Early on his new album “Animal Furnace,” comedian and “30 Rock” writer Hannibal Buress eviscerates a college newspaper writer who clumsily revealed how much money Buress was making by playing the school.
” ‘Buress was the most popular comedian in (the) price range of $2,000,'” he quotes during the track “Wack Writing,” to instant guffaws and applause. Then, in the voice of a clueless student paper editor: ” ‘That adds nothing to the article at all, plus we get the added bonus of putting his business out there and making it harder for him to charge more than that in the future!'”
The joke — one of the best on the critically acclaimed album — stoked a mini-feud with the newspaper in question (Eastern Illinois University’s Daily Eastern) but it also underscored a reality in the entertainment world.
The earnings of rock stars, actors and other celebrities are often bandied about in the pages of Pollstar and gossip blogs. But less visible are the earnings of popular comedians. And despite stand-up’s cultural renaissance in recent years, those numbers remain largely hidden — even as comics like Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari and Jim Gaffigan are making headlines by forgoing traditional distribution and selling their wares on their websites.
But are comics making money on a par with most musicians — or even surpassing them, since they don’t have to split profits with band members or pay roadies? How much of their money do they really get to keep?
Selling big, $5 at a time
As Buress says in his “Wack Writing” bit, talking about your business in public can be not only tacky but damaging. And since most entertainers aren’t eager to diminish their earning power, it remains a guarded subject.
But when comedians are selling out every venue they book, it’s a cause for celebration. Thanks to his tireless touring and loyal audiences, for example, Kevin Hart was reportedly the top-selling comedian on Ticketmaster in 2011, taking in $1.5 million from a pair of Los Angeles shows alone, and another $7 million from the movie made from those dates (“Laugh at My Pain”).
Gabriel Iglesias, who played a trio of shows at Denver’s Paramount Theatre in April, sold 125,000 tickets in 70 markets for his 2010 “Fluffy Shop” tour, which grossed $4 million.
“For the level of entertainment you get for the ticket, it’s a solid show,” said Iglesias, who’s no doubt tallying up the revenues from his current tour.
“The length of the show was an incredible four hours,” said Joyce Kramer, a fan who attended Iglesias’ April 26 concert. She noted that even though Iglesias used a number of warm-up comedians, he was still on stage from 9:30 p.m. until midnight.
“He caters to his audience, and that’s one of the reasons he is so well liked,” she said.
Despite their successes, Hart and Iglesias aren’t exactly household names. And even top-earning comics like Dane Cook, Chelsea Handler and Jeff Dunham — who pull in around $20 million per year — are far below the likes of U2 (with 2011 touring revenues of $131.5 million, according to Billboard) and Bon Jovi ($146.5 million).
True, most comedians are not playing 20,000-seat arenas. But that doesn’t change the fact that smart audience-building and digital promotion can still improve their earning power.
Louis C.K. was a respected but midlevel comic until his FX show “Louie” became a breakout hit in 2010. He took the lead from his unique deal with FX — writing, directing, editing, producing and starring in the show, with complete creative control — and decided to self-release his latest special, “Live at the Beacon Theatre,” in December.
Forget Comedy Central, HBO and Showtime. C.K. sold his downloadable special for $5 on his website. He later told Jimmy Fallon during an interview that the sales instantly covered the special’s production costs (reportedly around $200,000) and grossed over $1 million after only 10 days.
“No iTunes. No joining (a service). We don’t keep your e-mail (address) unless you really want us to,” C.K. told Fallon.
C.K. upped the ante on Monday when he announced on “The Tonight Show” that he would sell tickets for this upcoming tour — which takes him to Denver’s Wells Fargo Theatre on Dec. 15 — exclusively via his website for a flat price of $45, including fees and taxes.
The very next night, he told Jimmy Kimmel he had sold 80,000 tickets (including completely selling out 15 of the 54 shows) and grossed a whopping $4 million. In one day.
Of course, the kicker is in the costs. It’s nice not having a label or network to answer to, but C.K. still needs a team to promote his tours and produce his specials.
