The Stand-Up Artist in the Age of Gigification

By Madeline Lane-McKinley

The following is an excerpted chapter from Comedy Against Work: Utopian Longing in Dystopian Times (Common Notions Press). You can purchase this book through Common Notions and wherever books are sold.

Gigs are nothing new to the world of jobs. Yet increasingly the gig has come to characterize our experiences of work: all the short-term contracts or freelancing, moonlighting, side hustles and “one night stands” that comprise an emergent paradigm of work-life. According to some scholars of the “sharing economy,” this is an era of microentrepreneurialism, a horizon of possibility for a “generation of self-employed workers,” as Arun Sundararajan postulates, to be “empowered to work whenever they want from any location and at whatever level of intensity needed to achieve their desired standard of living.”[i] While microentrepreneurialism is certainly the promise of gig work, precarity is the overwhelming reality for most gig workers. In 2017, as the buzz about the gig economy was reaching its peak, the average gig worker was making less than $500 a month.[ii] The median earning of Uber and Lyft drivers, for instance, is $3.37 an hour, with 30 percent of drivers actually losing money at an hourly rate in gas expenses.[iii] Meanwhile, the ideological narrative of the microentrepreneur who “makes it” remains a dominant force.

Key to this ideological narrative is what Sarah Brouillette has outlined as “the mainstreaming of the figure of the artist as valorized mental laborer,”[iv] oriented towards labor as “an act of self-exploration, self-expression, and self-realization.”[v] Under the guise of artistry, conditions of precarity are romanticized and obscured as part of a creative process—a “reformulation of capitalism,” Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello argue, “in terms of what [is] exciting, creative, protean, innovative and ‘liberating.’”[vi] The worker’s conceptualization as artist was essential to the post-financial crisis era, instilling a new regime of work. With a vocabulary of “flexibility,” “autonomy,” and “self-management,” this new regime became coded in terms of the worker’s discipline and self-imposed austerity. Lauren Berlant points to the surfacing, in this time, of an austere imaginary of “aspirational normativity.” What takes hold is a vision of a life “dedicated to moving toward the good life’s normative/utopian zone but actually stuck in what we might call survival time, the time of struggling, drowning, holding on to the ledge, treading water, not-stopping.”[vii]

It was in this period that a certain cultural fascination with the stand-up comedian was also reactivated. Madison Square Garden had only sold out three times for comedians before 2009. Between 2009 and 2015, three different comedians sold out the arena multiple times.[viii] From 2012 to 2015, Comedy Central’s original programming nearly doubled.[ix] By 2016, an internal study at Netflix determined that 63 percent of the company’s subscribers had watched at least one stand-up special that year.[x] With the vast expansion of niche audiences made possible by online media platforms, more stand-ups were creating comedy specials but also signing contracts for traditional comedian-centered sitcoms. Series like Louie, Whitney, Mulaney, and Difficult People featured various “sad-com” interpretations of the figure of the stand-up, diverging from the traditional sit-com and towards more of an auteur aesthetic (as in Louie’s cringy homage to Woody Allen, which C.K. only further accentuated later on, with the hire of Allen’s longtime editor and collaborator Susan E. Morse). This time also saw a surge in documentaries about legends and well-established figures in stand-up,[xi] as well as documentaries and docuseries about up-and-coming, aspirational comedians.[xii] While the major networks and venues were investing more in stand-up-related content, stand-ups were also taking on microentrepreneurial ventures like web-series. Stand-ups like Jimmy Pardo, Joe Rogan, Greg Proops, Scott Aukerman, Doug Benson, Marc Maron, and Chris Hardwick began their own podcasts, long before many of us knew what podcasts were.[xiii] Aukerman—who now often, always self-mockingly, refers to himself as one of the heads on “Mount Podcast”—founded the Earwolf comedy podcasting network with Jeff Ullrich in 2010, which has produced over one hundred podcast series since. Hardwick, similarly, launched The Nerdist Industries based on his initial podcast. Maron began his show out of his garage, with only one sponsor, in an origin story that conjures some of the tropes and fantasies of seventies-era tech renegades and entrepreneurs. The list goes on, and then it goes on some more.

