Behind the Laughs
Community and Inequality in Comedy
Michael P. Jeffries




We pay our performers, just not with money.
—Matt Besser1

The "Green Room" at Zanies Comedy Club in Chicago is hardly a room at all. There are a few wooden couches arranged around a coffee table on the landing of the second floor, where Zanies management has their offices. The old-but-clean carpet, minifridge, and small, wall-mounted television provide an informal, relaxed atmosphere for performers as they wait their turn on the stage downstairs. Tonight, Zanies is hosting an amateur showcase, and the mood in the green room intensifies when manager and booker Bert Haas emerges from his office. Wearing glasses and a black Zanies polo shirt neatly tucked into his khakis, Haas is not here to have his time wasted. It is his job to prep the half-dozen aspiring comics for the stage and what lies beyond. Bert wants the best for his club and for the comedy business, and he readies them with a frank, tightly woven lecture on professional comedy.

Bert’s pep talk is a rarity in the comedy business, as he gives aspiring comedians an education that bookers and club managers are under no obligation to provide. He tells the comics that comedy is a legitimate career and that Chicago is one of its capital cities, but he also tells them that they’re not going to get rich in the local comedy scene. If you want to become a national star, it is better to think of Chicago as a training ground where you can get repetitions onstage and prepare yourself for the scrutiny you will receive from industry executives in New York and Los Angeles. Bert describes respect for the club, its representatives, and the comedians as mutually reinforcing phenomena, and he prides himself on creating a professional atmosphere. He models this respect by thanking performers for traveling and for the effort they have already put in, and he assures them that their hard work and professionalism will pay off. He tells the comics exactly how to follow up with him about their performance and advises them on how to handle success and failure. “In the beginning,” he says, “you probably won’t be paid much and you don’t care because you love what you’re doing. But once you develop a skill set, and once there’s money to be made from your skill set, you have every right to be paid for it. And not only should you ask for money, you should demand money.” The idea is simple: hone your skills and expect fair compensation.

But Baratunde Thurston, a former editor at The Onion, author of the uproarious How to Be Black (2012), and former head of digital content at The Daily Show, explains that this is impossible.

Stand-up as an industry is based on mistreating talent. It wouldn’t work any other way. You don’t get paid. That’s how it works. You generate economic activity for club owners. They have two-drink minimums and ticket prices, and if you have any economic understanding or you worked in the service industry, you know liquor is the biggest scam. Buy a bottle for fifteen dollars, you sell a drink for ten. You’re diluting it with water and ice and soda. What is that, like a 500 percent markup? It’s ridiculous. So exploitation is baked in for anyone in stand-up who pursues it.

Comedy is a brutal business. Performers are scarcely paid and often treated poorly. A run of good luck and financial rewards is no guarantee that the good times will last. Comedy workers stumble down dimly lit career paths without any assurances that they’re moving in the right direction. Along the way, they may be chided by their friends and parents, heckled by audience members, and occasionally stabbed in the back by colleagues looking to get ahead. It’s astonishing that so many keep going in these conditions. The people I spoke with gave a few explanations for their perseverance, including the obvious—that it feels good to make people laugh—and that the call of the stage is irresistible for those born to entertain.

This book focuses on an additional reason for comedians’ persistence: the feeling of belonging to a community. In Michele Lamont’s The Dignity of Working Men (2002), she asks how working-class men understand their labor and their lives in a context in which meritocracy and economic justice are myths. She finds that “morality is generally at the center of these workers’ worlds. They find their self-worth in their ability to discipline themselves and conduct responsible yet caring lives to ensure order for themselves and others. These moral standards function as an alternative to economic definitions of success and offer them a way to maintain dignity and to make sense of their lives in a land where the American dream is ever more out of reach.”2 In other words, the significance of labor for these workers lies not in its economic value but in its use as the raw material for building honorable masculinity with clear ideas about right and wrong and about safety and danger.

