Boom­ing laugh­ter

Stand-up comedy has hit a new golden age, and all the new venues for funny busi­ness are no joke

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ELAHE IZADI IN SAN FRAN­CISCO

Jerry Se­in­feld stands in the wings, watch­ing. ¶ He has done this count­less times over the past four decades. And he’s about to do it again, but in the bit­ter cold. Se­in­feld’s eyes rest on the thou­sands who crammed onto the city’s civic plaza for clos­ing night of Comedy Cen­tral’s inau­gu­ral Clus­ter­fest, a three-day comedy bo­nanza fea­tur­ing per­form­ers who can sell out venues on their own. ¶ One of them, Han­ni­bal Buress, is on stage and he’s win­ning over the Bay Area au­di­ence de­spite trash­ing their bas­ket­ball team in the mid­dle of the NBA Fi­nals. Buress de­clares he wants a dis­ease named af­ter him, like Lou Gehrig — “They say dream big” — and laugh­ter erupts. Once his 15 min­utes end, the lights dim and he heads off­stage to cheers. ¶ Se­in­feld finds him and shakes his hand. “Beautiful,” Se­in­feld says. “Nice set.” ¶ The lights pop right back up. Se­in­feld darts out, throw­ing his hands into the frigid air. It’s his only in­tro­duc­tion, and it’s suf­fi­cient. The crowd roars like a rock god stands be­fore them. In­stead, it’s a guy in a suit and tie with ob­ser­va­tions to share. ¶ The au­di­ence howls as they rub their legs to get warm, stand­ing in hud­dles to watch his ex­pres­sions on the jumbo-screen. He talks about the “meta­phys­i­cal co­nun­drum” of dough­nut holes — “a hole does not ex­ist!” And why Pop-Tarts can never go stale — they were never fresh to be­gin with. ¶ Se­in­feld strides across the stage with ease. We’re in the hands of a joke mas­ter, at a pin­na­cle mo­ment for the craft, on full dis­play at this Coachella of comedy. ¶ The ex­is­tence of a festival like this is no fluke: We’re smack dab in the mid­dle of a stand-up comedy boom. Never be­fore has so much orig­i­nal ma­te­rial been this easy to ac­cess and been con­sumed by this many peo­ple. Never be­fore has the tal­ent pool of co­me­di­ans been this deep, and in for­mat, voice and ma­te­rial, this di­verse.

Up-and-com­ers are finding de­voted au­di­ences through pod­casts and so­cial me­dia. Stand-up le­gends are do­ing drop-in sets and re­leas­ing new spe­cials for the first time in years. Be­fore, one or two comics played are­nas at a given time. Now, mul­ti­ple per­form­ers go on arena tours — and they’re get­ting paid mil­lions.

And comedy’s cul­tural res­o­nance deep­ens with rapid tech­no­log­i­cal change, in­creas­ing so­ci­etal di­vi­sions and a dizzy­ing news cy­cle.

“It seems like one of the rea­sons comedy is do­ing so well has to do with the na­ture of the genre,” says Dave Chap­pelle. “We en­gage the au­di­ence, and in this dig­i­tal world, it al­ways works best live. It feels good to just sit in a room and talk to peo­ple and be spo­ken to and laugh, and val­i­date or in­val­i­date each other’s feel­ings. But we’re also bom­barded with in­for­ma­tion, and comics are great dis­tillers of in­for­ma­tion.

“It’s a great time to be a co­me­dian, ar­tis­ti­cally and pro­fes­sion­ally,” he adds. “There’s a lot of good peo­ple do­ing a lot of good, se­ri­ous work. It’s funny to say you’re se­ri­ous about comedy, but I think a lot of peo­ple are.”

The new rock stars

On a ran­dom Wed­nes­day night in Jan­uary, a hand­ful of lucky pa­trons at the Comedy Cel­lar in New York got an ex­pe­ri­ence of a life­time. One af­ter another — Dave At­tell, Se­in­feld, Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, Aziz An­sari and Chap­pelle — per­formed sur­prise drop-in sets. On stage, Chap­pelle dubbed the lineup a “bil­lion dol­lars’ worth of co­me­di­ans.”

