To interview Mike Berkowitz, WME’s Partner & Co-Head of Comedy; Head of Comedy Touring at CAA Matt Blake; and Nick Nuciforo, Head of UTA’s Comedy Touring Department and Partner; is to meet three of the most successful and powerful comedy agents to ever work in the business. For decades, the trio have worked tirelessly worked on behalf of their clients who they’ve helped take to the pinnacle of the business.
What do Kevin Hart, Bert Kreischer, Trevor Noah, Nate Bargatze, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Gabriel Iglesias, Sebastian Maniscalco, John Mulaney, Bill Burr, Jo Koy, Jim Gaffigan, Will Ferrell, Nikki Glaser, Amy Schumer, Nick Cannon, Katt Williams, Cheech and Chong, Pete Davidson, Whitney Cummings, all have in common? They’re repped by either Berkowitz, Blake or Nuciforo and they are among the leading lights in comedy.
In these interview below, conducted separately , we find out how each of these comedy super agents got their start, the comedians who inspired their love for comedy, their career tentpoles, their take on today’s comedy market and what lies ahead for this dynamic comedy market.
Pollstar: Where are you from and how many years have you been in the business?
Mike Berkowitz: I’m from the Bronx, New York. I’m still the young one. I started in 2001 around September (22 years).
Matt Blake: Bakersfield, California. 28 years. I started at The Gersh Agency.
Nick Nuciforo: Outside Albany, New York, a little town called Colonie. I started working for my first agency September of 1996 (27 years), at the comedy agency Irvin Arthur Associates.
What was the first comedy show/recording that got you excited about comedy?
Blake: George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” which was from his album Class Clown.
Nuciforo: I was riding with my best friend in the back of a car and his dad had a tape of Stephen Wright’s I Have a Pony. My mind exploded. It was so funny and smart.
Berkowitz: I memorized the cast of every “Saturday Night Live” and saw every episode from 1985 through 2005. And still watch and enjoy it. When I was younger, staying up and watching “SNL” or taping it and watching it in the morning was a big part of my life.
Who was your first comedy client?
Nuciforo: The Amazing Jonathan. I was a fan and he had a comedy magic act from his “Lounge Lizards” special back in the day when Comedy Central didn’t have much programming. It was early days and they would run it over and over. I thought it was fantastic. When I got to L.A. and started working at Irvin Arthur Associates, he was at the very top of my list.
Berkowitz: The late Greg Giraldo was a brilliant, brilliant comedian. Got pretty well known over time from doing roasts and stand-up, but never made it as big as he should have, unfortunately. He passed away in the late 2000s. He was a great guy and a great comedian. Frankly, being able to work with him, other great comedians like Bill Burr, Louis C.K., Amy Schumer and a lot of others knew I worked with Greg, and that was one of the reasons they gave me a chance.
Blake: Bobby Lee.
How did you get your start in becoming a comedy agent?
Berkowitz: I was a musician. I went to music school and started booking my friends’ bands. Then I came to New York and was managing a few bands, but found it easier to get jobs for comedians because comedy clubs booked comedians for an audience that’s already present. People go to comedy clubs even if they don’t know who’s on stage. And it’s an event, they eat and drink. Whereas for a band, you can’t just book them at a club and expect people to show up, you have to build their audience. I started working with comedians, and eventually, I just made that the thing. I still love music, I play and go to a lot of shows, but when I’m working, I’m doing comedy, and that works for me.
Blake: I wanted to be involved in music and did some internships for Lindy Goetz Management and Tim Neece Management and I couldn’t get an assistant job in music. A desk opened up in comedy and I started there and never looked back. I was working for Sarah Ramaker.
Nuciforo: Though I wanted to be a music agent, like everybody does, I got bit by the comedy bug. I ended up getting hired at a comedy agency and thought that that would give me the ability to pay my dues and build my resume and move forward in the agency world. What I like to say is, “I didn’t find comedy, comedy found me.”
Who’s on your current roster?
Nuciforo: Nate Bargatze, Dana Carvey, Whitney Cummings, Will Ferrell, Flight of the Conchords, Jeff Foxworthy, Jim Gaffigan, Nikki Glaser, Chelsea Handler, Impractical Jokers, Jim Jefferies, Bert Kreischer, George Lopez, Sebastian Maniscalco, Seth Meyers, Leanne Morgan, Russell Peters, Sarah Silverman, The Lonely Island and Taylor Tomlinson.
