Comedy Sandwich – Part 2
“In two years, if there isn’t a solid improvement in attendance and overall response from the media and the public, then everyone is just going to leave. And that’ll be it. That’ll be the end of everything we’ve worked to build and create. That’ll be the end of our comedy sandwich.”
I said that two years ago. In that time, the city has lost two recent “Funniest Person in Columbus” winners (along with a few other truly exceptional comics who didn’t happen to claim that arbitrary bellwether, but, hey, Columbus, it’s your arbitrary bellwether, so I thought it worth mentioning). This city has moved away the main proprietor of shows that feature national touring headliners outside of the Funny Bone (even though he is gracious enough to still occasionally run said shows in Columbus, although at an understandably diminished clip). And, ultimately, this city has forced many other comics, including myself, to contemplate, or in many cases (including my own), fully plan, a move to another city within the next calendar year.
The only thing in the way of my move is a lease that I’m waiting out like an old man in hospice care waiting out his last, painful days in hesitation, but ultimate hope, that the next step will be the first in a bright and fruitful future.
In the two years since the initial “Comedy Sandwich” article came out, I have lost the two shows that I had recently procured at the time of that article’s publication. The reason for the demise of both shows? Attendance. Both shows were at great, established venues — Circus and ShadowboxLive. And, more importantly, the people I worked with — Michael Irwin at Circus and Jimmy Mak at Shadowbox—were immensely supportive from inception through production. Both men enjoyed comedy and relished the opportunity to give stage time and a little extra cheddar to local and regional acts. However, in both cases, mediocre, and too often miniscule, attendance eventually made both shows financially unfeasible.
And, at this point, I think we can put the “dissemination of information” argument to rest for why people don’t come out to shows. I think myself and every comic I know that is worth their bare minimal amount of salt as a self-promoter has used Facebook, Twitter, and the like to an obscene degree to get information about their shows out to all of their friends and followers, whether they be real, digital, or both. ColumbusisFunny.com lasted for years as a central, updated hub of information and show schedules for the Columbus comedy scene. However, that site has faded into the binary ether. As the chief administrator of ColumbusisFunny.com, when you see multiple shows, including your own, die from apathy, you decide, much like the supportive producers who nixed the shows, that the expensive server space renewal isn’t worth the attendance (or lack thereof) that the information on said server space in generating.
Traditional media has also been in place through the push of the past two years only to be met with similar indifference. Jesse Tigges at Columbus Alive has championed stories about local shows and the comics that populate them at a commendable rate. The Alive as a publication has also made a greatly appreciated habit of producing a cover story on comedy once a year. Walker and Anne Evans, along with supporting some of my shows with the sweet, sweet gift of attendance, have commissioned write ups and reviews for the now defunct Circus and Shadowbox shows.
Digital or analog. Paper or computer screen. New media or traditional. The info was out there and easily accessible.
Maybe it’s just Columbus. Maybe for all it’s huff and puff to the contrary, Columbus is filled with tame masses who would, literally and figuratively, take a bland but safe and predictable Applebee’s meal to that of more local and adventurous fare. When Judah Friedlander — a nationally touring headliner with TV credits (Frank from 30 Rock!) — came to Woodlands Tavern in 2012, he garnered an audience, over two shows, that would struggle to fill half of the Funny Bone’s showroom. However, he was invited to headline a full weekend of shows at the Funny Bone a year later. The Woodlands shows got write-ups in The Alive and Columbus Underground, and Woodlands paid for a substantial amount of traditional advertising for the shows. However, at Woodlands nobody came to see Judah relative to the crowds he attained at a traditional comedy club in the same city only a year later. Although singular and anecdotal, I don’t think any story can more point to a city that, primarily, gets it’s meals from Applebee’s and it’s laughs from the Funny Bone.
I think the relatively no-name and substantially less-fame local comic is also left in the dark of the shadow cast by the Funny Bone. I have to prologue the rest of this by saying that I am way past the punk-kid, fuck-the-club attitude that every comic has early on and (hopefully) drops as soon as possible. I have no problem with the Funny Bone in any grand or general sense — or any other club for that matter (and double props to any club doing it the right way — shout out, Go Banana’s in Cincinnati). The problem I have is with the masses of Columbus who use the Funny Bone as a magnet for their narrow, unambitious comedic interests. Every time I meet someone and they find out I’m a comic, their first question is almost inevitably, “Do you ever perform at the Funny Bone?” When I mutter, “Sometimes,” and rant off a litany of other shows around town I perform on — most of them usually closer to where they live and with a cheaper cover — they almost exclusively come back with, “Well, let me know next time you’re at the Funny Bone. I’ll stop out.”
