cover092009
THE
BULLETIN
Volume 77 | Issue 5
September 2009

Producing Campus Comedy Events: Educational but 'not pretty'

Rick Gardner

Comedian Steve Martin used to perform a stand-up routine called, “Comedy Is Not Pretty!” While one might assume comedians’ slapstick and shocking antics are the genre’s unattractive aspects, campus program planners would likely extend that description to include the unique considerations involved in producing comedy events. However, it is perhaps those more unappealing content, logistical, and budgetary concerns that make the process of planning campus comedy events educational for students.

Content

“When it comes to content, the primary concern that always pops into my mind about booking comedy on campus is the potential to alienate or offend a certain audience,” said Christina Geissler, student activities advisor at the University of Minnesota–Duluth’s Kirby Student Center. “A lot of comedy comes from poking fun at social stereotypes, and no group of people or belief is safe from that. If you seriously tried to find a comedian that didn’t make fun of a particular group of people at some point in their act, I don’t think you would ever be able to book a comedian on campus.”

Rich Dornberger, director of Earlham College’s Runyan Center, agreed and said that controversy is part of the bargain: “I have had several [comedians] over the years that just spewed trash about minorities, women, etc. I have never had a comedian on campus that did not get a letter in the paper or a call from someone upset with what they had said.”

While it is likely that at least one audience member will take issue with a comedy routine, it is unclear what might be generally regarded as going “too far.”

Results from a 2002 First Amendment Center study on comedy and freedom of speech indicated that immediately following a national tragedy, 39 percent of Americans would like the government to block comedy routines that make light of or trivialize such tragedies. Additionally, a majority would ban public comments—funny or not—that might offend racial or religious groups.
 
At the time of the survey’s release, the late comedian George Carlin told a U.S. Comedy Arts Festival audience he was appalled by such opinions advocated under the pretense of “politically correct language.”
 
“I’m talking about what originated as campus speech codes at Eastern universities that has come to be called politically correct language. It is a form of intolerance,” he said.
 
Small, private, or religious schools may disagree in their concerns over content. For example, The Catholic University of America follows a restrictive “presentation policy” for comedians who would be considered morally offensive.

“It’s not as simple as having a checklist of what’s acceptable and what’s objectionable,” says Bill Jonas, director of campus activities. “We end up evaluating performers on a case-by-case basis. Some are easy, while for others it can be challenging. In all cases, though, professional staff work with students to determine what’s best for the university.

“These performers are typically brought by student organizations, and we (the professional staff) get involved prior to any invitation or contract negotiation. For example, bringing someone who talks a lot about topics contrary to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church is not something we are interested in doing. Our approach is to not look at artists whose material clearly doesn’t fit the mission of the university.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) takes issue with restricting content in this manner, arguing it restricts free speech. On the FIRE website, New York University’s Anti-Harassment guidelines are cited as an example of institutional contradiction in free speech policy. Specifically, NYU’s sexual harassment policy prohibits inappropriate jokes that target legally protected characteristics such as race, gender, or religion; while at the same time, the university encourages free inquiry, free expression, and free association in its policy on student conduct. From FIRE’s perspective, the mixed message is secondary to the larger issue of attempting to restrict free speech.

According to “A Legal Guide for Student Affairs Professionals,” at U.S. public institutions, a program’s content is legally protected unless it invokes “clear and present danger” or circumvents an institution’s “time, place, and manner” regulations. However, student leaders may be responsible for managing any resultant offense or discomfort from a comedy performance. Therefore, in advance of the program, they may want to discuss with the comedian their expectations for what is inappropriate.

“If you have any content restrictions, you should check out the comedian before you put in the offer,” recommends Melissa Aronson, president of Babco Entertainment, a booking agency. “Many comedians have the ability to make a show PG-13, but the school needs to lay it out before the show is confirmed.”

Brad Reeder, owner of Goodnight’s Comedy Club in Raleigh, N.C., and a comedian himself, offered the following warning: “Too often people see comedians on television and think that performer is clean. They don’t realize that everyone is required to be clean on network television. That doesn’t mean their entire act is that way.”