At the heart of this coincidence of financial crisis and comedy boom is a particular fetishization of the stand-up artist, an entrepreneurial protagonist in the world of creative aspiration, paying dues, and hard-earned self-actualization. As artist, that is, the stand-up comedian became the paradigmatic worker to this transforming world of work, an era which Annie McClanahan defines in terms of heightened “tipworkification.” As McClanahan suggests, tipworkification captures the reduction of labor costs for service-industry employers, but also “yokes these changes in the wage to the increased importance of gigwork.” The low wages of tipwork, she speculates, “have arguably provided the gig economy with a population of workers willing to take on second or third jobs doing things like driving for Lyft,” while gigwork “borrows many of the formal features of tipwork, including the lack of basic workplace protections and job security.”[xiv]

To the cultural imaginary of tipworkification, the stand-up comedian comes to embody this prevailing work ethic—a key feature of which is an obscuring of work as artistry. This work ethic of the stand-up artist is not just a matter of hiding their status as worker from the audience for the sake of customer satisfaction, but a matter of repressing their own self-understanding as worker in the process.

In the stand-up industry, there is a shared principle of “working for the laughs.” The aim is generally to provoke laughter every fifteen seconds on stage.[xv] Laughter needs momentum. And maintaining the laughter, if it ever starts, involves a lot of adrenaline. Bombing is a formative experience that never ends—even successful stand-ups face this possibility with every performance. The audience has to laugh. “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing stand-up comedy,” stand-up international mega-star Russell Peters explains, “you are never exempt from a bad night. Never. It doesn’t matter who you are. That’s the beauty of comedy is that you’re not guaranteed to kill.”[xvi] Certainly audiences will give some comedians more of a chance than others—they come to see headliners, for the most part, but may have little interest in the opener, tasked with “warming up the crowd.” Road comics speak of frequent challenges not only in “working for the laughs,” but in getting their audience’s attention in the first place, as they compete with the sports game that’s been muted on the television sets—or even worse, replace the entertainment of the game when it’s turned off.

Working for the laughs involves enduring awkward silences—or, for more effective stand-ups, learning to joke about or with the silence—but also facing the nightly possibility of hecklers. Some stand-up comedians speak of getting heckled as a form of initiation. Some take pride in heckling back and incorporating the heckler into their act. To deflect a heckler entails a particular craftsmanship, which some can flaunt. Perhaps a comedian will reach a career point where hecklers are booed or even removed by security, but there is never in a comedian’s career a point where the threat of heckling goes away. And nothing is off-limits for the heckler. Sexual harassment, racist hate speech, body-shaming, threats of violence—all of this comes with the territory of a stand-up gig.

In the world of stand-up, it’s just the comedian against the world. There are no prospects of safety, just ways to make the system work for you, one performance at a time, working for the laughs. And how to make it work, for you, is what at least the idea of the stand-up exemplifies for contemporary workers.

As an “art form,” stand-up operates, indistinctly, within the customer service industry, manifesting this logic of tipwork. Since the fifties, most stand-up has been performed in bars or clubs, and comedy is a way of putting customers in their seats—and ideally, keeping them there. For club owners, most of the revenues come from alcohol sales. While comedians are working for the laughs, the servers are working for the tips. And through the course of the night, as customers drink more, they become more likely to engage in a variety of forms of harassment. In the bar and restaurant industry, there are more sexual harassment claims filed than in any other industry, with 90 percent of women and 70 percent of men reportedly experiencing some form of sexual harassment in their workplace.[xvii] Some customers even believe that they are entitled to harass, and explicitly state the right to harass as part of what they’re paying for. Facing conditions of transmisogyny, not just from customers but a hypermasculine workforce, trans rights activist and bartender Lucky Michaels, a nonbinary trans woman, reflects that in over twenty years working in the industry, “most of the trans people that I find [are] absolutely in the closet, stealth because it’s a really toxic environment for people in general.”[xviii] Bar and restaurant workers find themselves endlessly calculating “the tipping equation,” as journalists Catrin Einhorn and Rachel Abrams explain: “each shift comes with questions that do not apply to millions of other workers around the country: How much money will I make, and how much will I tolerate to make it?”[xix] In the stand-up industry, similarly, sexual harassment is pervasive. Stand-up Kate Smurthwaite recalls being assaulted by a promoter in the kitchen before a performance, and at another club, “guys getting their genitals out and rubbing them against me[.]”[xx] Stories like this have long been known as common place, even unremarkable.

