Recession humor enjoys global boom
Audiences are increasingly turning to comedy to ease the recession blues.
Boston — What's the difference between an investment banker and a pizza?
A pizza can feed a family of five.
Recession humor is everywhere. On TV. On the Internet. The worse the economy gets, it seems, the more Americans need to laugh.
That's creating a business opportunity for comedians.
Every Wednesday in a small, cramped basement at Boston's historic Fanueil Hall, Mottley's Comedy Club presents the "Bailout Show." The comedy can be about the economy or not. The twist is that people who bring a copy of their layoff letters or unemployment check stubs get in for free along with a friend.
"A lot of people lost their jobs and need a good laugh," says Jon Lincoln, host of the weekly "Bailout Show" and Mottley's co-owner. "Comedy offers an escape for people, but at the same time shows them they aren't alone. Oftentimes comics talk about what is going on in the world and they spin it to be funny. No matter how bad things get there is always time to have fun." (Since there's no comic employment rate or national comedy index, the impact of the recession isn't easy to pin down.)
Comedy television programming has shown signs of increasing as well. Last year, viewership of Comedy Central's weeknight programs "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" increased by 8 and 9 percent, respectively, according to Forbes. The average age of viewers also increased for both programs by roughly five years each, a sign that the shows are reaching a broader audience.
Though the recession has closed some comedy clubs, new ones keep popping up around the United States. In Boston, some clubs have reported ticket-sale increases of up to 10 percent. In Syracuse, N.Y., a nearly 3,000-seat venue is selling out for stand-up shows.
"Clubs seem to have weathered the recession reasonably well," says Yoram Bauman, a comedian and instructor at the University of Washington in Seattle's Program on the Environment who calls himself the world's first "Stand-Up Economist." [Editor's note: This sentence was changed to accurately describe Dr. Bauman's position.]
"Although I'm just speculating here, one of the advantages of the comedy scene is that wages are flexible," he says. "Maybe two years ago, headliners were getting $2,000 per weekend, and now maybe they're just getting $1,500. That kind of flexibility, not just for comics but also for ticket prices, would help the whole industry adjust to changes in overall economic conditions."
It's not just the major cities such as Los Angeles that have been succeeding, despite the economy.
In Las Vegas, which has the highest foreclosure and unemployment rates in the US, two clubs opened within a week of each other in June. In Phoenix, which has the nation's eighth-highest foreclosure rate for major metro areas, a new 600-seat mega comedy club was just announced this year.
The trend is even spilling into other nations. Last year's annual Edinburgh (Scotland) Festival Fringe saw a 9 percent rise in ticket sales over the previous record, set in 2007, despite Britain's economic problems. A third of the 34,000 performances were stand-up comedy, up nearly 3,000 from the year before.
And what about the comedians? Myq Kaplan, who recently released his first CD, titled "Vegan Mind Meld," says that the recession has not affected his ability to get work as a comedian.
Although corporations are cutting back on comedy entertainment, he's been getting plenty of work in clubs. Earlier this year, for example, he did a series of shows in hard-hit Detroit.
"It turned out to be one of the best weeks I saw this year," says Mr. Kaplan, who is based in New York. "The club was packed for nearly every show, the audiences were in superhigh spirits, and some jokes about the recession got the best reactions I'd seen nearly anywhere around the country," Kaplan says, "which I presume is due to the fact that these people really related to it because they were experiencing hard times, but had great senses of humor about it."
Ultimately, stand-up is a cheap night on the town.
"The movies might be equally reasonable, but ticket prices do keep going up, especially with 3-D becoming as popular as it is," he says. "But comedy shows are always 3-D. And when you yell at the movies, they don't yell back like a comic can. P.S.: Don't yell at the comic, just listen."