The comedy industry is flirting with an uprising

Wages for most comedians have stagnated for decades. What happens next might not be funny at all.

Illustration by Peter Gamlen
ByRebecca Rush

In June 2019, I was standing backstage at Rick Bronson’s House of Comedy in Phoenix, Arizona, talking to the feature act right before he was about to get on stage. He was slapping a book against his wrist.

“Did you write that?” I asked.

“Yeah, now I’m just hoping I can sell enough to cover my flight,” he replied.

At least in certain instances, Rick Bronson’s, a 300-person venue, pays $25 per set for feature acts the comics who do 25 minutes right before the guy you came to see. I know because that’s the rate I was offered in July 2020 to perform there. Feature acts perform six shows over four nights, so based on that rate, they can expect a paycheck of $150 at the end of the weekend. After taxes, that leaves those comedians less than $100 for four nights of food, lodging, and transportation.

The owner of Rick Bronson’s told Mic that the club has “paid double this or more since we first opened in 2015,” but has yet to get back to Mic with documentation. Nick Riback, a comedian who also works the door and sound board at Rick Bronson’s, told me feature acts now make “about $300” for a weekend of shows, or $50 per show. He also told me he recently “co-featured” a weekend at the venue with a friend and they each took home $200 after six shows — a lower rate, he says, because they were “splitting the pay.”

Riback says he’s “happy to be exploited for stage time.” Still, you can see why a stand-up comedian might try to pad his wallet selling books at the merch stand.

The cost of living keeps getting exponentially higher, yet for non-famous comedians, the pay stays the same. Consider a major comedy city like Los Angeles: According to the Los Angeles Times, median rent in California in 1980 was $263. Gas was $1.19 a gallon. The average person spent $166.01 a month on food. Today, average rent in L.A. is $2,661, a gallon of gas is around $6, and the average Angeleno spends around $400 a month on food.

Yet since 1980, the wages for comedians, even performing in major showcase venues in L.A. and New York City, have barely budged. The top 10 earning comedians made a combined $272 million in 2019, according to Forbes. But the rates for celebrities like Pete Davidson and Ali Wong don’t reflect the experience of comedians grinding in clubs across the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t even bother to recognize stand-up comedians as their own profession — comedians are lumped in with actors and other performers, and the BLS lists their median pay in 2021 at $23.48 per hour. Job aggregator ZipRecruiter lists the national average pay for a stand-up comedian at $16 per hour, or roughly $34,000 a year.

There’s this idea in comedy that if you just work hard enough, and get funny enough, things will work themselves out.

Compare that again to the average rent in L.A. being upwards of $2,600 a month. In New York City, average rent in Manhattan is a whopping $4,265. You might think, okay, comedians shouldn’t live in the most expensive cities in the country. Fine. At “road clubs” — meaning clubs located not in New York City or L.A. — the pay for feature acts is typically $100 a set, max, a fee that has remained stagnant for four decades, according to several comedians who spoke with Mic. And average rent in Phoenix, where Rick Bronson’s is located, is $1,547.

There’s this idea in comedy that if you just work hard enough, and get funny enough, things will work themselves out. But how are you supposed to fund that optimistic idea if you can’t even make enough to break even?

“From what I can tell, [feature acts] get the same that I did 25 years ago, which can be anywhere from zero to, at the most in a club, $100 a show,” says comedian Maria Bamford, the star of Netflix’s Lady Dynamite and the first female comedian to have two Comedy Central Presents half-hour specials. But before all that, she was a stand-up comic making the rounds like everyone else. “I did some featuring,” she says, “but not much for the first 10 years of stand-up. It made more sense emotionally — I didn’t do well at the clubs — and financially — I could earn more temping.”

Feature gigs have never really paid well, but they used to come with more perks. “Through the ‘90s, clubs would include a hotel with the feature spot,” says comedian Jackie Kashian, who performed on The Late Late Show with James Corden earlier this year. Now, it’s not so common, which forces feature acts to have to pony up for lodging, too. “It’s criminal. [It] affects the safety of the acts and quality of the show. How are you supposed to do your best if you’re sleeping in your car or on a couch in a living room for a weekend?”

Club owners “justify [paying very little] by saying that their profit margin is down, denying that, yes, it’s more expensive for everyone.”

Some clubs do have lodging available for performers. Rick Bronson’s owns a two-bedroom “comedy condo” across the street, but I was told only the headliners are allowed to stay there, another example of how feature acts appear to be getting shafted. The owner of Rick Bronson’s told Mic that 80% of the feature comedians the club hires are local to Phoenix, and that when comedians from out of town come with the headline acts, they are provided accommodation in the condo.

Not all feature acts are willing to crash in their cars just for a gig, but the fact that it’s not out of the question has led to this crippling wage stagnation, Kashian says. There’s little incentive for the club owners and PR managers to pay more when there is “a glut of comics willing to work [for] nothing, sleep on couches, and keep day jobs,” she theorizes. “Running the clubs has become more expensive and with willing comics, [club owners] justify [paying very little] by saying that their profit margin is down, denying that, yes, it’s more expensive for everyone.”