Berkowitz: Kevin Hart, John Mulaney, Theo Von, Bill Burr, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Mike Birbiglia, Pete Davidson, Ilana Glazer, Brett Goldstein, Anthony Jeselnik, Tom Segura, Kevin James, Wanda Sykes, Trey Kennedy, Nick Kroll, Aziz Ansari, Chris Distefano, Jimmy Carr, Sam Morril, Ramy Youssef, Ziwe and Ben Schwartz.
Blake: Trevor Noah, Jeff Dunham, Gabriel Iglesias, Andrew Schulz. Nick Cannon, Jo Koy, Katt Williams, Ron White, Ken Jeong, Mel Brooks, Cheech and Chong, Andrew Lopez, Frank Caliendo, Joel McHale, Nick Swardson, Dave Attell, Mo Amer Jimmy O. Yang, Bobby Lee, Craig Ferguson, Chad Daniels, Kelsey Cook.
Who’s part of your senior team?
Berkowitz: I co-run the comedy crossover group with Allysa Mahler. We have a group that features people from all over the agency that focus on comedy so that it’s not just touring, which is important. Comedians expect and deserve to be covered in all areas, not just their touring. There’s also people that have a great career in other areas and want to have that same type of support in touring, even if that’s not their main source of revenue. That’s a big thing what we do. My partners are Stacy Mark, who’s been doing it longer than me, she’s a great agent, Andrew Russell, who’s in L.A., and Marcus Levy, who’s in New York.
Blake: I work with or people across the agency, but in comedy touring it’s Ari Levin, Christian Amechi, Ethan Kurtzman, Justin Edbrooke, Matt Frost, Matt Schultz, Ryan Fereydouni, Ryan Quint, Steve Levine, Branden Berger, Jillian Doyle.
Nuciforo: Our group consists of 29 agents and executives located across L.A., Nashville, New York, and London. We’re the only agency with dedicated comedy touring employees in London. Our clients, collectively for comedy touring, will perform almost 11,000 shows in 42 countries It’s Heidi Feigin, Doug Edley who predate me at UTA and they’re incredible agents. There’s an incredible amount of collaboration where everybody really works as a team and looks out for each other.
How do you scout talent these days with so many different platforms?
Blake: Online is a good place to start and also hearing about people and exploring what you hear and narrowing it down. Word of mouth helps with people that are emerging, and then doing research and finding the ones you really believe in. Now you can see a lot of people online but then you have to reach out and connect. It could be you seeing them live or it could just be meeting with them because you’ve already seen material and you can see so much content online now.
Nuciforo: There’s a famous Bernie Brillstein line: “If you haven’t walked through the kitchen to get to a stage, you don’t know showbiz.” There’s no front-of-the-line pass, you got to be out there watching people perform their art in front of people. You can watch it online, and that’s certainly a scouting tool, and we do that, but we always have people in the scene on any given night. You’re also talking to people and understanding who’s starting to get a little heat. Comedians usually guide you to other comedians, which might be the highest endorsement. It’s getting harder because digital is making people popular faster so sometimes it’s harder to get everything on your radar.
Berkowitz: Harder and harder every day. The answer would have been very different two years ago. Now, at any given moment, anyone could post something and it goes huge and they start selling tickets. It’s challenging to keep up with. I challenge my team to be on top of it. I had to get out there and get to know people. Now you can have someone who’s put out a video and sold no tickets last week, and now they’re selling out theaters. People can step over four or five of those steps and become a theater headliner.
What do you look for in a comedian when you’re scouting?
Nuciforo: Number one is, do I believe somebody’s truly talented? And if they are, even if it takes 20 years for them to break, I’m all in on them, because talent ultimately wins in the long run. I love to see someone who I believe has a potential for greatness, to be on the Mount Rushmore of comedy. Usually, that’s having unique voice. Some of the greatest musicians you can close your eyes and listen to them and they have that unique voice. And it’s the same thing with comedy. It’s like this person is absolutely unique in what they’re doing. I also love it when somebody has a point of view.
Berkowitz: There’s three things: There’s comedians who have a point of view on things that are going on in the world and have a take no one else has. The second thing is a great joke-teller. People that are really quick and able to come up with something super funny that makes you laugh and it’s coming from a place you haven’t seen before. The third thing that’s huge, and the main thing I look for, is if they’re talking about themselves because nobody can duplicate that. If you’re telling a story about your life and it’s interesting and funny and you have a way of expressing it, not only will you gain a huge audience, but you’ll never lose them because people want to hear where that story goes.
