Don't quit your day job

Here's a revealing interview with Maria Bamford [thx AC]. In it, she breaks down why comedy ain't a very good get rich quick scheme. Seems to be pretty old (from seven years ago?), but it's still really interesting to see her break down the numbers.

So I started doing stand-up for reals (though not for pay) when I was 21. I didn't get paid until I was 23 and I didn't make a real living from stand-up until I was 29 (and that was still supplemented a bit by secretarial work and at 32, I'm still signed with my temp agencies in case of a slow month which hasn't happened in a while).

I can tell you what I make, but it is different for everyone and I don't know — FROM DAY TO DAY, MONTH TO MONTH what I will make. I didn't know about 3 of these gigs until last week in November.There is no shame in having a "day job" or secondary passion to support you while you pursue an artistic career. There is nothing creatively stimulating about living in a cockaroach-infested apartment and busking for change (I've done that), not knowing where you'll get money for food, living on credit cards and not having health insurance. I did the above in the beginning and ended up in a lot of trouble! Now, I do not use credit cards and live below my means- there is no 401 K PLAN for comedians.

That said — Example income for starting "headliner" — middles and emcees make considerably less — Comedy Club gig — Thermopolis, Wyoming (5-45minute shows) $1200 gross (minus airfare $200 and then minus %20 of net in commissions $190 and minus federal tax 30% of ? of net after airfare and commissions: TOTAL NET: $680. And for comics, it usually takes a few years (at least for me, 10 years) to headline. They don't pay for hotel or air for emcees and middles — lots of driving and crashing with friends. Clubs pay you in cash or without taking out taxes — some comics get in trouble when they don't pay quarterly taxes to IRS (Read:me).

Sample Television taping- The Late Night 2AM Interview show- audition for 2 years: $1100 gross (minus tax of 350, minus commissions of 330: TOTAL NET: $420)

So, you're on the Tonight Show and do your first headling gig and you have $1100 for the most exciting month of your life. I earn about as much as a well-paid legal-secretary after expenses- about 50K. And I'm very lucky. To live in LA — on your own — it costs about $2000 a month — so I still temped up until up until a year ago. And, from what I hear- there are no guarantees. Just like McDonald's still has advertising, comics can't really coast on a Tonight Show appearance from 5 years ago. As in any business, it is constantly building and creating new contacts and maintaining old ones.

Net income on Comedy Central Special is $5,240.($15,000 gross, minus 40% tax — $6,000 (higher tax bracket) and 25% ($3,750) commssions) after 9 years of stand-up. And the deal is a "buy-out" meaning you don't receive residuals and they can play it as much as they want for as long as they want. Which is great for exposure and is wonderful, and it's definitely continues to pay in terms of getting better rates for comedy club bookings. Currently, there is no union for Comedians — club pay depends from person to person. Emcees in a club make $150 to $300 a week, middle acts: $150-700 a week and headliners $800 to $2500 unless you're a celebrity or they do door deals where you get a percentage of the door if you're a big draw — Carlos Mencia, Brian Regan are a few comics who aren't necessarily househould names, but "draw", are famous among comedy aficionados.

No wonder so many standups turn to acting, hosting, TV commercials, writing, etc. As for Bamford, at least she's now collecting a nice paycheck from those Target ads.


My name's Josh Guarino said...

I should have finished college.

Hank_Thompson said...

Great post.

I've noticed comics are usually very reticent to talk about pay scales and income. I suppose everybody is no matter the industry.

Maybe someone (The Ruby or others) could go into more detail about commissions. Maria refers to it a few times. Does she mean her agent? Manager? Booker? Is 20 to 25 percent typical?

soce said...

A lot of interesting info on Maria Bamford's site! I also like her very long list of talented female comedians:


It's definitely a good point. It's extremely hard to live off of creative arts alone. It seems the majority of non-famous people who make somewhat decent livings tend to offer a services or products related to their talent, such as teaching music and performance lessons, working in a music or performance studio etc.

But even that doesn't pay all that well, unless you spend almost as much time doing it as you would spend in an office job.

My name's Josh Guarino said...

Her list of funny female comics just seems like a list of every female comic. I don't see a lot of careful selection.

myq said...

Commissions likely refers to manager and agent, who each take 10-15%, or for college agents, up to 20%.

But that is something that's not addressed, that there is more than just club work for comedians. Some people do very well with colleges, or corporate gigs, or cruises, or other c-words (I almost wrote cruise chips), etc. Not every comedian is right for each of those situations, but some are for some and that is good. And of course also there are acting jobs, writings jobs, voiceover work, warmup work, punch-up, other things that are comedy related...

Of course, there are lots of people who want all the work. Not that there's a limited amount of it. The more good comedy work that gets done, the more audiences will want to see even MORE good comedy work.

Thanks for posting.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Random comedy jobs I've had:

I've drawn an illustration of popcorn on someone's arm for a rap video ($10)

I warmed up a crowd of kids for an NBA event ($800)

I did 10 min of voiceover work in a guy's apt for a project he wanted to pitch to Comedy Central ($20)

I've punched up a presentation my cousin had to give to her fellow police officers ($0)

I have co-hosted a quiz show, providing witty banter ($50)

I host a monthly open mic (free bagels)

I have done comedy murder mystery dinner theater ($100)

I have emceed a friends' wedding ($25)

I have written freelance articles for websites ($100)

By scouring Craigslist and making yourself available to use your comedic writing skills, comic timing, stage presence, and acting chops in a variety of ways you flex your creative muscles and meet lots of different people that can introduce you to new opportunities.

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