Executive Profile: Gersh’s Rick Greenstein Talks Chappelle, COVID, Comedy

Rick Greenstein is executive vice president at Gersh, a senior partner and head of its formidable comedy department that represents up-and-coming comedic talent such as Drew Lynch as well as household names like Drew Carey and Jamie Foxx. Of course, Gersh is also home to one of the most revered comedians of this era in Dave Chappelle, who has called Greenstein agent for the last 25 years.

Despite the near shutdown of the entire live business, Chappelle has continued to make headlines with a surprise, free June Netflix special taking on controversial subjects amid the George Floyd police killing that sparked protests across the world.
Just as notably, Chappelle has put on standup comedy performances amid the coronavirus pandemic, with socially distanced gigs at an outdoor space at Wirrig Pavilion in Yellow Springs, Ohio, near his home. The ticketed shows have gone on sale to the public at limited capacity and with strict guidelines to ensure the safety of fans as well as crew and talent.
Although a far cry tickets-wise from his biggest headline performances like his August 2019 stop at the Tacoma Dome with Joe Rogan, which sold out 21,347 tickets and grossed $1.7 million, or his star-studded, 16-night 2017 Radio City Music Hall stand that featured everyone from The Roots to John Mayer, Chappelle continues to innovate and set the standard for comedy.
“Working with Dave has been an absolute privilege and pleasure for 25 years,” Greenstein tells Pollstar. “The man I respect to no end, he’s brilliant. The fact he has a platform to perform and get his voice out and also affording the guests he’s had on the show – Michelle Wolf, Michael Che, Donnell Rawlings, several others who have performed – it’s wonderful.”
The industry veteran talked to Pollstar extensively about the current live comedy landscape, what the future may look like, and what can be done while the business awaits some sense of normalcy.
Pollstar:  You’ve worked with Dave Chappelle, one of the greatest comedians of this era, for quite a while and he continues to innovate and set a standard with these socially distanced standup performances. Can you talk a little bit about how those shows are being organized?
Rick Greenstein: They are ticketed, there’s only a few hundred seats per show. He’s been rolling them out typically three at a time. We’re not really sure what the future holds at this point; he’s taking it week by week in what he’s choosing to do. They’ve been very successful and all sold out, they’re
taking all the appropriate precautions with the audience, outdoors and spaced quite broadly. It’s really just what he wants to do on a week-to-week basis. The beauty is he has the ability to use this facility and it’s worked out rather well, and it’s been safe. There haven’t been any issues that I’m aware of.

This is not a simple question, but considering your position at Gersh overseeing a major comedy department at a major talent agency, what does the comedy landscape look like right now?
I represent a lot of people and most of their hands are tied. Many would love to perform, they all have something to say and would love to get out there and perform – most of them – but at the same point, there’s not that many opportunities. It’s not unique to us. But for comedy specifically, what seemed to be the path was starting small, with small gatherings, clubs, reduced capacity.  
Many of the comedy clubs in states in the process of reopening in the last several weeks, many of the comedy clubs began to start programming again. Everything was shut down for mid-March, April, May of course. A lot thought they would be able to in July or late June. A handful did. 

