Written by Toni Sherwood | Photos by Anthony Harden
“I love the work, I’m passionate,” John Yoder, president of the Funny Business Agency says. “The best times have been going out to dinner with a bunch of comics. It was hard at first, because the pressure is on to feel like you’re up to the repartee. Some of them can be funny all the time.”
The Funny Business Agency has been booking comedy acts for over 30 years. Headquartered out of Michigan with a satellite operation in Asheville, the eight-person staff books entertainment for comedy clubs, casinos, cruise ships, trade shows, conventions, and more.
Countdown To Comedy
Yoder took courses such as, ‘Inner Time,’ ‘Worlds and Reality,’ and ‘Psycho-pharmacology’ at William James College in Grand Valley—perhaps a fitting curriculum to prepare one for the comedy business. “The ministry was where I was headed,” Yoder recalls, “but I had a job in school as the campus activities assistant programmer, we’d book concerts, films, and events, so I learned booking there.” By the time he graduated he had a strong foundation and a love of booking entertainment.
After graduating, Yoder began booking films at three Foreign and Art Film theaters in Michigan. But with the advent of crossover films, starting with Broadcast News, a romantic comedy released in 1987, this industry turned on its head. “That was the day all the mom and pop Foreign Art Film theaters died, because Broadcast News was kind of mainstream and kind of artsy,” Yoder explains. Suddenly this niche market was being courted by the big theaters, and, at the same time, stand-up comedy was on the rise.
“It just kind of mushroomed,” Yoder says, “we ended up getting comedy going at one of our Art Film theaters in Michigan, and I kind of surfed the wave as it grew.” One thing missing in the burgeoning comedy market at the time were skilled bookers. Music agents were common, but as stand-up comedy proliferated, booking was a free-for-all, with comedians booking their friends, acts not showing up, and club owners lacking knowledge of comedy acts. The need for directive was apparent, and Funny Business took flight.
Funny Runs in the Family
Yoder continued to grow his comedy booking business in Michigan while he and his wife, Laurie, raised three sons. One by one, they joined him in the business. “Quite frankly I was very grateful they did,” Yoder admits, “I really needed to have Comedy Central generation eyes on the business. It’s wonderful when family that you trust can step into it.”
Each son was attracted to a different aspect of the business. The oldest, Jamison, covers corporate, colleges, and the Gilda’s LaughFest in Michigan. Middle son Eric books the full-time comedy clubs around the country. Youngest son Michael originally came in to handle internet marketing and social media, and is now booking one-nighters as well. All three sons have settled in Michigan, where the business began.
Yoder and his wife relocated to Asheville in 2009. They had vacationed here often and especially love walking in nature and checking out the restaurant scene. Funny Business quickly opened up a comedy room at the former S&W building to bring in nationally recognized acts. Despite a sluggish economy and in the midst of the winter slump, they did well, featuring talent such as Bobcat Goldthwait. But unfortunately the S&W went bankrupt about nine months later.
A more recent addition to the Funny Business team may not be a family member, but he’s emerged as an essential player. “I started working with a consulting firm, and Funny Business was a client,” Greg Hardin, independent representative at Funny Business, recalls, “the economy had shifted and John was wondering how to best use their resources for marketing.”
Hardin’s humble aspect belies his impressive list of credentials, including Good Morning America, Nickelodeon, and Sesame Street. He and his wife relocated to Asheville in 2007, wanting to be closer to their parents in Atlanta (but not too close).
What Hardin hadn’t expected from his association with Yoder was to be so enamored with the booking business. “I thought this is so much more fun than consulting,” Hardin recalls.
Yoder remembers their early collaboration when he got to know Hardin. “We were working on some ideas for the business. I liked his personality,” Yoder says. “He has a real passion for comedy and good attention to detail. He seemed to really want to do this type of work, and with his background in entertainment it seemed like a natural fit.”
Hardin had first tried his hand at booking with Good Morning America in New York, which was a high stress environment. “I was the lowest of the low on the totem pole, but it’s funny, it’s come full circle,” Hardin admits.
Since the S&W closed down, Funny Business had been searching for another location to launch a professional comedy room, difficult in a town like Asheville that has mostly smaller venues. According to Yoder, they need at least 200 seats to do the type of shows they want to book. “We’re very excited about the Mill Room,” Yoder says. The Mill Room opened in May of 2013. With over 200 seats, a generous stage, and cozy lighting, it had the right ambience. It also had free parking across the street and food, beer, and wine service. Currently, Funny Business books one to two shows a month at the Mill Room. “We’re going to increase the amount of shows we do there,” Yoder promises.
