians if they’re playing mad or actually mad. He’s been doing stand-up for 20 years, so I don’t know if he just brushed it off or if he thinks that he’s above just fucking emailing and asking for spots instead of just showing up and is still annoyed that I got annoyed.

Anyway, good things, good things. At the auditions, this chick named Kelsey Munger did her chinchilla story, which she did at her first audition, and it was the first time that I remembered her — I mean, not when I saw her, at first, but when I heard that joke. I love that joke. I think she said she’s very new to stand-up but I might remember wrong because I have a surprising number of Kelseys and because she’s SO funny!

What else was good? I got to talk to Wayne on Saturday during my lunch break, which is always great, although not exactly comedy related. Josh wrote another book, so that’s great but also not directly related to comedy.

Oh, here’s something fun. We have a policy of not booking comedians within 14 days of each other. It’s to help with audience fatigue and to give comedians a chance to regenerate an audience and to give everyone a chance to perform instead of having the same twelve people around every week (nevermind that there are people I genuinely like and haven’t gotten around to booking for like 6 months, but that’s another story), but an independent producer sent in his lineup and two of his people were already booked within the 14 days. Even though he already knew about this policy, he complained about it on Facebook and said that he is looking for another venue to produce his show at.

Don’t do this. Honestly. I get it, social media is so easily accessible and it’s so easy to vent your frustrations online but it’s also SUPER easy for the people you’re shitting on to see it! What are you thinking?! I refrained from commenting on his post (we’re friends on Facebook) and I refrained from private messaging him and when I got into work, I refrained from emailing him and canceling his show, but goddamn, that sucked. This guy has put on two shows and this is his third, and his best audience count was 21. I was doing him a favor allowing him to continue with the show, giving it a chance to build into something. With his attitude and the negative attention he has already drawn to this show, I’m thinking it’s probably not going to go well, so I’m still trying to figure out if I should let it happen or not.

This is not what I want to be thinking about when I look back on my week. I wish that I hadn’t friended so many comedians on FB before I started working at the club because it’s impossible to separate my social life from work, now. And any time someone shits on the club, I see it, and half of the time, it’s someone that I like. It sucks.

Hearts and Wasted Opportunities

I had a rough day at work. Actually, I’m just having a hard time finding the joy I used to have in the job. We’re all exhausted. I’ve only been there for three years so I can’t even imagine how tired Barb and Dave are. But Barb and I still got excited about the new EMS today. And I still made a video to help promote Purrfectly Sane Cat Ladies. And auditions were still fun. And I hugged a lot of people, and meant it.

I’m having a hard time finding sound interns right now, and I ended up having to cover the Yoo Hoo tonight. If it was yesterday, I wouldn’t have been able to do it, but for some reason tonight I was resigned to it even though I knew there was a big chance the shows weren’t going to happen and that it was going to be completely humiliating to have to face the comedians I booked and tell them the shows weren’t going to happen — twice!

Both shows happened — barely. We only had 6 audience for the second show, and we need 8.  A TV star who came in to do a 5-minute spot barked in 2 people and the manager let us squeak by. The first show was fun. I regretted pushing for the second show because the emcee who handled a tiny crowd really well on the first show, was angry for the second one, and we started off bad.

Then the second comedian, I don’t even remember who it was, got up feeling sorry for himself. Then the TV star who went through the trouble of barking people in, felt sorry for himself for 6-and-a-half minutes on stage of what was supposed to be a 5-minute set. That’s the second time I’ve seen him do that in the Yoo Hoo and I won’t book him in there if I can help it. Which I can’t because I didn’t put him in, anyway, and he can get booked any time he wants because he’s on TV.

Then one of the comedians, and I DEFINITELY remember which one, got up and took the onus off of the audience, and was great. Pretty dirty, kind of regret giving him 10 minutes, but overall really funny and completely changed the tone of the show. Even the emcee was laughing when she brought up the next comedian and everyone kind of relaxed and had a better time on stage and the audience relaxed too. I will definitely be giving him a nice juicy spot in any show I think will have a good audience because even though he didn’t get a single person to come and see him, he saved the spirit of the show. That’s a real comic.

The headliner was a pain in the ass. When he came up to me before the show, I told him the show might be cancelled and he gave me shit — not a single audience member came out to see him, but HE gave ME shit — and then when we started the show, he wanted to go up earlier in the lineup because he was convinced that the audience would be gone by the time he got up and he wanted his stage time. I told him “no”. I almost told him he could switch with the TV star and do 5 minutes earlier in the show, but I think he saw that I was getting upset and dropped it. When it was his turn, he sat on the stool and gave no energy to his performance.

Here’s the thing — a movie producer was one of the 6 members of the audience. I didn’t know that until after the show. But the kid he came to see was super sweet, had a great set, and told me later that he doesn’t care if there are 2 people, he’s just excited to be on stage.  So a TV star and a headliner who probably wouldn’t mind being in movies phoned in their performances in front of a movie producer because the audience wasn’t “big” enough for them.

This is Hollywood-ish, so who knows how important this producer really is. But the lesson for me once again, is put your heart in what you’re doing. And you know what? I was having a bad day yesterday. Yesterday Crystal might not have been as relaxed about nearly cancelled shows as Today Crystal. For whatever reason, Today Crystal was cool. Yesterday Crystal would have let the show be cancelled and gone home feeling sorry for herself.  If Yesterday Crystal had been running the shows tonight, that kid wouldn’t have had the opportunity to come off shining not only to a booker at a comedy club but to a movie producer.

So I’m not mad at the TV star or the headliner because, yeah, you want a bigger crowd when you’re performing on a comedy show. But often, seeing how people handle disappointment is more telling in 90 minutes than knowing someone peripherally, for years. So I’m not mad at those guys, but I sure as fuck know that every idiot who got on stage tonight who felt sorry for himself wasted an opportunity in front of two people who could have helped them with their careers.

Because right now, I’m a junior booker at a fledgling club in LA. And maybe Tomorrow Crystal will be working as a cashier at IKEA — but maybe our club will make it, and maybe I’ll still be a part of it, and maybe someday I’ll be able to choose someone I think should be given a big opportunity, and who am I going to choose? I have a short list.

Just in case someone ever stumbles across this post and tries to figure out who I’m talking about — I’m scheduling this post for some random date within the next 2 months, so good luck!