Funny Business: Does the Comedy Economy Shortchange Its Most Valuable Resource?

“New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling…New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: Find a new city.”
–Patti Smith at Cooper Union, May 2010

Rock icon Patti Smith’s advice to budding artists hoping to sustain themselves in New York while pursuing their dreams applies beyond the writers and musicians who have succeeded those of her era. Along with playwrights, novelists, singer-songwriters, etc, the past couple decades have ushered in a different wave of artist: the alternative comedian.

Although standup was once the standard of recognition for aspiring comics, sketch and improv comedians also flock to New York City with aspirations of being the next cast member of Saturday Night Live. And as cable television diversifies its tastes to reflect evolving audiences, new opportunities arise around which New York has brightened as an industry beacon to rival Los Angeles.

The strength of New York City’s sketch and improv pedigree is due in large part to the Upright Citizens Brigade, the Chicago troupe who moved to New York in 1996 and built a small comedy kingdom from which the People’s Improv Theater and Magnet Theater derive. The business models of the 3 major theaters maintain well-staffed operations that subsidize shows in development with the revenue of proven attractions and class tuitions.

The economy, therefore, has instilled a sense of community that champions performance for its own sake, where, as UCB cofounder Matt Besser put it, “We pay our performers, just not with money.” And while performing at UCB, most performers would agree with Besser. The connections and relationships that people forge there, as well as at the PIT and Magnet, can be invaluable both within the context of professional success and without. These spaces have given both creative and emotional refuge to the socially awkward and marginalized, misfits who could only truly thrive given time to find their voices in a supportive environment in which everyone else is doing the same.

But with the popularity of sketch and improv (as avenues for exposure) has come an influx of new blood and a higher demand for stage time than the UCB, PIT, and Magnet can accommodate. And although many performance spaces and bars across the city have stepped up and fostered the “indie scene,” the pricing convention set be the 3 major theaters has made it virtually impossible for performers to profit from their own initiative. Improv shows at bars rarely charge admission, and when sketch or improv groups rent space, the $5–$10 prices to which New York audiences have grown accustomed at the majors can barely cover expenses. Charging more just seems out of the question.

Yet, as impossible as profiting from the hard work they have put into their art is, groups often born out of UCB, PIT, and Magnet classes continue to innovate and show audiences what the industry is missing by going into business for themselves. New York collective Local Empire, for example, has shown unflinching determination as they premiere a new batch of video sketches with each monthly show. But despite the undeniable effort this group puts into their productions, the $5 admission fee for their live events does not even begin to afford the cast and crew (upwards of 20 people) a lifestyle conducive to spending more time on the craft. And unfortunately, being featured on popular websites College Humor, Jezebel, Buzzfeed, and others, is not enough to justify a ticket price commensurate with their reach. Add in that their shows also feature standup comics (Jermaine Fowler was scheduled for the March show), and the $5 admission becomes even more confounding. For the love, indeed.

How much for that comedian in the window?

“Everybody can play pick-up ball, but not everyone deserves a contract.”
-Chris Conklin, cofounder of Haverford College improv troupe The Throng

Perhaps nothing can be done to change the sacrifice/reward balance to recognize performance as a marketable skill more often than the occasional commercial booking or bit part on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The Onion poked fun at the structure recently—framing improv as a parent-encouraged career path—and the satire confronts the reality of a bizarre paradox that typically goes unmentioned within the community for fear of being ostracized: the commitment to improv and sketch comedy rivals that of professional careers, leaving many people unequipped for careers that could actually keep them alive.

Based on the expectation to make comedy for comedy’s sake, a fair inference would be that there simply isn’t enough money in comedy to go around or—a scarier thought—that people don’t like comedy enough for live performers to get paid. But according to The Numbers, comedy (and its subgenres) accounted for 27% of the movies released in theaters since 1995 and 30% of the overall box office gross ($66.5 billion) during the same period.

So why do live sketch and improv remain so inexpensive even as movie ticket prices increase, despite no change in the chances of a movie being terrible? Is there an invisible hand making sure that comedians continue suffering as part of the artistic journey? Has the community itself kept this hand strong for quality control?

Regardless of the conspiracy you favor, the dynamics within improv and sketch comedy are no different than those of Hollywood or Broadway. And each of those universes reflects an environment that elicits warm and fuzzy feelings to counteract how cold the entertainment business can be. Ready? Okay.

