The other day I threw out a hypothetical scenario and asked what comedians thought would happen if they got paid based on some kind of audience voting mechanism at shows. I was really just kind of thinking aloud and then posted a similar question on the Connected Comedy Facebook page.
The reaction I got shocked me.
The vast majority of comedians who responded acted like it was an insane suggestion and fired off a barrage of comments about what a terrible idea it was and how comics deserve to be paid no matter what the audience thinks of them. They even compared a comic’s act to a plate of bad food that a restaurant might serve – you should be paid regardless of whether the customer enjoyed it or not.
And it didn’t stop there.
Lots of commenters went on to talk about how allowing the audience to determine payment for comedians would result in terrible comedy, hack jokes, and audiences packed with friends of comics who would unfavorably sway the vote to make their buddy more money.
Honestly, it was really eye-opening on a lot of levels to see where so many comics (admittedly, many of them just starting out) are coming from. It also brought to light something else…
Lots of comedians hate comedy audiences.
Those comics are going to fail, and here’s why…
[NOTE: This isn’t about the specific idea of the audience determining pay any more, but rather the underlying attitude of the reactions that idea generated.]
You Don’t Need To Please Every Audience, You Need To Find YOUR Audience
A lot of the reactions I got were coming from comics who seem to assume that the hypothetical audience they would perform for wouldn’t “get” them and therefore wouldn’t choose to pay them their fair share of the money. Setting aside the weird mix of ego and insecurity that this reveals, what’s really interesting is that it also reveals that most comics assume they’ll perform for people that aren’t their target audience.
If you have a particular style of comedy or niche audience you believe will enjoy you, then you should concentrate on seeking out opportunities to perform for those people. You’re never going to please everybody so don’t even bother trying – focus on who is most likely to enjoy you. That’s who will ultimately determine your success or failure.
Nobody Owes You Anything
There’s clearly an assumption that venues, promoters, or bookers owe you something and that you have some inherent right to get paid for standing on somebody else’s stage and telling jokes to somebody else’s crowd on somebody else’s dime. That’s just not true.
If somebody promises you payment, they should pay you, but I don’t believe that anybody has to promise to pay you any more than the value you provide. And the reality is that the value you provide is directly connected to the number of people that come to see you, the experience they have while seeing you, and the likelihood they’ll come back to see you (or the venue) again.
That, plus how easy or difficult you would be to replace with somebody else, is what determines what you’re entitled to in terms of payment. So really, whether you like it or not, it’s ultimately the audience determining your payment even if you may not realize it. Speaking of which…
The Industry Doesn’t Want You, They Want Your Audience
You might think bookers are booking you for your talent, but they’re really more interested in your audience. You’re just a middle man to help them put people in the seats and/or keep them there. You might not realize this when you’re starting out on the open mic circuit, but you certainly will learn it as you move up the ladder.
There’s tons of feature acts who may be “better” than some headliner who happens to play the wacky neighbor on a TV series and do standup as a hobby/cash grab, but the TV guy will get the bookings and the bucks because he/she attracts an audience to their shows. They sell tickets and that’s ultimately what it’s about.
Most comics spend so much time trying to get the industry to notice/like them that they don’t even realize the industry is actually looking for is people with an audience.
Yes, you have to be good to build an audience. But it’s not enough to just be good – you have to understand that the power lies with the audience you can summon as much as it does your act.
We’re Living In A World Where The Audience Controls Everything
This shift of power to the audience is something that extends way beyond just the world of comedy. Look around you – music, business, media, technology, they’re all increasingly driven (and monetized) by audience reaction as opposed to the pre-Internet world where a select few gatekeepers determined who got paid and for what.
The #1 song on Billboard right now is “The Harlem Shake” because the audience put it there, not radio. The Veronica Mars movie is happening (in part) because the show’s fans are funding/clamoring for it.
In a world where the audience dictates success or failure to such a large degree it’s foolish to think comedy should/will operate differently. Do you think Comedy Central is more or less powerful than it was 10 years ago? Just something to think about…
Have Some Balls
Perhaps the most discouraging thing about the reactions I got to my original question was that so few comics actually assumed they would succeed in an audience-driven model.
It was amazing – especially considering so many comics talk about how they kill each weekend – that so few of them believed an audience vote would actually make them more money than they currently earn at a show.
In short, they assumed they’d be losers. That the audience wouldn’t like them enough to pay them. That’s kind of sad, don’t you think?
As I talk about all the time on this site, I believe it’s important to be willing to experiment, to believe you can succeed, and to put the audience first.
Sure, this was only a hypothetical scenario, but unfortunately it seems like there’s not a whole lot of comedians that share those beliefs.