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No Joke – Live Comedy is Big Business

by Dan Daley • in
  • May 2018
  • The Biz
• Created: May 15, 2018

You can make serious money by making people laugh. Jerry Seinfeld earned $69 million between June 2016 and June 2017, according to a Forbes magazine ranking of highest-paid comedians, while second-ranked Chris Rock earned $57 million, followed by Dave Chappelle, who earned $47 million. (Some have ventured from the standup circuit into building their own media empires: comedian/producer Byron Allen in March bought the Weather Channel for $300 million.)

Granted, much of that comedy gold comes from television, especially Netflix specials. But plenty of stand-ups made their bucks the old-fashioned way: On the live stage.

Terry Fator, who is No. 9 on the Forbes list with $18.5 million, played over 225 shows in the time period, most of them as part of his residency in Las Vegas. Jeff Dunham, who earned $15.5 million, and Sebastian Maniscalco at $15 million, each played over 100 live gigs. Kevin Hart, who topped the list in 2016 at $87.5 million but focused on film and television work in 2017, kicked off a world tour in March that runs nearly nonstop until it ends up in Singapore in December.

So for a FOH person, what’s it like to mix sound for a stand-up comedian on the road? Seems like an easy gig, right? Open the channel and stand by for an evening of yuks? Not really.

‡‡         Guy Walks Into a Bar…

“It’s harder than any band I’ve ever mixed,” says Scott Tydings, who is mixing Hart on his year-long tour. “Any problem you might have is magnified, because it’s just one person up on stage and just one person mixing. There’s nowhere to hide. We have a new systems tech on this tour, and before this he was out with artists like Judas Priest and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He thought working with a comedian would be simple. It actually took three weeks to get it dialed in.”

Tydings, who owns SR provider Showtime Sound in Frederick, MD knows of whence he speaks: he’s been with Hart since 2011, and for much of the last decade he’s been mixing FOH and/or doing production management for Hart’s contemporaries Amy Schumer and Louis C.K. These performers are at the arena level, so they are not going out with an EON system and a Mackie Mix8. Showtime Sound is providing a 64-box K2 system for Hart, enough for many touring bands, let alone one person on stage with a microphone.

“It’s all about coverage,” says Tydings. “Every seat in the house has to be able to hear every word clearly and intelligibly. The audience came to hear the jokes, and if they can’t, they can get pretty angry.”

Some comics are relatively sedate on stage; Tydings says both Schumer and Louis C.K., both of whom he worked with while Hart was spending most of 2017 doing films and television, rarely raise their voices. “Amy is pretty easy to mix — she tends to keep the microphone in one place and doesn’t do character voices,” he says. “Louis is much the same way; he’ll keep the mic in one place for most of the show and speak in a pretty controlled tone of voice.”

Hart, however, is another matter entirely. He’ll keep the microphone (a Shure KSM8 through an Axient wireless system, although sometimes they use an SM58, as well) firmly in his grip as he gesticulates wildly onstage, with the mic pointing every which way in the process. “You can never let go of the faders,” says Tydings. And yes, that’s faders, plural: he has Hart’s input assigned to four separate channels across the Midas Pro X console he’s touring with, each with its own specific EQ and dynamics settings, for Hart’s numerous excursions into other characters and situations. “I’ll move him from channel to channel as the show progresses, as he does different bits,” says Tydings, who is considering experimenting with a lavalier microphone at some point on this tour, in hopes of keeping up with Hart’s highly physical comedy. “You have to know the show by heart, and be ready as Kevin switches to womens’ and kids’ voices, sings and just goes through a whole range of different sounds and different volume levels.”

‡‡         Tough Crowd

That’s a process that Geoff Hidden is familiar with. He was out on the road as the FOH mixer for comedian/actor Gabriel Iglesias — a.k.a. “Fluffy” — for eight years, until Hidden decided to take a break from the road last year. “You have to keep your eye on the microphone at all times,” he says. “Gabe would use it like a wand sometimes, pointing it in every direction; sometimes he’d lean over the front edge of the stage and talk to someone in the audience, and he’d be pointing it right at a front fill [speaker] and you scramble to avoid feedback. You never knew where he was going to go onstage; if you blinked, he’d be somewhere else when you opened your eyes, pointing the mic at a monitor.”

“Fluffy” was also prone to sudden and radical changes in volume, and did plenty of sound effects; testing the limits of the Audio-Technica AT5000 wireless he used most nights. “They were loud, too,” says Hidden, who dealt with them using a combination of compression and careful fader riding, as well as filtering out some of the lower frequencies that would get especially honked and could rumble the system during vocal explosions. It underscores the fact that while comedians, like musicians, tend to stick to their set lists each night, comics especially can suddenly veer in unexpected directions — a comment from the audience might cause them to go on a complete tangent, using bits no one, including the sound mixer and LD, has heard before. It’s also just how they are. Or, as Hidden puts it, “You never know when the ADD is going to kick in.”

‡‡         Take My Advice, Please

Comedy is posed to become an even bigger part of the live entertainment industry. Don’t forget, even if the HBO and Netflix specials are the biggest moneymakers, they’re all done in front of live audiences, and the specials are often culled from several nights’ worth of performances, so a single special might represent a week’s worth of shows, all of which require nearly as much audio and other support as any touring music artist. It’s a fertile field for live sound. And you can get a good laugh out of it, hopefully all the way to the bank.

Dan Daley is a noted journalist and bon vivant.

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