Partner & President of Talent, Levity Live
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, comedian Bert Kreischer knew he wanted to do something, anything, to stay busy and, before they became the initial go-to venues for live performances, hatched the idea of doing shows at movie drive-ins. Then he got cold feet.
Fellow comic Sebastian Maniscalco was trying to think of a way to pivot but also concerned about a friend, a chef who was suffering because his business was closed and was selling vegetables and cheeses just to get by. How could Maniscalco use his platform to help, when there were no live shows happening?
Taylor Tomlinson, an up-and-coming funnywoman who is at a stage in her career where she’s headlining smaller shows and opening on larger stages for others, worked on some podcasts with Whitney Cummings before the pandemic and was still trying to find her comedy path when it hit.
What they all have in common is manager Judi Marmel – co-founder, partner and president of talent of Levity Live. And they all found creative solutions for their individual dilemmas that resulted in wildly successful, creative endeavors that stand out in this devastating time for all facets of live entertainment.
“The ability to keep a cool head and a sense of humor while the structures and institutions around us seemed to be failing at every turn, was super helpful,” Marmel says of her herculean efforts. “Across the board, our story of the last year was one of innovation and perseverance.
“Every fresh idea was considered, and we just kept moving forward. I feel Levity fostered a sense of security, taking care of our own and holding on to as many employees as we could. This allowed for everyone company-wide and beyond to band together and create some of our greatest achievements.
“Without that you don’t get the record-setting Bert Kreischer drive-in tour (23 shows reported to Pollstar; 32,723 total tickets for a total gross of $2,318,822) or the thousands of dollars raised for food service industry workers by Sebastian Maniscalco’s virtual ‘Sunday Supper’ series,” she continued. “The company developed several new TV shows, deployed several new culinary concepts, and launched the “Improv Comedy Drive-In” series, which not only brings stand-up to fans safely but also provides a much-needed performance opportunity for artists while our comedy clubs remain closed.”
Marmel has spent the last 30 years building her business and wasn’t about to sit by and watch it crumble because of COVID. And she wasn’t going to let her artists or her young staff down, either.
“For everybody that’s an entrepreneur that got into this business, and did all the work they had to do to be successful, it probably took a lot of us back to our roots,” she says, reflecting on the past, trying year. “You have to be scrappy and you’ve got to get your hands dirty and you’ve got to get back in there and figure out what you need to do to be able to survive at all. You’re not going to sit idly by and just say, ‘I guess we’ll just wait it out.’
“I love what I do for a living. And it’s the occupation I always wanted to have. It’s the dream job I always wanted to have. It’s everything I set out to make for myself. So the idea of sitting by and waiting to see how it all shakes out just wasn’t an option for me.”
For Marmel, it all comes down to surrounding herself with people she enjoys working with and not being afraid to try something different.
“The ‘Hot Summer Nights Tour’ was as simple as Bert saying, “I want to be the first comic to do a major national drive-in tour” and the amazing teams at UTA and [production company] HotBox saying, “Great! That’s never been done before, but let’s figure it out.” There was no nay-saying, no defeatist attitudes, just a group of people putting their heads together and solving the puzzle. The concept inspired others to follow suit.”
Kreischer had watched with alarm just before his Netflix special, “Hey Big Boy,” debuted March 17, 2020. “I watched the press kind of dissipate before it aired because of what was going on with COVID,” he says. “All of New York was pulled out of press for the special, all travel, all everything. I was like, ‘Whoa, what if I don’t tour for a while?’”
United Talent Agency’s Joe Eshenbaugh, comedian Taylor Tomlinson, Judi Marmel, and Levity Live manager and producer Reg Tigerman take a moment to snap one in the quiet before a show.
He came up with an idea for a tour of drive-in movie theaters, long before outdoor shows became a go-to solution for artists and fans looking for a stage.
It was clearly uncharted territory, and outdoor shows have not necessarily been the best milieu for comedy. His friends in and outside of comedy were skeptical. He’d pitched the idea to Marmel who enthusiastically urged him to do it. Kreisher says it may have been his idea to perform the “Hot Summer Nights” drive-in tour, but it was Marmel,“nuts to soup,” who made it happen. She knew a drive-in wouldn’t work for many comics, but it would absolutely work for Kreischer.