As a figure of tipworkification, the stand-up artist of this period is conceived as much through failures as aspirations—a far cry from the Seinfeldesque vision of the successful stand-up comedian who works weekends and spends the rest of the time in a diner with friends or at home eating cereal. The HBO series Crashing, for instance, is comedian and podcaster Pete Holmes’s semi-autobiographical portrayal of his early years in stand-up, during which he was fighting to get stage time and living rent-free by crashing on peoples’ couches (hence the title), sometimes staying with well-established comedians who extend life wisdom and career tips. Following what reviewer David Sims calls “a confusing slog of a career,”[xxi] Crashing is still, ultimately, about becoming, exploring the world of comedy as a system of “doing your time” and “paying your dues,” all the while conjuring a myth of what George Morgan and Pariece Nelligan call the “self-assembled creative career.”[xxii] Part of this process of self-assembly, as the series depicts, is the very unglamorous and unpaid gig of “barking.” “Barking” is a system of promotion for comedy clubs, in which comedians earn stage time with the number of people they get through the door, based on long hours on the street handing out flyers and making conversation with strangers. This is literally paying to be able to work. While Crashing uncovers some of the most exploitative and degrading elements of stand-up (barking, hecklers, road gigs), the series does little in the way of questioning. It instead idealizes comedy as a world of self-discovery. Despite its emphasis on the low-points in a comic’s career, the series presupposes Holmes’s ascendance at a meta-level, with the HBO series being undoubtedly a career high-point for any comic (especially with no acting experience and, let’s be honest, little in the way of acting talent). The show plays up this metanarrative, crafting in its depiction of Holmes’s failures a sense of necessity, tinged with social Darwinism. Even though the show is uninterested in success, success is nevertheless its precondition—a safe place from which to meditate on the struggles and corruption encountered in the journey of “making it.”

For stand-ups, the status of “working comic” is achieved through years of enforced amateurism. Many stand-ups never become working comedians. Maybe they’ll earn as much as $100 a night, but life without a day job of some sort is rare. Most of today’s stand-up comedy workers juggle part-time employment and odd jobs to afford their stage time, if they can even get it. Those who are well-known enough can market themselves on Cameo, the personalized video shout-out website and app launched in 2017, where comedians offer customized messages or online chats for as little as $6. These are “comedy workers” as in their comedy is acknowledged as work, but as therein not-yet-art. Comedy tours are a rite of passage, while only some of these gigs amount to much more than free food and a motel room with maybe a performer’s rate at the bar. Road comics often share motel rooms, sleep on the couch of a backroom at the club, or during the ten-hour drive between gigs. And day jobs are a familiar source of comedy material—comedy workers have always relied on short-term employment, often with merely the hope of breaking even on the rest.

The Workers’ Struggle at the Heart of Stand-Up’s “Golden Era”

An important aspect of the post-financial crisis comedy boom was a historical revision of the mid-seventies “golden era” in stand-up, a myth that saturates so many comedian memoirs and documentaries from the 2010s. Richard Zoglin’s Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America, Kliph Nesteroff ’s The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy, Yael Kohen’s We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy are among the many popular books written about this romantic period, from the vantage of 2008–2016. In 2009, William Knoedelseder published I’m Dying Up Here, a best-selling account of this “golden era,” at the center of which is an attempt to re-narrate the most pivotal labor struggle in comedy history. Later made into a brief TV series on ShowTime, I’m Dying Up Here is a politically fraught, often reactionary account of stand-up history.

Grounded primarily in the Los Angeles scene, Knoedelseder’s narrative takes its focus on the Comedy Store, the Sunset district club which continues to thrive, and which started the careers of so many iconic standups. The Comedy Store began in 1972, the same year that The Tonight Show moved from New York to Los Angeles. By the mid-seventies the club became known as a pipeline to Johnny Carson. Following the ascent of club regular Freddie Prinze in 1973, as Knoedelseder writes, “the Comedy Store [was] on every comic’s map and created a new equation in their heads: One set at the Comedy Store plus one appearance on Carson equals the whole world.”[xxiii] Talent agents were in the audience every night, looking to sign new comedians.

Back in the mid-seventies, the Comedy Store was packed with actual starving artists. Comedians performing at the club counted the buffet of olives and maraschino cherries as a consistent source of sustenance. Ambitious comedians from all over the country were moving to Los Angeles to live out of their cars, sublet closets, or share rooms with the hope to get some stage time. Every Monday, fledgling comedians would line up on the street for what was called “potluck night”—a try-out for new talent, in front of club owner and comedy legend Mitzi Shore (and yes, mother of Pauly).

