Standup stands out as economy falters

What’s bad for the country is usually good for standup comics.

The comedy touring biz is on fire these days, driven by a tough economic climate, Internet marketing and the rise of a younger generation of headliners who draw from a wide range of fans.

Yucksters have been regularly filling mid- to large-sized theaters (anywhere from 800 to 6,000 seats) during the past two years. And the boom times are sure to be celebrated next month in Montreal at the Just for Laughs comedy fest, which has long been a career springboard for standups.

Veteran reps and execs in the comedy biz say there is a clear causal connection between hard times and a swelling of attendance at comedy clubs and shows — as well as for comedic pics at the B.O.

“When times are tough, comedy thrives more. It’s one of the forms of entertainment that people go to, consciously or unconsciously, that makes them feel better,” says Steve Levine, ICM’s exec VP of concerts. “And you add to that this being a political (election) year, and for some comics that helps a lot.”

Affordability is a big factor, too: Ticket prices for comedy shows tend to be in the $30-$50 range, compared to $60 and up (way up, in some cases) for top music acts.

But the most important reason for the uptick, biz vets say, is the influx of newer names who have risen to headliner stature over the past decade, among them Dane Cook, Katt Williams, George Lopez, Kathy Griffin, Russell Peters, Carlos Mencia, Jim Gaffigan and Sarah Silverman.

There’s a wave of up-and-comers right behind them, including Mike Epps, Zach Galifianakis, Frank Caliendo, Lisa Lampanelli, Nick Swardson and Demetri Martin. Even the second-tier yuksters are pulling in mid-five to low-six figures per night.

“It’s the new rock ‘n’ roll,” says Brillstein Entertainment Partners’ Tim Sarkes, who manages Mencia, Swardson and Steven Wright, among others. “It reminds me of what Bill Graham did in the 1960s when he put together tours. All of a sudden a bunch of bands you never heard of are selling 2,000 tickets a night.”

TV has also played a part, as a generation of ticket buyers has grown up with cabler Comedy Central as a 24/7 barker for standups new and old. TBS’ recent push into laffers, with Caliendo’s sketch comedy “Frank TV” and “The Bill Engvall Show,” featuring one of the members of the arena-filling Blue Collar Comedy troupe, has also helped.

But as important as TV exposure is, the small screen is no longer the end-all and be-all that it once was, talent reps say. Artists like Cook and Peters, who is of Indian descent and is a strong draw among South Asian auds in and outside the U.S., have tapped the power of the Web to speak to fans.

“The Internet is a major part of the growth. The reach is massive,” says CAA’s Nick Nuciforo, who specializes in comedy tours. “It has made the world a smaller place for comics.”

Sarkes cites Swardson as a good example of a comic whose live biz is growing at a fast clip without much TV exposure beyond a Comedy Central spesh last year: Swardson does have a few hundred thousand friends on his MySpace page.

“The ability for the artists to have a one-on-one connection with the fans is incredible,” he says. “You announce what you’re doing and where you’re touring, and ‘Hey by the way, look at this short film I just made, tell me what you think.’ “

The touring biz is so strong that in some cases, comics turn down less-than-topline TV roles because they’ll lose more money being off the road than they’ll make from the role, Sarkes says.

The comedy touring biz is also buoyed by the diversity of acts on the road the days, which draw from different aud sectors.

“The comedy audience is very segmented — you have a lot of urban comics, ethnic comics, political comics, and you have some very raunchy comics and very clean comics,” Nuciforo says. “That range means that people are coming out in greater numbers for comedy shows.”

Amid flush times, the danger, of course, is that the market will be oversaturated.

Just a few years ago, established acts didn’t have to worry much about running up against other comedy competish when plotting tour dates, but nowadays the timing and strategic routing of tours is a major focus for comedy managers.

“Nobody wants to play to half a house,” says ICM’s Levine. “The business has become more sophisticated about things like maintaining the right pricing, the right venue and the right time of year for tours. There’s tough competition out there for the (consumer’s) entertainment dollar.”

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