Is This ‘A Golden Age Of Comedy’?

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Kevin Hart performs at Uptown Comedy Club on March 11, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Thaddaeus McAdams/FilmMagic)

Like many things — including the concept of comedic performance, coincidentally — the idea of a Golden Age started with the Greeks, who envisioned a primordial time of abundance and prosperity.

The challenge is recognizing a Golden Age while it’s happening and then attempting to define it objectively.

Consider the Golden Age of Hollywood. The Big Five studios made many remarkable films in the middle of the 20th century that generated plenty of revenue. But they also made plenty of forgettable movies and the formulaic, Fordism process with which they churned out movies arguably stifled innovation.

Is this a Golden Age of Comedy? Comics themselves demur at the notion. It invites comparisons suggesting that today’s stand-up stars are better than, say, George Carlin or Richard Pryor or Phyllis Diller.

But with one change to the phrase, it’s easier to hone in on an answer.

Is it a Golden Age for Comedy?

Based on opportunities and revenue: certainly.

“It’s a perfect confluence of the streaming platforms, social media content, podcasting and the desire for the consumer to hear funny, unfiltered things and they want to consume it live,” Levity Live co-founder and president Judi Marmel tells Pollstar.

Lighter fare tends to do well when times are toughest — the public seeks brief respite from dark times in darkened theaters and clubs — and Marmel concedes that’s a factor in this surge in comedy, especially as economic uncertainty and general fractiousness came on the heels of two years of pent-up demand.

“Live comedy always does big business during war and recession, it’s always been that way,” she says. “The confluence of that, the post-pandemic release and at the same time as First Amendment rights are being attacked, it makes live performance more important than it’s ever been. You can laugh and release and share common ground.”

The audiences certainly seem hungry and willing to spend.

The top 15 comedy tours combined for more than $267 million in gross on 3.46 million tickets between Sept. 16, 2021 and Sept. 15, 2022, according to Pollstar Box Office reports.

That’s more than $60 million ahead of the 2018-19 comedy year and $5 million ahead of the previous top year of 2017-18, which was bolstered by boffo tours from Kevin Hart and Jerry Seinfeld.

What’s truly illustrative of this new era is not how much the top two or three acts are making — it’s roughly on par with past years — but how much the performers farther down the rankings are bringing in. This year’s No. 15 act — Nate Bargatze — grossed $8.8 million.

That’s 76 percent more than Jim Jeffries did at 15 in 2018-19 and 44 percent more than John Bishop brought in at 15 in ‘17-18.

Marmel says the rising tide is lifting all boats, and in part it’s because the audience for all the different types of comedy are able to find the type of comic they want.

Bargatze is clean and more or less avoids political humor. Chelsea Handler, just ahead of him on the list, works much bluer. Jeff Dunham is a ventriloquist. Ron White’s only prop is a glass of whiskey.

“You can find your fanbase doing what you do. You don’t have to sound just like one person,” Marmel says. “When Seinfeld was huge, everyone was just doing their version of Seinfeld.”

Sure, social media has made it easier for comics to find their audience and for the audience to find their comic. Thirty years ago, comics hoped Comedy Central or BET’s ComicView would find them or they’d get five minutes on one of the late-night talk shows.

There are only so many hours in the broadcast day and even that’s changed with the rise of streaming. Netflix giving one comic an hour doesn’t preclude it from giving 15 others an hour.

The barriers for market entry are much lower, but that means the competition for eyeballs is much wider. Iron sharpens iron, the cream rises and the secret to comedy success is the same.

“The first thing we care about is finding something that’s really funny,” Netflix’s Vice President of Standup and Comedy Formats Robbie Praw tells Pollstar.

Netflix has no doubt played a role in this golden age. There’s a joke in 1996’s “Swingers,” told by Jon Favreau’s struggling comedian Mike, that in New York, comics were told to fly to L.A. because they were handing out sitcoms at the airport. Certainly in the Seinfeld-dominated era, the pinnacle of success for a comedian was to get a network TV show. With the streaming revolution, that calculus has changed. Comedians don’t have to transition to TV and film (though they can and do), because there’s plenty of money to be made in streaming and on tour.

But even Netflix — whose business model is based on people staying at home — recognizes the importance of live comedy, thus the company moved into the festival space with its 11-day Netflix Is A Joke event in Los Angeles with more than 250 performances.

The culmination was Gabriel Iglesias’ performance at Dodger Stadium, the first-ever comedian to play the iconic venue.

“We announced [Netflix Is A Joke] in March 2020,” Praw recalls, with the predictable groan that comes with any mention of any planning that happened in March 2020. “Initially, we had this inkling, we had seen how stand-up had been successful on Netflix and then during the pandemic, there was a hunger. We felt like there’d be a hunger for people to go out and celebrate what is a live experience and that grew the festival substantially. I wouldn’t say we were surprised necessarily but we were extremely delighted.”

Iglesias isn’t the first comedian to play a stadium — Kevin Hart drew more than 53,000 to Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field in 2015, for example— but comedy-in-a-stadium is still such a novel concept that it never occurred to Fluffy it was a possibility.

Stadium shows are still going to be the exception, but what a one-off stadium show demonstrates is that multi-city arena tours are possible for more comedians and that large theaters are a possibility for even more, all the way down to clubs.

One of the subtler changes that’s led to this Golden Age is that more cities are able to sustain a comedy scene. No, a performer doing a couple of nights a week in a mid-size market isn’t going to make millions, but they can certainly make a living.

Bargatze still lives in Nashville, his hometown. When he was starting out, he left Music City first for Chicago — “because my buddy wanted to go to Second City” — and then followed the traditional New York/L.A. path that was de rigueur for comedians on the come-up for decades.

“When I started you needed to get to a bigger city … don’t know how much you have to go to New York and L.A. now. It’s completely different than how I started. I don’t know if I would have to move now,” he says.

As a comic, that’s important, because if a city is producing successful comedians, it draws
attention that can lead to success for others. For example, in addition to Bargatze, Nashville has produced James Austin Johnson, whose “Saturday Night Live” debut last year was lauded by critics (and the show’s long-time cue-card man) as the strongest in
the show’s history. This season, SNL added KC Shornima, originally from Nashville and working out of Austin, to the writers’ room. Bargatze is joined on his podcast Nateland by Nashville-based comics Dusty Slay, Aaron Weber and Brian Bates, all of whom are now headlining clubs or small theaters.

“You can get on stage in Nashville every night,” Bargatze says. “And now the industry knows, we have to go there and look.”

It’s a bull market for comedy and Marmel says that bull’s destined to run, in part because there’s so many more high-quality comics bubbling under.

“I’ve been around for three decades, and what killed it before was oversaturation of things that weren’t good. Now there’s a lot of great content and compelling content that’s finding people who maybe think comedy wasn’t for them,” she says. “That’s fascinating to me now. It’s not just people between 20 and 40 that go see comedy. … People are talking about comedians playing arenas and talking about it like they are going to see the Stones or Billy Joel. It’s not relegated to the 200-seat comedy club, but it still starts there.”