With Netflix releasing a comedy special every week and YouTube offering a portal into both cutting-edge performance and the best comedy sets in history, it’s never been easier for audiences to access an endless stream of standup.
But for fledgling comics, there’s still no more game-changing showcase than a five-minute slot on a late-night talk show. The road to a sitcom, a production deal, or even an arena tour often begins with a tight-five in front of a drowsy mass audience.
And now, the late-night shows are capitalizing on a stand-up boom by devoting more airtime to comics than ever before.
Michael Cox, who books standup for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” says when he started in 2015, the bookings were once a month, maybe twice. “Now I’m up to three or four times a month. And I know it’s not just me. Other shows are moving in that direction also.”
J.P. Buck, who books for “Conan” on TBS, confirms Cox’s assessment. When Conan moved from “Late Night” to his brief stint hosting “The Tonight Show” in 2009, he wanted to replicate the Johnny Carson model he grew up with, which meant featuring standup comics.
“So that’s why I was brought in here in the beginning,” Buck says. “It started out like twice a month, and now last year we were doing two a week. And we’ve turned these into projects outside just the linear show. Conan did a tour this past year and he brought six or seven comics along with him.”
For Cox, the late-night boom is an effect of oversupply: “There’s more standups on air because there’s so much more content out there to be pushed.
Two years ago, Netflix [started] releasing a one-hour special every week for 52 weeks. And those people were being pitched to come on and promote their special. There’s only so many spots — [meanwhile] HBO, Comedy Central and Showtime are also producing specials. There’s just so much more out there to choose from. So I have options to bring in even stronger people.”
Jessica Pilot, who books for “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” takes a different perspective. There might be a boom, she says, but it’s still difficult to find good people.
“I have a job because it is difficult. It’s extremely hard to put together a five-minute set. You have to meet standards … you have to be not [just] topical, but evergreen.”
The late-show scouts take several approaches to finding new talent. Cox is a guest judge on StandUp NBC, the network’s diversity initiative, and he’s visiting five cities this summer to do open casting calls. “So I get to see the whole range, from comedy club headliners to people standing in line overnight to get a chance to do one minute in front of a bunch of industry judges.I go from amateur to the professionals.”
Cox says he’s had about 10 people from that program go on to perform on “The Tonight Show,” including Jourdain Fisher, who is on the writing staff.
What does Cox look for? “It’s 100% their confidence — on and off stage. If I see someone who gets up there and commands the room … with unique, original, TV-clean jokes, I definitely go and approach them and have a discussion with them offstage.”
One of the comics who benefited from Cox’s approach is Nashville-based Dusty Slay, who went from a childhood in an Alabama trailer park to being named one of Variety’s 10 Comics to Watch. He has built a sustainable comedy career without moving to New York or Los Angeles, and he credits his “Fallon” appearance with making it possible.
“This gets thrown around a lot, but doing ‘The Tonight Show’ changed my career and ultimately my life,” says Slay. It began with a slot performing at the Laughing Skull Lounge in Atlanta, where Cox saw one of his sets. After further vetting, Cox got Slay a spot on “The Tonight Show.” In the days leading up to the late-night performance, Cox remained a hands-on advocate.
“I opened every set with what I wanted to do for ‘The Tonight Show.’ I would record it on my phone and send it to Michael each night. He would then give me notes on how to best shape it up for late night.”
After the “Fallon” appearance, Slay got new management, a new agent and a development deal with ABC for a show based on his childhood.
Buck also travels to find fresh talent for “Conan,” but says YouTube has been the biggest development affecting how he discovers new comics. “When I started out in standup, 18 or 19 years ago, it was a lot of VHS tapes,” he says. “You really had to travel a lot, and do showcases to really find people. Now I can work with comics in L.A. just as fast as I can work with them in India.”
He also credits fresh platforms for widening the field of talent. “YouTube really showed a lot of standup to kids who realized ‘Oh, maybe I can try that.’ And Netflix opened up U.S. audiences to [realize] that there are other markets doing standup. We’re not the only country that does this.”
He mentions a wide range of international comics who have been booked for “Conan”: Vir Das from India, Gad Elmaleh from France, Daniel Sloss from Scotland, Rose Matafeo from New Zealand and Becky Lucas from Australia.
Pilot takes an old-school approach, and says she is “out and about every night. I go to bar shows, I go to different rooms. And it’s a lot of word-of-mouth, too. Comics that I really enjoy have passed along names to me, and it’s been really helpful. I don’t do showcases. I prefer to pop in and catch people, sometimes, off-guard”
The live experience is paramount. “I hardly ever book people just based off a tape,” Pilot says.
Buck, whose boss started out as a writer on “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons,” looks for something else when considering candidates for “Conan.”
“At the heart of it, they’re all really strong writers,” he says. “You really need to strip away the personality and look at it on the page, and if the stand-up is really strong and written well, the performance is just there to sell it.”
Deon Cole was brought onto the “Conan” writing staff based off his standup performance, and Pete Holmes got the “Conan” team to produce his first talk show after his performance. O’Brien came on as an executive producer of Rebel Wilson’s sitcom “Super Fun Night” after she performed.
But if a late-night talk show is still the best way to validate emerging talent, it provides no guarantee of success.
New York-based comedian Ali Kolbert, who made her TV debut on “The Tonight Show,” says the relationships she made performing on that show led to her current job at the Comedy Cellar in New York.
“Doing a late-night spot gives you TV credit and some amount of street cred,” she says, “but the crazy thing about standup is the second you’re on stage in the club you have to prove yourself all over again. Great, you were on ‘The Tonight Show,’ people clap for you, [but then] the claps end and it’s time to be funny. It’s a good pressure to keep living up to.”