The Myth of the Golden Age of Comedy

I love myths.  I love legends.  I love urban legends.  I also love getting to the grit of the situation and seeing why we believe what we do.  The myth that I am tackling today?  The myth that we are in another golden age of comedy!

We have already had a golden age of comedy.  Depending on who you speak to, they will say that the first golden age of comedy was in the 70’s and some will say the late 80’s through the mid 90’s. This was during what many would consider the height of SNL and other sketch comedy shows, some of the greatest comedy movies of all time, and some of the best stand up specials ever.  This was also the era of Live, local, stand up comedy, when people went out to see live comedy and everyone was doing well.  This all changed by the turn of the millennium.  Comedy clubs started shutting down and it was much harder for an MC or feature to make it.  I came along in the mid 2000’s and I was able to see the trend in real time.

Now with companies like Netflix and HBO shelling out big bucks for comedy specials, and the arrival of entire platforms to deliver comedy (Seeso, Laugh or Die, etc.), many are saying this is the second golden age of comedy.  I do not believe that.  There are many factors for this perception in the rise of comedy, one of them is that viewers are moving from the television and cable box, to the internet. That means that you can consume as much as you want, as long as it is out there. All you have to do is type in “comedy” into YouTube and you are able to watch tons of clips. Comedy specials are a great thing for content companies to invest in.  They typically have low budgets, they are a one off, so you don’t have to be invested in a story line, and a lot of the time, you will watch it multiple times. This means that the amount invested goes a long way! It also doesn’t hurt that with the advent of the internet, it is much easier to find and follow your favorite comedian, and it could seem as though we are seeing an uptick when in actuality its access to comedy content.

In the 90’s comedy was everywhere.  All you have to do is sit down with an older comedian and they will tell you about all the places in the area that had professional comedy.  I think that is why we think comedy took a dip.  It wasn’t that comedy was no longer popular, it was because comedy having such a low bar of entry, anyone could call themselves a comedian and start selling comedy to folks that just wanted to go out and have a good time.  Consumers started to wise up and that is how you get our current situation.  It’s much harder now to sell just generic comedy.  What I mean by that is, people are much more reluctant to just watch comedy, especially if there are better things to do.  That is why the industry is such a credit drawn industry.  People want to know if you are good, and the only way to see that is if they know you have done some things.  So, for the middle guys like me, comedy has actually shrunk.  Those bars and seedy hotel parlors are gone, so it is much harder to be on the road as just a feature act.  More money is going to comedians, but only the top 1%.  Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock are making 40 and 50 million for specials that will be on Netflix, but if you are hosting at clubs you will not see much difference.

This is not to bag on anyone or any system.  I am just stating that it is not a rise in popularity, but a rise in the availability of stuff that people always wanted.  Ten years ago, if you wanted to watch that new special, you had to either have HBO or Showtime, or you bought the DVD.  Now, you can go to a myriad of places to find great, funny content.  Add to that stars that you have seen on TV now coming to comedy clubs, and it could seem as though everyone is back into comedy.  People have always loved comedy.  Who doesn’t want to laugh? The problem is that there are a lot of things that can hinder a person wanting to go see stand up.  Is it in my area?  How much is it?  When is it over?  Will they make fun of my head?  These things keep people away from comedy.  Now, if you see that funny guy from that funny thing is coming to town, then you may forgo all those negatives and check it out.  So, instead of saying comedy is in another golden age, it would be more accurate to say that the lay person is more willing to come out and see the popular people.

So no, comedy is not going through a second golden age.  Like everything it ebbs and flows, but it has always been a popular form of entertainment.  There are many factors for the perception that comedy is gaining in popularity again.  Mainly, the internet.  There may be more money being handed out, but it is only to the top percent of comedians, and that is because that is what people want to see.  I am not saying that if you are a feature or a MC, to hang up your mic.  If anything that means keep pushing so you can work with these kinds of acts!  What if they are looking for someone to feature or MC for them all the time?  If you have your shit together, you could be that person and you could benefit from their ability to get into more clubs, which means more money in your pocket.

