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.

"We aren’t talking about Galileo or Salman Rushdie, here."

This week in comedy.

Here is a list of Texas mutual aid funds, please help out if you can.


Okay, let’s get back to the news.

This Week in Free Speech

The comedian Mike Ward appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada this week, the final stage in a years-long battle over a routine he performed from 2010 to 2013. Per the Toronto Sun:

A 2016 Quebec human rights tribunal ruling had ordered Ward to pay $35,000 in moral and punitive damages to [Jeremy] Gabriel, who has Treacher Collins syndrome, a congenital disorder characterized by skull and facial deformities. Gabriel became a celebrity in Quebec after he sang with Celine Dion and for the Pope.

In his act, Ward joked that he had thought Gabriel’s illness was terminal and people were only nice to him because he would soon die. Ward then joked that after he realized the child was not dying, he tried to drown him.

The Quebec Court of Appeal ruled in a 2-1 decision in November 2019 that Ward’s comments compromised the young performer’s right to the safeguarding of his dignity and could not be justified, even in a society where freedom of expression is valued.

In his testimony before the human rights tribunal in 2016, Gabriel described the joke’s destructive effects on his life, per Vice:

Gabriel, who could not be reached for comment, testified at the tribunal that the bit hurt his career and confidence, and that it resulted in bullying at school. In September, he said he tried to commit suicide after seeing the video.

"I was 12 or 13 when I saw those videos," Gabriel told the CBC in September. "I didn't have maturity to be strong in the face of this — I lost confidence and hope. It made me think my life is worth less than another's because I'm handicapped."

In an argument that I’m a bit shocked to see in a legal proceeding rather than my Twitter replies, Ward’s lawyers told the Supreme Court that his jokes extended “equality” to Gabriel by “treating him in the same way as other sacred cows.” This reasoning is very common among right-wing comics, like Ward, who hosted a show on Compound Media and appeared regularly on The Anthony Cumia Show. True equality, they say, means everyone gets made fun of. Several justices were not having it:

“Oh c’mon!” [Justice Russell] Brown said, interrupting Grey. “Don’t go that far. We aren’t talking about Galileo or Salman Rushdie, here. He’s no hero,” he added, referring to Ward.

Justice Sheilah Martin also reacted to Grey’s comments, stating: “We’re talking about somebody saying that they tried to drown a 13-year-old child that has a physical disability.”

Ward’s legal team was joined by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which argued that “a lot of comedy is in bad taste,” and Ward should not be punished for it. A lawyer for the human rights tribunal responded that the case isn’t about taste; it’s about discrimination:

She said the joke attacked Gabriel’s human dignity. She told the court that Ward’s comedy routine was widely available online, which she said was a “major element” in the case, because the videos were accessible to Gabriel’s peers at school.

“He was mocked and intimidated at school …. He also had to deal with the stress of his parents. Therefore, there were enormous consequences for (Gabriel),” Fournier said.

The court is not expected to make a decision for several months. Some in comedy have warned that a ruling against him would have a chilling effect; I find this unpersuasive given the specificity of the joke and the fact that it would be near-impossible to bring a similar case in the US, which doesn’t have a comparable human rights body. If it chills comedians into weighing more thoughtfully the value of a joke’s message—Ward argued he was tearing down society’s “sacred cows”—against the potential harm it might cause, that seems fine, but it’s also obviously not going to happen in a world where entertainers react to public accountability by doubling down and making lots of money from their martyrdom. Ward crowd-funded the cost of the judgment shortly after it was rendered, refused to pay, and bragged on Facebook that he had already paid twice the sum in legal fees and would gladly pay even more on appeal. Just For Laughs hosted a fundraiser for his costs and named him comedian of the year at its 2016 Olivier gala. He’s reaped clear material benefits from this ostensibly industry-threatening persecution.

