Comedians Reveal What the L.A. Stand-up Scene Actually Pays

Laurie Kilmartin. Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Seeso

In their recent comedy-themed issue, The Hollywood Reporter published a controversial and unsubstantiated claim about the riches to be mined from the Los Angeles stand-up scene. In an article that chronicled a ride-along with a comedy agent as he traveled around town for a night of shows, THR noted that “a newer comic just breaking into the L.A. circuit can earn anywhere from $1,250 to $2,500 per week.” Naturally, comedians intimately familiar with the notoriously expensive city’s comedy scene immediately took to Twitter, the stage, and their own podcasts to weigh in on the alleged income possibilities of this so-called “comedy gold rush.”

Sensing that there may be an alternative take on the earning potential for a newcomer to the L.A. stand-up scene, we decided to skip the agents and go straight to the comics for some insight. The men and women we spoke with covered a wide range of backgrounds and career stages, but the one thing they had in common was their wholesale rejection of the notion that a fledgling comic can make a comfortable living from stand-up. With each new comic who shared their struggles, side hustles, and other thoughts about the lack of money in the scene, a bleak new picture, vastly different from the one painted by The Hollywood Reporter, began to take shape. Perhaps, with an inhuman work ethic and an extremely loose interpretation of the term “newer comic,” there is some way to reach the income figures mentioned in that article. But if there are indeed any veins of gold in these comedy hills, the stand-up prospectors of L.A. have yet to strike it.

Moses Storm: I was surprised to be sort of the face of this wildly inaccurate article. He was there, the reporter. He could have just asked me. There’s a photo of me right there.

I’m eight years into comedy. Started in L.A. with a few TV credits and a late-night set and was not even close to earning [the] amount [cited in the article]. Not only have I never made that amount, it’s very hard to make that amount even on the road, and that’s probably the only place you can make money. On a very good week, where you get to do the rare few shows that do pay in L.A., you’re making maybe $51. You do Hot Tub on Monday, which is one of the more premium shows, and you’re getting maybe $20 of the door take. Everyone you see who has multiple Netflix specials and hundreds of TV credits, they’re getting $20 on that stage. The next night, I’ll go to the Improv to do a sold-out show in the main room. That’s $15. I’ll go to the Improv Lab across the way and do a set there. That’s $10. And for all these paid shows to even line up in the same week is so rare. That’s on a very good week.

The other thing is, most comedians in L.A., to get on other shows, have to run their own shows. So, you’re essentially paying to run a show. I ran a show for five years at Meltdown Comics in its heyday. It was the spot. We had one once a month and I spent about $70 per show to put it on — buying greenroom beer, paying for promotions and any props needed for the variety shows. You’re actively losing money.

And this is coming from a place where I 100 percent can support myself on comedy-related work and acting now. It’s not like I’m an open mic–er and barista. I’m at a very privileged position in my comedy career and that number is so far off. When I first started and was “breaking into the L.A. circuit,” I worked at a nightclub, after hours, 10 p.m. to 9 a.m. I’d sleep for maybe three or four hours, go work at Islands in Burbank. When I got off that, after a four- or five-hour shift, I would then go out and essentially pay to do open mics at places where it would cost $5 to even get onstage. The only way I was ever able to quit those jobs were with things that were not stand-up: booking a Verizon commercial or a Hulu web series. Always side things that had nothing to do with stand-up.

So to paint a picture that live comedy pays, which is quite literally what this article says, is irresponsible. I don’t know many teens in Iowa that are reading The Hollywood Reporter, but if they are, they’re gonna be like me at 18 and trying to add up the numbers, like, Can I survive and sustain myself doing this? To mislead someone with a figure that is beyond an exaggeration and just ridiculous — if you’re making $2,500 a week, that’s $10,000 a month? That’s $120,000 a year?! — it’s irresponsible. Anyone looking to move out to L.A. is desperate for any piece of information that can make them feel better or sway their opinion, and this potential six-figure income now out there? It’s insane. I don’t even know what to say.

Laurie Kilmartin: I think that a couple clubs would not like the uproar over how little they pay and could stop giving me spots. So, while I would love to be honest, it is not in my best interest. There is no “circuit” in L.A.; it’s just spots at bars, spots at weird venues, and spots at comedy clubs. I can tell you that bar and non-comedy venues pay $0 to $20. I don’t expect any money from a show where a comic is producing the show, just to get stage time. Tonight, I’m doing two spots at shows that are produced by comedians. I have no idea if I’m getting gas money, and I’ll be shocked if I do.

Ian Karmel: I’ve done Conan twice, Late Late Show once, been on Comedy Central, Netflix, been on everybody’s list of “so and so hot new comedians.” I’m an Emmy nominee and I can tour pretty much anywhere in the country, and I’ve made maybe $500 total doing stand-up in L.A. Period. MAYBE. And all of that was from Hot Tub and a Jewish country club I performed at.

