I read a blog entry a
few weeks ago from a comic in L.A. bemoaning the number of standup clubs with
free entry. Free clubs hurt standup as
an art form, he argued, because they make people expect to get comedy for
free. Why not charge even just a small
amount at the door? Free clubs hurt the
paying clubs! A paying crowd is always
better than one that gets in for free!

This topic comes up
now and then and it always fascinates me.
If it’s true that free clubs hurt the art of standup, they’ve been doing
it from the start. The art seems fine to
me. Why would that be true for comedy
and not music? No one has ever argued
that U24U playing covers at some dive bar is taking away from the U2 stadium
tour. Also, it could just as easily be argued
that a small comedy club with a $5 entry is taking away from the big one in
town that charges $20 with a two drink minimum.
Paying crowd always better? Not
in my experience.

Not so long ago, one
of the biggest club owners in Stockholm pleaded to comics to stop opening free
clubs. His business was on the decline and,
clearly, all those free clubs were to blame.
Free clubs are hurting the art of standup and why would people ever pay
to get the same thing they can get for free anywhere else?

First of all, people
don’t get the same thing for free as when they pay (or at least they shouldn’t;
more on that later). Secondly, and more
importantly, PEOPLE DON’T KNOW FREE CLUBS EXIST. Time and time again, I’ve told people it’s
possible to gig at least once every night of the week in Stockholm and received
the same response of, “What?!”

It’s important to define
“people” when it comes to the makeup of a comedy crowd- let’s put them into two
groups: hardcore and casual fans.
Hardcore fans go often, know about most, if not all the clubs in town,
listen to podcasts, follow comics on Twitter, even comics with just a few years
of experience. There are a few niche
clubs around that have done an excellent job of building up a following of
hardcore fans and frequently play to sold out crowds of them.

I’ve performed nearly
exclusively in free clubs, hosted many times.
This is Hosting 101, and my experience nearly every time: “Hi
everyone! By a round of applause, how
many of you have seen standup before?”

[Nearly everyone

“How many of you have
been here before?”

[Less than half

I would argue that casual fans far outnumber hardcore, especially outside the niche clubs. Then there are the
mainstream paying clubs. I wish I could
remember the source, but I’ve never heard paying clubs summed up better than
this opening to a comedy album:

“Hi folks, by a round
of applause, how many of you are here to see me tonight?”

[some applause]

“How many of you came
to see whatever douchebag was on the schedule?”

[massive applause]

I would imagine the
typical conversation amongst casual (and therefore most, if you’ve bought my
argument so far) fans goes like this:

“Let’s go see standup,
that would be fun!”

“Sure! Where?”

“That one place we’ve
heard of.”

“Ok, when? Next Friday?”

“No, I’m busy that
night. How about the Friday after?”

“It’s a date!”

No thought at all of
who is on that night. I’ll take this a
step further. One night at a paying club,
the headliner a big, big name amongst comics in Sweden, at the start of the
show, the host announced, “You’re in for a treat, your headliner tonight is
So-and-So {not his real name}!!!” No
reaction from the crowd. No applause, no
cheers, just blank stares. So-and-So is
not on TV, no podcast, not a household name.
Grab people randomly on the street in Stockholm and ask them to name as
many comics in Sweden as they can and I’m willing to bet they’ll name just a
few, including comics that were on TV years ago and rarely perform today.

As for the argument
that a paying crowd is therefore more focused and invested in the show, there
is some value to the statement but it is far than always true. If it were, then comics would talk about
corporate gigs (being hired for a private show, sometimes for a shameful amount
of money) as the best kind of gig, instead of how it actually is, fodder for
war stories to scare other comics around the campfire. There’s the chance one person arranged for a
big group to come pay for the show, and that one person is the only one
interested more in standup and less in getting drunk and talking to everyone
else. Or that someone has the attitude
of, hey, I didn’t pay so I could sit quietly.
Dance, monkey, dance!

Why pay for the same
thing you get for free? You don’t, you’re
going to see a lot of rookies that may never get to the paid level. As for the pro comics, they treat the free
clubs like the gym, test new material, relax, see what works, so they can give
more focused performances for a paying crowd.
Not, of course, that casual fans always understand that. I never got to see Carlin live, but a friend
in Boston saw him at a tiny club on Cape Cod and was thoroughly disappointed. “He had some joke of, ‘Why is rock and roll
always rock and never roll?’ and kept going on and on about it!” I wanted to strangle the guy. I can see Carlin in special after special, I
never got a chance to see him working out material.

In fact, there are
some pros that never perform in free clubs and have done the same sets for
years. It’s possible to get to a point
that you don’t need to bother, it works fine for the casual fans. Not so much for the hardcore. Maybe that’s a more likely culprit for
declining business in paying clubs, when the same ten pros cycle through with
the same material year after year.

I’ve argued so far
that people don’t know free clubs exist, don’t know how many comics exist, and
don’t get the same experience for free that they pay for. Another debate is whether or not free clubs
should announce the lineup or keep it a secret, because if you know So-and-So
is going to be at one place for free you won’t pay to see him somewhere
else. You may not agree with me but you
can see why I don’t think that argument holds much water, but in any case,
running a free club myself, I always respect a comic’s decision to not be
announced on the lineup. In fact, I’ve
heard that it may not even be legal to announce someone as headlining an event
if they’re not being paid. That may be
bullshit but I’ve always erred on the side of caution.

I announce
lineups. Partly because I’ve never
minded being listed myself; no one knows who I am and if I ever hope to be a
household name, I want my name out there, and often. Partly, for what it’s worth, to do what I can
to get as many names out there as possible.
Mostly, without regret, that, yes, I do hope it’s going to help, even a
little, to get asses in seats. Most of
the comics at Crossfire are rookies and we may just get a few of their friends
and family in the room, but every little bit helps. And there’s always the hope that comics will
do a little promotion of their own.
Marketing and getting people to show up is ultimately my responsibility
but with a budget of exactly zero, I do whatever I can. Charging at the door isn’t an option since it’s
a restaurant and not everyone is there for the show, but we often get them to

There’s been a
few times I’ve needed to list someone as a secret guest, and that’s fine. There are comics that will never perform at
Crossfire for free, and that’s also fine.
I recently offered a spot to someone and she said, “Sorry, I’ve decided
not to focus on free clubs just now.” I
could’ve pointed out that we were in another free club at that moment, but it
was easier to just say, no problem, there’s always a spot if you want it.

Naturally I’m always
convinced I’m right about everything, but if I needed something to really nail
this particular point of view, it was one of the biggest comics in Sweden,
probably the one most likely to be known outside this country, agreeing to
perform at Crossfire. I may have bought
him a beer that night, otherwise he didn’t ask for money, didn’t mind being
listed as the headliner, put it on his website and Twitter. It wasn’t the theater experience; he
performed in English, did a fun, loose set for a packed room (“packed” being 20%
of his usual crowd), was the textbook example of a free gig being different
than a paid one. He understood the role
that free clubs play and I appreciate his support.