Laugh Factory: Making humor pay when times are tough

ByABC News
January 6, 2012, 4:10 PM

CHICAGO -- If comedy is a barometer, Jamie Masada gauges the times are ripe for some much-needed laughter relief.

As a teen, Masada opened Los Angeles' Laugh Factory club during 1979's panic-inducing energy and inflation crisis and another Laugh Factory — the USA's largest — in nearby Long Beach amid 2008's economic meltdown. Now, the 51-year-old former stand-up comedian is betting the brittle economy will help his expanding brand thrive.

"During tough times, people want to laugh. They need to laugh," Masada says. He is surrounded by the construction clutter of Chicago's Lakeshore Theater, undergoing a $2 million transformation into the Midwest's first Laugh Factory opening Jan. 20.

Masada has constructed a humor empire that's embraced magazines, radio, TV, films and cyberspace. But his focus is on bricks-and-mortar comedy clubs, with plans to open a Laugh Factory in Las Vegas, Boston and Boca Raton by year's end, followed by ventures in other U.S cities, Great Britain, Australia and India.

"Jamie's goal is to be the Starbucks of comedy," says actor/comedian Paul Rodriguez, part of the Chicago club's investor group, which includes several TV, film and standup stars. "And the worse times get, the better it is for our business. As an investment, it's a better bet than the stock market."

While standup may be a sound business model for entrepreneurs such as Masada, humor is lifting bottom lines throughout the entertainment industry.

Broadway's The Book of Mormon, winner of nine Tony awards, has spawned a best-selling album and national tour. Among 2011's big box-office winners: R-rated raunchfests Bridesmaids ($288 million in worldwide ticket sales), Bad Teacher ($216 million) and The Hangover Part II ($581 million). The Internet — fueled by multimillion views of amateurish videos as well as more polished humor websites such as Funny or Die — is bristling with new comedy, including channels launching on You Tube and Yahoo.

Perhaps nowhere is the uptick in hilarity more in-your-face than TV, where the sitcom is enjoying a resurgence after a decade of ratings domination by reality shows and dramas. A quarter of TV's 20 most-watched shows among key 18- to 49-year-olds are sitcoms.

Comedies fill Fox's Sunday prime-time lineup, CBS' Mondays and NBC's Thursdays. ABC is contemplating a Friday block to complement its Tuesday- and Wednesday-night sitcoms. "Everyone has felt pressure to embrace what the viewer clearly has an appetite for," says Samie Falvey, ABC's chief of comedy development. Like its rivals, ABC has dozens of comedy scripts and talent deals in various stages of development.

Zooey Deschanel, star of Fox hit New Girl, says renewed interest in comedy has provided room for quirky shows like hers. "I've always been a little bit of a weirdo and didn't really picture playing one could work on mainstream TV," says Deschanel, who co-launched the comedy website Hellogiggles in May. "But great shows are popping up, different types that are character-driven and not about delivering one-liners."

Blurring traditional venues

Comedy is coming to unlikely formats and places, straddling and blurring traditional programming venues:

•Radio talk show host Stephanie Miller is selling out live venues with her Sexy Liberal Comedy tour, which has also spawned a popular comedy album and book deal.

•Napoleon Dynamite, a live-action cult hit in 2004, returns as a Fox cartoon Jan 15.