Although the moral value placed on truth in comedy is an important piece of comedy workers’ collective identity, it does not fully explain the meaning of comedic labor for those who choose it. Comedy workers do not think their work is valuable because it makes them “good people.” They cherish their work because the labor of comedy produces community, and commitment to this community is socially rewarding. Comedy workers care for each other and are forced to build tight social bonds to navigate the labor market. In addition, the fun of hanging out with people who make you laugh makes work feel like play and becomes a psychological wage. Unlike dramatic acting (perhaps comedy’s closest relative), comedy performance is fundamentally driven by pleasure. To perform, follow, and consume comedy is to seek out laughter—to actively pursue an emotional and chemical reaction that makes us feel good. There is an instinctive force that can prevent comedy workers from fully grasping whatever suffering and discomfort might result from their peculiar labor context, because they are too busy having fun. Despite the conditions of their employment and the uncertainty of their careers, many comedy workers insist they have the best job in the world, and it is not hard to understand why. This pleasurable community-building does not protect comedy workers from exploitation, but it is a form of resistance that enables comedy workers’ survival and professional development.

There is, however, a dark side to the emphasis on community: it enables survival while solidifying the barriers that prevent more just distribution of rewards. Most comedy workers are exploited, and my interviews suggest that they all rely on comedy communities for support. But relationships with coworkers and experiences in the business differ dramatically along lines of race, gender, and class. In order to learn comedy and stay afloat financially during lulls in one’s career, it certainly helps to attend college, have extra money for training, and come from a family that has resources to fall back on. The necessity of having these advantages restricts entry into the comedy race before it begins. As competitors and coworkers move forward, sexism and racism shape performance expectations, experiences, and friendship groups. People from nondominant groups must figure out how to present themselves and work in a labor market dominated by white men, who set standards and dole out rewards.

These problems challenge some of the conventional wisdom about comedy, which is, in many respects, a populist form of social critique in which performers are celebrated for being outsiders. Given that women and people of color are viewed as outsiders and “others” in American public life and the culture industries, it is no surprise that so many historically marginalized groups draw such power and pride from comedy. This attraction and claim to comedy, however, does not prevent exploitation, stereotyping, and discrimination. Even as marginalized people claim their own spaces and speak in their own voices, they are subject to the institutional and cultural constraints of a straight-white-male-dominated industry.

The testimony in Behind the Laughs is important because it forces us to think about how the current system could be improved for both comedy creators and consumers. When the social and economic impediments to entry and survival for nondominant groups are so high, talented people leave comedy or never even try to make a career out of it. When the entertainment industry sticks with tired old models of production and marketing and unimaginative decision-making by executives without incentives to take risks, audiences suffer. New communications technologies and challenges to old rules about genre and format offer a promising alternative future for comedy. But to get where we are going, we must know where we stand.

The Comedy Business

Sociologist Richard Peterson dedicated his career to explaining how “the symbolic elements of culture [the arts, for example] are shaped by the systems in which they are created, distributed, evaluated, taught, and preserved.”3 To understand comedy and the people who make it, you have to examine the systems that teach, produce, and sell it. A close look at the comedy business reveals deep fault lines and contradictions. As in so many other cultural industries, working conditions for the average comedy creator, whether she is a stand-up, improv and sketch performer, or screenwriter, are grim.

All stand-ups would be wise to study the history of the business to get a sense of how quickly things can change, and Betsy Borns’s 1987 book, Comic Lives, remains one of the best resources on the subject. The great stand-up comedy boom of the 1980s was a revelation. In 1963, the New York Improv was the only showcase comedy club in the United States, and in 1980, there were roughly ten paying comedy clubs in the country. Less than a decade later, though, that number had swelled to somewhere near three hundred. In accounting for the explosion in both performers and revenue, Borns explains the cycle that led to the boom: “Even if the money at showcase clubs cannot be held completely responsible for the tremendous growth in the stand-up industry, it can be held responsible for some increase in the number of comics—which created a greater supply of ‘product’ and led to the appearance of the road circuit—without which that growth would have been impossible.”4

The birth of the road circuit was one major factor, and television was another. Before the advent of cable television in the 1970s, few televised comedy sets lasted longer than five minutes. But cable spurred a need for low-cost, no-hassle entertainment, and channels like Home Box Office (HBO) began televising stand-ups’ hour-long concert specials to meet their programming needs. This dramatically increased the popularity of stand-up as a genre as well as exposure for the performers themselves, who suddenly had national followings they could capitalize on through touring. According to Borns, the increasing consumer demand and profitability led to more mediocre comics, less risk taking, and less artistic engagement from club owners and managers, who did not always care about the product as long as the venues were full and the alcohol kept flowing.5