The Pain Of Failure

Went to Colorado Springs to take part in the World Series of Comedy. I am always a nervous wreck when it comes to competitions.  I feel like I have good material and everything, but it never seems to hold up very well under scrutiny.  I do them anyway because it is the best way to get out there and network.

I was in the “wildcard” round.  If you place in the wildcard, you can then move on to the next competition. The 40 comics that were selected were all done so based on the video that was sent in.  So, the wildcard round is for those comics that had a pretty bad video, but not that bad. I was the ninth comic and I thought I did a good job.  I placed second and got to move on to the next round.

So I got to hang out Thursday and watch shows and got to see the sites of Colorado Springs.  I performed first show Friday and I was a nervous wreck.  I actually laid in my hotel bed, timing my material, so I could be sure not to go over time.  I never do this!  I just go up with a rough sketch of what I will do and I let the crowd take me the rest of the way.  Because I placed in the wildcard, I was the first comic to go up.  Comics call this the “bullet” spot or “taking the bullet”.  The reason being is because as the first comic, everyone else will be judge based on you.  You are the average, and being the average does not get you into the final night.  I did my thing, and I thought it was great.  As the first comic, you have to set the bar high.  You can’t mess up because then the bar is so low that the other comics can just walk over it.  They picked two comics to go on to the Saturday shows, and I was not one of them.

After the show, the guy that puts this all together told me I did a good job taking the bullet, and I only lost out by a point, but while I was listening to him, my brain was muddy.  Like he was talking to me while I was in a bowl of water.  All I could keep thinking was, “Not again.”.  I didn’t stay up that late because I had a flight back to Spokane, but I did stay to watch my buddy Phil Kopczynski take second during the next show.  The whole time though, I was sitting there wondering what I could have done differently.

This is my third of these types of competitions, and I always seem to do well, until I talk myself into failing.  I lay there at night just running through all the times I ran into hardship, or I just tell myself that I am not supposed to be a great comic.  I think about all the other failures in my life and think why would this be any different.  That sort of thinking will eat away at your soul.  I try not to let the negative thoughts get to me, but it is hard in a business where failure comes in bunches and the victories are so small, but seem so big because you don’t know what it feels like.  Comics in Spokane assume that I am doing all this stuff, but what they fail to see are the emails (or lack there of) from casting directors and club bookers turning me down.

It hurts to work at something and not see it pan out.  That is comedy though.  That is show business.  It tears away at you and you mull over all the ways you could have turned it around.  Maybe I should have done this, or maybe I should have said that?  That always pops up in my mind after the fact.  It also doesn’t help that I get approached after the show and told how close I was to success.  It just plants another seed in my mind that I should not strive for a better position, that the space I take up now in comedy is the one I am best suited.  That may be right.  It doesn’t hurt to keep trying though.

Even though I fail in a lot of my pursuits, my YouTube channel, my photography business, my podcast, this blog, it doesn’t mean that the passion to do those things die along with it.  Every Monday, I still have a desire to type out these words even though a small number of people will read them.  I still take photos and offer my services.  I still write short stories and audition for commercials and movies.  I do these things because when I look at my life without those things, I don’t see me existing.  These are the things that make my heart race, that make me feel like I am adding to the positivity of the human condition, and so I will still perform comedy, and write and take photos, even though I will run into a lot more hardships. This defines me, and I can’t walk away from it.

Hosting Ain’t Easy

I got to host the Thursday night show at the new club here in Spokane.  I haven’t hosted a paid show in a long time and I was a little nervous about how it would go.  I have hosted a little over 10 paid shows in my time as a comedian.  Way less than the times I have featured or headlined.  It is a skill that I have always thought was important, but never got to develop.  I have seen great hosts, and I have seen bad hosts, so I was determined to mimic the great hosts I have seen over the years.

One thing that is very important when hosting is knowing that the show isn’t about you.  You warm them up and you get the show going.  I am not used to that thought process.  The stage for me is an outlet, and sometimes I get lost up there, so I was determined not to do that.  I didn’t want to because I didn’t want to be selfish, and I wanted to get hired again.