The au­di­ence couldn’t be­lieve it. “It was elec­tric,” Noam Dwor­man, owner of the famed New York club, recalls. “It was just like the lottery. Or some pretty fa­mous act plays, then the Bea­tles show up, then the Stones show up, then El­ton John.”

“We have Bea­tles-level tal­ent right now, and that is re­ally, truly fu­el­ing a lot of the boom,” Dwor­man adds.

Comedy has boomed be­fore. While a hand­ful of comics be­came cul­tural phe­nom­ena dur­ing the 1960s and ’70s, stand-up went full main­stream dur­ing the 1980s.

In that decade, “ev­ery ho­tel lounge had a comedy club, too, and they’d put up a sign that says ‘Ba­nanas’ and it’d be like, ‘We’re a comedy club on Fri­day and Satur­day!’ ” Mike Bir­biglia says. “There were hun­dreds of those across the coun­try. Tons of peo­ple started do­ing stand-up comedy who were ter­ri­ble, and that’s what leads to crashes.”

And boy, did it crash. The nov­elty of stand-up evap­o­rated. Kyle Ki­nane recalls play­ing in bands around Chicago in the late ’90s and not want­ing those guys to know he was also do­ing comedy.

“You used to be ashamed to tell peo­ple about do­ing stand-up: ‘No, don’t worry about what I’m do­ing tonight! I just got to go do a thing,’” says Ki­nane. “It was like I was go­ing to a sex dun­geon or some­thing.”

Bir­biglia marks the start of the current boom around 2003, when Comedy Cen­tral part­nered with Live Na­tion for its first na­tional tour fea­tur­ing Lewis Black, At­tell and Mitch Hed­berg. It was such a hit that all three co­me­di­ans be­came theater acts on their own, Bir­biglia says.

While back then maybe 10 co­me­di­ans could sell out the­aters, “there’s now like 50 to 75 co­me­di­ans, my­self in­cluded, who sell out the­aters,” Bir­biglia says. “That’s a crazy phenomenon.”

Gabriel Igle­sias, Bill Burr and An­sari have sold out Madi­son Square Gar­den. Kevin Hart per­formed for 53,000 peo­ple at Philadel­phia’s Lin­coln Fi­nan­cial Field.

Brian Volk-Weiss, founder of comedy pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion com­pany Comedy Dy­nam­ics, dubbed this comedy’s “di­a­mond era.”

For decades, some cities could only sup­port one comedy club, and now they have mul­ti­ple ones, he notes. Comedy Dy­nam­ics pro­duced about five spe­cials yearly less than a decade ago. Last year, they made 52, avail­able on out­lets such as Net­flix, Seeso and Hulu.

“The glacier of comedy is mov­ing much faster now and bring­ing a lot of what would have been viewed as ex­per­i­men­tal,” he says. “I’ll see some weird thing at the back of a laun­dro­mat and it has its own show two years later.”

The ap­petite seems mas­sive. In early June, more than 45,000 peo­ple showed up at Clus­ter­fest, which was co-pro­duced by Su­per­fly, the same folks be­hind mu­sic fes­ti­vals like Bon­na­roo. Au­di­ences swelled for evening shows from Hart and Sarah Sil­ver­man; mid­day sets from Tig No­taro and Hasan Min­haj; pod­cast­ing record­ings from Phoebe Robin­son and Anna Faris; and im­prov from Fred Ar­misen and Matt Besser.

And while Pres­i­dent Trump’s pres­ence in the White House has dom­i­nated late-night comedy, so much of the ma­te­rial over the three days had lit­tle to do with him.

Within a cou­ple hours, you could catch Burr riff on a pod­cast about how he met his wife, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Ja­cob­son liv­eread­ing “Wayne’s World,” Ron Funches joke about fa­ther­hood.

Fes­ti­val­go­ers posed for pic­tures against re-cre­ated scenes of “South Park.” They lined up for drinks at a bar mod­eled af­ter the one in “It’s Al­ways Sunny in Philadel­phia.”

Be­fore, peo­ple wanted to be rock stars — now they want to be comics, says Comedy Cen­tral ex­ec­u­tive Steve Raizes.

“Peo­ple re­ally de­fine them­selves, both in real life but also on so­cial me­dia, through their sense of hu­mor,” he adds. “That’s how you por­tray your­self pub­licly and how peo­ple get to know you.”

