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

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 2 of 3 that will be posted over the course of several days.

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

Rick Greenstein (Courtesy of Rick Greenstein)

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 EntertainmentTrevor Noah’s manager

Streaming platforms, film/TV, trading, podcasting, social media, and TikTok in particular are presenting a myriad of opportunities for comedians. What are some of the more interesting and unique opportunities for comedians you’ve seen?

Kyser: Fans are finding comedy in new and different ways and there’s more interest in shows across all venues and platforms. Comics are adapting to the need to feed the algorithm several times a week without watering down their voice. Video recording has become more prevalent with each show we do and that’s become the norm. Utilizing these recordings create more opportunity to reach new fans and generate ticket sales for live or online shows.

Beales: I think some of these fan community-based platforms like Patreon, Memberful and even OnlyFans to an extent are creating opportunities and revenue streams for artists that appeal to a comic’s sensibility to put their material out in the world, engage with fans and do so in a safe space. Not sure if these platforms provide a solution to growing a fan base but it feels like self-produced content is trending to be standard.

Nuciforo: Comedians are multi-hyphenate artists. When they are not on stage telling jokes, most of our clients are actively working on their film, TV, podcasting and book deals. We work with each client to create a strategy to leverage each of these mediums to support their touring growth. In return, success outside of stand-up attracts new fans. It’s all connected.

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Alex Murray (Photo courtesy of Alex Murray)

Murray: I think those platforms are good for exposure but it will always come down to the quality of the material for longevity in this business. If you are more famous than funny you will have a short career.

Scott: TikTok isn’t just offering a creative outlet, it’s paying folks for their views. Comedians on the come-up really need to $100/day they can generate at the beginning… People who still think TikTok is for music and dancing are just missing the boat to discoverability and monetization.

Levine: Live shows of every kind are playing everywhere. The appetite for venues and promoters remains extremely high. Some of it is opportunistic, everyone sees a “hot” marketplace. There are also many people who think they can make up for the lost time when there were no shows due to the epidemic. Where there’s a market glut, one must be very aware of what the competition is and enter with caution.

Meloche: Comics are betting on themselves and not waiting for platforms to validate their voices. We have seen very successful specials released without a pay-wall on YouTube and most recently on Moment House with Andrew Schulz.

Skikne: Some artists are bypassing the networks and streamers, and are self-releasing their standup specials for free on YouTube instead. This trend has appealed to comedians as it can translate to quick career growth by helping them reach new audiences, which may convert to ticket sales.

Feigin: Comedians are self-generators. They love touring because it gives them creative control and freedom. As the business continues to evolve, the most successful comedians today are those who are able to connect with their audience on multiple platforms in a genuine and organic way. As Comedy Touring agents, one of our jobs is to find ways for clients to innovate within the market. Bert Kreischer’s “Fully Loaded” comedy tour gave Bert the unique opportunity to create and own a touring property that was not just a show, it was an event. All elements of the tour were centered around the fan experience from the announce video, to the curated line-up, to the party atmosphere complete with a larger-than-life “Bert” mascot. The success of this tour was built on years of hard work, and the tipping point was when Bert’s joke “The Machine” went viral on social media. While Bert’s focus on podcasting and Netflix specials have amplified his success, his uncanny ability to creatively promote his tours makes him unique amongst his peers.

Marmel: Savvy content creators can reach and amass an audience that drives their live performances. For example, both Bert Kreischer and Sebastian Maniscalco have created content that has been elevated to film and TV via virality. Something done on a platform that sticks with a viewer can grow into an opportunity that otherwise would have depended upon chance or additional years of work.

Walker: Some may disagree, but TikTok is one of the greatest things to happen to stand-up comedy in the last decade.   The algorithm loves standup comedy and has accelerated artist discovery by fans and built huge platforms from which comedians can launch tours.   It’s also been exciting to see comedians start to regain control and ownership of their IP by self-releasing comedy specials on YouTube and other platforms.

