Over the last 25 years, Matt Blake, head of CAA’s comedy touring department, has built a legendary career. For proof, look no further than this year’s Pollstar Awards, where six of the 10 nominees for Comedy Touring Artist of The Decade were Blake’s clients: Gabriel Iglesias, Jeff Dunham, Trevor Noah, Katt Williams, Michael McIntyre and Ron White. Going into the pandemic, the Bakersfield, Calif.-native had five arena tours on the road that had to be put on hold. And, as we roll into 2022, he has similar numbers going out.
None of this would have happened if not for a confluence of hard work, vision, innovation, leadership and, like so many careers, fate. If he hadn’t grown up with the band Korn, for example, or quit his job at a global accounting firm, he likely would not be where he is today. Or, if he hadn’t turned almost getting fired from his first agency job into his first gig as an agent or helped develop an analytics system or devoted himself to mountain biking – an apt metaphor for his career – who knows how things would have turned out.
Here, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his career, Pollstar caught up with Blake to find out exactly how he became one of the all-time top comedy agents in the business.
Pollstar: Where are you from?
Matt Blake: Bakersfield, Calif.
Home of the Bakersfield Sound, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace.
Yeah. Although I wasn’t into country music. We were heavy metal, glam rocker kids in the early ‘80s.
Did you play music?
I had many friends who played in bands, but I didn’t. My dad was a photographer, so I took photos of my friends in bands and used them on flyers for their gigs. My dream was to have a suit job in L.A. and make lots of money. I’d read the business section every day in pursuit of my goal. All my friends moved to L.A. to try to become rock stars. They worked at Pizza Hut by day and did their music at night. I went to UCLA and I’d drive to Huntington Beach and hang out with them on weekends. While I was at UCLA, I took a job at Price Waterhouse, actually around the corner from CAA.
What year was that?
That was ’93 or ’94. I worked at Price Waterhouse part-time and had music internships. My roommate started an internship for Rick Sales who managed Slayer. I loved the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the time, so I looked up their manager and got an internship there. I also interned for Tim Neece who had Bruce Hornsby & the Range and the Arc Angels. I remember Bruce Hornsby firing Tim just before his album came out. Tim discovered Bruce in a piano bar, took him to the height of his career and when his album was coming out Bruce fired him. Tim also had Arc Angels, a band he put together whose album was coming out when one of the singers – there were two – had to go to rehab. I watched this guy’s whole business fall apart before my eyes. I said, “OK, I don’t want to be a manager. I know that.”
What did you do next?
I got out of college and took a job full-time for the dispute analysis corporate recovery group at Price Waterhouse doing information research.
I started with an office in Century City with a beautiful view of a golf course and was moved to a cube on the 28th floor of a skyscraper downtown. Parking was super expensive, but they gave us a free bus pass. I lived in Brentwood, one block from the bus stop, and took the bus. I remember one Friday coming home on the 10 freeway with my briefcase listening to music on my headphones. I turned around and saw all the people with their briefcases and suits. I was playing my friend’s music and they turned into the band Korn.
Wait, your high school friends turned into Korn?! That was Jonathan Davis and Fieldy?
Well, Fieldy’s Reggie Arvizu, my friend from eighth grade. And Brian Welch, David Silveria and James Shaffer, they’re all friends of mine I grew up with. I knew Jon when he joined the band, but he was younger than me in high school. The other guys were my age.
They pioneered the nü-metal thing.
What’s funny is all this stuff we listened to growing up like Faith No More really influenced their music.
What happened after you quit?
I started studying for the GMAT because I was going to go to business school and stick to the plan. After about a month, I got a notice in the mail that my insurance was expiring, and I was starting to do mountain bike racing and needed health insurance.
So you’re pretty serious about mountain biking?
Yes. Back then I competed as a beginner. But there’s a saying: two guys on bikes is a race. So there’s always some sort of competition even among friends.
Amy Tierney / WireImage – The Gersh Grip & Grin
From left, Rob Golenberg, Bob Gersh and Rick Greenstein, whom Matt Blake (far right) called one of his mentors, at the 2005 US Comedy Arts Festival on Feb. 12, 2005.
What was your next job?
I called a friend and said, “How do I get a job at an agency?” He had me call a few different people. I wanted to work for a music agent but couldn’t get on a good desk because I had no experience. He called me on a Friday and said, “Hey, I found a job. It’s not music, it’s comedy touring but it’s still touring. If you take that job, after a year you’ll have the experience to get on a good desk.” I went in, interviewed and she said, “No one else had any experience, you’ve got all this internship experience, so I’m hiring you.” I said, “Great.” So I got into the comedy business at The Gersh Agency and the rest is history.
Did you have any interest in comedy?
I was a fan of George Carlin when I was a kid because my parents had a couple of his albums. I was doing this because sometimes you take the job that’s in front of you. If you don’t have something to do, do something.