You see this more at independently ran shows, where things are a little more lax.  You will see the host going up and doing time in between acts and it seems like they want to pull the attention back to them. When you are in a club, especially a club with big names coming through, you have to be aware that the people paying are not there to see you.  They want less host and more guy they saw on YouTube while they were at their cubicle.

I was also really nervous about getting the names right.  Dave Fulton is a straight forward name, but Andy Woodhull sounded weird whenever I practiced saying it.  I had a speech impediment as a child, so I am always worried that the sounds I make are not correct.  I studied the credits until I could say them without looking at the paper.  I always liked that from hosts that I have seen.  It looks like they are about their business and that is what I wanted to do.

I had 8 minutes so I did my material that struck a middle ground.  I saw clips of Andy and I have seen Dave a couple of times, so I decided on my material and I went up…and stumbled all over my lines.  Nerves!  Nerves hit me.  I get nervous a lot, but mainly because I want to do well, not because of anything else.  This was a different type of nerve though.  It was like when I first started doing comedy.  It perked my ears a bit.

Other than messing up a bit on a couple of jokes, the hosting part went smoothly.  I have always felt that the job of the host is to hype, warm, and introduce, and I felt I did two of those things well, and one of those things passably.  It taught me that no matter how long you have been doing it, you can always be placed in a unique situation.  It was unique in that it was my first time hosting at the new club, and I wanted to do well enough that I would get asked to do it again.  I learned that I need to do it more, and I will get that chance when I host the open mic this week.  That will give me a really good chance to practice on my hosting skills. See you next week when we talk about what types of cured meats to take with you on stage.

The Myth Of The Big Break

Comedians are always looking for that opportunity to get to the next level.  Some call it their “big break”. I believe that there is no such thing.

First, I don’t think there is such a thing as a big break.  I believe it is akin to steps.  What I mean is, there are little processes that lead you to the place you want to be.  What some comedians believe is that it isn’t steps but more like a leap, or jumping into an airborne aircraft.  You don’t go: first night, open mic and then second night, Starring in your own movie.  Doesn’t work like that.  There are a lot of chances to get you where you are going.

I don’t know how many comedians I have known over the years that thought that all they had to do was get on stage and a producer from NBC or Comedy Central would scoop them up and hand them a million dollars. It is the same thinking as a poor person waiting on the lottery to solve all of their problems.  Some comedians will point to a person that is red hot right now as an example of overnight success.  Here is the biggest issue with that thinking:  If you are not prepared then what are you going to do when you do get that chance?  If you aren’t out there performing and getting better, even if an opportunity hit you in the face you wouldn’t know what to do with it.  Every example that I hear of, the person that was doing it for two years and now they are in movies or the guy that went to an open mic and got blown by an executive from Comedy Central is missing a couple of key points.  First, it could have been a fluke.  That isn’t how it is normally so you should not expect it to work out that way for you.  Second, and what this paragraph has been trying to get at from the first word, they must have been prepared enough.  If just getting there is the goal then they succeeded.  If it was to stay there then they still have work to do.

I had been doing comedy for about 4 years when in the span of like 3 months I opened for a couple of big acts.  Like national big.  I thought it was my big chance to get up to the opening these big acts.  It didn’t pan out.  I think what was important was that I didn’t let that be my one and only chance!  The same thing happened when I went to Seattle to be in their international comedy competition.  I thought this was my big chance and I think I put way to much on just a competition.  Because even if I had won the whole thing, that doesn’t mean I could just lay back and rest on that little resume enhancer.  I would still have to kick butt everywhere I went.

I think it is a product of what YouTube has done to fame and fortune.  YouTube has made it that you can be an overnight success.  I think as humans though we are bad with these sorts of things.  We tend to believe that if it can work for that one guy then it has to work for us.  Those people are outliers, anomalies, freaks. The average comedian will spend years honing their craft to the point that it is as sharp as can be before they get opportunities.  That’s what you should be striving for, being a better comedian, not being a flash in the pan…unless that is what you want.

Wrassling Badgers

Sometimes, I just name these blog post after things I want to search for in google images.  Today…it was badgers.

