SAN FRANCISCO >> Jerry Seinfeld stands in the wings, watching.
He has done this countless times over the past four decades. And he’s about to do it again, but in the bitter cold. Seinfeld’s eyes rest on the thousands who crammed onto the city’s civic plaza for closing night of Comedy Central’s inaugural Clusterfest, a three-day comedy bonanza featuring performers who can sell out venues on their own.
One of them, Hannibal Buress, is on stage and he’s winning over the Bay Area audience despite trashing their basketball team in the middle of the NBA Finals. Buress declares he wants a disease named after him, like Lou Gehrig — “They say dream big” — and laughter erupts. Once his 15 minutes end, the lights dim and he heads offstage to cheers.
Seinfeld finds him and shakes his hand. “Beautiful,” Seinfeld says. “Nice set.”
The lights pop right back up. Seinfeld darts out, throwing his hands into the frigid air. It’s his only introduction, and it’s sufficient. The crowd roars like a rock god stands before them. Instead, it’s a guy in a suit-and-tie with observations to share.
The audience howls as they rub their legs to get warm, standing in huddles to watch his expressions on the jumbo-screen. He talks about the “metaphysical conundrum” of doughnut holes — “a hole does not exist!”; and why Pop Tarts can never go stale — they were never fresh to begin with.
Seinfeld strides across the stage with ease. We’re in the hands of a joke master, at a pinnacle moment for the craft, on full display at this Coachella of comedy.
The existence of a festival like this is no fluke: We’re smack dab in the middle of a stand-up comedy boom. Never before has so much original material been this easy to access and been consumed by this many people. Never before has the talent pool of comedians been this deep, and in format, voice and material, this diverse.
Up-and-comers are finding devoted audiences through podcasts and social media. Stand-up legends are doing drop-in sets and releasing new specials for the first time in years. Before, one or two comics played arenas at a given time. Now, multiple performers go on arena tours — and they’re getting paid millions.
And comedy’s cultural resonance deepens with rapid technological change, increasing societal divisions and a dizzying news cycle.
“It seems like one of the reasons comedy is doing so well has to do with the nature of the genre,” Dave Chappelle says. “We engage the audience, and in this digital world, it always works best live. It feels good to just sit in a room and talk to people and be spoken to and laugh, and validate or invalidate each other’s feelings. But we’re also bombarded with information, and comics are great distillers of information.
“It’s a great time to be a comedian, artistically and professionally,” he adds. “There’s a lot of good people doing a lot of good, serious work. It’s funny to say you’re serious about comedy, but I think a lot of people are.”
* * * * *
On a random Wednesday night in January, a handful of lucky patrons at the Comedy Cellar in New York got an experience of a lifetime. One after another — Dave Attell, Seinfeld, Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, Aziz Ansari and Chappelle — performed surprise drop-in sets. On stage, Chappelle dubbed the lineup a “billion dollars’ worth of comedians.”
The audience couldn’t believe it. “It was electric,” Noam Dworman, owner of the famed New York club, recalls. “It was just like the lottery. Or some pretty famous act plays, then the Beatles show up, then the Stones show up, then Elton John.”
“We have Beatles-level talent right now, and that is really, truly fueling a lot of the boom,” Dworman adds.
Comedy has boomed before. While a handful of comics became cultural phenomena during the 1960s and ’70s, stand-up went full mainstream during the 1980s.
In that decade, “every hotel lounge had a comedy club, too, and they’d put up a sign that says ‘Bananas’ and it’d be like, ‘We’re a comedy club on Friday and Saturday!’” Mike Birbiglia says. “There were hundreds of those across the country. Tons of people started doing stand-up comedy who were terrible, and that’s what leads to crashes.”
And boy, did it crash. The novelty of stand-up evaporated. Kyle Kinane recalls playing in bands around Chicago in the late ’90s and not wanting those guys to know he was also doing comedy.
“You used to be ashamed to tell people about doing stand-up: ‘No, don’t worry about what I’m doing tonight! I just got to go do a thing,’” says Kinane. “It was like I was going to a sex dungeon or something.”
Birbiglia marks the start of the current boom around 2003, when Comedy Central partnered with Live Nation for its first national tour featuring Lewis Black, Attell and Mitch Hedberg. It was such a hit that all three comedians became theater acts on their own, Birbiglia says.
While back then maybe 10 comedians could sell out theaters, “there’s now like 50 to 75 comedians, myself included, who sell out theaters,” Birbiglia says. “That’s a crazy phenomenon.”
Gabriel Iglesias, Bill Burr and Ansari have sold out Madison Square Garden. Kevin Hart performed for 53,000 people at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field.
Brian Volk-Weiss, founder of comedy production and distribution company Comedy Dynamics, dubbed this comedy’s “diamond era.”
For decades, some cities could only support one comedy club, and now they have multiple ones, he notes. Comedy Dynamics produced about five specials yearly less than a decade ago. Last year, they made 52, available on outlets such as Netflix, Seeso and Hulu.
