I started getting into comedy in the early 80’s and it was wide-open, alive and on fire. Comedy got white-hot in the late 80’s and stand-up shows where suddenly everywhere on television. The first open-mic contest I entered was on a Tuesday night and you couldn’t get a seat, open-mic night sold out! Fledgling comics where getting paid. Many great comedy careers where shifting into the profitable gear; Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Jay Leno and others where starting to take their place on the national stage.
Comedy clubs were popping up all over. People you had never heard of were headlining and not only that, they were being paid enough to make it their career. My first foray into clubs outside of Salt Lake City were the venerable Comedy Works in Colorado. At the time they had clubs in Ft. Collins and Denver. I remember local headliners then getting paid more than local headliners today, nearly 30 years later.
I still remember a few of the acts that caught my attention like Denver-based Michael Floorwax and Steve “Mudflap”McGrew. Todd Collard moved to Utah from Colorado to manage a comedy club and took up a radio career. There was so much going on in comedy and there were so many opportunities for people like me who were just starting out to be mentored and have a place to perform and grow. The headliners of that time were exploring all kinds of ideas. Guys like Sam Kinison burned my ears off. It was the freedom of speech, good and bad, the way that comedy was meant to be.
In 1990 I opened Johnny B’s Comedy Club in Provo, Utah and it took off like a rocket. We brought in acts mainly from the LA, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Nevada. We didn’t use local headliners for many years, but we always used local openers, so many Utah comedians got the chance to take the stage with nationally touring acts. The great time for comedians is between shows and after, when the comedians hang out and talk to each other.
I learned so much from the other comedians I worked with. They taught me the theories and practices of being a comedian, not from a manual but from the telling of their stories and experiences. There were some acts that were horrible people and treated me terribly as an opener, I remember them as well as the comedians who treated me wonderfully.
Comedy is a lonely profession. Comedians are very independent. Hard to make friends at work like a regular profession because it was all so competitive and ego driven. That’s one of the things that disappointed me about it all, the lack of connection. There was no team in comedy.
I worry about comedy today. I see clubs headlining fading television stars and acts that put butts in seat regardless of the craft. People will pay more to see someone they’ve seen on TV than to see a good comedian, and frankly many audiences can’t tell the difference. I’m not blameless, we booked Ron Gallagher, the brother of the actual Gallagher doing his brother’s act, at our club a couple of times a year and made good money. But we didn’t do it every week like I see clubs doing now.
Where is the “farm league” of comedy today if not in the comedy clubs? YouTube? And worse yet, comedians are being sued for their performances now, for the words they use. Dangerous times. We need places where people are free to say whatever stupid thing they want to say, to practice on stage, and audiences smart enough not to believe everything they hear or so sensitive that they can’t blow off what they don’t connect with. We need comedy because comedy is our pressure relief valve, and we need it at all levels.