By Elahe Izadi
Jerry Seinfeld stands in the wings, watching.
Hannibal Buress is on stage for closing night of Comedy Central's inaugural Clusterfest, a three-day bonanza in front of thousands, and he's winning over the Bay Area audience. Buress declares he wants a disease named after him, like Lou Gehrig - "They say dream big" - and laughter erupts.
Seinfeld finds him after his 15-minute set and shakes his hand. "Beautiful," Seinfeld says. "Nice set."
The lights pop right back up. Seinfeld darts out, throwing his hands into the frigid air. It's his only introduction, and the crowd roars like a rock god stands before them.
Seinfeld strides across the stage with ease. We're in the hands of a joke master at this Coachella of comedy.
The existence of a festival like this is no fluke: We're smack dab in the middle of a stand-up comedy boom. Never has so much original material been this easy to access and been consumed by this many people. Never before has the talent pool of comedians been this deep and this diverse.
Before, one or two comics played arenas at a given time. Now, multiple performers go on arena tours - and they're getting paid millions.
And comedy's cultural resonance deepens with rapid technological change, increasing societal divisions and a dizzying news cycle.
"It seems like one of the reasons comedy is doing so well has to do with the nature of the genre," Dave Chappelle says. "It's a great time to be a comedian, artistically and professionally."
Boom and bust
On a Wednesday night in January, lucky patrons at the Comedy Cellar in New York got an experience of a lifetime. One after another - Dave Attell, Seinfeld, Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, Aziz Ansari and Chappelle - performed surprise drop-in sets. On stage, Chappelle dubbed the lineup a "billion dollars' worth of comedians".
The audience couldn't believe it. "It was electric," Noam Dworman, owner of the famed New York club, recalls. "We have Beatles-level talent right now, and that is really, truly fuelling a lot of the boom," Dworman adds.
Comedy has boomed before. While a handful of comics became cultural phenomena during the 1960s and 70s, stand-up went full mainstream during the 1980s.
In that decade, "every hotel lounge had a comedy club, too", Mike Birbiglia says. "Tons of people started doing stand-up comedy who were terrible, and that's what leads to crashes."
Birbiglia marks the start of the current boom around 2003, when Comedy Central partnered with Live Nation for its first national tour featuring Lewis Black, Attell and Mitch Hedberg. It was such a hit that all three comedians became theatre acts on their own, Birbiglia says.
While back then maybe 10 comedians could sell out theatres, "there's now like 50 to 75 comedians, myself included, who sell out theatres," Birbiglia says. "That's a crazy phenomenon."
Gabriel Iglesias, Bill Burr and Ansari have sold out Madison Square Garden. Kevin Hart performed for 53,000 people at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field.
The appetite seems massive. In early June, more than 45,000 people showed up at Clusterfest. Audiences swelled for evening shows from Hart and Sarah Silverman; midday sets from Tig Notaro and Hasan Minhaj; podcasting recordings from Phoebe Robinson and Anna Faris; and improv from Fred Armisen and Matt Besser.
Before, people wanted to be rock stars - now they want to be comics, says Comedy Central executive Steve Raizes.
"People really define themselves, both in real life but also on social media, through their sense of humour," he adds. "That's how you portray yourself publicly and how people get to know you.
"It feels like everybody's a comedian," Michael Che says. "Even news articles are written with a humorous twist and the headline is funny."
Stand-up comics once vied for limited TV airtime. Now there's Twitter, Instagram, podcasts, web series and they vie to be noticed on the limitless internet, where they can tell jokes and upload videos instantly.
We have Beatles-level talent right now, and that is really, truly fuelling a lot of the boom.
SHARE THIS QUOTE:
"The democratisation of the internet has kind of sped things up," says Raizes. "That's kind of a whole new path in ... It used to take people 10 years to kind of go through this."
More platforms also means less boxing-in of comics based on their race, gender or sexual orientation. Comedy has swung back toward the more artistic side, says Chappelle - "and guys are getting paid for their work like Rembrandts".
Money in funny business
Increasingly, comics are getting discovered on - and paid by - Netflix.
A comic can go from struggling to sell 50 tickets to, within months of a Netflix special, selling 4000, says Volk-Weiss, the comedy producer.
Netflix has licensed stand-up since launching its streaming service in 2007. In 2015, it released a dozen new specials. Last year, 19. This year? So far, about one a week: 25.
The company will reportedly pay tens of millions to Rock, Seinfeld and Chappelle, who has publicly referred to a US$60 million deal.
While demurring on how much money Netflix spends on producing comedy, Lisa Nishimura, the company's vice president of original documentary and comedy programming, says: "It's a meaningful and sizeable investment from the company because we take the category of stand-up seriously."
The reach is wide: more than 100 million subscribers and 190 countries. New technology has opened opportunities, but at a time of heightened politicisation and cultural divisions, it has also brought intense scrutiny to a craft that requires failing in public to get good.
"People are more holding comedians accountable, not for being funny, but for being on the right side of history," says Che. "It just feels like audiences want somebody who will get up there and say what they've already been thinking, as opposed to saying something they've never thought of before."