Business a Bummer for Corporate Comics

Even in the best of  times, a corporate comedian has it tough because the things always sure to get a laugh in a nightclub -- profanity, sex, and an audience that's been drinking for hours --  are off-limits.
So imagine then what it's like these days in the uptight world of corporate America where budgets are pinched and the stock market is a bummer. Well, it's not good, says Atlanta comedy veteran Jeff Justice, who's been entertaining corporate troops for years.

"My business is down about 30 percent," he says. "When the economy is down, the funny guy is always the first to go."

Interviews with other corporate comics in town get the same verdict. Business is down, and they're having to go the extra mile, sometimes literally, to keep food on the table.

Justice, who supplements his corporate income by teaching comedy classes, as he has for years, was in the Evansville, Ind., area last Friday, entertaining a group of salespeople at a luncheon.

If that sounds like the punch line to a bad joke, then consider Jerry Farber's most recent job: working his hangdog brand of humor -- well known to Atlantans who've seen Farber for years on the nightclub circuit  -- at a fund-raiser for a Georgia sheriff's office.

"That paid $200, and I had to drive 45 miles," says Farber, who estimates his business is down about 20 percent, on top of clients putting the squeeze on him to lower his fees, which are about $5,000 to $7,000 a show.
That reminds him of a joke.
"A guy called me the other day and said he wanted to hire me and he wanted to pay me what I'm worth," says Farber, pausing a beat.  "I told him, ‘I can't work that cheap.'"
Atlanta event planners say it's not the comics' fault. Companies have so severely slashed entertainment and party budgets that what would have been a three-day getaway two years ago, with entertainment, lodging and food, is now an afternoon pep rally in the company auditorium.
"It's not like the companies can't afford it," laments Lori O'Brien, whose company, Atlanta Special Events, has seen business dive 60 percent since the fall of 2008. "They're worried about their image. They don't want to be seen as throwing a party in the middle of a recession."
Ken Futch figures he's immune to most of the belt-tightening because he's not so much a corporate comedian as he is a "motivational business speaker who uses a lot of humor" to rev up depleted and demoralized work forces.
"I always open with my life story, which is I accidentally shot myself in the head and that turned out to be the greatest thing that ever happened to me, because it turned my life around,” says Futch.
"I tell them: ‘If I can find value in shooting myself in the head, I’m sure you can find value in your situation.' ”
Christian corporate comic Charles Marshall says his greatest appeal to corporations is he's spotlessly clean, unlike some corporate comics who just purge the profanity and "taboo subjects -- sexual, racial, anything political" from their nightclub acts before taking them to the banquet hall.
"When I go on the stage, they don't have to worry about me offending anybody," says Marshall, whose client base includes churches all over the country. His business is down, he says, but not badly.
Since his performance is long on motivation, and short on one-liners (the kind of jokes he makes tends to be self-deprecating, about the fact that he's bald, for instance),  Marshall says corporations can more easily justify hiring him, even in tight times.
"It's one thing to put down on your bookkeeping sheet ‘comedian,' and another thing to put down ‘training,'" he says.
Comic Justice said he'd like to believe the business will rebound soon if corporations finally recognize that humor and motivational talks relieve stress and cutting him and  fellow comics out of the budget is self-defeating.
"They need us now more than ever," he says. "When the economy gets crummy, it's time to get funny."

Comics' best jokes about the economy

"The economy is so bad I left the deed to my condominium in my car at the Lenox Square parking lot. Somebody smashed the window and left two me two more." -- Jerry Farber

"I was at a gas station, and the guy next to me said, ‘A dollar on Pump 7.' ‘A dollar?' I said. ‘Where are you going?' He said, ‘Pump 8.' " -- Jeff Justice