Free isn’t Free: How the LA Comedy Scene is Cheating Itself.
I will be the first to say it. I love the word “free.” Not paying for stuff gets me super wet. Sometimes I go onto the “FREE” section of Craigslist and pleasure myself to pictures of wooden pallets and piles of dirt.
I will also be the first to admit that while “free” is always tempting, it is not always good. Especially when it comes to art. Artists will do anything to have people acknowledge their work, and many times the easiest way is to simply give it away. Just take it. Please. LOOK AT THIS THING I MADE GODDAMMIT. We need people to tell us something, anything to validate that this thing we created exists.
For the past six years I have been doing stand-up comedy in Los Angeles. A lot. Like thousands of times. I have performed on LA’s biggest shows and also in the dirtiest ratholes imaginable where no man should ever step foot. You take the good, you take the bad, you take it all, and then you have, the LA Comedy Scene. In this time, I could easily tally up the amount of money I have made performing and I would be willing to bet it couldn’t pay my rent for a single month. The stage time I have put in has led to thousands of hours of entertainment for others, and yet I am lucky if I am paid $100 in a single month from stand-up. In fact, if I did the math between driving, drinks, and food I probably lose $300 a month being a comedian. The reason? Almost every show I do is free. Yes! No! Wait, why is my favorite word back to haunt me? Free is good, right? Wrong.
Ill give you a scenario that everyone, comic or “human” has experienced. You’re walking down the street. Someone jumps out at you and yells, “FREE COMEDY SHOW!” If you are a sane person, you are taken aback and hesitant. Not only were you not looking for a show, but why is it free? Why is this person so desperate to have me watch them tell a few jokes? My first thought would be that this person is a terrible comedian. They aren’t being paid, and they have no audience to watch them. Its unappealing in every sense of the word.
So lets break it down. Why are so many shows in LA free? It comes down to a few factors:
1. LA is a “Showcase City”: Everyone that comes to LA comes here with a dream. No one wants to live in a city with no water and houses that only a Saudi oil mogul can afford. We come here because this is where things happen. So as a comic we constantly need to be performing in hopes that one day a very special person with a big cigar and a monocle will walk up to us after a show, tell us we got the goods, and the next day we are making out with Brad Pitt in a hilarious action comedy. We need to perform constantly to raise our chances of being discovered. LA can and will make dreams happen if you work hard enough.
2. If a Show is Free, More People Will Come: This is a mentality that I constantly encounter. While its true that people don’t wanna pay for things (hello free pile of dirt!), I have learned that entertainment is different. If a show is free, it is very easy to not become emotionally involved in the performance. You don’t care if you leave halfway through, or text your bestie about your new shoes, because you paid nothing and have no actual stake in enjoying the show. It might as well be another place to sit for a couple hours so you can tell yourself you did something. As a comic, I fully understand not wanting to pay for shows, because I NEVER pay for shows. Then again, I watch comedy every day for hours on end and if I paid for shows I’d be sucking off dudes in the street just to pay for them. While I love the word “free,” it also devalues the product that it promotes.
3. Dealing with Money Sucks: I’m a comedian, not an accountant. I want to think about my art, not taking people’s hard-earned cash. How much do I charge? Do I take the money or hire a door person? Is it legal for me to sell drinks? Do I have to pay taxes? I’m a comic and this is about art and real artists don’t care about money.
4. Over Saturation: We have 6 major comedy clubs in Los Angeles. On top of that, we have hundreds of small theaters where people have shows. In addition, there are thousands of bars and coffee shops where on any given night comics are literally throwing themselves at the general public for a chance to impart their unique take on society. If that wasn’t enough, there are comic book stores, house shows, even dance studios with comedy on a nightly basis. There is no shortage of shows, so you might as well give it away because why would anyone pay for your show over one with super famous people that is right down the street in a hat shop?
So, whats the solution? If there are thousands of comics and hundreds of shows, and 99% of them are free, how do we as comedians get paid:
1. GET ON TV YOU STUPID JERK: Yes, obviously, but that doesn’t help. Continue?
2. GO ON THE ROAD YOU STUPID JERK: Yeah, I know, but I’m talking about getting paid in LA.
Here is the solution I propose to change the LA Comedy Scene for the better:
1. Know that your Art is Valuable: The general public pays for entertainment. Movies aren’t free. Going to a Kings game isn’t free. People expect to pay to be entertained. If instead of your show being free, what if it was $5? Anybody thats willing to take time out of their life, drive (or for god sake take a bus) to your show, will pay a small fee to go. If 20 people would show up for a free show, at least 15 will pay a little to see that same show. You then have an audience who cares, and you can flip the comics a couple bucks for their time. I can tell you, even if I’m paid $5, I feel like a million bucks. Any money that is leftover can be invested directly back into your show to give the audience a better product. I run a show, and people pay upwards of $20 just to get in. People pay it because I provide them with a product that is worth it. That money allows me to pay for a better show, and to pay the comics that have taken time to write, practice, and develop their art. They are worth it, and a few dollars lets them know that. On top of that, the audience is invested. Being paid for comedy is not dirty, and we need it for sustainability.
2. There Can Still Be Free Shows: If you have a show in a bar where the stage is in the main area where people hang out, go ahead and keep it free. We can’t make people that didn’t know there was a show pay for a show. But if its in a separate room, charge a couple bucks. If they are paying $6 for a PBR (which we have all done), they will probably pay three dollars to hear you tell some jokes. If people really insist on their comedy being free, let them go to an open mic. Not only do they get what they want, but comics get a couple actual people to listen to them. For as many shows as there are every night, there are just as many open mics where willing audience members can watch us practice our craft while they sip a $7 kale infused latte.
3. Don’t Produce a Show Only to Create Stage Time for Yourself: We need people who are passionate about comedy. We need original ideas. We need a fresh take. Getting an audience is easy when you are excited about the product. We have too many people not promoting their shows because they aren’t excited about what they have to offer. It takes more than inviting people on Facebook. Producers need to go out and find their audience. Talk to people. Tell them why your show is worth going to, and then let them come and experience it for themselves. Once they realize its a good time, they will tell others and your show will grow organically. Press will happen. And all of a sudden you have a hit show. Good shows are made by good producers who work hard to get a real audience, and if we all stuck to that model and added charging even a small amount, we would change the game.
I fully understand that this will not happen overnight. This is the way it has worked for years and changing it is an uphill battle. But think about how much further we could take our careers with even a little extra dough. We could finance tours, web series, album recordings. We wouldn’t need kickstarter for every little pet project. For people who say free shows are punk rock, remember even Fugazi charged for their concerts. We wanna make it affordable, not give it away. Let’s all do this and we can raise our scene up together. Yes, there will be less shows, but the quality will be tremendously higher.
We as comedians and as audience members, can all agree that comedy is necessary. It enhances our good times and makes the bad times tolerable. My goal is to spread happiness throughout the world. But it wouldn’t hurt to make a few dollars doing it.