After the comedy boom of the 1980s ran its course and many of the fly-by-night comedy clubs closed up shop, a set of conventions emerged within the club scene. The Comedy Bible (2001), by Judy Carter, sets unambiguous financial expectations for those who are new to the game. Stand-up clubs make money primarily from food and drink sales. Ticket prices may vary slightly depending on a given headliner’s status, but each club usually has ballpark figures corresponding to the status of the performers. In the early 2000s, an opening act could expect no more than $350 per week, a middler (between the opener and the headliner) might make up to $750 in a week, and the headliner could make anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 for a week’s worth of work (much more if she is a national celebrity). Performers at college shows and weeklong cruise-ship entertainers are paid on a scale similar to that of headliners, and corporate gigs can fall anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000.6

But the business of stand-up changes quickly, varies depending on the city a performer is based in, and is rarely the sole determinant of a performer’s financial status. Live comedy is once again in the midst of an incredible boom, generating $300 million annually,7 but counting on comedy as one’s livelihood means you have to hustle. A 2012 New York Times article profiled six working comics in New York. The most traditional stand-up of the bunch, Kurt Metzger, reported an annual salary of $60,000. He described his typical sources of income as follows:

$75—Weekend spot at the Greenwich Village club the Comedy Cellar, one of the premier clubs in the country right now;

$80—Weekend spot at the Broadway Comedy Club in Times Square;

$300—Weekday headliner at the Times Square club Carolines on Broadway; and

$3,740—Voice work for Ugly Americans, an animated television series on Comedy Central.8

Metzger also notes that his weekly schedule varies greatly; he might perform every day during a busy week, while a slow week might yield only one or two gigs. Metzger’s work in film and television is irreplaceable. It provides a steady paycheck and makes him more legitimate in the eyes of audiences and club bookers. The clubs on Metzger’s list are among the most reputable in the city, and the pay rates appear to be in sync with Carter’s estimates from the early 2000s. But because there are so many accomplished comics in New York, Metzger is more likely to be booked for individual spots than for weekly or monthly engagements. This means he is unlikely to approach the weekly estimates Carter provides in her book. For instance, headlining at Carolines is a major accomplishment for any working comic, and Metzger reports that a weekday headlining spot pays $300, an amount proportionate to Carter’s estimate of between $1,000 and $5,000 per week for a noncelebrity headliner. But comics like Metzger are unlikely to headline for five or seven straight days, and he would be lucky to clear $1,000 in a week from Carolines, let alone $5,000.

To complicate matters, performers will work for free or next to nothing if the venue is prestigious enough. In 2012, Metzger was at the heart of a major controversy in comedy circles. During a stand-up set at Manhattan’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade (UCB), one of three or four preeminent improv theaters in the country, Metzger publicly criticized UCB for not paying performers. Of course, Metzger knew he would not be paid for his set, because UCB has never paid stand-ups, but he got prickly when he found out how much money the theater was taking in at the door. His criticism ignited a firestorm, in part because he aired his grievances so publicly, first at UCB and later during a set he performed at The Stand, also in Manhattan. Metzger’s frustration was shared by many of his peers and is largely reflective of the different outlooks and expectations held by stand-ups and improv and sketch performers. Stand-ups are used to getting paid, although the pay is usually quite poor, and they can perform in all kinds of spaces, from plush theaters to dive bars. Stand-up comedy is relatively cheap and easy to produce, as there are generally no costumes, props, or special audio-visual effects.

But UCB defines itself as an experimental-comedy theater that produces high-quality shows with all the equipment and staff comedy creators might need; most of their shows are improv and sketch comedy. Improv and sketch players require actual theater space, even if it is just a black-box theater, and a production staff, so there are fewer venues that can accommodate their needs. UCB provides these resources, and it is not unique in this regard, as famous theaters like The Second City (Chicago) and Groundlings (Los Angeles) have a similar belief system and sense of purpose. Groundlings managing director Heather de Michele made this explicit during our interview. “Comedy clubs are one thing,” she said, “but when it comes to what we do, we do theater. We produce shows.” Getting a spot at a reputable, professional theater is a major coup, and improv and sketch players are more likely to view payment as a bonus rather than as a requirement. Both stand-ups and improv players jump at the chance to perform at UCB because it has established itself as a comedy hub and an impressive credential. As UCB cofounder Matt Besser explained to the New York Times, “We pay our performers, just not with money.”9

