Comedy Survey: The Best In The Biz Take Stock (Part I)

Much like the rest of the world, comedy has found itself entering a new era in recent years. However, on this side of the live business, there has been more money than ever. Without the need for massive tour buses to shuttle artists and equipment from show to show, low overhead and a desperate need for laughs have been raking in the money. At the same time, with a world in turmoil, less-than-sensitive jokes bring about worries over safety and security, and comedians have a high potential for being “canceled” for their comments. With so many changes in the industry, Pollstar reached out to some of the biggest movers and shakers in comedy to answer some questions. This is part 1 of 3 that will be posted over the course of several days.

Matt Blake
Matt Blake (Courtesy of CAA)

Rick Greenstein
Senior Partner / Senior Executive VP Head of Comedy Department / Gersh

Matt Beales
Talent Manager / Levity Live!

Nick Nuciforo
Partner & Head of Comedy Touring at UTA

Alex Murray
Partner / Brillstein Entertainment Partners

Dexter Scott
Manager / Vector Management

Steven Levine
Agent at CAA

Joe Meloche
Arson House Entertainment

Andrew Skikne
Agent, Comedy Touring / UTA

Heidi Feigin
Agent, Comedy Touring / UTA

Judi Marmel
Founding Partner & President of Talent Levity Live

Amanda Kyser
Head of Comedy Operations, Live Nation

Stephen Gordon Walker
Talent Manager at Levity Live

Mike Berkowitz
Partner & Co-Head of Comedy Division / WME

Marcus Levy
Senior Comedy & Podcast Touring Agent / WME

Andrew Russell
Parter, Comedy Touring / WME

Matt Blake
Head of Comedy Touring / CAA

Derek Van Pelt
Partner / Mainstay Entertainment, Trevor Noah’s manager

Some are saying the comedy market is currently in a “Golden Age.” What is your take and why?

Greenstein: If we look at this over the past several years I would tend to agree. There are certainly a great number of important & impactful stand-ups performing today and to larger audiences. This is due in part to numerous & diverse platforms for Artists to build their respective brands and hence maintain and/or expand their audiences. Of course with all the polarizing challenges & issues facing mankind these days the need for the most talented and brilliant comedic minds to help put things into perspective and/or to simply give people a temporary break from reality and just laugh for an evening is certainly needed and the audiences and Artists are responding accordingly.

Kyser: This is an especially interesting era for comedy: fans are attracted to new and different things, and as a result we are progressing at a fast pace while also focusing on evolving our business, growing comics and creating better experiences for artists, fans and staff. As far as it being a Golden Age of comedy, this is a moment where our definition of comedy is changing. We’re embracing more types of comics from traditional stand-up comedians to podcasters and YouTube stars which is bringing new voices and new perspectives. It’s exciting.

Nuciforo: The 24/7 on-demand availability of content has created a massive audience for comedy. Audio (podcasts and streaming of stand-up), Linear, streaming and digital video distribution (YouTube, Amazon, Netflix, HBO), and social media (TikTok, Facebook, Instagram) have all helped comedians distribute content globally and created a “Golden Age.”

Beales: It certainly seems that way. Never before has there been as much of an abundance of comedy accessible across all formats. More standups are playing larger venues, arenas and amphitheaters than ever before. Bert Kreischer, producing his own Fully Loaded Comedy Festival, is selling out Baseball Stadiums! Add to that, more comedy specials are being produced to the point talent buyers can’t handle the demand and comedians like Mark Normand, Sam Morril and Drew Lynch are self-producing and distributing their own specials and finding a great deal of success. With the arrival of new social platforms like TikTok and subscription-based Patreon, comedy is just a much easier genre to digest in short form. As to the “why,” I’m sure a lot of people will mention that the pandemic put the world in a very dark place and comedy is needed now more than ever, but I think it’s also important to note that comedy is needed now more than ever, but I think it’s important to note that comedy is the last real safe space for free speech, where people can go to get an alternative perspective to what’s being force-fed through more mainstream media sources.

Scott: There are more screens and venues than ever before and that benefits comedians more than anyone else. Comedians can play any venue at any time and it’s affordable for everyone involved – in front of and behind the curtain. Many more buyers for TV shows and live shows than ever before. Comedy is the most sharable content on socials and the best way for us all to process culture and the zeitgeist.

Murray: The pandemic created an environment where fans and comedians really wanted to get out of the house and live again. They say laughter is the best medicine and there is nothing better than live comedy. People want to be together and laugh together. Great comedy eases tension and millions of people were tense from being locked up at home.

Meloche: Social media and the variety of distribution platforms have given unparalleled opportunity for comedic voices to be seen and heard virtually anywhere.