Mitzi Shore was never a comedian, nor was that ever her plan. In August of 1974, she became the owner of the Comedy Store as part of her divorce settlement from previous owner and comic Sammy Shore, to whom she’d been married since 1950. Two years before their divorce, and soon after the club opened, Sammy Shore began to feel overwhelmed by the business—or so the story goes. Knowing that his wife was fascinated by comedians, he asked her to manage the club while he did some shows in Las Vegas. “She said okay with no visible excitement,” Knoedelseder writes, “but once he was gone, she jumped on the opportunity”[xxiv]:

“She turned her attention first to the growing number of young comics who’d been coming in night after night and sitting in the back hoping to get on. Under Sammy’s whoever’s-famous-goes-first rule, they rarely got a chance. But Mitzi saw potential in the youngsters, both as performers and as a labor pool.”[xxv]

As comedian Paul Mooney joked, Sammy Shore’s absence at the Comedy Store was “the best thing that ever happened to comedy in Los Angeles.”[xxvi] By the time her divorce from Sammy was finalized, Mitzi had developed a new philosophy of management for the club, based on her own distinct theory of comedy. The club, she insisted, had to be envisioned from thereon as “part college and part artist colony.”[xxvii]

Shore was known for a frequent “inspiring oration” to new comedians in the club, as Knoedelseder recounts: “This is a college,” she would tell them, “I started this for you.”[xxviii] Rather than wages, the Comedy Store offered what she claimed to be a “curriculum that allowed young comedians to develop their art.”[xxix] The process began in the amateur potluck nights, then graduated to the regular lineup, with the promise of eventually gaining headliner status as performers. The club became known for Shore’s “door guy system,” which was understood as something like an apprenticeship for hopeful comedians. Others were assigned with janitorial tasks or answering phones—or whatever else Shore had in mind, including personal errands. In comedian-turned-filmmaker Mike Binder’s docuseries The Comedy Store, a long list of comedians remember their start through this “system,” getting paid little to nothing.[xxx] Fancying herself as the “head of faculty and dean of students,” as Knoedelseder writes, Shore took personal offense when comedians asked for compensation. While headliners got paid, at varying rates, the rest of the comedians were continually reminded by Shore of their status as “students.” “They don’t deserve to be paid,” Shore told comedian Tom Dreesen, “This is a showcase. This is a college.”[xxxi]

Shore’s supposedly pedagogical philosophy of management resembles so much of the post-crisis labor paradigm, from which the Comedy Store was re-cast in such romantic terms. Especially in the creative economy, “companies seek to harvest the creative bounty by camouflaging the workplace,” as George Morgan and Pariece Nelligan suggest.[xxxii] This camouflaging is most prevalent in the tech “campuses” of Silicon Valley, where CEOs attempt to “recreate both the anarchic spirit of radical experimentation and the ludic aspects of the undergraduate environment.”[xxxiii] Through a logic of apprenticeship, workers are figured as artists or students as a premise for extracting free labor. In his 2012 book Intern Nation, Ross Perlin probes the internship industry boom of this post-crisis paradigm of work, in which the figure of the intern functioned as “a kind of smokescreen, more brand than job description, lumping together an explosion of intermittent and precarious roles we might otherwise call volunteer, temp, summer job, and so on.”[xxxiv] In the creative economy and beyond, this internship boom took place “at the nexus of transformations in higher education and the workplace,”[xxxv] muddling the boundaries of worker and student.

Many comedians have attested to the “learning experience” of working for the Comedy Store. The legacy of the club is filled with mentor figures, starting with Richard Pryor. Knoedelseder portrays Pryor as the “emeritus professor” of the Comedy Store, taking residence at the club sometimes spontaneously, staying late after hours and offering feedback to aspiring comedians.[xxxvi] “A Pryor appearance,” he writes, “had the frenzied feel of a heavyweight title fight in Vegas, with lines stretching around the block as tourists and celebrities jostled for the fewer than two hundred seats per show.”[xxxvii] It was by the late seventies that Pryor “became the teacher from whom everyone else learned,” as Scott Saul suggests in his biography Becoming Richard Pryor.[xxxviii] While many legends have performed and workshopped at a host of other clubs, what was distinctive to the Comedy Store, especially in the seventies, was this ethos of mentorship. Through the decades, comedians who worked the club spoke of various teacher-figures, but it all began with Pryor.