Dornberger advises student programmers to research a comedian and assess performances from various viewpoints. “One clip from YouTube is not enough to know what the comedian is all about,” he said. “Ask for references from other schools and then check those references.”

Aronson agreed that the best way to ensure content will be appropriate is to call references at other colleges. She suggested asking questions such as: “Was the performer easy to work with? Was the content offensive? Is there any reason for the college to be concerned about content in any way?”

From the agent’s perspective, it can be helpful for programmers to describe the campus culture and “content problems they’ve had in the past,” says Sara Sheragy, an agent with The Gersh Agency. “That way we, as the agent, know what won’t work as far as content for their university. We are very familiar with all of our artists and the content the show contains, so we can steer them in the right direction.”

If a comedian is known to be risqué, Ryan Ihrke, program coordinator for Minnesota State University–Mankato, suggests being proactive. “Talk to your administration beforehand ... not asking for permission [but letting] them know what kind of show the comedian performs up front. Consider having some representation of an alternative viewpoint at the event and adding an educational component to it. For example, at a show where the comedian talks a lot about smoking pot and being stoned all the time, consider having some sort information table about stopping smoking or the dangers of drugs and alcohol.”

Adam Gismondi is the assistant director for student activities at Florida State University and advises the Club DownUnder, which usually hosts 10 comedy shows annually in a venue for 350 people. “Most college students understand the issues we are dealing with as administrators,” he said. “I am up front with our students: Do you think this would be appropriate for our audience? Why would this comedian not be appropriate during parent’s weekend?”

Ihrke advised that if the comedian’s material could be considered crude, program planners might include a warning when marketing the show. “Be very clear [by stating something like]: ‘this is an offensive show’ or ‘it is a show for mature audiences’,” he said.

Larry Tomascak, interim director for the Lyman Center for the Performing Arts at Southern Connecticut State University, agreed. He suggested using statements such as “some material may be offensive” or “this performance contains adult material and content,” to help deflect potential complaints about the content.

Logistics

Beyond discussions about the show’s content, logistical elements must be well-planned and communicated for everything to run smoothly the day of the show.

“Put enough attention into the pre-advance discussions so mistakes don’t happen,” Aronson said, specifying the need to ensure adequate sound and lighting based on the artist’s technical rider. She also recommended double-checking travel and hotel information and any special requirements the campus or the artist might have included in the contract.

Fortunately, Reeder said, “Most comedians don’t have too much on their technical contract rider. Usually they want sound, lights, and a nice hotel,” ideally with wireless access.

 Despite these minimal requirements, program planners must still be prepared and meet the agreed-upon standards.

“Remember, comedians are used to being on the road,” Reeder said. “When they arrive at your venue, have everything set so there is minimum for the comedian to do. For the comic, 90 percent of the job is getting to the venue. That’s the stressful part of their job—getting to you. … Having someone there at the airport and having a nice hotel ready is appreciated.” 

Budgeting

Budgeting for a comedy show is similar to other events in many respects. A number of important factors should be considered in the planning phase, to assure a “no surprises” bottom line.

Like many universities, the University of Alaska–Anchorage, develops its budget and ticket prices based on a combination of student activity fees; previous event attendance; estimated expenses for travel, hotel, backstage food, and artist fee; research through Pollstar to see how an artist has done in other cities; and setting ticket pricing in line with what the local market will bear.

In Zac Clark’s experience as Concert Board coordinator at the University of Alaska–Anchorage, discounted tickets are a popular incentive for getting students to attend shows, especially since the board is student fee funded ($10 from each student taking three credits or more). Student tickets are usually $10 less than those for the general public.

Similarly, University of Minnesota–Duluth offers discounted tickets to students, determining a realistic ticket price and then subsidizing the remaining overhead. “We talk about cost per person and … then our students leaders do the math and say, ‘this works’ or ‘I don’t think this is worth it’,” Gismondi said.

At Southern Connecticut State University, program coordinators look to parents to fund tickets. Parents can purchase full comedy series tickets for $10 at orientation, and upon payment, the parents can write a little note on a special postcard. When the campus activities office delivers the tickets to the student at the beginning of classes, they also include the postcard the parents wrote.