Blake: Charisma, star quality, work ethic, how funny they are, obviously. And having a vision for what you can do with a specific act. You can see how talented they are and you can see a trajectory based on their strengths. Some people are just so charismatic, smart and funny that it’s undeniable. Then some people are funny and they’ve got a tremendous social media following and they know how to grow their audience. If they can grow their audience, then we can come in as a catalyst and help them grow it exponentially.
What are some of your career tentpoles and milestones?
Berkowitz: Booking multiple shows at professional sports stadiums, including Kevin Hart at Lincoln Financial Field and Bill Burr at Fenway Park. Putting together dozens of arena tours. Helping develop and set up several successful Broadway shows, including “Oh, Hello,” “The New One,” “Old Man and The Pool,” “Just For Us,” “Get on Your Knees,” “3 Mics,” “Homecoming King,” and “The New York Story.” And making the handling of stand-up specials the job of a comedy stand-up agent and selling over a hundred of them.
Blake: Definitely Gabriel Iglesias at Dodger Stadium was an amazing accomplishment. And being his first agent since 2003 and taking the journey with him was an indescribable feeling. Jo Koy always wanted to have his own movie in theaters. And when Steven Spielberg’s children discovered him and shared him with their dad, we were able to put together a movie around him. Another tentpole was the first time I saw Trevor Noah perform live opening up for somebody in Las Vegas. I knew he was a superstar and had to be in business with him. Another exciting moment was when Jeff Dunham returned to CAA. He’s someone who’s been playing arenas since 2007 and has a global footprint. The last tentpole was taking over this department in 2015. Because I got to apply my vision to a whole team of people. It’s been a lot of fun to be a part of.
Nuciforo: The things that were transformative to me were the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, Comedy Central Live, starting CAA’s Comedy Touring department in 2005. Coming over to UTA and transforming the comedy touring department. Creating the Chicago Comedy Festival. One of the problems was that comedians didn’t generally tour much in the summer. I watched some colleagues in music, with Warped Tour and Music Mayhem and asked why couldn’t something like that work for comedy? And really it did. Now our comedy clients tour outdoors and year-round. We created the Wild West Comedy Festival for Vince Vaughan in Nashville, which ultimately became the Nashville Comedy Festival. Having the first London office for comedy touring and expanding our reach in the international marketplace. There’s so many great collaborations happening now, which didn’t used to exist as much in comedy. Working with Bert Kreischer to create the Fully Loaded Festival has been very rewarding. We’ve done other packages with Seth Meyers and John Oliver, Jim Gaffigan and Jerry Seinfeld, Nikki Glaser and David Spade. Conceiving, building and launching the Oddball Comedy Festival.
Last year we said the comedy industry was in a “Golden Age.” Where are we now?
Blake: You guys said Golden Age last year, I didn’t agree. I thought that it was continuing to grow and expand and I still do. I think we’re in an amazing place because the gatekeepers have changed by virtue of the Internet and social media and people are continuing to grow their careers faster than ever because of that.
Nuciforo: It’s expanding, The short answer is, what would come after Golden Age? What do we say? Platinum Age? And then, after Platinum Age, what’s next? But it’s going to keep growing and expanding. It used to be that people would identify as a comedy fan, and we’re in a moment now where everybody’s a comedy fan. People are consuming comedy content in a way that wasn’t even available to them previously. Listening to podcasts, engaging with comedians on social media, TikTok and Instagram where algorithms are serving the comedy content based on what it believes they like and their sensibilities. So people are discovering comedy in a way they never did before. Specials are at an all-time high platforms like Amazon have absolutely exploded Nate Bargatze’s touring career. Hulu and others are coming into the game. Anybody that streams and has an algorithm is going to continue contributing to the growth of comedy and the future. Really, there’s a lot of runway ahead of us, and that gives me great hope and promise for the future.
Berkowitz: There’s no “Golden Age. This is just what it is. It’s going to be like this. There’s an audience for comedy. There always has been, but it used to be that you were only exposed to a few stand-ups a year. The pipeline was smaller and you would go to a comedy show once every couple of months, maybe. Now there’s people that go to two, three comedy shows a week, the way they might go to two, three music shows a week. There’s a distribution system that allows people to be exposed to all different types of comedy, which has created this world where comedy isn’t its own genre, but there are several sub-genres within it. And one of them might be something that appeals to a broader audience or an audience that’s a little younger, like the TikTok generation and they want things more bite-sized. Or people want their favorite comedian to also be someone they want to look at on a nice poster on a wall. I’ve been booking shows in arenas for more than 10 years. I had one year where I had four arena tours going on. Maybe more and more people are getting big to that point because there’s bigger distribution and more people love the experience of a comedy show. It’s a combination of it being available, an interest to discover and then wanting to see that person perform live.