Besser replied directly to Metzger’s critique in a Huffington Post piece, explaining that UCB not only functions differently as a performance space but also adheres to a business model different from those at traditional comedy clubs. Besser downplays the role of profit in UCB’s mission. UCB’s founders, including Amy Poehler, have all made plenty of money and have multiple revenue streams, so it is difficult to discern exactly how much of their net worth is fueled by UCB. The theater was founded in 1999, and, according to Besser, the revenue generated from ticket and drink sales at UCB’s first theater in Chelsea was reinvested in the venue and staff. The real money didn’t start flowing in until they started turning a larger profit (thanks to their burgeoning improv training school).10 The founders undoubtedly enjoyed the profits, but they also continued to strengthen the franchise, opening new venues in Manhattan’s East Village and in Los Angeles. Customers have certainly benefited from UCB’s refusal to pay performers as well, as UCB has kept its ticket prices relatively low in comparison with the other landmark comedy venues in New York. Due to all these factors, comedy creators continue to perform at UCB because of the theater’s reputation, even though they can earn more elsewhere.

Metzger and Besser eventually discussed the incident, and neither party holds a personal grudge. Ultimately, UCB stuck to its guns, and performers remain unpaid. But the theater added other forms of compensation, including giving out drink tickets and listing stand-ups as official UCB performers, which increases the comedians’ exposure and access to shows.11 Metzger has said that his chief concern is that other venues will follow the UCB model, which would intensify the already painful exploitation stand-ups live with.12

This controversy highlights two key facets of the comedy business. First, it illustrates that class privilege is a major advantage for those who aspire to be professional comedy workers. If a comic plans to stay in the business for a long time, she will have to survive financial dry spells. Comics who have access to extra cash even when they’re not working have a head start over those who do not. The business model of prestigious improv theaters such as UCB exacerbates inequality. UCB classes usually meet for three hours once a week for eight weeks. Fees are $400–$475 per class plus the cost of the UCB training manual, which students are required to purchase. Demand is high—twenty new classes are offered each week and the website reports that sessions frequently sell out only minutes after they are made available.13 Given that performers are expected to pay for several classes and essentially work for free during the early stages of their careers, it is no surprise that many who travel this route come from privileged backgrounds. The same holds true for aspiring comedy writers, who wait through long droughts in the hopes of selling a screenplay or latching on to a new show during pilot season.

Second, Metzger’s critique and his general attitude toward the improv scene hint at the cultural and institutional divide between stand-ups and improv and sketch players. Jennifer Lena explains that genre boundaries are not dictated by “natural” differences between styles. Instead, genres emerge as a result of the expectations and conventions that bind industry, performers, and fans together.14 As New York performer Ashley Brooke Roberts told me, “In stand-up you get a whole range of high-school dropouts to Harvard graduates, whereas improv, it’s much more of a liberal, college-educated, upper-middle-class world. No one in stand-up ever asks me where I went to college.” A simplified version of the rift from the stereotypical stand-up perspective goes something like this: stand-up is racially diverse, working- and middle-class comedy, performed by people (mostly men) who are courageous, cynical, sometimes self-destructive, and committed to hard work and “real” comedy. Their old-school idols are George Carlin and Richard Pryor, and their training comes in the form of mistreatment by club managers, bookers, and tough crowds full of drunks and hecklers. Improv, sketch, and alt(alternative)-scene comedy is “nerd” comedy for white people (again, mostly men), a frivolous, postcollege distraction for rich kids from the suburbs who will eventually get bored with comedy and move on to law school. Its schools are training centers like UCB, teeming with self-aware and self-satisfied wimps who grew up watching YouTube clips of Mr. Show and The State.15

This dichotomous perception of the comedy world certainly exists, and it is grounded in powerful socioeconomic forces that reproduce patriarchy, white privilege, and class privilege. The people I spoke with are well aware of these stereotypes, but despite the philosophical and labor divide between stand-ups and improv and sketch performers, the UCB controversy illustrates how these two comedy career tracks overlap, especially among those who are more financially stable. That is, if you do not have a college degree, you are unlikely to enroll in expensive sketch, improv, and screenwriting classes and more likely to try stand-up first. But if you do have a college degree or have savings to fall back on, you are likely to try out all the genres. Importantly, this choice to cross genres is enabled and reinforced by industry shifts that no longer pigeonhole stand-up stars into ready-made sitcom roles and by the rise of new venues that feature many different forms of comedy. Comedy workers with different styles share the same performance spaces and value many of the same credentials. Although Metzger performs only stand-up, many who sympathize with him practice all three forms (stand-up, sketch, and improv) in some capacity. UCB explicitly defines itself as a comedy theater rather than as a stand-up club, but the monthly calendars at UCB in New York and Los Angeles are chock-full of accomplished stand-up comedians. For these reasons and more, stand-ups are navigating a comedy terrain that is totally different than the one they navigated thirty years ago, and it is a mistake to segregate comedy workers along genre lines.

