Stand-Up Comics: It’s not only okay to draw a line, it’s necessary

Prior to becoming a stand-up comic, I was a drummer for a bunch of rock and country-ish bands, traveling quite a bit, playing a variety of venues, everything from big clubs and festivals to wine bars, art spaces, and backyards. I spent four straight months bumming around America one time, coast to coast, top to bottom. None of it prepared me for the landmine landscape of stand-up comedy clubs (and “clubs”) and what stand-up comedians were/are expected to put up with.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t sketchy bullshit on the business side of live music. Of course there is. Promoters ripping off bands, bands ripping off bands, bars refusing to pay, etc. But in that arena, it was my experience and understanding that, if shit went down, you went elsewhere. Musician friends let each other know “That venue ripped us off once” (or whatever), and the next time you passed through that town, you made a judgement call that generally involved seeking out another venue.

When I got into stand-up, in regards to the business, I had no idea what to expect. I imagined it was similar to music with literally nothing to base that assumption on. I had no idea about the standard structure of Host, Feature, Headliner, what any of that entailed and certainly not what any of it paid.

Most importantly, I had no idea what comics — hilarious, hardworking comics — were willing to put up with in the name of Making It.

I. No Money, No Problems

Some of the best advice I got early in stand-up went like this: “If you’d be happy doing stand-up for free, you’re on the right path to being a real comedian.”

Something like that. Which is true. About anything. If you begin a creative venture thinking, “I wonder how much money I can make at this,” you’re not an artist, you’re a capitalist. And you’re already done. The hypothetical “How much?” in terms of tangible reward almost always hinders (see also: ruins) your output before you even have a chance to vomit it up. You’ll never find your true voice if you open your mouth worried about what other people will think or how much someone will pay to hear it.

So, on one hand, wonderful advice. On the other, in hindsight, advice likely rooted, at least in comedy, in the awareness of how difficult it is to make any money at all, even when money is available. By that token, advice that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy:

“You’re on the right track if this is something you’d do for free and still love, because there’s virtually no money on that track. Not for you.”

tl;dr? Work for free. Like a real comedian.

It’s no secret that the pay scale for no-name Host, Feature, Headliner club shows hasn’t changed much in something like twenty years. But at least you’re getting paid. Years of figuring yourself out, honing your craft, realizing it’s shit, figuring yourself out again, (repeat) is rewarded both with a real audience to work out in front of (which is paramount) and some actual, human money.

But that’s just one type of show.

In some instances, even nowadays, the host doesn’t get paid at all, even though it’s often considered the most difficult role. And there are countless showcases, specialty shows, themed shows and contests where no one gets paid. Or maybe one person gets paid. The rest do it for “exposure” or “good practice,” and do it for “exposure” and “good practice” over and over and over again for years.

Meanwhile, the bar (if it’s a good bar) makes money on drinks, food, and a cover charge if there’s one. A lot of clubs still enforce two-item minimums, with the most expensive Bud Lights on the planet.

On the back end, you’re expected to promote the show for free, bring friends out (who will buy things) for free, perform for free, and do it all again in a month or so for free, if you’re lucky.

And we do it. Because if we don’t, someone else will. We perpetuate the cycle. And if we don’t, someone else will. So the someones may as well be us.

Furthermore, much like not voting come election time, we have zero right to complain because, every time we say yes to this scenario, we’re saying, “This scenario is fine.”

Here’s where a club owner on the other side of the table might say, “What happened to being a real artist? What happened to loving this so much you’d do it for free?”

And there’s where I’d say, “All of that can be true and it can be super shitty that someone other than me profits from my art.”

It would be different if none of us made money. But that’s not the case. They’re making enough to keep the lights on and the door open, enough to presumably pay a bar and wait staff, enough to buy liquor and food to sell to your friends, while you work for them for free.

That’s the reality.

“But I could get discovered!”

That’s the myth.

It’s not 1979-1989 anymore. Besides that, even when it was 1979-1989, there were really only three cities in America and a handful of clubs where that might happen. And you were generally given a heads up that you’d be auditioning, that someone could be in the audience, scouting.

I mean, sure, you might get discovered nowadays. The booker might discover that you’re adequate enough to work for free more nights at their club and maybe later, down the road, at their discretion, start going home with $25 or so, which is what the club makes on four Bud Lights.

II. What Would You Do with an Unsafe Bridge?

But patiently waiting to make virtually no money is only half the battle, and the far less complicated, morally bankrupt half. As it turns out, comedy scenes, populated by an interesting mix of fragile, insecure introverts and necessarily-confident, bold extroverts (in the same person) can be toxic cesspools of entitlement, manipulation and worse.

