Messin’ with Texas: Why Doesn’t SXSW Pay its Comedians?

Charlie Sotelo hasn’t gotten much sleep this year, but that’s true for him every January and February. Sotelo is the sole staffer handling the comedy division of South by Southwest, the ever-expanding music/tech/hipster Austin, TX hoedown and trade show.

This year his nights have been even more restless, after Duncan Trussell, a comedian who was invited to perform, publicly scolded the festival for not offering to pay his travel and lodging expenses through a series of YouTube videos, including a version of the “Hitler reacts” meme.

SXSW is not a comedy festival. There are no wristbands or badges to buy to see comedy shows; it’s all free — provided you’ve already bought wristbands or badges to see other SXSW events. Comedy is the gift that comes with purchase, like a decoder ring at the bottom of a box of cereal. The festival, which began in 1987, has only included comedy since 2008. While it has a long history of rocketing musicians to fame (Hanson, John Mayer, James Blunt) and helping to popularize startups (Twitter, Foursquare), it has no such prestige with comedians’ careers.

To be sure, plenty of comedians attend and perform, but the likes of Aziz Ansari, Magaret Cho, Todd Barry and Donald Glover don’t really need the festival; many performing comedians, in fact, are already either the kind of hipster groupie or tech nerd who would have attended on their own anyway.

When comedy came in 2008, it was for just one night. In 2009, two nights; in 2010, three nights; last year, six nights; and this year, all eight nights. Each night has three 90-minute shows, which each include four or five comedians. There are also eight comedy podcasts, and comedians participating in panel discussions.

In an email to Splitsider where he made the subject line “Every day I’m Trussellin’,” Sotelo wrote, in part: “We were contacted by Duncan’s agent several times asking for a slot on one of our comedy shows. Duncan is a talented comedian, and we were happy to invite him, but we’re a little puzzled by his reaction. We gave him the same offer we give everyone, which includes a cash option and housing assistance. It’s obviously not the kind of offer he had hoped for, and we certainly understand that it doesn’t make sense for everybody. Normally, when that’s the case, a performer will just decline our invitation without ever even making a Hitler video.”

The cash option is $100. And the housing assistance was the ability to stay with local comedians (who apparently all live in the same building), often in a proper guest room, not a couch or a sleeping bag on the floor. In emails back and forth, Sotelo pointed out to Trussell that there are enough corpo rate-sponsored drinks and meals that his food budget would be close to zero; Trussell responded, in part, by suggesting that “maybe you should consider downsizing to the point where you don’t have to exploit artists to sell tickets” and that every comedian who does attend “feels some sense of shame.”

Interviewing about a dozen comedians who have attended in the past or are attending this year, none said they felt shame. Maybe frustration, although “yes, SXSW can be frustrating but then again the life of a comedian is frustrating,” said Eliza Skinner, who is speaking on a SXSW panel about douchebaggery. “It’s evolution,” she explained. “You do enough shit work to earn enough good work,” giving the example of all the performances she has given — hundreds — for free at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, which charges for some shows, because the way she makes her money is by charging for her improvisation classes “and the only reason people pay for my classes is because they’ve seen me on stage doing my performances.” In that sense, she added, “there’s a question mark hanging over SXSW, where it’s not proven what it does for comedians.” Gone are the days when a 7-minute stand-up set at the Montreal Comedy Festival would land a comedian a development deal.

Skinner echoed a sentiment that many comedians shared: “People don’t understand what we do is work; they think, well, I laugh with my funny friends and I don’t pay them. You’re just a funny person too.” Streeter Seidell, the CollegeHumor writer/performer who is also speaking on a panel at SXSW, agreed.

“A comedian is not five people carrying musical equipment. It’s just a dude who shows up,” he said. “I can see [SXSW] not even thinking about it, thinking they’re doing comedians a favor. It’s like a backhanded compliment where the person doesn’t realize how hurtful the thing they’re saying is.”

Comedians should keep in mind, said Eugene Mirman, that this is the same deal that bands get; it’s just that bands — and filmmakers and tech developers — have corporate sponsors or angel investors to float their costs. Mirman set up his own eponymous comedy festival as a joke using $18,000 raised from Kickstarter. He paid comedians’ travel, as do some other festivals that are explicitly comedy shows (Sasquatch, for one).

“The deal is not a deal,” said Mirman. “It’s just a thing where you can do it if you want. Hopefully it will change.”

But be careful what you wish for, Duncan Trussells of the world. One year, Southwest Airlines agreed to pay Mirman’s travel, but they sent him from New York to Baltimore, where he had to pay his own lodging, then to Cleveland, Dallas and another stop — Mirman said he’s tried to block the whole debacle out of his memory — before finally landing in Austin. He put himself up in a Super 8 about ten miles outside of town. The next year he told them, “Please don’t handle my travel. Just my lodging.”

In general, said Marc Maron, who is performing a WTF podcast with Jeffrey Tambor at SXSW this year, “It’s a clusterfuck out there, at any place like that, really. They barter a lot. It’s a lot of chaos. You just have to stand up for yourself. And if you have a bad experience, don’t do it again.” He grumbled about the same inequities that Trussel railed against, but noted that “basic cable used to be just like that. You’d get a small one-time amount and they’d show it on TV forever.”

Dan Allen, the godfather of fresh-faced NYC comedians, related a similar basic cable tale. He pays all comedians who perform on his NYC monthly showcase SACAPUNTAS!; the bigger names get gifts that are harder to refuse (John Oliver is paid in Mets trading cards). “I feel for this Trussel guy,” said Allen, “because it’s something that you’re willing to do; you’re willing to get taken advantage of from 18 until about 32, until you sit down and realize you need to monetize your career. So festivals like this will always be able to make deals like this because there will always be twentysomethings who want it bad enough.”

Adam Newman, himself a twentysomething who peforms on the road in Chicago, Atlanta and New York, called himself “the last person to rock the boat,” crystallizing that perspective: “Festivals are not necessary. They’re fun parties. If you don’t want to go to the parties, just don’t go. It’s like being invited to a wedding. You have to pay because they like you enough to want you to be a part of their special moment. It’s an honor.”

What it’s not, Sotelo affirmed, is a job. “An invite to SXSW isn’t a job offer,” his email read. “It’s really just an invitation to come party and perform with other people who love what they do.”

The first time Splitsider told Richard how much they would pay him for a story, he rejected the offer, demanding one dollar more; he ended up getting paid three dollars more.

Messin’ with Texas: Why Doesn’t SXSW Pay its Comedians?