As a result of her exclusive deal with Pryor, Shore made enough money to put $50,000 into a new showroom with 450 seats. Much of the construction and painting was done by Shore’s in-house labor force of aspiring comedians. Shore also bought several condos to house headliner comedians, in town to perform in the newly established Main Room. It’s estimated that during this time she was making about $100,000 a week.[xxxix]

By the late seventies, Shore’s managerial style was brewing tensions in the stand-up community. As comedian-turned-author Kliph Nesteroff recalls, comedians couldn’t understand Shore’s system: “They paid the waiters, they paid the waitresses, they paid the valet, they paid the guy who cleaned toilets. They don’t pay the comedians?”[xl] While Shore kept insisting that the club was a “college,” comedians like Bill Kirchenbauer became more vocal about their outrage. “Tell me what college charges people to come in and watch students,” Kirchenbauer jokes in an interview with Nesteroff.[xli] By the end of 1978, comedians started secretly meeting and discussing their struggles. So many were working temp or part-time jobs in the day, and then spending every night working for free at the club. They’d seen a few shooting stars who’d launched from the club stage into multi-million dollar contracts, but mostly talented peers would burn out and walk away from their dreams, or much worse, were lost in some way to substance abuse. All the while Shore was paying for ambitious remodeling projects, real estate deals, and vast supplies of cocaine and other high-end drugs. Some of them had already spoken up to Shore about their grievances. One New Year’s Eve—usually the most high-earning night of the year for clubs, with revenues from the bar—Dreesen ran into an up-and-coming comedian who’d just finished a set at the Store. The comedian killed that night on stage, but was asking around for $5 for breakfast. “I told Mitzi that story,” Dreesen remembered, “and she said ‘Well, he should get a goddam job.’ I said, ‘Mitzi, he has a job. He worked for you on New Year’s Eve.’”[xlii] From the privacy of secret meetings, outside the club, stories like this were circulating more rapidly—and comedians were beginning to realize their power collectively. Soon they were discussing the possibility of a strike.

In the early months of 1979, unwaged workers from the Comedy Store formed the CFC (Comedians For Compensation). Their meetings were chaotic, filled with heavy drinking, joking around, and cocaine breaks in the bathroom. Jay Leno “was behaving like a hyperactive child: jumping up and down, being funny and distracting,” David Letterman recalls of his later nemesis, “to the point where everybody sort of thought, well, maybe we shouldn’t tell Jay about the next meeting.”[xliii] Dreesen, taking a more serious attitude than some of the other well-established regulars, assumed a leadership role. Soon he began meeting and negotiating with Shore, but she refused to compromise. Her lawyers assured her that a strike would be illegitimate. The comedians were not, technically, her employees. They were free agents. Ultimately, however, this made little difference, as they could still stage a walk-out.

The picket line formed on March 27th. By then, the CFC had 137 members, including some of the most prominent regulars at the club.[xliv] News of the “comedy strike” made national headlines over the following weeks, and Carson brought it up several times on The Tonight Show. Towards the end of the strike, Carson asked guest Buddy Hackett what he thought about the labor struggles: “The way it looks to me is, if you’ve got a place where you can get up and do your stuff—where you can learn your craft, especially with an audience,” Hackett explains, “because if you do it in front of a mirror, you don’t get much reaction.”[xlv]

The night before the strike began, Letterman guest hosted The Tonight Show, with rave reviews. The next night, when Shore drove up to the club and saw the picket line of fifty-nine comedians surrounding the parking lot, it was supposedly the sight of Letterman among the strikers that most upset her.[xlvi] She felt personally betrayed. In the weeks to come, she continued to drum up support from loyalists willing to cross the picket line. Garry Shandling, Howie Mandel, Mike Binder, Argus Hamilton, Lois Bromfield, David Tyree, Ollie Joe Prater, Alan Bursky, Allan Stephan, and Frank Carrasquillo were among the nineteen scab-comedians willing to prove their loyalty. In that time, the atmosphere of the club became more and more toxic. Shore sent some of the tough guys among her loyalists to harass Elayne Boosler, a prominent member of CFC leadership and one of the only women working the club at the time. Shore’s loyalists then beat up one of the strikers—a young gay comedian, who could be made an example of.[xlvii] It’s also speculated that one of the picket-crossing comedians threw a Molotov cocktail at the roof of the Improv, the Comedy Store’s main competitor in Los Angeles, burning half the building.[xlviii] The striking comedians were starting to panic.

