In the early seventies, for stand-up comedy, New York city was Ground Zero. The Improv and Catch a Rising Star were the most important, (and basically the only two) comedy clubs in America. The real magnetic pull that the Big Apple had was ‘The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson’. A singular show that could make or break a young comic’s career. The show had deep roots in Manhattan as it was hosted first by Steve Allen then Jack Parr, and was a descendant of television comedy hits like Your Show of Shows, and radio comedies hosted by Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and many others. For several years and more, New York had been the place to be. The town to leave home for, to head off to make your bones in the world of comedy. The only place.
THE TREK WEST
In 1972 Johnny Carson left New York and moved the Tonight show to Los Angeles. Famously, most of the stand-up comics in New York soon followed. L.A. became the place you had to be to make it in comedy. Under Mitzi’s Shore’s care, the Comedy Store blossomed and became mecca for comics to be seen. Budd Friedman made the trek west and opened an Improvisation, NBC, and Norman Lear started shooting their sit-coms out there, and for young stand-ups, the shift became seismic.
For decades you had to be out in L.A. to make it. That was it. You had to play the Store or the Improv, or the Laugh Factory and get on Carson, or a sit-com, then get a cable special, then a Netflix special or a studio film or some version of anointment from the Hollywood powers that be. Even if you were doing a shot on a show in New York, a film out of town, the rules were made and the orders handed down in Los Angeles. That’s the way it was. Johnny followed the film business, and the comedians were happy to head west rather than east.
THE INTERNET CHANGED EVERYTHING
What the web finally didn’t subvert, Covid did. After a long dry spell for stand-up in the late 90’s, and early 2000’s, stand-up got very strong again with a hearty thanks to the internet. First Myspace broke Dane Cook, then podcasters started building their own fans, Marc Maron, Paul F. Thompkins, Bill Burr, and others were doing their own shows and building a base they found they could sell tickets to that no one outside of their own sphere even knew about. Somewhere in there, Joe Rogan and his gang of friends, Brian Redban, Joey Diaz, Tom Segura, Ari Shaffir, Whitney Cummings, Chris Delia, Christina P, Bryan Callen, others were all taking off in an uncharted dimension that was wild, uncontrolled, hysterical, and freewheeling. This new solar system of broadcasting, this underworld, while not fully articulated yet, became profitable beyond their imaginations. They had turned the lights back on in the halls of stand-up comedy.
Then, just as quickly, Covid turned them off.
Covid days were dark ones for everyone. There is no doubt. But for comics? Who lived and breathed to be in front of people? Telling jokes? To a group of stand-ups who had struggled for years and could now fill theatres? Clubs? Finally? And now no one could go out? It was daunting, unfair, unfriendly, and unfathomable. Sure, there were workarounds, outside shows in fields. Drive in theatres. Parking lots, rooftops, but by and large they amounted to a small notch above staying home and complaining.
Playing for car honks rather than laughs? Playing to people spaced far apart with masks on, deathly afraid of each other. They did it though. The one upside was their comedy specials online were seen like never before. They concocted new content on Youtube and Instagram that was seen by people all over the world who had all the time in the world to watch it. Their podcasts doubled, tripled and more in viewership. A new breed grew to another level, stand-ups like Sam Morril, Mark Normand, 85 South, Ali Macofsky, Shane Gillis, Annie Lederman, and Andrew Schultz.
In this low turn, this turn down, The Joe Rogan experience, which was already one of, if not the biggest podcasts in comedy, became something else altogether. He had already been selling out arenas when he went on tour, had already been the poster boy for Youtube podcasting, when another wave hit. As big as he was, the pandemic, the slow down of movies and television, the division of the country in politics, the rise of stand-up and other comedy podcasts, his skill level picking up, all came together as Spotify was ready to take on Apple, and Amazon, and formed a perfect storm. Joe was crowned King of the new world.
This would turn out to be momentous for so many sectors. Media. Podcasters. News. All areas of communications. Politics, you name it. None as much as stand-up. As I said, in The Comedy Store documentary, and many others have said, a shot on Joe Rogan is as big if not bigger than a shot on Johnny Carson used to be. The comics he has on now all become, if not maybe household names, in this day and age, then true, bonafied, stand-up and podcast stars. From his original porch pals like Ari Shaffir, Tom Segura, Bert Kreisher, Tony Hincliffe, Duncan Trussell, to his new guard of Mark Normand, and Shane Gillis.
