Janet Paskin | August 2009 issue
What’s a laugh worth? You can get your yuks in a comedy club for $20 or less; for a few hours of humor in a movie theater, you’ll pay about $10. A whoopee cushion or a joy buzzer is significantly cheaper; to indulge in more highbrow humor—say, a framed New Yorker cartoon or the complete first three seasons of Saturday Night Live on DVD—you’ll spend $100 or more. But maybe it’s worth it. After all, laughing until tears run down your cheeks is priceless.
And these days, with the world in recession and pockets of violence around the globe, people are willing to pay for a good chuckle. That makes laughter big business. Stand-up comedy, rom-com movies, funny stories, gag gifts—strike the right funny bone and the money pours in. The American cable network Comedy Central, which hits both high and low with political satire like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and cartoons like South Park, has been an astonishing success, with more than 20 million subscribers and almost half a billion in ad revenue. Top-grossing comedies, like Kung Fu Panda for kids or Sex and the City for adults, have each brought in more than $400 million at the box office. And as long as there’s an 8-year-old boy trapped inside every one of us, some jokes will always find an audience. The iFart application, a digital whoopee cushion for Apple’s iPhone, has been purchased more than 350,000 times, making it one of the phone’s most popular add-ons.
But getting the belly laugh and the credit card number is far from simple. Which jokes turn lucrative and which don’t is a mysterious calculation. Only two Hollywood directors—Jay Roach Meet the Fockers and two Austin Powers movies) and Chris Columbus (Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire )—have ever managed to produce more than one big mainstream comedy blockbuster. The iPhone application Pull My Finger, in which the old joke is activated digitally, beat iFart to market, then flamed out.
New York University associate arts professor Laurence Maslon co-wrote the book Make ‘Em Laugh, a history of comedy in America that accompanied a six-part PBS series, and even after studying 100 years of success and failure in the funny business, he still can’t say why one comic concept will capture the imagination and another won’t. “If I knew that, you’d be reaching me in Beverly Hills right now,” he said by phone from his New York apartment.
Novelty is part of the humor equation, though, and the constant quest for that newly relevant, surprising trope that will catch the public’s attention means an incessant demand for new material. For aspiring humorists, that spells opportunity; for established careerists, it equals insecurity. So even though everyone’s looking for a laugh to sell, and there’s plenty of money to be made selling it, making a living being funny is, well, not very.
Most funny folk end up self-employed, scraping together club dates or writing freelance or working on a script or a show until the contract runs out. Steady jobs, with health insurance and retirement plans, are almost non-existent. And when people get them, they keep them. Less than a dozen people are responsible for creating new products for Archie McPhee, a Seattle purveyor of novelties like squirrel underpants (tiny briefs designed to “protect the world against squirrel nudity”), bacon-flavored mints and waffle-flavored dental floss. Management hasn’t hired anyone new in 10 years.
When Steven McFarlin started out in the comedy clubs in Texas in the early 1980s, he never thought he’d end up selling T-shirts. His shtick isn’t complicated—a raunchy riff on the “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” theme—but the jokes alone don’t pay the bills. McFarlin has had a 20-year international career spanning the clubs, TV and the movies, but a good chunk of his income comes from tank tops, boxer shorts, even thongs, all emblazoned with his signature tagline: “Men are sluts.” Says McFarlin, “So many of us want to be artistic types. But half of show business is business.”
It may not seem like the laugh economy is getting any better. But funnily enough, financial hardship tends to be good for comedy. “People need entertainment, and it’s cheap,” says Stan Timm, a novelty historian in Wisconsin who notes that such companies flourished during the Great Depression. A comedy club is still cheaper than a rock concert; the Internet makes it easy for funny folks to produce and distribute their material; stand-up comedy, traditionally an American art form, is flourishing in Europe. These days, everyone needs a good laugh.
For decades, The Aristocrats was comedy’s biggest inside joke. At first, it’s not that funny—a family walks into a talent agency and performs unspeakable acts of depravity, then names the bit The Aristocrats. But among comics, the setup became a skeleton for competitive embellishment. The point of the joke, best told in a group, wasn’t actually the punchline; the point was to paint a funnier, grosser, or more clever picture than the others. Until recently, few folks outside show business had heard it, and might not have laughed if they had.