What’s happening these days with streaming in terms of its power and reach?
Nuciforo: Streaming is one of the greatest things that’s happened for comedy, because of one thing, and that’s the algorithm. All these platforms are driven by an algorithm. And Netflix has been very efficient. And one of the great stories of the last year with Netflix has been Leanne Morgan, her first special on Netflix has been wildly successful. It’s been an absolute game changer for her. We were a little concerned because there were no other comedians like her. That’s both the challenge and the opportunity. She’s so unique. So we were concerned like what if the algorithm doesn’t efficiently find her fans? She’s not Bert Kreischer or Tom Segura. And the algorithm did a great job of finding her fans. She’s been in the top 5 most viewed specials in the last 52 weeks on Netflix since it debuted and it’s been transformative for her. And Nate Bargatze’s special at Amazon was a breakout success and helped him transition from multiples in theaters to doing arenas. He set the record at Bridgestone and broke the attendance record with 3 shows over 30,000 people at the Delta Center in Salt Lake. He became not only an arena selling act, but an act that can sell multiples. Hulu is very exciting, that’s Disney and Disney’s massive. But also let’s not forget YouTube for our clients Mark Normand and Stavros Halkias, it’s changed their careers. That algorithm’s been very efficient and a lot of our clients are seeing success launching on YouTube as a platform and getting millions of views. I think that having multiple players in the space, HBO Max, Peacock, is going to create more comedy stars.
Berkowitz: Amazon does well and obviously, they have an excellent platform, but Netflix is the place where people tend to watch specials the most. YouTube is probably a distant second. But unfortunately, YouTube, you can’t really make money, so you’re doing it just for exposure. And then Hulu, HBO Max, Peacock, Paramount Plus, Showtime and Comedy Central. I mean, these are all players, and they’re all opportunities for people to make and create a beautiful special. But the eyeballs are still on Netflix for the most part. We’ll see. Hopefully, that changes.
The difference between music and comedy, which is always interesting to me, is in music you put the album out and then you’re touring to support that album and playing songs from that album. Comedy, you put your special out, which is like an album, at the end of your tour and you never tell those jokes again. And now everybody gets to see it for free and everybody knows the punchline. So the next time you tour, you’re touring off of the success of your last special but with completely new material. So the special is the last thing. You hope at the end of a tour, you put your special out and you gain enough new fans that the next tour you’re playing bigger venues and selling more tickets.
Blake: Comedians are able to distribute their own content on TikTok and YouTube. and can go from comedy clubs to theatres, in a way like Andrew Schulz, Shane Gillis, Matt Rife all have. So, for example, Justin Edbrooke and I work on Andrew Schulz. We just sold out two arenas and 26,000 tickets in Toronto. which is the fastest selling show in the history of Just For Laughs. And now he’s playing the most prestigious venues in the world. from Royal Albert Hall in the UK to Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi. There’s a transition from linear cable into streaming services and there’s more bandwidth for streamers to put up comedians. Comedians also have the ability, through social media, to direct their audience to their specials. So it’s continuing the expansion and reach of stand-up comedy. As stand-up comedy becomes more popular, more and more people are discovering it and with more options, it’s this never-ending growth cycle.
What do you see as the biggest opportunities and challenges in the comedy market today?
Berkowitz: The biggest challenge the market is becoming saturated. I like to say the cream rises to the top. Unfortunately, some of the most brilliant comedians are potentially going to get blocked because no matter how big of an age it is, Golden, Diamond, whatever it is, it’s still how big a boom we’re experiencing and how long it lasts. There’s still only so many people in every town that are going to want to go see a comedy show every night. And people are competing with people who’ve been doing it for a long time and really working the craft with folks who put out a TikTok video that went big that aren’t necessarily as experienced. Some good voices are getting lost in the shuffle. That’s very frustrating and challenging for us to try to find their audience in a different way. We do it, we work at it and we find it. But maybe it’s a little too easy for some people to make it who maybe aren’t ready yet. That’s a challenge and it’s holding people back. Maybe they’re getting big on TikTok, but maybe it isn’t the time to put out your big, massive tour in front of 20,000 because you haven’t worked your stand-up in big rooms yet.
But opportunities are changing every day. Again, if you’re undeniable, you’re going to find your audience and your audience is going to keep coming back if you’re doing it the right way. It’s easier these days with streaming and podcasts and digital and socials; but still, there’s people that find it being on SNL or having a sitcom or having a really funny role that pops in a movie. Some people are writers and directors, and that’s the path they choose. People like Judd (Apatow) do that, and they come back to doing stand-up, which is awesome. Judd’s a great example. He did stand up, became the most respected director of his generation, or maybe any generation as a comedy voice, and then went back and did stand-up and played to theaters and killed.
