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Has Stand-Up Comedy Fallen Flat In America?

Standup comedy seems to have had its better days.

At least that’s the view from Boston, where during the 1990s, comedians used to proliferate like nukes during the Cold War. You probably recognize the names: Louis CK, Bill Burr, Jay Leno, Steven Wright, Patrice O’Neal, Denis Leary, Dane Cook, all Boston comics that made it big and are now jet setting from coast to coast to kill sell out crowds. But Boston has changed; comedy hasn’t been nurtured here like it used to be, and the nature of the business across the country isn’t quite clear.

To figure out what’s really going on in the comedy business, I turned to three well-known comics who are working the best comedy clubs on both American coasts regularly to get their thoughts on comedy, the business, and what’s been changing in order to answer one question: Is standup comedy in America holding steady or headed for a fall?

Rich Vos

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Where He Came Up: New Jersey and NYC

Age: 56

Credits: Best known from NBC’s hit reality show “Last Comic Standing”. He has two Comedy Central Half-Hour Specials. He was a regular guest on “Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn,” and has been a regular guest on “The Opie and Anthony Show” for the past 10 years. Vos has appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” NBC’s “American Dreams” and “The View.” He is also a regular on the Joy Behar show, made three appearances at the Apollo, four appearances on BET, and was the first white comic to perform on HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam.”

I called Rich for a chat while he was on his way to a gig in NYC. In between paying tolls on the Jersey turnpike (he still doesn’t have an EZPass), and tearing me up for some of my dumber questions, he gave me his thoughts.

1. On the health of comedy in NYC and whether things are getting harder for comedians…

To be a good comic, go up wherever and whenever you can. When you want industry to see you, be in LA or New York. The comedy rooms are changing because people aren’t spending money as much, and there’s more competition and more things to do than go to a comedy club. Clubs aren’t gonna put out money on advertisements to see a bunch of new people and the weight is on the new comics to bring people to shows and get a following on their own. It’s tough enough to be a comedian, now you have to be a publicist, manager, marketer, etc. I think all clubs should have an open mic night where new comics can go up. Comics shouldn’t have to bring anybody.

2. On whether the NYC comedy clubs are still safe havens for dirtier acts…

The marketplace determines who goes on stage in life. If you’re whoever, a top comic, you can say whatever you want. If a new guy goes up and swears every other word, it won’t work. It’s all about money in the clubs. It’s the country, we’re a bunch of pansies, when comedy and art is the last straw, and when a rape can happen in a movie and it’s called art, but when a guy talks about it on stage he can get in trouble, it’s a problem. As a new comic, if you wanna find your voice, be who you are, but know that it’s a business too.

3. On what the biggest challenge for maintaining relevance as a top comedian…

Writing. Keep writing new stuff. To stay relevant you just have to keep writing.

4. On the major difference between the LA and NYC comedy scenes…

In NYC you can make a living without getting on a plane. You can work Philly, Baltimore, Washington, Connecticut, and there are many more opportunities as a headliner. In NY you can work Caroline’s or another big club and make real money. You can’t make that money in LA. But in LA, you’re amongst a sea of people that can make your career, and there aren’t as many of those people in NY. It’s a tradeoff.

5. The one thing he would change about comedy in New York…

Get rid of the guys in Times Square, the “barkers”, that get people into clubs, because they’re lying to tourists to sell discounted tickets and tell them that so and so will be at the club, that Comedy Central is filming there tonight, etc. to get people in the room. Then the people get there and expect something that isn’t actually happening or a comic who isn’t even there. That’s bad for comedians.

Check out Rich Vos’ tour dates, listen to he and his wife Bonnie McFarlane’s (also a comedian) hugely popular podcast, “My Wife Hates Me”, see his new movie, “Women Aren’t Funny”, and hear him regularly on the “Opie and Anthony” radio show.

