It’s Time for Stand-ups to Prepare for the Worst

Roy Wood Jr. Photo: Getty Images

Marshawn Lynch said it best at a playoff post-game press conference this year: “Take care of y’all chicken (money).”

Entertainment is an industry built entirely on disposable income. As the COVID-19 virus spreads, more and more people are being asked to stay home and practice “social distancing.” First it started with large stadiums, then theaters, then places with more than 500 people, then down to 100 people. In many cities, this ask has now transitioned into an order. Cities like New York and Los Angeles have ordered bars and places of entertainment closed for weeks to come, and some places in New Jersey are even enacting a curfew.

Stand-up comedy, under its current model in most cities, is effectively dead at every level — from the stadium act down to the open mic-er who just started last week.

I’ve been a stand-up comedian for well over 20 years, of which the first nine I amassed over 500K road miles driving from gig to gig. What’s happening to the economics of this country is unprecedented. The entertainment industry will be hit very hard, because ultimately what we provide is a luxury. You don’t need to go to the movies. You don’t need to go to a concert. You don’t need to go to a comedy club. Whenever this ship gets righted, what money people do have will be set aside for more food or any debts that they amass during this time. You know it’s gonna be bad when power companies coast to coast preemptively announce that they aren’t going to turn off your power.

Large concert venues and theaters are shut down. Movie theaters that haven’t already shut down are limiting themselves to half-capacity. Disney World stopped. Cruise ships stopped. Production on a shit-ton of TV shows and films have stopped. Some (The Neighborhood on CBS) are opting to not even film their season finale.

But in the rest of the country, even if people can come to a comedy show, do they want to?

Part of why I canceled my show in Raleigh, North Carolina, later this month was because even if I flew there and did the show under a 100-max ordinance, would anybody come? To take that risk and possibly infect a loved one or co-worker didn’t seem worth the risk — not with the information we currently have on hand. Comedian Kate Willett recently tweeted about low audience turnout, but she was also performing in Seattle, which is arguably the epicenter of this in America right now. There’s surely more hysteria there than places less affected.

This feeling of Is it worth it to go do the gig? is starting to trickle out. Long before mass-gathering ordinances were handed down, Trevor Noah, Nikki Glaser, Sam Morril, Joe Machi, and others started to move their dates around, which is to be expected, but for many comedians who aren’t high enough on the fiscal totem pole, the financial fallout of this will be felt for months, if not into early 2021.

There’s a lot of attempts by some to compare this to 9/11. Like many comedians, I performed on September 12, 2001 — the difference then is that people weren’t sure if they could laugh. Today, some people aren’t sure if it’s safe to laugh. If you haven’t been in the business long enough, here are some things to consider about the stability of comedy as the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak ripple out.

As larger arena and theater acts cancel upcoming dates, they will be looking to reschedule in the fall, competing with one another and people already booked during that time frame. It’s very plausible that some of these theater acts will trickle down into the comedy clubs, which means if you’re a performer that’s getting canceled right now or set to perform at a comedy club in the fall, your dates may not be safe. The airline industry, which is only weeks into this crisis, has already begun layoffs. If the airline industry is suffering, then the average 200-seat comedy room is going to be in dire straits when they reopen — if they can reopen. And when they do reopen, they will need big-name acts that can make a splash and help get the club out of the red.

To the credit of the comedy clubs, many have remained open, knowing that they’re going to be operating at a loss. They do this for the sake of the comedians who need the money as well as their service staff. The next week or two might be the last chances for anyone to get money before the next governor passes the next ordinance. The only thing that’s going to help are the big names that sell tickets. The further down the comedy totem pole you are, the more out of work you’re likely to be.

Compounding this issue is a potential writer’s strike on the horizon, which will yield more writers and comedic actors on the road this summer and fall jockeying for a few club dates. Their popularity is more than enough to sell a ticket or two during a financial downswing, and the clubs will be more inclined to book them because they’ll be coming off a few weeks/months of revenue. It seems like simple logic, but after talking to some in the comedy community, I don’t think there’s a lot of considerations about what the back half of 2020 will look like. We’re likely to see a gang of theater acts with nowhere to perform, coupled with funny actors and writers with nowhere in L.A. to work. The comedy club is where all the nomads end up. The sad truth of this business is that many of these comedy clubs operate on budgets just as tight as the comedians’. There will be clubs that do not survive this.

In the long term, I know that the struggles of a city comic versus a road comic are different, but please, during this downtime, start considering other ways to generate revenue for yourself. Start brainstorming with other comedians in the same boat as you. No matter where you are on the comedy totem pole, you will feel the effects of this. Even if you’re one of those What’s the big fucking deal? I’m still gonna go do my shows. The people need to laugh. More people die from the flu-type comedians. That’s fine; you have a right to do what you do. But just because you want to perform doesn’t mean it’s going to make sense for the clubs to have you — assuming that they’re still legally allowed to have you by the time you read this. If you aren’t a weekend act that’s already selling tickets consistently, the clubs that are hurting in attendance over the next few months could find themselves in a position where it doesn’t make sense to pay you your full fee to come entertain 50 people in a room that seats 300. The fiscally smart thing for the club to do is cancel you and put some locals onstage that will work for less and need the money. No matter what level of comedy you’re at, whether you have dates or not, this shit ain’t safe.

I know we can’t all afford to just walk away from shows, but be mindful about not getting guilt-tripped into doing a show for a person who can’t pay your hospital bills. If you get sick, the club ain’t gonna help you. They’re trying to do the same thing we’re all trying to do right now, and that’s keep the lights on. I’m not saying don’t perform, but I am saying weigh all the pros and cons before you do so. Comedy is such a great job, because no matter what, you either get money or growth. But now, for the first time, we have to consider what we have to lose before hitting the stages.

I talked with a few comics already looking at alternate income. Assuming the census still happens, they’re hiring, so that’s one way to go. You’ve just gotta be creative. Look into call center jobs or almost anything in the gig economy. If people are inside longer, grocery/food delivery could be the way to go, and at least it’s a gig job that doesn’t keep you in close quarters with a person, like Uber or Lyft. I’m hearing of comedians creating merch stores, OnlyFans accounts (yes, that OnlyFans), and of course, good, old-fashioned fundraising. Sam Goldstein has started a GoFundMe that’s attached to a supercut of comedians that have already lost road work. The proceeds will be divided evenly amongst those comedians. There’s also podcasting, of course, but turning a profit on that in the short term is highly unlikely unless you can sell it to a podcast network. And as I’ve always said, register for SoundExchange! For all you know, your shit is getting played somewhere and there’s money waiting for you to collect!

And even for comics who are still getting onstage and performing for fewer people, you can still connect with fans who opt not to come out. Steve Byrne has been livestreaming his stand-up shows and has made them more interactive for the people at home. Some clubs, like Caveat in New York, already have plans to livestream upcoming shows on YouTube.

Above all, if you’re scheduled to perform in the next few weeks and feel uneasy about it, don’t let your concerns for your own safety be overridden by a club owner or people who might not give a damn about you. You’ve run your career on your terms up until this point; don’t let the opinions of others waver you.

Whether you choose to keep performing right now or not, a financial crisis awaits this industry the same as all the others. Make no mistakes, though: The job of comedian isn’t going away. No matter when this situation levels out, the world will need to laugh again. But until that day, now is the time to start thinking about solutions to our potential looming problems. Myself included.

Tighten up where you can.

Winter is coming — corona vaccine or not.

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It’s Time for Stand-ups to Prepare for the Worst