“What’s beautiful about Judi is she knows my brain as an artist and as a businessman,” Kreischer tells Pollstar. “And my brain is a little off of center, in that I don’t really think in the box, ever. And I called her and my agent and said, ‘I want to do drive-in movie theaters,’ which, at the time, no one had heard of and no one was talking about, because it wasn’t a thing. And I was like, ‘Make it a thing.’” Kreischer and Marmel know his fan base. They knew the fans would come out for the tailgate, the party, and Kreischer is right there with them. But he began to doubt himself and the drive-in concept. No one had done one yet. And no one else in comedy was interested in being the first.
“All my friends were like, ‘You don’t want to be a guinea pig. Don’t be the first guy out to do this,’” Kreischer says. “‘If they suck, it’s going to be bad for your career.’ And Judi was like, ‘Don’t think about, just do it. Knowing you, you will turn this into a success. You will find a way to.’ And that’s her, just knowing me as a client and a friend.” Marmel first suggested scaling the tour down to four weekends or four nights to see if he liked it and if it was financially sound.He did, and it was. Kreischer and his crew recorded and aired content from the first night over his YouTube and Instagram platforms and watched as they exploded.
“We shot content that got probably over a million views in the first week on YouTube from our ride out to the first venue,” Kreischer says. “My Instagram views are through the roof. My ticket sales are doubling as we travel across the country. They’re adding shows, putting shows earlier so we can add a second show.
“I called Judi that first night in North Carolina and immediately said to book as many as you can. There’s a capacity of 400 to 600 cars you have to do to make these financially feasible. And if I’m not mistaken, we did all of them.” As word spread, Kreischer started getting calls from his peers in comedy, all wanting to know what it was like.
Photos Courtesy LEG / Judi Marmel – PIT STOP
Loading in outside of comedian Bert Kreischer’s tour bus are Outback Presents partner and Zanies Nashville owner Brian Dorfman, Judi Marmel, comedian Bert Kreischer, UTA agent Heidi Feigin and UTA partner and Head of Comedy Touring Nick Nuciforo.
“Judi put me in a position not only to succeed, but to have the respect of my peers, where everyone started calling me,” Kreischer explains. “Jim Gaffigan called me, Brian Regan called me and Nate Bargatze called me. Everyone called me to say, ‘Tell me about these drive-in shows.’ You have to have the right team in place to go, ‘Hey, listen, we know you. We know who you are. We know how you operate. We know how you succeed. Let me give you a little nudge forward so you can follow through with this idea and hit it out of the park.’”
Maniscalco sold out four nights at 18,240 capacity at Madison Square Garden in January, 2019 in shows promoted by Outback Concerts, for a total of 72,960 tickets sold and a gross of $8,282,629. Just more than a year later, everything came to a sudden halt.
He started a series of livestreams focused on cooking and comedy, and Marmel has helped him leverage those two passions into a TV show that’s been picked up by Food Network and Discovery+ while, at the same time, helping support a friend and small business owner. Philanthropy is a critical part of Marmel’s work, as well.
“Sebastian put together a series of virtual dinners originally with the intent of helping those in the food service industry,” Marmel says. “We partnered with Good+Foundation to create a virtual comedy experience that many have called ‘the best time we’ve had in quarantine.’
“Additionally, I sit on the board of Comedy Gives Back, which during the pandemic has worked to provide additional funds to comics struggling to make a living while live entertainment is suspended. It’s a great cause and I would encourage everyone to support what they’re doing.”
Maniscalco credits Marmel not only with making his own comedy dreams come true, but for guiding his livestreamed dinner series originally envisioned to help the business of his friend, chef Dominick DiBartolomeo, survive the pandemic.
