All for Comedy, Comedy for All: Is the current stand-up comedy boom going to last?
It’s the beginning of the new year but there is that recurring question floating around the comedy world, is this comedy boom about to go bust? There was already a comedy revolution in the 70’s and 80’s, but by the early 1990’s the comedy bubble quickly burst. It’s now 2018 and many claim the second comedy boom began in 2009; today, many fear that this comedy bubble is soon going to burst again. One thing is for sure, live stand-up comedy has survived the waves. We can always count on NYC and LA to provide us with comedy time and time again.
The First Comedy Boom
First, as a quick recap of the first NYC comedy boom. In the 1970’s stand up comedy became a legitimate art form, following that a handful of comedy clubs opened in the ‘70s, then between 1978 and 1988 over 300 comedy clubs opened up across the U.S.; allowing a large number of comedians to become popular in the ‘80s. As summarized in Patrick Bromley’s comprehensive review of Stand-up comedy in the 1980s, this expansion brought in new forms of stand up comedy including the explosion of sitcoms, late night talk shows, and variety shows all featuring comedians. As Bromley puts it, “The unbelievable success of stand-up comedy in the 1980s meant only one thing: sooner or later, the bubble had to burst. Though comedy went out on top at the end of the decade, it was only a matter of time before overexposure led to a collapse…”
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. Here’s a synopsis of what occurred back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s provided by Stephen Holden’s 1992 NY Times article covering the business of comedy clubs. Stephen Holden made it clear that in 1992, “although the comedy boom hasn’t exactly gone bust, the bubble has burst…” and comedy club attendance plummeted with it. Holden pointed out this was in part due to the rapid increase of comedy available on cable television. Comedy Central had just been formed a year earlier in 1991 by the merger of Comedy Channel and the Ha! Network, MTV started “Half-Hour Comedy Hour” for stand up comedians in 1988, and HomeBox Office had just created the late-night show “Def Comedy Jam” in 1992. (Don’t forget all the sitcoms, late night, and variety shows already on air from the 1980’s). All of this was now easily available in the living room or common area of any place with a television.
On top of that, a recession had grown during the late 1980’s which began to effect comedy clubs profits as the seat count declined. Many clubs, stand up talent agencies, and magazines simply went out of business or filed for bankruptcy across the nation as well as in Manhattan. Although some clubs stayed aloft and were able to continue supporting all levels of stand up comedians, as Holden mentioned “if the fees being paid to comics have declined somewhat, they are still hefty. Included in this article was Stand Up NY! Ok, yes, that was a self-call, we’ve been here through it all (30 years) and we are gratefully still here thanks to our comedians and customers; we hope to continue supporting you all in the future!
Unfortunately, some other clubs didn’t survive the wave and have since closed. Overall this decline in the economy and club attendance combined with cable television’s increased demand for comedy eventually caused the boom to simmer down.
What about 2018, where is comedy now, and what’s going to happen?
Many agree that the current comedy boom began in 2009. Three instrumental occurrences highlight the factors at play in this new comedy world: Marc Maron started his podcast in his garage, Rob Delaney made an entirely new stand up career via 140-character twitter jokes, and other industry influencers put out, what are now well-known specials. Comedy in the 2000’s is a strange mixture of old and new world, with stand up comedy sometimes fluctuating between the two with ease or butting heads over what’s best for the future. What does this mean? Back in 2012, Andrew Clark wrote an interesting piece of the New York Times titled, “How the Comedy Nerds Took Over.” Basically, there’s the regular stand up comedy and the new “alt-comedy,” a “comedy subculture typified by ‘comedy nerds’ playing to hipster crowds, milking awkwardness and dropping quirky pop-culture references.” These commonly took place in newly reformed alternative rooms and shows, produced by the comedians themselves, and “prided itself on being autobiographical, quirky and tied much more closely to sketch comedy and character work. It didn’t pay well, but that was the point. Comics sacrificed money for freedom.” This new alt-comedy scene fed off itself and grew to bring in a what some called a stand-up comedy “renaissance”.
This stand up comedy renaissance evolved alongside the streaming movement, which seems to be the biggest upset and concern in today’s comedy boom discussions. The creation of comedy podcasts, websites completely devoted to comedy news or satire, and the instantaneous streaming services across television, web, and mobile platforms; this is the streaming movement and it has and continues to have a major impact on the new world of stand up comedy.