But in the early 2000s, two comedians, Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette, started asking people they knew to tell the joke on tape. “We thought we’d have a home video for our friends,” Provenza says. Five years later, they wound up with an 89-minute movie, aptly titled The Aristocrats, featuring a Hall of Fame roster of comedians, including Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, George Carlin and Carrie Fisher, that was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and became the first documentary to sell to distribution firm THINKFilm for more than $1 million. Grossing more than $40 million, it was by all accounts a success. Still, Provenza says, “I spent five and a half years making that movie, and there were big chunks of time when I wasn’t working. If you take that into account, I made about as much as I would have made working at Starbucks. And then I would have had [health] benefits.”
That’s a common lament for creative types. And humorists, whether they perform onstage or on camera or make people laugh with a funny essay or comic strip, often think of themselves as artists, using humor to make people think. That gives rise to the usual tension between an artist’s vision and an artist’s grocery bill. The ones you’ve heard of make it work with a steady gig (on screen or off) on Saturday Night Live or writing for the fake newspaper, The Onion, or writing books and essays, like David Sedaris. Behind the scenes, too, funny folks are working as sound and light technicians, joke writers and producers—regular work, with benefits.
Those are the lucky few. For most, working in comedy looks a lot like plain old working. Comedy clubs might pay an act hundreds of dollars a night, but not more; big draws, like 18-year-old YouTube sensation Bo Burnham, may command $10,000 or more for a performance—plenty of money, of course, but well short of Jerry Seinfeld’s apocryphal $1 million fee. “There are a few really lucky, talented guys and gals who work the top spots, and then there’s a second tier,” says Barry Weintraub, who supports his solo comedy efforts by working the clubs as an emcee. It’s better, he says, than the third tier: never getting paid to make people laugh. And some venues don’t pay at all.
Consider McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the humorous Web companion to author Dave Eggers’ independent literary quarterly. It doesn’t pay for stories, not even those by established writers like New Yorker staffer Ben Greenman or Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, who might otherwise command $500 for a short piece. Given McSweeney’s reputation for intelligent, original humor and the site’s weekly audience of 1 million, getting published is an imprimatur of funny, a blessing from the humor gods.
At least, that’s how Chris Monks felt when he started submitting stories. An elementary school teacher turned stay-at-home dad, he sent story after story, and after a number of rejections, he cracked the barrier. Then he did it again, and again. Now he edits the website, sifting through close to 800 unsolicited submissions a month. He rejects 90 percent of what he sees.
Imagine taking LSD, then wandering into your local toy store, and you have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to poke around Archie McPhee’s Seattle showroom. Newer toys include the Wall Street Victims play set, with two shell-shocked investor figurines, and the Crazy Cat Lady board game, in which the object is to collect the most cats. They compete with classics like the propeller beanie and the punching nun puppet. Need housewares? How about a heart-shaped egg mold to turn your sunny side up eggs into valentines, or an extendable “freeloader fork” to reach onto other people’s plates? And for the hungry, there’s bubble gum shaped like meatballs and cocktail weenies; lollipops in the shape of Sigmund Freud’s head; gummy candy molded to resemble maggots. And all this delicious weirdness is packed into a pair of adjacent storefronts, where employees occasionally dress in costume. At least, it looks like costumes.
When the store opened in 1983, the owner bought batches of oddball factory scraps and trial products that had never sold. A little modification or repackaging, and voila: a squeeze toy too weird-looking for actual babies becomes the Martian Popping Thing, a stress-reliever for amused adults. But factories don’t have as many scraps or experimental runs anymore, says David Wahl, who started on the warehouse floor 15 years ago and is now the company’s marketing director. So Wahl, McPhee owner Mark Pahlow and a trio of designers are in charge of dreaming up ideas for the store’s next hot seller.
To be a success, the idea has to be a particular kind of amusement—the kind people are willing to pay for, Wahl says. For example, everyone laughed at the My Pretty Nose Hair concept, a big plastic nose with braidable hair. But no one bought it.
So what works? Beyond the juxtaposition of the unexpected, as in waffle-flavored dental floss or a vengeful unicorn doll that comes with figurines to impale on its horn, Wahl cautiously posits that a successful gag, by McPhee’s standards, comes from “something that people probably think is a private joke. The product allows them to share in the idea that here’s a community of people who share that joke. Every culture on the Earth has something with bacon, so bacon bandages allow people to connect over something specific that’s actually very broad. Those are the things that people think are funny.”
Knowing the nuances of what will make people laugh so hard they’ll reach for their wallets is the difference between a hit and a flop. And since a joke gets less funny every time you hear it, novelty is key. The original novelties were experimental products no one had seen before, like the flashlight. Some, like the whoopee cushion and naked girl drinking glasses (the girl disrobes as the liquid drains from the glass) were intended to be funny; the plug-in electric water heater for your bathtub, unintentionally so. A modern analogue, then, would include not only gags like talking toilet paper rollers, beer hats and T-shirts that say, “It’s not a bald patch, it’s a solar panel for a sex machine,” but products like the self-propelled vacuum cleaner and the pet stroller.