“She is not only my manager, she’s a dear friend,” he says. “As far as working with her, she’s playing chess and everybody else is playing checkers. She’s six or seven steps ahead of not only everybody that we’re doing business with, but myself as well. She’s trying to marry a lot of different things. She can capitalize on different things, like, there’s a book coming out. How could we piggyback on the tour? And she’s always thinking outside the box.”
But when the pandemic hit, they had to reevaluate and adjust. So Marmel and Maniscalco put their heads together and, when Maniscalco said he wanted to try to help DiBartolomeo out by sharing his platform, Marmel found a way for them both, as well as a children’s hospital, to benefit.
Most edifying about the supper series series, Marmel says, was learning new skills like reworking Zoom’s tech capabilities for an interactive/TV-style format and shipping food products safely and securely across the country. The livestreams ultimately became a launching pad for a TV series that was sold to Discovery+ starring Sebastian and produced by Levity.
“My buddy Dominick, who’s in the food space, definitely was hit hard by this,” Maniscalco says. “And I’m like, you know what? Let me try and help him out by giving him a platform and exposing him to a wider audience and then donating the money from ticket sales.”
Marmel was all in. “We came up with this idea about doing ‘Sunday Supper,’ which obviously is a very big thing in the Italian community,” she explains. “It’s big in a lot of communities. You get together with your family and your friends and you have really amazing, wonderful food together and you swap stories and you bust balls. And it’s the perfect way to end the week.
“So we started doing these virtual Sunday Suppers and we teamed up with a charity partner. What we did is we took Dominick’s food business and curated boxes of really amazing homemade food – eggplant parmesan and tapenades, pastas, bread, sauces and cheeses. And what we would do is we would ship out boxes of food. Then Dom and Sebastian would get in the kitchen and they would cook along with different people.”
– A JOB WELL DONE
Publicist Ebie McFarland, Sebastian Maniscalco and Judi Marmel celebrate a win for Comedy Tour of the Year at the 31st Pollstar Awards Feb. 6, 2020 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. The award was in recognition of his “Stay Hungry” and “You Bother Me” tours.
It’s an example, Maniscalco says, of what makes Marmel special.
“Here’s where you see Judi Marmel at her best,” he says. “I’ve been looking to get in the food space for some time, and she’s been looking for opportunities. She doesn’t just take anything. It’s going to be very specific. We have a very elevated brand over here and we’re just not going to do shows that really don’t make sense. But she took the ‘Sunday Supper’ and she says, ‘Let’s try and make a show out of this.
“Sometimes I’m kind of on the fence, but then she presents something in a way that convinces me to do it. She lays it out for you. It’s very easy to ultimately make the decision on your own. But she pushes you to do things. I do stand up; I don’t do TV. But Judi lays it out for me and makes it easier to dive into waters that are uncharted.”
The “Sunday Supper” concept is being filmed right now for Discovery+, with the team having completed filming its sixth of 13 episodes at press time. It’s expected to air in July and then move over to Food Network.
“So something as simple as me trying to help out somebody is going on Discovery+ with 13 episodes,” Maniscalco says. “It just goes to show you, I think, how Judi’s mind works. She definitely sees way past what I’m saying sometimes and takes me there. So that’s a good yin and yang.” But beyond that is her work ethic.
Maniscalco is emphatic that “She is the workhorse, the type of woman that you could call at midnight and she picks up the phone or whatever needs to be done. There’s never a hem and haw. She represents not only herself, but me, with dignity. And you don’t typically see this in Hollywood, just the morality and great ethics that she has.
“She doesn’t pull any punches. She’s very transparent,” he adds. “She’s honest and, working with her over the last 14 years, I feel like she is definitely an extension of me. I have no problem with her going out there and talking on my behalf. I have 100% trust in her, that she’s doing the best by not only me, but my family. And it’s just been a real, real pleasure to work with her.”
Brian Dorfman, a partner at Outback Presents that promoted Maniscalco’s Madison Square Garden run, has known Marmel since her earliest days running talent contests in her home state of Colorado.
“She’s successful because she works her ass off,” Dorfman says. “Even during the pandemic, we’re on the phone probably once a week talking about stuff. She actually grew her business through the pandemic, because work is work.”