I remember hearing George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” monologue when I was a kid; I thought it was the funniest thing I ever heard. Today, some of the words are considered tame, but the comedy business has blown up since then.
I have them memorized. That’s from George Carlin’s Class Clown, which was my favorite album. But you’re right, back then our biggest acts were Jeff Dunham and George Wallace and they’d make $12,500 for four shows at the comedy club or $15,000 for corporates, and that was top business at the time. Comedy touring was the black sheep of the agency because income was limited.
Congratulations on your 25th anniversary – it’s quite an achievement. What opportunities existed for comedians in 1996?
It was mostly comedy clubs, corporate dates, and maybe a couple casinos and that was the extent of it. There was a point where it was only myself and Rick Greenstein, who ran the department at Gersh. In fact, there were a few days where I got stuck being his assistant and being an agent at the same time But then we grew the department to a pretty nice group by the time I left in 2007.
Didn’t comedians just drive themselves to a network of clubs across the country and it was very DIY? You’d see them on late-night TV saying, “I’ll be in Peoria this coming weekend and then Dubuque.”
The clubs were really the extent of it. There was some business in theaters, but not much. Probably around 2003 we had Dave Attell do a theater tour with Lewis Black, that was my first theater tour. I represented Dave and he co-headlined with Lewis Black and that was a big deal in the day doing small theaters.
Did you start making the rounds at the L.A. comedy scene and going to the Laugh Factory, The Improv, The Comedy Store, etc.?
Yes, certainly in my younger years.
Did you go out every night?
I ended up going out a couple nights a week. Typically, when a client was doing something important, we’d cover it. The agent I worked for as an assistant booked a recurring show on Monday nights at The Improv, which was an urban comedy night. I would go down there and hang out with the comedians.
Gotham / GC Images – Cheeseburger, Large Fries and a Cosmopolitan
Actress Sarah Jessica Parker and Bobby Lee, one of Matt Blake’s longtime clients, filming “And Just Like That…,” the follow-up series to “Sex and the City,” in New York’s Madison Square Park on Nov. 7, 2021.
Who were some of your first clients?
Bobby Lee is a great one. He was my second client. He’s in “Sex and the City” now and he’s got a couple very successful podcasts “TigerBelly” and “Bad Friends.” I’ve worked with Gabriel Iglesias for over 20 years. When I met Gabe, he was playing comedy clubs but I knew where he could go.
What were some of your first bookings tent poles?
I remember a buyer called up and he wanted to book a major actor/comedian at his casino. He wasn’t touring then. The agent said, “Listen, what if I pay you $500,000?” I said, “I don’t know. I don’t think it gets it done.” And then he goes, “Well, I just sent you the offer.” I said, “$500,000 is nothing.” I grabbed some paper from my desk and crumpled it up into the phone and said, “I just threw the offer in the trash. If you really want to buy something you can’t buy, resend it for a million dollars.” And he goes, ”OK, I’ll call you back.” And they sent me an offer for a million dollars.
That’s agenting your ass off.
That was a fun one.
What gave you the confidence to do that?
As an A-level artist he was making enough money that he didn’t care. And I knew that a million dollars is a number that gets people to do things. So I decided to just throw it out there, knowing he would probably appreciate that. And he did because he wasn’t touring, he didn’t want to tour, but he did the show and then he did a tour after that.
Was Rick Greenstein at Gersh your mentor?
Yes, one of them. I went in his office to have him sign off on some paperwork and asked him, “Why do you do a percentage deal versus a bonus deal versus a guarantee?” And he explained it to me. (I went to UCLA and got a Bachelor of Science in math and economics.) As he was answering my question, I said, “Wait. I think I understand this. If you have someone that you don’t know how they’re going to sell, you get the guarantee. If you know they’re going to do business only on the weekend, then try to do a bonus deal where you can make a little bit more money on the shows where you know they’ll do well. And if you know someone’s going to sell out everything, you go for the percentage deal because you get the most money.” That was the beginning of our real relationship because he knew I understood what was going on.
How did you move up?
When the person I was working for went into his office and said, “Hey, I’m firing my assistant today, he’s terrible and I’m going to hire this other guy. I’ve already got it lined up.” I was the assistant that was getting fired. Rick said, “No, you can’t fire this guy. He’s asking all the right questions and learning the business. I’m going to promote him. He’s going to work for me and you’re going to support it.” And she said, “Fine.”
So you were getting fired?
The funny part is I got called into his office and they’re both sitting there and they said, “Shut the door.” In my head, I’m like, “All right. I’m getting fired.” I sat down on the couch and Rick said, “Listen. We’re going to promote you. You’re going to be a junior agent here.” And then we went back to her office. She shuts the door, and says, “Listen. I just want you to know that I’ve been working on this for six months. I finally got you promoted. I just need you to help finish up the work on my desk and then you can go do the other stuff.”