Berkowitz: Talent is now able to self-finance and self-release a special for free on YouTube for tens of millions of views like Sam Morril, Mark Normand and Shane Gillis did. The independent spirit of comedy is shining through in the best possible way.

Levy: Comedians releasing their own comedy specials has become necessary with the lack of buyers in the specials market right now but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Being able to create, have a full say in the production, editing, and release of these specials, as well as full ownership, is helping comedians grow their audiences and get their material seen in ways that a weekend at the Funny Bone just can’t. Utilizing social media, doing a mix of traditional press and the modern version – podcasting, as well as tapping into the direct-to-fan communication such as Patreon has allowed comedians to showcase their comedy in ways that the old Comedy Central specials never did. Unedited, without commercial breaks, and without corporate oversight. There has been some exciting material made that wouldn’t have been just a few short years ago. Experimenting with their own sponsors, the way a special is released to fans, and how it’s promoted has never been more creative in my opinion.

Blake: I’m a big fan of whatever gets an artist the most exposure and what is best and organic to every artist is different.  I simply love the fact that a comedian can put their set on YouTube for anyone in the world to watch. Touring isn’t just a domestic phenomenon.

Van Pelt: I have a client who is incredibly popular on Tik Tok and Instagram. He’s a young touring comedian and instead of going to a city, Seattle for example, and doing a club for a weekend, we are doing one-off dates and making a weekend be Seattle, Spokane, Portland and advertising solely on his social media accounts. Doing it this way we are making 2-3 times as much money and performing to one sold out show rather than fans dispersed across the whole weekend in one city.

The recent politicization of comedy has brought both first amendment issues and security issues into the spotlight. What’s your take on these issues?

Levine: It’s making comedians more cautious and that makes good sense. Sadly, being cancelled or attacked are real concerns.

Meloche: Freedom of speech is at the core of stand up comedy. Some artists have successfully and bravely pushed these limits to challenge audiences and society. Just as powerfully, some artists have chosen to focus on universal topics that speak more to the shared human experience, which is equally impactful in divisive times.

Marmel: Live stand-up comedy is truly the one place you get to see the first amendment played out in real time. I don’t believe you can cancel comedians for opinions—It’s no different than banning books. However, freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from repercussion, so comedians understand that taking any position means taking heat from those who disagree with you. Audiences vote with their dollars and fans want to hear that comedian’s unfiltered truth.

Courtesy of Stephen Gordon Walker

Walker: For me personally, comedy is a form of escapism from the chaos of this world.  Over the past 18 months there has been a resurgence of comedians staying away from controversial topics and instead crafting jokes aimed at being silly, relatable, and fun.

Van Pelt: Security is essential. Safety trumps all.

Greenstein:  We must protect an artist’s right to full freedom of expression, period. There must be dialogue and there will be discourse but freedom of expression cannot be silenced, especially in the Arts. In regards to security, all appropriate protocols are available to be taken into account and when & where appropriate will be utilized accordingly. Can’t take anything for granted these days but it is a fine balance as these are comedy shows and you don’t want to have a “police state” per say but the artist and their content must be protected.

Beales: I think everyone has a right to their own opinion. And while that phrase gets thrown around a lot, it truly goes both ways, but regardless of that opinion, violence is never the correct answer.

Murray: Comedy has been politicized unnecessarily. That is more of a reflection of the deterioration of our media business. The name of Nate Bargatze’s next tour name is called The Be Funny Tour. That sums it up. Just be funny.

Scott: Comedians need to take risks, that’s part of their job. We should be protecting the first amendment rights of the performer and also respect the fans who are paying hard-earned money to enjoy the show. The attendees who are offended should stick to watching Marvel movies or The View from their couches. Live shows aren’t “the comments section…” let the comedians from both sides of the spectrum express themselves completely and safely to the audiences that enjoy them.