Someone linked this blog to reddit and it BLEW UP (relatively speaking)!  almost 500 views this week. That is a two month span for me normally.  I don’t know who it was, but I have always wanted to put this up there to see if someone else would like to read it, but reddit…scares the shit out of me.  Yeah, it’s a great place to go to see funny memes, but I don’t want to wander into /r/coontown and have my faith in humanity destroyed.

Since it’s so slow comedy wise in the area, I think a lot of comics just decide to stay home.  I think this is a mistake.  If you are still developing an act, I think you should still be going to open mics and working it out, that way when the shows pop up again you will be ready.  Nothing bothers me more than watching a comic disappear for 3-4 months and then show up when they think there is money to be made in comedy in the area only to not get any of that work because they “lost” it.  I don’t even know why it bothers me. It’s a simple system here in the area:  The one club in Spokane has an open mic.  The people looking for work get up and try to impress the runner of the club enough to get him to pay them.  The problem comes when you have been floating the river for 3 months and decide to come back and do comedy…you are not sharp like you are if you have been doing it at least every so often.  So when the club runner sees you up there with the same stuff he knows you are not ready.  This also applies to independent shows that take place during that same time.  Comics put other comics they have seen lately on their shows.  If they haven’t seen your ass in forever they are not putting you on.

I get it.  No one wants to do a show in front of 6 people when they can be drinking beer in their backyards.  The weather is great and no one wants to come inside.  If this is what you want to do though, you have to be willing to sacrifice that extra couple of hours to work your material in front of those 6 people.  When I was just starting out I went to every open mic, even if it wasn’t really a comedy open mic. I performed in front of small crowds and crowds that didn’t want to hear jokes.  Why?  So I can work on my material, so when it does come time to perform I got my shit down.  People work and have children, and that is fine, but you also can’t complain when you aren’t just being handed paid work.  My kid used to hate it when I had to leave to get to the open mic, but I did it because I wanted to at least try and be good at it.  You get what you put in…I think Abraham Lincoln said that.

What I have been seeing lately though is this is just par for the course in Spokane.  I think there is a little self defeat in most of the comics (and businesses) working in the area.  They feel as though they are on an island that will never be visited so they just slack off until they hear that something is happening.  Life doesn’t work like that though.  That is why it is so easy to tell the people that want it and the people that don’t in this town. The people that do want it, show up to empty rooms or rooms that can chew your ass up, and they work on their stuff and they eventually leave because they realize that everyone here is just mailing it in.  Then you have the people that bring the same shit they have been doing for three years on stage and they don’t write and they don’t try new things.  All they do is sit around talking shit about why one comic got on a show and they didn’t.

I have been lining up more photography gigs and it is basically covering the lost income from the lack of shows during the summer.  The thing is I never thought about photography as a money making venture. I just wanted something to record my YouTube videos and the next thing you know I am doing people’s head shots.

I submitted my application to be in the San Francisco comedy competition.  I will find out in August if I was accepted.  A part of me wants to go do it (exposure), but another part of me (the part that hates competitions) really wants to avoid these things.  It is not cheap to spend a week in San Fran.  Hotel, food, hookers, that all adds up.  When I did the Seattle competition, there were people that were basically hobos for that week.  I want to be more prepared than that.  I want to have a comfortable place to stay and relax and focus on the task at hand.  The task of world domination.

 

Should You Put Your Sets On YouTube

Comics who start out in the area usually ask me this.  I think we all want to appeal to a ton of people and gain a ton of fans and stuff, but in the end it can do more harm than good.  There are times when you absolutely need to have your video online and there are times when you would be best served to just leave it for your private consumption.

Let’s go over scenarios first.  If you just started out and don’t really have much material it is probably best to keep it off the internets.  If you want your friends and family to check out your stuff then you can upload it and set it to private and send them a link to it.  If you are thinking that it will attract tons of fans and start you on the path to stardom then it may not work out like that for you.  The internet is already awash with cat videos, and videos of dudes falling out of trees, and even more important to us comics: other, more well known comedians.  See you have to think of it like this:  If people are looking at videos they have to go through all the videos of people punching a shark or getting ran over by someone in an electric scooter.  If they are specifically looking for stand up then it is even less likely that people will see your video and decide to watch that when they can watch a clip of a comedian they have seen on television and movies.  Now, if they do happen across your video because you have an interesting topic or something, then you have that person judging material that you may not have worked out properly.  In truthfulness, I put up videos that have jokes that I stumbled across while at an open mic, but I watch it to make sure that it is something that I would laugh at.  If you are just starting out and it is one of your first sets, it doesn’t show you in a great light.  People won’t know that that is your third time on stage, and even then because it is the internet and everyone on the internet is a cumsock (patent pending…) they will ridicule your material and you, and that may hurt your confidence way to early (let comedy naturally destroy it).

