Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Showcases-What are they good for?

Last night, I received a rather disturbing ‘share’ on my Facebook page. I don’t know if it was intentionally meant for me or not, but it got me to thinking that since I am in the process of putting a weekly show together, I felt I needed to address it.

The posting was a copy of a previous post from Craigslist, and it was from a musician in Vancouver, BC. Apparently, a local restaurateur in the area was offering a showcase for musicians to come in and perform for free. In return, the musicians would have a place to perform and sell their CDs- in other words, showcase their talents. The musician responded by essentially offering the restaurateur the opportunity to come to his house and cook for him and his friends, for free of course. His point is obvious; creative people should be paid for what they do, and it is morally wrong for a club owner to profit exorbitantly without compensating the talent, and on that point I totally agree. Having said that, I think there are valid points to be made on both sides of the coin.

The relationship between performers and club owners has always been a contentious one. Performers feel that they are the reason patrons come into a club, and it is unfair that the club owner rakes in all the money while the performer receives a pittance for his or her participation in the club’s success. The club owner feels that he or she is taking the risk of sinking large sums of money into a club while the performer is taking none. Therefore, the club owner is entitled to receive the bulk of the money. As always, I believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

I have been both a musician and a comedian, though most of my career was spent as the latter. Back in the day, I was also active in working towards getting comedians the salaries and benefits they deserved as President of the now-defunct Professional Comedians Association. I also supported a movement in New York back then that nearly shut down all the showcases because comics weren’t being paid enough. Those of you who remember, will recall that we came very close to striking. The club owners heard us, realized our value, and a settlement was eventually reached. So whether or not the posting was meant for me is of no consequence, because I know that I have always come down on the side of my fellow performers on issues like this, and always will.

Having said that, I also want to make the point that showcases are now, as they were then, the wellspring from which new talent comes forth. One need only read the list of alumni from places like  The Comic Strip, Dangerfield’s, Catch a Rising Star and of course the original Improvisation, to see that the showcase club has been invaluable to performers over the years. Speaking for myself, I cannot imagine how I would have progressed as a comic without them. Is the system fair when it comes to wages for comics? Perhaps not, but it is equally unfair to say that without the showcases, most of today’s household comedy names probably wouldn’t have had the careers they enjoy. I also believe that it is reasonable to suggest that none of us ever traversed the city, doing three, four or five of these places a night, for the money. That wasn’t their function.    These place were (and still are) where both new and seasoned comics could learn and hone their skills. They are the places where the six-minute TV “set” was worked on. They were where career-making auditions happened for Carson, Leno, Letterman, et al. What’s more, the showcase clubs (usually in the bar) were the original social networking sights for up and comers and veterans to establish connections, get gigs, and find out what was generally going on around town. Here, ‘war’ stories about the trials and tribulations of certain road gigs could be traded, and lifelong friendships forged. The showcases were where the business of show business was learned. The money sucked, and still does, but not everything is measured in dollars and cents. Learning one’s craft does not make a performer less professional; it makes him or her more so, in my opinion. Doctors, lawyers and skilled workers must do internships to learn to be capable at what they do; shouldn’t performers have to do the same? The simple fact is that performers need an audience to perform for, and the showcases offer that. They are our college, as well as our fraternities and sororities. You may find that at some point in your career, you feel you don’t need them anymore, but what about the people coming up who do?

I mentioned earlier that while I am not sure that this post was directed at me, I felt I had to address it anyway. Let me explain why.

If you look to the right of this post under my “Upcoming Appearances”, you’ll see that beginning Wednesday, February 22 of this year, I am presenting what I hope will be a successful, weekly variety show that strays from the “three-comic” model we’re all used to, and instead, attempts to bring back the spirit of the original showcases. My sincere hope is that it will be a sort of free-wheeling event where comics, musicians, and singers can come and without pressure, just have some fun doing the things they enjoy, musically, comedically, and creatively. Because it is a brand new room, I have a very small budget to work with, but I will pay the performers I book on the show, albeit not what they would get for a legitimate gig. But unlike said gig, I am encouraging experimentation. I want my fellow performers to try the bits and music that the comedy club, fire house gig or cruise ship would never permit. I am looking forward to exciting nights of  great improvisation and thrilling musical performances. Hopefully, it will grow to become a place for performers to be seen. No, you won’t be able to retire on the money, but it just might make you grow. So if that sounds like the kind of place appeals to you as a performer, then shoot me an email and we’ll talk. If it doesn’t, I wish you Godspeed and all the success in the world.   

I want to close this out by saying that as performers we are always growing, or at least should be. We were given a very special gift, one that few people have and nearly everyone wants. By the same token, we are also always in the precarious position of proving our worth, coming out with a new product; keeping it fresh, so to speak. That is our responsibility. Because of my eleven year sabbatical from comedy, I find myself in the unenviable position of having to prove myself once again. Tomorrow, I will be doing a guest set at a club in the hope of getting a gig there. There’s no money, but I understand that. I am showcasing my talent as I did way back in 1980, when I first performed at the Jade Fountain in Paramus, New Jersey. I am doing it because I want the gig and I am an unknown quantity. Doing so doesn’t make me less professional. That’s just where the work is.

A very wise and talented performer for whom I have great respect told me at the very beginning of my career, “to work whenever and wherever ‘they’ll’ let you. Don’t worry about the money-that will come eventually. Just be the best, most original YOU, and they will find you”. Thanks Rodney, for those words. They have served me well, and continue to do so.           
That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat! Abbondanza!

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