“The glacier of comedy is moving much faster now and bringing a lot of what would have been viewed as experimental,” he says. “I’ll see some weird thing at the back of a laundromat and it has its own show two years later.”
The appetite seems massive. In early June, more than 45,000 people showed up at Clusterfest, which was co-produced by Superfly, the same folks behind music festivals like Bonnaroo. Audiences swelled for evening shows from Hart and Sarah Silverman; midday sets from Tig Notaro and Hasan Minhaj; podcasting recordings from Phoebe Robinson and Anna Faris; and improv from Fred Armisen and Matt Besser.
And while President Donald Trump’s presence in the White House has dominated late-night comedy, so much of the material over the three days had little to do with him.
Within a couple hours, you could catch Burr riff on a podcast about how he met his wife, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson live-reading “Wayne’s World,” Ron Funches joke about fatherhood.
Festival-goers posed for pictures against re-created scenes of “South Park.” They lined up for drinks at a bar modeled after the one in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”
Before, people wanted to be rock stars — now they want to be comics, says Comedy Central executive Steve Raizes.
“People really define themselves, both in real life but also on social media, through their sense of humor,” he adds. “That’s how you portray yourself publicly and how people get to know you.”
“It feels like everybody’s a comedian,” Michael Che says. “Even news articles are written with a humorous twist and the headline is funny.”
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Jacobson, it turns out, is a perfect Garth.
She’s got the right glasses, carpet of hair and cadence as she recites the “Wayne’s World” character’s lines on a stage full of fellow comics.
“Did you ever see that ‘Twilight Zone’ where the guy signed a contract and they cut out his tongue and put it in a jar and it wouldn’t die, it just grew and pulsated and gave birth to baby tongues?”Jacobson says with that Dana Carvey exaggerated overbite. “It’s pretty cool, huh?”
The crowd laughs and cheers. Glazer, who’s playing Wayne, breaks character for a moment and yells “woo!”
The duo’s adoring audience, not just in this San Francisco auditorium but across the country, is one they couldn’t have found decades ago, they say.
Glazer and Jacobson catapulted to fame through “Broad City,” which, like “Workaholics” and “Insecure,” originated as a Web series.
“It gives content creators control to make exactly what they want to do with their voice,” says Jacobson. “You still have to do a lot of work to get it seen and heard and exposure.”
“I don’t think, as normal-looking women, we could have done what we did 25 years ago,” says Glazer.
Comedy is no longer bound by the stage or TV. There’s now Twitter, Instagram and “remember Vine?” Glazer asks. “Anybody could be a comedian and everybody could be a comedian.”
Stand-up comics once vied for limited TV airtime. Now they vie to be noticed on the limitless internet, where they can tell jokes and upload videos instantly.
“The democratization of the internet has kind of sped things up,” says Raizes. “That’s kind of a whole new path in. ... It used to take people 10 years to kind of go through this.”
Web series and podcasts can help outlets such as Comedy Central and HBO “get more invested into talent if they can see that you can create your own thing,” says Robinson, who co-hosts WNYC’s “2 Dope Queens” podcast. “You can be more in charge of your destiny, rather than, ‘I hope someone will cast me as something.’”
Social media “cut out the middleman” and let comedians reach audiences directly — which is especially important when you first start in comedy and bookers control whether you can play their clubs, says Funches.
“A lot of times they’re basing it off of comedy that they liked in the past, friends that they liked,” says Funches. “So if you’re anything different or unique, they’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what this is. This isn’t what I think comedy is.’”
Before, there simply weren’t as many opportunities for comics like Maria Bamford to have shows and stand-up specials. “You can make a very good living as a comedian without being likable to all, and that’s what I’ve noticed,” she says. “My income has gone up, despite my age and subject matter — which is 46, and most of my subject matter is mental illness.”
More platforms also means less boxing-in of comics based on their race, gender or sexual orientation. They can be known more as individuals than as types.
“We’re in a place now where just even as a black comedian you don’t have to be thought to be ‘urban.’ You can just be a comedian,” says Roy Wood Jr. “You could be as unique as Tig Notaro or a Jerrod Carmichael and still have an audience and still have a place in the comedy zeitgeist.”
Since the ’80s boom and ’90s bust, comedy has swung back toward the more artistic side, says Chappelle — “and guys are getting paid for their work like Rembrandts.”
Even comics who have passed away, such as Hedberg, Patrice O’Neal and Bill Hicks, are having their work rediscovered. Chappelle compares it to Van Gogh.
* * * * *
Increasingly, comics are getting discovered on — and paid by — Netflix.
A comic can go from struggling to sell 50 tickets to, within months of a Netflix special, selling 4,000, says Volk-Weiss, the comedy producer.
Netflix has licensed stand-up since launching its streaming service in 2007, but it has doubled-down in recent years. In 2015, it released a dozen new specials. Last year, 19. This year? So far, an average of about one a week: 25.
