Q’s With: Erin von Schonfeldt, Improv Talent Buyer On The State Of Today’s Comedy Market

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Erin von Schonfeldt | Courtesy EvS

Erin von Schonfeldt has paid her comedy buyer dues like few others. Starting out some 30 years ago as a cocktail waitress at an Improv comedy club in Irvine, California, she’s risen to become the EVP of programming for Levity Live and now books some 20 Improv clubs and eight cruise ships. She knows first-hand the vicissitudes of the comedy market, which much like the concert business, was a roller coaster ride these last few years and still faces many challenges. Here, von Schonfeldt discusses the pandemic’s impact on comedy, discovering talent, the Golden Age of Comedy many in the industry say we are in, the challenges of booking comedy and the rising stars to keep an eye out for. 

Pollstar: How long have you been in the business? 

Erin von Schonfeldt: I started as a cocktail waitress at the Irvine Improv in 1991, so 32 years.

What do you do now?

I book all of the Improvs across the country. 

How many venues is that?

Twenty plus eight ships.

Comedy cruises?

No, I book eight Norwegian Cruise Line ships.

How do the ships work?

The ships are great because comedians can work on material, entertain crowds and get paid without the pressure of needing to sell tickets. 

So 20 venues and eight ships, do you ever sleep? 

I have a wonderful team that works with me. I used to book 36. I used to book Funny Bones, too. That was bananas. I had no freedom to develop talent, I was just always putting out fires, there was never any creativity. Now I get to actually identify artists, which is fun.

What’s your approach to discovering talent? 

I’m in a super-enviable position that my office is actually at the Hollywood Improv. So I see new talent all the time and we have The Lab which is fantastic for showcasing talent. I’m lucky to have people reaching out to me constantly, too. For every 100 links you get, there’s five that are promising. I’m constantly looking at the web. 

With the pandemic and so much going digital, are more comics bubbling online than ever?

It existed before the pandemic, but it really blew up during the pandemic. A lot of comics were figuring out ways to still be comics, so there’s a lot of digital stars who are actually comics, too, but they just added that element. They had a pre-existing set, but now they have a podcast, and a platform where people are responding that helps them sell tickets. 

Are rooms now in a way a test case for people who are starting to establish themselves digitally? 

There are some digital stars who don’t have to have a good show and do like glorified meet and greets or Q&As. They can sell a high-priced ticket and their fans are happy just to have the interaction. Doing that on a Tuesday night and being able to generate revenue, I can then take chances on somebody who may not sell a lot of tickets on the weekend, but is going to put on a great show, which is great for our brand and for development.

One of the main themes in this issue is that we’re in something of a Golden Age of Comedy, do you agree? 

Yes, I would say so. It’s interesting because when we came out of the recession, there was a big comedy boom. They talked about the Golden Age and the roaring ’20s and that was huge. And now we’re coming out of the pandemic and it’s sort of the same, but we have the added caveat of the cancel culture and political correctness. So it’s robust, but it’s also divided. There’s so many different audiences and they all want something different and you have to figure out how to cater to all of them.

I’ve seen a bunch of anti-cancel comics recently, which got a little tedious.

And there’s an audience for that. We have a more diverse lineup in our rooms. You want to cater to all talent and make sure everybody gets a shot and by doing that you’re also catering to all audiences. You’re building fans that are inclusive and woke and trying not to alienate them when you’re also booking more conservative acts.  Do you know Trae Crowder, Tim Dillon or Joe Rogan? The anti-establishment comics? Like “Don’t tell me what I can and cannot say.” You have to find that delicate line because I’m going to support them as much as I’m going to support other groups. 

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Live At The Improv: The famed Hollywood Improv, opened in 1974, is one of 20 Improvs booked by von Schonfeldt. Courtesy Levity Entertainment

Has that divide changed your security set-up?

We are much more vigilant about making sure people are posted on both sides of the stage at all times. Somebody’s posted in front of the green room door. It’s unfortunate. We always had security, but now we stepped it up a notch because you don’t want anything to happen to anybody ever, but the climate has changed unfortunately.

Which is an added expense, right?

It’s an added expense, but the bigger expense would be if something unfortunate were to happen and we weren’t able to take care of it, that’s worse.

Are you noticing more alternative comedy places now coming out of the pandemic? Like that Best Fish Taco place in Los Feliz? 

Absolutely. There’s a really solid show at a laundromat. There’s so much talent in L.A., they had to find alternative spaces because when you go to some of the well-known comedy clubs you see similar lineups night after night and obviously they need big names to sell tickets. There’s a shortage of stage time, so they find and make their own opportunities. I think it’s amazing because a lot of voices get heard that wouldn’t normally get heard and that’s how they develop. Outside of, developing at The Lab or giving them showcase spots in the main room.

I’ve been hearing about thriving comedy scenes in Austin and Nashville, indicating that you don’t have to be on the coasts anymore.

No, you don’t. You could be discovered in Nashville, Austin and get your career really cooking and you don’t have to move to L.A. I said what a wonderful team I have, one of my team members is based in Nashville and I have found so much talent through her because she’s in a completely different scene. Some of my biggest surprises in 2022 came out in Nashville.

Let’s say I’m out of Madison, Wisconsin, and I want to play The Improv, what do you want to see from me? 

I want to see originality.

Do you want see a video? 

Send me a link to something. Send me a 7 to 15-minute link. You can get a good idea about what somebody’s about in 7 to 15 minutes.

Are there any comics you’ve discovered? 

Bert Kreischer. There was a lot of people that knew how great Bert was, but I’m the one who said, “I’m gonna give you a bunch of offers for the Improv.” This was back in the day before all of the internet and the podcasts and YouTube, I was like, “People can’t love you until they see you, so please just take my shitty club offers and let people see you.” And he did and then I went into Judi (Marmel’s) office and I said, “Yeah, I’ve never told you to sign anybody before, but sign this guy.” I was on the ground floor. I also booked Daniel Tosh for years. I booked Jimmy Fallon as a feature for years, I can’t say I discovered them, but these are the guys that I was like, “I love them and I want to book them all the time.” Kathleen Madigan, Sarah Silverman, again, did not discover any of them, but gave them boatloads of stage time before they were famous.

In terms of being in a golden age, are your rooms having banner years? Concerts didn’t have much of a first quarter, but second and third quarters were very strong. 

We had a first quarter because we re-opened second half of 2021.  We weren’t open at full capacity, but there was definitely a voracious audience for comedy. Coming out of the pandemic, comedy audiences gave less of a shit because they’re bolder and so they were like, “I’m ready to go out and have some fun.” So we’re having one of our best years in the clubs.

How does the rest of the year look ahead?

It’s banging. I am excited about our schedules in the last two quarters of this year. It’s going to be a really great year.

Anybody, we should keep an eye out for?

There’s some people you probably haven’t heard of who I think you will, Matt Rife, Laura Peek, JB Ball, Mark Smalls, Amy Miller, Ahamed Weinberg.

What is a day in the life like for a booker today compared to pre-pandemic?

It hasn’t changed that much. We still book marquee names, but with comedy booming the way it has, those marquee names are jumping to theaters quicker, so we need to focus on developing talent and identifying audiences.