Kyser: Comics more so now than ever are finding it challenging to fully express their art form and we find that comics really value all the effort we put into creating safe, welcoming and empathic spaces for them and their fans.

How do you believe 2023 will play out in terms of the comedy touring market?

Scott: I think tours will be more conservatively booked and priced, but grosses will be great. People who took too big of swings coming out of the pandemic will recalibrate, and folks graduating to bigger rooms for the first time will ride the wave of return to normalcy.

Levy: The optimist in me thinks we will continue to experience robust sales. We may have to be smarter about ticket pricing and more aware of competition in the market so this saturation doesn’t bite everyone in the ass. We may not see as many major tours playing at the arena level, but the next generation of comedians will take a step forward and fill the gaps. There are many funny comics who are on the brink of drawing bigger audiences across the country and venues & promoters will have to be willing to have faith and a little risk that we know our clients are ready for the next step.

Meloche: Comics are already booked through 2023 which is a great indication that comedy will thrive in the year to come and beyond.

Skikne: So many artists hit the road this past year as in-person events resumed. I think there will be a normalization in the number of tours, closer to how things were in 2019. We’ve seen a significant rise in ticket pricing the last couple years, and I expect that trend to continue.

Feigin: I think the 2023 comedy touring business will continue to be robust for comedians who have built a truly engaged and loyal fan base who want to see them perform in-person. Up-and-coming comedians who are consistently generating original content and finding new audiences will also fare well in 2023, as people want to feel like they are discovering the next big thing.

Van Pelt: There were a lot of A-list comedians that went on tour in 2022. I think there will be a little more breathing room for the rest of us.

Berkowitz: I think we will see a lag post-pandemic as we get back to being somewhat normal. People won’t be as eager to go out. Platinum, VIP and elevated ticketing should keep grosses in a decent place, but we may also see some lower total sales than we did this past year.

Walker: It’s looking like 2023 is going to be bigger and busier than ever!   I anticipate we will continue to see comedians from the heartland flex their muscles in the touring space.

Kyser: I believe that 2023 will be an incredibly special year for comedy. As we round out 2022, there are more artists emerging and tons of interest from existing fans. Plus, the possibilities of engagement with social media are really wide open and can introduce new people to comedy.

Greenstein: I’m very optimistic ‘23 will be another growth year.

Beales: I think with the music industry back in full swing, we’ll see comedy touring come back down to Earth a little bit, while at the same time more artists turning toward larger eventized shows billed with multiple headliners.

Nuciforo: I’m forecasting that 2023 will be stronger than 2022. Most of our clients are seeing significant growth in audience that will continue into the new year.

Russell: As long as there are people out there who want to laugh, have a good time and feel good about a great night out, more comics will start selling tickets and playing theaters. 

Murray: I think we are just getting started. Jim Gaffigan and Jim Jefferies are doing big tours in Asia, Europe and the Middle East next year. The demand for laughter is a global commodity.

Blake: We use a lot of proprietary analytics tools developed in house at CAA to help us decide many aspects of future dates (venue, location, scaling, etc.).  I think there will be some mistakes where people try to bite off more than they can chew, but in general I think if we tour intelligently, we can weather any uncertainty and make it to the next expansion of the golden age you mentioned!

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LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – OCTOBER 16: Casino Booking Agent of the Year recipient Steve Levine of ICM Partners attends the Gaming Expo’s (G2E) seventh annual Casino Entertainment Awards at Vinyl inside the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on October 16, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images)

Levine: As we speak, between inflation and the fluctuating international currency situation, it’s possible that American comedians who had planned to tour internationally in 2023 might look at staying in the US and playing wherever they can, including secondary markets. The net result of that is that the US will continue to be a crowded market. Even without the international component, it will probably stay crowded here given the continued heat of the genre.

Marmel: We’re already booking acts into 2023 and it remains as hot as ever. Comedy remains the one place an audience can experience unfiltered voices in a communal way. I don’t see that hunger waning whatsoever.