The hot new comic everyone’s talking about is Matt Rife. Have you heard? He’s an Adonis, he’s not funny, he skyrocketed to TikTok stardom after years toiling in obscurity, he sold out a 260-date world tour in two days, he’s a misogynist who opens his Netflix special with a trash joke about domestic violence, he’s a crowd-work virtuoso. Sure, whatever. I’ll tell you what you really want to know: how much does it pay to be a mid comic who gets mega-famous overnight?
Granted, you don’t really need me to tell you. In a July profile, the New York Times reported that Rife’s 260-date “ProbleMATTIC World Tour” (haha—get it?) sold 600,000 tickets priced between $50 and $95. Cool: he’s grossing somewhere between $30 million and $57 million. Then again, those numbers are per Live Nation, his promoter, which has no obligation to be accurate, and in any case I think it’s usually worth drilling down and seeing how much money an individual show brings in for comics and venues. As Rife himself demonstrates, comedy is a fickle business with huge income disparities between its middle and upper classes, with ascension from one to the next depending less on talent or hard work than pure luck. I argued during the pandemic that short of a total restructuring of American society, the best way to address this inequality is for comedy’s one percent to pool their largesse into the industry’s low-margin ground floor, ensuring some form of financial stability for comedy workers who are perhaps not quite so lucky. The more I learn about how much money that one percent makes, the more strongly I believe this. (A total restructuring of American society is still welcome, of course.)
First, some logistical background. Generally speaking, when you see a comedian perform in a performance venue larger than a club (your Carnegie Halls and San Diego Civic Centers), the comedian has rented out that venue, usually through their promoter (your Live Nations and Icon Concerts). In addition to a rental fee, or sometimes a cut of receipts, the artist is also responsible for all the expenses involved in producing the show: security, runners, stagehands, equipment, box office staff, insurance, catering, and usually any credit card fees and service charges. This all varies from venue to venue and artist to artist, and often there are discounts and rebates involved, but you get the gist.
These expenses are deducted from the show’s ticket sales, and the remainder is paid to the promoter, who of course takes a cut alongside the artist’s other representatives. After a show, the venue tabulates all these figures in a document called an event settlement, which is what I’ve been collecting from publicly owned venues—well, the ones that are also publicly operated or whose privately-owned operators are still subject to Freedom of Information laws, which annoyingly varies from state to state. ANYWAY.
So far I’ve received information for two of Matt Rife’s dates, each consisting of two nearly sold-out shows (one early, one late). At the 2,363-seat Paramount Theater in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in July, he came away with $194,734.56. At the 1,693-seat Kansas City Music Hall in Kansas City, Missouri in October, he came away with $371,699.03. That’s obviously a pretty big difference, and the documents I’ve obtained don’t quite make clear what accounts for it: only Cedar Rapids gave me anything with pricing details, and the most expensive tickets they sold were $156. A quick Twitter search, however, does suggest that prices may have gone even higher in Kansas City:
Two immediate takeaways: one, Live Nation appears to have undersold Rife’s success to the Times; clearly ticket prices for this tour went much higher than $95. Two, hoo boy, this guy’s making a lot of cash. I suspect “260-date tour” really means “260-show” tour, since many of his dates involve two shows at the same venue and the total number of dates is well below 260, but still—we don't need to know how much money he's making per night to know he’s coming away from one tour with more money than almost everyone else in the industry.
Which brings us to a worthwhile question: how does his success compare to other headliners? I can speak to this as well, with the caveat that my dataset is limited by the same factors I described above. That said, I think it’s still a decent finger on the pulse of the business, and you can basically do some light napkin-math to figure these things out for yourself: take any comic who routinely sells out theaters, of which there are plenty, and you can roughly estimate their income-per-show by multiplying venue capacity against ticket prices. What you’ll find is that comedy’s biggest names are usually grossing high-five or low-six figures per show and millions per tour. Which is little surprise: comedy's a big business That’s why I think its beneficiaries should do more to take care of their own.
In short: Matt Rife is doing just as well as, if not better than, many of comedy’s more established A-listers. I will give you a few data points from the last few years, starting with a series of dates at the Charleston Municipal Auditorium in West Virginia. In a May 2021 show, Jim Gaffigan earned $95,661.82; in October 2021, Bert Kreischer earned $152,567.79; in May 2022, Tom Segura earned $139,966.53. (Perhaps it’s helpful to use another art form’s superstar as contrast: in November 2021 at the same venue, Bob Dylan earned $145,122.24). Now let’s move on to the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Mackey Auditorium, where in October 2022 John Mulaney earned $179,269.11; and now to the University of Illinois-Springfield’s Sangamom Auditorium, where in May 2022 he earned $112,962.95. And if for whatever reason you’re curious how Matt Rife stacks up against a post-cancellation Louis CK, know that in September 2021 the latter earned $51,765.02 at The Egg in Albany, New York and $66,369.64 at The Forum Theatre in Binghamton.
(I realize this is an exclusively male sampling, which is more a factor of which information I’ve received than what I’ve requested: like I said, not only are publicly owned venues a small portion of all venues, but the ones obliged to send me these records are a small portion of that small portion. I would haphazardly speculate that headliners like Ali Wong and Wanda Sykes are earning on par with the higher performers in the above paragraph, though obviously there are much fewer women at that level due to the industry’s structural inequalities. It's probably not necessary for me to qualify that literally none of this is remotely scientific—just a fun little glimpse into this business of show.)
What can we do with this information? Not much, I suppose, but I think it’s fascinating anyhow. That someone like Rife could blow up virtually overnight courtesy of the TikTok algorithm—and look, I'm not going to entertain any pretense that he’s a talented craftsman or has interesting stuff to say—is itself a shattering indictment of comedy’s meritocracy myth. That he would then become one of the industry’s highest earners should really be the final nail in the coffin. I imagine his success is frustrating to more talented but less successful comedy workers, and it’s perfectly reasonable to be frustrated—that shit sucks—but I think it can also be freeing. Taste is unpredictable, the system is not your friend, in fact the whole business is pure chaos with brief hiccups of order. Once one accepts these things, one can also accept that there’s no reason to follow the rules, play nice with power brokers, or wait until one has all the right credits to start trying to fix things. The system isn’t broken, after all. It was just designed to make money, not art.