How To Get Rich In Comedy

A Humorism case study.

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The movement to reopen comedy clubs in New York City often emphasizes their status as small businesses that provide communities with jobs, commerce, and culture. But who do they really serve?

You may remember Dani Zoldan, owner of the Upper West Side club Stand Up NY. After producing a series of attention-grabbing outdoor comedy shows early in the pandemic—which he’s claimed made more than $30,000 in ticket sales—he’s become a leading voice in the effort to “legalize comedy.” He’s criticized what he sees as double standards in New York’s Covid-19 guidelines, which forbid comedy venues from operating even as they allow indoor dining and live audiences at SNL, and he’s called for comedy clubs to receive the same treatment. While he waits for the rules to change, he’s continued producing comedy shows indoors and outdoors—even in his own club—fashioning himself as a champion of small businesses and independent venues.

Zoldan is not your average small business owner, however. He is, as he describes himself, a serial entrepreneur, having built a career in the telecommunications industry before buying Stand Up NY when he was 27. By that point he already owned and ran a Voice over Internet Protocol company that operated overseas, which he said in a 2019 episode of the podcast Tough Decisions was difficult to leave because it made him good money. (He also claims to have run an “illegal online pharmacy” in the early 2000s.) On a 2020 episode of the podcast Inspired Money, he said he was interested in Stand Up NY because he patronized the club as a teenager, receiving free tickets from its janitor. That janitor still worked there when Zoldan and his friend bought the place in 2008, he said, “but we ended up letting him go.”

Today Zoldan runs not only Stand Up NY but also several side businesses associated with the club. Thanks to the Paycheck Protection Program, we can take a (limited) look at how much money these businesses make. As a refresher, the PPP offers forgivable loans to businesses large and small, including self-employed individuals. If you spend the funds on payroll and certain other expenses, like rent and mortgage payments, you don’t have to pay anything back. (Full disclosure: I’ve received two PPP loans of about $7,800: one in June, the second when the program replenished last month. If you’re self-employed and haven’t taken advantage of the PPP, I highly recommend it.)

According to data released by the Small Business Administration, three of Zoldan’s side businesses received PPP loans during the program’s first iteration. Those businesses are LaughPass, a MoviePass-like membership program that charges $99/year (or $9.99/month) for unlimited admission at a fairly undistinguished list of clubs across the country; SUNY ED 236, or Stand Up Education, the club’s training program, which charges $187 for a series of video lectures on the art of standup; and Podcast Row, a talent booking and event production company that “helps entrepreneurs share their story on top podcasts,” per an an interview Zoldan did last year. LaughPass and Stand Up Education were founded in 2018, Podcast Row in 2019.

The loan application for each business indicated that the funds were intended to retain one employee. Public records list Zoldan as the registered agent and process agent for each, and each shares an address with Stand Up NY. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the employee in question, but this seems a reasonable inference given that he created and runs the companies: he calls himself the “founder” of LaughPass and Podcast Row in his Twitter bio, and he described founding Stand Up Education (and LaughPass) on Inspired Money, during a broader discussion about his experiences building multiple businesses around the club. Still, I asked Zoldan in a Twitter message if the funds were for any employees other than him. He didn’t respond.

Okay, here’s the interesting part. The loan amounts for each company were as follows:

a total of $56,073 in what is essentially free money. No one had to produce any rule-breaking comedy shows while keening about the suffering of small businesses to make it, and the employee-recipient(s) could spend it however they pleased—even, for instance, to pay out-of-work comedians.

If that’s what they wanted.

To be clear, this is by all appearances perfectly legal. You can take PPP loans for multiple businesses you own, even if you’re the only employee. The loans may run afoul of SBA rules capping individual compensation across multiple businesses at $20,833, but an attorney familiar with the nitty-gritty of the program told me this depends on the structure of each business, which isn’t clear from the public data. Even if they aren’t entirely kosher, it’s possible the only consequence is that they wouldn’t be eligible for full forgiveness.

Okay, here’s the more interesting part. The first round of PPP loans were based on a simple calculation: 2.5 months of a company’s 2019 payroll. That means we can use these loan amounts to calculate how much Zoldan—or some other mystery employee(s)—made that year:

  • LaughPass’s single employee made $80,702.40;

  • Stand Up Education’s single employee made $88,449.60;

  • Podcast Row’s single employee made at least $100,000.

I say “at least” because the SBA sets a salary cap for PPP loans at $100,000, so the biggest loan a single employee can receive is $20,833. In either case, Zoldan—or some other mystery employee(s)—made a total of at least $269,152 from these companies in 2019.

Okay, here’s the really interesting part. Stand Up NY also received a PPP loan last year, for a reported 14 employees. That loan was for $57,412, indicating a total 2019 payroll of $275,577.60.

Look at those numbers again. The club’s entire 2019 payroll for 14 people was barely $6,000 more than what its three side businesses paid at most three people, but possibly just one person.

And these are not particularly big or well-known businesses: in addition to their low headcounts, both Podcast Row and LaughPass have fewer than one thousand followers across Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, while Stand Up Education has virtually no internet presence outside the club’s website.

But here they are making one employee each a salary in the high five or low six figures.

Nice work if you can get it, huh?


Header image via Diana Robinson/Flickr.

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