Research Findings

The emotional labor of stand-up comedy

October 13, 2018

In the popular imagination, comedians live extreme and volatile lives.

A cursory knowledge of the careers of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, John Belushi, and Sam Kinison is enough to tell us that stand-up is a world where occupational success often goes hand-in-hand with scandal, excess, and self-destructive behavior.

For most professional comedians, however, stand-up is extreme and volatile in another, more mundane sense: it involves insecure employment, short-term contracts, irregular patterns of work, and months or even years of unpaid labor.

Like other types of creative workers, such as musicians or actors, comedians are prepared to tolerate low wages and uncertain career prospects because they view their occupation as a labor of love. Making audiences double-up with laughter every night, so the theory goes, is meant to be its own reward.

But of course, stand-up is still a job, albeit one that is outside conventional 9-to-5 hours. So how do comedians earn a living on the stand-up circuit, especially when there are a hundred other gag merchants happy to work for free?

Recent research I conducted with my colleague Dimitrinka Stoyanova Russell, based on interviews with 65 full-time comedians in the UK, shows that finding work in stand-up is a complex emotional process.

Comedians rely on comedy club promoters for work on the live circuit. Getting paid, moving up the bill, and performing at better venues are some of the key areas that comedians negotiate with promoters on a one-to-one basis.

This is not always a painless process. Consider this joke told to us by one of our respondents:

There are two comics in a car and one says, ‘Oh, I did a gig last night and the whole place just stank…and the audience were drunk and I was horribly heckled, three people attacked me with knives during it, there was no light in the dressing room, there was a broken toilet, the promoter pocketed £50 of my wages and he only paid me half what he was meant to’.  And the other one goes, ‘Right, who books that?’.

The joke pivots on the idea that comedians are so desperate for work that they are willing to endure a host of indignities in their dealings with promoters. The joke contains a grain of truth: comedians need to cultivate professional relationships with those who can provide them employment, even when the pay and conditions are less than ideal.

Another comic put it more directly: ‘A promoter is your bread and butter…You should be friends with them even if you don’t like them because they’ll give you gigs.

In her famous study The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild coined the term ‘emotional labor’ to describe how workers evoke or suppress feelings in themselves or others, usually to serve some organizational goal. Hochschild developed this idea when she observed flight attendants putting nervous travelers at ease with a heartfelt smile or by remaining calm when dealing with obnoxious customers.

Of course, we all engage in emotional labor in our private lives – after all, who hasn’t feigned gratitude for an unwanted Christmas gift? – but when emotions are commercialized, capitalist relations of exploitation extend into the most intimate sphere of life.

Our research found that the same is true for stand-up comedians. In the pursuit of work, comedians manage their emotions by projecting an image of affability and amenability to ingratiate themselves with promoters.

For example, comedians might resist the urge to complain about poor pay for the sake of maintaining congenial relations with their employers, especially if they see higher paid gigs on the horizon. Similarly, comedians try to curry favor with powerful industry players by volunteering to perform at a reduced fee without so much as batting an eyelid, even though doing so goes against their short-term economic interests.

As one comic lamented, ‘people are always cashing in on your vulnerability.

Adopting a positive attitude thus comes at a price for comedians. On the one hand, emotional labor allows comedians to establish a professional network of valuable contacts that will provide them with work. On the other hand, emotional labor  – insofar as it involves stifling feelings of anxiety that arise from financial insecurity – reinforces exploitative employment practices on the live circuit.

In the absence of trade union representation or collective wage bargaining, comedians have no choice but to slap on a smile if they wish to build a career in stand-up.

On the surface, stand-up comedy is such a non-typical occupation that it seems to hold little relevance for understanding the wider world of work. But probe deeper and stand-up offers a taste of what future employment practices might look like – and how workers could be expected to manage their emotions in an increasingly competitive labor market.

If Turrini and Chichi are correct that ‘show business is paradigmatic of the reorganization of contemporary work’, then the kind of emotional labor required to pursue a career in comedy may also be needed in jobs beyond the performing arts, from casual labor in the on-demand economy to project-based work among itinerant consultants. And that prospect, to be sure, is no laughing matter.

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