Ward and his defenders have said repeatedly that it’s about the principle of the thing, but it seems to me the only principle they’re defending is unaccountability. For some reason no one ever goes to bat for empathy or compassion. If the principle they wish to preserve is that artists need the freedom to take risks, well, as I’ve written before, this is the risk. Ward’s civil rights have not been violated. He wasn’t arrested, like Munawar Faruqui, an Indian comic recently imprisoned for 25 days over jokes he didn’t tell. What happened was he spent three years encouraging an in-group to take pleasure in the suffering of an outsider, which the in-group did, many of them to his target’s face, causing his target to seek restitution in the civil justice system (well, a less formal analogue), ultimately winning damages that Ward was evidently very capable of paying.

I’m no legal expert, but as a layperson I gotta say that seems like a fair outcome. Too many comedians view comedy as an ethical framework to exact cruelty without consequence; it’s categorically good for them to experience every now and then some approximation of the damage their cruelty inflicts, and more importantly for their targets to receive some approximation of justice for the damage inflicted. Ward is still a free man, so free he could spend five years and tens of thousands of other people’s dollars on a vanity legal battle against a child. Has any comedian ever gone so far to paint themselves as a victim?

This Week in the Beginning of the End

Financial Times reported yesterday that private equity firm ZMC is in talks to buy Second City. What is there to say but fuck that! Owners D’Arcy Stuart and Andrew Alexander had a chance to make good on their commitment, after last year’s revelations about the theater’s longstanding institutional racism, to “tear it all down and begin again” by transferring ownership to the company’s employees. Instead they sold it to vultures certain to strip it for parts and leave its workers—the people who made Second City what it is—in the dust. Shameful.

This Week in Silver Linings

On the other side of that coin: Second City’s teachers announced yesterday that they’re unionizing with the NewsGuild:

Organizers filed for union certification with the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) after an overwhelming majority of just under 100 educators at the training center in Toronto signed union cards.  More than 200 of their colleagues in Chicago and Hollywood filed for certification with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board. 

The OLRB will hold an electronic vote next week. The process will take weeks or months in the U.S., where the NLRB requires mail-in ballots. 

In a mission statement, workers in the three cities said they are unionizing to “guarantee equitable and just working conditions” and “to establish health and accessibility, diversity and inclusivity, fair compensation, and reasonable employment terms.”  Their organizing campaign has centered anti-racism and intersectional justice.  

Paul Bates, a member of the organizing committee in Toronto, said “a union at The Second City training center will go a long way to improve not just the work environment for our instructors, but also the learning environment for our students, who depend on a safe, accessible place to learn and clear lines of communication.” 

I look forward to seeing if instructors at other comedy schools follow suit.

This Week in Public Health Risks

The comedy club Stand Up NY bucked New York health guidelines this past weekend to produce an indoor comedy show disguised as a wedding:

A post shared by Stand Up NY (@standupny)
A post shared by Stand Up NY (@standupny)
A post shared by Stand Up NY (@standupny)
A post shared by Stand Up NY (@standupny)

The club announced the show earlier this month, after Governor Andrew Cuomo declared indoor dining would resume on Valentine’s Day weekend and certain indoor wedding receptions would later be allowed as well.

A post shared by Stand Up NY (@standupny)
A post shared by Stand Up NY (@standupny)

The thing is, Cuomo’s announcement was that wedding receptions would be allowed starting March 15th, and then only with approval from the Department of Health. (A DOH spokesperson confirmed over email that this timeline remains in effect.) When I asked Stand Up NY owner Dani Zoldan about this discrepancy last week, he didn’t respond. Zoldan has told me before that he believes live comedy can be done safely, and indeed there are more masks in images of the Valentine’s Day show than I’ve seen in most images of indoor comedy. But as we’ve covered extensively on this newsletter, masks only offer so much protection when you’re indoors for a prolonged period of time, especially when people are taking them off to eat and drink and laugh, and especially when more contagious variants of the coronavirus are in circulation.