Through learning this history and keeping up with comedy-business controversies such as the flap at UCB, we come to understand why many performers believe that club and theater bookers and managers don’t have their best interests at heart. To be clear, it is not as though every booker and manager in the stand-up business is up to his ears in profits; there is not as much money in live performance as there is in television and film. But even when bookers and managers make relatively modest salaries, the entire comedy-club and theater system depends on the exploitation of early-career performers.

Stage Time

Despite this exploitation, thousands of new performers find their way to the stage every year, hoping to make a career out of comedy. Stand-up comics start out doing open mics—shows at which any amateur can sign up for stage time—at comedy clubs and other venues. After developing enough material for a five-to-ten-minute set and hanging around clubs long enough, the comic might be lucky enough to catch the eye of a club owner or booker who invites her to perform at an amateur showcase. Another way to get stage time at an amateur showcase is to send the booker a video of your performance; thanks to the Internet, it is easier than ever for an aspiring comic to gain exposure and build a following. If a comic performs well at an amateur showcase, she has the chance to become a regular at the club, performing fifteen- to twenty-minute sets, or maybe even become a host who introduces comics and keeps the audience loose as master of ceremonies during events such as amateur night. As comics develop their skills and build their resumes, they can use their social networks to promote themselves and book gigs on the road, including those at prestigious comedy festivals crawling with club owners, bookers, and entertainment-industry executives.

In live comedy performance, a performer who has built a following will be able to book gigs at more reputable clubs and theaters, secure the services of an agent or manager, and eventually demand higher appearance fees and percentages of ticket sales. Comedy-club owners set approximate pay rates based on a performer’s fame and the seating capacity of their venue, and they entrust their bookers and managers with scheduling and running the daily operations. You can generally estimate a headline stand-up’s cut of the proceeds from a show at a major theater by taking half of the ticket price and multiplying it by the number of tickets sold.16 In addition to these conventions, information about performers’ earnings occasionally becomes public knowledge. Stand-up stars such as Gabriel Iglesias can earn between $5 million and $10 million in a single year by touring the country and selling out theaters, whereas megastars such as Dane Cook might reach $20 million per year in their prime.17

All of this sounds simple enough, but comedy bookers operate with significant constraints. For one thing, they cannot possibly evaluate every comic who wants stage time. Chesley Calloway was the host and main producer for Comedy as a Second Language (CSL) in New York from its founding in 2007 until his departure in 2014. CSL is award-winning independent comedy produced by comedians, and it does not pay its comics in any currency other than a couple of drink tickets. In theory, the absence of a profit motive should free up the booker to run the program and build each lineup any way he chooses.

But Chesley still faced enormous pressure and difficulties while he produced and hosted CSL. Cofounder and occasional host Sean Patton established himself as a national headliner just as CSL was solidifying its reputation as one of the premier “alt” rooms in New York, and the popularity of the showcase exploded. CSL became so revered that every aspiring professional stand-up in New York wanted stage time, and special celebrity guests might e-mail Chesley on any given night to let him know they would like to stop by. At one point, Calloway adopted fake names and e-mail addresses to manage all the requests for stage time he received from fellow comics, many of whom he admired. But with so many acts to sift through and Patton on the road, Chesley needed real help, not merely an alias, to manage the requests and whittle down the weekly lineup.

Help arrived in the form of Rebecca Trent, founder and owner of another beacon of independent comedy in New York, The Creek and The Cave. Trent began working with Calloway in 2013, vetting the aspiring comics who wanted to be on CSL, sometimes by inviting them to her own venue. With Trent as his partner and extra set of eyes and ears, Calloway grew increasingly comfortable with the decision-making process. Instead of relying solely on his opinion of potential performers, he began telling hopefuls that “Rebecca has to see you kill a live audience,” which placed the onus on the comics to become part of the New York alt scene and get noticed before inquiring about a spot at CSL.