“It feels like ev­ery­body’s a co­me­dian,” Michael Che says. “Even news ar­ti­cles are writ­ten with a hu­mor­ous twist and the head­line is funny.”

‘With­out be­ing lik­able to all’

Ja­cob­son, it turns out, is a per­fect Garth. She’s got the right glasses, car­pet of hair and ca­dence as she re­cites the “Wayne’s World” char­ac­ter’s lines on a stage full of fel­low comics.

“Did you ever see that ‘Twi­light Zone’ where the guy signed a con­tract and they cut out his tongue and put it in a jar and it wouldn’t die, it just grew and pul­sated and gave birth to baby tongues?” Ja­cob­son says with that Dana Car­vey ex­ag­ger­ated over­bite. “It’s pretty cool, huh?”

The crowd laughs and cheers. Glazer, who’s play­ing Wayne, breaks char­ac­ter for a mo­ment and yells “woo!”

The duo’s ador­ing au­di­ence, not just in this San Fran­cisco au­di­to­rium but across the coun­try, is one they couldn’t have found decades ago, they say.

Glazer and Ja­cob­son cat­a­pulted to fame through “Broad City,” which, like “Worka­holics” and “Inse­cure,” orig­i­nated as a Web se­ries.

“It gives con­tent cre­ators con­trol to make ex­actly what they want to do with their voice,” says Ja­cob­son. “You still have to do a lot of work to get it seen and heard and ex­po­sure.”

“I don’t think, as nor­mal-look­ing women, we could have done what we did 25 years ago,” says Glazer.

Comedy is no longer bound by the stage or TV. There’s now Twit­ter, In­sta­gram and “re­mem­ber Vine?” Glazer asks. “Any­body could be a co­me­dian and ev­ery­body could be a co­me­dian.”

Stand-up comics once vied for lim­ited TV air­time. Now they vie to be no­ticed on the lim­it­less In­ter­net, where they can tell jokes and up­load videos in­stantly.

“The de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of the In­ter­net has kind of sped things up,” says Raizes. “That’s kind of a whole new path in . . . . It used to take peo­ple 10 years to kind of go through this.”

Web se­ries and pod­casts can help out­lets such as Comedy Cen­tral and HBO “get more in­vested into tal­ent if they can see that you can cre­ate your own thing,” says Robin­son, who co-hosts WNYC’s “2 Dope Queens” pod­cast. “You can be more in charge of your destiny, rather than, ‘I hope some­one will cast me as some­thing.’ ”

So­cial me­dia “cut out the mid­dle­man” and let co­me­di­ans reach au­di­ences di­rectly — which is es­pe­cially im­por­tant when you first start in comedy and book­ers con­trol whether you can play their clubs, says Funches.

“A lot of times they’re bas­ing it off of comedy that they liked in the past, friends that they liked,” says Funches. “So if you’re any­thing dif­fer­ent or unique, they’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what this is. This isn’t what I think comedy is.’”

Be­fore, there sim­ply weren’t as many op­por­tu­ni­ties for comics like Maria Bam­ford to have shows and stand-up spe­cials. “You can make a very good liv­ing as a co­me­dian with­out be­ing lik­able to all, and that’s what I’ve no­ticed,” she says. “My in­come has gone up, de­spite my age and sub­ject mat­ter —

which is 46, and most of my sub­ject mat­ter is men­tal ill­ness.”

More plat­forms also means less box­ing-in of comics based on their race, gen­der or sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. They can be known more as in­di­vid­u­als than as types.

“We’re in a place now where just even as a black co­me­dian you don’t have to be thought to be ‘ur­ban.’ You can just be a co­me­dian,” says Roy Wood Jr. “You could be as unique as Tig No­taro or a Jer­rod Carmichael and still have an au­di­ence and still have a place in the comedy zeit­geist.”

Since the ’80s boom and ’90s bust, comedy has swung back to­ward the more artis­tic side, says Chap­pelle — “and guys are get­ting paid for their work like Rem­brandts.”

Even comics who have passed away, such as Hed­berg, Pa­trice O’Neal and Bill Hicks, are hav­ing their work re­dis­cov­ered. Chap­pelle com­pares it to Van Gogh.

