It’s been a little over a month since the largest comedy festival in the world closed out its 35th annual event that brought together some of the biggest names in the industry for sets and panel discussions, as well as provide a major platform for the next generation of comedians. Just for Laughs’ New Faces franchise is a carefully curated series during the festival that was instituted in 1997 as a way to give budding comedians the opportunity to perform in front of industry members. In the ’80s and ’90s, it was a fairly common occurrence for a new comedian to leave a festival like Just for Laughs with a firm deal in place from a network or an agent. But over the years, that story has changed.
“The internet, YouTube, social media as a whole, plus other factors have affected the process to the point where most industry people have already seen most New Faces before they get to the festival,” says Paul Ronca, director of industry and special events programming at Just for Laughs. “All our New Faces, [with] the exception of Unrepped, are usually signed to an agent or manager or both before they get to Just for Laughs, so the surprise element is gone. The business has shifted, too. In the ’80s and ’90s, networks saw a great comic and signed them to a development deal right away without knowing if they could carry a TV show. Today networks are doing their due diligence before signing someone.”
And there’s nothing wrong with due diligence, especially pertaining to the undeniable glut of comedy we’re in right now: Netflix is releasing a new comedy special every week for the rest of the year, celebrity-driven comedy platforms are popping up left and right (Elizabeth Banks’s WhoHaha, Kevin Hart’s Laugh Out Loud). It seems like the perfect setup for a burnout: Too much of a good thing is overwhelming, but too much of a mediocre thing can be disastrous. Case in point: NBCUniversal announcing in August that it would be shuttering its comedy platform Seeso by the end of the year. Despite the burgeoning avenues where comedians can develop an audience, major networks are, and need to, be far more discerning in the curation process–even if that means some of the sharpest upcoming comedians will have to wait.
The day after the New Faces set in July, I spoke with several of the comedians then, and reached out recently, to see if any deals had been secured after the hype would have potentially settled down. So far, there’s been plenty of excitement for some comics, but nothing concrete has set. That said, it’s not as if any of the new faces were deluded about their prospects.
“I’ve heard from people who are obviously much more established comics than I am that years ago you’d leave here with a TV deal if you killed. It’s not really like that anymore,” says Los Angeles-based comedian Taylor Tomlinson. “I feel like before the internet, you could just be a really good standup and everybody would build a show around you–and then you just show up and be funny.”
“You don’t quite have the same titans of comedy,” says Rae Sanni, comedian and writer on Comedy Central’s The President Show. “I think Amy Schumer is the last of a dying breed in terms of just being singularly huge and everybody’s cognizant of who you are–coming up in clubs and selling out around the country. So there’s got to be something else, and fortunately I’ve been a writer pretty much my whole life. It’s just about being able to articulate things conversationally onstage and also manifesting them in characters, whether it’s a web series, TV show, or movie.”
It’s long been standard practice for comedians to build their own followings via social, web series, podcast, etc. with the intention of transitioning to a network or some larger deal. But there’s obviously still significant merit for new talent in a festival like Just for Laughs. Even if deals aren’t being made on the spot, Ronca says they could be made months down the road or, at the very least, the festival is decent exposure. But the question remains: What exactly are networks looking for?
“I remember 10 or 15 years ago a manager telling everybody, oh I’ve got this hot new client that will be at this club and whoever shows up first will get that first opportunity to make a deal. And we would literally be running over there like chickens with our heads cut off, praying that we would have the first opportunity to see this comedian. But that’s definitely waned in the last few years,” says Grace Wu, executive vice president of casting at NBC. “I think like anything else it just reached its breaking point. It reached a frenzy pitch that perhaps didn’t always deliver a favorable piece of content. So I think people just became much more discerning and maybe more disciplined.”
Wu didn’t attend Just for Laughs this year but had a representative from NBC present who was feeding her information on the ground, particularly about a certain comic they’ve had their eyes on. Wu didn’t disclose who it was, but it sounds as if moves are being made.
“[My rep] was emailing me along the way, and what’s always nice is when he tells me about somebody who we’ve seen before who had a killer set and it gets you excited that this person might be at a place in their life where there’s a level of confidence that may not have been there before,” Wu says. “We’ll hopefully see this person when she comes through L.A. in a couple of weeks. As we’re getting closer to development and pilot season it will be great to sit down with her and see what she’s thinking and to see if there’s anything in the pipeline for her.”
Christine Lubrano, senior vice president of original programming at IFC, has a similar mind-set as Wu in the sense of sending her reps to Just for Laughs not necessarily looking for someone to sign on the spot.
“A lot of times we are there to meet new people and reconnect with people that have new projects to share,” Lubrano says. “So it’s really more about a development process than actually going there with an expectation to close deals like mad. More than a dozen relationships have been built from Just for Laughs. Sometimes projects take a while to come around, so you’ll hear a germ of an idea and then a year later you’ll hear the actual pitch.”
Even if a signing deal may not come about immediately, what Wu and Lubrano both expressed as being a paramount skill for up-and-coming comedians is being able to write material beyond what will be in a 30-minute set.
“There’s a newfound emphasis on the writing process and how important it is for a comedian or creator or performer to really hone their craft of writing,” Lubrano says. “I feel like there was maybe a time where performing your material was more important. Now the material is what’s most important and that speaks to not only the trend I see but also how we, at IFC, develop.”
“I think our strength has been the writers that have created shows for our network. Tina Fey, Mike Schur, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, people who are inspired voices, who have created shows that people embrace and love, and who also have strong points of views,” Wu says.
The process of signing a deal fresh from a festival like Just for Laughs may have slowed down but narrowing that firehose will undoubtedly prove to be for the best. Treating events like the New Faces series more like an ongoing development process benefits everyone in the long-run–no matter how long that run might be.
“The thing is, you can only be who you are. So if you’re not what the industry is looking for, you can’t do anything about it,” Tomlinson says. “People who try to fit themselves into this mold of like, everybody’s really into hipsters right now or people are really into nerds–you can’t try to fit what they’re doing. Maybe they’re not into what you are, but it’s a long game. People like [Bill] Burr and Louis C.K. are the biggest guys and they weren’t blowing up at 20. Maybe I get a bunch of opportunities this year and it’s way too soon and I blow it and I’m handing at samples at Costco at 30.”