On the West Coast, Jamie Flam serves as booker for the Hollywood Improv, the premier location of one of the most storied comedy-club franchises in the country. Jamie’s corporate bosses do not interfere with his day-to-day operations, but he knows he must generate a certain amount of income from ticket, food, and drink sales to keep his job. Sometimes Jamie’s decisions are driven by the same process as Chesley’s. He cannot get out and scout every venue in Los Angeles, so he follows his intuition and relies on information from people he trusts when crafting the lineups at the Improv. But the Improv is also a major hub for talent scouts and studio executives and a prime site for agents and managers aiming to gain exposure for their clients. So when an agency calls to let Jamie know that one of its megastars is in town and would like to visit, they might also suggest that Jamie find time for one of their lesser-known acts that same weekend. If Jamie does not grant this favor, he loses the business the megastar generates that weekend and, more importantly, risks damaging his club’s reputation relative to others in town if that comedian plays elsewhere. Jamie may also damage his relationship with the agency, which manages dozens of comedy stars. So even bookers like Jamie, who are universally respected and have as much freedom as anyone at a major club could hope for, operate within a set of limits and conventions they cannot break.

It takes years of training and development before comics are considered serious candidates for spots at the Hollywood Improv. There are flagship establishments of the club in every major American city, and they all have long track records of treating performers with the utmost professionalism. But there are also less-reputable clubs at which comics are treated poorly and viewed simply as the bait to lure people through the doors. Lesser-known performers often have to pay their travel costs to the club, and they must make these arrangements without guarantees, contractual or otherwise, that the owner will honor the booking and stick to the agreed-upon schedule.

Thankfully, the scene has diversified and spread out in comedy’s capital cities and the system is changing, even if the financial rewards are not. As mentioned above, improv and sketch comedy have turned into booming businesses with competitive training programs that teem with aspiring performers at first-class comedy theaters such as The Groundlings, The Second City, iO (formerly Improv Olympic), and UCB. At UCB, decisions about who is allowed to continue training and performing at the theater are made by instructors there who have paid dues and gained the experience to evaluate new acts; there is no single, all-powerful club booker. In addition, there is heightened emphasis on screenwriting and directing at conservatories such as The Second City, so comedy creators who aspire to roles in film and television may place themselves on a track that emphasizes writing, performing, directing, or all three.

There are some guidelines that standardize comedic labor and rewards at the highest level. For example, comedy writers in television and film are eligible to join the Writers Guild,18 one of the few sources of collective bargaining power in comedy work. The Guild provides health and pension benefits and sets minimum rates its members must be paid if they enter into contract with a production company or agent. According to the Writers Guild, from May 2013 until May 2014 the average range of prices paid for original screenplays, including treatment, began at $67,804 at the low end and capped out at $127,295.19 These are reasonable reference points for novice screenwriters to work from, whether they write comedy or drama. Similar conventions govern the pay rates of actors who belong to the Screen Actors Guild as well as the fees charged by agents and managers who work in both television and film.

Comedy theaters may negotiate contracts with labor unions such as the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), which represents the talent at The Second City in Chicago, among those at other venues. AEA negotiates wages, working conditions, and benefits for The Second City labor force, and they release the terms of their agreement with the theater to the public.20 The most celebrated sketch team at The Second City is the Mainstage. Each of the six to twelve players selected for this yearly honor is paid roughly $30,000 to write and perform The Second City’s premier show, and being a Mainstage player is considered one of the highest-paying and most-prestigious jobs in sketch and improv comedy. The show accounts for nearly half of the theater’s $32 million annual revenue, and production costs less than the advertising budget of many Broadway shows.21

So rewards do correspond with specific forms of labor, especially at the top of the comedy pyramid. Instead of relying on traditional clubs and theaters to provide platforms for up-and-coming performers, however, comedy creators are increasingly taking it upon themselves to procure space and produce their own shows. Independent, or alt, rooms, such as Comedy as a Second Language and The Creek and The Cave, are now central to the New York City scene. These venues began popping up in the early 2000s on the heels of the success of UCB and the People’s Improv Theater in Chelsea, both of which focus on improv and sketch. Alt rooms don’t pay any better than clubs do; in most cases, producers are just trying to make back the money it costs to rent the space. But as Parks and Recreation star Aziz Ansari explained during his days as an alt-scene mainstay, alt rooms encourage risk taking and innovation. They “give you an opportunity to explore something other than straight stand-up. You can do characters. I can bring a girl onstage that I got rejected by and interview her, or do a PowerPoint presentation or show a short film. The nature of the venues allows you to experiment.”22 Along with traditional stand-up, sketch, and improv, alt rooms feature rant-heavy one-man or one-woman shows, comedy news panels such as those on television, music-comedy hybrid shows, and anything else that will crack up a room.