Rick Greenstein
Gabe Ginsberg / WireImage
– Rick Greenstein
pictured with longtime client Dave Chappelle at the Bellagio in Las Vegas on May 2, 2015.
With the numbers spiking around the country, just because people are now socializing more, what’s happening is a lot of the clubs that were booked in July or August, in reduced capacities, many of them are closing. They’re shutting down the shows we rescheduled or the new shows got canceled.  
As soon as we saw a window where we thought there was an opportunity to go out and work some of these small comedy clubs, a lot of the clients said sure, I’ll go out, even though it’s not the same money, I can perform, get out  and see fans, there is some income coming from it although significantly less. Some clients re-booked and were supposed to play this weekend. I had shows in San Diego with Brian Regan. We went to a small club there and had four shows to play there this weekend, and then three days ago the city shut the club down and said you can’t do any shows for the foreseeable future.
We had several shows we thought we were moving forward with, several improv shows in July. Small dates, one, two three or four shows, that kind of thing. Before we got on sale it was determined because of the numbers that they were going to stay closed for the foreseeable future.
It sounds like a hassle to have to reschedule and wait so much.
We were trying to get our toe back in the water, and we still have dates for some people in August and September and we’re kind of doing a wait-and-see. Most are reduced, the club stuff is all reduced capacity, typically at a third or half. But a lot of our clients still have dates for the fall. Obviously we think a good portion of those, and possibly all of them, may get postponed or canceled. But in July to try to make a judgment call on what ordinances and what state of affairs there will be in October, November, December is tricky. If we’re not on sale with shows for the last quarter, that’s a decision we’re making now. Now is not necessarily a great time to launch a new show. Tickets aren’t moving for the most part for any shows this year anyhow. People are unsure what they’re going to do and if they’re going to go. Launching a new show would be perilous.
If there are shows already on sale or sold out, in the last third of the year, we’re going to sit and wait and see if we have to cancel those as we get closer. If we’re not worried about selling tickets between now and then, it’s a matter of will it be safe and will it be allowed under the ordinances to even do so. We’re evaluating all of those.

Things change so quickly that it is really hard to plan anything, I imagine.
If the last three or four weeks went swimmingly well, the fall could have looked a little more opportunistic, we could have seen some more reduced capacity configurations and moved to theatres or outdoor amphitheatres opening in mid-fall. There’s still conversations like that, but they’ve very much on the optimistic side (laughs). The pragmatic side is let’s just wait and see. The last three of four weeks, obviously there’s been a lot of missteps. The numbers are soaring, but the reality is we can hear tomorrow that there’s a functional vaccine and it’ll be ready in December, who knows? If that happens, then OK. Or maybe there’s not a vaccination but they’ve improved treatments so tremendously now that the chance of getting sick and hospitalized or worse, death, has dramatically reduced to nominal for the average person, because our procedures and protocols are so much more advanced than they were in March. It would take something like that, a vaccine or a herd approach and everyone’s got it; short of those three things, it’s a crapshoot.

Rick Greenstein
– Rick Greenstein
GREENSTEIN at Pollstar Live! 2016, pictured with Another Planet’s Jessica Rogers.

Are many comedians eager to perform? It seems there are lots of reasons to wait it out as a performer as well.

Artists have to take their safety into consideration as well. Not just performing on that stage, which can be 20 feet away from an audience, but they have to engage with some people along the way when traveling, so there’s that factor. And there’s the economic side of it. Is it worth it, even if all the other factors are seemingly acceptable, OK within the ordinances, we can do the gathering, all of the logistics of the venues incorporating every social distancing and mask requirements, six feet away from each other, all those elements are in place and done safely and controllably – Dave isn’t the only one who has pulled it off, there’s the drive-in stuff and other configurations that have been creatively done – but it also comes down to economics. Is there enough income generated at sellout to warrant covering the expenses and the artist making enough to make it worth their time? Conversely, you don’t know until the gig or you go on sale, is there enough demand to sell the tickets you’re offering? You can do all the math on paper, sell half the house, the venue can cover their expenses, artist can make X, that on paper looks viable. But then what you don’t know is if there are going to be enough people comfortable to come to the show and sell it out at half-house. There’s a lot of factors.
At my standpoint, and I’ve discussed this with promoters, is we have to be cognizant we’re economically at a recession or whatever economists will call it. We’re in a situation with a lot of folks out of work and people working but at reduced income, there’s a small percentage of people that weren’t impacted negatively. We have to be sensitive to that, to how we scale the show. How expensive of a ticket are we going to go? We have to be sensitive on the pricing so we’re not over-taxing the market. My feeling is to remain very conservative and take it in very small small steps. Which is why we were going to try comedy clubs, rather than find ourselves in drive-ins with 2,000 tickets and 600 cars parked in a parking lot.

