The end of the year is always a time for reflection, and 2020 was the year (mostly) without comedy. Stand-up as we know it was effectively put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most venues shut down (some for good) while the majority of shows moved to parking lots and computer screens. As we look back on a year lost we can’t help but notice a number of stains deeply embedded in the comedy world that are better left to die with the rest of 2020.
There’s always room for improvement. Just like any industry, comedy can always be more inclusive, equitable, and efficient. It’s not just a matter of getting rid of check spots or faulty mic cords; there are plenty of unhealthy ideas in this industry that drag both individual comedians and the comedy world down, and that need to be challenged.
Here’s our biggest resolutions for comedy in 2021.
It’s not a debate. A free show is a free show, but if a gig is charging a ticket price then the comics better be getting compensated. Performers are a show expense just like the bartender, lights, and chairs, and need to be factored into the budget because unlike mics, booze, chairs, posters, or ads, the comics are the one thing a show cannot happen without. Compensation is not a special treat to be doled out only when there’s an excess of profit. It is not the comics’ fault if the producer doesn’t take this into account when budgeting, nor is it their fault if the producer doesn’t get to pocket a profit for themselves. That is the cost and risk of running a business or show. The only reason this idea of working for exposure or “the love of art” flourishes is because comics have been conditioned to believe that it’s rude to expect payment, that exposure is just as valuable as cash, and that they won’t get booked if they don’t work for free. For every toxic gatekeeper that upholds these ideals there’s another producer who successfully does the same without stepping on people’s necks.The idea that not being paid for your work is an evil inherent specifically to comedy is a lie just like the idea that it’s rude to share your salary with your coworkers is a lie perpetuated by those in power in order to quietly exploit their workforce. If you can’t figure out how to run a show without using people, the world doesn’t need it.
While practice makes perfect, everyone knows a comic who’s been doing this for 20 years, gets up twice as much as the next comic, and their material hasn’t improved an inch because of it. From our first open mic, we are told the more the merrier. We are told we have to seek out and accept any and every gig. We do not. All this does is lead to burnout. The idea that you should never say no to a gig is the type of advice akin to something you’d hear from a get-rich-quick seminar at an airport hotel. It’s ok to have a life outside comedy. It’s ok to take a day off, a week off, or longer if that’s what you need to be a better person and comic. All grinding for grinding’s sake does is wear down your mental and physical health. You don’t have to say yes to everything. Some shows are not worth doing, and some people are not worth working with. There is no rhyme or reason to people’s career progression, so take care of yourself and focus on quality over quantity. Saying yes to every single thing remotely related to stand-up is not going to make you the next Chris Rock, just like waking up at 5 a.m. everyday is not going to make you a billionaire.
Time after time, I see comics welcomed back on stage after committing acts that would get them instantly fired from a Dunkin’ Donuts or your run of the mill office job. It doesn’t matter the industry, harassment is a matter of workplace safety, and while we may pride ourselves on creating workplaces that feel more like a clubhouse than an office, you still have to prioritise the safety of the comics and the venue staff over any cool points you may get by bumping elbows with a celebrity. And until the comedy community starts prioritising justice, there can be no room for talks of redemption for these people. There is no shortage of funny people, so rethink your bookings.
You are the reason you are funny. You are the reason you are the comic you are today. A club didn’t “make” you the same way LA Fitness is not the reason a football player gets drafted into the NFL. Venues will come and go, TV shows come and go, but you’ll still be here. If it wasn’t the Laughter Emporium putting you up every weekend it would have been Jimmy’s Joke Shack. Stop crediting others for your work, especially if said others made you jump through a myriad of unnecessary hoops in exchange for a crumb of stage time. Some losses are not worth mourning and some icons are not worth worshipping.
Another word for criticism is “feedback.” The point of performing for an audience is to test out material and get instant feedback, whether that be in the form of laughter, silence, or groans. But while live feedback is largely in the form of just noise, putting your opinion into actual words is still a form of feedback, and yet it’s largely dismissed as “hating.” Nobody bats a thousand; you are going to write a lot of crummy jokes. If a slew of tweets are saying your joke sucks, comics often react defensively, refusing to evaluate and revise their jokes, but if multiple crowds of hundreds of people don’t laugh it’s straight back to the drawing board as soon as you step off stage. Social media, in many ways, sucks. YouTube comments suck. Getting a bad review sucks, but if you are getting overwhelmingly negative feedback on one joke, chunk, topics, etc., treat it like you would if you were actively bombing on stage. Maybe it’s truly just a polarizing take, but it’s also possible that it’s a boring, asinine one, too. Either way, take a step back and think about it instead of reflexively attaching this dead weight to your ankles out of spite.
While polarizing at best, online shows are sure to go out with COVID. But despite its inherent awkwardness, this shift made comedy more accessible to many people, and they don’t deserve to lose that. Comedy has long had an accessibility problem; many stages and buildings are not wheelchair accessible and many Zoom shows lack closed captioning or ASL interpreters. As people seek out new venues to replace those we’ve lost for shows, it is imperative that producers make sure they make stand-up as inclusive as possible for both fans and performers, on and offline.
Why does it feel like the rustier a comedian is the more likely they are to get a comedy special? Why are we dividing $100 million dollars among only three already-wealthy comedians for content? Instead of giving celebrity comedians their fourth or fifth special, I’d like to see a true up-and-comer get their first. Instead of coaxing icons out of hibernation, I’d rather see an active member of the comedy community get their moment in the sun. Just like how Hollywood is obsessed with whipping out reboots and sequels, networks and streaming services are getting less and less creative with their stand-up offerings. It’s better for everyone involved to go out and find the next big thing than to incessantly push 2017’s “It girl/boy” down our throats every year.
There is not a single industry, company, or community that is without flaws. Just like asking more from your government does not make you unpatriotic, being vocal about the problems within comedy doesn’t make anyone a hater nor a traitor. There is a lot to be unhappy about in regards to how this industry works, from Hollywood to the club scene to the alt scene. But too often these discussions become mere whispers reserved for private Facebook groups and text threads where they have little power to create change aside from the comfort they give. If you really want to cultivate a community of comradery, those within it must feel comfortable speaking up about the problems they face without fear of retaliation. Any entity that refuses to evaluate and renovate will regress into a worse state than before. Let’s talk.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.