Although Funny Business books nationally recognized acts at the Mill Room, such as upcoming headliners Lisa Landry and Sara Schaefer, recently they showcased a selection of Asheville’s local comedians. “I wanted to do it as a way to introduce the audience we’ve built up to the local comics,” Hardin explains, “I want people to understand we have a scene, and it helps build on itself. The room was packed.”
Funny Business has had several past Mill Room shows sell out in advance, but Hardin knows it’s not necessarily a guarantee of future results. “There are so many elements. After every show I always ask myself what worked and didn’t work,” Hardin says, “but you never really know. We’ve had a lot of sellouts in a row and I’m very happy about it, but you can’t ever say it’s going to keep going.”
Getting Down To Business
“We don’t produce shows, we book shows,” Hardin says. “Some people get into being a promoter or managing acts, but we book shows.”
“We act more as a talent consultant, we put together the package we think is best with the budget they have to work with. We’re probably the most on the frontline of new talent than anybody,” Yoder says.
Yoder was drawn to the more client-based approach of booking entertainment as opposed to representing acts, a natural progression for many including his mentor who eventually moved to Los Angeles to become a talent manager. Although there may be more glamour in managing a big act, Yoder was content to find his niche in booking, glad to be free of the pressure to sell any particular act. “I’m not a good schmoozer,” Yoder says.
Hardin notes one of Yoder’s strengths is his ability to juggle a variety of schedules, acts, and clubs to maximize a performer’s time in a particular market. “That’s really what helped our business grow in the comedy shows,” Yoder says.
Acts tend to fly in and out for corporate events or college shows, but when it comes to working the comedy clubs, it’s helpful if comedians can circulate within an area and get as many gigs as possible. “We have 70 venues a week that we book, with two comedians per show,” Hardin says.
Additionally, they book the Comedy Classic Weekend at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville and Gilda’s LaughFest in Michigan. For these events, Funny Business chooses their favorite top caliber comedians for the lineup. This March the 27th Annual Comedy Classic Weekend includes headliners Lachlan Patterson and Tom Papa.
“The biggest thing we do is Gilda’s LaughFest in Grand Rapids,” Hardin says. “The Gilda’s Club Chapter in Grand Rapids started this and it has turned into a really big fundraiser.”
Gilda’s LaughFest has grown each year since its inception in 2011. In 2014, 899 artists from 27 states and Canada performed on 54 festival stages in West Michigan, including Jay Leno, Lily Tomlin, Jim Gaffigan, Chris Tucker, Sinbad, Mike Birbiglia, Judah Friedlander, Jen Kirkman, Todd Barry, Rory Scovel, and Maria Bamford. Comedians look forward to the annual event, but not just for the audiences. “A lot of times headliners of a certain caliber don’t get to hang out with each other,” Yoder observes, “so they just love being in town at the same time where they can network and connect. You can imagine it can be lonely work being out on the road and performing.”
So what does it take to be a good comedian? We all know funny people, but a funny friend is different than a professional comedian who has dedicated their life to the craft.
“The number one thing is an insatiable drive to get up in front of people and try to make them laugh,” Hardin says. “It’s always the next show that they’re excited about. You can’t teach that.”
Although Yoder and Hardin both love the comedy business, they’ve always been happiest behind the scenes. “I never had an inkling or desire to do it,” Yoder says.
To become successful in the field, aspiring comics endure public failure and years of trial and error. “People say you should be making it by seven years, but that’s a long time to try something and not know if it’s working,” Hardin says.
“I don’t think I could overcome the crossed arms and blank stares you get sometimes onstage,” Yoder admits. “I remember hearing Steven Wright. It took him a full year or two of totally bombing every night to get good.”
If that isn’t enough to drive a sane person crazy, comics are on the road 48-50 weeks a year, living in hotel rooms, trying to hold together long distance relationships. Hardin adds, “then after ten years your friends are settling down and having kids, and you’ve got to decide, is this what I want to be doing?”
