There’s cash?in those laughs

2014-11-11 08:00

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Stand-up comedians have crafted an industry from an art form. Christina Kennedy follows the cash trail

Stand-up comedy is a funny business – in more ways than one. Since it’s hard to tell jokes on an empty stomach, South African comedians are working hard on building their brands and broadening their revenue streams to ensure they earn enough cash.

The explosion of the local comedy circuit in recent years has given birth to a new generation of superstars with the likes of Trevor Noah cracking it big in the US and Loyiso Gola’s Late Nite News twice being nominated for an Emmy award in the international comedy category.

But there are also many lesser-known giggle merchants these days, suggesting there is enough work out there for ordinary “jobbing” comics.

According to funny girl Tumi Morake the comedy scene “is growing, exciting and it is evolving”.

She says: “Successful comedians in this country don’t all fit the same profile: some are making their money strictly on the circuit, some on big shows, some through corporate work and some through all of the above. We are breaking into international circuits and even travelling between countries like it’s no big deal. It is awesome.”

Most professional comedians earn the bulk of their income from corporate shows, not public comedy gigs. But there’s always the danger that you sacrifice authenticity in chasing the big bucks. But local stand-up legend John Vlismas insists comedy can coexist harmoniously as a business and an art form.

He says: “What’s happened is that an industry has begun to take shape around the art form. The administration of the art has become a viable proposition for businesspeople.”

With partner Taffia Keight, Vlismas also runs Whacked Comedy, a bustling booking and management agency with a floating tally of about 60 comedians on its books.

But comedy, like other forms of live entertainment, is feeling the pinch, warns Keight – box office takings have taken a knock, even for established events.

“Just as the number of comics has increased, so have the formats in which the public consumes comedy. Some huge shows do really well, some tank?...?some club nights really pump while others limp along. And the old mainstay of corporate comedy seems to chug along according to the economic tide,” says Keight.

Some contend it is a simple matter of supply and demand.

Jason Goliath, “the strangely sexy fat guy” who many will recognise from television commercials, says: “The rate of comedians is growing in proportion to the demand for comedy.”

He and his partners started up AWEdnesday comedy jams in Joburg three years ago. Today, Goliath & Goliath has grown into a company with several regular gigs, including at the POPArt centre in Joburg’s Maboneng Precinct on Sundays.

But much of their work comes from nonpublic avenues such as corporate bookings, emceeing, facilitating workshops and even “writing a business’s messaging in an entertaining fashion”.

Goliath says: “You’ve got to think of it as a business. If we breed good comedians by providing stages for them to perform on, we will breed audiences too.

“I come from a business background [Goliath was previously an insurance broker] and I know that nothing just happens. You need to create markets and create the infrastructure to sustain those markets.”

According to Goliath, decent cash flow is essential to becoming a professional comic, because living a “hand-to-mouth” existence from one club gig to another is just not sustainable – especially when you factor in costs such as marketing.

“A hungry comedian is not a funny comedian,” he says.

Daniel Friedman, aka Deep Fried Man, started comedy part time in 2010, but didn’t quit his day job until he was certain he could make it work.

“I didn’t think of it as a potential career at first,” he admits. “I went from show to show, wondering: ‘Can I make people laugh?’” And he has done that.

Friedman was named best newcomer at the inaugural Comics’ Choice Awards, the Parkers Comedy Showdown in 2010, and received a Standard Bank Ovation Award at the 2011 National Arts Festival.

Among his regular gigs is a weekly slot on Gola’s Late Nite News on e.tv and its news channel eNCA, which has raised his public profile. He also credits Comedy Central on DStv with helping boost South Africa’s “burgeoning” comedy scene.

It was no accident the channel established a presence here, he remarks. “Comedy Central is owned by Viacom, one of the biggest corporations in the world. It didn’t come to South Africa for charity – it was an informed business decision. But it reflects well on the comedy scene.”

Despite admitting that “I’m not much of a business mind”, Friedman has become more calculating when it comes to the evolution of his personal brand. He has created a persona for himself, wearing a trademark fedora and bow tie on stage, and now approaches his profession more analytically – as a business instead of a hobby.

Goliath says: “A key part of your strategy is your brand. If it has quality and authenticity, and has been vetted by the market, it gives you immediate credibility.”

Morake says it’s possible to make a living out of stand-up comedy full time “if you’re consistently good, keep your material current and work hard at your craft”. As one of the few prominent female comics on the scene, she believes being a drawcard is more about proving one’s mettle than having a novelty factor.

Goliath sees South African comedy as being in its infancy and undergoing a natural growth spurt.

“I think we are part of the third generation of South African stand-up comedians if you think of Joe Parker and Mel Miller being the first; and John Vlismas, Loyiso Gola and David Kau being part of the second. They all opened doors for the third wave of comedians. But the fourth generation is going to need more platforms.”

He says unlike in the music industry, for example, comedians are not in competition with each other. “When I do well, it creates a need and a desire for more comedy – a greater market and a greater appetite for comedy in that market.”

Vlismas is slightly more cynical, hinting that the local comedy market is finite and almost saturated.

“There is a lot of new talent in the comedy sphere and there has been a flood of fresh artists.

“But as always, the top few will enjoy sustained success, the middle band will settle into clubs and smaller corporate fee brackets – or find work in associated fields – and the lower end will hopefully be managed off the scene,” he says.

Step up to the mic

So, you want to be a comedian? Jason Goliath offers a few tips for those brave souls who plan to enter the business of comedy:

»?Make sure you can sustain yourself financially. “As a booker, I don’t want the risk of comedians not being able to afford transport to get to the gig and go home again.”

»?Stay in your day job as long as possible, until you have at least six months’ salary saved up in the bank, and do comedy after hours.

»?Do market research – understand what the customer wants.

»?A lot of young cats think just being funny is enough. It’s not. Be strategic – get yourself to as many comedy clubs as possible. “When I started out, I went to comedy shows six nights a week for six weeks and started buying all the guys drinks – Loyiso Gola, Tats Nkonzo, Kagiso Lediga – so I could steal info from them and infiltrate their system.”

“After a while, they started buying me drinks.”

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