What’s the takeaway?
I had already worked in the real world. I was older than the other assistants and didn’t really hang out with the them. I envisioned myself with the agents and talked and socialized with them. I wasn’t into the whole assistant lifestyle because I had my own life. That’s what Rick saw and why he wanted me around. He promoted me and I worked there for 11 and a half years. I was grateful for everything that he did and what he taught me, but I wanted more. I was the guy that was putting the key in the door in the morning and outworking others in the office and I wanted to be around similar people.
What was your next move?
I had an earlier opportunity to come to CAA and didn’t take it because I was having my first child. I felt like I had a job for life at the Gersh Agency. But then as CAA got deeper into the comedy business and I watched the clients having success and getting theatrical jobs, and those theatrical jobs were leading to selling more tickets for comedians, I knew I had to work here.
When was that?
I left Gersh at the end of 2007. I went to the last staff meeting there in December during the writers’ strike. They were talking about how bonuses were going to be tough and it was a bad year and they were struggling to get through it. Everyone walked out of the conference room with their heads down. I went to CAA in January 2008 and we had our monthly staff meeting with Richard Lovett. He was the polar opposite, talking about how no one had to worry about their jobs from the biggest agent to the mailroom. Everyone’s going to be fine. We’re going to cut back on expenses, but keep marching forward, our businesses are diversified, and we’re going to go out and maximize the rest of our businesses. We’re going to be great. I remember everyone walking out of that room with their chests puffed out and ready to take on the world. I realized I made the right choice.
Who were you working for?
I was in the comedy department and came in under Rob Light who hired me. Nick Nuciforo was running the comedy touring department. At that time, he and I were the two senior comedy agents amongst the group. Ultimately, I was helping Nick, but it was his department and he was running it.
How did you discover and sign talent?
Sometimes I see somebody and I just know they’re a star. Sometimes I see someone and what is going on in their life, and I know I can help change it for the better. Those are the people I really like to pursue. The first time I saw Trevor [Noah] live, he was opening up for someone in Las Vegas. No one knew who he was, unless you were from South Africa. I saw him perform and he talked about how hot it was that day, how this tumbleweed was going across the street and hit some lady walking across the street. I remember what a vivid picture he painted and his charisma and I said, “I have to represent this person. He’s a star.”
What about some of your other comedians?
When I saw Gabriel Iglesias and his charisma on stage and the trajectory of his career, I knew I had to represent him. Jo Koy is an interesting one, too, because he was with some of the people who left CAA. He wasn’t happy and planned on leaving CAA to go to another agency whom he’d already met with. I said, “Jo, I want to work with you. I’ve seen your career. I’ve seen how things were done. I’ve seen things I would have done differently. You were going to leave the agency, but your team left, so staying is leaving. If you’re not happy after you stay here, you can go somewhere else.” So he stayed and his career changed dramatically. He was doing comedy clubs, and now he’s doing arenas. If I see someone and really believe in them and believe they’re a star and have a vision – that’s the other key too – and then if we talk, and it fits, then that’s what gives me the energy to keep going every day, no matter what I’m dealing with. It’s helping people change their lives. It keeps me going; it excites me.
How can you tell when a comedian’s career is going to having staying power?
If you look at someone like Gabriel Iglesias or Jo Koy, they’re amazing storytellers. They’re amazing performers, and their comedy is about what they’re experiencing in the world and their lives. It’s not a political statement. In fact, many comedians stay away from political statements because you can solidify half your fanbase and alienate the other half overnight. But they’re storytellers, they’re talking about what they’re experiencing and that’s never going to change. If someone likes their viewpoint, they’re going to keep coming back.
What about the analytics side?
A big piece of that comes from CAA. I used to build out a map on the computer with flags wherever a particular artist was playing so I could avoid radius clauses and see where I’ve played and where I need to go back to. André Vargas from our data department saw my assistant constructing it and came into my office and said, “I saw what your assistant was building and I can automate that.” I said, “No, you can’t.” And he goes, “Yeah, I can.” And I said, “Knock yourself out.” He went away and he came back with an iteration and I said, “OK, this isn’t it, but you’re getting somewhere. Can you make it do this and make it look like that and make it do this other thing?” We did that for eight months and then kept developing all other sorts of things.
What we ultimately came up with was a program of CAA data and analytics that got rolled out to the entire CAA touring department worldwide, which can answer so many questions you have as far as routing and finding dates. Whatever you’re looking for, it can answer if you go into the filters and know what you’re doing. My goal when I started running the department, was to create a tool that would give a young agent 80% of the knowledge I have by using the system. No one else has this, but everyone at CAA does and that’s one of our most special tools. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not using it in some shape or form.
