Scroll through any of the various social media feeds you have on your cellphone and you’re likely to come across at least one clip of a comedian on stage performing a joke or working the crowd. Like music, some form of live comedy makes its way into our daily routine and in turn has propelled the live industry to new heights with so many artists on the road taking advantage of that exposure. Live Nation President of Comedy Geof Wills took the time to chat with Pollstar about the new normal, the globalization of comedy and the acts who are killing it at the box office.
Pollstar: Tell me about your history with comedy, and how you got into the business.
Geof Wills: It started 32 years ago at the Punch Line in San Francisco, which is still in existence and a very important comedy club in the grand scheme of things. … I was a bartender. I had gotten out of college, and I couldn’t get a job. One of my bar customers said that there might be an internship available at [Live Nation], which at the time booked the Punch Line, and I was like, “I’ll try that.” All of a sudden, I’m in the comedy business. I had no idea it would turn into what it’s turned into. … It was very innocent at that time and just fun. It was being at a comedy club, hanging out with comedians, taking them to radio [stations] and out for Chinese dinner at nighttime — that kind of thing.
Do you recall some of your first gigs and clients?
The first would have been Jamie Foxx when I was paired up with another promoter, and they worked with him. And then I worked with Chris Rock, and we did a lot of good things.
It’s truly remarkable to see how many comedians are having so much success, especially at the arena level. Coming out of COVID, there has been this boom not just with live music but with comedy. Social media has a lot to do with it, but what else can you attribute this success to?
When we could start working again, comedy was one of the first genres of entertainment that got back into the pool again. In comedy, there are certainly some acts who have entourages, but comedy acts aren’t taking 120 people on the road like a band might. And there are all these comics who have been creating during COVID and all of a sudden, what’s crazy is you got arena acts who can go out with three to four people. That’s it. They got an opener, a road manager, maybe a security person, and you sell 12,000 tickets with just four people backstage. Comedians are the most mobile.
Many people have referred to this time as a Golden Age for comedy. It seems like a new normal with social media and streaming allowing comedians to expand their reach. What can you tell me about 2024 and what lies ahead?
We have Matt Rife looking great, and Sebastian Maniscalco is ready to go. I know Bill Burr is out there booking, as well as John Mulaney, Tom Segura and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, which was an amazing surprise to have them out touring. Brett Goldstein is gigantic — don’t sleep on him.
These are all big tours, and I suppose it’s the Golden Age, but we called it that 10 years ago when people were doing large theaters on a regular basis. Now it’s just blown up even bigger than that, which is remarkable.
What I’m excited about is the track we built here in the U.S. and expanding on that track, which is going to bigger buildings and going to more markets, on a global basis. Obviously, the UK is really the third coast because the UK almost emulates what any other North American market is doing like New York and L.A. There’s a robust business in Australia and western Europe, and definitely across the Asian continent as well.
Someone like Ronny Chieng, who’s fantastic and grew up in Singapore, does arenas over there. He just did a bunch of arenas in Australia and now he’s coming to do his stuff in North America. It’s just unbelievable what he can do. And there are other acts who haven’t reached those shores yet for whatever reason. Either they don’t have the time, they don’t have the inclination or maybe they’re not self-confident about it. These acts can literally do business in all these other markets because of the internet and social media. It’s just a great time for comics, that’s for sure.
Everyone talks about the globalization of music and genres, but comedy is going through that same growth.
It’s happening. It’s well on its way. Jim Gaffigan recently did a show in Cairo. Andrew Schulz just sold out in Abu Dhabi. I know Trevor Noah worldwide had one of the biggest shows ever in the UAE. It’s going down already, and there’s a few acts who need to catch up.
While business is booming, some have said that hurdles such as scheduling exist in this high-demand climate. What challenges, if any, have you noticed?
There’s definitely some truth to that. If you look at Sebastian [Maniscalco], he went and got venues almost a year ago for 2024, maybe even further away than that. When it comes to Matt Rife, I mean he’s got stuff going all the way through 2025 at this point. The good point about that is you get the avails that you want. There are other acts who say, “Hey, I want to go out in two months.” We still manage to get it done, but maybe they’re just doing a show on a Monday or Tuesday night rather than a Friday or Saturday.
There are other venues that are super hard to get into because they are so hot, and everybody wants to play there, like the Royal Albert Hall in London — those guys are probably booked now well into 2026 — or Red Rocks outside of Denver. It’s one of those buildings everybody wants to play in and it’s just very difficult to book. You almost need to start at that type of venue and then think where else to go from there.
Festivals are a massive undertaking but can have such an impact on the entertainment industry and artists. What are the chances we see more comedy fests?
There are other comedy festivals around, and I know other companies are doing them, but I think the “Netflix Is A Joke Festival” may be the biggest one by far at this point with so many acts across so many genres of comedy across so many different sizes of venues — from small clubs to Dodger Stadium to the Hollywood Bowl to the Kia Forum. The fact that all of that would fit within 10 days and what they pulled off – and when I say they it’s a combination of Netflix and [Live Nation] – that festival was amazing. And, it’s coming again next May. Read all about it!