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Some of the best parts of my made-up job are the conversations I get to have with readers about how they navigate all the impossible moral questions they run into working in comedy. These conversations are usually off-the-record and not the sort of thing I can write about, but without them I would have a much shallower understanding of what this business is like for the vast majority of people working in it: unestablished comics who earn little to nothing for their labor, have no formal workplaces or delineated career paths, and are subject to a hostile work culture that only takes them seriously once they’ve proven themselves by conforming to it.
It’s a weird industry, one where the workspaces are also the social spaces and there’s a vast, vast wealth gap between the highest earners and the average earners. Toss in an ever-shifting code of conduct written by people who don’t have to follow it, and you’ve got a recipe for incredibly fucked up power dynamics and everything they make possible. Often, the people I talk to did everything right—worked hard, became great, played the game, flattered all the right people—only to end up burnt out and fucked over by a system that didn’t give a shit about them anyway. I can’t blame them for quitting when they quit, any more than I can blame them for persevering in spite of everything when they decide to persevere.
This is already too long of an intro for too long of a post. Anyway: I recently had an interesting chat with a friend who works in comedy in Los Angeles. She’s been at it for the better part of a decade, and like most comedy workers she’s not anyone whose name you’d recognize. As she gained some distance from live performance during the pandemic, she started re-examining her relationship to the business. As that business gradually returns, she’s found herself questioning whether she really wants to return with it. Our conversation touched on a number of issues that resonated with what I’ve heard from other comedians, and when it ended I asked if we could have it all over again for the newsletter. I’m grateful she said yes.
A transcript of our chat is below, lightly edited, with identifying details removed. This is a long one, but I think there’s something in it for everybody. You know how to reach me if there’s anything you want to talk about too.
So to start I think you should probably give a sense of where you are in your career right now.
I am not nor have I ever been a working comedian. I've only ever been technically a hobbyist. Before Pandemic, I was at the stage of standup where I had been doing it for more than five years, done some festivals, had representation submitting me for late night and JFL and stuff.
I feel like it’s worth clarifying that you say you're a hobbyist, but you're a hobbyist in the way that everyone who does it is a hobbyist until suddenly they’re not a hobbyist anymore.
Yes. I would say that if Pandemic hadn't happened, I think I would probably be at the stage now where I would be featuring for somebody. Outside of standup, I've made a lot of sketches and I worked in podcasts.
And you still work in podcasts.
And you were also a producer for a digital media company for a while.
Yes. That too.
I just want to give a sense of all the actual work that goes into being a hobbyist.
Yeah. Although I have done shows in clubs, I have not exactly worked towards being a working “club comedian.” I have pursued more of an alt-comedy writer-type career.
And then the pandemic happened. And now it's over and done and everyone in comedy is going back to work.
Yeah. It's weird. Not everyone in comedy is going back to work, though. A lot of people have canceled their shows with the omicron wave. And I really think that's the right thing to do, and I respect those people for doing that, especially the people who, in some cases, chose not to make quite a bit of money that they could have made, and chose to instead not endanger people. I think that was a cool and good choice.
Can you talk about the identity crisis you're having?
I think for a lot of people, standup, especially at the open mic level—and certainly it was this way for me—was a way to meet people and make friends. I made a lot of friends when I started doing standup comedy. A lot of those people are still my friends, and some of them are some of the longest friendships that I've had as an adult. And I do genuinely really like doing comedy. I really enjoy it. Performing was a way for me to feel validated. I wouldn't say it's easy, but it's pretty instant. And then during Pandemic, when I couldn't do that anymore, I was forced to figure out other ways to make myself feel validated as a person. And I did. Some of that involved various forms of therapy, and some of it was just the experience. And I had a big identity crisis, not just about whether or not I wanted to perform, but about whether or not working in the entertainment industry was even going to be a possibility. It was like, what if this all just goes away?
It’s kind of a luxury that I have other skills. Even when I did standup, I had other skills, I wasn't locked in. There's a difference here between the people who are making money from performing and the people who aren't making money. For a lot of people, this is purely for pleasure. And when nobody was at risk, it was fine to just do that shit because it made you feel good. But when having that pleasure involves putting somebody else at risk of getting sick or dying, the pleasure kind of goes away. It just completely went away for me. It's like, yeah, this makes me feel good, but not like this. And it was kind of bizarre to me to see that there were some people for whom the pleasure remained, despite the context of the situation.
And I'm not just talking about working club comedians for whom touring is their main source of income. I'm talking about people who had day jobs but were like, "I just love comedy, it's my life." And it's like, yeah, but everyone else's life is also involved here. When I started doing comedy, I felt that other comedians were the people that I had the most stuff in common with. And that was why I felt like I made so many friends. But as time has gone on, I'm starting to lose that feeling and feel like maybe I don't have as much in common with a lot of these people as I thought.
