Opinion: Why it’s crucial that comedy clubs develop talent if they want to survive

By | August 22, 2011 at 9:45 am | 18 comments | News, Opinion | Tags: , , ,

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.

About the Author

Alf LaMont

Alf LaMont is the Head of Comedy and Content at Adler Integrated.

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  • http://www.secondcity.com Kelly Leonard

     

    I read Alf’s piece with great interest as The Second City is
    about to embark on an ambitious new space in our complex in Piper’s Alley in
    Chicago: The Up Comedy Club – which will feature headline stand-up comics as
    well as a variety of alternative programming (theatrical revues, improv shows,
    customized content for locals and tourists alike). I recall that during the
    stand-up boom days of the 1980’s, Second City couldn’t work harder at
    differentiating itself as a destination for sketch and improv – not stand-up
    comedy. And having worked the phones during those years in our box office, I
    spent quite a lot of time explaining to people that they were not booking to
    see Carrot Top, but a theatrical revue. In reality, the audience didn’t care.
    They wanted to laugh, they heard that Second City was a place that would make
    them do so and they just wanted to come and enjoy themselves. We all have to
    market ourselves – to distinguish our destination from a bevy of other
    fantastic entertainment options. But we can’t forget that the best kind of
    marketing is to do innovative work in a great atmosphere.

    The Second City format has always been eclectic – mixing
    elements of plays, musicals, monologues and interactive theatre. But unlike
    twenty some odd years ago, the audience for comedy has become highly
    sophisticated and far more adventurous. A club doesn’t need to be exclusive to
    a format to stick out in the marketplace. Rather, it’s a matter of cultivating
    the best talent that will speak to the audience in front of them – about what
    they care about, what they need to laugh about. Years ago, Second City had
    built a black box theatre that featured primarily student productions and
    rentals. But one of our resident actors, Matt Dwyer, wanted to bring in some
    young comics that he felt were in synch with The Second City esthetic. It’s
    hard to believe that a couple decades later we can look back and note that Zach
    Galifianakis, Kyle Kinane, Lewis Black and even Tina Fey – were doing midnight
    sets in an 80 seat venue in Chicago. Each of these folks was experimenting with
    their comic voice – they weren’t famous, yet – but they had a unique stage on
    which they could play.

    Comedy comes in so many bright and varied forms these days,
    it’s definitely the time to break down the walls between the formats and focus
    on what truly matters to the audience: Laughing.

    Kelly Leonard
    Executive Vice President
    The Second City

  • Spredluv

    Great article Alf.  Thoughtful indeed

  • Randy

    Would Alf like to address why the open mic at the comedy store often consists of the same people going up week after week even though they aren’t funny or even taking it seriously? Somebody is choosing to put them up repeatedly. How can you can find/nurture new talent when spots are being filled by known duds?

  • Randy

    Would Alf like to address why the open mic at the comedy store often consists of the same people going up week after week even though they aren’t funny or even taking it seriously? Somebody is choosing to put them up repeatedly. How can you can find/nurture new talent when spots are being filled by known duds?

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  • http://twitter.com/B2Walton Brian Walton

    I love this article, but it’s hard to swallow coming from the comedy store, stomping ground of the most predatory “bringer” show promoters out there.

  • http://twitter.com/B2Walton Brian Walton

    I love this article, but it’s hard to swallow coming from the comedy store, stomping ground of the most predatory “bringer” show promoters out there.

    • http://www.facebook.com/alflamont Alf LaMont

      Brian,

      I understand the situation with our bringer shows, which is why i brought it up.  If I was going to point out other club’s shortcomings, I couldn’t let our biggest infraction pass. On a brighter note, I was just put in charge of booking the rooms that the bringer shows are in and I can assure you that slowly but surely, their days are numbered.

  • Catyoga

    Fascinating article … 

  • Anonymous

    There’s a reason The Comedy Store and The Improv don’t find new talent:  The guys in charge of open mics put their friends up, and 99% of the time their friends aren’t funny.  

  • Bill Trujillo

    Mr. LaMont, you should check out Dan The Man’s open mic at Garfano’s in the San Gabriel Valley. Also, you are right on the money regarding “bringer shows” and the absurd contests out there. I am not a comic, but a comedy enthusiast. Thank you for the great article!

  • Bill Trujillo

    Mr. LaMont, you should check out Dan The Man’s open mic at Garfano’s in the San Gabriel Valley. Also, you are right on the money regarding “bringer shows” and the absurd contests out there. I am not a comic, but a comedy enthusiast. Thank you for the great article!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000118548701 Justin Ledlow

    Good read.. right now my struggle is doing comedy in a town (Huntsville, Alabama) without a club or a comedy scene, and myself and other local comics have been able to put on 2 shows so far that have been very successful, but if we ever wanted to get noticed we’d have to travel somewhere – but Zanie’s in Nashville makes you go through a comedy class so you can get any decent amount of time at their open mic. Meanwhile, Laughing Skull in Atlanta lets anyone do their open mic with a good time limit.

    The travel issue is a problem for me and my friends, but I think the problem with Zanie’s is something anyone can relate to, and hits on an issue this article describes, which is the club being a little too self-interested by charging for the comedy class just so people can do the open mic. What if someone doesn’t have the money for the class, or time to travel, but they could very well be an amazing comic… Zanie’s would never know it because of their open mic restrictions

  • Johnny Showtime

    you can blame this solely on people like dave stroupe. i used to work on the staff at one of his funnybone comedy clubs and i couldn’t believe that a guy like him had so much power. he knows nothing about the art of comedy and has no appreciation for it. he had no interest whatsoever in developing talent. his only interest is in making money regardless of the effect it has on the comedy industry. he treats the local comedians like shit instead of nurturing their talent. yes, he has helped the careers for a few select comedians, but not because he cares about them, only because they serve his own self-interest.

    the comedy model he has helped build is not only stupid, but will not sustain itself. they build funnybones and improvs in these new homogenous shopping malls that have exhorbitant rents so the only way to profit is to keep booking the same lame boring big name comics. from orange county to huntington west virginia, everywhere you go these comedy clubs are the same.

    if there is a town with one locally-owned comedy club they will strategically build an improv or funnybone club there to kill that locally-owned club and take all their business. the story i heard about dayton, ohio is tragic and it’s happening all over the country. the locally-owned clubs seem to be the only clubs that care about developing talent and they are slowly dying off one by one.

    even worse is the fact that while people like stroupe are lining their own pockets they keep lowering and lowering the pay for the comedians they book. it’s a real shame how little respect they have for the “no-name” comedians they depend on.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000118548701 Justin Ledlow

      What happened in Dayton? I’d be interested in reading about that

    • http://www.facebook.com/jimsfunny Jim Choquette

      Want some whiskey with that bitters??  And, you also left out the part on how it was you got fired…

      Everyone serves a role and purpose in the industry.  While things in general are “generally fucked”, its all a cycle – and to be so god damn bitter and anonymously post this hate-riddled drivel is just embarrassing.  

      You’ve embarrassed bus boys at comedy clubs everywhere.  I hope you’re happy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=658096577 Patrick Milligan

    How about NYC comedy clubs telling comedians not to work nearby rooms or else they won’t get booked. Why take money our of performers pockets for their own greed?

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