I once wrote SAT questions. I had a freelance gig
writing questions ("items" is what
we in the biz were urged to call them) for ETS, the people who
bring you the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the very same
test that nearly every college-bound kid in America is
forced to endure.
If you think taking the test is hard, try
writing the questions.
I don't think I'm violating the terms of the secrecy
agreement I signed if I let you in on the strategy. It's not
any different from what those Kaplan test-prep guys will
tell you for $475.
I wrote two types of items: sentence completion and analogy.
Writing sentence completion items wasn't as tough as
writing the analogies. Neither was easy. And it wasn't
the question part that was hardest. It was coming
up with the answers. And the correct answer had to
be unquestionably correct-- there couldn't be any
"wobble." (Dontcha just love lingo?). It's no problem
writing the definitive answer. But the wrong answers
had to be unequivocally wrong. You were
encouraged to throw one in there that was ludicrously wrong
(as a "gimme"); that was easy. The other two, however,
had to be wrong, but not so wrong that you weren't at least
tempted to think they might be right.
Here's an example of an analogy:
1. The 1980's was to standup comedy
a. The 1960's was to British rock 'n' roll
b. The 1970's was to goldfish swallowing
c. The 1820's was to Indy car racing
d. The 1990's was to big band music
2. 1992 was to standup comedy as:
a. 1976 was to the American flag business
b. 1950 was to hardware stores
c. 1929 was to the stock market
d. 1969 was to day-glo paint sales
Put down your pencils. Close your booklets.
The proctor will collect your test answer sheets
and calculate your scores immediately.
If you answered "a" and "c"
you achieved a perfect score. Okay, there was a
little wobble here and there--I'm a little rusty--but you
get my point(s).
It was my SAT-writing gig, and others like it, that helped pay the
bills during the roughest time in the history of modern
standup comedy, the Comedy Bust.
Last month we had no fewer than three media
outlets of some type or another approach us and ask
if we could give them some background on the business
of standup comedy. We gave them our best estimates
as to the number of clubs in America today and other
stats. We also provided them with a bit of standup
"history"-- we gave them the generally agreed
upon arc of the business (and cultural phenomenon) of
standup comedy as we have experienced it. They seemed
surprised to learn about it.
We encountered a young comic recently who spoke,
in far too reverent tones, of "comics from
the '80s!" Apparently some comic (no doubt from
the '80s) had painted him a grand and glorious picture
of what it was like to have been a working comic
during the boom years. Equally apparent was that
while painting this pic, he had left out the part about the bust.
Our young friend was obviously unaware that the business
which now held him in its grip was, until recently, a
smoldering, wretched heap of broken dreams,
shuttered clubs and comics fleeing the business for
the security of the dreaded "day job."
When we've spoken or written about
the Modern Standup Era (running roughly from 1975 to the
present), we have often found that many people, (even people
who you'd think would know better, i.e., the
media) are unaware that the business experienced
a period of steady growth, then white-hot growth,
then a catastrophic collapse.
We've mentioned it here and there in columns and in
interviews and features. And we often
touch on the "Big Debate" (What killed comedy?)
But it occurred to us that we've never spelled out the
whole thing in one sitting.
Listen up, media people (and comics who joined
the party after 1994 or so):
The business, as we know it today, really didn't even
exist as recently as 1975. Back then, the prime time
television schedule was thick with sitcoms built around,
or in the general vicinity of, standup comics. A handful of new
comics had, in a short period of time, built lucrative
nightclub/Vegas careers and a few had made the leap to the tube.
They included Gabe Kaplan, Robert Klein, Jimmy Walker,
Freddie Prinze and David Brenner.
Then began the trickle of standup comics that became
a torrent that fed the river that became Standup Comedy,
The Cultural Phenomenon.
In Larry Wilde's book "Great Comedians Talk About
Comedy" Jerry Seinfeld is quoted as saying that when
he and his "generation" (which included Belzer,
Maher, Larry Miller, Robert Wuhl among others) started hitting
the stages of Manhattan in 1976, "We didn't
even know that there was no work out there for us...There
was no comedy club scene like there is now. There was
Vegas-- that was it. We knew we weren't going to Vegas.
We didn't know where we were going."
By 1981, Seinfeld had done his first Tonight Show and
there was work out there for him and for the
others-- a lot of it. The road work gathered steam from
1978 through 1981. It, and standup in general, exploded
in 1983 and built in
size and intensity until 1992. This is what is known
as the Comedy Boom. It was an era marked by clubs opening
in nearly all of the top 200 metropolitan statistical areas,
and by multiple television shows on cable television featuring
the talents of standup comics.
The business collapsed
in 1993 or so, in what was known as the Comedy Bust. It was
an era marked by clubs closing and a contraction of the
business. Theories abound as to why this happened. Our
pet theory is that the business expanded too rapidly and there
was a downturn in the economy. When of the public grew
weary with the idea of standup (as the public does with nearly
all trends), it was more than the already weakened biz could
take. We also theorize that the bust was exacerbated by
Many comics fled, some hung on. Some stayed in
show business by acquiring jobs in other sectors of the entertainment
industry, like acting or writing. Others were lucky enough
to acquire representation and, in so doing, were able to
secure enough work to sustain themselves through the
worst periods. Many comics who had moved from their
hometowns to the comedy magnets of L.A., N.Y., Chicago or
San Francisco found it prudent to retreat back to their original
Some cities felt the effects immediately. In other markets,
it was delayed. The downturn eventually touched all markets.
The ripple effect makes it difficult to determine exactly how long
the bad times lasted, but this much is for sure: Most folks agree
that things hit bottom around 1993 or so and stayed pretty
depressed through 1997 or so.
The business is rebounding after five or six years of
a downturn or flat numbers. Recent months have seen a
revival of standup, both live and on the television. Attendance
at comedy clubs and new comedy club openings are both
trending upward. Plans to open a major chain of clubs
were announced two years ago; so far, only a handful have
been christened. But it's a start.
I hear the bell. There will be a quiz.