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BRIAN MCKIM has performed standup comedy in all 50 states. He earned a B.A. in Magazine Journalism from Temple University. Any resemblance to a living person is purely coincidental.


Brian McKim
Editor In Chief

"There Will Be A Quiz"

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 as:
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

Here's another:

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 political correctness.

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 markets.

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. HOME Back to the Top