In terms of minimizing comedy program expenses, Geissler said University of Minnesota–Duluth often tries to negotiate one flat fee instead of paying separately for accommodations, flights, transportation, or hospitality.

Alternatively, block booking can offer a way for travel expenses to be divided by several venues. For instance, Tomascak watches what Florida Atlantic University is doing for homecoming, as in the past he discovered they were booking some of the same shows. Now he checks the school’s events calendar regularly to compare who they are booking.

Expanding on this point, Dornberger said, “Don’t be afraid to negotiate with the agents. If you are able to, try to block book an artist. See who is already in your area and then book off that date. Check with local comedy clubs to see who they have coming through. If that doesn’t work, start your own block of dates. If you can help an artist to get at least three bookings in an area, they will usually lower their fee.”

Sheragy offered another thought when it comes to financial arrangements: “It’s good for students talking with agents to be familiar with the business system at the university on how payments are made. If I can get this information up front, I can share it with the manager especially if you need 15 or 30 days to cut a check. Having all the information shared up front always helps. When it comes to last-minute bookings, we know that the artist won’t get a check the day of the show, but a timeline as to when that check will be processed is always helpful.”

But it helps to know the rules in advance.

For instance, in Irkhe’s case: “Our state has a mandatory state tax for all entertainers taken out of performer’s fees and paid up front before show occurs. It has caused some problems with agents getting upset with our contract process. Be clear up front that you are unable to waive this state fee. If they have a problem with it, it’s a red flag you should not be working with that agent.”

Students should be encouraged to work with agents who have been helpful and accommodating to the school in the past. “Building good relations with comedy agents gets you good opportunities. Every once in a while there will be a really good deal on a great comedian. The agency will contact those people they know have the best work relationships with,” said George Micalone, Iowa State University’s director of student activities.

Gismondi advised that consistency can assist program coordinators in this regard and said at Florida State University, “We assign an undergrad the role of comedy talent buyer. We then let all the booking agents know that this student is the contact for this year and ask for them to contact this ‘buyer’ if any of their artists are planning performances in their area.”

 

Pretty successful

While comedy can create avoidable problems, every school has its comedy success story. At Iowa State University, Micalone cited the campus’s student group Grandma Mojo’s Improv Comedy Troupe as among its biggest successes. The students have developed a solid following by performing biweekly and have become extended members of the Student Union Board’s performing arts committee, serving as emcees and performers at other student events throughout the year.

Additionally, Iowa State’s student comedy competition Veishea Says I’m Funny has become a sell-out event each April. Although the event has loose guidelines, students each get seven minutes to perform their best material, and a panel of judges decides the ultimate winner. This year, the show’s popularity led the group to simulcast it over the Internet.

Geissler suggests tapping into your student body, especially in the theater department, which commonly has student comedy/improv groups. It brings awareness to the rest of the student body about what else is out there on campus, the performers work with you to bring out their friends to events, and it can be a low-cost, high-impact program.

At Southern Connecticut State University, there is a long history of successful homecoming comedy shows. Programmers have recently built a comedy series around this success with smaller name acts offering free tickets for students. The smaller events build momentum for the “anchor events,” featuring well-known acts such as Mike Epps, Brian Regan, and Charlie Murphy.

“For us, bringing in Brian Posehn from the ‘Sarah Silverman Show’ this past spring was our biggest success with a sell-out crowd including over 70 percent students,” Clark said. “The show was timed as the last show before finals and turned out to be a great way for students to come out, celebrate, have a laugh, and take a break from studying.”

When spending more for the name recognition of such comedians, programmers need to ensure the performer will have broad appeal. “We try hard to stay current on pop culture,” Gismondi said. “Who are the hot comedians we can get now while we can afford them? We encourage students to read blogs and watch YouTube.”

The key is for student programmers to look beyond their individual frame of reference, said Beth Waltrip, director of campus programs at the University of Florida; “We always challenge our students to think about their audience and not just booking who they want to see personally. We try to give them leeway to book whomever they choose, but we also make them think about how they will defend their choices.”

Comedy may not be pretty, but its unsightly content and management concerns create successful learning opportunities for student programmers.

Dornberger explained: “Comedy is a great learning tool for our board members, almost more than any other type of entertainment.”