Why you should care
Many things go better with money. Comedy isn’t one of them.
This skinny, rangy kid was telling one hell of a shaggy dog story. It involved the hood, a late-night drive and a vehicular dispute with another driver. The kid’s woman is demanding some sort of “manly” response. The kid cops to being a coward until at the next red light the other driver climbs from his car and the kid can see that his antagonist is someone with dwarfism.
Pause, for laughs.
The storyteller holds back his date in a sudden burst of machismo and climbs from the car whereupon … he gets his ass handed to him by the little person.
The house, indisputably, was brought down, and the announcer said in closing, “Ladies and gentlemen … Dave Chappelle!”
What kept it magic? A long list of functional failures that while keeping his name in the press also kept him broke.
Probably no more than 20 years old, complete with Cassius’ lean and hungry look — Shakespeare, not Clay — Chappelle was weaving whole cloth a kind of genius that made his early stand-up magic.
What kept it magic? A long list of functional failures that while keeping his name in the press also kept him broke. Not you-and-me broke but not 2019-Chappelle-rich either.
Remember him as Ahchoo in Robin Hood: Men in Tights? Or the 1994 flick Getting In? In 1995, he was on Home Improvement, which led to a failed TV show called Buddies in 1996. Then with Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail in 1998 and Blue Streak with Martin Lawrence the next year. Chappelle was 26 years old and no way would you have remembered any of those for his participation in them if I hadn’t just reminded you.
On a parallel track, though, his stand-up was going from him getting booed off the stage at Amateur Night at the Apollo at 17 to repeated appearances on David Letterman, Howard Stern and Conan O’Brien, where he was straight-up slaying them. Enough so there was funding for his stoner comedy Half Baked and then, finally, in 2003, his Comedy Central show that announced he had fully arrived.
And now? “Controversial” comedy that while it plays to the political moment well and is essentially him setting a stake in the ground for the comic’s right to be a comic, mostly involves Chappelle rehashing Chappelle. In general terms with his sexual politic, in more specific ones with him lifting the LGBTQ bit in his recent Sticks and Stones special from comedian Owen Benjamin — a lift he still has not copped to.
At $20 million a special, you think a guy might actually be getting paid enough to show up for work.
Which has led me to consider what I’m advancing as an ironclad assertion: Broke comedians are funnier than rich ones. And then, therefore, my proposal: Pay broke comedians more and rich comedians less. I know this will unseat everyone as the poor will get rich and then suck, and the rich will eventually become poor and get great again, but it’ll be worth it.
You see, wealth unseats the good comedian, and when you start doing the math, can you name even one who was funnier after they broke big than they were before?
“I disagree with your premise. Entirely,” says Kaseem Bentley, a stand-up comic on the come up. “Because I know plenty of comedians and performers who come from money or have access to privilege, and address it.”
But are they funny?
“Matthew Broussard is,” concedes Bentley. But in general? “There are assholes in stand-up representing the upper crust in their acts doing bits on their interactions with the homeless and shitting on the working class.” And, yeah, that’s not funny at all.
But while the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t keep records on stand-up comics specifically, the Art Career Project reports that stand-up comedians, specifically the ones not famous, are making on average $30,000 a year. That’s $625 a week, and at wages like that there should be some funny-ass comics tearing up the pea patch out there, yeah?
“It’s less money-oriented and more experience on joke writing,” says Julius C. Whitfield, who runs a comedy show out of Boston and is a performer himself. “Plenty get better through the years. Chappelle, [Bill] Burr, [Doug] Stanhope, [Dave] Attell, [Nick] Di Paolo, Bonnie McFarlane, Joan Rivers as she got older and richer, and Patrice [O’Neal] from his first Comedy Central special to his last one you could see the change and progress.”
So while money may be a nonfactor but for a few bright and shining stars of the comedic firmament whose numbers might be small enough to be considered statistical anomalies, there is for sure a Maginot line after which our once favorite and funniest are no longer.
“In most every medium, artists do their most recognized and notable work when they’re poor or unknown since they have so much to prove,” says Mean Dave, a former radio host and, in his words, a professional aspiring comedian. “Once established, it’s really up to them as to where they wanna go.”
Like Chappelle from scintillatingly funny to sort of rehash-y ordinary?
“Well, to use an example from pop culture, the Beastie Boys made their initial joke personae into a trap reality and bombed with their second release,” Mean Dave says, “but came back and scored with Check Your Head. Adversity is probably the primary factor and in most, maybe all, cases, wealth hinders adversity.”
So if you’re a broke comic, drop me a line. I’ll probably think you’re hilarious. And if you’re not just rich, but wealthy? Might we suggest a fine wine, some exquisite Russian caviar and a post-supper nap on your superyacht? You’ll be doing us all a favor.