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Comedy constantly shifts and changes, and tenets that might have applied years ago are also on the move. Variety spoke to some comics about everything from social media to cancel culture to figure out the new rules of the comedy scene. 

Live wherever.  

New York too expensive? Los Angeles too soul-crushing? Austin … too Texas? Touring headliners now regularly hail from more efficient hubs in Colorado, Missouri, Minnesota or anywhere else with Wi-Fi.

“I don’t hang in Hollywood,” says Patricia “Ms. Pat” Williams from Atlanta. “If you learn how to create for yourself, then you don’t have to wait on nobody to give you anything in this business.” The convicted felon who’d been shot twice by 21 is now serving as judge on “Ms. Pat Settles It.” Her multicam “The Ms. Pat Show” had been dropped three times prior to earning multiple BET and Emmy nominations and breaking streaming records unedited on BET+. 

Over in Knoxville, Tenn., Leanne Morgan lives some 180 miles away from Nashville pal Nate Bargatze. “You got to be what they want,” she advises of Hollywood. “They’re looking for this. I need to mold myself into that.” 

Morgan takes pride in having raised her children, staying who she was and connecting with “a huge audience of darling, darling people. I cut my own path and started selling out all over the United States, it felt like overnight. If you can find your audience, you could live in Kalamazoo.” 

Respect your social-media audiences.

Social media is a necessary part of building an audience. “You absolutely need to take it seriously,” says UTA agent-turned-independent manager Joe Eshenbaugh. And everything matters — from thumbnails, graphics, captions and production quality.”

Eshenbaugh asks: “What makes you click on something and stop scrolling? Apply that to your own videos. When you get traction, engage with people and keep the conversation going so the algorithm picks it up and feeds it to other people.” 

Live Nation comedy talent buyer Chris Burns calls social media “almost a bare minimum.” Overseeing Netflix Is a Joke fare at the Improv, Comedy Store and Bourbon Room is one thing; digital space is another entirely.     

“You’re competing with people doing podcasts, clips, sketches, all on their own dime with their own equipment and their own studios,” he says. “Technology’s removed that barrier.”

Burns cites comic Kountry Wayne’s online presence as one directly translating to ticket sales. Treating social media as a full-time job, “he puts out 13 sketches a day, doesn’t really advertise merch, isn’t selling you anything,” Burns says. “He’s just putting out content to consume and enjoy. People feel that, then come out to see him live.” Authenticity remains key. By leaning into a point of view, “the better chance you have of clicking with the audience you’re looking for.”

Podcast. Podcast. Podcast. 

“Super important” is how “Why Won’t You Date Me?” host Nicole Byer describes the digital-broadcasting format —particularly for listeners who had never set foot in a comedy venue. 

“They get to know you and your humor,” Byer says. “When they see your name in their town, they know, ‘That’s the voice I always hear; I’m excited to see them.’ It’s another way to connect to and broaden your audience.”

Millennial Mae Martin claims they started stand-up “back when all the hack jokes were about vegans and podcasters in the early-mid 2000s.” Nearly a year into their podcast “Handsome,” with co-hosts Tig Notaro and Fortune Feimster, they don’t know why they held off.

“I’m having the time of my life,” Martin says. “People have a pretty sensitive bullshit meter these days, and they’re attuned to anything that feels unoriginal. Maybe it just goes along with sharing their lives more online, but they respond when they can feel people are being honest.” 

Mental health is important.

The sad-clown trope seems timeless. As longtime comic, reality star and entrepreneur Katie Cazorla says, “You make everybody laugh, but what about yourself?”

In an industry in which disorders seem to emerge at higher rates, Cazorla says, “Comics you think are on the top of their game end up either committing suicide or quitting — and you never hear from them again. And there’s zero support from the clubs.”

Her new Kookaburra Comedy Lounge at Ovation Hollywood is “built specifically for comics” and opens its doors beginning May 2 for 20 Netflix Is a Joke shows. Cazorla details artist perks including validated parking, production resources and free or discounted therapist access.  

Hannah Gadsby has discussed mental health onstage since 2007. The conversation has changed, they says, certainly in a positive direction. “I’ve gone through depression, anxiety, ADHD, autism, trauma. I’m almost on the other side now, like let’s start magical thinking again.”

Affected by mental illness or not, Joel Kim Booster believes humans aren’t meant to access the amount of endless feedback available on the internet. For comics, it disrupts “one of the most beautiful things about stand-up comedy: the immediacy.”

“Just you and the people in the room in that moment, that’s a very specific context,” Booster says. “If you take it out of context, it changes, and you lose control of it. I can really get lost in the sauce of people picking it apart from all angles. As a stand-up, you should be concerned about the people in the room laughing or not laughing. Anything beyond that should be immaterial.” 

Identity-based material: required?

Mental health can also provide material — comic Maria Bamford was making OCD funny in the ’90s. But mental health remained just one of the areas in which she continued taking notes. “There is much more representation and open inclusion in all areas of comedy due to the internet and rise in comedy festivals,” Bamford says. “But many voices are still not heard or provided with local venues at comedy clubs — still an 80% heteronormative white male space, as far as I can tell — where acts can be developed.”

