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Just the other day, we got a nice, polite email here into SHECKYmagazine.com HQ from a fellow who identified himself as a comic. He said that he was "looking to form a coalition of comedians in a quest for a living wage." He explained further that he'd been around the club scene in capacities other than just doing standup and that he was pretty darn sure that the owners could cough up a little more jack when it came to payday.
"I know the owners can afford it. Now we have to ask for it," was how he put it.
He wanted to submit an article on this topic. He wanted our help in forming this posse.
"The comedy community is more than aware that there have been no base pay raises for comedians in years," he lamented. His article would include ideas for increasing business, including, somewhat ominously, "a better way of utilizing the comedian."
He finished up with an assurance that he would also be "calling on comedians to raise their level of professionalism so that owners will feel the pay increase is warranted."
Where do I begin?
We were comics in the 1980's and we are well aware of what comics made in the 80s. Our "wages" (if that's what you want to call them) may have even been higher than what they are now. The current pay rate, however, in our opinion, has absolutely nothing to do with "greed" on the part of the clubowners or any lack of professionalism on the part of the comedians.
We are of the opinion that all of this is determined by simple market forces, and should remain at the mercy of such forces.
In the 80s, there were many clubs and few comedians. Wages were high. So high, perhaps, that a good argument could have been made that they were disproportionately high. The clubowners needed us more than we needed them. It was, to use the common phrase, a "sellers' market," with regard to comedians as sub-contractors.
Fast forward to 1995: A stampede of comedians has found that there are fewer and fewer venues to work. The previous four or five years have seen the closing of clubs and a cutting back on the shows of those that hang on. Too many comedians, too few stages causes a concomitant stagnation or even a decline in pay, relative to the 80s.
When the going got rough, more comedians dropped out and fewer comedians entered the business. This is due to several factors--during the bust there were, necessarily, fewer open mikes, which are the traditional training grounds for eventual "entry level positions." Fewer open mikes, fewer comedians in the pipeline, fewer comics overall. The bottoming out of the business forced many comedians to find other ways to make a living. Many "returned home," eschewing the road. Airline fares skyrocketed. This thinner talent pool hasn't come close to returning to 1990 levels. Combine this with the recent increase in the number of clubs (and, we suspect, an increased interest in booking a consistently higher level of talent as there is suddenly more competition and therefore much more at stake) and it should result in increased upward pressure on the pay commanded by comedians across the entire industry.
I have a certain way of viewing this whacky business, of deciphering the ups and downs, the peaks and valleys. Perhaps it's because I've been in it since almost the beginning of the boom and I saw the heights. I also witnessed the bust. I saw the devastation. And all the while I tried to keep my eyes open, analyze the data. I marveled at the success we all had. I despaired when it all dribbled away, in agonizing slow motion, for all but a few.
I am nervous whenever anyone uses terms like "living wage" or "coalition of comedians." It is the language of victimhood. Comics aren't victims. They're self-employed sub-contractors in the business of show. Each of us operates in his own unique way. We must be earning a "living wage," otherwise we'd be dead. If your standard of living plummets to a level that's not to your liking, find another line of work. Or take steps to raise it. It really is as simple as that.
I don't relish the idea of becoming part of a "coalition of comedians." I much prefer to be regarded as an individual. The idea of my compensation being hitched to another comedian's would be enough to make me quit the business. Even if the hitching would make the pay go up!
Am I happy with my current standard of living? "Happy" is too strong a word. Do I expect it to remain the same? Hell no. Every day, I am engaged in activities which will, it is hoped, raise the pay and cause a subsequent uptick in the standard of living. These activities include short-term goals as well as long-term, big-picture plans. I suspect that all my fellow comedians are engaged in similar plans. It's the American way. These machinations don't just focus on me, my performance or my promotional efforts. I am always trying to figure out ways of making me more valuable to Mr. Clubowner.
I say this not to sound like a "Get Yourself Booked NOW!" seminar. I say this because it's the way that others have done it. It makes sense. And none of it is rocket science. And none of it is giving in or sucking up or caving in to the clubowners. This isn't a competition. It's a business. And "calling on comedians to raise their level of professionalism so that owners will feel the pay increase is warranted" implies that the reason we're all getting lower pay on average is that our compensation is tied to some sort of cosmic performance review. And that if only the slovenly among were to get their shit together, we'd all be lighting cigars with twenty dollar bills. This is a fantasy.
Recently, during the occasional interview here and there, folks in the press have been asking me about the history of this business (sometimes they're actually faintly aware of the contours of the boom and the bust years, the modern history), I tell them that I've detected an upsurge lately. I tell them that the business "is not at 1990 levels, but it is fast approaching that." I intend to be in a position to take advantage of the cataclysmic changes that are taking place as I type. And I'm not doing anything that all comedians shouldn't be doing already.
The management boys, for their part, are also getting sharper. This is not your father's comedy club. These boys were toughened by the hard times. There're some new boys in the game, too. And everybody's learned the lessons of the bust. Comedy expanded, became big business, contracted, then levelled off. It's back and it's stronger than ever. And anyone who continues to try to run their comedy club like they usta run their titty bar will be stung badly. This isn't a cottage industry any more, it's a branch of Hollywood. It's no longer the bastard child of the entertainment business. It's the real deal. It will mature even further. And so will the patterns of compensation. And the relationship between the talent and the owners.
I don't pretend to know what to tell club owners what to
do. I assume that they already know what they're doing. If I
get into a club that doesn't, it's real simple: I don't go back. And I
sure as hell am not going to give a club owner tips on "a better way
of utilizing the comedian." That can only lead to no good, trust
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