Blake: The biggest opportunity is with no gatekeepers, comedians have control of their own pipeline. And through podcasts or social media, they can reach fans. They can share their content and grow their businesses. And for someone who uses those tools and works on it, the possibilities are endless on where they can end up. And once they get traction through their own projects, then usually some of the streamers and others platforms will start jumping in because at that point they’re proven entities. And everyone wants to participate.
Look, there’s always challenges you have to work around. And that’s our job as an agent to navigate those and recommend the best advice, whether it’s buildings to ticket prices to how soon you return to a market to developing new markets. Those are all just choices we have to make. And there’s always different variables involved. I don’t really see it as challenges, I see it more as how do you make the best option with the variables that are out there at any given time? Nothing’s really a hindrance because you always have to make those choices. You just need to make the best decisions for your clients to help them achieve their goals.
Nuciforo: I’ll start with a challenge. And it’s a boring challenge, maybe, but traffic and avails. It’s brutal. If you look at the calendar right now for the Chicago Theater or the Beacon Theatre, or any of the biggest theaters in America right now, the lineup reads like a comedy club. There are so many comedy acts playing that you’re in and amongst a lot of traffic. Additionally, when you have clients as we do, playing multiples there, 2, 4, 6, 8 shows, it’s eating up a lot of real estate. So when you’re routing in a way that you need multiple nights in a heavily traffic building, it’s difficult. And that’s only accounting for comedy. That’s not accounting for music, non-traditional, podcasts or theater or any of that. It’s getting more and more challenging as there are more and artists today that can play a thousand cap and up than ever before, even in Arenas.
I’ve had just in the last nine months, Adam Sandler drop on top of Jim Gaffigan two days apart in an arena on top of Impractical Jokers. You know some of these last-minute plays, Dave Chappelle at the last minute he’ll slide into a market, and all the planning in the world can’t keep you apart. And in many many instances there’s just a lot of comedy on top of comedy. Next year we’re going to see a little bit of a challenge from an election year with social media and traditional media being really crowded with paid ads for everything from proposition votes to the presidential election. That’s always that’s always been a challenging year. And we’re going to have to work hard to maneuver around it.
I also think that’s a bit of the opportunity. Comedy excels when the world is crazy. People need escapism. You want unplug, have a laugh, not think of the world, go to a show and get your laugh on. That’s an opportunity. And comedy is still a young business and has a lot of room to grow. As many comedy acts touring today, music is still ten times what comedy touring is right now. And comedy is genre specific, it’s not one size fits all. There’s genres of comedy and the audience profiles are different. And when you think about [international comedy] what that is and it being an underserved market…there’s a lot of room for growth.
What do you think next year holds for the market?
Blake: I think there’s just more and more opportunities every year. I work with Kelsey Cook and Chad Daniels, who are a couple. And her entire calendar has changed and she’s working as much as she possibly wants. She has new specials coming out. Her boyfriend Chad is another client and his special’s coming out. They’ve got a podcast together they’re working on and Chad just got back on Pandora. So for them, next year is set to explode. There’s opportunities for people who aren’t just stand-ups like Andrew Lopez, who is a young multi-hyphenate and a great stand up I’m working with and is also amazing writer and has the talent to create one of those giant multi-million deals. I’m excited to work with him in shaping the movie ideas he’s working on and also his stand up. So there’s tremendous opportunities in stand up, and I think those lead to other opportunities.
Nuciforo: I’m excited about next year. The Netflix Festival will be back, and we’re working on some big shows and collaborations there. And that’s always good for the marketplace. We have a lot of big specials that we’ll record and launch, none of them announced yet so I can’t specifically talk about them. Around our clients we have some really big collaborations on the horizon between clients and some non-clients. There will be really big tours on the road. I’ll be doing multiples in arenas and multiples in theaters. All things are right now pointing up for next year. And I’m excited about that.
Berkowitz: I’m hoping next year some folks take some time off so that we’re not all up against each other every week. But what I expect more is that a year from now, if we have this conversation, there’ll be three people that neither one of us has ever heard who are selling a ton of tickets. I’m hopeful that there will be three people who I know who are amazing and brilliant who will also be selling a lot of tickets because it’s finally going to be their time. The cream will continue to rise to the top.
(Interviews edited for length and clarity).