Dorfman actually met Marmel through his brother when she was putting together a comedy competition event in Colorado.
He tells Pollstar that their personal friend-ship aside, when there’s a business meeting, she’s often the smartest person in the room.
“Judi and I have done a lot of business together,” Dorfman says. “I’ve been in meetings with a lot of other managers and agents and, when it comes time to ask, some people just ask questions to ask questions. Hers are the most intelligent and most thought-out questions in the room.”
Tomlinson says that Marmel and her team helped build her budding career and made it possible to achieve the goals she wanted, even when it could have easily been derailed by the pandemic.
“Judi, being the person she is and the sort of visionary she is, sees the bigger picture and believes in you so much and pushes you to believe in yourself and also helps you get to places you didn’t know you could get to at all. Working with Judi is the best thing I’ve ever done.”
And the next step for Tomlinson is another example, for Marmel, of opportunity coming to fruition.
“What started as a TV show idea starring Whitney Cummings and Taylor Tomlinson (which eventually was sold to Hulu) blossomed into the co-headlining ‘Co-Dependent Tour,’” Marmel says. Tomlinson, in addition to joining the Comedy Improv Drive-In series, performed a run of socially distanced shows in Philadelphia in the fall.
“I mean, we were basically playing almost the whole time. It was just different rooms and different situations,” Marmel says of the pivot. “And, you know, sometimes it’s on a rooftop and sometimes it’s under an underpass. Taylor played 21 shows at the Philadelphia Punch Line that ended up being an outdoor stage. It was underneath an underpass.”
Tomlinson also spent some of the downtime writing a script for a project with Cummings that is now in development and picked up by Hulu.
What the immediate future holds for Marmel and her clients much depends on the dissipation of COVID and, like most of those in the live entertainment industry, she’s watching developments closely.
“I think it’ll take some time as we monitor the vaccine rollout, but I always like to keep a positive outlook,” she says. “We’re already seeing smaller entertainment venues open up with limited capacities and the larger theaters and arenas aiming to follow suit toward the fall. I think there will be some hold over in protocols similar to how 9/11 changed the procedures at airports, but we figured out how to streamline that and we’ll figure this out too.”
– UP IN LIGHTS
Comedian Sebastian Maniscalco and Judi Marmel take in the sight of his electronic billboard advertising a show at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto March 1, 2018. Four months later, the 19,800-capacity venue was renamed Scotiabank Arena.
Issues of diversity and inclusion are front of mind for her too.
“In the past year, as well as years prior, Levity has continued to mine all of our resources to amplify the voices of diversity both on our employees side and on the client side,” she says. “We aim to sign creatives with diverse backgrounds, untold stories, interesting perspectives and untapped potential. We hold internal meetings and roundtable discussions with underserved groups to help better understand our needs and create a more well rounded company.”
Even a self-described “bro comic” like Kreischer recognizes that Marmel brings an important element to his work.
“Look, I’m a bro comic through and through. I’m a meathead. I played baseball growing up. I was in a fraternity. I was the number one party animal in the country written up by Rolling Stone magazine. I am textbook bro, OK?” Kreischer explains. “But I’m not the kind of guy that doesn’t
appreciate a real moment and Judi, from the first time she ever gave me a real moment when I was just one of her clients and maybe not high on the priority list and we wanted to do well.
“I hate to sell my own sex down the river, but sometimes guys feel like they’ve got to pump you up like they’re [college football coaches] Bear Bryant or Lou Holtz, and they’ve got to give you this butt-slapping, head-butting, thing.
“For me, the energy she brings as a woman in high-pressure situations like shooting a Netflix special and not having a good set on your first show, and then coming in your second show, I don’t need some bro to be slapping me on the back and smacking my helmet and head-butting me.
“I want someone to know I’m a sensitive artist also and I’m in a vulnerable spot and say, ‘Hey, you got this,’ you know? That’s Judi’s energy. It’s very, for lack of a better word but I think Judi would appreciate this, It’s very spiritual, very grounded, and very nurturing.”