In 1973 Johnny Carson moved the Tonight Show from Manhattan to Burbank and in one swift move, shifted the center of the comedy universe at the time from NYC to LA. Back then, the only way to make it “Big” in comedy was through the Tonight Show and its mystical gatekeepers. Would you be seen by the Tonight Show scouts? Would you make it through the booking process? Would Johnny approve? Would he invite you over to the couch? Would you be asked back?
The road to fame was difficult, and very few made it. But despite its difficulty, the road was clear. The first step to be taken towards comedy fame and glory was to be seen by the right people, and in LA that was at one of the famous clubs, which made club owners like Mitzi Shore, and Budd Friedman de facto gatekeepers to a comedy career in Hollywood. The Comedy Store and The Improv became the point of focus and even obsession of an entire generation of comics. Robin Williams, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Richard Lewis all carry strong memories of a time when comedy clubs were the most important place for comedians.
Fast forward to today.
The art form of Comedy has been democratized by the Internet, and comics like Rob Delaney and Bo Burnham are barely familiar with the structure of the halcyon days of comedy clubs, opting instead for a direct and incredibly effective appeal to their target audiences. This relatively swift power shift in comedy has come as a surprise to clubs, who, while basking in the momentary upswing of the current comedy boom, are making few changes to their internal culture and are not adapting to a hugely changed culture of comedy.
In Los Angeles as in many cities across the country, traditional comedy venues are playing second fiddle to a booming comedy scene that is wholly independent of the club system and that is home to new and exciting talent as well as veterans who have become disenchanted with the politics, abuses and unnecessary complexities of venues that refuse to distance themselves from what has become a dysfunctional and broken model. When major players like Patton Oswalt and Paul F. Tompkins go out of their way to explain to their audiences that they hate playing clubs in their hometown, something is very much amiss.
Add to that the increasing migration of huge talent like Ellen DeGeneres, Dane Cook, Chris Rock, and others to larger venues like Club Nokia and The Staples Center, and we have a perfect storm for traditional comedy venues. If emerging talent is being found in bars, comic book stores and even cemeteries, and established talent is avoiding you or opting for other, larger venues, how small must the talent pool get before everyone becomes redundant?
On any given night you can drive by the marquees of the big comedy clubs in LA and see the same few names repeated, one comic may even play up to three venues on a given night. To the casual observer, the difference between the clubs is minimal, while the stellar casts of shows produced at Largo and UCB are cutting-edge and thrilling. Innovation and development are nearly nonexistent at clubs, who are depending on their relationships with a fraction of the comedy community to produce tired shows that are variant only in race or sexual orientation. A few exceptions are being made; most notably, The Improv Lab is a ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak landscape.
However, as long as the culture of clubs remains one that is focused on exploiting emerging and existing talent whether through unimaginative and stale shows, through cynical “contests” aimed more at creating web traffic than at cultivating the up and coming talent, or through predatory bringer shows that promise nothing but a few dollars in the pockets of the clubs and promoters and offer a limited experience to both audiences and embryonic talent, clubs risk becoming as redundant as music halls and ballrooms.
The change of culture is a difficult step for clubs to take, and one that will take years to understand. Over the last three years the club that I work for has shifted from that redundancy into a slow but steady build. Accepting our shortcomings and mistakes are only a part of the process. More important has been the contextualization of our club within not only the comedy community, but with our neighborhood and city. Aside from community building projects involving our neighborhood, we are taking measures to insure that more development spots are available than ever before, we are passing more “regulars” and exploring ways to bring more opportunities to the people who sacrifice so much and give their time not only to the art form but to our club. Hell, we’ve even gone as far as to discuss doing away with the much-loathed two drink minimum. Save your applause. We’re not there yet. However, I urge other clubs to take a sincere look at the way they do business and ask themselves “How much of what we do actually benefits comics and our community, and how much of it is self serving bullshit?”
If clubs are sincere in their appraisal, they should see a lot of room for improvement. In fact, it’s daunting how much remains to be done. Nonetheless, self-awareness and action are necessary step in insuring that these historic venues remain active and relevant in the future.
The views expressed in this editorial are the views of the author and do not represent the views of The Comedy Store, or those of the owners and management.