Can You Be Too Famous to Be Funny?

Comedy Features stand-up
Can You Be Too Famous to Be Funny?

Comedy is not glamorous. The millionaire club for comedy is way, way, way smaller than it is for musicians and actors. Even the more popular, household names are reluctant to call themselves “celebrities,” and maybe that’s a good thing.

Every comedian wants to be successful, but not everyone wants to be a celebrity. I often think of Tracy Morgan’s 30 Rock persona, a stand-up comedian born into poverty who grows up to be one of the most successful and ridiculous network stars. In the season four premiere, Jack tells Tracy that he’s been rich for so long it might be affecting his act. A cutaway scene illustrates Tracy’s atrophied stand-up act as he lampoons how people eat lobster on St. Bart’s before screaming at an audience member to avert his gaze.

Tracy’s act begins to suffer as he navigates the comedy scene wearing diamond-encrusted horse blinders. Whenever I see this episode now, I’m instantly reminded of Jerry Seinfeld and his railing against college gigs in 2015. It’s not necessarily Seinfled’s riches turning the everyman into a completely unrelatable figure that reminds me of Tracy, but more so his aggressively snobbish attitude towards an indifferent audience. Speaking to City Pages before his traditional state of the union address at Just For Laughs that summer, Andy Kindler nailed the true source of Seinfeld’s frustrations. “He did this joke about a gay French king,” Kindler said, “and unlike Richard Pryor, who expected controversy, Jerry Seinfeld expects love at all times.”

It’s not just any love Seinfeld expects, but that Carrie Bradshaw brand of “ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can’t live without each other love.” You know, that dumb shit. It’s what he’s fed off of for so long that receiving anything less feels like an unnatural betrayal. It makes you wonder — *jumps on bed — is it possible to be too famous to be funny?

We know fame is a double-edged sword. Singers sing about it and Judd Apatow’s Funny People teased at exploring how wealth and success don’t equal happiness, but I want to know specifically at what point do your fans—and you, yourself—become unreliable critics of your comedy?

While no position across the fame spectrum makes you more or less capable of writing funny material, what fame does seem to do is destroy any sense of an authentic feedback loop. It takes years of incredible skill and comedic prowess to get to a level of acclaim to be able to sell out a stadium, but once you get to that level, the credibility of your audience crumbles.

Look at some comics on that top shelf, such as Aziz Ansari and Kevin Hart (oof, can’t help notice that pattern, too). They churned out specials like new Oreo flavors with each new venue expanding significantly, culminating in Madison Square Garden and London’s O2 Arena, respectively. Each is performing at places better equipped for LeBron James than for stand-up comedy, and as the seating capacity increases, the quality of material seems to go way down. So why do they continue to sell tickets so well if their comedy isn’t as good as it used to be?

Basically, these comedians become so popular that they revert back to a bringer-mic level of performance. Much like the first-timer who brought their entire family and frat house to see him tell jokes, the Seinfelds, Harts and Chappelles of the world will always kill the for the same reason Sigma Steve and his street jokes kill: because they stacked the room with people that didn’t require any winning over. They don’t need to listen to their buddy speak to decide if they’re funny, because the thrill of seeing them is enough.

This is the mountain top fame takes you to. Every fan has become your mom. You’re playing for a stadium full of moms and you’re their special little boy. You can crash your BMW and still get a new one in time for homecoming (in this case, the BMW is a $30 million Netflix special). You do not need to try in order to be rewarded handsomely, so why bother? What did you learn from that experience? Nothing, because you didn’t need to, and that is comedy poison.

Often when a celebrity comedian slams a “fuck this crowd” label on an entire genre of gigs (colleges, alt rooms, foreign cities) it means they scoff at having to work for a laugh. These veterans are going from rooms where everyone knows your name to rooms where people have only heard of you. These aren’t stans, they do not exalt you merely for walking on stage, and so, for the first time in years, you have to work for it.

Comedy is ever-evolving. You stop trying, you become stagnant and boring. Sure, you’ll likely never go hungry, but how can you take pride in your work when it’s this lazy?

Psychologists have done research to find the income satiation point, the point where you achieve life satisfaction and everyday happiness and at what point does that stop significantly growing (at most, these reports top out at $150k). So while we see that wealth has a breaking point for happiness, does fame have its own satiation point for the quality of comedy?

Part of what propels people to the top is oversaturation, which can do more harm than good for a comedian. A comedian’s first hour is something special. For many, it serves as an introduction to the audience, just as the journey of workshopping these jokes was a series of introductions. As more specials are planned, the journey to each is made of fewer and fewer introductions as their popularity steadily rises. The invaluable, impartial third party becomes increasingly rare as you climb the ladder of success. After all, if someone is willing to send death threats to a stranger on Twitter from a dummy account for gently disliking a TV show you made a cameo on, can that person really be objective enough to tell you if your Uber joke needs work?

My point is not to knock these specific celebrity comedians, but it is something to think about for newer comedians on the rise. What do you do when you can no longer do pre-planned spots? How do you effectively workshop material when every move you make has to be a secret? It’s the comedy industry’s version of too much of a good thing. It’s like, congrats, you’ve obtained 50 adorable puppies, but now you have no room for them, you can’t walk them in an effective manner, and you don’t have the proper time for all of them and one is going to think you don’t love it and how dare that terrible thought befall a good boy/girl.

The model of success I’ve heard most comedians dream of emulating is that of Kyle Kinane. He’s hit all the major milestones: late-night sets, albums, an hour special (three in total), but the most enviable trait is his touring routine. While Kinane’s name will still pop up at some of the bigger clubs from time to time, he’s largely been able to forgo the traditional comedy club to perform at rock clubs and theatres granting him more freedom in how to run the show than he’d normally have. He’s performing at large capacity venues but not arenas, and he has acquired a dedicated fanbase that loves him but not in an “emoji bomb a stranger on Instagram” level of stanning like a Swiftie.

Comedy definitely has a sweet spot. It’s the difference between being theatre famous and stadium famous, from a standard comedy special to a mega, post-20-year hiatus four-special deal. From being able to live wherever you want to having three homes. For the aspiring young comic out there, shoot for the moon, but aim like a stormtrooper.

Olivia Cathcart is Paste’s assistant comedy editor.

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