The Net­flix ef­fect

In­creas­ingly, those comics are get­ting dis­cov­ered on — and paid by — Net­flix.

A comic can go from strug­gling to sell 50 tick­ets to, within months of a Net­flix spe­cial, sell­ing 4,000, says Volk-Weiss, the comedy pro­ducer.

Net­flix has li­censed stand-up since launch­ing its stream­ing ser­vice in 2007, but it has dou­bled­down in re­cent years. In 2015, it re­leased a dozen new spe­cials. Last year, 19. This year? So far, an av­er­age of about one a week: 25.

The com­pany will re­port­edly pay tens of mil­lions to Rock, Se­in­feld and Chap­pelle, who has pub­licly re­ferred to a $60 mil­lion deal. Louis C.K., who once self-re­leased spe­cials, is back on Net­flix. Bam­ford, An­sari and Burr each have both spe­cials and scripted shows. And Net­flix is putting out shorter spe­cials from lesser-known co­me­di­ans, too.

Spe­cials re­main on Net­flix for­ever, and that “is awe­some for a comedy fan and a co­me­dian,” says Che. “It stays rel­e­vant. It doesn’t just go away.”

The on-de­mand, com­mer­cial-free na­ture of Net­flix also gives comedy more flex­i­bil­ity, says Lisa Nishimura, the com­pany’s vice pres­i­dent of orig­i­nal doc­u­men­tary and comedy pro­gram­ming. Spe­cial lengths can vary. View­ers can start, stop and re-watch them when­ever they want. And Net­flix’s al­go­rithm gives cus­tom­ized sug­ges­tions at ideal times, based on past view­ing habits.

“You’re go­ing to be con­stantly in­tro­duced to new au­di­ences and po­ten­tial new fans,” says Nishimura. “I think that’s the thing comics are look­ing for the most, is to sort of find their peo­ple.”

While de­mur­ring on how much money Net­flix spends on pro­duc­ing comedy, Nishimura says, “It’s a mean­ing­ful and siz­able in­vest­ment from the com­pany be­cause we take the cat­e­gory of stand-up se­ri­ously.”

The reach is wide: more than 100 mil­lion sub­scribers and 190 coun­tries. Bir­biglia says he gets tweets daily from peo­ple in other lan­guages about spe­cials. There’s even a comic in Brazil who found “My Girl­friend’s Boyfriend” on Net­flix and now pays a li­cense fee to per­form it.

Volk-Weiss has seen his for­eign busi­ness jump, from less than 1 per­cent to about 10 per­cent of his rev­enue. One deal to bring spe­cials to au­di­ences in Africa is worth more than all of his 2014-2015 for­eign busi­ness. “It’s be­com­ing a real genre, not a sub­set and niche,” he says.

‘There’s no edi­tor’

T.J. Miller is whis­per­ing, try­ing to pro­tect his vo­cal cords be­fore mount­ing a live ver­sion of Comedy Cen­tral’s “The Gor­buger Show.” He voices an alien mon­ster that has eaten a Ja­panese talk show host and now in­ter­views the celebrity guests.

But Miller will first do a stand-up set. Al­though he re­cently de­parted from “Silicon Val- ley,” he re­mains on nearly ev­ery plat­form, in­clud­ing an HBO stand-up spe­cial, a pod­cast and ap­pear­ances in “Big Hero 6,” “How to Train Your Dragon 3, and, he’s quick to em­pha­size, “a ma­jor mo­tion pic­ture — I don’t know if you’re aware of this — called ‘The Emoji Movie.’ ”

“The an­swer to the ques­tion that ev­ery­body’s ask­ing and no­body knows is, is there such a thing as over­sat­u­ra­tion? And buddy, I’m try­ing to find out,” Miller says. “The zeit­geist is frac­tured so much that you re­ally have to be the Mucinex guy and do Slim Jim ads to make as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble laugh. That work for me is more about a wider and wider reach.”

The plethora of ma­te­rial on­line and the in­creased in­ter­est in comics have po­ten­tial down­sides. How can you be no­ticed in such a crowded field? If so many peo­ple have a spe­cial, is it spe­cial any­more? The size of your so­cial me­dia fol­low­ing can help get you, or cost you, a gig — and is be­ing good at Twit­ter the same as be­ing good on stage, any­way?