Masks are also meaningless entirely if comedians are hanging out without them at the bar:

If Joe Rogan is to be believed, Dave Chappelle caught Covid last month not during a gig but before or after one, from a friend who also gave it to several other people in his circle. The transmission risk inherent in comedy shows is not just the shows; it’s the socializing for which they provide a pretext. It seems to me that clubs emphasizing safety protocols in the audience while letting comics run wild don’t actually care about safety, only the appearance of it. This is why I’m cynical about Stand Up NY’s new partnership with Kamin Health to provide “working comedians” with “healthcare visits and Covid testing”:

A post shared by Stand Up NY (@standupny)
A post shared by Stand Up NY (@standupny)

That application form asks comedians to list three clubs they’ve worked at, a qualification that significantly narrows the pool of eligible applicants. The caption adds that for a comic to be eligible, “you need to be funny and we heard of you.” What about comedians they haven’t heard of? What about comedians who don’t work clubs? What about comedians who don’t do standup? I asked Zoldan yesterday what the criteria are, what form of “healthcare” will be covered under the program, and whether it’s intended to use Covid testing as a means of “clearing” comedians to perform, as that first post seems to imply. He did not respond.

This initiative is commendable in spirit, but it’s also inseparable from Stand Up NY’s history of recklessness and rule-breaking, and its intentions are undermined by the club’s blatant disrespect for pandemic safety measures. Healthcare is an essential right; the power to decide which freelancers get special access to it during a pandemic should not be vested in the management of a single comedy club. Anyone who claims that power for themselves, especially in such lackadaisical terms as “you need to be funny and we heard of you,” is not to be trusted. I hope New York’s comedians press Stand Up NY for transparency and accountability in this program.

This Week in Recommendations

I’ve recommended this before and I’m utterly biased about it but I really do love watching my friends’ Twitch show (and podcast) Raisin Man Arena every Sunday night at 8pm EST, one of a few things I’ve actively looked forward to over the last year. (Other things on that list: the vaccine; a theoretical new season of Rick and Morty; Godzilla vs. Kong; Zachary Schomburg’s forthcoming new poetry collection Fjords, Vol. 2; this thing the dog does every morning where he slowly comes out of his crate, does a full-body stretch, and then just flops around on the floor groaning for a few minutes until he decides to face the day.) I hope you like it too. Also I thought The Wolf of Snow Hollow was pretty good.

This Week in Wrap-ups

That’s enough for today! I hope you are safe, healthy, and warm.


Some Thoughts

About the biz

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Out of an abundance of caution I’m going to try not to say too much about the New Republic article publicly, for a while at least, since Cris Italia has twice threatened to sue me and I don’t quite trust myself to discuss it without the security of an editor and fact-checker. That said, I’ve received some criticism about non-ToxicCisWhiteMaleFat parts of the piece that I think is worth addressing, so let’s do that here.

In short, the criticism is that sections of the article that list comics associated with The Gavin McInnes Show and The Stand unfairly lump in good people with bad. Here are the paragraphs in question:

The Gavin McInnes Show was more than the white power hour, however. In the years before and during his show on Compound Media, McInnes tried his hand at live comedy, performing in New York City venues like the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and The Creek and The Cave. He recorded a podcast, “Free Speech,” at the club Stand Up NY; in 2016, McInnes said he was banned from a club called The Stand after he exposed himself onstage. (He later recalled the manager telling him, “I have to turn my back on you now.”) He used his platform on Compound Media to mingle with a revolving door of respected, even mainstream comics: people like Big Jay Oakerson, Tim Dillon, Justy Dodge, Mike Lawrence, Larry the Cable Guy, Joe Matarese, Tom Shillue, Dave Hill, Alonzo Bodden, Luis Gomez, and Dave Smith, none of whom were deterred by McInnes’s friendliness with white supremacists.

