Equity in comedy: How financial struggles limit comedian upstarts and how we can help (Opinion)

This year, more than any other before it, popular culture turned its eyes to the equity problem in entertainment. There were discussions about representation in all facets, from the imbalance of power in Hollywood based on gender to an analysis of LBTGQ roles on TV to reports about the sparse and inauthentic representation of minorities on screen. Like most sects of the entertainment industry comedy suffers from a diversity problem too. Comedy is mostly white and male with a lack of socio-economic diversity. Certain barriers to entry weed out anyone who cannot “afford” to do comedy.

Comedy (both writing and performing) comes with a lot of implicit costs. If you’re a stand-up for the first few years you’re paying for all of your own transportation and lodging– not to mention paying for open mics. Improv classes — seen as necessary not only for technique but for networking — can run up to $500 per level. Commercial agents, for example, will often ask their clients to take improv classes knowing the experience can make them more desirable to casting directors. Even the cheapest, most accessible facet of comedy (writing!) eventually comes with its cost. Script-writing software can be found for free, but if you want to produce something you’ve written you either need to find help funding it, or have a few thousand dollars on hand.

I’m fortunate enough to write and perform comedy full time. Last year I made around $11,000 after taxes, but my rent is fairly cheap (for Los Angeles) and I own my car outright. I have state-subsidized health and car insurance and I carry an average amount of debt– around $6,000. My life is privileged in a way that allows me to take a job others might not be able to afford to do. Having worked two jobs through school, combined with help from my parents, I left college with minimal student loans. This allowed me to pursue my passion and gave me a lot career mobility.

Riley Auskelis, a comedian and writer, mused about the leg up money gives you as a creative. He said, “I think the biggest thing is being set up to take the risks that all comedians have to take– like moving to L.A., and all the costs associated with that like buying a car, rent and security deposits. I wouldn’t say privilege gives you an advantage on stage, but getting to that stage is much easier.”

Privilege is not just wealth; it’s stability. I know that if I couldn’t make my rent and had to move out, I could live with my mom. I don’t have to contribute to our family financially and likely won’t until my mother retires. The stability that my family offers is essentially an implicit promise to take me in should I fail. This knowledge has allowed me to take risks, like moving to L.A. or deciding to freelance full time.

Privilege is not just wealth. It’s stability.

A friend I went to college with, David McLaughlin, took out loans to pay for our private school. David and I both transferred into Emerson College after doing a few semesters at state schools to take advantage of cheaper tuitions. David describes his student loan debt as near-crushing. “My loan started at a 4-5% interest rate, and each year it climbed, eventually ending with a 9.6% interest. My loans total about $150,000 with my monthly payments at $1,050/month.” For context, my rent in Los Angeles is $800. So on top of his existing rent, David has another monthly payment so large it could fund its own apartment. On affording comedy, David says, “My loan payments were too high, so I had to move back home while my more fortunate classmates got to get a head start. Some days I can’t go to mics or shows because I have to pick up a shift at one of my three jobs.”

The question is not, “Is comedy an even playing field?” but rather, “How do we (comics and fans) make it one?” There are expensive barriers to entry that might never lower, but there are things we can do to promote equity in the comedy scene. A great way to start is by financially supporting your favorite comedy endeavors. Content isn’t free to produce!

Take a look at comedy podcasts, stand-up and improv shows, web series, websites that list open mics. All of these things require time and tools and your donation will help them stay running! Attend your friends’ events, pay for tickets, pledge to their Patreon. If they are running a free show (god bless them), donate! A dollar or two won’t break your bank, and it can be repurposed to fund something you find enjoyable. Donations are a tangible way to help make things accessible for everybody. Think about offering your couch to traveling comedians or comics between apartments. Travel expenses are one of the things that keep people from doing road work, and every time I’ve hosted somebody I make a new comedy connection I can reach out to for future spots. 

While there is virtually no way to subsidize comedy, there are a lot of small things those of us with a safety net can do to make it a more accessible field.

Ellory smith

Ellory Smith is a writer and comedian based in Los Angeles, California. She currently writes for Robot Chicken on Adult Swim, and runs a charity-focused, all female stand up show. She is very famous and requests no eye contact unless given written permission.

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