Cleaning Up Their Act
Although Funny Business books comedy clubs, casinos, and resorts, these make up only a segment of their client list. “A big thing I did about 15 years ago was getting into the corporate market,” Yoder says, “half our business is corporate.” Companies such as Frito Lay, IAMS, and Gordon Foods elicit Funny Business Agency’s services to provide entertainment at corporate functions, conventions, company parties, trade shows, and sales meetings. They may want a comedian, magician, mentalist, or a number of other unique acts. Corporate clients require ‘clean’ comedy, meaning no swear words or explicit material.
Yoder likes getting creative with the entertainment. “We may put together high-end tech events with make your own video and photo sessions,” Yoder says, “I like trying to fit a theme around entertainment.”
Although they strive to bring the best creative fit to any budget and event, sometimes the client overrides their recommendations. Hardin was planning a murder mystery for a client’s holiday party. “It was going to be fun and involve everybody, and at the last minute the head guy changed his mind,” Hardin recalls. “He saw someone who does a Mark Twain impression. So that’s what they had for their holiday party, a guy who would sit in a chair. Everybody in the company was bored stiff. I talked to the woman I dealt with, and she said, ‘Please next time insist that we not do something like that.’”
Another client faux pas is not knowing just how much a nationally recognized act costs. “Sometimes people want to pay very little for acts,” Yoder says. “They don’t realize how much people make.” For example, Jim Gaffigan and Jay Leno can pull in over $100,000 for a performance; Daniel Tosh of Tosh.0 can get even more. Hardin says there is little negotiating over the rate an act charges, it’s more about their availability and whether they want to do it.
The range of client’s needs can be anything from talent for a commercial shoot to a high-end party seeking celebrity entertainment. “We even booked an elephant for Amway,” Yoder recalls. “There was actually an elephant living in Michigan that was in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.”
Although the corporate market requires clean comedy, Yoder gets passionate about comedians being able to venture into taboo subjects in the safety of a comedy club. Those who criticize comedians for veering into ‘blue’ or explicit material contradict his philosophy.
“I’ll agree if what they mean is people who use sexual jokes that are gross to get the laugh. I see that a lot, and it’s not even that funny,” Yoder says. “My feeling is comedy is comedy, as long as it’s good comedy. Like Robert Schimmel, who’s a very intelligent act, would talk about bodily functions and sexual material, but in a smart way—in a way that really had pathos to it, like a person experiencing changes within himself.”
And that may be the key to good comedy: the personal approach. “There’s no one formula for what is funny, but a really good comic can find what is funny about themselves and make it their own,” Hardin says, “and when they understand that and harness it, it’s amazing.”
Yoder also sees the ability to laugh at off-color or taboo subjects as necessary for society.
“You know the menopause jokes, they all got clichéd pretty quickly, but at the time when they first came out, wow, people could laugh about it,” Yoder says.
George Carlin was one comedian who broke barriers talking about the body and aging. More recently, comedienne Tig Notaro made a name for herself with an act about her own cancer. “What a liberation to be able to laugh with someone else that has had it,” Yoder says. “That’s great comedy.”
Changes in Comedy
In the ’80s, comedians could only reach audiences by live shows and television appearances. The emergence of podcasts has given them more accessibility to followers and helped them build a fan base.
Another recent change in the comedy scene is the evolution of the open mic or amateur show. “I think it grew out of frustration,” Yoder speculates. “Comics unable to get professional stage time still wanted to do comedy because they loved it.” So the open mic show was born. But Yoder says this scene has evolved, with many amateur comics satisfied with doing open mics and having no aspirations to become professionals.
“They have other jobs, but they like to do comedy,” Yoder says. “Like in Grand Rapids, I’d say there are 30 local comedians there now, and maybe half of them have other jobs.”
The Next Frontier
“I like comedy because it breaks up the drama and melodrama of relationships, marriage, parents, life; you get caught up in how hard it is. Then you can laugh with others and share experiences,” Yoder says.
Our human pathos offers an endless source of material, and the nature of stand-up comedy keeps it fresh and topical, and in a state of constant flux, just like the society it reflects.
“Stand-up is so direct, you can think of something that day, try it out that night, and incorporate it into your act immediately,” Hardin says.
“I don’t know what the next frontier is, maybe transgender comedians,” Yoder says, “but humor has got to be a part of breaking down the barriers and helping people understand differences.”
Read the full print version of the article below. Click to open in fullscreen…