The company will reportedly pay tens of millions to Rock, Seinfeld and Chappelle, who has publicly referred to a $60 million deal. Louis C.K., who once self-released specials, is back on Netflix. Bamford, Ansari and Burr each have both specials and scripted shows. And Netflix is putting out shorter specials from lesser-known comedians, too.
Specials remain on Netflix forever, and that “is awesome for a comedy fan and a comedian,” says Che. “It stays relevant. It doesn’t just go away.”
The on-demand, commercial-free nature of Netflix also gives comedy more flexibility, says Lisa Nishimura, the company’s vice president of original documentary and comedy programming. Special lengths can vary. Viewers can start, stop and re-watch them whenever they want. And Netflix’s algorithm gives customized suggestions at ideal times, based on past viewing habits.
“You’re going to be constantly introduced to new audiences and potential new fans,” says Nishimura. “I think that’s the thing comics are looking for the most, is to sort of find their people.”
While demurring on how much money Netflix spends on producing comedy, Nishimura says, “It’s a meaningful and sizable investment from the company because we take the category of stand-up seriously.”
The reach is wide: more than 100 million subscribers and 190 countries. Birbiglia says he gets tweets daily from people in other languages about specials. There’s even a comic in Brazil who found “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” on Netflix and now pays a license fee to perform it.
Volk-Weiss has seen his foreign business jump, from less than 1 percent to about 10 percent of his revenue. One deal to bring specials to audiences in Africa is worth more than all of his 2014-2015 foreign business. “It’s becoming a real genre, not a subset and niche,” he says.
* * * * *
T.J. Miller is whispering, trying to protect his vocal cords before mounting a live version of Comedy Central’s “The Gorbuger Show.” He voices an alien monster that has eaten a Japanese talk show host and now interviews the celebrity guests.
But Miller will first do a stand-up set. Although he recently departed from “Silicon Valley,” he remains on nearly every platform, including an HBO stand-up special, a podcast and appearances in “Big Hero 6,” “How to Train Your Dragon 3, and, he’s quick to emphasize, “a major motion picture — I don’t know if you’re aware of this — called ‘The Emoji Movie.’”
“The answer to the question that everybody’s asking and nobody knows is, is there such a thing as oversaturation? And buddy, I’m trying to find out,” Miller says. “The zeitgeist is fractured so much that you really have to be the Mucinex guy and do Slim Jim ads to make as many people as possible laugh. That work for me is more about a wider and wider reach.”
The plethora of material online and the increased interest in comics have potential downsides. How can you be noticed in such a crowded field? If so many people have a special, is it special anymore? The size of your social media following can help get you, or cost you, a gig — and is being good at Twitter the same as being good on stage, anyway?
But stand-up is one form that Miller will always do. “There’s no editor between me and the audience. I direct, produce, writing — I’m everything in that medium,” he says. “So if I f--- up and tonight doesn’t go well, or if people don’t like how I’ve decided to talk about it, that is wholly and completely on me.”
* * * * *
New technology has opened opportunities, but at a time of heightened politicization and cultural divisions, it has also brought intense scrutiny to a craft that requires failing in public to get good.
“People are more holding comedians accountable, not for being funny, but for being on the right side of history,” says Che. “It just feels like audiences want somebody who will get up there and say what they’ve already been thinking, as opposed to saying something they’ve never thought of before.”
Anyone can film and upload a comic’s set, which makes established performers wary. Rock walked out of a New York open mic because audience members were recording. Hart required seated Clusterfest audience members to lock up their phones in magnetic pouches.
And a bit can take on a life of its own — such as a 2014 Buress joke about Bill Cosby filmed by someone in the crowd, or a 2012 Daniel Tosh rape joke aimed at a female audience member who then blogged about the experience.
Comedy is being taken more seriously now. Top-billing stand-up comedians are treated as public intellectuals. A cadre of podcasts featuring comics talking shop and devoted to dissecting the craft, such as Marc Maron’s “WTF,” have huge followings.
“Maybe even 10 years ago we weren’t respected as much as we are now,” Jim Jefferies says. “People almost are talking about comedy more than they’re performing it. ... I used to get asked to tell jokes, now I get asked, ‘How do you write a joke?’”
Critics writing about comedy the way they write about film brings added prestige to the genre, says Robinson. Still, “it’s like watching a food show,” she adds. “You can watch it, but if you don’t do it, you don’t really understand the complexities of it.”
It’s not clear whether this boom will by followed by a bust — “there’s more talented comedians than there are slots, still,” says Funches.
But plenty of performers are preparing for worst-case scenarios.
“I’m a pessimistic person, so I’m already thinking about when it’ll end,” says Birbiglia. “But it won’t end for me because I’ve always been doing the same thing. I’ve been doing the same thing since 1997. I was in the recession, I’m in the boom, I’ll be in the next recession. I just love doing comedy.”
Disclosure: As a stand-up comic, this writer has previously opened for Michael Che.