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Myq Kaplan

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Where He Came Up: Boston and NYC

Age: 35

Credits: Myq (pronounced “Mike”) is a 2010 Last Comic Standing Finalist and has appeared on the Tonight Show, the Late Show with David Letterman, Comedy Central Presents, Conan, and many others. His CD, Vegan Mind Meld, was one of iTunes’ top ten best-selling comedy albums in 2010. The Comedians magazine calls him “a comedy machine, in the best possible way. The way that some machines vend soda or prevent other machines from killing future revolutionaries – that’s how Myq Kaplan does comedy: relentlessly, methodically, unblinkingly.”

After my admitted bungling of a live interview with Myq before one of his myriad gigs in NYC’s top clubs, Myq agreed to answer some questions… revised of course from my Rich Vos beat down…

1. On the hardest part of getting recognized and a foot in the door at NYC comedy clubs…

Every club is different. Some bookers will look at videos, others will want recommendations, and most will have you do short audition-like sets, but the exact process can vary greatly from venue to venue, booker to booker, year to year, etc. So I don’t know if there is one “hardest part.” The main thing that takes time is getting to be as good a comedian as you can be. Then there’s the additional step of getting other people to see how good a comedian you are. Of course it’s not an exact science, but hopefully the more work you’ve put into the first part, of getting good, the easier it will be to get other people to see.

2. On how comedy in New York has changed since he started…

I didn’t actually start in NYC. I began in Boston around 2002, and moved to NYC in 2008. I don’t really know how to answer about the direction standup comedy is headed, because while certainly there are always things changing on the landscape, there’s something constant about what standup is, how it’s done, the kinds of shows that exist, the kind of audiences that seek it out… I do believe more and more people are finding out about comedy now, through podcasts and TV shows featuring standups more and more (though before I started, there were certainly periods of time where comedians were probably even more saturated throughout various entertainment portals)… I guess I would also say that “standup comedy in NYC” isn’t necessarily its own specific thing that can be differentiated from standup comedy nationwide or globally, because of podcasts and the internet and such, and also the fact that people travel, and move, and visit, etc. I will say, NYC has always (at least as long as I’ve known) been the place that has the MOST standup, the most venues, the most comedians probably, the most opportunities for stage time, and that’s something that I’ve seen no sign of changing, and so I would say that maintaining that course is indeed continuing to head in the right direction. Not that more is always better, but the availability of more definitely makes for the statistical likelihood of more of the more being better.

3. Is the business changing for the better?

Honestly, I do think things are changing so much for the better, with so many more networks out there now, plus the internet and more accessible technology making unnecessary the old system of having to get someone else to back what you do in the first place. It used to be if millions of people wouldn’t watch your TV show (or if the industry gatekeepers THOUGHT millions of people wouldn’t watch), your product couldn’t get made. Now you can just make it.

4. On whether everything in his act is transferable from coast to coast, or if there are fundamental differences between New York and LA…

Audiences WITHIN New York City probably differ more from situation to situation than if comparing NYC to outside NYC. Same with LA. That is, some shows in NYC are full of tourists who don’t speak English who were barked in from Times Square and don’t even care about the specific show they’re watching, and others are full of comedy fans who have watched every special they could and know who all the comedians are because they listen to their podcasts and can’t wait to see what they’re going to come up with next.

Also, NYC and LA aren’t the only places that people do standup, and I’d say there’s not a ton of tweaking necessary, unless all your jokes are about very specific things like the NYC subway system, but that’s not a specifically NYC-centric issue… if you have a bunch of jokes about pop culture and you’re performing at an old folks’ home, you might tweak things for that as well. Also, most comedians are constantly tweaking their acts and jokes in general, to grow and hone and evolve and change, regardless of where they are performing and for whom.

So the answer is mostly yes and no. Everything is mostly transferable (you are who you are and your comedy is your comedy wherever you go) and no, you don’t have to tweak (but most often you do, for all kinds of reasons).

5. On what the typical mistakes are that Myq sees new comics making in their careers and on stage…

Taking the mic out of the stand but then leaving the mic stand there and standing behind it. Big career mistake.