THE COMMON DENOMINATOR
Rogan, in my opinion, is tremendous with scientist and doctors and authors who can talk about stuff he’s curious about. He’s like Carson that way. He’s a damn good interviewer. What he’s most watchable at though, by far, and what all his different groups of pals have in common, is sitting around and laughing. He loves to laugh, talk shop, life, shit, and turkey. To smoke, drink and have fun. And who doesn’t? He’s figured out a way to bottle it. He’s happiest, and his best stuff is when he has friends he’s most comfortable with and he’s flapping his gums puffing on a cigar. His face lights up. Is it P.C.? Is it diverse? Equitably digestible? Not really. But it’s working for a lot of people, and more importantly for stand-up fans, He’s lit the fuse that have set off some serious careers in this manner.
Would these guys be stars without Joe? Good question, right? Some of them? Bert would be. Segura would be. Tim Dillon? Maybe not. Time will tell. Tony Hinchcliffe I think is a unique beast. No doubt the little fucker’s rode Joe’s buffed-out back all the way to the bank, yet I think Tony is going to be just as important to the Austin tectonic plate shift, and the new world of Stand-up, as Joe in a way. (*See my piece on Tony here on the site, cribbed from my book, Standupworld.)
THE MOTHERSHIP CHANGES EVERYTHING
ADAM EGAT AT ‘MITZI’S BAR’ NAMED AFTER COMEDY STORE FOUNDER MITZI SHORE
(Photo courtesy Pauly Shore)
When Joe moved to Austin a lot of the heavy hitters followed. A lot of followers followed as well. There’s been a move south, no doubt. A lot of pioneers headed there and left. Couldn’t cut it. Their wagon trains broke down early and they headed back to L.A., but a lot of the heavy hitters are gone. You can feel the absence too in the clubs like the Store. A large group of what was murderers row are gone. It’s tamer. The Comedy Store doesn’t have the edge it always had. I know Peter Shore will fix it, but the truth is, the problem isn’t the Store or the Improv, or the L.A. comics. None of that is the reason for the energy change.
It’s Rogan’s move to Austin. It’s Johnny Carson all over again. The energy is in Austin. Stand-up doesn’t need to be in L.A. anymore. It isn’t the center of the world anymore and you can feel it. We’re all just doing sets. It doesn’t really mean anything. In the old days there was a magic about it. Any night something could happen. Someone could come in and change someone’s life. There hasn’t been a center to the world for stand-up now since before Covid, and now that The JRE is in Austin, with Tom Segura and Christina P and their base there, and Kill Tony is there, arguably the second most important podcast / T.V. show to make someone a hot stand-up star right now and with all the clubs and festivals down there, and then the Mothership lands?
Yes. Joe Rogan has moved the axis of the earth for stand-up comedy again. If someone is going to break out right now, chances are they are going to break out in Austin. Be it on JRE, and as a panelist on Kill Tony, a regular contestant, a combination of their own podcast and JRE spots, Kill Tony and Austin sets, like a Ryan Long, or William Montgomery, or someone of that ilk. It isn’t going to be some lame woman doing black dildo stuck in her ass jokes or another one twirling around upside down on the stage of the Comedy Store main room talking about her pussy for twenty minutes making the audience uncomfortable. It’s going to be someone like Eleanor Kerrigan or Brian Simpson who lit out of town and are working the road, going on the podcasts, selling tickets and making audiences laugh by their own set of rules and their own codes of conduct.
If I were eighteen again, back in Detroit, starting out, would an eighteen year old Mike Binder go to out L.A? To N.Y.? Or head down to Austin? I’d probably go to Austin. I’d wait in line at the Mothership and at Kill Tony and all of the comedy clubs down there. I’d start as a doorman down there just as I started as a doorman for Mitzi Shore at The Comedy Store.
The world is completely different. Doesn’t mean it’s good or it’s bad. Just different.
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