Levine: It seems that on a global basis, there has never been so much comedy touring, possibly ever. Additionally, there are so many success stories that it’s incredibly challenging. There are so many reasons once can imagine, people still thrilled to be out of the house, ‘revenge’ spending, but also and in my opinion, the stability of the world, plus the polarized state of the country contribute to the appetite not only to go out, but to be intellectually engaged. And not only engaged, but to know that no matter how crazy the world seems and feels, one will come out of a comedy show having laughed and in a better mood than before one went in.

Heidi Feigin
Heidi Feigin (Courtesy of UTA)

Feigin: You only need to look at the grosses of comedians on the Pollstar charts to understand that this truly is the “Golden Age” of comedy touring. When I first started in the business, a comedian doing an arena show was almost unheard of. Today, as many UTA clients including Sebastian Maniscalco and Bert Kreischer are regularly performing in arenas as well as ballparks, racetracks, and other untraditional venues. We are definitely in a comedy book and comedians have become the new rock stars. The secret to their success lies in their relatability. Podcasts and social media platforms have made fans feel like they have an intimate relationship with comedians. Fans can picture themselves hanging out with comics. It is this familiarity and kinship that makes comedy fans so loyal.

Skikne: Comedy has been thriving, and there is a larger variety of artists from different backgrounds than ever before. “Golden Age” sometimes implies a temporary period of greatness, but I believe that the scope of the comedy landscape will continue to grow for a long time.

Marmel: I think it’s a combination of two things. Everybody knew it would be like the “Roaring 20’s” after the pandemic, but I don’t think anybody realized exactly how roaring it would be for comedy. And whenever the world is in turmoil, people need to laugh. Both of these are driving audiences to seek out whatever can bring them laughter and commonality.

Berkowitz: It’s always cyclical. If “Golden Age” means quantity of major comedy tours, then yes, I would say the comedy market is currently in a “Golden Age.” However, quality comedy has always been experienced live and the artists of today will be quick to point that out.

Walker: The world can seem bleak, anxiety inducing, and dark at times – comedy and music are the antidotes and the great human connector.   We’ve grown so disconnected as a society – live events make us feel seen and connected to something bigger.   This all feels like just the beginning of something much bigger than a Golden Age!

Russell: Comedy is more accessible than it has ever been. In 1959 and 1960 people sat around a record player listening to Inside Shelley Berman and The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart. You had to go out and buy comedy albums. You heard about these acts through word of mouth and limited record company promotion. Maybe a comedian was the opening act for a band. Years later, HBO, Comedy Central and Showtime did some promos for stand up specials. That was really it. This, with some exceptions, has been the norm and standard way until about the mid-2000s where the internet made comedians and their material more accessible. In the current age, shareability of comedians bits through mainly social media can be an intro to a new comic someone has never heard of.

Levy: Live comedy has been something that people have been drawn to in good times and certainly when it seems like the world around us is getting harder. However, there is so much more access to funny people and funny stories. We may not be making the great comedy films of the 80s or giving us the comedy stars of the 90s but there are comedians being discovered on every platform building an audience.

Van Pelt: I certainly believe that. I think one of the things the pandemic showed was how much people need to be around their friends and laugh. Ticket sales have been through the roof this year.

Blake: Golden Age to me would mean it’s better than before and better than what’s to come.  I wouldn’t agree with this because with the advent of the internet people have been able to publish their content, reach their fans and attract ticket buyers.  I don’t see this contracting and I only see it expanding in to the future.  I think Comedy Touring and all its offshoots will continue to grow and I don’t see signs of it slowing down.

Specifically, what is your take on the state of the comedy touring market?

Van Pelt: I live and breathe touring and it’s never been better. It’s harder than ever to lock in weekends at arenas and large theaters. To me, it’s so much about timing. I’m waiting to launch our next big tour until the market cools just a touch. I feel like there’s a new tour being advertised every single week.

Blake: All of our arena tours (Gabriel Iglesias, Jeff Dunham, Jo Koy, Katt Williams, Trevor Noah & Wild N Out) are flourishing.  I think as long as artists continue to put out great content and agents help choose the correct venues and ticket prices based on a given audience, the business will continue to grow.

Levy: Thankfully, comedy touring is a healthy business right now. There are more comics at all levels who can consistently hit the road, sell tickets, sell merch, and build a bigger following. Whether they take a break to be on screen, write a book, record a podcast, or build a business, the crowds keep coming back for more.

Russell: It is an exciting time. For me personally, outside of stand up comedians, which many are doing extremely well on the road, it is incredible to see the different types of comedy shows that are selling real tickets. Comedy podcasts is the obvious example with what seems like a new one pops up every week. Improvisation shows have been around for a long time in small venues and many thought that was a niche market. It turns out there is a public demand for it. Ben Schwartz and Friends is a long form improv show which sold out the Chicago theatre and two Beacon Theatres in NYC.