The alt scene is important because it provides spaces in which old lines of distinction are crossed and erased. Just as lines between genres are increasingly unclear, status distinctions in comedy can be foggy, especially when so few “successful” people are actually earning a living solely through comedy. When a comedian “makes it” as a national headliner or gets a prestigious job in the entertainment industry, he does not drop out of the club or alt scene altogether. Seasoned professionals such as Todd Glass will sometimes stop by for an unpaid Thursday night show in front of forty people at Comedy as a Second Language. The Daily Show writers perform unpaid stand-up sets at UCB. Although this book primarily features comedians who are not household names, there is no dichotomy between the “real” world of “underground” comedians and the “fake” world of successful comedy celebrities. The interviewees, even those hustling with little recognition at the core of the alt scene, do not see themselves in those terms.


1. Jason Zinoman, “Laughs Can Be Cheap at a Comedy Theater,” New York Times, February 19, 2013,

2. Michele Lamont, The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 2.

3. Richard A. Peterson and Narasimhan Anand, “The Production of Culture Perspective,” Annual Review of Sociology 30 (2004): 311. For more, please see Richard A. Peterson, “The Production of Culture: A Prolegomenon,” in The Production of Culture (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1976), 7–22; and Peterson, “Revitalizing the Culture Concept,” Annual Review of Sociology 5 (1979): 137–166.

4. Betsy Borns, Comic Lives: Inside the World of American Stand-Up Comedy (New York: Touchstone, 1987), 43.

5. Ibid, 30–56.

6. Judy Carter, The Comedy Bible: From Stand-Up to Sitcom—The Writer’s Ultimate How-to Guide (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 277.

7. Seth Kelley, “The Standup Comedy Boom Thrives in Houses Large and Small,” Variety, July 14, 2015,

8. Jason Zinoman and Megan Angelo, “Clever, How They Earn That Laugh,” New York Times, November 2, 2012,

9. Ibid.

10. Dylan Gadino, “Controversy Over Upright Citizens Brigade Flares, But Is It Much Ado about Nothing?” Huffington Post, February 1, 2013,

11. As reported by Sean L. McCarthy, “UCB Stand-Ups, UCB Theaters Try to Find a Compromise,” The Comic’s Comic, February 2, 2013,

12. Gadino, “Controversy Flares.”

13. See

14. Jennifer C. Lena, “Relational Approaches to the Sociology of Music,” in Routledge International Handbook of the Sociology of Art and Culture, eds. Laurie Hanquinet and Mike Savage (New York: Routledge, 2015), 150.

15. For more on this, see Andrew Clark, “How the Comedy Nerds Took Over,” New York Times, April 20, 2012,

16. This is according to comedian Todd Glass, as reported by John Wenzel, “Comedy Is Bigger Than Ever. But Are the Profits?” Denver Post, July 1, 2012, Additional pay estimates for stand-ups, late-night writers, sitcom writers, comedic actors, directors, and screenwriters can be found at Priyanka Mattoo, “What Comedy Pays,” Splitsider, September 22, 2015,

17. Wenzel, “Comedy Is Bigger Than Ever.”

18. The Writers Guild is actually two organizations: the Writers Guild East and the Writers Guild West.

19. These figures are available on the Writers Guild website; see For a fantastic history of the screenwriting business and a snapshot of the industry today, see Margaret Heidenry, “When the Spec Script Was King,” Vanity Fair, March 2013,

20. The Second City rule book, negotiated by the AEA, is available at

21. The salary estimation is drawn from the AEA rule book, but the estimated annual revenue for the theater and the comparison to Broadway are drawn from Anthony D’Alessandro, “Greats Go through Second City Mainstage,” Variety, October 15, 2009,

22. Warren St. John, “Seinfeld It Ain’t,” New York Times, January 29, 2006,