As Jesse David Fox wrote for Vulture back in early 2015, “Practically every comedian has a podcast or web series, or both…Thanks to the internet, comedians now have infinite means by which to reach their fans; and those fans are more fanatical than ever. Welcome to the Second Comedy Boom.” Jesse recognized that 30 years ago, “comedians had to fight for a few large slices of a small pie. In the ’90s, a few performers made millions as stars of network sitcoms, but most were left in the cold when comedy clubs started shutting down. Now the pie is bigger and slices more plentiful, which benefits everyone.” This is a good thing, technology has enabled the second comedy boom to progress past the physical venue and television limitations that the 90’s held. Back then you either had to make it big or go home, and those years were overwhelmed by a rapid influx of new comedians. Today, you can make it by starting with a youtube video series, creating a weekly podcast, or heavily engaging on social media. Adam Sachs, the CEO of Midroll – a company that sells ads for popular podcasts – says that many comedians can survive off their podcast revenues alone, stating “a podcast with 40,000 downloads per episode can gross well over $75,000 a year, and shows in the 100,000-download range can gross somewhere between $250,000 and $400,000.” There are various ways to produce and access stand up comedy every second of the day, allowing amateur and new comedians to gain recognition easily and still keep some coins in their pockets.
Today’s views and opinions in 2018 vary based on many current and past comedy industry factors. I’d like to start on the optimistic side, with Elahe Izadi’s article in the Washington Post, “The New Rock Stars: Inside Today’s Golden Age of Comedy.” Izadi highlights the tech benefits of today’s comedy world claiming “We’re smack dab in the middle of a stand-up comedy boom. Never before has so much original material been this easy to access and been consumed by this many people. Never before has the talent pool of comedians been this deep, and in format, voice and material, this diverse.” She goes on to quote Brian Volk-Weiss, the founder of Comedy Dynamics, as dubbing this comedy’s “diamond era.” They both recognize alongside many comedians the biggest difference between the 90’s comedy bust and today’s comedy boom success, “Stand-up comics once vied for limited TV airtime. Now they vie to be noticed on the limitless Internet, where they can tell jokes and upload videos instantly…” she goes on to point out that social media “‘cut out the middleman’ and let comedians reach audiences directly” a huge benefit for all comedians trying to make a name for themselves.
The opposing view…
Are these technological advancements and openings always positive? How long can the ‘diamond era’ of comedy last given the rapidly continuing saturation of the stand-up comedy world and market? Our first conversation is for the online streaming giant, Netflix, who seems to have invested the most in some of the biggest names in comedy over recent years. Offering stand up comedy specials on its platform from comedians like Louis CK, Dave Chappelle, Tracy Morgan, Sarah Silverman, and other huge stars. Stuart Heritage of the Guardian, author of “From Louis CK to Jerry Seinfeld: Netflix’s comedy boom is about to go bust,” acknowledges that “this time around is different [from the 90’s], because this time the end result is a standup special rather than a sitcom” but just like the sitcom specials of the 90’s, by only investing in “a handful of big-name comedians – many of whom are a decade or more past their best – will bloat and choke the stand up scene.” I believe Heritage means that we need investments in the more well-received new generation of comedy or alt-comedy, in order to keep this ‘diamond era’ progressing forward instead of becoming saturated and completely invested in the older comedy formats.
Another writer, Jason Zinoman of the New York Times, takes an open view of the comedy boom issues in their article “Comedy Is Booming. I Can’t Wait for the Bust.” that maybe a bust is exactly what the comedy industry needs right now stating “Much of comedy right now feels stagnant, dominated by the same handful of stars with a flood of talented young performers struggling to break out.” These stars are still competing with themselves just in a new comedy culture and these comedy podcasts and web interactions “increasingly feel like dutiful necessities for the young and careerist.”
Here is Zinoman’s argument that maybe a comedy bust is for the best… After the first comedy bust of the 90’s, there was a revival of more adventurous work that gave birth to a new alternative scene such as reinvented sketch comedy, new political humor, and improvisation skills that skyrocketed different comedians careers and contemporary stand up comedy which reinvented the industry. “The bust hurt the business, but it may have been better for the art of comedy than the boom.” For this era’s comedy bust, the first sightings of damage and repair have been in the female stand up comics world. One of our own Stand Up NY comedian’s, Laurie Kilmartin wrote The Times article on the “myriad obstacles that slow down the careers of female comics, then offered a prescription: ‘Putting more women on stage, on writing staffs and on camera is a great way to change comedy.’” Zinoman agrees that women need more spotlight time because it is “not only a smart long-term strategy for building a broader fan base but also good for the art form…” and predicts that “If there is the next boom, women will almost certainly play a larger role in it.”
At the end of the day, with a fairly optimistic viewpoint on the second comedy boom and bust… “if comedy is to grow, it needs to be inclusive and open to change.” If there is a boom and a bust occurring, it’s a groundbreaking shift to push those who want to stay in the spotlight of the stand-up comedy realm to become influencers of the cultural and technological progress this shift has created.
What do you think?
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