Stand-Up Comedians: 4 Realities Nobody Really Talks About
Being a stand-up comedian is a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s great because you get to be your own boss. On the other, you also have to be your own employee, and sometimes you realize why all of your previous employers kept wanting to have closed-door meetings about your work. There are also a lot of things about this job that no one really addresses during your new hire orientation. These are just the bugs in the system you just have to learn to deal with along the way.
The Pay Rate at Comedy Clubs Has Barely Changed In Decades
If you think inflation is hitting you hard these days, just be thankful you don’t work as a stand-up comedian. Because a lot of comedy clubs are still paying their comics the same rate they were back in the 1980s, and it’s only really stayed this way because no one has come up with a better system.
How much money are we talking about? Well, first we’re gonna have to take the in-demand, celebrity headliners out of the equation. They’re in a much better position to name their price. But for comics below that level (standard headliners, feature acts, openers and emcees) at a typical comedy club in the U.S., it can break down to anywhere from $1.50 per minute on the low end to $3.00 per minute on the high end. Some clubs pay more, some pay a lot less.
And sure, it sounds so much better when you math it out to say we technically can make $100-200 an hour. But when you're only really on the clock for anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes per show, one or two shows each night, and maybe only two to four nights that week, it usually doesn’t add up to a whole helluva lot. And between the round trip travel costs of making it to and from the gig, possibly having to spring for your own hotel, and the human body’s pesky need for food in order to function properly, some comics are lucky if they come close to breaking even on an out-of-town club gig.
A lot of clubs do offer amenities that help cushion the blow a little bit. They give their comics a food and bar tab, put them up in a hotel, or have a condo they could stay in. And don’t get me wrong, those little things help out a lot. And part of being a traveling comic is being able to find every way possible to lighten or offset every expense. We pinch every penny, sell merch after shows (when it’s allowed), couch surf or sleep in our cars if we have to, take on side hustles, have day jobs, or if all else fails - we use credit cards. We’re kinda conditioned to believe these things are all part of “paying our dues” in the industry.
And comedy clubs are not the be-all-end-all of every comic’s career. There are many different types of gigs we work at: Bar gigs, one-nighters, corporate events, casinos, cruise ships, colleges, comedy contests, etc., and many of them pay very well. Some of them pay ridiculously well. But in order to land those higher paying gigs, the thing those bookers like to see on our resumes most of all… is club experience.
Now, I don’t want to sound like I’m condemning all comedy clubs for this problem. I’m not, especially not the clubs I regularly work with (we still cool, right?). Because I don’t necessarily blame the clubs for this problem. One of the main reasons most clubs haven’t adjusted their pay rates in nearly four decades is because there’s never been a shortage of comics willing to accept a low-ball offer just to get the stage time. That kinda kills our collective bargaining position to push for better pay across the board when we know the booker is one phone call away from finding someone who will take our spot for way less than what we just scoffed at.
Not that unionizing hasn’t been successful before. For years, The Comedy Store in Hollywood didn’t pay their comedians anything until comics went on strike in 1979. The strike worked, and the comics started getting paid $25 for a fifteen minute spot in the club’s smaller Original Room, while those performing in the Main Room would split 50% of the door. That pay remains the same… 43 years later.
In 2005, comedians again went on strike, this time in New York. The Comedians Coalition gathered the support of over 400 comedians to protest wage stagnation at NYC’s biggest showcase comedy clubs. It took them a few months, but soon those clubs started raising their comics’ pay by up to 250%.
Today, there are more signs that this problem might be approaching a similar boiling point, but there aren’t a lot of easy fixes that don’t involve passing the cost onto the consumer. Most comedy clubs, especially in smaller markets, don’t exactly have the most financially solvent business model as it is. Unfortunately, a lot of clubs can only raise prices so much on tickets, food, and drinks before they start hemorrhaging customers, and the last thing this industry needs right now is smaller crowds. Well, that and maybe Chris D’Elia.
But until we can figure this sh!t out, whenever you see a comedy show, please consider buying the comic’s merch after the show, or maybe tip them a couple bucks after the show. After you tip the wait staff, of course. They’re getting hosed far worse than the comics are.