It feels like comedy is still growing, maybe more than music, with all the specials. Kevin Hart’s touring numbers a few years ago were insane; the bar seems to always getting pushed.
There are certain comedians doing stand-up as a path to become actors and once they achieve that success, you won’t see them do comedy anymore. But there are also a lot of comedians – Trevor Noah is a great example – who would never leave stand-up comedy. He loves getting in front of the audience and he’s an amazing storyteller and an amazing standup.
He’s really good.
He’s astonishing. He sold out two 02 arena [dates] in London and then the Santa Barbara Bowl in the last two weeks. We could have done more but we just didn’t have availability. He performed an entirely different show on each continent and it was fun watching them back-to-back. That’s the kind of prolific performer he is.
Was one of your career’s biggest inflection points when part of CAA’s comedy department left in March of 2015 and you took over the department?
Yes, that was the moment I took over comedy touring. Before that, I was in the second position at the Gersh Agency and then one of two senior agents in the comedy touring department at CAA. When they left, CAA gave me the opportunity to run it. I remember having a conversation with Richard Lovett who said, “Look, this thing happened. It’s okay. We’ll grow back and we’ll be number one. There is no other possible outcome. Just let me know what you need to support you and you’ve got it.” CAA got behind me and supported me. We continued building that analytics program for another four or five years before we rolled it out to the whole company. They supported me the whole time saying saying, “What do you need to do your business?” Our department never stopped growing.
CAA has been great. I’ve got a department of about 10 amazing agents, which I wouldn’t trade for anyone. And that’s not the extent of the comedy department, because there’s the whole theatrical division run by Rachel Rusch and Steve Smooke, who are my partners. We can help our clients with whatever they want to do, whether it’s books, commercial endorsements, voiceovers, TV or any multi-hyphenate pursuit. That’s really the beauty of CAA and that’s the reason I came over in the first place. We work together as a team for all our clients.
What did that experience teach you?
It goes back to this mountain biking event called the Gran Fondo where you ride across Catalina. It’s 50 miles and 8,500 feet of elevation. On a normal ride you’ll climb maybe 2,000 feet. I had to train for months to do that ride and it was the most brutal thing I’d ever done. The whole second half of the ride, you’ve got cramps. When you’re done, your body is completely exhausted, but you’re so happy because you accomplished something. Taking over the department is similar to that. Half the department’s gone, half the agents are gone, half the clients are gone, and you have to build it back up. It was just like riding your mountain bike across Catalina. It was one hill at a time. You see the next hill and that’s the one you get over and then you worry about the rest after that. It’s such a monumental task that if you worry about the task as a whole, you’ll get paralysis by analysis and you won’t be able to move. You just focus on one hill at a time. If you can do that, you can do anything.
– On The Lot
Matt Blake, producer Ron De Blasio and Gabriel Iglesias, a client Blake has worked with for more than 20 years. Photographed on the set of “Cristela” at Fox Studios in Los Angeles on July 18, 2015.
How has the comedy market changed in your tenure working in the business?
When I started, you had to be anointed by someone in TV or film to do any kind of business beyond the comedy clubs. With the advent of the internet and people being able to put up their content, all of that changed. Now a comedian can come along, no agent … they start putting content out, it could be a podcast, jokes on social media and then the people decide. When the world likes what you’re saying or is amused and they all want to come out and see you, then you can go out and tour. A laptop or iPad can take you to the stars.
There’s so many options now. How does a new comedian approach such a dynamic, volatile and complex market?
A lot of the touring still starts in comedy clubs for standup comedians. No matter who you are, you can get started there. And now with the internet and all its options, if you go out on the internet and find a place, you find a home for your voice, for your content, whether it’s skits on Instagram or a podcast or bits on YouTube, whatever it is, that can help you elevate through the clubs and sometimes you can even skip steps and go straight to theaters or elsewhere.
Are you looking at the web for potential clients?
Our eyes are wide open paying attention everywhere emerging talent can come from because we’re always looking for the next star. We love creating things, too, which can be something as simple as having two clients that are friends that like to do stuff together. For example, Ken Jeong and Joel McHale are friends and have been on numerous TV shows and a podcast together. We started putting them together doing some standup shows. We have them booked together at The Dolby Theater and many lucrative casinos next year.
What do you have coming up?
We’re working on Trevor Noah’s arena tour right now into ‘22. Jo Koy is playing arenas and theaters into ‘22. Katt Williams is on fire and has arena tour going into ‘22. Jeff Dunham’s arena tour in ‘22. And an amphitheater [run] with Nick Cannon’s Wild ‘N Out. Gabriel Iglesias has his arena tour in ‘22 and his will be the first comedian to ever play Dodger Stadium on May 7. 2022 will be the biggest year ever for stand-up comedy.