Comedy Clubs Remain A Serious Moneymaker

Stand-up comic Joy Behar, a former secretary who worked for ABC’s “Good Morning America,” parlayed her exposure at clubs like Catch a Rising Star and the Greene Street Cafe, into her own talk show (“Way Off Broadway with Joy Behar”) on the Lifetime network. Mario Cantone, another talented young comic, was recently signed up as the host of a new children’s show for WWOR called “Steam Pipe Alley.” And Colin Quinn is now the announcer on MTV’s new show “Remote Control,” a show hosted by yet another stand-up veteran, Ken Ober.

There isn’t enough room here to list the many other comics who’ve derived TV, film or commercial work from appearing in the clubs. It’s safe to say, however, that their number is rapidly growing, and, good or bad, the end appears to be nowhere in sight.

“It’s a situation that is accelerating at a very rapid pace,” observes Cary Hoffman, owner of the uptown club Stand-Up New York, “and one which is altering stand-up tremendously. We’re seeing comics today developing cleaner, more generic acts–television acts. They are also much more concerned with their acting abilities. A lot of them are even taking acting classes. By now, they are all familiar with the story of how Carl Reiner came into the Comedy Store and discovered Robin Williams. To many of them, stand-up has become a quick steppingstone to television and films.”

Catch a Rising Star owner Richard Fields agrees: “We have close to 100 performers appearing regularly at Catch, but I’d say only two or three of them see stand-up as a long-term goal. The rest are waiting to be discovered. And, while they wait, they can earn $30,000 to $75,000 a year. Our management company currently handles some acts–people who are not major stars–who are earning two to four thousand per week.”

Many of the clubs aggressively pursue casting people, inviting them to stop in, have a drink and sample that night’s acts. “Casting people call us all the time,” Cary Hoffman notes, “and yes, we do pursue them. The comedy clubs are now viscerally connected to films and just about every other medium. ABC, for example, has a pilot development program and they are always in the clubs looking for people to build pilots around. They want comics.”

Comedy Gets Serious

This growing interest in comedy among industry types as well as audiences, continues to bring big bucks into the clubs. But, as new superstars emerge from the stand-up pack, even the mega-venues like Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall are beginning to feel the heat.

Rock may still rule on the road, but according to the music trade newsletter Pollstar, stand-up is beginning to make significant advances at concert hall box offices. Pollstar’s recently-released list of the top 100 touring acts included five comedy headliners with average nightly grosses that really rocked.

Eddie Murphy, of course, was number one among comics for the year. (No surprise there–he was also 1987′s top movie draw, thanks to “Beverly Hills Cop II” and his stand-up concert film “Raw.”) The “Saturday Night Live” alumnus, who got his start doing stand-up at clubs here in town and on Long Island, ranked number 28 overall among all touring acts with an average gross income, per date, of $181,114.

The other four on Pollstar’s list were Howie Mandel ($73,970), Jay Leno ($44,010), Sam Kinison ($39,169) and the double bill of Louie Anderson and Roseanne Barr ($34,364). Not bad for a night’s work, especially when you compare the obvious financial differences between carting a comic from town to town, to moving a rock act–replete with band members, instruments, sets, tech people, smoke bombs and what have you–over the same distance.

Stand-up veteran Freddie Roman, who played three nights at Caroline’s at the Seaport last month and is set to return for additional dates later this year, says he was surprised to see Anderson and Barr, both virtually unknown a year ago, crack the Pollstar list so quickly. And, though he was hardly stunned by the figures, he was quick to add that “if you had mentioned numbers like that to me ten years ago, I would have laughed in your face.”

Roman, who now divides a good deal of his time between high-paying gigs in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, got his start in comedy at the age of 14, playing the hotel circuit in the Catskill Mountains. “In the early ’50s,” he says, “there were 300…maybe 400 hotels you could work and they always needed comics to fill the slots. As audiences became more sophisticated, though, more and more hotels started to close. For the comics it was disastrous, particularly for the younger ones. There weren’t enough places to go around.”

Nowadays, there are so many rooms for young comics to play–some 500 and counting, nationwide–that, at times, it almost seems as if there aren’t enough comics to go around. Manhattan’s appetite for comedy is especially voracious, with more than a dozen clubs featuring comedy on a regular basis, and a dozen or so more in neighboring suburbs. Add to that list the cabarets and theatres which feature comedy and comedy troupes occasionally…and the improvisational groups with their own theatres…and the performance art spaces with their own comedy shows, and the list could conceivably stretch from here to…oh, how about Lansing, Michigan–a city, according to Freddie Roman, which “now has two very nice clubs, too.”

The club surge, once considered a fad within the entertainment industry, is now being taken very, very seriously. Catch a Rising Star, which went public on the New York Stock Exchange only months ago, is now in the midst of a rapid nationwide expansion. This year alone, according to Richard Fields, Catch will open new rooms in Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Washington, Atlanta and Dallas.

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