Genuine or manufactured fearlessness can cause people to treat other people however they’d like. It’s one more bandage or Kevlar vest to strap over a damaged and/or terrified ego. And it happens at every level — open mic to sold out theater — between every possible working dynamic — comic to comic, booker to comic, booker to booker.

And, sure, this environment can exist anywhere — schools, corporate America, politics — but it’s never made sense to me that it has to exist in comedy, something that exists solely to provide people with an escape from humanity’s worst.

We’re the clowns, the jesters whose job it is to give the villagers a breather from the ongoing war or the impending dragon. The very act of entertainment should suggest we understand that times are hard, abuse is everywhere, people can’t be trusted. What we do, how well we do it, and what we can do for others should never go to our heads and turn us into the wolves we’re trying to temporarily distract the villagers from, lest we become what we present ourselves to be better than, what we use our art to roast, troll and criticize. We’re not only letdowns as humans, we’re letdowns as artists. We’ve lied to and failed everyone, including ourselves.

Fortunately, we’re seeing an uptick in comedy communities trying to protect themselves when the abuse is comic to comic, but — because of the aforementioned fragile, insecure part of us — not so much when it’s booker to comic.

And the reason is fear. Fear of saying something that might derail your “career.” And abusers in those places of power know that. They’re banking on it (literally). “You won’t say something because you need us. And so what if you refuse to work here? You’re a dime a hundred.”

Not only is that a sick and twisted position to take, it’s not true. Not anymore.

Comics may feel like they need a certain club or connection to move to “the next level,” but this is an antiquated idea. It’s dinosaur-speak. And the smart club owners know that. They just hope you never find out so you’ll keep working for them for next-to-nothing and they can get away treating you, your peers, or whomever they’d like like trash.

The fact of the matter is, clubs need comics. Without us, they’re nothing more than bars, like thousands of other bars. Or they’re closed. Surrounded by thousands of other bars that are not closed.

Sure, it feels great to play a real comedy club in front of real people on a killer stage where the mic never cuts out or shocks you, but that’s not the be-all-end-all of comedy. Not to the point where, if management’s sketchy, you shouldn’t ask yourself, “What’s it worth to me to do this?”

And I’ve heard every excuse. “They’ve never treated me bad,” “That was a long time ago,” “It’s not like they raped someone,” etc., but it all boils down to one excuse: “There aren’t very many places where you can get paid.”

And paid might mean money, networking, being able to add a credit to your bio, but it’s all about you getting paid, with little regard to what that means for others (or yourself) who may have already been victimized, and the line of potential victims down the road as you perpetuate the status quo.

Like working for free, every time you say yes to this scenario, you’re saying, “This scenario is fine. I’m okay with this scenario.”

Our willingness to accept shit behavior is rooted in selfishness and muddied by delusion. Not delusion of our own abilities, on the contrary, the delusion that these people and places can make or break you.

When you strip away what you think you need them for, I suspect your reaction to the news that they’re shitty people would be different.

If a stranger you didn’t think could do anything for your career beat the shit out of a woman, I’d be willing to bet six $6 Bud Lights you’d want them held accountable. If it was someone you knew but who you felt was pretty irrelevant to your life/future, I’d bet those six Bud Lights you would cut them out of your life entirely.

When we take away the What Can They Do for Us? we don’t think twice about acting accordingly, as decent human beings looking out for one another.

And the sad thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way because, again, as the talent, we’re in charge. We vote with our time. If we stop giving it to people who are blatantly using us or abusing others, those people will be forced to make amends, or get removed and replaced, if for no other reason than to protect their bottom line.

I know we’re all self-deprecating, insecure, awkward and unstable with egos you could shatter with a feather, but we, little old us, do have the power to clean house from the inside out, to make this what we want it to be.

I feel like it’s worth repeating already: they need us more than we need them. There are thousands of stages, thousands of opportunities you can make for yourself — podcasts, web series, etc. — and far fewer quality performers to fill those stages.

Their stages are at your mercy.

I understand not wanting to burn bridges, but what would you do with an unsafe, literal bridge? You would fix it or burn it to the ground and build a new one, one you could trust to walk along safely and get others to their destination safely, without fear.

Proverbial bridges should be no different, especially considering they know they’re dangerous, don’t have your best interest in mind, and love that you have it in your head that they’re the only way across.

Sure, it might take a little more work to walk a couple hundred yards to find a safe, reliable bridge or a little more work to build your own bridge, but how is that any worse than toiling for years, walking back and forth on bridges that don’t care about your well being or the well being of others?

Furthermore, to quote Teddy Roosevelt (as seen on Last Comic Standing), “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty … I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”