Comedy Clubs are Very Territorial
As comedians, we work as independent contractors and have to adhere to contracts. The contracts are typically pretty cut and dry with not a ton of fine print, and most of the time, it’s nothing more than a verbal agreement. However, when you have multiple contracts with multiple clubs in play at the same time, there is one aspect that can be particularly maddening: the non-compete clause.
Nearly every club has their own “territory." If you work at a specific club, you agree to not perform inside that territory within X amount of time before or after the date you are booked. It makes perfect sense. They don’t want one of “their” comics drawing people to a nearby show that they’re not profiting from. This territory may be limited to that city, or within a specific radius of the club. Some clubs don’t even want you performing anywhere else in their state.
This can often be a hassle because when a comic is planning a tour schedule, it helps to get each gig lined up close to each other along a sensible path, especially if you’re driving. You don’t want to end up having to do something like Indiana, California and Florida right in a row. Person who didn't understand that: an anonymous headliner who took me on tour with him for two years hauling his show equipment across the country in the trunk of my car while he flew to each gig! I love you like my own family, buddy, but goddamn that was a rough three-week stretch.
Non-compete clauses with clubs are the one part of that contract you need to make absolutely sure you understand. There are technicalities and loopholes that go both ways. Sometimes they don’t want you to work within that radius only on nights their club is open, so you might be able to get away with doing a show across town if it’s on an off night. Or, say a club doesn’t want you doing shows within a 100 mile radius. You could book a show that’s 105 miles away according to Google Maps, but since highways don’t always take you in a straight path, it could still be considered a conflict if the club is going by the 100 mile radius on Google Earth. Can they really be that nitpicky? Yes.
A lot of comedy clubs operate as a chain, which means if you are getting booked at one, you can get booked at all of them. Sometimes, these chains will have a club in the same city as another club chain. If you’re working with both chains, you have to make sure that working at one of those clubs doesn’t potentially sour your relationship with the other chain. Often it’s not an issue if you just keep things professional, but when faced with that choice it can have a real “Will they still let me sit at the cool kids’ table?” vibe to it.
And it’s not like comics could pull a fast one on the clubs. Clubs keep close tabs on their competition. They know where these other shows are happening and who’s performing on them well in advance because it’s not like the shows aren’t being heavily promoted everywhere, including the comics’ own social media profiles.
So, what’s the punishment for violating a non-compete? It all depends on the club, the comic, how great their working relationship is, and the nature of the violation. The club may ask the comic to back out of the other gig or risk getting their slot canceled. They may just decide to not book that comic for a while or put them on some sort of super secret probation. Or, they may just blackball them from the club entirely.
Sometimes, the Show Must Go On Whether You Feel Like it or Not
Stand-up comedians don’t always have the luxury of calling in sick or taking a mental health day. It’s been a much different matter since the pandemic, but in the before times, sometimes you just had to power through an illness or emotional crisis simply because it was either too late to back out of it, or you really needed the money.
Fortunately, there is a phenomenon called stage health, where a performer's body will start pumping just enough adrenaline and endorphins to get them through the performance. You can’t always count on that being the case, or that it will last the whole time you’re on stage. Just ask Patton Oswalt.
Personally, there have been times where I went on stage with the flu, migraines, laryngitis, food poisoning, a freshly sprained ankle, a concussion, too drunk, too high, too sober, you name it. I did two shows one night after attempting to beat a hot sauce challenge at a local restaurant that afternoon… with my mouth still on fire for the first show, my ass for the second. I had a girlfriend dump me right before a show started. That was fun.
Sometimes when I was otherwise afflicted, the show would go about as well as you’d expect. Sometimes I completely crushed it, which made me wonder if being that sick might have been the missing X factor in my act.
The toughest part of the stage health phenomenon by far is the crash that comes later. Your body may have granted you a Super Mario invincibility star while you’re on stage, but that was given to you on credit. As soon as your body feels like the work is done, the interest payments come down on you like a ton of bricks. Temporarily powering through a physical ailment is one thing, it’s way worse when it’s your mental health.