Mike Berk headshot
Mike Berkowitz (Courtesy of WME)

Berkowitz: I’ve always felt that there are so many sub-genres of comedy, that it was never fair to just say that “comedy” in general is doing well in a particular market or venue.  Now more than ever we can see how different forms and styles of comedy and comedic performances can attract different demographics, the same way music does. Comedy has so many different styles that there is something for everyone and everyone has finally realized this.

Walker: There is a HUGE appetite for comedy. We all have a TON of work ahead of us, but this industry is filled with so many innovative and passionate comedy stakeholders.  If we continue partnering together to support artists and help them connect to their fans, everyone will win – the artist, the fans, the promoters, the venues, the communities, and more!

Marmel: The comedy touring market has never been stronger in means of both attendance and gross dollars, however the comedians who are truly hitting the sweet spot of that strength are those who eventify their experience.  Sebastian Maniscalco. Bert Kreischer. They’re not just comedians, but rather voices of their generation for which audiences are flocking. People not only relate to the voice, but also feel a strong connection.

Feigin: The comedy touring business is at an all-time high. There are more comedians touring than ever before and they are performing in larger venues and regularly adding shows in big markets to keep up with the demand. The comedy market is also very broad right now, the internet has democratized what it means to be a comedian, and today’s comics are experiencing lower barriers of entry than previous generations of comedians. Generally, if someone becomes a viral sensation with fans willing to pay to see them perform in person, they’ll be able to tour successfully.

Skikne: Over the last few years, there has been a boom in the number of comics who have the visibility to successfully tour at a theater level. Comedians are finding new avenues to efficiently release content and build an audience on their own terms, often through social media, podcasts, independently released specials and more.

Meloche: Comedy has always thrived during difficult times and the powerful experience of shared live events will always be a sure bet – especially coming out of a two year lockdown. Just like adversity shaping the point of view of many comedians, what we have experienced in the world is again proving that laughter is always the universally sought after Rx.

Murray: I’m seeing record sales for my clients like Nate Bargatze and Jim Gaffigan. Jim Jefferies is performing in markets he has never been due to demand. David Spade made the jump to theaters and is selling more tickets than he ever has in his career. The fans want to escape and laugh again.

Nuciforo: The Comedy Touring Market is strong and growing. There are more theater and arena tours than ever before. Comedians like Bert Kreischer and Nate Bargatze are matriculating up from theaters and arenas to join the likes of Jim Gaffigan, Impractical Jokers, and Sebastian Maniscalco. There is a massive new generation moving from comedy clubs to theater headliners to fill in their spots – Andrew Santino, Mark Normand, Stavros, Ali Siddiq, Matteo Lane to name a few. Sales are strong – average ticket prices and show grosses are at an all-time high.

Beales: It’s interesting because the demand is clearly there. However, I think people are a little more selective with the shows they’re going to spend money on. The more well-known artists aren’t having trouble but the newer and mid-level acts aren’t seeing as much traction. Gone are the days when you could sell a comedian off a Late Night appearance or TV show credit. Now people want to know what they’re getting themselves into, which is why it’s so important to have a strong portfolio to reference, whether it’s stand-up clips on social media or a full-hour special on Netflix.

Greenstein: The comedy touring market is very strong, even when considering the impact the pandemic has inflicted upon all touring Artists. Ultimately there are way more hard ticket/concert level artists working today than ever before and the audiences have become accustomed to higher ticket scalings hence Comedy grosses are increasing as well (especially for the must-see shows). Granted the pandemic and most recently the increase in the cost of living (in many parts of the world) has negatively impacted sales on certain Artists and must be taken into consideration when selecting venues and scaling the shows but in general the overall trend is positive and I’m certainly optimistic about the future.

Kyser: It’s full steam ahead for the comedy touring market. More comics are rising and moving from clubs to theaters to arenas with continued potential for growth.

The live tour market in general this year was hit with a number of adverse factors, including inflation and higher costs, labor shortages, a glut of tours, the pandemic longtail and more. Have those factors impacted your comedy acts/tours? If so, how?

Levine: Fortunately, costs for producing comedy are generally “reasonable,” although inflation is definitely a factor. The music and heavy production shows really are impacted by these factors more than comedy. The glut of tours, careless ticket pricing and inflation are definite factors, but good planning can get one through many of these challenges.

Scott: The benefit comedians had during the pandemic is they could put up a show instantly… No tech rehearsals for sound, lights, band techs, etc… Also the comedy clubs were open when nobody else was… I think any adverse factors for comedians were shared with other kinds of artists.