Do you think comedy is better situated than music right now?
It’s a very strange paradigm because comedy certainly does play off a live audience, more so probably than music, comedy plays off the response, the laughter, the cadence of the show based on an audience’s response so performing with an audience and a venue that’s at half capacity or a third capacity isn’t going to have the feel of a sold-out show. There’s going to be a different paradigm for the artist, and there are examples of artists having that opportunity to really know how that’s going to feel to them. Then again, every comic has played to a half house at one point in their career or another (laughs). So there’s some hesitancy there but I haven’t found any artists yet to say they won’t give that a shot, because they know we’re working in contracted times. I am cautious of the drive-ins and so forth. I think people sitting in a car, listening to the show via radio being pumped in, and then I’ve even heard they’re honking their horns instead of applauding. I think that would be a very challenging dynamic for a comedian to flourish in. Some can do it, some are bulletproof and get up there and run the show. But I think it’s going to be challenging. Then again we also have people doing standup and some sort of performances virtually now. Some of those situations have no audience or have a half a dozen people sitting in as some sort of feedback, then everybody else on Zoom but no feedback. That kind of sucks the air out of the room. That also would be a difficult scenario. Some artists are comfortable doing it or have found ways to morph their shows into more of like a panel on a talk show, or more conversational, that doesn’t feed off of an audience’s energy as much as a standard standup scenario.
The Zoom audience was used for a Gersh client with Drew Lynch’s recent shows, with InCrowd producing a 360-degree wall of fans watching live. How did that go?
That’s the first step, technologically speaking, getting virtual feedback from 100 people looking at you. Frankly, I think it’s brilliant. Obviously it’s sort of an artificial or synthetic audience, but it is with feedback. With Drew it worked out beautifully. We’re looking to expand that. I think for a lot of artists that can work really, really well as an alternative to a live show. Quite honestly, there may be people that embrace that even once things start getting back to normal – and there’s going to be interim steps, as we know. We may see nothing for two or three months and then it could be half houses everywhere for 4-6 months, then back to full houses. You may still find people that are just like, “Hey, I love the virtual idea, I don’t have to travel and leave home, I can go to a soundstage in Los Angeles, put on a live standup show, work off 100 people with live streaming feedback.”
What InCrowd has developed out of necessity could end up being just a new platform for artists to perform and put their material out there and stream it without having a third party broadcaster or production.

When shows come back, do you see big changes like fans being tested before entering regular gigs?
Moving forward, as they improve the rapid testing, it wouldn’t surprise me! Step aside and test you, in 15 minutes if it passes you’re in, if not you’re not (laughs). Anything can happen as far as what protocols could be put into place for live appearances going forward. It’s going to be interesting. Protocols, what is going to happen when offices start opening and start going back? It’s one thing to take your temperature, if your temperature is fine you can go in, if not, you can’t go in, that’s easy. Someone not wearing a mask or coughing, then someone can make a decision. Just like in a bar, if you’re drunk we don’t have to serve you. That’s an obvious line everyone is aware of. Beyond that, who knows? I’ve read about places in other parts of the world where you are tested and get a band showing if you’re clean or not. It’ll be a combination of necessity and what people are willing to accept and what the laws are. They’re being tested all the time right now.

Any other predictions?  

Rick Greenstein
– Rick Greenstein
BLAST FROM THE PAST: Rick Greenstein pictured at Pollstar’s 2007 CIC conference with noted promoter and comedy fan Gregg Perloff of Another Planet Entertainment.

I just  think with what we’ve seen over the last four weeks, most people are going to take a knee, from the promoters to patrons. You’re certainly seeing the municipalities and the state ordinances – everyone other than the federal, funny enough – that are all taking a step back and taking a little bit of a knee and/or insert/reinsert some of the protective measures that we let our guard down on, evidently a little too soon. But at the same time, on the other side of this, it is global but there’s also such differences regionally.
It’s kind of hard to argue that if you’re in Montana, or Alaska, or some of these out-reaching areas that have very few cases, or small towns that have no cases, do you apply and require them to follow the same protocols and close down their businesses as you would do in Los Angeles or New York City or any other major cities or counties that are obviously having thousands and thousands of cases a week? What’s right?
I think that’s why you’re also in part not seeing the federal government take too much of a stand – I’m not supporting their decisions, frankly I don’t agree with 98% of what’s coming out of D.C. – but there is something to be said for if you’re living in a town with a population of 10,000 with no COVID cases whatsoever, should they be living in the same restrictions that make sense when living in New York City or Los Angeles?