By the sixth week of the strike, the CFC was getting support from the Screen Actors Guild, along with high-profile comedians (Comedy Store emeriti like Pryor and Carlin, as well as legends like Bob Hope). There were a number of sympathetic news pieces. But the panic among the comedians was not subsiding. One night, about fifty members met before joining the picket line. Shore had sent comedian Biff Manard to the meeting to speak on her behalf. As Dreesen recalls, Manard “basically said, comedians don’t need to be paid because they’re artists, and artists don’t need to be paid.”[xlix] Manard had little support in the room and left the meeting in a rage. Soon after that, once everyone had congregated outside the club, Manard drove his car into the picket line, hitting Jay Leno. While Leno was hardly injured, the commotion brought the strike to a fever pitch. People were screaming, an ambulance was called, and the crowd was talking about Manard working as Shore’s henchman. It was soon after that when Shore called Dreesen up to her office in the club. They were both sick of the strike, Dreesen explains, and they worried about what would happen if it kept going. That night they called a lawyer and hashed out a compromise into the morning hours.

A deal was finalized after three days. “Against my better judgment,” Shore told the Los Angeles Times, “I have conceded to pay the comics in the Original Room. It is my third and final offer to them.”[l] With the exception of predetermined amateur nights, comedians would be paid twenty-five dollars per show. In 2003, Shore told the Los Angeles Times “I won the strike, but I made it that they won,” adding, “I was like Ruth, being stoned to death. I didn’t deserve what they did to me.”[li]

Through the course of the eighties, the stakes of the strike were steadily reduced to tales of interpersonal conflicts and differing managerial styles by many comedians. “Everybody always has a nasty thing to say about her,” comedian Eleanor Kerrigan remarks of Shore’s reputation in the years since. “But if it was a man, they’d be like, ‘oh he’s a great businessman.’”[lii] Undoubtedly, this is true—the macho environment among comedians certainly led to Shore, the proto-boss bitch, being caricatured in misogynist and derogatory ways, having little to do with her principles of management but her seemingly unearned status in the stand-up world. And perhaps these principles would not have been resisted and organized against if Shore had not been a novice club owner, inheriting the business from her ex-husband, after decades of life as a homemaker. All the same, to consolidate all of the political struggle and ideological stakes of the strike into a narrative of Shore’s incompetence or the comedians’ chauvinism misses the point entirely.

With the resurgent interest in stand-up history in recent years, the labor struggles of 1979 have been politically diffused by narratives like Knoedelseder’s I’m Dying Up Here. While the strike is certainly pivotal in Knoedelseder’s historical account of a “golden era,” it marks the end of an age of supposed innocence in the “art” of stand-up. But the countercultural energies of stand-up comedy had already become marketized. It was right around this time that Caroline Hirsch, owner of the New York club, Caroline’s, famously predicted that comedy would be “the rock of the 80’s.”[liii] Hundreds of comedy clubs popped up all over the U.S., creating a nationwide circuit of road comics and headliners.[liv] This was the era of blockbuster comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Andrew “Dice” Clay and Roseanne Barr. The drug scene at many comedy clubs was bleaker than ever, with notorious substance abusers like Sam Kinison dominating the stage at the Comedy Store with reckless and sometimes dangerous behavior. And yet the “toxic” atmosphere recounted by many comedians performing at the Comedy Store in that time is consistently attributed to the strike, and the bad blood and turmoil in the years to follow. Central to the mythology of the strike is the suicide of comedian Steve Lubetkin. In the weeks after the strike, as comedians were going back to work the stages at the Comedy Store, Lubetkin complained that Shore was retaliating against him. He wasn’t getting any stage time, and was visibly distraught, concerning some of those around him. But Shore continued to give him the cold shoulder, claiming that he was taking it all too personally. On June 1, Lubetkin checked into a room in the Continental Hyatt next door to the club and jumped to his death from the fourteenth floor. In his suicide note, he wrote “My name is Steve Lubetkin. I used to work at The Comedy Store.” Based on Lubetkin’s suicide note and behavior during the last weeks of his life, his death was certainly political. Comedians who accused Shore of retaliating against Lubetkin, however, were retaliated against themselves, scorned for supposed opportunism. In Mike Binder’s 2019 docuseries on the Store, numerous comedians dismiss the political significance of Lubetkin’s suicide, challenging his claims of retaliation and putting forth a more pathologically-driven account of his demise.