Because for me, comedy was about making people happy and relaxed, and—this is corny—bringing people together and having a good time. And performing standup comedy in a pandemic is basically the opposite of all those things. And so I was like, well, it's not the same thing. It's just not the same. And I feel like people are trying to make it be like it was, trying to act like being in a crowd anywhere could ever be like what it was before fucking coronavirus happened. How is it that you're able to fucking do that? How can you be in a crowd of people and be like, "Yeah, this is just like fucking 1997"? It's not.
I’ve been going kind of crazy watching everyone who canceled everything when omicron started go right back to indoor shows now that there are tens of thousands more cases.
It just feels like there are so many people who are willingly in denial because they are not willing or maybe not able to accept that the world is just not like that anymore, that Covid really did change everything. Everybody else is still dealing with it. Parents are still dealing with it. Healthcare workers are still dealing with it. Politicians are even still having to fucking deal with it. And comedians want to act like comedy is somehow exempt. It just doesn't really make sense to me.
Some of the worst shit that people did during Pandemic was clubs and festivals doing shit that was irresponsible because they needed to make money, or wanted to make money. And now, having just seen all that shit over the past two years, I'm like, you expect me to give a shit what you think? I already know you have bad judgment.
The hunger has really been taken out of it for me. I feel like everybody showed their ass. And now I'm looking around like, these are the people I was trying to impress? I don't care anymore. I don't care what they think anymore. And that means that I'm not willing to put up with a lot of the bullshit that you need to put up with if you want to be a working comedian.
Say more about the bullshit.
I talked to this guy who had gotten passed at [a major Los Angeles comedy club], and he was Black, and he told me that when they're kind of testing you out, people would use the n-word in front of him just to sort of see how he reacted and see if he basically made a stink about it. And you're not supposed to, because that's how you show that you're cool. And it worked, and he got passed.
And he told me that, and I was like, I would never do that. I would never be able to do that. I thought that to get passed at a comedy club, you had to hang out there and make people laugh. I didn't know that you had to be okay with people calling you slurs to your face. That's not comedy. That had nothing to do with my experience in comedy up to that point. So I was like, well, there's a lot of other jobs that I could do where if somebody calls me a racial slur to my face, I can file an HR complaint or quit and find another, similar job easily.
And the idea that it would be worth it to people to put up with being—not made fun of, because that's not making fun, and that's not teasing, and that's not joking, but just being like, "Hey, are you okay with racism? Are you okay if we be racist in front of you?" And to have to be like, "Yeah, that's fine. I'll just ignore it.” That's not something that I'm actually able to do. And if you really want to be a comedian, you just go like, well I guess I'll fucking deal with it, because that’s a requirement of the job. But there are a lot of jobs where that’s not a requirement. They’re not as fun or glamorous, but nobody is allowed to call you the n-word to your face.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, bullshit-wise.
The reason that the SNL sex abuse lawsuit is so personally upsetting to me, and things like the Chris D'Elia shit were so personally, really, really upsetting is because when you're a young woman and a comedy fan, you watch comedy, and you're like, man, if I met these guys, I bet they would really respect me, because I think they’re cool. And then you grow up, and you find out that that's not true. It's one of the many dreams that gets crushed when you start to actually work in the entertainment industry. And it makes you go, well, maybe I shouldn't give a shit what these guys think.
If you were to wake up tomorrow and decide you're going to recommit your efforts and make a go at standup for real, what do you think you would have to do?
I would go to the Improv mic every week, and I would go to the Comedy Store mic every week, and I would simply do that until they booked me. But in order to do that, I would have to do the kind of comedy that goes over well at those particular clubs. So I would write towards that.
How would you characterize that kind of comedy?
It's comedy for tourists. Digestible, unthreatening, I would say conventional in the sense of not experimental. I think you can make original jokes in a conventional format, but the format does have to be conventional.
Do you see any actual linear-ish career path for people to carve out in the DIY scene? Is that all just a crapshoot?
I mean, you say "career," but it's like, that shit doesn't pay. So if you try to get more into that scene, which I basically have, you just find other sources of income. And you assume that performance, for you, is basically never going to pay, and you will always have to subsidize it with a day job.
It's kind of a spectrum from comedian to actor. And an actor, to me, is somebody who's like, "I'm an actor, I play the roles that other people write." And a comedian is sort of an actor who only plays one role, and it's only the roles that they write for themselves. So I think another potential course I could take is to lean into trying to just be an actor. But honestly, that's probably even worse than being a comedian. Because my goal and most of my experience has always been in multimedia, including writing, I feel pretty confident that I can eventually make a living in some type of writing or producing capacity.
And as it turns out—phrasing this carefully—something you made years ago is possibly about to get a second life in a much more profitable medium.
That's correct. But don't tell anyone what it is.
But that does neatly illustrate the way things happen in the weirdest and least predictable ways. Something you don't think will become anything else ends up becoming something else a long time later.