Imagine a kitten adoption center, where scores of kittens use their cuteness and quirks to compete for adoption for the next best cat video. All the kittens have heard about the sweet life of a YouTube video cat. Some have even seen the cat videos themselves over the shoulders of the shelter staff (don’t ask why cat rescue workers are looking at cat videos on YouTube; that we are in an age of such rampant irony makes it plausible).

Among the staff are the trainers, trusted authorities that train the kittens and can vouch on how YouTube-ready that cuteness is. Then there are the advocates, who either have a relationship or reputation with the prospective adopters based on the success of previously trained YouTube cats. The more views the advocate can attribute to their kittens, the more adopters will come to the shelter. And the more adopters come to the shelter, the more kittens will find their way to the shelter to be taken in, and the cycle continues and expands.

This scenario should sound fairly similar to that of a talent agency or any other entity that informally plays the roles described. And that’s where the similarities between cats and performers end…because cats are terrible.

Cats are fickle, moody, needy and antisocial at the same time.

Okay, really, THAT is where the similarities end.

Character generalizations aside, no one can deny that comedians of all types work hard at their crafts before achieving even a modicum of critical success. And since critical success eventually leads to commercial success, some have argued that the sacrifice justifies the reward. But doing it “for the love” creates an all-or-nothing enterprise that has not been properly questioned in terms of valuing the enjoyment audiences get from performers long before they get taken into a good (lucrative) home.

Although Besser has said that putting worth to shows will cause resentment among performers, the industry inherently causes resentment through selective casting anyway. The human condition all but demands that we feel some degree of ire when passed over for positions. Comedy theater auditions always apply subjective selectivity when casting their sketch and improv teams, so to dismiss the monetary aspect of valuing art when aesthetic preferences are made as a matter of course, performers get left out in the wilderness when it comes time to do business, conditioned to fight for their dinner but unclear on what real food is.

Typically, improv and sketch comics gladly work for free as they find their voices and build exposure. But the absence of a profit model for proven but undiscovered talent has made it impossible to put a value on live performances from which musicians, in contrast, make most of their money. In other words, the concept of market share for improv and sketch comedians needs to broaden in order to afford conditions that facilitate pursuing the art further. There are scores of promising artists whose work should already have a price that isn’t built around free drinks. Alas, the economy of alternative comedy is such that ardent passion must reckon with hobby-level commitment for talent to survive at all, especially in the country’s more expensive cities. The reason co-workers frequently ask their comedian friends if they’re “still doing the comedy thing” is because they are still around to be asked. The Onion cut to the core of this reality as well in terms that transcend the performing arts so that even the most uncreative but restless office drone can understand, and everyone should question whether a meaningful life should come at a soul-shattering expense.

Something’s gotta give (money)

“I owe everything to UCB. It got me a smart audience of comedy nerds that you want. It kept letting me fail at a diversity of things and try again. I don’t know another theater that would do that.”
–Chris Gethard, host of The Chris Gethard Show

Comedy havens like the UCB, PIT, and Magnet have been a boon to performers and audiences alike. At these hotbeds of talent, people looking for laughs can rely on a low-risk investment for a time that, at worst, will be ironically pleasurable. Conversely, performers benefit from the larger audiences that such an investment can yield. And the reward of both parties sharing in a positive experience can lead to emotional gratification for the comedians simply glad to have people for whom to perform.

But how long must an artist toil before hanging up the costumes and the object work? Is it even possible to change the system when the major shelters turn out declawed kittens, leaving the more feisty ones to turn feral and unwanted? Of course, there are no simple answers. Greatness often rises, and persistence always prevails. But the silence on the issue must be broken in order for artists to take more control of their everyday destinies, destinies geared to eventually comply with the corporatized masters they wooed for validation in the first place.

Improv and sketch comedians actually can make a living outside of New York City on cruise ships, in Las Vegas, and at Boom Chicago in Amsterdam. But it seems as if the sphere in which no-pay performers move maintains a delicate separation from the sphere in which performers like Boom alumni Seth Meyers, Jordan Peele, and Jason Sudeikis earned money performing on stage while preparing for higher profile opportunities. Of course Boom Chicago is but one company, but being paid to perform is no more unusual than a legion of talented performers agreeing to work for free while they starve. Either way, the entertainment gatekeepers continue to get their pick of the litter with no concern for what talent has had to do to be considered. It is a dynamic as old as the business itself, but providing a service that people want in exchange for the ability to keep providing that service with relative comfort predates modern civilization altogether.

On an emotional level, sketch and improv comedians subsist on the positive reinforcement of their audiences. But financially, it has become clear that cities like New York are not where man can live on laughter alone. Just ask Patti Smith; when she said artists should find a new city, she wasn’t joking.

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