The strike also gets caught up in other mythologies, like that of the “late night wars” of the nineties.[lv] Having grown up watching late night talk shows in the nineties, it’s hard for me to fathom the comedy strike, when not-yet-rivals Letterman and Leno were not only friends, but comrades at the picket line, standing up to management. In that nineties late night world the culture of comedy had a far different character—it was hyper-competitive and hyper-individualistic, populated by narcissists and adrenaline junkies chasing the spotlight, hoping to land a sit-com or a talk show, whatever the corporate world could offer. The strike and the many stories surrounding it open up questions about what happens when comedians act in solidarity—how they practice their comedy, and how they theorize it. The strike was a critical juncture in comedy history, the nature of which extends far beyond the scope of any individual rivalries.

Revising this history has been essential to the post-financial crisis comedy boom, its ideology of work and dream of the art of stand-up. More than ending an age of innocence, as some have claimed, the strike was the last gasp of something else. Another world of comedy seemed, however briefly, quite possible at the picket line.

It was never just a matter of making gas money or paying for a breakfast after the show. What gets lost in the historical imaginary of late seventies stand-up is the way in which comedians found themselves in a double-bind: were they to recognize their comedy as labor, would that mean denying their comedy as art? Throughout the various conflicts of the strike, this was the false choice posed to the strikers. It was through this collective organizing that the strikers could pull back the façade of a “college” and “workshop space,” stop questioning their dedication as artists or students, and really see themselves as workers.

[i] Arun Sundararajan, The Sharing Economy: The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016), 177.

[ii] Abha Bhattarai, “Side Hustles Are the New Norm. Here’s How Much They Really Pay.,” Washington Post, accessed December 31, 2021, side-hustles-are-the-new-norm-heres-how-much-they-really-pay/.

[iii] “The Economics of Ride-Hailing: Driver Revenue, Expenses and Taxes,” accessed December 31, 2021, the-economics-of-ride-hailing-driver-revenue-expenses-and-taxes-under-revision/.

[iv] Sarah Brouillette, Literature and the Creative Economy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014), 49.

[v] Sarah Brouillette, “Creative Labor,” Mediations: Journal of the Marxist Literary Group 24, no. 2 (Spring 2009),

[vi] Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London and New York: Verso, 2005), 324.

[vii] Lauren Berlant, “Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal: Post-Fordist Affect in La Promesse and Rosetta,” Public Culture 19, no. 2 (Spring 2007): 279, https://doi. org/10.1215/08992363-2006-036.

[viii] Jesse David Fox, “How the Internet and a New Generation of Superfans Helped Create the Second Comedy Boom,” Vulture, March 30, 2015, https://www.vulture. com/2015/03/welcome-to-the-second-comedy-boom.html.

[ix] Fox, “How the Internet and a New Generation of Superfans Helped Create the Second Comedy Boom.”

[x] Jesse David Fox, “Is Netflix Hurting Stand-Up?,” Vulture, September 18, 2017,

[xi] See, for example, Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, Dying Laughing, When Stand Up Stood Out, Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy, Why We Laugh: Funny Women, The Unbookables, I Am Comic, I Am Road Comic, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, American: The Bill Hicks Story, Brand: A Second Coming, Tig, Pauly Shore Stands Alone, etc.

[xii] The Comedy Garage, Dying to Do Letterman, Alone Up There, Judy Toll, The Funniest Woman You’ve Never Heard Of, etc.

[xiii] Comedy podcasting remains dominated by white men, who represent a kind of macho-entrepreneurialism, and reflect the shock-jocking which many of these comedians brought with them from traditional radio. I discuss some queer and femme-centered podcasts that have diverged from these trends in Chapter 8.

[xiv] Annie McClanahan, “TV and Tipworkification,” Post45, January 10, 2019, https://

[xv] Of course, the more “authentic” the comedian, the less they are beholden to this general rule. I’ll get to this in Chapter 4.

[xvi] Lloyd Stanton, Dying Laughing. (Gravitas, 2017), kan1475657.