And the shit that you spend the most time and effort on, nobody fucking cares about. I think, especially before I moved to LA and before I did comedy, before I experienced what the clubs were like here, I had a very different idea of what standup comedy was like. Not just standup comedy, but also probably the film industry and stuff. But that's what happens. You get that IMDb Pro login and you start to see where the yarn connects.
I know what you're talking about because we’ve talked about it before, but can you unpack that?
Before I had ever experienced standup comedy outside of watching a TV special, I assumed that all comedians that were successful, like big names, were exceptionally good at standup comedy in some way, and that that was why they were big, because they were exceptionally talented or beloved.
And then after doing standup for a few years, seeing people move through the industry and then moving to Los Angeles and experiencing that industry on a larger scale than I had before, I came to see that the reason that people are big, the reason there's a review of their album or their special in the magazine or the blog, is not because it's so good. It's because they have a team of people whose job it is to make sure that you know their name and to make sure that you consume their content. That in order to get people to pay attention to you, it's not about how good you are, but it's about how good your agent or manager is. And by good, I mean, powerful.
Whenever I’d read a magazine and it'd be the "Hollywood's 20 Hot New Whatevers," I'd be like, wow, these people must be really stylish or interesting. And now I know that they are not necessarily either of those things. They are simply people who have acquired powerful representation because that's how you get your picture in a magazine. That's how you get yourself nominated for an Oscar. That's how you book a club. That's how you get a guest spot on a TV show or whatever. There is an illusion that comedy is a meritocracy, especially in the age of digital content, where anybody can make their own radio show with the fucking push of a button, and you can get lots of people listening to it, and you can even get all those people paying you for it.
And then you logged onto IMDb…
So yeah, when I first got an IMDb Pro account and was able to look at the names of the people that work at the big agencies and look at their client lists, it connected so many dots for me. Once you see those lists, you're like, oh, that's why these two actors are in this movie together. Oh, that's why this comedian is in this musician's music video. Oh, that's why this person was on that person's podcast. It's all the work of the agencies. They're packaging their clients to sell them. And once I realized that, that that is the ultimate logic behind the PR campaigns and the press releases and the billboards and all that shit, I really got any illusion of comedy being a meritocracy destroyed. You could be the funniest person that ever lived, but if an agent isn’t motivated to sell you, there's just nothing you can do. At this point, you could make your own podcast and set up a Patreon and get people to subscribe to it, et cetera. But you will still basically never have the type of power that somebody who just got signed at CAA has.
It's very weird. We haven't totally moved from one world to the next. We're in the middle. It's still not a meritocracy.
And so many of the big famous podcast hosts are not people who are good at comedy. They're people who are liked and popular, and maybe they're very good at things adjacent to comedy, but these qualities only occasionally correspond to the thing itself.
Right. That's why one of the most popular podcasts is the Office Ladies. It’s not because Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey are so funny or great. It's because they are associated with a huge brand that has hundreds of people working for it to make sure that you saw the show, you see the show now, to promote NBC's content. It's an NBC podcast. That podcast isn't by an individual; it's by NBC. And that's why it's so popular. It's not because it's good or funny.
For me, a big lightbulb was realizing that entertainment reporting was completely controlled by publicists. I worked at an entertainment publication, and so much of it is just marketing with extra steps. It’s there because a corporation has a product to sell and it has publicists trying to sell it. That's how you get your shit in a magazine. That's how you get your record reviewed. You have to send it to them. Every DIY indie artist knows this. You have to send a tape to people, and it's a lot of work. That's their whole job. That's a manager's whole job. And as a comedian, you don't have time for that because you're trying to write jokes and do shows. So I think the idea that now we're in this new democratic digital age where comedians can be their own managers isn’t empowering, because that work hasn't gone away. It's just been transferred onto the artist. And so the people that are most successful in this new paradigm are people who are decent comedians and very good marketers.
I saw that [REDACTED] opened for [REDACTED] the other weekend.
That's great. I'm so glad that [REDACTED] is diversifying her lineups.
It’s very cool.
It's just branding. I think, to what you were asking before, what would I have to do to work at a comedy club is I would have to strongly and consciously brand myself in a way that was already considered mainstream and acceptable for female comedians. I would have to find somebody in the entertainment industry who was kind of like me and be like, "I'm the next her." Being your own thing is not a strategy for getting booked at a club.
And that’s what I liked best about comedy. The unpredictability of it. The excitement of the open mic is not, "Oh, my God, I'm going to see a master at work," but, "I don't know what the fuck is going to happen." And comedy in the club scene and the comedy club industry is the polar opposite of that. You know what you're going to see before it starts. I hate to quote Louis CK, but he's got that bit where he is like, "After you've done comedy for a long time, you know how every joke ends." And the reason you know that is because people tell the same jokes over and over for years, because that’s the only kind of stand-up that’s allowed at clubs.