Ok.  You have been doing it longer than three weeks and you have some material that you want on the YouTubes (I calls it what I wants).  Maybe you want to see if you can get a bunch of views and a tv deal. Well, the tip here is don’t put your entire set up there!  I see so many comedians put their entire 10 minutes on YouTube as if it will help people come out and see you.  The key with YouTube for a comedian is to entice people to come purchase the product.  That means getting them to come see you live.  You aren’t getting anything out of it if they can see your entire show from the comfort of their cell phone.  If you have 5 minutes that you want to put online think about just 2 or 3 minutes. That way the person looking at it will want to see more of you and may just come see you live instead.  What I do is if I have a set recorded that I want to put online then I will find a good section of jokes or maybe just one joke and throw that up there with a screen showing my information.  That way if they like what they see they can come check more of me out.

The final scenario is the person that wants to feature or headline and they get work and just want it mostly for promotional purposes.  First off, give me some of your contacts…I’m begging you man!..er…The same as above applies, you want to tease the audience, but now you have to have a clip or two of your material for potential bookers.  I have several videos on my YouTube page that I send out with my promo package.  If you want to read my post on the video submission just go here.  The key here is to have a video that shows your best side.  If you are trying to get booked with a cruise line then you should not send them a video clip of your pretending to fist a mermaid.  You may want to show the family friendly side of your show.  I have a normal clip where I say the word shit (not just the word shit, there are jokes splattered about) and I send that to clubs and bookers that book those types of rooms where language isn’t that big a deal.  When I am sending stuff off for tv and stuff, I send them my set where I am not cursing.  I have a 3 minute video and a 10 minute video.  This came about because of necessity. I was sending my 3 minute video out to bookers and a couple of them asked for more. I then had to find 10 minutes and I will send them that one if they request it.  The reason I have 3 minutes instead of 5?  I don’t know.  I think that was the stuff I wanted to showcase and I know that these guys aren’t watching an entire 10 minute video.  On the off chance that they are…I got em.

I hope I didn’t come across as pessimistic about putting your material up online for the world to view. There are instances where comics have had their material stolen because they had a good premise and a joke that showed promise, only to have someone in another part of the country snatch it and fix the things that would have probably been fixed naturally and then they watch comedy central to see some guy do their stuff word for word.  When I started putting videos up there no one told me what to do because all of this stuff was still new.  I would put material up and have it shredded to pieces. I wasn’t ready to have that material represent me!  It was online though so it showed anyone looking at comedy my sorry ass telling jokes about drop kicking santa or some dumb shit and that will leave an impression on people.  Now what I do is if I have a bit that I want up, I will put it up there and put in the description that it was from an open mic.  I also stopped putting stuff online that I didn’t really like after watching it again.  Now, I may just be a jaded comic.  I only have about 6k views on my channel. You may fare better.  I hope you do.  I don’t want to see anyone fail, I just want you to understand that it isn’t as harmless as you think.

New York State Of Mind

My stay in New York is coming to an end.  I have seen things. Smelled things, and with everything that I have seen and smelled in mind I know one this is for sure when it comes to comedy in NY.  People like the idea more than they like the reality. It seems great at first right?  You’re in the largest city in the U.S.  Some of the best comics on earth have graced the stages here.  People have become famous here.  The reality is a lot harder for most to swallow though.  Most of the people we see on TV and in movies are in NY.  Few of them, however, got their starts here.  A lot of these guys were grinding somewhere else and work or other opportunities got them here.

