Comedy Issue: Live Comedy Becomes a $300 Million Punchline

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.

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“Did you ever even think you’d see comics playing arenas?” asks Judi Brown-Marmel, partner at Levity Entertainment Group, whose clients include Jeff Dunham, Jenny McCarthy and Mary Lynn Rajskub. “That sounds like something that only happened for rock’n’roll bands, but now it’s happening for comedians.” At least a dozen acts have demand enough to play arenas, with many — including Aziz Ansari, Louis CK, Lewis Black and Brian Regan — mixing arenas and theaters to maximize their markets.

“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. 

It’s just, ‘Me, my brain and this microphone, and I’m going to murder you tonight, and you’ll stand up and applaud at the end.’ ”

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.”)

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“Acts that have a big online following can drive that audience into a coffeehouse, and all of a sudden that coffeehouse becomes the comedy club,” says Brown-Marmel, who began her career 27 years ago as a door girl at the Comedy Corner, the Colorado Springs, Colo., comedy club that spawned Roseanne Barr. “The way the medium has changed with film, television and the Internet, you can scale comedy from the coffeehouse to the arena now.”

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, citing Black and Regan as two of the hardest-touring comics. Live Nation has 73 shows booked on Regan’s current tour, for example. 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.

“I just got done taking Dave Chappelle over- seas,” adds Wills. The Internet has created global demand. “In Australia he sold every stinking ticket in record time. His show was never on network [TV] over there at all — that’s just people looking at it online. Bill Burr sold out in London, Iceland, Sweden and Holland. Kevin Hart sold out the O2 in London.

“If you look at the box-office scores,” says Nuciforo, “the comedians are hanging with the big boys.” And though higher ticket prices for music mean bigger grosses, the gap between gross and net is much more narrow in comedy. “Pound for pound, a professional working comedian is making way more dough,” says Wills. 

“There isn’t a ton of production to it. In comedy, you need a really good sound system. Typically if the venue is bigger than 3,000 seats or more, the acts are going to go for some kind of video package so people can see them. Catering is $250 to $500, maybe a grand at the most. I know a major touring comedian whose catering bill is typically less than $50. The right [comic] can make a great living — millions of dollars a year.”

Top 10 U.S. Arena Comedy Tours

The big laughs that draw the biggest dollars

1. Jeff Dunham
Total Gross $3,737,382
Total Attendance 80,444
Total Capacity 92,112
No. of Shows 12

2. Katt Williams
Total Gross $732,019
Total Attendance 12,401
Total Capacity 20,562
No. of Shows 3

3. Louis CK
Total Gross $549,624
Total Attendance 10,936
Total Capacity 11,409
No. of Shows 1 

4. Mike Epps
Total Gross $480,566
Total Attendance 8,975
Total Capacity 17,192
No. of Shows 2

5. Gabriel Iglesias
Total Gross $331,231
Total Attendance 7,627
Total Capacity 8,987
No. of Shows 2

6. Chelsea Handler 
Total Gross $310,715
Total Attendance 5,740
Total Capacity 5,740
No. of Shows 1

7. Chris Tucker
Total Gross $268,617
Total Attendance 3,893
Total Capacity 3,893
No. of Shows 1

8. Jeff Foxworthy
Total Gross $266,485
Total Attendance 5,961
Total Capacity 7,447
No. of Shows 1

9. Kevin James
Total Gross $230,220
Total Attendance 5,116
Total Capacity 5,396
No. of Shows 1

10. Jerry Seinfeld 
Total Gross $206,440
Total Attendance 1,678
Total Capacity 3,500
No. of Shows 1

Source: Billboard Boxscore, based on reports from Jan. 1, 2013 to May 13, 2014.