By virtually every metric: ticket sales, the number of stars moving up to the theater and arena
level, the volume of acts doing good business, touring comedy is in the midst of a golden age.
“The comedy business has never been stronger,” says Nick Nuciforo, who heads up the comedy
department at Creative Artists Agency (CAA). “There are more headliners now than ever, and a
really fertile next generation.” Profit margins are high, demand is growing, and ticket prices remain
attractive in comparison to music and sports (often in the $25 to $80 range for theater shows).
For the right headliner, fees at the club level can reach six figures, theater dates $250,000 and
arena shows between $500,000 and $1 million. Billboard estimates the live comedy business
including the growing festival space generates revenue of approximately $300 million a year.
“When Louis CK goes on a show, he just walks onstage in a black shirt and jeans and a microphone
and he’s rocking a 5,000-cap house the same way an eight-piece band with video screens and
pyrotechnics would,” says Mike Berkowitz — who oversees comedy at the Agency for the Performing
Arts (APA) and represents CK, Ansari, Kevin Hart and Mike Birbiglia, among others. “It’s punk rock,
that’s what it is.
Driving it all is an explosion in platforms. Twenty years ago, as the ’80s boom turned into a ’90s bust,
emerging comedians were limited to late-night TV to reach the masses. Today, a generation has
grown up with sketch shows, stand-up specials and talk shows on Comedy Central, Adult Swim, IFC
and TruTV. Netflix, HBO and Comedy Central’s tablet apps mean the window for exposure never closes.
YouTube reports that comedy uploads get 7 billion views a month, which works out to 380 million hours.
And Twitter was a game-changer even before Conan O’Brien sold out 42 dates of his 2010 Legally
Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour with a single tweet. (“I remember saying something
stupid like, ‘It’s a new paradigm,’ ” says Live Nation comedy president Geof Wills, who promoted
many dates on the O’Brien tour. “But it really was.”)
Perhaps the best indicator of how well comedy is faring on the road is the number of comics touring
at the 1,000- to 5,000-seat theater level, once reserved for those at the top of the food chain. Nuciforo
says that 15 years ago there were “maybe a half dozen at most in the whole industry that could play
theaters.” Today, CAA reps more than 30 headliners who can play theaters and larger venues. And
that’s just a piece of the overall picture. “At this point, I would say there are probably at least 75
comedians that could sell out a theater,” says Berkowitz.
And while music festivals are flirting with a saturation point, the comedy festival scene is growing.
There are established comedy fests in New York; Miami; Montreal; Toronto; Chicago; San Francisco;
Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore.; and elsewhere, and new events coming on line all the time — the
biggest addition is Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Festival in Nashville May 15 to May 18. Last
year, Live Nation fielded the Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival in partnership with Funny or Die,
featuring Flight of the Conchords and Dave Chappelle. The tour played 15 dates at Live Nation
sheds, with nearly 200,000 tickets sold and $7.3 million net. Live Nation’s Wills says the tour “was
one of our finest hours as the comedy department.”
Unlike most musicians, who tour around album release cycles, “comedians tour year-round, and
a lot of comedians tour in between projects,” says Wills. Wills touts rock star numbers for his comedy
tours, like 30,000 tickets sold for five sellouts at Radio City Music Hall in New York for Chappelle in June.