Alison Stevenson: The most money I’ve made from performing at a show in L.A. was around $20. Being paid to perform as a stand-up in Los Angeles is almost nonexistent, especially in the “alternative comedy” scene, of which I am a part. Most of us aren’t in stand-up for the money and are aware that it’s not really viable as a profession until you get successful in other realms of entertainment. Even then, the money comes from doing road gigs. And you always have to do work on the side. I try to make money as a freelance writer and by picking up as many odd jobs as I can (house- or pet-sitting, delivering Postmates, etc.).

To those very few stand-ups who have managed to get money from places like Netflix, congrats. However, the rest of us are in no way making figures even close to $1,500 a week. I’m lucky if I make that much a month. The most money I have made from comedy was with my album, which was self-released. It has been available for purchase online as well as streaming for over a year, but I have yet to make even $1,000 profit.

Kyle Ayers: I’m what you would call a “newer comic breaking in.” I’ve been doing comedy for years and years, mostly in New York, but am a new Los Angeles resident. It seems like there is a discrepancy or disagreement about what a “newer comic breaking in” is, at the very least. Painting with a wide brush, the great independent shows around L.A. will pay you $25 to $40 for a spot. Clubs are probably similar, maybe slightly more. With that math, it seems pretty tough to pull in $1,250-plus, especially if you’re not getting the 30 or more spots a week that the math would require. There’s maybe more money in running your own show. There’s certainly more in performing at larger venues, theaters, or headlining a venue that does do showcase-style shows. All of those are more feasible and frequent outside of L.A. while on the road. So somewhere in the conversation of “what is established versus breaking in” and “what warrants getting paid in L.A.,” there seems to be a gap I can’t quite figure out. That said, it’s not really my expectation to make that working as a stand-up in L.A. These independent shows are just great rooms that offer environments to try out new material and succeed or fail in front of supportive audiences who are onboard for it all.

Kai Choyce: The idea that you can just move here and start making five figures doing stand-up comedy is the best joke I’ve heard all year. It took me two years before I ever made a single dime doing comedy in Los Angeles, and even then, it was a few hundred bucks for a (rare) local college gig. Over the years I’ve done freelancing, handiwork, and almost every app-related side hustle in the book while getting by as a comedian in L.A., all while writing and doing shows at night. Right now, I’m lucky enough to only have and need one day job to make ends meet.

Most shows in L.A. pay either nothing, a drink ticket or two, or a tip-jar split. For club spots, it’s usually in the $15-to-$30-a-spot ballpark. If The Hollywood Reporter was also talking about TV shows, road work, commercials, unemployment benefits, allowances, and trust funds when they came up with those insane numbers, they should have been upfront and said that instead of painting a picture of audiences making it rain on newcomers.

James Fritz: Hahahahhahahahahaha. Seriously, I thought that article was a Borowitz Report “satire” piece.

Megan Koester: Whenever anyone asks me what I do for a living, I say I’m a writer, not a comedian, because your job is what you get paid for, not your delusional “passion.” I’m a freelance writer, which is almost as financially exploitative as comedy.

On a good week performing comedy, I will make approximately $60. On an average one, I will make zero. Of the shows [Seth] Abramovitch patronized in the article, the one that pays the most pays $50 — the majority of shows don’t pay anything at all, even at venues that charge admission (including UCB, which not only doesn’t pay performers but depending on which show you’re performing on, might not even validate your fucking parking).

Mark Agee: I think what happened is, they reverse-engineered the money totals from road headliner money, which would be the lowest-level client a CAA public appearance agent would have. But, just so people know, that is not entry-level. A beginning headliner has probably been doing comedy for a decade or so. Very few people “just breaking into L.A.,” whatever that means, would have an agent, much less be with one of the most powerful agencies. It’s important to know that must be road money — no comic makes their stand-up money in town. L.A. money comes from writing and acting jobs. If comics could really make two grand a week in town without robbing weed dispensaries, there wouldn’t be any Uber drivers.

Emily Heller: This week was an interesting one for me because I was prepping for a special taping. For context, I have been doing stand-up for ten years. The last time I had a non-comedy day job was in 2012, when I did some temping in New York. After a year of cobbling together an income from touring, doing warm-up for a cable show, and local gigs, in 2013, I moved to L.A. to take a TV writing job. At that point, I owed around $10,000 to my credit cards and friends and family. A relatively low number, all things considered, thanks to my considerable privilege (I never had student loans). Since I moved to L.A., I’ve been working steadily as a TV writer and occasional actor, while still touring doing stand-up, hosting shows, and podcasting. Which brings us to this past week!