Murray: This did not affect my clients.

Nuciforo: I haven’t seen this problem with comedy. Most comedians are nimble with relatively low production. They can do fly dates, keeping costs down by having very small touring parties. Additionally, ticket prices for comedy are still generally underpriced as compared to other forms of entertainment… for example: Sports, Music, Theater, etc.

Beales: Less so. There’s much less overhead for a comedy show. All you need is a microphone, a stool and maybe a hand towel.

Greenstein: The pandemic longtail as you refer it is real for certain artists, especially those that appeal to an older audience which are very selective to what shows they may be comfortable attending or not (hence in some cases softer sales). Certainly labor shortage has at times impacted our ability to add last-minute shows because we couldn’t staff the venues. Higher show costs obviously impact the ticket scaling and/or the artist walkout and yes a glut of shows has made avails challenging not to mention having to be extremely cognizant of the competition in the market, etc., etc.

Kyser: At Live Nation, we came into 2022 with as normal a calendar for shows as we did prior to the pandemic. These are dynamic times and people need humor more than ever. The shows and artists this year have been impressive – whether it’s up-and-coming talent, A-list headliners or legendary comics like Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr and Kevin Hart.

Van Pelt: It’s more expensive than ever to put on a show with all those factors. Trucks, gas costs, hotel expenses – all have gone way up. My goal is to not put those costs back on the customers who are paying to see our acts live. I don’t want to raise the lowest tier tickets and price out the people that will become our fans moving forward.

Blake: We are always trying to predict where the future of the economy will go and we haven’t been pushing the envelope on ticket pricing and everything has been good so far.  Live Comedy in general is priced lower than music shows which makes it a more affordable live experience relative to music.  I’ll never forget back in high school when I was told that two things flourished during The Great Depression – Alcohol and Entertainment – which makes me believe that no matter what happens, the comedy touring business will be fine.

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Judi Marmel (Courtesy of Judi Marmel)

Marmel:  You have to bring your “A” game. The reason our clients haven’t felt a huge impact on our tours is the promise of a first-rate performance and production. Yes, there are higher costs, but if you promise an experience, in return you’re able to justify an increase in the ticket price. You also can’t take anything for granted. You have to spend extra dollars to cut through the clutter and make sure that comedian’s audience is reached.

Levy: Comedians turned to other outlets and platforms to express their comedy and connect with fans. They joined the podcast revolution if they hadn’t already. They leaned into more sketch comedy. They wrote a book or a screenplay or a treatment for a series. I think if anything it’s given comedians who were ready to play 60 cities, a pause to say “maybe we only have to do 40 cities and I can make money doing other things.” I’ve had many theater buyers from secondary and tertiary markets ask why they are seeing less comedy come through. My answer is that I am seeing clients be a bit more selective with their road gigs because they don’t have to be out every weekend to build their careers. The days of the road dog comedian are becoming less and less.

Berkowitz: Not really. People were so excited to go out and, typically, comedy travels with such a minimal production when compared to music, that we were able to identify the sweet spot between ideal gross to cover necessary costs and full packed houses this year without any real limitations.

Walker: These headwinds have taught us some important lessons and we had to work so much harder to sell each ticket these past few years.  That said, it inspired us to innovate and be more creative- and so much opportunity has resulted from those efforts!

Meloche: We believe our touring acts haven’t been impacted that much, given intentional effort to keep ticket prices low and use carefully tracked analytics to help guide us in booking the right venues. We have seen theatre and arena acts commit to loyal team members who believe in the product and have helped keep their tours running consistently for the benefit of the artist and the fan experience.

Skikne: I’ve noticed that these factors are primarily impacting festival opportunities – both in the reduction of comedy festivals, and market festival organizers’ occasional hesitancy to program comedy stages. However, as the live events market rebounds, we are hopeful that these challenges will subside.

Feigin: While we have experienced more of these challenges than in previous years, comedy tends to be somewhat recession-proof. People still need to laugh. Comedy brings us together, helps us relate to one another, and makes us feel like we are not alone – laughter is the thing that connects us. It’s why we need to go to live comedy shows – it makes us feel alive. Despite the issues that the industry has faced, it has been a record-setting year for live comedy touring in terms of the number of shows, the amount of tickets sold, and the gross ticket sales. In over two decades in the comedy touring business, I have never seen anything like it.

Levine: Fortunately, costs for producing comedy are generally “reasonable,” although inflation is definitely a factor. The music and heavy production shows really are impacted by these factors more than comedy. The glut of tours, careless ticket pricing and inflation are definite factors, but good planning can get one through many of these challenges.