Gatekeepers of Comedy Tackle the Biggest Challenges Facing Comedy Today at Just for Laughs…and Answer the Louis C.K. Question

This year at Just for Laughs we got together with five comedy giants who most comedy fans have never heard of, but these five men and women have a gigantic influence on comedy. They are  Gatekeepers, the owners, managers and bookers of the biggest and best comedy stages.

These men and women have real power when it comes to comedy. Television can change your life, movies can make you rich and famous, but if the club and festival bookers aren’t interested in what you do, you’re not really a stand-up comedian. And it is on those same club stages that tv and the business in general, come looking for new talent so getting their attention is pretty important. This year, the Just For Laughs Comedy Pro team brought five of those gatekeepers together in one incredible panel to talk from their perspectives about what the hell is going on in the business right now.

Jeff Singer who books talent for the JFL Comedy Festival spent an hour talking with four club giants: Mark Breslin, the CEO/Founder of Yuk Yuk’s Inc, Wende Curtis, CEO of Comedy Works in Denver, Marc Grossman who owns Helium Comedy Clubs and Erin Von Schonfeldt EVP of Talent for Levity Live gathered at the Hyatt Hotel at the Just For Laughs Comedy Pro festival.

Comedy Clubs, like everyone in the industry, face some giant challenges- keeping their seats filled,  staying relevant now that comedians have other places they can perform, dealing with complicated moral issues, making sure their stages are diverse, keeping audiences happy, and handling the changing world of representation. We talked about how they book their clubs, why they book the comics they book, and how they handle diversity in their clubs (everyone says they book whoever is the funniest). They also discussed the C-Word (Censorship), the N-Word (Netflix), and even the Louis C.K. question.

I got to sit down with all five gatekeepers after the panel and keep the conversation going.

The N-Word (Netflix)

The effect of Netflix special is constantly present in any conversation about the business. The “Netflix effect” has been significant for comedians and clubs, bringing more fans to the clubs, selling more tickets, and often transforming a road comic into a someone who can draw their own audience. “It does move the needle,” Curtis explained about what happens after a comedian releases a special on Netflix. “We know they’re good. We’ve known they’re good. But now, the masses know they’re good and it’s kaboom!” But the panelists told me that Netflix can be a double-edged sword, propelling young comics into the “industry” prematurely. “They’re plucking young kids too early,” Curtis explained, adding, “I want them to be prepared. I want them to be ready. I want it to matter when they’re on that stage.” And when a young comic is grabbed too soon, she said, they fail to strike a nerve. She has a message for the streaming giant about their practice of flooding the market with new comedy specials: “Netflix, if you’re listening, you need to stop a little bit. You need to hold back a little bit of that programming and wait until they’re ready. Give them another year. Wait until they’re more seasoned so that, they can then move the needle and it does us all good and no bad. That’s all.”

When a special doesn’t hit, it can be a problem for everyone on the comedy chain.  Once a comedian gets a special on Netflix, their reps waste no time upping their asking price in clubs, and planning runs at theaters and casinos.  And there is real pressure on the clubs to pony up the cash. But if the special fizzles, that increased draw never comes and the clubs lose money, while the comics perform for empty houses. Which brings up another negative that has followed the “Netflix effect.” Yuk Yuk’s CEO Mark Breslin explained that until recently,  you have an audience that knew very little about comedy but you had club owners and club bookers who knew a lot.  Audiences would show up to see “comedy” rather than a specific comedian.  “People would come to the club, they’d have a great time, and if they did, they’d come back. If you asked them, “Who did you like tonight?” They would say, “Uh, the third guy with the brown hair,” Breslin explained. “There wasn’t the marquee value of all of these different, individual comedians. As a result, for forty years, we’ve been kind of been promoting the clubs as clubs … as the good place to go. A place to go in and you’re like this when you enter and you’re like that when you leave.” But now, he said, the economics have changed and the clubs have found themselves needing to book comedians who can fill the room. People don’t come to clubs anymore just to laugh, they come to see someone specific- often someone they’ve seen on Netflix.”

Levity Live EVP Erin Von Schonfeldt agreed that the pre-Netflix model was better for comedy. “I would love to go back to the time when we were taste-makers and we were identified what was funny and people were coming, primarily, for the comedy experience. But, I feel like the audiences are coming to see Gabriel Iglesias perform wherever Gabriel Iglesias is playing,” she said, adding, “I am booking based on sales. I’m watching talent and appreciating comedy and keeping my eye on those people who I love and I want to do something for and I can’t wait to see them succeed. I still have that passion in my heart. I just can’t always execute on that passion. ”

The C-Word (Censorship)

When it comes to the C-word, all five agreed that censorship has no place in comedy, or in the clubs. Singer spoke for everyone in the group proclaiming, “Censorship is anathema to comedy. Free speech and through creative thinking, you can’t put restrictions on that.” Erin agreed. “Censorship is not my job. Comedy is the last frontier, where you can be as honest and as pure and I don’t want to encroach that. They’re artists, they get to do what they feel like they need to do. I would never ask somebody to change their material.”