Or maybe, having a joke not work and then misdiagnosing the reason why and then yelling at the audience for it. Maybe they didn’t like the joke about nuns because it wasn’t the greatest joke, not because the audience is full of nuns.

You can see Myq Kaplan on tour, listen to his podcast, “Hang Out With Me”, or catch him on a number of late night talk shows, radio shows, podcasts and more.

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Johnny Lampert

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Where He Came Up: New Jersey and NYC

Age: 49

Credits: Johnny is a regular at New York City’s and Los Angeles’ best comedy clubs including The Gotham Comedy Club, The Comic Strip, Caroline’s Comedy Club and The Improv. Johnny has also made numerous appearances on national television including featured performances on MTV, A&E, Comedy Central, NBC, HBO Comedy Showcase and most recently on AXS TV’s Gotham Comedy Live!

Johnny is unique in that not only is he a comedian, but he also manages some new big names like Tom Cotter, who finished second last season on America’s Got Talent. Johnny and I talked about the health of comedy in New York, his view as a manager, and the fading awe of the Montreal Comedy Festival.

1. On the health of comedy…

I don’t think it’s getting worse, and in a way it’s always been the same… I think, in general, there’s a bigger market for the dirty acts… but clean comics are able to do a wider ranges of shows and have many more opportunities to be seen on TV as well – which, even with the internet, is still the best place to show the most people what you can do.

2. On how clubs and club owners are changing…

As a guy who has booked many shows, I would say that most shows are are not well booked. They tend cater to the lowest common denominator.  Most clubs these days are tourist havens for foreigners and out-of-towners. A lot of New Yorkers don’t go anymore. The reason The Comedy Cellar is one of the top clubs is because their lineup is generally the best in the city with reasonable drink prices, thus New Yorkers go there. Comedy is a business, and sometimes it comes down to who can draw and who can’t. Some clubs will book a guy who has tons of Twitter followers based on that alone, not whether he’s funny or not. That only lasts so long, and your reputation will come around as a club owner sooner or later if you book based solely on things like that.

3. On what he tells up and comers as a manager…

You have to write. You have to get on stage. You can’t buy an act. You can’t do it in the mirror and expect it to get better. You have to work hard enough to get lucky. Tom Cotter is a great example. He was around for 25 years, got on America’s Got Talent, and every time he got up there he was smooth under pressure and killed it. Nobody can say he got lucky. He was overripe and got passed over longer than he should have. There’s a bottleneck at the top and there’s a lot of talent out there that deserves a shot. There are people out there who haven’t made it yet that are as good or better than some of the big acts who have already made it. Some acts blow it by rushing their second special after they have a good first one. And then there are the guys that work at it, take their time, and stay true. One of those guys is Bill Burr. He’s prolific and yet each one of his specials is smarter and funnier than the last. He’s edgy at times, but it’s not cheap and doesn’t get dirty for shock sake only.

4. On whether the premiere comedy festival, The Montreal Comedy Festival, is still the comedic career-maker it used to be…

Montreal doesn’t have the same pop that it did as far the industry making careers change overnight. It draws huge crowds and big acts, but as far as big network executives, they just don’t show up anymore. In the 90s, they were always there looking for the next Seinfeld or Tim Allen, but as the comedy boom subsided, they decided it wasn’t as important to be there.  It’s still the biggest and most prestigious festival, but it isn’t the kingmaker it used to be.

You can see what Johnny has been up to including dates and how to book him for everything from corporate events to country clubs at his website.

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Joe Sarkisian graduated with a Master of Science in international relations from the University of Massachusetts Boston and completed his BA at Arizona State University in political science. Joe pictures himself dodging bullets in Damascus with a beer in one hand and an IBM Selectric in the other, but for now, drinking whiskey at weird hours and writing features from the home front will do just fine. He can be contacted at Joe@NewsWhistle.com.

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