Just Because You're Famous Doesn't Mean You're Funny: Stand-up Comedy's Transfer Student Problem

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Just Because You're Famous Doesn't Mean You're Funny: Stand-up Comedy's Transfer Student Problem

Earlier this summer, Netflix’s designated comedy twitter account asked its followers, “Which celebrity would you want to see randomly try stand-up comedy?” What a fun, flirty way to suggest anybody can just decide to be a comedian. Who needs to do their 10,000 hours when you have 1 million people following the Twitter account that you co-write with your publicist! After all, anybody can just be president, apparently.

What separates Netflix’s tweet from your other run-of-the-mill quote-tweet games is that this kind of thing actually happens, and sadly, pretty often, too. People with even a moderate amount of clout and experience in another entertainment field, whether it be working as a professional athlete, actor, red carpet reporter, radio DJ, meme aggregator, or pop singer, can just stroll onto the most vaunted stages and be handed a mic. In 2015, Madonna did stand-up as a gimmick on The Tonight Show in a year where only 19 stand-up performances were booked over the course of 205 episodes (only three of which were performed by women). NBA player Blake Griffin has performed on more Just For Laughs shows than comedians with critically acclaimed albums (not to mention his time “interning” for internet comedy content machine Funny Or Die during the 2011 NBA lockout). It’s a bit of a problem.

There’s no official term for it, but these people are essentially comedy’s version of a college transfer student. They change schools expecting all of their prior credits to seamlessly transfer over with no prerequisites to fulfill before diving straight into senior-level courses. I can tell you from experience, that’s not happening. And let me be clear, this is not the equivalent of moving across town to finish your English major at Duke instead of UNC. You’re switching from English to physics and expecting an even exchange rate (although Harvard or Yale would make a more accurate analogy for reasons that’ll never not be bonkers to me).

I’m not one to harp on the idea of “paying your dues.” Your success is not invalid because you didn’t have to put up with as much unnecessary bullshit as those who came up during the ‘80s comedy boom. There’s no time table or set route you must take in order to get a comedy special or headline a major festival. Some people don’t break through until after 10 years in, while for some it takes as little as just a few years. But the difference is actually doing the work. That means doing open mics, bar shows, guest sets, feature sets, and gradually growing your talent on stage and filling up your calendar on the merits of your work and not via a reputation achieved through any medium other than stand-up (I mean, yes, nothing is truly a meritocracy but you get it).

Having a guest role on Modern Family is not a substitute for years of writing and performing stand-up. Even years of improv training does not for a good stand-up comedian make—it’s just a completely different game. LeBon James is the very definition of an athlete and an ungodly good basketball player, but that doesn’t mean he could play soccer for his beloved Liverpool (too tall). There’s a reason Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson are the only major multisport athletes of note from the last 40 years out of thousands (millions?) of other pros. These skills just don’t automatically transfer over, or at least they cannot be performed on the same level as their first trade which they only reached after years and years of dedication and training. It’s like prepping an actor for a movie about dance. You can give them lessons in the weeks leading up to production, but you’re still going to have to hire a professional ballerina for some shots.

But why does this happen? In what other profession could you do this? Nobody holds competitions to see what comedian can be the best accountant for one night, and yet I’ve sat on a panel judging a bunch of accountants’ first stab at writing jokes. Personally, I’d rather watch a comedian who’s been doing this for 20 years over a reality star who’s been at it for 20 seconds, so why do gatekeepers treat their stand-up institutions like some “take your ‘90s child star to work” day?

It’s not because these transfer students love stand-up comedy. It’s not because they respect the art and what other standups do, because if they did, then they’d care about creating a set they can be proud of. They’d do the work instead of booking themselves to headline theaters for an hour they can’t fill. They wouldn’t have their publicists try to email blast their way onto a “best of” list three months into their comedy careers. They do it because it’s not about comedy, it’s about getting the most money by doing the least. The only thing they have to sell is their name and sadly people will buy it for the same reason people will go see their coworker’s first open mic, for the thrill of seeing something… familiar.

It’s painful to watch these people go through the same delusions all open mic’ers go through, thinking they have 45 minutes of gold when they actually have one minute of jokes and 4 minutes of nonsense. An auto mechanic of 20 years doesn’t believe they can just hop onto the local hospital’s surgery rotation because they’re good at “fixing things” but these guys think that after doing two bar shows they’re ready for “the next big thing.” They’re not even ready for the next logical thing. This is a marathon, not a sprint, but instead of doing some quad stretches, they’d rather Uber to the finish line for no other reason than they can.

It’s even more painful to watch who they cut off on the way. At many of these shows, they bill themselves as the headliner, which means nothing more than going last as they’ll do just as much time, if not less, than a series of individual openers. And while these might be opportunities to take home a decent paycheck for opening acts who usually get paid in exposure and PBR, they’re definitely not being paid an amount proportional to the celebrity they just buried.

It’s all a money grab, but it’s a short sighted one for those who book them. Yes, you’ll probably sell some tickets. However, if it’s not due to their material but rather for the thrill of being in the same room as them, then you won’t get repeat customers, not for their return visit or for anybody else you may book in the future. You can piggyback off a YouTuber’s clout and have them host your streaming series or have a Twitter star close out your late night show but don’t be surprised when your editors have to cut out 90% of their footage or pull their set entirely from the internet dooming it to only exist on obscure Reddit pages. SNL might get big ratings from certain superstar hosts, but it’s the staying power of their iconic cast members that’s kept them on the air for over 40 seasons.

In a follow-up tweet, Netflix clarified that this was “just a hypothetical.” Would any of us be surprised to see them try after so many networks have spent the last few years cutting wild checks for multiple comedians’ first specials in over a decade? Or maybe, I don’t know, something like… Brad Paisley’s Comedy Rodeo, the 2017 Netflix stand-up special that starred the country singer, five comedians, and David Hasselhoff.

The gatekeeping in stand-up is already pretty ridiculous. I often wonder, when comedy does come back, who will return with it? Some comedians might not be able to financially afford to come back to this life after the pandemic subsides, but if they do, will there still be a place for them? Or will the industry continue to reward the already handsomely rewarded and shortsightedly “rebrand” this industry in what could be stand-up comedy’s pivot-to-video moment?

Sorry, but we can not! Keep giving! The biggest jobs! To the people! With the least experience! We have to tighten up our admission standards because actual comedians shouldn’t have to take a backseat to mediocre celebrity hobbyists. Go back to Auburn, you nerds!

Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.

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