But that doesn’t mean everything goes anywhere and anytime. For Jeff Singer, who books Just for Laughs, he has to keep an eye on content for the shows he books. “Like, I can’t book on the New Faces show here a filthy, dirty comedian because how is someone gonna follow that,” Singer said, “and that’s more of a creative thing that they’re leaning on something for six minutes. People might look at that as censorship but that’s more just guidance and help to get through this.”

Bookers also have to give thought to their bottom line. A comedian who “walks the room” all the time,  or generates frequent complaints can’t get endless free reign. If customers are walking out, that can be a worse problem for the club than a comic who didn’t draw an audience in the first place. On the other hand, when a comedian is packing out the club, it makes it a lot easier to deal with complaints.

Mark Breslin has been watching the evolution of comedy for decades and says dealing with outrage has always a part of the job. “I’ve never, never censored anyone in my life, including myself. And we, in the early days, we had audience walking out because they were so offended by what they saw,” he said. Modern times have diminished that problem. “The culture’s caught up with comedy clubs in a lot of ways. You see stuff on the internet, you see stuff on cable television, you see stuff on streaming that’s very uncensored, and so that the experience of an uncensored comedy club doesn’t seem as frightening as it may have been back in 1978, or 1985. But, I mean I booked before anybody else did, but I got pickets, feminists for healthy humor. You know, healthy humor, that’s like a sober orgy. We like, actually, kind of bending a certain demographic of the audience. It started off in the early days, people on the right were our enemy, because they were against anything that felt like it wasn’t godlike and I guess it didn’t help anything by doing a promotion where abortionists got in free, right? I’m waiting for a response on that, okay.”

Wende Curtis, who owns one of the most respected clubs in the country says she sees people getting more offended today than they were twenty years ago, but in general, he hasn’t given in to the more delicate ticketholder. “I don’t give a shit. They’re gonna be offended whether or not that person’s up there, they’re gonna find a reason to be offended. But that’s not my problem.” She did recall one exception to that policy- soon after Columbine which happened right within her club’s community. “We had an African American female who referred to one of the kids that was shot with the n-word. And this happened in our community, this didn’t happen across the country. It happened right here where our off-duty police officer was the SWAT team captain that was there. Where there were people in the audience every night that were impacted. And the agent goes “You can’t censor.” And I go ‘Listen, let me be clear: I will turn off the microphone. Seriously.”

The Louis C.K. Question

The big question on everyone’s mind at the panel, and in our post-panel conversation, is undoubtedly the Louis C.K. question, which also has variations like, The Kevin Spacey Question, the T.J. Miller Question, maybe even the Aziz Ansari or Chris Hardwick Question.  It’s simply this- if you get a call from Louis C.K. (or another comic that has been accused of or has admitted to misconduct) and he says I want to come back and I’ve chosen your club to do my first week, would you book him?  The question brings along with it moral questions like how do you know?  How do you decide?  “I just don’t think it is my job to say that what Louis did was right or wrong,” Von Schonfeldt said.  “Who am I to judge somebody else’s choices? If they’re funny and there’s an audience for them, even if I don’t agree with them … Oh, gosh. It’s hard to say where my line is. I know I have a line but I think it’s probably further away than most of you are comfortable with.”

Wende Curtis had recently gotten backlash for a booking- she didn’t name the comic, but said social media accused her of hiring a rapist.  She backed up Erin’s comments that a comedy club owner should not be making decisions about whether a comedian should be blacklisted based on alleged conduct.  She expressed concerns about banning comics who haven’t been convicted of anything,  in situations that she has no personal knowledge about. She also believes in forgiveness.  “I’m about second chances. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. Maybe I haven’t assaulted anybody, or whatever, but we’ve all made mistakes. I’m about second chances and I’m about the underdog and I would help them. I would do what I could.”

The pressure to keep comedians like Louis offstage isn’t just coming from social media and press. All of the bookers said they’ve heard from other headlining comedians who demand that club owners make those moral judgments. Erin said that she’ll get calls from other headliners that they will cancel their dates at the club based on the club’s decision to book a controversial comic. But she doesn’t cave.  “I can’t make everybody happy. If my booking this person is upsetting to you, I apologize to you on a personal level.”  Both Erin and Wende say that as women, they feel pressure to make certain choices, and when they don’t, other women feel betrayed.  “We get criticized by women because we are women so therefore we should all be sticking together. Yeah, but I think you have fucked up perspective.”

For most of the panel, by the way, the answer was to the question is  “absolutely 100%”, with the sole holdout being Helium owner Mark Grossman, who answered, “I don’t know.” He said he wanted to play devil’s advocate, arguing that its not so easy to stand your ground when you’re in the crosshairs and thousands of people are taking to social media to denounce your decisions.   “Then you gotta start to walk on eggshells a little bit.”

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