Veteran comedians Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock have signed $60 million dollar deals with Netflix, Amy Schumer has committed her next hour to the streaming site, and Jerry Seinfeld just announced a big two special deal of his own and we can just imagine what kind of money is changing hands on that one. Assume eight figures. Big paychecks make news, and the internet comment sections inevitably explode with opinions.
I will never fault a comedian for making what they can for their craft (btw, where is Paul Mooney’s legendary $$?), nor do I have an interest in justifying just how hard one has to work to get to the level they have. This news did however make me take a look at the comedy industry, the wage gap, and how as an industry we can effect some change. I’ll do my best to walk the line of expectations of a comedian’s ego and knowing GM/owner financial gains are important if we want people investing in our craft. I also know the examples I use are not. all. clubs. We have to be able discuss the obvious changes in the world that affect us, without getting bogged down in the bullshit of “but not EEVVERRYYYONEEE” NO. not everyone, but enough that everyone is talking about it.
If you are newer to stand up comedy, whether as an audience member or performer, let me catch you up on a few things. For decades, “Comedy Clubs” have run a five show weekend schedule. One show Thursday night, two shows on both Friday and Saturday nights. Occasionally, that week’s comic will also be asked to come in and host the open-mic night on Wednesday night. When a comic is booked at a club for a weekend, that is her week’s work. The “headliner“ is the closing act you’ve seen on the advertising and is likely your “favorite guy or gal from that TV show”. The “feature” is the gal or guy who does 25-30 minutes right before the headliner. The emcee/host of the show is likely newer to comedy and has a vital role of telling you to fill out comment cards, so the club can email you free tickets, because $15 nachos ain’t gonna sell themselves, amirite?? Herein lies the beginning of our problem. Two drink minimums and overpriced showroom menus were supposed to help carry production costs of comedy clubs. Marketing, hotel rooms for the performers, fish bowls to drop business cards in to win free tickets (must.sell.nachos.) that sort of thing. Unfortunately, the trend in the current climate of “the folks at the top keep all the money” has started to seep into the club industry in ways I don’t think we’ve seen before. The trend is to rely on a comic’s draw to fill a room, but how do I draw people to the club where beers are $8 when I’m playing an indy show with $2 PBRs tomorrow? Wait, I need to bring all my friends to my show at the club so I can get paid, and move up the club ladder. Except the ladder has shrunk and there are only about twenty rings at the top these days, so what am I working TOWARDS? Rent. I’m working towards rent. This week. Not in ten years.
The price of the Steve Martini has certainly not remained the same since 2003, but the pay for the club feature act has. Now factor in the rising cost of gasoline. Most of the comedy middle class is driving from gig to gig, spending countless hours on the road to bring you those thirty minutes. For years, the industry standard was to provide lodging for the feature. Club owners learned early on that some comedians were eager to please. Paying for TWO hotel rooms seemed like a waste, right? The comedy condo was born and comedians learned to accept that even as a pro, to still expect to have to smell someone else’s shit after the show. Comedy condos were notoriously run down, but nonetheless offered a sometimes clean place to sleep without spending any of your club pay. Plus, if you were cool enough, other comics told you where the weed was hidden.
As of late, some top clubs have skipped the comedy condo route, and don’t always provide a hotel for the feature. Get paid $500, but spend at least half on a place to sleep. Or couch surf. But be sure to have at least 3 -5 years experience in your field.
To be clear, I am diving into the story of the middle guy here, though the “non celebrity” headliner with 20+ years experience might top out at $300/show, depending on draw and how much she shamelessly promotes herself for the club, giving away free tickets to anyone. Nothing says “I feel successful and respected” like begging your friends to come to your job. My uncle owns a garage. His mechanics aren’t responsible for making sure 10 of their friends come in for oil changes.
My point? Ticket prices have gone up, drink prices have gone up, bartender minimum wages have gone up. The pay rate for the road dog comics has not. The people who keep comedy a living, breathing fabric of the culture, can barely make ends meet. The reason the audience is there. THOSE people should get a raise. The comedy middle class is disappearing. Yes, we need Netflix streaming comedy superstars as part of the spectrum that is the comedy industry. We also need the folks you’ve never heard of. They keep the game going. The next Chris Rock won’t develop his talent in his room watching Netflix specials.
Here we are. The past two decades of technological advances have introduced social media and expanded a comedians ability to build a fanbase. At home entertainment services have made it more difficult to get folks out of their homes and into performance venues. Times, they are a changin’.
The “comedians union” idea gets tossed around every five years or so and then we all laugh at it because we all know how comedians are. It’s not likely to happen. At the end of the day, those with power must speak up for those who cannot, and that means the ‘famous’ big draw comics who have chosen to continue working clubs (as opposed to theaters) as a personal choice. They prefer the guarantee of good sound, lights and an intimate room. Generally speaking, if you can sell out 4-5 shows at a club, you have some power. Club owners know that a one night theater show pays as much as a weekend in a club, so headliners could easily familiarize themselves with the clubs taking care of everyone, not just the headliner.
Society has decided that making money is the most important thing, but it’s also the most uncomfortable thing to talk about, and that creates some tricky dynamics for everyone. Well played, “the man”. No club is going to give up a sold out weekend because you want your feature act to make enough to feed his/her kids. But headliners could make the choice to skip clubs that notoriously undercut the little guy. Let’s work together. We have to rise above.
If you are an audience member and a fan of comedy, you have some power too. On that comment card write “do your performers make a living wage?” Better yet, ask the manager at your club where the feature acts are staying the next time you see a show. Let’s change the dialogue in comment sections from “why is Chris Rock making sixty million” to “why is (insert name of favorite local comedian) also my Uber driver”
It’s a new world, America. Without the comedy middle class, who is gonna raise money for your aunt’s liver transplant?