Christina Davidson at TheAtlantic.com is on a recession road trip (fun!), and this week, she stopped into a comedy club in Kansas City to check on the state of the funny business. She finds the Stanford and Sons Comedy Club hunkered down, having been “steeled in survivor mode for most of the past decade.” Thankfully, dear reader, she discovers the following nugget of wisdom:
The recession has caused the most lingering downturn in business, but the difference now is that people still want to laugh. In fact, they need to laugh. They just can’t afford to go out and spend too much money.
But seriously, folks. This tired canard resurfaces whenever a comedy tourist writes about the business. And it’s something that would never happen in any other industry. Imagine The Atlantic making such pronouncements about the recession, the mood of the American people, and the state of the consumer electronics business by sending a writer to a transistor-radio factory.
In truth, this is something of a golden age for comedy and comedy fans. Films such as The Hangover set records at the box office and propel comedians such as Zach Galifianakis to stardom. The network sitcom may be in a slump, but successful half-hour comedies are flourishing on cable–from TBS’ more traditional sitcoms My Boys and Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, to Comedy Central’s inventive Michael and Michael Have Issues and HBO’s Flight of the Conchords. Stand-up comedy has never been better or more varied, with top-grossing acts like ventriloquist Jeff Dunham earning approximately $30 million a year. There’s also a healthy middle and upper-middle class of great performers such as Josh Sneed, whom Davidson highlights in her piece.
So I’m not quite sure what the heck Davidson or the KC club owner are talking about when he says, “Big-name comedians are almost unemployable. I can’t afford to book
someone who charges $20,000 or more a week.” Yeah, that Jerry Seinfeld and the $85 million he’s pulling in a year. Too bad he’s priced himself out of working Stanford and Sons.
As in any business, the ones who are succeeding are the most entrepreneurial. Sneed is somewhat backhandedly complimented in The Atlantic‘s piece as being a “triple leaguer,” meaning AAA compared with major-leaguers. But Sneed shouldn’t be underestimated. Based in Cincinnati, the former P&G employee learned his lessons about marketing well. I “discovered” him because he posts on a popular message board for comedy fans called ASpecialThing.com. Sneed started a podcast about 8 months ago and promotes it there. He’s active on Facebook and Twitter. He runs a business called Look At Me Shirts, helping other comedians create and sell t-shirts for fans who want a momento after seeing them perform live. And guess what? He’s funny as hell too.
There are hundreds of other examples of performers building a following online, and trying, at least on occasion, to break free of the club circuit, booking themselves into rock clubs or small theaters–and reaping a bigger slice of the revenue. As for clubs, not all of them are stuck in the 1980s. A new breed of venues such as Comix in New York, Helium in Philadelphia, and the Laughing Skull Lounge in Atlanta present comedy as something for people who want a laugh, yes, but who also aren’t just out to see “comedy,” as comedian Patton Oswalt used to say, as if it was something that was done to you.
Is the business changing? Yes. Like every other one. Too bad Davidson didn’t focus on the innovation that’s happening both on and off stage, and instead trotted out one of the oldest jokes in the business.