This article belongs to In Search of Laughs! column.
When one prostitutes oneself for laughs, i.e. taking money to perform in a plethora of cities and states and countries, face it, most stand-up comics need a pimp they can trust!
I've been dispatched to hundreds and hundreds of locations to do shows: nightclubs, colleges, military bases, riverboats, prisons, cruise ships, football stadiums, mansions, theaters, mud wrestling pits, and even stranger events. The one common denominator amongst them all is that almost always, it was a booking agent that arranged, and/or ordered for me to go there. (Ordered because I wouldn't have gone to those places otherwise)
As with all of the performing arts, most stand-up comics can improve only by getting endless practice. A cooperative booking agent is pretty much the best way to get enough shows to better one's act, and thereby better one's paycheck. No one agent, or agency, covers the whole country. Booking agents usually function regionally, in sort of a "This right here is MY turf here…That's yours...over there!" verbal arrangement.
As a comic graduates from doing once or twice a week shows in his home city, he has to prove his mettle to regional or one-nighter bookers. This eligibility is usually earned with a recommendation from a fellow comic, hence the saying: " Be NICE to those around you on the way UP, because, on the way DOWN, you just won't have any time! "
I've visited many bookers' offices from coast to coast, and have seen bookshelf after bookshelf full of un-viewed audition videos. (I predicted that watching too many comic audition tapes causes cancer!)
These days, only a few bookers still go to clubs to see new performers and creating some buzz on the comedy trail can get you new jobs, or elevation in show rank. To put together a decent length tour, a stand-up has to "make his bones" with a number of bookers. Done correctly, a comic can proceed from region to region, booker to booker, and avoid those mind-bending fourteen hour drives. These iffy talent merchants are the only lifeline a comic has, as they travel around each of the booker's various circuits.
Primarily, since real contracts are few and far between, a booking agent phones, (or you call them) to tell you where you'll perform, when, where your hotel is, and how much you'll be paid. Some booking agents, when you need them, can be unreachable, undependable, and very crotchety. But, there is this one guy….
The last honest booking agent works out of a sweetheart of a city,
Having booked zillions of gigs in his illustrious career, Sobel has also put more comics on the road than Flo Ziegfeld (an old-timey booker) ever did! If you want to put on a comedy show within one day's drive of Louisville, just call TSM Artists (502-459-5532) Tom's standup comics have done great shows in many places where comedy shows weren't really meant to be done. (The above mentioned prisons and River boats.) The Caravan shows aboard The Star of
Louisville, sailing the , resulting in no injuries, no arrests, and no bad vibes, unlike with certain NFL players I won't mention. The trick to it all: stringing enough good shows together to make it profitable for everybody involved. Many times Tom's fee is excluded to make sure the deal is right. Hundreds of comics have achieved their "Roads Scholar" degree driving in, and out of Ohio River . Caravan comics relate a continuing gag about finding numerous interstate freeway signs that read: Louisville
Food-Gas-Lodging-SOBEL GIG: 22 miles
Some of the most nefarious bookers often give a ballpark figure about your pay, then typically remit a lower amount. Other more suspect agents "double dip"-which means they collect a fee from the producers of a particular show, and also charge a booking fee to the funny guys. This practice is against the law in many states, but even asking if a certain show qualifies will often cost a comic that job. If an act happens to sell T-shirts or a CD after their shows, a percentage of those sales may be charged to that act, unknowingly. The quite honorable Mr. Sobel and TSM Artists have always shunned these cheap and tawdry methods, and I believe He and they always will. "Ahhhhhhhhh...Lue. we don't operate that way at TSM."
Operating as a great talent agent amounts to a 60-hour week, and it's beaucoup pressure. (That's lots!) Tom is addicted to the telephone. This means that his usual day has 40 or 50 return calls. All of this madness begets problems to be solved. (Where can you get a new Microphone…and a Honda carburetor on I-65?? ...Tom knows. What do you do when a hotel washing machine turns all your clothes pink??...Sobel said to go to Kmart. The club I'm performing at has burned down, the motel won't give me a room, what do I do??...Tom says to drive to the next town, another Caravan gig, go to the comic's condo, your opener last week is working there this week, and he'll let you in! (...that Sobel must be a God!)
Problems are right in his wheelhouse. This guy does problems! But, for all his facility in staging live shows…anywhere; Mr. Sobel has his idiosyncrasies too. He likes to talk. He likes to eat! This man knows the best places to eat in fourteen states, and he'll tell you about it. Then, he'll tell you that he told you about it!
Despite massive computer backup, Tom Sobel, like most of the better agents, keeps it all in his head, and he'll tell you about it. Many times, he and I have left his club during a weekend show to drive around and check out some other club's parking lots, comparing customer activity. Those whirling dervishes in the Mid -east have nothing on Sobel's non-stop days, and nights, and he'll tell you about it.
This jolly prevaricator of cash for laughs has also loaned, or donated huge piles of money to needy comics. But, he won't tell you about that. Tom's really a working act's best friend. This talkative Friar Tuck has pissed away uncountable sums taking care of comics, and the problems they encounter on tour every damn day. Enough to moolah buy
I salute this impressario who orchestrated, and cast his own Showtime special with his own great acts.(Even though I wasn't one of them, damnit! He sent me to
I raise my glass of Three Stooges Beer to the booker who can get a
Kudos to the man who once escorted the legendary, and quite tipsy Ollie Joe Prater from a Bourbon Street Comedy Club green room back to the ten blocks distant hotel…in a baggage cart! (And gave a tip!)
Now, listening to the final strains of The Curley Shuffle, as I hop aboard my Camel and ride into the sunset, heading for the next in a series of endless one-nighters, I just wanted to tell that tall, balding guy with five weeks of straight work, and more friends than he will ever realize: Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh...Thanks Tom!
Closing this paean to a passing breed, I quote Robert Frost: "HOME is where you go, and they HAVE TO take you in!"
If you are in search of stand-up comedy being done, the way it should be done, call