The comedy world has been in a transition period as it attempts to grapple with the Internet, the alternative comedy scene and more emphasis on the personalities rather than the platform.
"It's kind of change or die," says Alf LaMont, VP of marketing and development at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. "We've been doing it within the context of an old school comedy club, and that model is broken."
"The world has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, in a way that was so fast that it was difficult for businesses who had been doing really well for 20 years to acknowledge," LaMont says. "The bottom got taken out of things and people didn't know what to do, and they still don't know what do."
Douglas C. Pizac/AP
It wasn't always this way. In the early 1970s, Johnny Carson moved "the Tonight Show" from New York to L.A. "Back in those days, the only way to be seen was to be on Carson," LaMont says. "Carson scouts only go to comedy clubs to see prospective talent, there's only one comedy club in L.A., and that was, at the time, the Comedy Store."
Comedy clubs got used to being in the position of power. Over time, their ability to be gatekeepers has faded, with the growth of cable and now the Internet continuing to weaken the position of clubs while opening up more opportunities for comics to make their own name.
Joe Rogan versus Carlos Mencia
Carlo Allegri/Getty Images
LaMont sees one of the biggest shifts, particularly for the Comedy Store, happening in 2007 when comedian Joe Rogan called out Carlos Mencia for stealing jokes. Rogan was banned from the Comedy Store after the video was posted online. "Not because we were siding with Carlos for their argument," LaMont says, but "Joe was banned because he had been asked not to film."
The Comedy Store was also scared, LaMont says. "YouTube was relatively new back then, and to see something get that many hits, and that much traction that early on, it was a real kind of scary thing for the management at that point in time."
Rogan decided to take his audience with him. LaMont says that this was the first time the club, and others, started to realize that the personal connection comics can have with fans thanks to the Internet had now put even more power in the hands of performers over the venues. "Joe Rogan was really a pioneer in that, in wielding his audience like a mighty sword," LaMont says.
Comedy Clubs vs. Alternative Comedy Venues
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
At the same time, alternative comedy venues were continuing to gain prominence. Largo, in its previous location, was the heart of the alternative L.A. comedy scene, with stars like Sarah Silverman performing there regularly after becoming disenchanted with comedy club politics, according to LaMont. "What you find is, just as you have a lot of disenchanted comics, just as the technology is starting to give comics the ability to connect more closely with their audiences."
It's a problem unique to big city comedy clubs, particularly in L.A. and New York; smaller towns are more likely to have a central club with little competition, but with the large number of comics who live in L.A. and New York and want to perform, it's more of an issue.
"When Paul. F. Tompkins and Patton Oswalt and a bunch of other stars out loud say, 'We do not want to perform in clubs,' it certainly sends a message to their fans," LaMont says.
"I had a comic ruefully say, Alf, I just want to go back to the days where the venue was more important than the comics," LaMont says. "I just looked at him and I said, that's never going to happen again. Never ever ever." LaMont says that one tweet by comedian Marc Maron sold 20 tickets. "I could go blue in the face online, buy ads on numerous publications, and still not get the results that Marc Maron gets with one single tweet."
Traditional comedy clubs also face competition from venues with alternative sources of revenue. "I think [the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre] cheats. Because UCB doesn't make their money from their shows as much as they do from their classes," LaMont says. "They put on great quality shows. But when you have a 99-seat theater that you sell $5 tickets to, it's obvious that that's not how you're making your money." He adds that UCB has been the driving force behind the current comedy boom.
LaMont says that he hadn't stepped foot into a comedy club himself for years before working at the Comedy Store, as he'd been watching comedy in alternative venues rather than paying a higher comedy club admission and having a two-drink minimum.
He adds that he thinks that period of disenfranchised comics is over. "I think the atmosphere overall in comedy is not you might be able to break in, it's if you work hard enough, and you have talent, you will eventually rise to the top."