Since I’ve been back at work on my TV job, I haven’t been performing as much, so I lined up a bunch of shows last week to warm up for my special taping. Here’s what it looked like:

• Sunday: Bar show, $0
• Monday: Different bar show, $20
• Tuesday and Thursday: Self-produced shows at a black-box theater to run my full hour. I paid a total of ~$200 for the space rental, Facebook advertising, and tech. I didn’t charge for tickets. However, I also paid all of those costs through my loan-out corporation and it’ll be deducted from my taxes.

Most of the shows I do in L.A. are unpaid. Of course, TV writing accounts for most of my yearly income, and doing stand-up is what got me in the door there. I was able to bypass years of grueling, low-paid work as a PA or writers’ assistant because I was recruited for my stand-up experience. That wasn’t my endgame with stand-up, and now that I have a relatively stable TV writing career, I have no intention of quitting stand-up. But as I’ve been “leveling up,” I make enough money in TV that I can choose to focus on stand-up experiences that benefit me creatively.

Jamie Loftus: “$1,250” is a really fun way of misspelling “negative $50 or maybe parking money.” That is some real white-guy-who-only-works-clubs talk, and even then it’s wildly inaccurate — even those guys make basically nothing while getting started, and they’re at the lowest resistance level for success. If you’re really lucky in your first few years, based on my experience, you get payouts like that maybe a few times a year. The amount of money you can make doing stand-up is wildly different all the time because the way people value comedy in different settings is really arbitrary. You can run the same set at a college or a packed basement with thousands of dollars in pay difference, even though you’re saying the same thing. In my second year doing stand-up, I got a payout like that one time, and I had to fly myself across the country to get it. We’re all operating at a loss by even leaving our houses, and that’s probably because it takes a while to get good at it, and luck is a painfully random thing that isn’t going to strike for everyone.

What I, and a lot of people in my generation of comedians, have had to learn how to do is other creative-ish work to support stand-up while we figure out how to be good at it. I work as an animator and a journalist, both of which I feel lucky to be able to do, and as a pizza-parlor employee, assistant manager of two bookstores, hip-hop radio-station board operator, fact-checker at Playboy, bagel-shop sweeper, morning-radio DJ, theater box-office ticket ripper, substitute teacher, barista, and assistant to the comptroller before that. Live comedy pays when you’re famous, and good luck getting gas money if you’re not. I don’t even think that’s a terrible thing — you shouldn’t make a ton of money for a job before you’re good at it — but that’s just sort of what you need to expect when you start.

Whitmer Thomas: Reading that “comedy gold rush” article was like watching an episode of Entourage. Most of the time, comedians in L.A. don’t get paid. There are a few places that pay, but for the most part, getting drink tickets is considered a surprising treat. Truthfully, I don’t know a single person in L.A. who has ever made $2,500 doing comedy in a week. One time I made 100 bucks at a show and I put the cash in my jacket pocket and left my jacket at a bar. I went back the next day to get my jacket, and I didn’t even remember there was 100 bucks in there until I stuck my hand in my pocket. It took me a few minutes to recall why I even had 100 bucks in my jacket. When I remembered I had made it the night before at a comedy show, I still didn’t believe it.

James Adomian: What many people might not understand is that even successful, established comedians don’t get paid much (usually zero) for live sets at most venues around Los Angeles. On a good night or a good week or sometimes even all month, I’ll make as much as $20, but most compensation comes in the form of a free beer, though some places don’t even do that. Live comedy in town offers the alluring carrot of low-stakes looseness and maximum creativity, with less gatekeeping and censorship than TV, but the trade-off is little to no money for it. You definitely can get a nice paycheck for a long set in L.A. if you sell out a nice venue, but the fortune you sink into all of the unpaid shows to get there more than erases the balance.

The money in comedy is on the road, headlining clubs outside of Los Angeles and playing at festivals, if you are lucky and talented enough to get there. (Performing as a feature act on the road is sometimes a brutal money-losing lifestyle that takes years off comics’ lives.) Otherwise there’s TV money, but TV has powerful gatekeepers, and it really is its own separate industry.

I think people are just beginning to learn that this “almost zero pay” system is so entrenched in showbiz. Much like live in-town comedy shows, guest appearances on podcasts and other internet endeavors are also for some reason largely expected to be unpaid, so with rare exception, you have a few people who are hosts or producers making all of the internet money and not sharing any of it with their guest talent. Obviously, systems that rely on not paying people for large chunks of their careers tend to reward those who can afford to exist without being paid. That’s why you have people from rich or comfortable families overrepresented across the entire media landscape, in all the arts, perhaps as it has always been.

Comedians Reveal What the L.A. Stand-up Scene Actually Pays