Recession Sparking New Era in Stand-Up Comedy

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As proprietors of one of the oldest comedy clubs in the country, the Glazer family has experience negotiating economic minefields that have destroyed lesser characters in the entertainment industry over the past 35 years. While a number of other Kansas City clubs has altered format or simply shut down recently, Stanford and Sons has endured by adopting a creative new business model--a change that owner Craig Glazer suggests is marking a new era in the comedic profession and entertainment culture.


Before I meet Craig, one of the comedians on the night's roster tells me he could be described of as "more 'L.A.' than anyone in L.A." That had me confused until the 50-something club owner made an appearance in the blue "Green Room." Constantly on the move and talking non-stop in his cigarette-scarred rasp, Craig projects the kind of voluble hyperactivity of a real operator. His semi-pompidour hair, scruffy goatee, and heavy dark-framed glasses complete the portrait of a unique character--one somewhat crazy, very possibly shady, and inarguably brilliant.  One of my favorite types of people.

Craig regales me with tales about his past as a college student turned con artist ripping off drug dealers turned undercover cop--a life story chronicled in his memoir The King of Sting, now under development as a feature film. With digressions so interesting, I have to keep reminding myself to ask about how comedy is surviving the recession.

Even before the economic decline of the past couple of years, Craig says he had been steeled in survivor mode for most of the past decade. Crazy millennial fears struck an early hit against business in 2000. Then there was 9/11 in 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003--very somber national events causing a decline in consumer demand for light-hearted comedic entertainment. The recession has caused the most lingering downturn in business, but the difference now is that people still want to laugh. In fact, they need to laugh. They just can't afford to go out and spend too much money.

Despite this, Stanford and Sons Comedy Club has filled to near-capacity by the time lights dimmed for Friday's late performance. The size of the crowd resembles pre-recession levels--but the difference now is that most had gotten in for free.

Through contests, promotions, radio-giveaways, and 2-for-1 deals, Craig Glazer very liberally distributes free tickets these days. "I could just sell tickets," he explains. "But the three people who could afford them now wouldn't have any fun because they'd be watching the show in an empty room."

Revenue generated from a minority with $30 to spend on admission would not keep the club going, but if the room fills with people grateful and excited they got free tickets, the kitchen and bar stays busy.  That revenue would not be sufficient to sustain status quo operations, and that is why this evolution of the typical comedy club business model, which does not appear particularly unique to Stanford and Sons, may be having a far-reaching impact on the comedy profession itself.

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses.

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