Free or $5: Pricing shows in a recession

The ongoing global recession already has impacted live stand-up comedy in a variety of ways. More Americans certainly are seeking out laughs to either escape and/or confront their real-life situations. But they have less money to spend on comedy. And comedians themselves are hurting just as much as people with office or factory jobs. First-hand and anecdotal reports coming in to me from stand-ups on the road seem to indicate that the shows are going on, so long as the ticket prices are right. As in less than $40. The bigger-ticket comics are proving to be the tougher draws. Some clubs with weeklong stints may cut a weeknight performance here or there, or one of the multiple weekend slots. Then again, the recession we experienced 26-27 years ago also coincided with the stand-up comedy boom. For what that's worth.

The other trend I've noticed lately is that as bigger clubs try to keep drawing crowds by offering free or radically-reduced shows, some of the previously free indie rooms are being forced to move the other way to pay. A couple of examples of the former include the Laugh Factory in Hollywood comping tickets on Thursdays for anyone who proves they're currently unemployed, and in NYC, Comix hosts a regular Five For $5 showcase (there's one tonight featuring Julian McCullough, Reese Waters, Sean Patton, Nikki Glaser, Shane Mauss and Morgan Murphy, which is actually six for $5). Many of NYC's free shows have no problems packing the rooms because it's a cheap, easy and fun night out. At least a couple of free NYC comedy shows, however, are now charging $5, including Greg Johnson and Jacqueline Novak's Sunday nighter at Pianos, and Liam McEneaney's "Tell Your Friends" at the Lolita Bar on Mondays. Why?

I think McEneaney put it well when he delivered the news to his Facebook group: "I know I know, now's a bad time to be asking our friends to pay us money, and we realize that a few of you may opt to no longer come out to the show. Believe me, I can understand. Unfortunately, running a show, even a free show in a bar basement, costs money, and we decided that to continue bringing you the best comedy show in this city, and some of the best acts in the world, we would need to find a way to brace these costs."

How is the economy impacting your corner of the comedy world? Please share your stories.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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5 thoughts on “Free or $5: Pricing shows in a recession

  1. Sean…This is unfair…this is ridiculous…
    Lolita/Liam & Pianos/Greg & Jacqueline charging $5 bucks for their show is not only worth it— in fact, they have most of the same, and many better, comedians as the ones you mentioned in the Comix deal!!! But whereas they’re questioned, Comix with an X is praised???
    Additionally, I would rather hang out and drink at Lolita or Pianos than Comix.
    Finally, as a comedy fan and lover, I would never condone giving it out for free all the time. That’s just wrong!!!!!
    This may be the last time I visit your website…………….

  2. Slow down, there, Gordon!
    I think you missed my point. I’m not blaming or faulting Liam, or Greg & Jacqueline for having to charge a nominal cover. That’s why I quoted Liam. My point is that the recession is forcing the big clubs to reduce prices, while some of the independently-produced shows need to raise some money instead of staying free. Liam, Greg and Jacqueline, and thousands of other comics need to earn money just as much as the big clubs need to maintain their bottom lines.
    This isn’t about taking sides.
    Although maybe it is worth having a separate discussion on the impact of producing free comedy shows versus the benefit of getting exposure through them.

  3. I wouldn’t hesitate to pay for any of the weeknight comedy shows around NYC – TYF, Whiplash, Sweet… I’m sure I’m not alone, and I’m also sure the producers and/or venue is aware of this. As for the mainstream clubs, it’s safe to assume they make their money off the menu, so it’s all about getting bodies in the door (whether they paid big bucks for their ticket or not).
    In less civilized corners of North America, I think charging admission for a show – even $1 – is a good policy to have, regardless of the economy or production costs. All cases of shitty-audience-members-ruining-shows I’ve witnessed have been in no-cover rooms.

  4. Sunday Night Stand-Up (at Three of Cups) continues to be free with the same great talent you see at other shows and, so far, not one shitty audience member ruining the show.
    I know there are weird parameters set up with what is known as the NYC “alt” scene, but a show is only as funny as it’s lineup.
    Sunday Night Stand-Up continues to have some of the best lineups around town in addition to other quality shows (that don’t charge) such as We’re All Friends Here, Don’t Touch Me There, Punch Up Your Life, Derrick, and C.S.L. at Kabin.

  5. Free or $5 for shows is fine with me. I don’t go to the larger comedy clubs as often because by the time you purchase drink or item minimums along with your tickets, it often comes out to $40 or $50.
    Also you have to deal with comics making broad jokes for the tourists in the room. It can still be good, but in general, I attend the free or cheap alt-comedy shows when I get a chance, unless it’s someone in a big club I’m very excited to see.

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