But stand-up is one form that Miller will al­ways do. “There’s no edi­tor be­tween me and the au­di­ence. I direct, pro­duce, writ­ing — I’m ev­ery­thing in that medium,” he says. “So if I f--- up and tonight doesn’t go well, or if peo­ple don’t like how I’ve de­cided to talk about it, that is wholly and com­pletely on me.”

New tech­nol­ogy has opened op­por­tu­ni­ties, but at a time of height­ened politi­ciza­tion and cul­tural di­vi­sions, it has also brought in­tense scru­tiny to a craft that re­quires fail­ing in pub­lic to get good.

“Peo­ple are more hold­ing co­me­di­ans ac­count­able, not for be­ing funny, but for be­ing on the right side of his­tory,” says Che. “It just feels like au­di­ences want some­body who will get up there and say what they’ve al­ready been think­ing, as op­posed to say­ing some­thing they’ve never thought of be­fore.”

Any­one can film and up­load a comic’s set, which makes es­tab­lished per­form­ers wary. Rock walked out of a New York open mic be­cause au­di­ence mem­bers were record­ing. Hart re­quired seated Clus­ter­fest au­di­ence mem­bers to lock up their phones in mag­netic pouches.

And a bit can take on a life of its own — such as a 2014 Buress joke about Bill Cosby filmed by some­one in the crowd, or a 2012 Daniel Tosh rape joke aimed at a fe­male au­di­ence mem­ber who then blogged about the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Comedy is be­ing taken more se­ri­ously now. Top-billing stand-up co­me­di­ans are treated as pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als. A cadre of pod­casts fea­tur­ing comics talk­ing shop and de­voted to dis­sect­ing the craft, such as Marc Maron’s “WTF,” have huge fol­low­ings.

“Maybe even 10 years ago we weren’t re­spected as much as we are now,” Jim Jef­feries says. “Peo­ple al­most are talk­ing about comedy more than they’re per­form­ing it . . . . I used to get asked to tell jokes, now I get asked, ‘How do you write a joke?’ ”

Crit­ics writ­ing about comedy the way they write about film brings added pres­tige to the genre, says Robin­son. Still, “it’s like watch­ing a food show,” she adds. “You can watch it, but if you don’t do it, you don’t re­ally un­der­stand the com­plex­i­ties of it.”

It’s not clear whether this boom will by fol­lowed by a bust — “there’s more tal­ented co­me­di­ans than there are slots, still,” says Funches.

But plenty of per­form­ers are pre­par­ing for worst-case sce­nar­ios.

“I’m a pes­simistic per­son, so I’m al­ready think­ing about when it’ll end,” says Bir­biglia. “But it won’t end for me be­cause I’ve al­ways been do­ing the same thing. I’ve been do­ing the same thing since 1997. I was in the re­ces­sion, I’m in the boom, I’ll be in the next re­ces­sion. I just love do­ing comedy.”

Dis­clo­sure: As a stand-up comic, this writer has pre­vi­ously opened for Michael Che.

ED­DIE AL­VAREZ/THE WASH­ING­TON POST; GETTY IM­AGES; ISTOCK

PHO­TOS BY BIZ HERMAN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Jerry Se­in­feld, above per­form­ing at the close of the three-day Clus­ter­fest in San Fran­cisco, has been per­form­ing standup comedy since the 1980s. He has two Net­flix spe­cials in the works.

TOP: Hasan Min­haj, shown per­form­ing at Clus­ter­fest, hosted the White House cor­re­spon­dents’ din­ner and re­leased a Net­flix spe­cial this year. ABOVE: The crowd at Clus­ter­fest gives Se­in­feld a greet­ing be­fit­ting a rock star.

TOP: K C BAI­LEY/NET­FLIX; ABOVE: LANE SAV­AGE/COMEDY CEN­TRAL

TOP: Michael Che is the co-host of Weekend Up­date on “Satur­day Night Live” and has a spe­cial on Net­flix. Abbi Ja­cob­son and Ilana Glazer started “Broad City” as a web se­ries be­fore Comedy Cen­tral picked it up.

T.J. Miller wants to find out if there is such a thing as over­sat­u­ra­tion.

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