[…]

That mission was a success. Over the course of the late 2000s and early 2010s, [Cringe Humor]’s live productions leveled up from bars to clubs to colleges to theaters. In 2012 they opened their own club and restaurant in Gramercy Park, The Stand, hoping to offer a more hospitable atmosphere than the traditional club. A few years later, they opened a satellite location in Long Island City, then moved the main club to a bigger space in Union Square. They signed Big Jay Oakerson and co-produced his Comedy Central special. They produced Conan writer Laurie Kilmartin’s special on streaming service Seeso. They signed Luis Gomez, Aaron Berg, Yannis Pappas, a pre–Saturday Night Live Pete Davidson, Cash Cab host Ben Bailey.

And below are two responses, which correspond with messages I received from a handful of readers. (To be clear, I’m addressing these critiques because I like and respect the people making them. Relatedly, if you ever think I am wrong about something, you are absolutely invited to tell me so; I know how I sometimes present here and on Twitter, but I promise I want to hear it.)

To start, I regret including Justy Dodge in that first paragraph, which doesn’t make the point it should. The list was whittled down from a longer and more varied list (in a somewhat more nuanced paragraph), and I included her in the final cut because, well, comics I respect respect her, and one point I wanted to make was that respectable people went on this show. But I didn’t weigh how the rest of the paragraph had changed, or consider that the final cut implied that she should have known better than to lend her stature to Gavin McInnes, which isn’t fair to someone who frankly is not as famous as most other comics on the list. A better version of this paragraph would reflect how McInnes (and Compound Media) leeched credibility not only from the prestige of famous comedians who easily could have turned him down, but also from the goodwill of non-famous comedians incentivized to take every gig. I’m sorry to have botched this.

To be very clear, though, the article does not describe Dodge as alt-right. It describes the way reactionaries infiltrated the New York City comedy scene by associating with comics of every stripe: established, unestablished, conservative, liberal. This is a crucial piece of the story. Comedians helped normalize The Gavin McInnes Show by treating it like any other gig. McInnes offered them a spot and they took it. Going on his show wasn’t just “doing a podcast,” as Dodge tweeted. It was doing a white supremacist’s podcast. The failure to make this distinction years ago is the whole problem. Gavin McInnes wrote his essay “Transphobia Is Perfectly Natural” before he went to Compound Media, a network founded by noted racist Anthony Cumia. This was all out there. As with many things in comedy, the only way to avoid seeing it was not to look.

It’s true that McInnes (and Compound Media) took advantage of systemic forces that compel comics to get as much exposure as they can. But we have to follow this thought through. Exposure is not a neutral quality. The exposure you get in one room is different than the exposure you get in another; the exposure you get on Compound Media is to white supremacists. I resist the idea that structural incentives to go where the gigs are erase the individual’s duty to make ethical decisions about what gigs they choose and what audiences they court. If exposure is currency, then it’s on the comic to figure out if they’re taking dirty money. If they decide that it’s in their interests to do so, then they must carry the weight of that decision, however light or heavy it is. That doesn’t mean they should be canceled or dragged for it, but it does mean someone might later point out they went on a white supremacist’s podcast.

To Flores’s point, and I went back and forth with him a bit on this, I also wish that paragraph were clearer about what it describes: the way Cringe Humor simultaneously worked with respectable and less respectable artists, arguably using the former to distract from the latter. (The final paragraph of the article says this explicitly; it was worth foregrounding.) But again, we’re talking about adults who made the adult decision that it was in their interests either to work with vile people (Patrick Milligan was quite open about his beliefs going back into the early oughts; you just had to Google him) or not to find out who they were working with. I understand why people make this trade-off and I think it may often be justifiable, especially when the choice is between bad people and worse. Still, part of the trade is that people get to point out you made it.