Forgive another food analogy (remember, I’m a Midwesterner too), but it reminds me of those Walmart steak commercials. In the commercials, patrons at a fancy steakhouse are fed steaks from Walmart and, after they give kind words and accolades about the steaks, are told that the steaks came from Walmart — a great surprise to the patrons. I have been on the Funny Bone stage before. And, while not always, a vast majority of the time my set goes anywhere from good to quite well. And, every time that happens, I want someone to throw on the house lights, run out from backstage, and tell the crowd, “Would you believe that you can see this ‘Funny Bone comic’ almost any night of the week around town for a few bucks or sometimes free?”
Stop looking at the steakhouse, Columbus, and start looking at the meat.
Now, in the above, I’m just referring to the masses. The general public of the city. But, to be fair, any art form that does not take even a small market share of that has no sustainable future. I think there is a group of people in this city that scours around for unique shows and happenings throughout town. Unfortunately, if I were pressed to guess, I would put the number of people in this city who habitat that group at around 250. And here’s the more unfortunate breakdown of the group. Of those initial 250, about 80 are performers and artists themselves. While, in spirit, these may be the most supportive of the herd, they are also the hardest to regularly wrangle out to shows. Because they’re performers. Speaking as a performer, when you spend multiple days a week on or around a stage, you are likely to pass up a performance by even your favorite band for a few drinks at the bar or a Netflix marathon at home. Then, you have another 100 people who are in that group just to say they are in that group. People who will show up to your show as long as it’s at an impressively taggable venue (with, hopefully, impressively taggable people), so all their Facebook friends can, more hopefully, be jealous of where they were and who they were with. They’ll walk in the door and straight up to a balcony or out to a patio where they can talk about how great the act on stage is as they seemingly avoid that stage to remain in conversations with people of inflated importance about the act.
That leaves about 70 people who just generally dig a good goings-on in the city. And, fortunately, a few of those people come out to comedy. And, to those few people — and very intentionally, only those few people — thank you. The people who have supported comedy in this city, as a “fan”, in a meaningful way are few but mighty. Most have been in it for years and have not lost their vigor for the scene over time. Those that qualify know who they are — and are likely the only ones that will click through the link to this article when I share it on Facebook. So, thanks for the click-through. And, while you’re here, one more time, thank you for being a fan (sung to the theme of “The Golden Girls”). Sure, I probably owe at least a little bit of gratitude to anyone that ever paid $5 to come see me wax funny, but as a Cleveland native and lover of all of Cleveland’s pro-sport teams, I will always appreciate the die-hard over the fair-weather. And while I love them, they are simply not enough. They are akin to a dedicated and passionate TV show fanbase writing letters to network executives to save a program that is irreversibly headed toward cancellation.
If the first “Comedy Sandwich” article was an article of “why,” I think this article is simply an article of “is.” The first article looked at why people don’t come out to shows and what can be done to remedy that. Two years of remedies, effort, and hours of written, scrapped, and perfected material later, the fact is that people don’t come out to shows. It just is. I’m mildly ambivalent to finding out why anymore — and in full fledged I-don’t-give-a-fuck mode when it comes to how.
The amount of quality shows in this city are shrinking and the amount of quality performers to fill the available slots are shrinking even faster. And whether that is the result of a misstep in overall scene promotion or the collective community saying, “we heard you, and we decided we don’t give a shit,” the fact is that the scene is subsiding.
Most of the truly talented performers have left. The ones that are still here won’t be for much longer. Most will, thankfully, make a physical move to a more supportive and invigorating city while, sadly, many will make a spiritual move towards their day jobs as the primary career path they set for themselves no longer remains financially or creatively viable.
The deceleration in the introductory quote that, “that’ll be the end of everything,” might sound, at best, hyperbolic and, at worst, narcissistic, but I believe it to be true. I’m not saying that the comics in this city that are unwilling or unable to move yet lack any special talent or gumption that me or my contemporaries have, but why would they try to grow the scene? A case study has unfolded right before their eyes and the results are not encouraging. If they decide to stay in the city, they can hit a few mics around town and travel to the variety of shows offered regionally — many within a two-hour car ride — to get better then pick a coast and go. Or, they can make a move to one of the many lush, second-tier cities around the country that can get them better work, connections, and experience and then choose east or west. Either way, to pump valuable time and energy into propping up a scene over one’s own career seems like a path no new comic would choose in this town — nor one I’d recommend to them.
So, that’s it, maybe for everything, but for me for sure. And don’t keep your eye out for a farewell show. There won’t be one. I see no need to commemorate my creative departure from a city that was indifferent to me when I creatively populated it.
Anybody in Columbus that will miss my comedy is likely a friend of mine to the order that I’d be happy to let you visit me and crash on my couch. You make the drive. We’ll both have more fun that way.
In the meantime, you can catch Justin on Friday at 15 & Killin’ It at Wild Goose along with Travis Irvine, Dan Wilburn, Laura Sanders, Sumukh Torgalkar and others. Doors open at 8pm and tickets are $8 at the door.
Photo by Walker Evans.