Laugh Factory: Making humor pay when times are tough

ByGary Strauss, USA TODAY
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.

•Arrested Development, the Fox sitcom canceled in 2006, has fresh episodes out in 2013 — on Web streaming service Netflix.

•Black Dynamite, a 2009 live-action comedy film, will soon be a cartoon series on cable's Adult Swim.

•Web music streamer Rdio now offers exclusive content by Margaret Cho and other comedians.

"It's a great time for comedy," says Saturday Night Live star Fred Armisen, who is promoting tonight's return of his IFC sketch series Portlandia with a multicity concert tour. "There's a lot of experimentation and different things on TV. It's become more competitive and people are taking more risks."

BBC America aired the TV debut of National Public Radio's satirical quiz show Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me! last month and launched British-themed comedy panel series Would You Rather …? with Graham Norton. Another comedy-themed talk show, The Nerdist, debuts Jan. 14.

"We're making a pretty healthy commitment to comedy," says BBC America manager Perry Simon, who previously developed comedies as a programming executive for NBC, Viacom and Paramount. "We plan to continue experimenting. It just makes sense. Given the economic challenges we face, people are looking for comedy."

TruTV, home to crime-oriented reality fare such as Operation Repo, just rolled out hidden camera series Impractical Jokers. On tap: comedy competition show Killer Karaoke, hosted by Jackass star Steve-O. Nickelodeon is developing NickMom, a nightly, adult-oriented comedy block set for preteen channel Nick Jr. this fall.

Basic cable's top-rated USA Network is aggressively developing sitcoms, including offerings from Denis Leary, Kelsey Grammer and Nathan Lane.

Showtime, home to several adult-oriented comedies, plans to add at least one a year. House of Lies, a Don Cheadle comedy about corporate consultants, debuts Sunday. "It's not a change in strategy, it's a renewed emphasis on the funny," says programming chief David Nevins. "I want everything we do to be provocative and entertaining. One of the surest ways to do that is comedy."

Comedy Central, home to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, is developing fresh acts through the Internet, special events and tours to stoke the network's stand-up programming, now more than 1,600 hours a year. Cable channel president Michele Ganeless is rolling out sketch show Key & Peele and cartoon series Brickleberry and has several scripted projects in development.

As if actual comedy isn't enough, there's more talk about comedy. Showtime launches 10-part documentary series Inside Comedy Jan. 26. "Humor has always been a way to communicate, but I don't believe it's been quite this big before," says co-host David Steinberg, former stand-up turned film and TV director (Curb Your Enthusiasm). "You could say it's because the times are tough. But everything has been elevated creatively. Comedy is becoming more personal and creative."

quest for laughs looms so large that Gary Owen plans to be in L.A. fulltime in January when casting calls begin for the TV pilot season. "There are so many scripted comedies to audition for, it just makes sense,'' says the Ohio-based Owen, a 14-year veteran of the stand-up circuit who is looking for mainstream stardom after roles in films (Daddy Day Care) and TV's House of Payne.

Owen's cultivating an African-American following after headlining on cable channel BET and performing at targeted events such as Shaquille O'Neal's All-Star Comedy Jam Tour. He's banking on a recurring TV role to grow mainstream fans."As you build from comedy clubs to theater shows, your numbers go up, they want you back, and you can ask for more money,'' Owen says.

Still, TV's bet on comedy may be too much of a good thing. "Like anything else, things get to overkill. But you're going to see a lot more of them," notes Steve Lanzano, president of the television trade association TVB. "Advertisers do like them. They're a happy place for commercials."

Movies a easy sell

Universal Pictures, among other studios, is capitalizing with 2012 releases Wanderlust, Five-Year Engagement and This is 40. It's also resurrecting the American Pie franchise with April's American Reunion — the fourth Pie serving, but first since 2003. Universal's summer hit Bridesmaids underscores the low-budget, big-return potential. Produced for $32.5 million, it's pulled in nearly $170 million in U.S. ticket sales alone. Contrast that with the studio's sci-fi western Cowboys and Aliens, which cost more than $160 million and lassoed just $100 million at the U.S. box office.

"If you are looking at the economic model, if you take a swing at a comedy at a $25- to $35-million price point, the potential for hitting it out of the park can be great," says Universal co-chair Donna Langley. "Even if you hit a double, you're not losing a lot of money."

While studios may be more willing to bankroll comedies, some are still shy of out-of-the-box concepts. Stand-up-turned-film-star Seth Rogen has played goof-offs in romantic comedies (Knocked Up), action heroes (Green Hornet) and stoners (Pineapple Express) — all box-office hits. Yet for years, he's been unable to sell a concept close to his heart: an R-rated animated comedy.

"I thought there would be bidding wars. But it's unappealing even to studios you've never heard of," Rogen says. "The thing we find innovative and interesting, the studios still find scary and unknown. I'd love to say its easier to get a comedy made, but not if you try to do something different."

African Americans aren't getting a big of slice of the comedy pie, either, says veteran stand-up Tommy Davidson. "Comedians are like the administrators of happy," says Davidson, who manages about 150 club dates a year but finds big TV and film roles elusive. "If there's a resurgence in comedy on TV or the movies, it doesn't include the black entertainment community."

Neophytes on the Internet

Mixed opportunities aside, the Internet already is looming large for neophytes producing popular viral videos, making stars of laughing babies, frenetic dancers and goofy pets.

Ultimate Dog Tease, featuring a bacon-loving mutt, has been downloaded more than 70 million times since its spring debut on YouTube. Established funnymen such as Will Ferrell and collaborator Adam McKay, founders of Funny or Die, also have found new short-form creative outlets. Such successes are prompting fresh investment in comedy-centric channels and programming by major web players.

Yahoo kicks off a new comedy channel with the Feb. 23 Web simulcast of Bill Maher's live California concert. Several original short-form series and distribution deals are attracting mainstream marketers, says Yahoo video programming chief Erin McPherson.

The Web has reinvigorated some careers and brought new found fame to others. Former MTV star Tom Green has a new career as a stand-up act, parlaying viral videos from his MTV days and the cultish fan base of Tom Green's House Tonight, the Internet talk show hosted from his living room.

Social media networking sites such as Twitter are helping comedians market themselves. "In terms of getting your name and material, it's indispensable. It's a real way to connect and advertise," Cho says.

Eventually, Masada hopes to have enough clubs open to draw well-known comics with regular gigs, which in turn will draw steady audiences. Given the 2012 presidential election, anemic economic growth and an increasingly divisive social agenda,

Masada is confident comedy will remain king.

"We always need laughs," he says. "The need for laughter is as strong as the need for oxygen.''

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