Night of the living comedy

Once considered dead, club scene roars back to life

Five years ago, if you were a comedian, the path to success was no laughing matter: It required years of torturous touring, performing to empty clubs and praying for a guest appearance on a latenight show. The standup comedy industry had tanked, audiences had vanished, and sitcoms — the holy grail for any comic — were getting crushed under the onslaught of reality TV.

That was then. Standup is in the midst of a stunning comeback. Dane Cook recently put out the hottest selling comedy album since Steve Martin’s “Wild and Crazy Guy,” and he just sold-out Madison Square Garden. Comedy Central’s viewership is through the roof. Comedy clubs, once nearing extinction, are expanding and going upscale. And Web sites like YouTube and MySpace are helping unknown comics nab six-figure TV deals.

Indeed, standup is experiencing an explosion the likes of which it hasn’t seen since the 1980s, when Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor were selling out blockbuster tours.

“In the past year or two, I’ve seen a tremendous resurgence with standup,” says Conan Smith, who represents comics like Demetri Martin and Tom Papa for Endeavor. “Not just from comedy clubs and colleges where we book up-and-comers, but the true barometer is New York: More clubs opened there in the last year and a half than even existed before that.”

In the 1980s, an explosion of comedy clubs triggered a glut in the market: If you had a microphone, you could hang up a sign and call it a comedy club. But most of those establishments went under, and only in the last few years has a new genre of comedy clubs emerged.

These establishments — rapidly expanding chains like the Improv and the Laugh Factory and edgy boutique venues like the Gotham Comedy Club and Upright Citizens Brigade — are moneyed, high profile and drawing an upscale clientele. New York alone now boasts 19 comedy clubs, including Comix, Carolines and the Comedy Store.

“They almost look like glamorous gentleman’s clubs,” says George Lopez, whose own tour sales have grown 200% in the last two years. “Standup has gotten sexier again.”

“We used to serve six kinds of wine; now we serve 50,” adds Chris Mazzilli, owner of Gotham Comedy Club, which just moved from a 3,000-square-foot facility to a 10,000-square-foot building with multiple rooms that seat up to 300. “People said we were crazy — the audiences wanted a down-and-dirty club with lots of smoke. But it took off right away.”

Why the sudden surge in live comedy at a time when the network sitcom is on life support and the economics of feature-film laughs have become tricky? Industry insiders say the Internet is the main reason. Every comic in America seems to have a MySpace page these days; and YouTube’s $1.65 billion payday was built on the backs of the sketch comics who posted their videos there.

Not only have these Web sites made it easier to sell tickets to shows — Cook’s top-selling albums and tours, for example, were boosted tremendously by online self-promotion — but one funny clip on YouTube, passed around by enough people, can be transcendental to a career.

Andy Samberg provides the best example of the latter — late last year, the obscure “SNL”-er got big overnight after his “Lazy Sunday” skit was downloaded a million times in one week.

“There’s that kind of instant success that you have that when I was starting you couldn’t really get,” Lopez says.

Online, niche auds — gay, Asian, Latino — can also more easily discover comics that play to their tastes and demographics.

“It’s given comics an outlet to find their audience, and the audience a way to find their comics,” says Bruce Hills, chief operating officer of Montreal’s Just for Laughs Comedy Festival. “These people can be stars and not even be on the radar for 95% of the population.”

Offline, the success of Comedy Central — which has seen its own aud grow 44% since 2001 and has turned performers like Dave Chappelle and Larry the Cable Guy into stars — has also helped spur the growth of the entire biz.

“Comedy Central’s reach is fantastic, and they’ve cultivated over the last several years an audience of comedy fans that didn’t previously exist — people who grew up on comedy,” says Nick Nuciforo, an agent in the Comedy Touring division of CAA.

And those auds, in turn, are willing to spend real money going out to see the stars that they watched on TV. As noted, big-name comedians are regularly filling 8,000-seat theaters, and blockbuster acts like Cook and the Kings of Comedy are selling out Madison Square Garden.

“Ten or 15 years ago, there were only one or two acts at any time that could do arenas,” says Rick Greenstein, who reps Chappelle, Jamie Foxx and Drew Carey for the Gersh Agency. “Over the last few years, there’s been a grooming of a comedy audience that’s willing to go out and spend up to $65 a ticket for stars.”

Whether this popularity will translate into television and film remains to be seen. While plenty of newly discovered comics are signing development deals, only a handful have actually seen their work translated to the big (or small) screen.

Still, Endeavor’s Smith is optimistic: “The sitcom is coming back — and people need that. There is a place on the schedule for reality TV, but I do think that people really want to laugh.”

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