The comedy of entertainment changes, too. Stand-up has always been an American tradition, born out of burlesque, vaudeville and variety shows. In the early days, comedians told jokes of the mother-in-law variety; by the 1960s and ’70s, comedians like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin had expanded to social and political satire that took on Vietnam, the sexual revolution and race relations. By the 1980s, disco was out, comedy was in and it wasn’t hard for club owners to take down the mirror ball and throw up a stage and a microphone.
With a glut of clubs and wannabes at the mic, comedy busted in the early 1990s, then boomed again with the rise of comedian Chris Rock, the debut of cable and satellite TV channel Comedy Central and growing European interest. Today, comedy ranges from Rock to Larry the Cable Guy, a “redneck” character created by Dan Whitney, to the deadpan vulgarities of Sarah Silverman. Except for being more raunchy than their predecessors, the three couldn’t be less similar.
Once comedy becomes a livelihood, the challenge of finding the laugh is more enjoyable than being funny, says Mike Sacks, author of And Here’s the Kicker, a series of interviews with 21 professional humorists, including actor and screenwriter Buck Henry and cartoonist Roz Chast. “Some of them said they don’t even think about getting a laugh anymore,” Sachs says. “They’re just working for A plus B equals C, where C is success.”
As for A and B, established comics sometimes bomb even after decades of practice. Even the gang at Archie McPhee flops sometimes. Most recently: a line of accessories decorated with Parasite Pals, a gag about the tapeworms and head lice living in Holly Hostess’ body, à la Hello Kitty. “We still love it,” Wahl said. “But it just didn’t sell.”
Talk to aspiring humorists long enough about the challenges of selling funny and they can seem anything but. It’s true that some of the old avenues to making a living in the laugh economy are drying up–TV stations have swapped scripted sitcoms for reality shows, for example, which means fewer jobs for writers. At the same time, no industry has been transformed by the viral nature of the Internet like comedy. It’s no coincidence one of the earliest bits of Internet shorthand was “LOL,” for “Laughing Out Loud.”
Thanks to email and social networks like Facebook, people can now re-broadcast the video clips and news stories that make them giggle. (Check out Ode’s favorite funny online videos at odemagazine.com/funnyvideos.) This means comedians, cartoonists, writers and novelty companies can grow their audience, often without much marketing. Archie McPhee, once a Seattle secret, is now an online destination for videos that are as funny as its salable products; Burnham launched his career from his bedroom, via YouTube. Sites with original content, like Funny or Die, have become overnight comic sensations. And as hard as it is to make it past Monks and get published by McSweeney’s, the website’s daily demand for new material has made it more accessible to writers than the printed quarterly.
Stand-up comedy continues to grow overseas as well. Provenza likens humor in this form to jazz—invented in the U.S., it caught on and developed first in the U.K., then spread to the rest of Europe, Australia and South Africa. In the Netherlands, when Raoul Heertje founded the comedy collective Toomler in the early 1990s, he was up against an established Dutch cabaret, a kind of mix of stand-up, storytelling and musical theater. Performing in bars instead of on stages, the Toomler group found well-lubricated crowds willing to engage with them, eager to tear down the traditional wall between performer and audience. By the mid-1990s, the collective had opened a club in Amsterdam and comedy was catching on. Now the annual comedy festival in Rotterdam is considered one of the better festivals globally, and American comics see audiences in the Netherlands, and Europe in general, as more open to comedy that pushes established envelopes.
The true black humor, though, is that the ruined economy may help humorists more than it hurts. The eight years of the Bush administration were great for comedy, notes Provenza, fueling careers of satirists like The Daily Show’s Stewart and Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report. Just as humor offered an outlet for Americans’ political outrage, it now offers the same respite from the economic doldrums. The difference? The recession knows no political boundaries. “It’s hit everyone,” says Provenza. “That’s a unifier for audiences, which stimulates a better connection.”
Meanwhile, comedy remains a cheap show for clubs to produce—a stage and a microphone are all it takes. For the audience, the price of tickets is less than for a concert or a play because clubs make most of their money on food and drinks. As for novelties, they’re still affordable, and the delight they deliver has staying power. “No one needs more boring stuff,” says McPhee’s Wahl. “But give ’em squirrel underpants, and they’ll talk about it all year.”
Janet Paskin would have considered a career in stand-up if it didn’t keep her out past her bedtime.