The Staples Center in Los Angeles is filled to the brim with nearly 20,000 fans watching Kevin Hart perform during the BET Experience, a four-day event leading up to the BET Awards in June. A projection of the Los Angeles skyline glimmers on a screen behind him, and for an hour the audience is as entranced as they would be if Hart were Jesus, or Beyonce.
Hart’s career is at the apex of an enormous live comedy boom — last year, Billboard estimated that the industry generates $300 million annually. But while the scale of Hart’s popularity is impressive, the bulk of industry growth isn’t happening at the arena level, according to Nick Nuciforo, head of UTA comedy touring. “There are more comedians right now playing the 1,000-plus seat theaters than ever,” he says. “When I say that, it’s by a large margin. It’s a really sustainable business.”
Mike Berkowitz, who books talent like Hart, Bill Burr and Louis C.K. for APA, even posits that growth in theaters is so substantial that, based on his experience, the $300 million number seems small. Berkowitz has watched the industry go through an enormous shift over the past two decades. When he first started booking comedians in the late ’90s and early 2000s, the standup scene was structured around small comedy clubs — there were only three or four comics who could fill a theater. But now the business is exponentially larger.
“I would say there are about 100 comics that can sell out a theater right now,” Berkowitz says. In Milwaukee, Matt Beringer is a talent buyer for the Pabst theater group — three comedy venues with the smallest seating 650 and the largest seating 2,400. He says booking comedy talent is more sustainable and flexible than other live-entertainment markets like music. Because of relatively low production costs, it’s easy to add an extra show, and adjust ticket prices to fill seats. “Compared to the rest of the live landscape, it’s a pretty civilized way of doing business,” he says, noting that he has watched comics graduate to larger venues. “A comedy audience is loyal, and it tends to compound and grow gradually.”
As digital spaces have diversified and grown over the past few years, standups have found fans through many channels. For one, the proliferation of such services as Netflix, Hulu and HBO have provided more options for comedians to record hourlong specials, which used to only air on a handful of channels like Comedy Central. In the first half of 2015, Netflix launched five standup specials from comics including Aziz Ansari and Jen Kirkman.
Twitter is another tool that helps comics connect to fans, test material and receive instant feedback.
Twitter star Rob Delaney has launched a successful standup career thanks to the social media platform. Podcasting is another option that many standups use as a platform for their career. Marc Maron is a longtime standup who rose through the ranks with the likes of C.K., and he regularly sells out comedy tours. But even more than his comedy, he is known for his podcast, “WTF With Marc Maron,” which he has hosted since 2009, interviewing hundreds of guests. Maron’s recent interview with President Obama raked in more than 900,000 listens in the first 36 hours, according to the New York Times.
Amy Schumer’s viral videos from her Comedy Central show, “Inside Amy Schumer,” are another model for visibility. Schumer’s top three videos from her latest season have garnered more than 10 million views combined on YouTube. Concocting a viral video or interviewing the president may not directly create hordes of standup devotees, but the media are gateways to discovery and building fan bases. YouTube also suggests related videos that can connect fans of one comic with similar acts. Comedy channels on digital radio like Pandora and Spotify serve the same purpose. Or, as Berkowitz points out, there’s also plain old Google.
“You can just Google ‘comedians like Louis C.K.’ and by the end of the day you’ve discovered Bill Burr, John Mulaney, Hannibal Buress, Aziz Ansari, and now you’re a fan of five people.”
With tools in the digital space spreading comedy across the Web, one industry concern is to preserve the comic’s intellectual property. At Hart’s Staples Center performance, for example, an announcer warned that even the sight of a cell phone would result in instant ejection from the arena. Security teams swarmed the audience to enforce the code. In contrast, the following night at the same venue, nearly every camera pointed at Nicki Minaj as she emerged from beneath the stage to kick off her performance.
The battle over intellectual property for comics is relevant for venues of all sizes, according to Nuciforo. “Comedians don’t want their material out there in an uncontrolled way,” he says. “They want to release it for the first time during a concert film or special so people coming to their shows have not already heard the punchlines or stories.”
That element of surprise is what has allowed comics to thrive in live spaces — the audience doesn’t buy tickets to hear comedians perform their greatest hits. They want to hear a comic they love say something they’ve never heard before. And they pay to hear it first.
“We all know that we’re potentially part of an enormous bubble right now.” Berkowitz says. But he quickly dismisses concerns about the success drying up. “If people keep putting out quality (work), it’s not going to go anywhere, and the cream will continue to rise to the top.”
Nuciforo also does not foresee a decline. “When you think about a bubble, you think about something that is growing at a pace that is unhealthy,” he says. “You think about something that would be growing and could be capped in some way, and I think there’s a lot of wide open space for (comedy) to continue to grow in.”
“I don’t know that anyone could fill the Staples Center,” Berkowitz says. But if the industry continues to boom, more comics could, like Hart, fill an arena. And when the comic stands onstage in a black T-shirt and jeans, listening to the audience erupt with approval, boom or bubble, it’s clear that the industry plans on getting the last laugh.
Just for Laughs