“Louis C.K. can say, ‘Go to my website and get this,’ but other people who aren’t well-known, that’s where HBO comes in and will help popularize you,” said comedian Drew Carey, who recently headlined Denver’s Comedy Works. “I’ll hazard to say that if it wasn’t for the Comedy Central specials that established him, he wouldn’t be able to self-release anything.”
Like bands, touring comedians need measurable audience growth before risking the move to bigger venues. Appropriately, the current comedy climate recalls the exodus of musicians from record labels — and the general collapse of the music industry amid the digital revolution. Just as Radiohead’s fame gave it the freedom to experiment with selling its 2007 album “In Rainbows” for whatever price fans wanted to pay, comedians’ audiences can be cushions for their own potentially failed experiments.
Still, the experiments seem to be working. Comedian and “Real Time” host Bill Maher, who visits the Paramount Theatre on July 27, essentially thumbed his nose at his parent network when he streamed his latest special, “Live from Silicon Valley,” on Yahoo! in February instead of HBO.
“Parks and Recreation” actor Aziz Ansari, who will play a pair of shows at the Paramount on July 21, followed C.K.’s experiment by releasing his “Dangerously Delicious” special online for $5 in March. Comedian Jim Gaffigan, who plays the Buell Theatre on Oct. 6, did the same in April with his “Mr. Universe.”
This didn’t preclude them from selling broadcast rights for the specials to Comedy Central and Netflix — deals from which they made even more money — but it’s still not a foolproof equation.
“Everyone does the math, and if you’re halfway intelligent you know they’re doing pretty well,” said comedian and podcaster Todd Glass, who frequently opens for C.K. and other big-name comics on tour. “I’ve never asked my friends what they make because you just don’t do that. But I do the same thing everybody else does: I take a ticket price, take half of that, and that’s probably what they’re making.”
According to that math, a sold-out show at the 1,700-seat Paramount that costs $45 per ticket (an average price for most stand-up shows there) would net $76,500 in revenue.
Half of that would go toward a variety of show-related costs, such as venue rental, taxes, union labor, a promoter’s fee and various publicity expenses. The other half, or $38,250, would go to the performer, who will likely need to pay a manager, agent and possibly others.
But across the board, most comics and industry insiders claim that it pays to be a popular comedian.
“There’s no trucks, no band, no nothing,” said Glass, who is often guaranteed $3,000-$4,000 per weekend when he plays clubs like Denver’s Comedy Works, plus airfare, transportation and lodging. “But when I tour with Louis C.K., he doesn’t even have a road manager sometimes. He just walks in eating a sandwich and looking around.”
When Denver comic Josh Blue won Season 4 of “Last Comic Standing,” he quickly skyrocketed from a featured act who was lucky to make $500 per gig to a national headliner. And with that came a glut of business concerns.
“Ultimately the comic is the CEO and the manager needs to answer to him or her,” said Mike Raftery, Blue’s manager and director of operations for Comedy Works Entertainment. “When I started working with Josh I was his agent, manager and publicist. It quickly became impossible to handle all of those responsibilities effectively.”
But stand-ups also have a peculiar, self-contained advantage since they’re their own writers, directors and actors.
“At every level of their development they keep more,” said Margaret Smith, a touring stand-up and Emmy-winning former producer for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” “If there’s seven guys in your band, plus the guy who booked it, and you each get $75, that’s $600 for a comedian.”
Given the bigger payout, more comedians will likely continue redefining DIY as “deliver it yourself,” especially with the runaway success of C.K.’s ticketing experiment last week. But it’s still an experiment.
“Doing things this way means I’m making less than I would have made if I did a standard tour,” he said in an e-mail to fans. “In some cities I’ve had to play smaller venues and do more shows… Either way, I still make a whole lot more than my grandfather who taught math and raised chickens in Michigan.”
John Wenzel is an A&E reporter and blogs editor for The Denver Post and the author of “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” (Speck Press/Fulcrum). Follow him @johntwenzel and @beardsandgum.