The solution? “Raise the prices for the audience,” Kashian says.

Club owners used to tell comedians they couldn’t afford to raise ticket prices because people wouldn’t buy them. But industry analyst Rachel Hyland wrote in a 2018 Forbes article that “revenue for the comedy clubs industry has increased steadily over the past five years. While growth has been generally consistent from year to year, industry revenue increased 16.8% between 2013 and 2018.” Clubs did take a hit when the pandemic put a stop to live entertainment — but then they took a check. Sean McCarthy of The Comic’s Comic blog compiled extensive data on the dozens of comedy clubs that received over $150,000 in government Paycheck Protection Loans in 2020, including 11 that received between $350,000 and $1,000,000. In 2021, venues finally started to rebound.

So, Kashian’s argument that clubs should raise ticket prices to accommodate better pay for performers has some weight. For a 300-seat venue like Rick Bronson’s that sells 150 tickets at $25 a ticket, raising the price just $0.69 per ticket would bring in $621 more per six-show weekend. That’s well more than the feature comic’s entire paycheck now, even before expenses.

Until that happens, though, some of the bigger-name comics have stepped up to help their fellow performers. Bamford in particular is famous in the comedy world for her transparency in pay. She sends comics she works with a spreadsheet breaking down how much everything costs, so they can see what it will be like for them at the headliner level. She also either pays her feature acts up to $1,200 per weekend from her own pocket — usually doubling or tripling what they get from the club — or gives them a percentage of net profit from the whole gig.

In most lines of work, when the pay is too low and the demands are too high, it means one thing is coming: a strike.

Bamford encourages comedians to empower themselves through “brave curiosity,” a.k.a. asking the headliner how much they’re making, and to be open with the numbers if and when they get to headliner level. “There’s a magical thinking with show biz where I’ve thought — $10,000! I have it made! Which, ten grand is great, but after taxes, [commission], expenses, paying the opener fairly — is a little under five grand,” she explains.

Margaret Cho, whose comedy work spans three decades and countless mediums, is another comic who covers her feature act’s fees. That makes life good for Daniel Webb, her opener. “I pay for all flights, meals, transport. I have his salary added to mine and then I pay him more — at least double of what the club would, which changes based on the show,” Cho says. “I feel good about it. He gets to really enjoy being on the road. I really enjoy having him and his comedy.”

Hoping to be lucky enough to work alongside a hugely successful comedian who is willing to supplement your income with theirs is obviously not a sustainable model for comedians. And in most lines of work, when the pay is too low and the demands are too high, it means one thing is coming: a strike.

The first comedy strike in recorded history was in 1979. The World Famous Comedy Store in Los Angeles at the time paid comics literally nothing, claiming — as stages still do — that the venue was providing performers a place to work on their craft. Owner Mitzi Shore famously claimed that stand-ups who performed at her spot didn’t even deserve $5 for gas money. Night after night, the comics who played at the Comedy Store watched the club charge admission, sell drinks, and not pay them.

Eventually, a few of them got fed up and decided to do something about it. First, a young comedian named Tom Dreesen went to Shore with the same suggestion Kashian would have decades later: to raise the prices for the audience. He suggested she add $1 to the ticket cost and split the extra revenue among the performers. She declined.

So Dreesen, along with fellow young performers Jay Leno and David Letterman formed a group called Comedians for Compensation. The group picketed outside the Comedy Store for months, with signs bearing slogans like “No bucks, no yuks.” Eventually, there was a deal: Comics would be paid half the door revenue in the main room, and $25 a set in the smaller, original room. A paid regular at The Comedy Store who wished to remain anonymous told Mic the pay in the smaller room is still $25.

There was another push in 2005, when Ted Alexandro’s Comedians Coalition led a strike that was eventually joined by more than 400 comedians. The demonstration, against wage stagnation in NYC showcase clubs, garnered support from household names like Dave Attell and Colin Quinn. After months of meetings and public pressure, a deal was reached with several city clubs, including Gotham, The Comedy Cellar, and Dangerfield’s. At some venues, according to a 2005 Washington Post article, the increase in spot pay at those clubs was 250%.

Whether there might be another strike now is hard to predict. The U.S. seems to be in the middle of a major unionization push, with some of the most visible brands in the world seeing strikes and organizing drives in recent months. The 1979 and 2005 strikes had the advantage of targeting a single venue or city, but for comics who travel to feature, organizing would be an even bigger challenge. As Alexandro points out, striking against clubs all over the country “would take a level of organization and commitment that is difficult to achieve. Comedians are always looking for work, especially at the feature level, so that can hamper the ability to organize on a large scale.”

“Clubs and the comedy industry as a whole are extremely exploitative, and they bank on the fact that we have dreams and that this is something that we love to do,” says writer and performer Anya Volz of the Best Mistakes podcast. “It’s absolutely unforgivable to not raise the pay for the same labor from a time that had a fraction of the cost of living. If your business profits from my talent and my skill then you should be paying me fairly.”

Editor’s note: This story was edited to address comments from Rick Bronson’s House of Comedy.