It is hard to see that when you are looking at NY from the distant dystopian landscape that is Spokane, WA. Spokane doesn’t have a 1/3 of the comics or 1/3 of the comedy rooms, but we do have way more love for the random comic.  The guy that makes up about 85% of all comics on the planet.  The guys that are just working and trying to catch a break so they can leave their idilic upbringings so they can get seen in NY.  That is a terrible way of looking at it in my eyes.

People want to run away from the Spokanes and the Boises, and hell even the Seattles and Portlands of the country to get famous in NY or LA.  Time after time, however, all you see if them doing the same shit they were doing in those other cities, just now they have to pay triple in rent (if you are comparing Spokane to NY) and you have to play in front of other comics in basements.  The people you hear of or see on TV are the 1%.  They worked.  They caught breaks, but mostly they WORKED.  They networked and push through all of the lazy sacks that just thought that if they did their 15 minutes about Mike Tyson that they would be discovered.  The reality of the situation if much more grim then people want to admit.

See, the thing is, no one wants to admit that they are just an average comedian.  No one wants to admit that they do not have the work ethic to actually get the chances that the 1% get.  That is the problem. Humans can talk themselves into any corner, but rarely do we talk ourselves into reality.

Every comic that I met on this trip said the same thing.  That they play in front of other comics and the only way out of the basements are to get lucky and save a famous comedian’s life, or you somehow end up on a showcase because someone saw you.  Do you know how rare that is?  Out of the thousands of comics that means only about 10-20 might get seen and thrown up on a bigger stage and if they don’t work that right they are back to the basements.  Hell, in Spokane you can get paid a couple months after doing comedy if you are good enough an not a massive asshole.  That same comic in Spokane travels here and he won’t see work for at least a year.

Another thing I noticed is that comedy isn’t a regional thing.  If it is funny and well written it will play anywhere.  A joke about blacks might not play as well in the midwest, but it will still be funny (I hope that made sense).  I have done my stuff on several stages here and they have laughed every time.  That tells me that it is good stuff.

Does that mean I should sell all my shit and move here? Hells nah!  First, I don’t think I have the work ethic to make it in a town this big.  Maybe I do, but I try to be real with myself.  Second, this place is so fucking expensive that it is a miracle that people have time for open mics!  I know of at least 4 comedians in this area that can barely afford where they stay and they are not even in New York City.  The reality to me is that if I were to move to NY I would need to have all my ducks in a row.  If you are not already a traveling comic with enough work to substain staying here you are better off not coming.  Unless of course you just like the lifestyle of living in a shitty apartment with roommates.

This place is so expensive that if you didn’t over estimate the amount of money you were going to spend you would be broke.  That is what I did.  I thought about how much I would spend and then added 500 bucks.  I didn’t spend as much as I thought (because I am a cheap old black man) that I am actually feeling fine.  This place is not for the people that like to stay in bed until 2 and then think they can hop on an open mic or a show and make a little cash.  There are already 300 comedians up and waiting before you have brushed you teeth.  That is the reality.  The 1% that make it here are the 1% that make it anywhere.  It’s just that the 1% in Spokane means about 3-4 comics and the 1% in NY is about 100 comics.

Habits that are learned in a smaller town like Spokane will destroy you here.  You can’t call an open mic 30 minutes before and say, “Hey, add me to the list!” You spot has already been taken, probably days ago.  You can’t sit there and bitch about why you didn’t get on a show or why you didn’t get a spot.  They will tell you why.  Unlike in Spokane where we really don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  Comics in Spokane have it good.  You don’t have to pay for open mics.  You don’t have to sign up a week before an open mic.  You can get guest spots in front of real paying audience!  You can do open mics in front of real paying audiences.  Yet.  All I hear is how if they can get to NY they can start making money or be famous.  I won’t say you can’t, but with the work mentality that I see most comics (unless your name is Greg Beechler, Steven Tye, or Michael Evans) they would not make a red nickel in this city.

It sounds kinda messed up, right?  I seem so doom and gloom this entire time.  I am just talking though.  Do you feel as though you are the exception to the rule?  Then go for it!  Nothing can stop you if you really want something.  That is how I got work in the first place.  I just kept plugging along until stuff happened.  That will happen everywhere.  It’s just harder here.