The Two-Drink Minimum
The two-drink minimum still drives comedy club business, providing the vast majority of a club's profit. "The two-drink minimum serves as golden handcuffs. We need it. It's built into our model," LaMont says. "And back in the '70s, that was a relatively common thing. Now it's sort of this dinosaur that people reluctantly adhere to."
LaMont says that the Comedy Store considered eliminating it, but management asked whether fellow L.A. comedy clubs were doing the same, which they weren't. "My reply is, we're not competing with the Improv or the Laugh Factory. We are competing with bars, and we're competing with coffee shops, and we're competing with a comic book store, and we're competing with a cemetery."
"Will that change? I don't think so," LaMont says. "In fact, I think it will become more important, making our money from alcohol, simply because the door deals for big names are becoming very lopsided."
"There are, I would say, at least five to 10 different ways people can come into the Comedy Store on any given day of the week for free admission," LaMont says. "So ticket sales aren't what's driving our business right now. It's liquor sales. And that's it."
Why Developing Comedians Is Key To Saving Comedy Clubs
Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
While the Comedy Store doesn't offer classes in a traditional sense, LaMont says that developing talent is the most important thing traditional comedy clubs have to do in order to stay relevant. They've started offering incentives, such as putting the names of paid regulars on the walls of the club. They also got kicked into high gear when the Improv Lab opened, an experimental space at the Hollywood Improv.
"It's amazing for me watching other clubs stick their head in the mud or rename what is basically their generic comedy shows something clever in hopes that that will suffice instead of innovating and making choices and investing in the future," LaMont says.
One of the more prominent names the Comedy Store takes credit for helping develop in recent years is Whitney Cummings, now starring on her own NBC sitcom and producing CBS's "2 Broke Girls." LaMont says that investing in Cummings and other talented comedians early on means they continue performing at the Store and start bearing fruit later in their career. "The only way that we will be able to continue to exist is that if we continue bringing up, nurturing this talent," LaMont says.
As far as other clubs, though, they "aren't each carrying their own weight as far as the development on talent," LaMont says. "There's just not sufficient talent because talent is going elsewhere — they're performing at Largo, they're performing at UCB, they're performing at bars." That means the same comics regularly play all three major L.A. clubs, making it tougher for each to differentiate themselves. "We will never ask a comic to not perform at other clubs," LaMont says. "We're simply asking the other clubs to help us develop talent so that we can grow the pool."
The Future of Comedy
Along with developing young comedians, LaMont says the Comedy Store is also making more of an effort to reach out to fans and to comics who are invested in the club. They've developed the biggest comedy club presence on Twitter, with an account that proudly proclaims themselves "The Least Douchey Comedy Club in L.A." They've even got a Tumblr account.
The Comedy Store is trying to build on their past, while looking forward. "We have bullet holes where Sam Kinison shot his gun off in the parking lot. We have a room dedicated to Richard Pryor because he needed someplace to hang out. We are that kind of place," LaMont says. However, "At the end of the day, your average consumer is not worried about what happened here 20, 30 years ago. What the average consumer is really worried about is, who are we going to see, can we see them here, and is it the easiest place to see it here?"
"To make guesses as to where comedy will go in the next 10, 20 years is ridiculous, because all you have to do is watch the talent," LaMont says. "The only thing that clubs can now do is follow the artists. Make sure that they are happy. Make sure that you make a friendly atmosphere for their fans."
And what about that two-drink minimum? LaMont says the Store is offering bigger names the opportunity to waive the two-drink minimum for their fans. Still, "I don't see why we couldn't someday, in the rosy future, make our money off of drinks without having to implement the two-drink minimum. But that's going to take a change in attitude internally." LaMont says that's a few years away.
"For the last 40 years, we have asked the world to do things our way. For the next 40, I hope that we will now do things everybody else's way."
The Comedy Store is open 365 days a year (even Christmas), with three stages offering a variety of comedy.