New legislation will allow comedians to headline major performances without formal training, as long as they have five years of experience in fields “relevant” to the subject they perform. This legislation comes in response to the rising attrition rate of comedians compared to previous decades.
Tickets for this weekend’s comedy show in Flagstaff start at $900 dollars. The venue host promises an all-expenses-paid, world class comedy experience. The website further says “all performers are held to the highest standards to ensure the audience leaves refreshed, satisfied, and prepared for their return to the work force, college, or even the military”.
This reporter received a much different testimony after interviewing last year’s Performer of the Year, Freddy Smithward. When I told him about ticket prices, he screamed, “Nine’hun’it dollars?! For a weekend?! That’s a two-week pay check for me!” He wasn’t being hyperbolic.
Freddy went on to explain that after inflation is considered, he makes 14% less that he did in 2001. “You don’t look like you’re following,” Freddy said, “that’s 14% less over a period of 16 years. Don’t you have a kid that’s 16 years old? How many raises have you received since he was born? Come on man, the first step to solving a math equation is to admit you have a problem.”
The Arizona law has been cited as “the best solution” to the growing comedian shortage, despite the fact that it allows comedians to perform, or even headline, major shows without any knowledge of how to manage or motivate a crowd. I asked Freddy why this might be a problem. “Have you even been to a comedy show? People can watch skits online; they pay to see a show for the experience. Half of the joy comes from jokes, the other half from the surreal connection to the performer and the crowd.”
At last night’s show, the venue hired an engineer to replace Chris Rock. I asked Freddy about his set. “Yeah, brilliant move. Venue says engineers can design anything; surely the guy can make a joke. Man gets up on stage and goes: ‘Knock knock… Who’s there?…Interrupting coefficient of friction…Interrupting coefficient of fri…. mmmuuuuu.’”
“I don’t get it,” I confessed. Freddy started to explain the sound of a Greek letter and then interrupted himself. “People think what I do is easy, but a joke is a beautiful thing. It’s a carefully packaged communication that surprises—that delights. A good joke makes you think. It can make you remember an old sadness while also washing the pain off it. It can be a window to culture. It can turn the taboo into the comfortable. It teaches you about life, about people.”
Though Freddy’s responses were poignant, I felt he was missing the severity of the crisis: 62% of last year’s comedy tours were so understaffed they had to substitute performers with cooks, bouncers, and even janitors.
“Did you hear what the janitor said when he opened the stage,” Freddy asked? “Supplies! Seriously though, I bet there are some funny janitors out there, but comedy is a craft, not a job. It takes years to refine the skills to move an audience. You have to meet the needs of the people. Deliver the right material for the culture. Reflect their words, their needs. You can’t just throw any comedian into a V.A. hospital and expect him to be able to make them laugh. There are some sensitive needs there. You get a highly qualified comedian into the V.A. and you can see magic unfold. People are not cattle. Emotions matter. Experience matters.”
I put my pencil down as Freddy continued: “There are 95,000 highly qualified comedians in this state and only 52,000 of them are headlining tours. In order to keep these shows going, they have to perform well enough to hide the disaster of their colleagues. This isn’t just a crisis, it’s the destruction of an art form. I call it Warm Body Comedy.”
Freddy was hitting the passion points but sacrificing the financial logistics. I pointed this out: “Are you suggesting we just pay every comedian in the state more money? How selfish are these performers that they would risk bankrupting the whole system in order to get a personal raise? We can’t give raises and tax cuts—also, we have that exciting new voucher program that allows audience members to design their own tours while other audience members foot a percentage of the bill. The reality, Fred, is that salaries raises are nice, but they are not a live-or-die necessity!”
“True, there are a lot of live-or-die necessities we could cut: air-conditioning. So what if it’s 120 degrees in the club. Let’s stop staffing kitchens—comedians sometimes bring their own audience refreshments anyway—we all know how good donuts are for morale. How about the fact that audiences have the luxury of public transportation? ‘Bout time they invest in their own limos…”
In an attempt to end the interview on a positive note, I asked Fred if he had any advice for new comedians. “Kevin Hart asked me that question a few years ago and I told him ‘don’t underestimate your abilities: the venue will do that for you.’”
The Teacher Shortage Crisis is not a joke. Read more about SB1042:
Fischer, Howard. “Ducey Defends Lowering Standards for Teachers”. The Daily Courier. 27 April 2017. <https://www.dcourier.com/news/2017/apr/27/ducey-defends-lowering-standards-teachers/>
Singer, Alan. “Arizona’s Alt-Cert Law Replaces ‘Teachers’ With ‘Persons’ In Its Classrooms”. Huffington Post. 26 June 2017. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/arizonas-alt-cert-law-replaces-teachers-with-persons_us_5950b28ee4b0f078efd982fe>
Strauss, Valerie. “In Arizona, Teachers Can Now be Hired Without Training”. The Washington Post. 14 May 2017. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/05/14/in-arizona-teachers-can-now-be-hired-with-absolutely-no-training-in-how-to-teach/?utm_term=.fb9fe6621de8>