Friday, December 13, 2013

A Weaker Signal

Standup comedy is fickle. You can be doing everything right when it comes to your performances and going nowhere in your career. There are and have been many great standup comedians that have never gotten anywhere close to the recognition and fame they deserved.

On the other hand fate seems to treat the mediocre in our art very well. There are many examples of comedians with less than desirable skills that are household names. Some of my standup comedy brothers are resentful of this, I am not. Over the many years I've been been doing this I have come to understand that you can chase fame and sometimes actually catch it. But for the most part if you are destined for fame it's going to find you before you ever catch it.

The key to the game of becoming famous has more to do with being in the right place at the right time, making yourself available for it. In truth even that does not guarantee anything. You can be there waving your hands and screaming but it just may not be your time. The spotlight that is fame may shine on you for an instant, that may not be long enough to make anything happen.

When I started in 1992 one of the best chances a standup comedian had to get to noticed was very well defined. It was radio and touring was the way you got yourself on the air. Radio is what most clubs used to put "butts in the seats". To be specific it was morning radio and for the most part it was for headliners only.

It was a pretty simple formula. Work your way up to becoming a club headliner. For most that involved 7 - 10 years of constant touring, but it payed off in exposure. Once you became a "legit" headliner things started happening for you.

Comedy club books headlining comedian. Headlining comedian comes to club on Wednesday. Headlining comedian does shows on Wednesday and Thursday night. Friday morning headlining comedian gets up at a very uncomfortably early hour and is driven to the radio station by a club employee. The headlining comedian then makes an appearance on the morning radio show to promote them-self and the club.  Sometimes these stations are clustered together in the same building and the headlining comedian can go from studio to studio and be on 4 or more stations in a morning.

As long as the comedian got it right two things happened. The comedian would have an audience of 10s to 100s of thousands for a short period of time and club would fill up on the weekend. It was the opportunity for a comedian to create a following. So if you were a comedian that headlined all over the country you could become known to millions of people.

I've said many times before, standup comedy is a numbers game. Once you have gotten the attention of millions of people what you do with that time is up to you. How they react and whether they even remember you is up to them.

The classic example of how well this all worked is Larry the Cable Guy. There would be no Larry the Cable Guy without morning radio. He figured it out and got it right. He toured around the country, got on morning radio through the club, did a great job when he was on, made a connection with the show and then continued that connection once he left by phone weekly. What he did was nothing short of brilliant and required hard work and effort on Cable Guy's part. I have friends in radio that were there when he was coming up. The stories they shared with me are one of a talented, smart and hard working man that had a plan and stuck with it.

There was a short cut of sorts back in the day. A radio show called The Bob and Tom show. Why? A simple answer, they are the biggest morning radio show in the country. I don't know how many stations they are syndicated on but I'm sure the number is in the hundreds. They were the Johnny Carson of radio. Just as Johnny did, Bob and Tom have made the careers of many standup comedians. They truly were the Holy Grail of standup comedy.

You'll may have noticed the word "were", that is not meant to be a dig against Bob and Tom. Things have changed. Reaching people has dramatically changed over the past 10 years. It used to be that people on the way to work sat in their cars and listened to morning radio as they inched along in rush hour traffic. It was their only option, not any more. Now they can talk on the phone, listen to Podcasts, check their email, text, Facebook, Twitter and who knows what else.

This has had a significant effect on the impact of morning radio which has in turn impacted standup comedy. Morning radio will no longer fill up the clubs on the weekend. This has created a real issue for comedy clubs around the country that are now scrambling to find the "next big thing" that will fill their rooms.

The problem is there is no "next big thing", it's now a combination of things; radio, social networking and in club promotion. Unfortunately there is no "standard" formula. Each and every club will now have to figure it out for themselves. Some are doing better at it than others, some are just dying.

It used to be that comedy clubs gave standup comedians a place to develop their talent. These same comedians would go on to be famous and return to the clubs and bring their audience with them. Much like baseball has a farm club system to develop their players.

Not any more. More and more clubs now have a "what can you do for me" attitude when it comes to how they deal with their talent. Since they haven't been able to figure out how to draw a crowd on their own they now look to comedians to bring in a crowd for them. They bring in the comedians of Chelsea Lately, Last Comic Standing or [insert name here] actor that is on a popular TV show that is a part time standup.

I have no issue with the shows I mentioned. I don't even have an issue with these comics taking work. My issue is that these clubs are bringing in comedians that don't have the skill or the material to do what the comedians I came up with could. You don't need a strong 60 minutes of material to be on TV, but you do need that to kill in a comedy club. The club trades on their fame to fill the seats but then the comedian falls short once they get on the stage. I think what the clubs are missing is that every time someone shells out money to see someone famous and they are disappointed it makes them apprehensive when it comes to spending the money again.

In essence, (if this were even possible) they are like a tree that cuts off it's own roots to move into a sunnier spot. The leaves may get a little greener for a while but without the water a root system provides the tree will die. It's the same in standup comedy. Rather than concentrate on finding out how to develop a customer base of comedy lovers that will come back time after time to see quality standup they have chosen a short cut that in time will cause them to die off.

Which is already happening. Take a look at the number of comedy clubs there are in this country now and compare it to 10 years ago. There are no where near the number of clubs there used to be. I can tell you it is going to get much worse. Comedians have fewer and fewer places to hone their skills. Which in turn will shrink the pool of quality standup comedians which will degrade the quality of talent on stage. Which will keep people out of the clubs because the shows won't be worth seeing. The loss of audience will cause clubs to close. Which will give comedians fewer and ...

Get it? I sure hope the clubs figure it out soon.

Vilmos has been a standup comedian since 1992.
He created a web site with Podcasts by comedians.
He is the host of The Green Room which is the longest running Podcast on standup comedy.
He also hosts The Mentorist v2 and The Spew.
His web site is
Follow him on Facebook at or Twitter @vilmosthecomic.

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