When you live with any form of depression or anxiety, you understand the impulse to put on a false front in front of other people out of fear of judgment or social stigma. You just don’t want to be in a situation where your problems become everyone else’s. Standing on stage in front of a room full of strangers can crank that feeling up to eleven. For comedians with anxiety, the scene in It: Chapter Two where Bill Hader had to take the stage in the middle of a panic attack was probably a thousand times more terrifying than anything else in that movie.
The rush of being on stage doing comedy can be exhilarating, and that rush of adrenaline and endorphins is largely why so many people mistakenly think stand-up comedy is a perfectly fine alternative to actually going to therapy. It does give you a chance to drown out the negative thoughts in your head for a short time, but those thoughts are often waiting just off stage, and they really didn’t appreciate being ignored while you were on stage.
Comedy is Still a Huge Boy’s Club
Go to any comedy club website and look at their list of upcoming shows. Now, count the number of women you see listed on the calendar. Some clubs are better than others, but by and large, you’re probably more likely to encounter a white elk in the wild than you are to see a woman headlining a comedy show. Comedy showcase lineups often have a worse male to female ratio than a remote Alaska logging town.
That reality does not automatically mean the bookers of shows are inherently sexist or misogynist (although some might be). It’s mainly because there just aren’t that many women in comedy in general, and many of them quit the business before they reach the higher levels because the work environment is just too toxic for them and way more often than anyone cares to admit, some guys in this business are too dangerous to be around. And it’s not like they can report anyone to HR about it.
They often have to face harassment and abuse from their male peers, they have to fight way harder to gain any respect, and any time they find even a modicum of success, people always find some way to insinuate that they didn’t really earn it. Someone starts whispering rumors like, “Well, I guess we all know how she got booked on that show, right? (Wink, wink)” Really?!? Is that how you got booked on the show as well, Dave?
A huge part of the problem is the shockingly still popular notion that women just aren’t as funny as men, or that women can’t be funny at all. It certainly doesn’t help that whenever that subject comes up, it’s always framed like both sides of the issue carry equal weight. They really don’t. If someone believes that women can’t be funny, their reasons for that belief go far deeper than just their taste in comedy, so there’s probably nothing that anyone can do to convince them otherwise. I would say it’d be like arguing with a brick wall, but I’m not sure brick is a dense enough material for this metaphor to work.
Comedy, like most industries, does stack the deck heavily in favor of straight, white cis men. As a straight, white cis man myself, I cannot deny that I have benefitted from that system. I’m not trying to white knight this issue. Any member of a marginalized group has to work extra hard to gain any kind of footing in this business, but it’s extra messed up that women are really the only group where people routinely doubt their ability to be funny in the first place.
And on top of everything, there’s the constant sexual harassment! (It's not enough that women have to share the stage with guys who treat them like one-dimensional sex objects on-stage, but off-stage a lot of those guys make it clear they meant every word of it. Sex scandals involving male comics are only a shock to people outside of comedy. For a lot of women in comedy, that may just be a typical Friday.
No one, regardless of gender, really wants to speak up about these things because A) they fear how that might affect their own career opportunities, and B) they don’t feel like it’ll change anything. Even when the sex monsters in this industry do get outed, they’re never really punished for it. Chris D’Elia is still getting booked, Louis C.K. just won a Grammy and has a new movie coming out, although Bill Cosby did go to jail… for a year.
Women need more opportunities in order to succeed in comedy, but that’s not gonna ever be possible until the working environment becomes much safer for them. Clearly the current strategy of putting on the occasional all-female showcase and calling it “Ha-Ha’s with Ta-Ta’s” ain’t making up for it. And if getting more stage time for women means that less opportunities for men, so be it. Maybe start by blacklisting the abusers, that’s a great jumping off point! If these guys can’t get laid without asserting their power and influence, then perhaps we shouldn’t be giving them any more power or influence.
Dan Fritschie is a writer, comedian, and frequent over-thinker. He can be found on Twitter (https://twitter.com/FritschieComic), and he thanks you for your time.