In 2008, Kevin Hart had a chance to tour with three other stand-up comedians in a package at large theaters across the country. He turned it down, choosing to headline his own tour at smaller, 1,000-seat venues. “We even took less money to do that,” says his live agent, Mike Berkowitz, who also represents Louis C.K., Amy Schumer and Aziz Ansari. “By the end of that tour, we were doing 2,500-seaters. It was a turning point.”
Today, Hart is headlining one of the biggest comedy tours in years, if not ever — What Now? sold more than 600,000 tickets as of last month, according to Billboard, grossed $35 million and has sold out numerous arenas throughout the summer. The tour is part of a live comedy boom that, while not quite in the league of the Rolling Stones or Madonna, allows Hart, Ansari, C.K. and others to sell out New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
“It’s vibrant again,” Rick Greenstein, agent for John Oliver, Jamie Foxx and Dave Chappelle, tells Rolling Stone. “These guys can make money in eight or 10 different ways — they do a [TV] show and their standup goes up 300, 400, 500 percent. One feeds the other.” Or, as Louis C.K. told his e-mail list in January after selling out four shows at MSG, “If you keep buying the tickets, I have to keep doing the shows.” Chappelle, for his part, has sold out multiple theatre shows in Detroit, Atlanta and elsewhere.
While Greenstein says comedy tours are beginning to sell tickets on the level of big-name pop and rock stars, that phenomenon is generally rare. Last year’s top-grossing comic, ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, made $17 million and hit just 55 on Pollstar’s list of top North American shows; Jerry Seinfeld grossed $14 million and made Number 67. (By comparison, One Direction’s gross was more than $127 million in 2014.) Those who play MSG and other large venues generally can’t maintain that sales level across the country. “I wouldn’t say it’s going to dominate the [concert] business,” says Gary Bongiovanni, Pollstar’s editor-in-chief, “but certainly comedy as a business is booming.”
Live comedy has been surging for several years — mostly due to a rise in social media, YouTube and Netflix, but also a wave of new talent from Broad City to Hannibal Buress to Key and Peele, whose “Substitute Teacher” video, for example, has more than 74 million views. “I don’t feel it’s ever not been big. When there’s a disaster, people still want to laugh,” says Stacy Mark, a partner with WME, the huge talent agency that represents top comedians. “It’s just everybody’s starting to catch up to it.”
Billboard estimated live comedy ticket sales at $300 million last year, and more and more 2015 standups are doing arena-level business. The Black and Brown Comedy Get Down tour, with George Lopez and Cedric the Entertainer, has sold roughly 10,000 to 13,000 tickets per show, according to promoters, while the recent Wild West Comedy Festival, with Hart and Lewis Black in Nashville, drew 51,000, more than doubling last year’s attendance. “Every city has at least one comedy festival now, of varying degrees of size,” says Nick Nuciforo, head of comedy touring at United Talent Agency. “There are more comedians playing theatres and arenas than ever before.”
Hart’s tour is selling out on a Seventies Steve Martin level due in part to the Get Hard co-star’s ubiquity in films, TV shows and savvy, high-profile appearances at events such as the NBA All-Star Game. Plus, Berkowitz says, the best comedians in recent years are telling stories about their lives, allowing fans to evolve with them the way they have with Bruce Springsteen or James Taylor. “The art of being more personal, and [employing] storytelling — that was rarer 10, 15, 20 years ago,” he says. “People were telling jokes about airlines in front of a brick wall at a club.”
Another key factor in live comedy’s resilience: Even the best seats are affordable. Chappelle at Red Rocks Amphitheatre last summer cost just $60, and Hart’s tickets range from $20 to $150. Stand-ups rarely have to drag around dozens of trucks full of special effects and pay musicians and large entourages the way bands do. “There have always been acts that can play arenas — Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock — but all these people seem to be doing it at the same time,” says Geof Wills, president of comedy for top promoter Live Nation, referring to Chelsea Handler, who played arenas a year ago, and Jim Gaffigan, who plays amphitheatres this summer. “One comic does it and another says, ‘Aw, yeah, I want to get that done, too.'”