I sympathize with the impulse to defend good people from association with bad people. The association, however, is the point. Almost everyone in standup is associated with bad people. It’s a very small world. Lots of people in it (as in all show business, and many other businesses) make the calculation that they have to do things they find unethical, with people they find unethical, in spaces they find unethical, in the hopes that later they’ll have the power to do things right and improve the system from within. I’ve had long conversations with artists I respect who worked at The Stand despite their problems with it because they felt it was a net good for them to take money from bad people, or because they thought they could infiltrate and reform the place. It seems clear now that the opposite was happening: they were the ones unwittingly granting legitimacy to the people actually infiltrating their community.

This is not to shame these artists. Everyone is susceptible to manipulation, no one is to blame for being manipulated. What I would suggest, though, is that while the calculation they make is often reasonable, it is rarely followed to its logical conclusion: a system where good people accept that they have to compromise their ethics is a system where unethical people thrive. This is a huge part of why there are so many Nazis in comedy. If good people want to drive them out, at some point they’ll have to reckon with the assumptions that let them in.

I do think comedy workers have a tendency to overstate their own powerlessness within the industry. The incentive to take every gig is economic, but it is also cultural, reinforced by social norms surrounding hard work and networking and the grind. There’s tremendous pressure to do whatever it takes to reach the part where you’re making money, real money, and to get on good terms with everyone who might conceivably help you out someday. Everyone does it, everyone says it’s what you have to do. Comedy is, after all, the business of being liked.

Still, the truth is there are rarely high stakes involved in turning down an individual spot, most of which in New York City are unpaid. It’s very easy—usually—to research the people who want to work with you, and to turn down, say, a podcast booking if you don’t like the host or audience. If we’re talking about comedy as a profession, then let’s be clear that the same rules apply as in other professions: when you associate with bigots at your job, people will associate you with bigotry. Comedy is full of people who are comfortable with some level of the first part but very uncomfortable with the second. I might suggest a straightforward solution to this discomfort.

Yes, things get harder up the food chain, for some much more than others. The industry often punishes people for trying to act ethically within it, sometimes quite severely. But it seems clear to me in retrospect that this has more often been an excuse for silence than what it should be, a call to action. Everyone seems to know by now that clubs are rotten places populated by bigots and abusers, yet very few seem bothered enough to do the work of confronting this. Others may be working behind the scenes; I can’t wait to see the fruits of their efforts. Still others may think it’s hopeless, or not worth the risk, and they want to get what they can while they can; that’s their choice, and if they feel it’s defensible then they are welcome to defend it. But at a certain point we have to stop calling this “just trying to get work” and start calling it “opportunism.”

Nobody has a right to be a comedian. If your chosen vocation requires you to sacrifice your morals to get ahead—to make complex rationalizations about why it’s okay to associate with people you find reprehensible, who may be using you toward their own vicious ends—then you are accountable in some part for the consequences of those sacrifices. Accountability doesn’t have to mean exile or a permanent scarlet letter, but it at least means talking about things clearly and honestly. It’s important to be blunt about the complicity, knowing or naive, of good people, because we have to acknowledge our role in injustice if we wish to envision a world that doesn’t compel us to play it. (This goes equally for journalists who uncritically covered this part of the industry, as I did early in my career.) I’d love to hear other ideas, but at this point I struggle to see any solution to comedy’s Nazi problem other than a mass effort to deplatform the Nazis. We all know what happens when good people say nothing.

Real quick

:)


A quick break from our regular programming for some self-promotion: I have a feature in The New Republic today tracing the far right’s origins in the New York City comedy scene. It also goes a bit into some of my own travails covering the community, and lays out a bit of evidence connecting one of its gatekeepers to the racist forum that’s led harassment campaigns against me and others.

If you’ve been reading this newsletter, much of this story will be familiar to you. Some of it, I hope, will be new and surprising.

More importantly, I couldn’t have written this piece without your readership, and the opportunity you gave me to examine and develop many of the story’s central threads. It hit me this morning that it’s been just over a year since I sent out the first paid edition of this newsletter, which is now paying my rent. Thanks as always for your support, whatever form it comes in. And here’s that link to the New Republic again.

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