Early in his career, Booster was discouraged from discussing his sex life or being gay, and definitely from wearing shorts onstage. He’d otherwise face severe consequences of becoming a niche act. 

“I made the mistake of thinking the bigger the audience, the better the comic,” he admits. “People sell out thousands of seats who have material that’s broad enough for that, and that’s great. The mistake is making a value judgment about whether that’s better than somebody consistently selling out 350-seat rooms for a very specific corner of the market.” Bottom line,  “Specificity is always going to be funnier than general.”

Jeff Ross is known for his  “big-tent comedy and wanting everyone to get every joke” he ‘s displayed in the series “Roast Battle” and in his roasts of celebrities. And he’ll still be at the festival roasting Tom Brady on May 5. But he’s  also getting personal with his debut solo show, “Take a Banana for the Ride,” Says Ross, “I’m not a religious person, I’m not a particularly political person, but I talk about being Jewish as a culture, the traditions behind it, and growing up in the catering business with the celebrations, the music and the food. I’m finally leaning into it after 30 years.”

Screw cancel culture. 

If a canceled comic’s career continues, does cancelation even exist?

According to Byer, it doesn’t. “Nobody’s actually getting canceled. Do you have a point of view, or are you just saying something for shock value? ‘I can’t talk about X, Y, Z,’ just makes you sound like an old-timey idiot. Learn how to adapt with the culture. Just be smarter, move forward, rewrite the joke. Nothing is off-limits in comedy that’s authentic, true and actually funny.”

Or, as Ms. Pat puts it, “You can do anything as long as you do it with grace and taste. It’s comedy. If you can’t laugh, go watch a soap opera. I tell people all the time I’m not going to edit myself. I haven’t had that problem. And if I did have that problem, I don’t know I had that problem. So no, I’m not worried about cancel culture. I’m too old to be canceled.”  

Take charge and change with the business.

“Throughout history there are always rule-breakers,” Bamford says, “so just like genocide and how many ways there are to cook chicken, people have a limited range.”

Her advice: “Make your own spaces, shows and clubs. You are the gatekeeper. The resource of comedy clubs is still not available to many due to prejudice. I am often the one woman booked for the whole year as a headliner. This isn’t every club — there are outliers — but in what I see, not including L.A. and New York, it’s extremely limited. I hope this is changing, but I haven’t seen a shift yet.”

Taking charge might involve streamlining. The consolidation of agencies and management companies alarms Eshenbaugh. After departing UTA last year, his new Austin-based Irreverent Character Management is building a full-service company for a lower commission that can take the place of an agency, manager, publicist and host of assorted team members that can tally some 40% of income before taxes.

These days, fewer comics can point to a series making their careers and offering touring success. Now, says Eshenbaugh, “It’s social media, podcasts and specials. You don’t need anyone to tell you you’re allowed to do stand-up and be successful. You can market yourself direct to fans and own your audience.”

Break the rules!

Following 2022’s “Seth Rogen Celebrity Table Reads” at the Orpheum Theatre, Hilarity for Charity nonprofit co-head Rogen hosts Hollywood Bowl variety show “Seth Rogen Smokes the Bowl” with music, comedy, fireworks, and sales benefitting families affected by Alzheimer’s.. A bonus, according to Rogan? “You can smoke weed inside; they won’t kick you out!”

Rogen, who first tried stand-upat age 13, notes, “To me there is only one rule of comedy, and that is that it is funny. That rule encapsulates many things, but that is the job of the comedian: to make things that they find funny, as funny to as many people as they’re trying to reach.”

Echoes Gadsby, “The only rule in comedy is you have to be engaging to the room you’re in.” Naturally, the size of that room can change for inhabitants, often unexpectedly. 

“There’s not a lot of freedom in the genderqueer space because of this transphobic emphasis that Netflix put up,” Gadsby says. At the top of March showcase special “Gender Agenda,” they recounted posting an open letter to Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos.

“He dragged my name into a toxic transphobic conversation,” Gadsby says. “I’m like, ‘Don’t do that. And while I’m here, you suck.’ I can’t help myself.”

In doing so, genderqueer showcase comics could subsequently do their jobs: joke onstage about whatever they wanted. Concurrently, “the itch that everyone wanted me to scratch was scratched.”

Elsewhere in rule-breaking, Gadsby envisions two upcoming revolutions. Firstly, “The ‘new’ in comedy is going to be back in the room. Clowning is an exciting space with chaos and a little bit of anarchy. It’s going to be an interesting space to watch. Online is not where the risks are going to be taken.”

Second, edgy is out. A little boring, even. “People are getting sick of ‘the edge’ and controversy,” says Gadsby. “The thing about the edge? It’s a very thin part of the human experience. There’s a whole world being ignored. We’re in a conflict-gets-rewarded economy online, but I think there’s a general anxiety and fatigue in the world that’s going to start rejecting that. That’s my prediction.”   

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