[xvii] See Stefanie K. Johnson and Juan M. Madera, “Sexual Harassment Is Pervasive in the Restaurant Industry. Here’s What Needs to Change,” Harvard Business Review, January 18, 2018, sexual-harassment-is-pervasive-in-the-restaurant-industry-heres-what-needs-to-change.

[xviii] Jaya Saxena, “For Trans People in the Service Industry, Discrimination Is an Unfortunate Reality of the Job,” Eater, June 29, 2020, https://www.eater. com/2020/6/29/21304536/trans-workers-struggle-with-discrimination-scotus-ruling

[xix] Rachel Abrams and Catrin Einhorn, “The Tipping Equation,” The New York Times, March 11, 2018, sec. Business,, business/tipping-sexual-harassment.html.

[xx] Rachael Healy, “‘I’ve Had Men Rub Their Genitals against Me’: Female Comedians on Extreme Sexism in Standup,” The Guardian, August 5, 2020, sec. Stage, creepy-uncomfortable-sexism-harassment-assault-faced-by-female-standups.

[xxi] David Sims, “What ‘Crashing’ Got Right About Stand-Up,” The Atlantic, April 10, 2017, hbo-crashing-season-one-finale-review/522498/.

[xxii] George Morgan and Pariece Nelligan, The Creativity Hoax: Precarious Work in the Gig Economy. (London: Anthem Press, 2018), 43.

[xxiii] William Knoedelseder, I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era (New York: Hachette, 2009), 35.

[xxiv] Knoedelseder, I’m Dying Up Here, 36.

[xxv] Knoedelseder, I’m Dying Up Here, 36.

[xxvi] Kliph Nesteroff, The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy (New York: Grove Press, 2015), 284.

[xxvii] Knoedelseder, I’m Dying Up Here, 149.

[xxviii] Knoedelseder, I’m Dying Up Here. 156.

[xxix] Knoedelseder, I’m Dying Up Here, 89.

[xxx] Mike Binder, “The Comedy Store” (Showtime, November 1, 2020), https://www.sho. com/the-comedy-store

[xxxi] Nesteroff, The Comedians, 307.

[xxxii] Morgan and Nelligan, The Creativity Hoax, 119.

[xxxiii] Morgan and Nelligan, The Creativity Hoax, 119.

[xxxiv] Ross Perlin, Intern Nation: Earning Nothing and Learning Little in the Brave New Economy, rev. ed. (New York: Verso, 2012), xi.

[xxxv] Perlin, Intern Nation, xi.

[xxxvi] As Pryor biographers David and Joe Henry write, “anytime Richard wanted to woodshed new material, all he had to do was let Mitzi know and she would clear the decks for as many nights or weeks as he wanted.” David Henry and Joe Henry, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013), 161.

[xxxvii] Knoedelseder, I’m Dying Up Here, 88.

[xxxviii] Scott Saul, Becoming Richard Pryor (New York: Harper-Collins, 2014), xvi.

[xxxix] Mike Binder, “The Comedy Store” (Showtime, October 11, 2020), https://www.sho. com/the-comedy-store.

[xl] Nesteroff, The Comedians, 307.

[xli] Nesteroff, The Comedians, 307.

[xlii] Richard Zoglin, “The First Comedy Strike,” Time, February 4, 2008, http://content.,8599,1709866,00.html.

[xliii] Zoglin, “The First Comedy Strike.”

[xliv] Knoedelseder, I’m Dying Up Here, 232.

[xlv] “The Tonight Show” (NBC, May 8, 1979).

[xlvi] Nesteroff, The Comedians, 306.

[xlvii] Nesteroff, The Comedians, 307.

[xlviii] Nesteroff, The Comedians, 307.

[xlix] Binder, “The Comedy Store,” October 11, 2020.

[l] Knoedelseder, I’m Dying Up Here, 211.

[li] Knoedelseder, I’m Dying Up Here, 267.

[lii] Binder, “The Comedy Store,” October 11, 2020.

[liii] Stephen Holden, “The Serious Business of Comedy Clubs,” The New York Times, June 12, 1992,

[liv] Jason Zinoman, “Comedy Is Booming. I Can’t Wait for the Bust.,” The New York Times, November 22, 2017,

[lv] Much of this mythology is chronicled by author Bill Carter in the 1994 book The Late Shift—and revisited in his 2010 sequel The War for Late Night.


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